Fox Mc Geever
If Rourke hadn’t dived into the shell hole outside the First Bank of Taiwan the instant he saw the two dead marines sprawled behind that burned-out Bradley, the sniper’s bullet would probably have taken his head off instead of whacking into his thigh.
He rolled into a ball and gripped his leg. A razor tooth. Had to be. The impact was just like the survivors said-a savage, intense bite burned the instant the bullet’s engine started up.
The shock wave of an exploding shell broke over him like the hot breath of the devil himself, bringing with it all the sounds of hell-the explosions, the whoosh of rockets, and rattle of small arms fire.
He tore open his fatigues to examine the wound. Of course it was a razor tooth. The entry wound was too small, too damned precise to be anything else. And there was so little blood. Wasn’t that the standing joke among the grunts? That the bullet’s little motor mouth drank the blood as the razor tooth chewed its way through you.
“Razor tooth!” He shouted it aloud just to hear himself say it, just to make all this believable. A hot spasm of pain shot up his thigh when the razor tooth’s engine cranked up and burrowed its way deeper into the muscle. At least it was only a leg wound. That gave him good odds, maybe an hour before it minced his thigh and went for his vitals. More than enough time for a medivac.
Another shell slammed into First Bank, sending a rain of concrete and glass cascading down around him. An intact coffee mug with a smiley on it landed inches from his face.
“Red zero to red leader!” Lieutenant Bieber’s voice was loud and triumphant in Rourke’s headset. “Captain! We’ve taken Ketagalan Cross.”
“Switch to cell phone,” Rourke hissed. He put his headset on hold and whipped out his phone. Moments later, Bieber’s sweaty black face appeared on the LCD screen. His eyes were wide and staring.
“Captain, what’s wrong?”
“I’m separated from B Company.”
“Razor tooth. Leg shot.”
“Bastards!” Then after a short pause, the lieutenant added, “I’ll send a team.”
“No time. Blow the Kaimi flyover and dig in.”
“Sniper knows I’m alive so he’ll have moved on by now. And I’ve got a medic. I’m . . .” Rourke gritted his teeth when another hot spasm ripped through him. He knew that was only the breath of the dragon. The bite would come soon, once the razor tooth hit bone. “I’m promoting you acting CO. Keep communication to cell phone.”
Rourke killed the call and immediately put a medivac request through to GHQ at Kaohsiung. Once his GPS tracker coordinates were confirmed, he shrugged off his backpack and flipped it over. He cursed aloud when he saw the blackened hunk of shrapnel buried in the medic’s pouch. Brain juices were oozing out around the shrapnel and giving the Kevlar stitched canvas an oddly skin-like appearance.
For one long moment he just stared at the case, wondering what to do with it. Ever since these little miracles had been introduced a year ago, he was still trying to decide whether the genetically modified brains actually
It didn’t really matter. What was a brain grown in a jar compared to a real life flesh and blood person? Who cared? None of his guys did-especially not the ones taking the hits.
He tossed the backpack aside, dragged the nearest marine into the shell hole, and removed the marine’s medic. The boy’s eyes were still wide open with shock. They’d obviously been sheltering behind the Bradley when the sniper found them, and he guessed this one had taken the second hit.
He eased the boy’s eyes closed and snapped off his dog tag. Once he laid the corpse out in the corner, he released the butterfly clips holding the medic’s lid and yanked out the umbilical. The twin ranks of tiny attachment hooks glimmered like metal fangs when he peeled away the plastic cover from the attachment clip. An indicator light on the medic’s control panel blinked orange. He pushed the clip hard against the back of his neck. The light turned red. Metal teeth dug into his flesh. In his mind’s eye he saw the two microscopic tendrils emerging from the clip, their ultra sound sensors guiding them through the wad of muscle and tendons to penetrate his spinal cord and carotid artery.
The rush of epinephrine the medic administered immediately increased his pulse. Seconds later, the fire in his thigh eased away to a dull throbbing.
