11: Change of Heart
Steve froze, stunned by the blithe greeting and friendly expression on the man's face. Tom matched him, stone still to his left. The man they'd come here to confront was completely alone, at least at first glance, and absolutely no fear even edged his face.
They might as well have had scheduled an appointment with the man.
The atmosphere made Steve leery.
Had there been a trap sprung? Were they surrounded and about to be gunned down? Captured? Pressed into this mad scientists experiments?
Steve's imagination had always been overactive, and it was exacerbated by the haunting, acid memories of failures in Kuala Lumpur.
"I was wondering how long it would take you to find me!" He sounded elated. "Delighted to see you both!"
Steve tilted his head. Was the guy loony? Did he not understand the gravity of their presence here?
His hand tightened on the butt of his gun, still fearing a set up.
Tom surprised them both when he closed the distance between him and the man in one long leap, curled both hands into his lapel, and dragged him closer.
"How dare you act so glib," Tom growled. "How dare you sound so fucking happy? After what you – your people – did to Mira? Dumped her in the back alley? Left her for dead!"
"Ah, yes," the man gulped, "that." He opened his mouth to say more but Tom cut him off.
"I ought to pummel you right here and now."
"I assure you we intended no harm!" he whined. "We weren't even aware of her bleed out until her blood pressure plummeted."
"You're a fucking doctor," Tom snarled as he pulled him cleanly off his feet to bring him to eye level. "How could you miss the signs?"
"Ah hahaha," their host twittered nervously, lifting a single finger. "Not a doctor, actually. More a… technician – financier."
Tom paled and dropped the man to his feet again. He didn't however, release the man's clothes.
"You…" Tom swallowed.
Steve managed to read Tom's line of questioning and added, "How in the hell could you run an operation based on cloned, living tissue, and not be a damned doctor?"
He glanced from Tom to Steve and back again. Finally he settled on Tom's livid expression. "You're a doctor. How did you ever run cybernetics shops without a degree in engineering?"
Tom sucked in his cheeks, stepped back, and straightened. He didn't look happy to have the question turned on him like that.
"You had a team of specialists, right? Just like Turner did when he was running the program." He ran shaking hands down his front in a futile attempt to smooth the wrinkles Tom had put in his clothes. "There's no requirement to be an expert in a field if you believe in the work. I created the cloning technology and then I hired a team who shared my vision for the process."
"So explain it to me," Tom interjected, still fuming. "How did you people let Mira's health decline so rapidly? Why did you drive her nearly two hours to get her help?"
The man flushed and glanced away. "We were in the middle of a procedure when she tanked. Each time it takes the entire team of doctors – small staff and all – to graft the new tissue into place." The flush darkened. "When the alarms went off in her room, only the interns were available to attend her. As soon as they reported her condition, I ordered them to get her to the best hospital possible – yours."
"She could have died in transit!" Tom bellowed. "She almost did die, you asshole!"
"A regrettable decision, I assure you. Especially when her recovery was coming along so well otherwise." His eyes lit up again. "You saw her arm right?"
Tom's lips pinched, but he nodded tersely.
"Fully functional, circulation was looking good, she had full range of motion and feeling in her hand and fingers. It was going along splendidly!"
"And then you tried to remove her lung."
The tone of Tom's voice, as well as the words, deflated the man's ego yet again.
"How old are your blueprints?"
He blinked uncomprehendingly.
"Mira's blueprints? What mod were they?"
"Mod… mod four."
"Fuck!" He leaned into the man's face. "That was at least three mods out of date!" He frowned at the man again. "I knew you didn't have all the information like you claimed. You certainly had my stats all wrong – Steve's too. Why do you think I didn't volunteer?"
Once more that bright red contrasted the man's blonde hair. Then man's expression pinched in a small fit of defensiveness. "Because you were afraid."
"Damn straight!" He and Tom both said it together.
"Afraid you'd nearly kill us – like you did to Mira!" Tom added acidly, "Or worse – succeed at it!"
Now the man looked affronted. "Her case has been the only one with complications. You can't blame us for that, can you? Biomechanical integration was always complex, faulty – even with your case." He said it with such intimacy, Steve knew he'd been integral to their experiments and recovery. "Setbacks are bound to happen."
It was Tom's turn to be affronted.
