I woke in what I could only assume was my room. I had vague memories of coming around, briefly, while still in the infirmary and someone – full-blooded – saying that I should be taken to my quarters to rest. I remembered nothing else and my memories of everything past landing in the hangar were indistinct, lost in a haze of pain and drugs. I felt like my head was stuffed with cotton and my mouth was dry. There was a bandage wound around my elbow and a bracelet at my wrist about the width of my thumb that would transmit my vital signs to any medical personal with the access code. I at least remembered the paramedic putting that on me, while in the police transport. I shoved back the bedsheets and found that I was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and nothing else. It went somewhat past my hips. There was more gauze wound about my lower legs, from just under the knee to about halfway to my ankles. I wasn't certain if I should be walking or not and decided to wait on trying it just yet. There was a glass of water sitting on the bedside table and a few pills sitting next to it. I didn't question, just swallowed them down and drank the water. There was a pressure against my cheeks and I raised a hand and felt the surface of my implants. They'd replaced the false covers with the computer pieces, then.
There was a knock at the door. I pulled the covers back up to my waist and called for my visitor to enter. Bent's wiry frame slipped in through the doorway and he kicked the door shut behind him. He had shed his suit and wore just pants and a sleeveless shirt, tight to his body, and he was barefoot. For a moment he only looked at me and I could not figure out what to say. I wanted to ask him to leave. He still frightened me and here I was, helpless, and even though there was a distance between us I felt that his presence loomed over me.
"So Roman is out of surgery," Bent said, "He'll live. Thought you'd want to know."
"What happened to him?" I whispered.
"How should I know, I wasn't in that alleyway," the sniper snapped in return, "and they aren't letting me see the footage yet."
"The monster slammed him against the wall. Tell me how badly he was hurt."
"Bunch of broken ribs, cracked shoulder-blade, broken collarbone. Broken arm in three places and it was about torn out of the socket. Bunch of internal bleeding. And you... I don't know how many stitches. The cuts were too deep to use false skin, so you'll be off your feet for a few days. Lost of bit of blood."
"What was that thing?" I whispered.
"Damned if I know."
The door opened behind him and the sniper stepped aside to let the newcomer into the room. It was a woman, full-blooded with her black hair braided along her head, dozens of tiny rows. She had implants as well, standing in sharp contrast to her skin. There was more metal at her ears, pieces clipped over the interior with a thin wire standing off one. She wore a uniform, her pants gray and ironed into a sharp crease, but her jacket was slung about her waist and tied, revealing a sleeveless shirt underneath. There was a tattoo on her upper arm, a collection of symbols etched in white that were meaningless to me. She met Bent's gaze for a moment, staring down at the mist-blood with her mouth twisted into a severe frown.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
"Checking on Voice," he replied casually.
"Yeah, I'm sure. Fuck off."
Bent complied, slinking off through the door and kicking it shut behind him. The woman heaved a sigh and drew up a chair next to my bed. I realized I had heard her voice before. She'd been the one talking to us through the comms while we were on our mission.
"Tandy?" I ventured.
"That's right," she replied demurely, setting a slate in her lap and flicking her finger across the surface in quick motions, "Was Bent bothering you?"
"Not really. He was just letting me know what happened to Roman."
"That's all?" Her gaze darted upwards to meet my eyes.
"That's all," I said. Tandy briefly wrinkled her nose and returned her attention to the slate.
"Well, he has been on good behavior since we brought him in," she said, "There's been some insubordination, unsurprisingly, but he follows Roman's orders and mine well enough. Still, I'm not about to trust him. We've got a watch on all of you, so he can't do anything without us knowing and then – bam – we activate his implant and drop him. If that's any reassurance to you."
It wasn't. If they could track Bent and immobilize – or kill – him at any moment, then they could do the same to me. I looked away and Tandy did not seem to notice my sudden discomfort.
"So you're going to be off your feet for a bit," she continued, "Figured I'd get you acclimated to your implants during that time. Right now they're inactive. I'm going to turn them on, okay?"
She tapped something in on her slate and my vision went black and my hands unconsciously clenched at the bedsheets, my body growing tight with anxiety. Then my sight returned and very little was changed, save for a small blue dot in the upper right of my vision. It remained constant, even when I turned my head to track it.