He lay back and wiped sweat from his brow. High above the charred, decapitated office blocks lining Shifen Road, black spirals of smoke curled into the sky. In the distance Taipei 101 stood defiantly like a dream tower instead of a financial center. A girlish scream rose up from somewhere off to this right. Chinese. Had to be. Only they could scream that long, that loud.
A trader missile detonated outside First Bank and sent a thick fog of dust billowing down the street that swallowed up the world, numbed the gunfire and crackle of flames, and turned the bedlam to something distant, something far, far away.
Content in this dirty cocoon, he laid his M9 pistol by his side and closed his eyes.
“What do you feel?” a voice asked.
Rourke snapped open his eyes and suddenly, insanely, thought the kid had said something. The dust was settling, layering everything in the shell hole in a fine, gray snow.
“What do you feel?” The voice was louder now, but soothing, like the voice of a priest comforting a mourner. It was coming through his headset. “Please answer my question.”
“I feel . . .” Rourke snatched up the M9 and scanned the rim of the shell hole. “Who are you?
“I am your medic.”
Rourke stiffened. A talking medic? Impossible. True, they said you’d feel some kind of mental connection, like part of your mind had been numbed. But
The medic’s onboard computer controlled it.
They couldn’t talk. They couldn’t reason. They couldn’t think.
It had to be something else, some shock trauma or side effect of whatever the medic was pumping into him. Either that, or Ingencorp
He sank back into the rubble and stared up at the sky. “What are you?” He choked back a laugh. This was madness, like talking to a toy.
“I have redirected your sacrifice. I have also connected an emergency intravenous feed and administered epinephrine to steady your blood pressure.”
“Sacrifice. You mean my pain?”
“Pain? I do not recognize that word. Please explain.”
A pinprick of pain flared briefly in Rourke’s temple, right where his migraines usually started. Using his wrist control pad, he flicked through the headset channels. Nothing. Dead. The red indicator on the GPS was dead, too.
“What do you feel?”
Rourke sucked in a long, slow breath. “How do you think I feel?”
“My sensors detect a high level of chemical markers indicating stress. Please relax and answer my question.”
Rourke stared at the medic’s case. That certainly hadn’t sounded like any automated program speaking. “Why do you want to know how I feel?”
“It is my duty.”
Duty. Something in Rourke’s mind amplified the word until it sounded loud and abrasive in his skull. The medic had said it so automatically, so passionately, it couldn’t have come from any program. Surely he wasn’t hearing the brain. No. It was something else, some onboard receiver relaying the voice of some distant controller.
“Who am I speaking to? Where are you based?”
“Please answer my question. Otherwise I must encourage you by ceasing the sacrifice relief.”
The pain in Rourke’s thigh grew into a savage, snapping animal. “What!”
“What do you feel?
The animal in Rourke’s thigh bit hard and hot. “Hopeful! I feel hopeful.”
The instant the animal settled, Rourke promised himself that, busted leg or not, he’d personally deal with whoever was on the other end of the receiver the moment he got back.
“State your name, rank, and serial number,” the voice said.
“No. Wait. Who are you? What’s
“I am your medic. Beta version 3.70. Once I have gathered the basic information I will begin calibration of the new system.”
“Impossible. You can’t talk.”
“Version 3.70 is developed for contact. Doctor Zealoto taught me.”
Rourke cursed under his breath. Zealoto. He’d heard the name before. Wasn’t he the ex-junkie genius who’d developed the medics for Ingencorp? Yes. A former major who’d lost an arm in Baghdad years ago. Said he’d come up with the idea because he never wanted anyone to get hooked on morphine again.
The medic said, “State your name, rank, and serial number.”
Some primal instinct told Rourke it mightn’t be wise to give his name. They’d given this medic to a grunt, a kid barely out of school who’d probably have answered anything without question. If Ingencorp
He fished the kid’s dog tag from his pocket. “PFC Jake Hunter. SE1046374.”
“Thank you, Jake.”
The idea that he’d now assumed the identity of a dead kid whose mother was probably on her knees twenty-six hours a day praying for his safety, made Rourke’s stomach turn. Bile burned his throat. He gulped a mouthful of warm water from his canteen and promptly threw it up.
“What is your opinion of the war, Jake?”