"I assure you her case has been the only one to end up with such dire consequences."
"I don't believe you," Tom uttered.
"I can… I can prove it."
Tom's back straightened even further. "How?"
"You can meet our other patients."
Steve straightened now, his gun lowering as he caught the look of interest in Tom's expression. "Tom."
His brother's glance shot to his face, his expression pinched in such a way that Steve could tell he was seriously considering looking further into it.
"This…" Steve stalled and then changed tact. "Are you sure? This isn't what we talked about."
Tom ignored him, facing their host again. "Unlimited access to all records since you started the project?"
The man nodded vigorously, looking relieved at Tom's concession. "Interviews with the patients if you'd like. If you don't like what you find, I will turn myself in."
His brother looked dubiously at the man, surely looking for the hook, the catch, the loophole that would get the man out of his punishment. Finally he nodded tersely. "Fine. If you can't convince me of your genuine philanthropy, I call in the authorities and you can do the requisite time for illegal experimentation, kidnapping, assault and battery, and anything else they can throw the book at you for."
The mousey man paled severely at Tom's pronouncement, but he took a breath and squeaked, "Agreed."
When no one moved, Tom growled, "Well?"
"Yes, of course," there were well more nerves in the man's voice as he started away, waving them both forward. "This way please."
Steve caught up to Tom in two steps. "What the hell?" he hissed. "This isn't what we're here for, Tom."
Tom stalled, letting the man get a bit further ahead of them. "I know that," Tom said, uncertainty tainting his voice for the first time since this morning. "I just… I want to know."
Grabbing Tom's forearm he halted their forward progress. "You haven't just started considering this have you?"
"What are you talking about, Steve?"
"If this guy's 'legit?'"
"Has it shaken me up?" Tom nodded, his mouth thinning, "Yeah, it has. You know I've never enjoyed cybernetics. I went into the field because there was no other alternative, and I wanted to control the process rather than be controlled by it."
Steve shook his head negatively but didn't say what he was thinking.
"If this guy's operation is half as refined as he says it is, there is another alternative."
"So, you're just going to forgive him all his sins, and welcome him with open arms into your little cyber-center operation?" Steve shook his head again, poking Tom squarely in one band of clothing hidden metal. "This right here? He was in on it. Him." He pointed after the fading form of their host, "Just like Turner. One more cog in the illicit experiments that put you – us – in the state we're in now."
"And I turned around and did the same to Mira," Tom said stubbornly. "That makes me just as much of a monster by your definition, right?"
"I never said that."
"Doesn't make it less true." Tom's expression crumpled. "I'm not saying I'm buying in. Not yet. But shouldn't we all be given an opportunity to make up for our past sins?"
Steve's insides twisted at his brother's pointed argument. "Fine, point taken. But please don't drink the Kool Aid? I don't need us caught up in some cult or other bullshit like that."
Tom rolled his eyes, and walked away, saying, "Stop thinking of me as that hotheaded risk-taker from our youth. I'm not him anymore."
"Sure you're not," Steve breathed, trailing behind the two other men.
They caught up with their host before the next turn of hall, where he had paused before a bank of elevators. "Is everything okay?"
"Fine, monkey boy," Steve growled. "Let's get this dog and pony underway."
The man lifted one thin brow before hailing one of the cars to their level. When it arrived, they all piled in. The ride was silent, but they only went up a couple of levels before the doors opened onto a clean nearly empty hallway.
"Most of our patients are now in the recovery stages. However you're welcome to also talk to our two newest inductees who will be starting their replacement surgeries in the next couple of weeks."
"I will have the case files brought to you…"
"No," Tom cut him off. "When I'm done interviewing your patients, I want to see your entire records room. Steve, if you'd go with him to be sure nothing… disappears from the room while I complete this?"
"Delighted," Steve grunted.
"Meanwhile, I'll start right here." Tom tapped the screen outside the door, quickly glancing over the case before knocking and disappearing inside.
At the man's shell-shocked expression, Steve shrugged and said, "What? You expected him to be led where you wanted him to?"
His host only blinked rapidly.
"Records room?" Steve suggested waving the man up the hall. "Would kinda like a peek myself."
"O… of course," he whispered, slapping a very false smile onto his lips before leading the way up the hall. About midway down the hall, they stopped again at a locked door. His host set his fingers to the pad and when the light turned green, he led Steve through it and into a small room. "The files are digital."