"So what you're seeing is an indicator that your implants are paired with a computer," Tandy said, "In this case, it's my slate. If there's multiple devices paired, you'll see multiple dots. It maxes out at ten. We try and keep it to four – your slate, Roman's, the shared system used by the support team, and whatever gun you're carrying. You can only control the implants through the slate. There is a kill switch for them, in case they get hacked, and that'll be on a bracelet we'll get you later. The system should be fairly intuitive – basically, whatever you drag onto the paired device will show up in in your vision. Smaller items will be on the sides, larger items will take up the whole but will appear semi-transparent so as not to affect your ability to see too much. Here, I'm going to toss the bio grid up right now. This is what I see when I access your medical bracelet."
A blue square appeared in the left side of my vision. There were some numbers there and the entire thing was compressed so that it only took up a small portion of my field of vision and I could see through it to the wall beyond. It was an unnerving sensation, as if someone had placed a slate just right up to my eyes, but I could not see the hand that held it.
"Still with me?" Tandy asked.
"Yeah," I replied, "It's going to take some getting used to."
"At least you're okay with it. Double freaked out and had to be sedated."
That didn't seem right. He was so calm when I had interacted with him. However, he was from the outer rings, so his exposure to technology was limited. I'd at least been eased into it gradually as I traveled inward towards Center.
"Well, let me show you what all you can do. Grab your slate. I'll show you how to activate all the toys like night vision and targeting assistance."
We spent several hours going over everything. Tandy was enthusiastic about the technology and at one point, let slip that she had more than just the eye implants inside her. She did not specify what all had been done, but she did say that the tattoo on her arm wasn't just decoration, but rather a code that could be scanned by medical personal so they'd get an immediate file on what all had been done to her body. The agency considered it a sensible precaution, as the implants required special handling and Tandy's were not immediately visible save for her eyes. I was somewhat more reserved. These were a reminder that I no longer possessed a will of my own. When Tandy explained that they could record everything I saw through my own eyes, I felt that all the more keenly.
"So you saw the monster," I said hollowly.
"Yeah." Tandy paused, as if uncertain why my tone of voice had changed. "I saw what it did to Roman."
"You had me risk my life to bring it higher."
"I did." She said this with no hesitation. "Get used to it. We'll demand a lot more here."
"What was it?"
"I don't know and it isn't my place to speculate. Roman will tell you what you're allowed to know when he's up and around again."
That ended the conversation. She finished up her explanation of the implants and left me alone to rest after that. There was a lot of that for the next few days, as I had no visitors save for a doctor or two to check on the stitches in my legs. For the most part, I slept. There was very little I could access on my slate and the novelty of being able to throw up applications and files into my field of vision quickly wore off.
I did not see Roman for some time, instead, his commanding officer took charge of our team. He paid us a visit about a day after the doctor informed me I would be safe to walk around again. I recognized him from the hangar – a hard-faced man with very short-cropped brown hair. We met him in the common area of our barracks and Double helped me walk out there before depositing me in one of the chairs. I could walk with only a little difficulty, there was some stiffness to the muscles and a bit of pain if I extended too far, but otherwise I seemed to be healing quickly. Between the natural tendencies of mist-bloods and the technology available in Center, it shouldn't be long before I was back to normal. Bent was careful to pick a spot on the opposite side of the room, slouching against a wall his long red bangs hanging in front of his face as he glowered at the full-blooded officer that stood in the middle of the room. Tandy was there as well and she seated herself not far from myself. Double remained standing, noticeably discomforted.
The man introduced himself as Lieutenant Cam, for my sake alone, as it was apparent that the other members of my team already knew him. He updated us on Roman's status – the mist-blood was stable, but was being kept under observation for some time more down in the infirmary. We would not be permitted to see him.
"The incident in lower Center has forced us to accelerate our plans," Cam said, finally reaching the reason for his visit, "We're going to have to move our timetable on returning to the mist-barrier up."
"Politics," Bent spat from the rear of the room.