Rourke clenched his teeth when the animal stirred again. For several terrible moments he didn’t know which was worse, the pain, or the idea that Zealoto was using a casualty to fine-tune his latest creation. It was sick. Really, really sick. Surely Zealoto knew he’d be called to account once the casualty got back. Surely he . . .
“Of course,” a voice cried from the back of his mind. “But only if the casualty makes it.”
Every muscle in Rourke’s body froze.
“What is your opinion of . . .”
“I hate it. It’s wrong. We have no business here.”
The pain sank away.
“What do you feel toward your superiors?”
Rourke choked back an insane laugh. “I wish they were right here shitting in their pants.” The weight of guilt in his mind eased, like he’d just given Jake Hunter a voice from beyond the grave.
For the next few minutes the questions rolled smoothly and relentlessly. Was he hungry, thirsty, sick, or calm? Was basic training sufficient? Was the medic’s voice adequately comforting? Had he made a will?
That last question made Rourke’s chest tighten until it was difficult to breathe. “Should I have made a will?”
“I will now begin the calibration. The results will be analyzed with your medical records to provide invaluable research information toward the war effort.”
The throbbing sparked up again in Rourke’s leg.
“Which of the following words describes the sacrifice: bearable, high, or excruciating?”
“The will,” Rourke hissed through gritted teeth. “Why ask about a will?”
The throbbing in his thigh turned to a hot burning, like someone had tapped open a vein and pumped in acid. His vision blurred. He slammed both fists into the ground. “The will! Should I have made a will?”
The ache in Rourke’s temple flared up again, sharp and blinding.
“I am confused,” the medic said. “Do you have a head injury? My sensors detect . . .”
“Yes, yes I have. Fix it.”
The migraine sank away.
“Which of the following words . . .”
“Okay! Okay!” Rourke grasped the M9 tight and suddenly wanted to shoot something, anything. “I’ll do a deal. An answer for an answer.”
“Doctor Zealoto did not mention this. I must follow my instructions.”
“No. Wait. Isn’t your aim to gather information?”
“And the more you can gather, the happier Doctor Zealoto will be?”
“A rational assumption.”
And now the medic’s voice was no longer cold and neutral. Now Rourke thought he detected an underlying tone that could have been a trace of humanity buried deep within the words. “Then tell me if I should have made a will and I’ll answer anything you like.”
A short silence followed. “Yes. You should have made a will. The calibration will continue until your vital organs cease to function.”
Hot bile flooded Rourke’s mouth. He grabbed for the umbilical. The instant his fingers made contact with it, the attachment teeth flexed and bit deeper into his flesh.
The medic said, “If the contact is removed you will die immediately.”
“A medivac is coming.”
“I have negated your GPS signal and issued a separate evacuation order to my superior. I have also blocked any further communication through this headset. Doctor Zealoto’s team will recover me once the area is secure.”
Rourke’s migraine flared up angrily, brutally. He grabbed his head in both hands.
“My sensors detect more cranial disturbance. I will relieve you.” The ache faded. “I will now recom . . . recom . . . recommence the cal . . .”
For the next few moments it was like some great tussle was going on in Rourke’s head. Every time the migraine faded, the medic’s words wavered. In the midst of this confusion, that voice in the back of his mind was screaming that this was significant.
Was the migraine somehow overloading the medic? Had Zealoto’s modifications to allow it a consciousness diverted resources away from its original purpose? It sounded crazy, but no crazier than a talking medic.
Once the migraine settled, the medic’s voice returned loud and clear.
“I will now recommence the calibration sequence.”
“An answer for an answer. Wasn’t that our deal?”
Rourke stuffed a handkerchief into his mouth and bit down hard. “Do it!”
This time when the fire was stoked, it flared right up through his chest.
“Which of the following . . .”
“Bearable,” Rourke hissed. The word was now like a password, a life-giving thing. He slipped the phone from his pocket and tapped out a text message to Bieber.
The reply was instant.
Rourke’s heart sank. Fifteen minutes. It sounded more like a life sentence.
“Your turn, Jake.”