"Well, get me in, doc." He stepped to one side, judiciously positioning himself where the man couldn't do something without Steve seeing it.
"Yes, of course."
"Be sure you unlock any of your private files, and of course bring up the files you've certainly hidden. If you don't, I'll know, and I'm not nearly so accommodating as my brother." He smiled wickedly as the man once again paled in the face of his threat.
Silently the man called up all files in easily accessed links on the desktop. Then he waved Steve to be seated. "Have at."
As Steve started to settle into the chair, his host edged closer to the door. "Where're you going?"
"I just…" he thumbed towards the door.
Steve shook his head, "Naw, stay here, let Tom do his thing. He's got this really great bedside manner. Besides, I know he'll get less company line if you're not hovering."
"Company… my patients have nothing to hide!"
"Yeah? Well Mira seemed to take offense to your handling of her case, so you'll forgive my brother for wanting uninterrupted time with your other patients. To be sure, y'know, they feel comfortable talking about any issues."
Once more that defensive expression climbed across the man's face. "As I said, Mira's case was complex."
"Uh huh," Steve said glancing over the files that he found in the first of nine folders. "So explain how that includes keeping her conscious while you dissected and reconstructed her?"
"A necessary precaution."
"Oh? Why's that?"
He looked reluctant to add more. "You're not a doctor, you wouldn't understand."
Steve rose from his chair in one swift, angry movement. "I'm not stupid, either. Tom was Mira's case handler, and at NO time during her initial procedures did they leave her conscious for her integration. And don't think Tom's going to be sympathetic to that tactic, because your team did exactly that to him during his initial procedure." He poked him in the chest hard enough that the man had to step back. "Falling back to old, nasty, unprofessional habits?"
"That's torture. Unethical… unnecessary… dangerous. As someone who's not a doctor – you wouldn't understand."
The man blinked, realizing Steve had turned his own words back on him.
"As a recipient of your team's treatments, I do understand what it was like. I'm also damn thankful I was out for most of the processing. That doesn't mean what you did to her was at all forgivable."
"It was necessary!" the man insisted.
"WHY?" Steve bellowed.
"Because each time we tried to anesthetize her, her vitals would fall off hard! We nearly lost her on the first attempt at reintegrating the cloned tissue."
"What?" Steve hissed.
"Look!" the man dashed to the computer and Steve moved to stop him. He was able to click a file before Steve intercepted him. "There's her reports, from the day she was brought in to the day we had to move her to the city."
Stone-faced, Steve leaned over the desk and began reading. It was not easy, between the technical jargon and the plentiful use of acronyms, Steve was reading more out of context than actual understanding. But he did get what the guy was saying. A running record of her blood pressure, her heartbeat, and respiration were right there. And it was obvious when they became depressed.
"Why?" he asked of the screen.
"We think the bleeding had been going on for a while, minor enough that it didn't really do more than say, make her tired. We think that her prosthesis was actually causing gradual, long term damage to her systems." He shook his head as Steve met his gaze. "We had done some testing, but nothing conclusive ever came of it. Until she tanked, we had no idea how bad it was."
Could he be telling the truth? Could Mira's emergency have been caused by her cybernetics all along?
"That's why I said that cybernetics is faulty, complex, and fraught with peril. Your brother – you – should know just how long it takes for side effects to show up."
Steve frowned, wanting but unable to refute his logic.
"It's why I wanted out of cybernetics altogether. You – and your brother – seem to think I was glad to be on Turner's team. It was a job, a good paying one. I had no idea what my employment would come to entail." He paused but a moment before going on. "Do you have any idea the nightmares I suffer after watching Turner lose all his patients but you and your brother? How guilty I felt at each loss?"
"Listen," Steve swiveled his direction. "Not to downplay your attempt at getting a sympathetic ear, but your nightmares have nothing on mine and Tom's. You got that? "
"Then let me atone for my part in the butchery Turner directed! The process is…"
"Not a fucking chance in hell," Steve growled at the computer screen. "Nothing you can say or do can make up for our losses. Nothing. Giving us the bits of flesh that were stolen back wouldn't bring back our loved ones, our former lives. It's not just about the physical pieces we're missing anymore."