"Yes, child-killer," Cam replied coldly, and I was shocked to hear him use the slang name for Bent. I saw Tandy's face grow tight at that and she looked away at the floor. "Politics. The same thing that kept you from being executed. We're unable to hide what happened from the populace – there were too many witnesses to Voice's chase – so instead we have to present a calm message of action to the city. We've already assured the people that this is an isolated event brought on by exposure to the mist-barrier and that we're taking precautions with the medical sweeps on immigrants. The science team needs to know if we're telling them the truth and if we actually know how to detect whatever it was that caused this rapid mutation."
"So Voice dragged that monster all the way up to where you could retrieve it," Bent said and part of me wished he would shut up – the derision in his tone was apparent, "and our guys taking it apart haven't come up with anything but maybes and guesses?"
"The body dissolved into mist five hours after death," Cam replied, his eyes narrowing at Bent, "We need you and the rest of the team to enter the mist-barrier and find what it was that infected the victim."
"It dissolved into actual mist?" I whispered, "Like... not the water vapor kind?"
"Yes, actual mist. We had that for about three hours before it faded away, despite our efforts to contain it."
I had heard that the mist couldn't be taken from the mist-barrier. I suspected this was the furthest inward that the mist had ever been and wondered if they'd learned anything from it. Cam gave us the rest of our orders. Tandy and Double were to plan the details of the expedition. Tandy could handle the technology, Double would be able to provide information on the local settlements. While the entirety of our territory was under the rule of Center, the reality wasn't always in line with that and there were pockets that were openly hostile towards anyone from the inner rings. It was Center's advanced technology that kept them in check, but any vulnerability on our part would be quickly exploited. I was to avoid strenuous physical activity until the doctors were satisfied with my recovery, and in the meantime work on my marksmanship with Bent. The meeting broke up immediately after and Cam left before I could think to ask anything more. Double and Tandy were quick to follow after, Tandy pausing in the doorway to look back at me. She seemed concerned, and then the door slid shut behind her and I was left alone with Bent.
"I didn't think I'd ever say this," the sniper sighed, "but I really want Roman back."
"You shouldn't antagonize them," I replied.
"Yeah?" He walked to stand in the middle of the open space so I could see him without turning in my seat. He stared down at me, hands crossed across his chest and his eyes narrowed. "Why not? What are they going to do?"
"Kill you," I said evenly.
"Me? No. They can deal with insolence if they know I'll get the job done. They won't kill me unless I turn into a liability, or prove to be too unstable. If they're going to murder anyone on our team, it'll be Double."
I was startled by this, and Bent gave me a thin-lipped smile in response to the surprise in my voice. He stepped forwards a pace and I unconsciously shrank back from him, but he only held out a hand to help me to my feet.
"C'mon," he said, "Let's head down to the range. I want to see if Dav taught you anything worthwhile."
I did not take his hand and instead stood on my own. Bent led me through the hallways and I dimly remembered some of the layout from the tour with Double earlier. I brought my slate with me, for I was interested in seeing how the targeting assistance would work between my implants and the weapons provided. We didn't meet many people in the hallway, and those we did were careful to avoid looking at us. I couldn't help but feel like a criminal – my status was apparent to everyone here. I wondered if that was the source of Bent's overt rebellion, the last vestiges of his pride making itself manifest. In time, I supposed, it would wear me down as well. I just had further to go, as living on the streets had imbued me with a sort of quiet acceptance for my lot in life. There would be a breaking point, I suspected. Even when I was at my worst, homeless, starving, there was something there that would keep fighting against the dark. I hoped we would be out of Center by that time, so that I could escape the averted gazes and the slight, subtle reminders that I had no rights here. On the streets, I had been a second-class citizen. Here, I was less than that.
"It's really hard to shoot distance in the mist-barrier," Bent told me as we selected weapons, "I can manage it, but everyone else sticks with handguns. Here."
He handed me a pistol, somewhat larger than I was accustomed to. There was a soldier stationed at the range to check in and out the guns and he provided us with a lane, ear protection, and ammunition. Bent showed me how to clip the protection over the ear and attune it to the same channel that he was on, so that we could still at least hear each other talk even while blocking out the retort of the guns. There was only one other person, a few lanes down, with an assault rifle. I watched him for a moment until Bent brought my attention back to the pistol. He showed me how to load it, how to switch off the safety. Then he showed me how to pair it with my implants.