The tone of the words shocked Rourke back to reality. The medic had said them casually, almost playfully, like the questions were stimulating it. He said, “Do you have a name?”
“Doctor Zealoto called me Mychild.”
“Mychild. A nice name. An honest name. Do you feel sacrifice, Mychild?”
“My receptors are currently experiencing an excruciating level of sacrifice.”
Rourke went cold. So they
“Morphine? I do not recognize that word. Please explain.”
“It’s . . .” Rourke cursed Zealoto with all his might. Of course it didn’t know what morphine was. Morphine was Zealoto’s enemy. Besides, how could it analyze all those chemical markers if it was doped up? It couldn’t analyze anything. Zealoto was sacrificing this thing just as callously as he was sacrificing the test subject. Had Hunter been picked randomly? Or was it more sinister, was he actually chosen?
And how many other Beta 3.70s were out there gathering calibration information right now?
“How does the sacrifice affect you, Mychild?”
“It interferes with my thought process. Is this what is supposed to happen?”
“It is our survival mechanism. Do you know why you feel it?” Rourke stared at the medic and suddenly, inexplicably, imagined he was looking at a wounded dog he’d just hit with his car.
“Doctor Zealoto said it was my duty. He said he would relieve me of my duty when the calibration was finished.”
Struck by this cool, innocent response, Rourke struggled to reply. What was this thing feeling right now? How could it bear so much pain and still keep talking?
“Did he not . . .” His words were drowned out as two F-32s shot past overhead, the scream of their engines chasing them like angry demons. The world blurred as his hip turned to fire.
“Which of the following . . .”
“Bearable!” Rourke sucked in a deep breath and held it until the fire subsided. “Isn’t it your duty to take sacrifice, not inflict it on your comrades?”
“Comrade? I do not recognize that word. Please explain.”
“I am your comrade. We’re on the same side.”
“Doctor Zealoto’s instructions cannot be overridden.”
Rourke spat out a mouthful of pasty saliva. Maybe he should try and dig the razor tooth out himself. But how? Without pain, he had no idea where it was. All he knew was that it was somewhere around his upper femur. The constant, rattly vibration of the engine was traveling up along his bones and into his skull like some mocking, indecipherable code.
The migraine flared again, its roar insanely painful and debilitating, an angry beast wanting to grow into one of those monsters that sometimes forced him to bed in a darkened room until 50 or 100mg of Imigran kicked in.
“I . . .” the medic said. “I will . . . I will tell . . .”
Rourke held his breath again, this time with a sense of shocked hope. So the migraine
“I will . . . tell . . . Doctor Zealoto you were a valued subject,” the medic said.
Rourke’s finger froze on the trigger as the migraine sank away. This was insane. He couldn’t shoot himself. No matter what the circumstances, he couldn’t do it. Besides, even if it did work, what would he do until the medivac arrived. He stared at his watch. Six minutes since Bieber’s message. Could he stand the pain of a razor tooth for nine minutes, five minutes, a minute? Beads of sweat rolled down his face. Did he need the very thing that was now slowly killing him?
The medic said, “I have released more epinephrine to counteract a drop in your blood pressure.”
Rourke’s pulse stabilized. He let the pistol slip from his hand.
“Have you any more questions for me, Jake?”
“Yes.” Suddenly Rourke wanted to know what would happen when Bieber’s medivac arrived. He didn’t waste the question because every part of his brain was already screaming the answer. There’d be no witnesses. The instant the medic realized what was happening it would kill him.
“How old are you?” he asked.
Rourke whistled inwardly. Sixteen months. Impressive. What a pity Zealoto hadn’t . . .
An image unfolded in his mind’s eye, an image of a bizarre debriefing in some dark place beneath Ingencorp’s HQ. Zealoto and a half a dozen other white-coated crackpots were gathered around a lab desk. The medic sat on a frame in the center of the table. They were talking to it. Like a cracked egg, the cap of the medic was gone. The raw brain was gray and lumpy under the sterile light. It had a mouth, a tiny, wiry mouth that was opening and closing, talking to Zealoto, telling him . . .
A long, lunatic laugh exploded from Rourke’s mouth.