Steve fell silent, glaring at the computer for a long time without really seeing what was scrolling past. After a while, he made himself focus, made himself look for anything that might incriminate their host – proof that he was lying to them once again.
He wasn't sure how much time slipped by when Tom finally returned.
Upon seeing him, Steve excused himself and tailed Tom out into the hall.
Tom looked frustrated and hopeful in the same moment. "There's no foul play that I can find." He shook his head side to side, whispering, "They're all calling the process miraculous. Quick physical exams show nearly seamless reintegration of cloned, grafted limbs. One of them," he leaned closer, "burn victim, seventy-five percent of her body, five years ago. You can't tell. The new skin grafts are nearly identical to the original tissue."
"Plants? Faked records?" Steve suggested.
Tom was already negating such ideas, "Each file was genetically bar-coded. Those are extremely hard to fake. Videos of the surgeries. Too much evidence suggests it's exactly what it looks like."
Tom sighed and his gaze became unfocused. Steve merely stood silently and let his brother think.
"What about the records."
"Well I'm no doctor, Tom. Can barely tell what the things are talking about. Forensically, there seems to be nothing out of order – time stamps are in order and don't look to have been tampered with or faked. Like your patients, things look like they're up and up." Steve hated to admit that, but he wasn't apt to lie because the truth was inconvenient. "Our host swears up and down Mira was bleeding internally before they tried to remove her lung."
Tom blinked, and is cheeks sucked in. "No they nicked her artificial lung… I saw the blood."
"But where'd the blood come from?" Steve asked. "Is it possible that the prosthetic was wearing on her organics?"
Steve's gaze followed as Tom straightened sharply, his face pinching and his teeth baring. Steve knew it had hit a nerve when Tom began rubbing his left temple.
"Sorry, lil' bro, that wasn't supposed to sound like an accusation."
"No," Tom whispered, the sound barely audible. "It's not that. It is possible… that's the problem."
Steve added, "He says she'd crash each time they tried to sedate her – and that's why she was awake for it all. Not saying I believe it all, but he swears they weren't trying to torture her."
Running both hands over his head before the flopped to his sides, Tom started pacing up and down the hall. He seemed to forget that Steve was even there with him.
"So?" Steve asked when he became impatient with the incessant patrolling. "What're we going to do?"
Halting mid-stride, Tom wheeled back towards him, staring without seeming to see Steve. Determination settled into his face and he blew by Steve, headed once more for the interior of the computer room.
The way he stormed in caused the mousey little man to start, and even back away from him.
"So, no bullshit," Tom growled. "How close are you to being in the red?"
For a few moments their host blinked uncomprehendingly. Then he gaped like a fish while trying to come up with an answer.
"We… we've never been in the black," he admitted finally. "We tried for sponsorship, but no one would take the chance without more proof. We couldn't provide more proof without human trials. It was a huge catch twenty-two. With the exception of the interns, the entire staff has sunk their earnings into the project. If this technology doesn't find a practical application, we're all going to be on the street."
"Minus the property, how deep are you?" Tom asked this with such pointed interest, Steve knew exactly where he was going with his line of questioning.
"Four and a half million credits."
Even Tom winced at the amount. The room fell silent for a very long time, the mousey man seemed to hold his breath while Tom mulled details silently.
"I'll take you on," Tom uttered, not looking at either of them.
"You… want the procedure?"
Tom glared at him. "No. That thought never entered my mind. I meant, I'll get you sponsorship and a true medical facility to make this process a go."
Once more the man blinked uncomprehendingly. "You…" he tilted his head. "What do you want in return?"
Looking affronted, Tom said, "If you think I'm out to take your patent and R&D rights, I'm not. I know what that feels like and would never do it to another. I want to see this process become the primary means of saving and restoring lives. I want to bring your little brainstorm into the spotlight."
A/N: Well here we go, I should have posted this over the weekend, but I wanted one last read through before committing it to the internet. A bit of switch foot there on Tom's part. But it's something I've(Tom's) had in mind for a while now. He did mention he was upset that he was possibly pursuing the wrong path for rehabilitation of amputees... so I don't consider it too much of a stretch...
NEXT UP: Clearing the Air
With things well on their way to being resolved with Project Golum, Tom has another bit of stale air to clear from his life...