"It takes a bio-metric signature," he explained, "See this piece on the grip? That'll take your fingerprint – any of them will do – and use it to find your implants. That's how they key them. Once it's paired, it'll remain paired for twenty-four hours and then you have to renew it. If one of the blue dots starts flashing in your vision, that means you need to renew. Don't worry about it overly much, I've always had my rifle pick up my fingerprint without any effort on my part."
"Why twenty-four hours?" I pressed my thumb against the slick part of the grip and after a moment saw a third blue dot appear in the corner of my vision.
"Tandy says it's because they can't fit a lot of software into the guns themselves. They're too compact for much circuitry. So there's not much security on the connection between weapon and implant, and that makes them nervous. Now let's see you shoot."
The targeting assistance was surprisingly intuitive. There was an overlay that aligned with the sight of the gun, so that no matter how I held it, I could see where the bullet would supposedly go without having to actually align the sights manually on the barrel. I had never been the greatest shot before, as despite Dav's tutoring, I simply didn't have the opportunity to practice. There were no ranges in Center, as guns were not legal for civilians to own, and I'd never made the trip outside the city to where gun ownership was permitted. In the lower level there were opportunities, but those attracted attention of a different sort, and the few times I'd been able to shoot was when Dav took me along specifically to do so in some secluded place where he trained. I found that the targeting assistance greatly simplified matters. It was a matter of keeping steady when I actually pulled the trigger, as well as timing it right so that I only fired when the target drifted over where I wanted the bullet to go. It was surprisingly natural to focus on the thin blue lines, drifting lazily in a circle across my field of vision, but when Bent brought the target back to where we stood I found that I had been hitting consistently to the upper left. It wasn't much of a deviance, but Bent still frowned in irritation at the results.
"So, we got some work to do," he muttered.
"I'm still hitting close enough to the center," I relied, "That'll drop someone."
"I don't fucking care. Reload and let's try again."
I practiced until my hands were raw and numb, the nerves tingling with the impact of the recoil. If Bent was satisfied with any improvement, he gave no indication. He'd actually wandered off a little bit in and returned with a rifle and spent some time in the range next to mine shooting as well. I watched him for a moment, and he seemed relaxed for once. The anger was gone from him and he seemed composed, peaceful, as he sighted down the barrel and took his shots with a steady rhythm. He hit only bullseyes. I couldn't say for certain if he were a better shot than Dav was, but some part of me feared he was.
"I don't understand you," I said as we walked back to our barracks. I was tired and perhaps not watching my words as closely as I should.
"Good," Bent replied. The tight anger in his voice wasn't back yet and he seemed almost demure, shoulders slumped.
"What did you have against Dav?"
"Shit, I hated everyone. It isn't complicated."
His eyes slid over to regard me, cold and I saw a hint of spite there, a resentment I couldn't quite explain.
"Nothing," he said, "I just found I wanted to live more than I wanted to act on my hate. Now quit asking me things like we're friends or something. In case you've already forgotten, I was all set to kill you at one point."
"How?" I whispered, "I don't remember anything."
He stopped and spun on me, taking a step so that he was close and my breath went tight in my chest at the sudden nearness of another body and I put one foot back, then caught myself and held my ground. He would not frighten me. He was a leashed animal, a dog baying at his chain, and he could not hurt me, not unless I allowed his intimidation to actually work. I swallowed hard and met his brilliant green eyes, saw the malice darting in them and the amusement in his thin face.
"Of course not," he whispered, "You were asleep. I was so close and you didn't know and Dav wasn't there to protect you – I often wondered why he let you sleep out on the street. He had so many enemies. Maybe he didn't really care, but regardless of the reason, it gave me easy access. You were right there, all curled up – so damn small and vulnerable – and I thought – I'd just touch you and wake you up with the point of my knife just so."
He touched the corner of my eye with one finger and I flinched, even though I saw the gesture before he made it.
"Why didn't you?" I asked. It was hard to form the words.
He didn't reply. The amusement faded from his expression and he grew closed, drawing in on himself and turned away. He didn't look back to see if I were following him down the hallway, and for some moments I remained where I was, heart beating hard in my chest. There was more to this story. Bent was only telling me the parts he could bring himself to say out-loud. I would have the rest, somehow, even if I had to go to another source to obtain it.