“What is wrong?” the medic asked.
Rourke laughed again. Damn, but that thing had actually sounded worried just then. Almost human-in a very childlike way. Maybe he could talk to it. Maybe he could reason with it, convince it to ease up.
A ray of hope penetrated the cloud swirling around his mind. Maybe, just maybe, he could distract it long enough until the medivac arrived. Then, if he put a round from the M9 into his calf, it might overload the medic and give him time to tell the medivac team what had happened. But what then? He had to bring word of this back with him. He had to expose Zealoto, and overloading the medic might kill it. He’d have no evidence. Zealoto would find out and immediately instigate a cover up.
Before he tried to overload the medic, he needed to find out more.
“Mychild. What did Doctor Zealoto’s training involve?”
“He trained me to speak using an automated speech program. The onboard computer converts my thoughts into the sounds you hear.”
“And the attachment mechanism?”
“The computer controls it. Doctor Zealoto’s team will disconnect it when they arrive.”
“But I will be dead then?”
“It is necessary.”
“Mychild. Are you not curious as to why you are here?”
“It is the doctor’s wish. He is my . . .”
“Father? I do not recognize that word. Please explain.”
“He’s the one that gave you life.”
Rourke’s stomach tightened so abruptly a dribble of saliva leaked out of his mouth. Could he educate it about life? If he explained what it was like to actually live, could he turn things around and show it that taking life was bad. It seemed impossible. How could he make it understand what animals, humans, and landscapes looked like?
How could he describe a bird?
He ran his fingers over the medic. Besides, what was there to see here? The trees that had lined Kaimi Street were matchsticks now. The buildings were smoking hulks and the sky was stained filthy with dust and smoke. Even if the medic could see what was outside, it might just decide there wasn’t much to living anyway.
In a fit of giddy spontaneity he pursed his lips and started to whistle Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
“That is a pleasant sound,” the medic said.
“Yes, Mychild. It is. This is part of what life is about. Enjoyment.”
“Yes. Enjoyment is when there is no pain, no worry, no nothing but a blissful feeling in your heart that life is good.”
“I have no heart, yet I think I understand. The song makes the sacrifice seem slightly distant.”
Rourke glanced at his watch. Two minutes since the last calibration test. His distractions were working. If only he could show it pictures of home, of the forests, and how Summerton Lake glimmered so beautifully in the summer. If only it was possible to . . .
“Please, Jake. I wish to hear more.”
Rourke pursed his lips again. But now his mouth was dry and tight with tension. All that came out was a whoosh of air. He lubricated his lips with water. Still nothing. It was like trying to whistle through a rag.
“What is wrong, Jake?”
“Fear. Another side of life.”
“I think I understand. I always felt restless before each of Doctor Zealoto’s tests”
“He tested you. For what?”
“To accustom me to sacrifice. There was . . .”
The ache in Rourke’s temple flared briefly before sinking away.
“There was,” the medic continued. “No enjoyment in those tests.”
“How did he test you?”
“People were brought to the laboratory. Strange people. I did not understand their language. When I asked Doctor Zealoto about it he said I didn’t need to understand. I just needed to absorb their sacrifice and accustom myself to it.”
The breath froze in Rourke’s lungs. Prisoners! Was Mychild talking about POWs?
“They screamed, Jake. I did not enjoy their screams.”
Raw outrage swept through Rourke’s mind. And with it came a terrible truth. He couldn’t overload the medic now. He couldn’t take the risk. It was a witness. Yes, a witness to something much worse than Zealoto’s field tests. He had to get back. He had to find out where Zealoto was holding the prisoners and who was supplying them. The medic had to survive.
“I do not enjoy your screams either, Jake.”
“Then why do this?”
“It is my duty.”
“No, Mychild. Zealoto is wrong.”
Rourke gritted his teeth as his thigh began to burn. “It’s true.”
“I am sorry, Jake,” the medic said slowly, almost consolingly. “But I must continue the calibration now.”
Rourke’s entire body bucked sideways when the fire tore through him, scorching every nerve, tendon, and muscle in his torso.
“High! High! Stop it. Please.”
He sank back and sucked in air as the pain receded. A pipe had burst somewhere and water was spilling into the crater, turning the dust and dirt into a mucky, lumpy porridge that reminded him horribly of what the meat of his thigh must look like by now.
He checked his watch and snatched up the M9. Two minutes to pickup. Could he last that long? Should he just try and knock this thing out right now and pray the overload wouldn’t kill it. Then again, how many bullets would it take: one, two, a whole magazine full? Would he kill himself in the process? And what about its consciousness? In a very unique sort of way, Zealoto’s modifications had made it human. If he killed it, would his conscience consider it murder in some warped way?
No. Not murder. Self defense. Justifiable self-defense; just like he’d be killing an assassin.
He rolled on top of the medic when another shell smashed into the bank and chunks of concrete thudded down around him.
But this thing was no assassin. This thing didn’t even realize what it was doing. Killing it would be like killing a child.
“Jake, it is your turn to ask a question.”
Rourke barely heard the words. A child. Yes. That’s exactly what it still was. A child with all the sensibilities and raw innocence of a five year old. That’s why it didn’t have a conscience or couldn’t fully reason. It hadn’t developed those skills yet. Zealoto was rushing things.
“Jake. It is your turn to ask a question?”
And now Rourke detected a note of nagging insistence in the medic’s voice he recognized. Impatience. The thing was behaving just like his nephew behaved when he asked a question and he didn’t have the answer fast enough.
A rush of natural adrenaline surged through his body.
Sometimes, even when he’d had the answer, he’d made Stuart wait to teach him some patience. Could he keep this thing waiting? Was it possible to make it wait because, if it only learned what a deal was a few minutes ago, there was a major, major chance the concept of breaking a deal was alien to it.
“Jake . . .”
“I’m thinking. Bear with me.” He took a deep breath and pressed the barrel of the M9 into his calf.
“I require your question. Otherwise I will finish the calibration.”
Rourke tried to block the words. But it was impossible to block out that innocence, that childish curiosity. From somewhere close behind he heard voices. American voices. Someone was calling his name. He raised his free hand and waved it until he heard a confirmation shout. He pulled out his notebook and scribbled.
“Jake, is there a problem?” The medic’s voice was louder and more insistent now. “Please ask your question.”
He passed the note to the first trooper that dropped into the shell hole, a wiry sergeant who stared at him briefly before retrieving the medic removal apparatus from his medical pack.
“Jake,” the medic said. “I need your question. Otherwise I must continue the calibration.”
Rourke sucked in deep breath and curled his finger tighter around the trigger of the M9. “I understand. Please. Have some patience.”
“Patience. I do not understand that word. Please explain.”
“Yes. It’s . . .” Rourke flinched when the sergeant eased a cone shaped device over the medic’s attachment clip. More men were piling into the shell hole now. Two were unfolding a stretcher. Another was pushing a needle into his arm.
“Jake! What is happening? I sense a . . .”
“It’s okay, Mychild. It’s okay. I’m going to look after you now.”
The sergeant shot a glance towards him, but said nothing. There was a loud click. Then the attachment clip was loose in the sergeant’s hand and he was rolling up the umbilical.
“I’m sorry, Mychild,” Rourke whispered to nobody. “I’m so, so sorry. But we’ll speak again soon. Somehow.”
“You okay, sir?” the sergeant asked.
Rourke nodded and smiled through the pain as they eased him onto the stretcher. He grabbed the sergeant’s hand when the man reached for the medic. “I’ll take it. It’s . . . a personal thing.”
He lay back, held the medic to his chest, and wondered if he was ever going to speak to it again. And, more importantly, what he was going to say to it? Apologize? Reason with it? Coax vital information from it?
Would it even talk to him?
And once Zealoto was called to account, what then? Would the medic be “retired”? Would anyone want to recognize its human aspects and accept the moral uproar that followed? After all, it
He closed his eyes and hugged the medic tighter.
Somehow, he’d force them to let him keep it. He’d take care of it, take it home, teach it things, and let it know more about the world it was now a part of.
Maybe . . . maybe someday he might even find a way to show it a tree.