by Logan Darklighter

MARCH 19, 2028 1334 HOURS

Lora's badly mangled body was nearly hidden in a forest of tubes and wires, totally dependent on external life support. The harsh lights along the sides of the glass-walled vat revealed her form in detail, the oxygen-rich nutrient solution lending her body an amber tint. Streamers of blood and other bodily fluids clouded the bath, lending a macabre tone to the tableau. Slowly, over the last few hours, the liquid had been chilled to around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the vital signs of the young woman within lowered to a point of hypothermic stasis. All body functions were allowed to become sluggish. Heartbeat, respiration, all slowed... slowed... then finally stopped.

Now came the next phase, and it needed to be done quickly before any cell death occurred. In this chilled state, the brain's oxygen needs were now only a fraction of what they normally would be, but still, time was of the essence. Robotic manipulators clamped gently but firmly on the fractured skull. Another manipulator tipped with a high-speed monomolecular saw moved in to cut carefully at flesh and bone. Other manipulators tipped with lasers moved in preprogrammed paths, pulsing with light, burning away what was unneeded. More manipulators from tiny, pseudo-organic remote controlled robots darted in and out, detaching various wires and tubes and hooking them back directly to the brain once the bone was moved out of the way. Hundreds of thousands of nano-machines attended to various tasks, keeping the surrounding fluids clear of contamination, breaking down discarded organic parts or moving them out of the way. Shortly, there was nothing left but the naked brain and central nervous system trunk.

This was a state that lasted only a moment, as a new, plastic and ceramic encasement was moved into position by the remote manipulators. Smoothly and gently, with great precision, the brain and spinal cord were moved into place. Nerves were threaded into position within the trunk of the spinal casing and affixed by nanites. As each section was completed, small panels over that section of spine were closed over the spinal cord. At last, the clamshell panels of the artificial skull smoothly closed and locked in place. The brain was enclosed and sealed forever in its new armored casing. The life support system was hooked up; lines and tubes attached in their various places. A datajack was moved into it's housing at the top of the new spine and the fibers connecting it to the nervous system were attached by more nanomachines. The respiration and circulatory functions were brought online, and the temperature inside the casing was slowly brought back up to normal. Finally the first phase of making a full-body cyborg was complete. The entire procedure had taken less than 20 minutes.

In the control room, the med-techs and cybernetics specialists watched over the process on their monitors. Talking quietly back and forth, giving updates and watching various indicators.

"...pH level just a tenth percentile high, might want to watch that..."

"...On it and adjusting, no problems..."

"...Neuroblocks still nominal, no change..."

"...Endorphin levels steady..."

"...Casing integrity solid and life support is running fine..."

"How are we doing?" Sanato asked quietly.

The head medical technician turned to the corporate executive; "Everything looks good so far. We're just finishing up making all the nerve connections. Life support is running nominally." He smiled reassuringly, "Basically, she's alive and doing well. EEG shows she's in a deep sleep state. No worries, sir, and no early signs of rejection either."

Sanato nodded. "Good."

Turning to a Lynx synthetic nearby who was assigned as a nurse, he asked, "Were we able to call up any medical records? Does she have a SIN?"

"Yes sir. Once we had her name, the DNA matched records for one Lora Doubet, SIN#1066-461-9765-92-3254. It seems there was a police report from Missouri on a runaway from about 16 months back. She's only been living in the Zone for a little over a year it seems. She's not native to the general area. She's originally from Chicago, but her parents were killed in the war and custody went to her father's brother. Miss Doubet was apparently unhappy enough with whatever was going on in her new home that she ran away and hid in the Zero Zone. That's the short version, anyway. We don't have any details about her home situation or her motivations other than that yet."

"We'll see what we can find. We can find out from Ms. Doubet herself later, most probably." Sanato took off his glasses to inspect them casually, the integral informational displays on the HUD of the right lens had occasionally been flickering, and he'd have to see about requisitioning a new pair soon. "How recent a visual record is there of her? A close facial match would be good for psychological purposes." Sanato said, looking thoughtful.

"We have a fairly good graphic record up through high school. The most recent images are about a year and a half old."

Nodding again, Sanato put his glasses back on as he thought, I'll have our agents in the zone ask around discreetly and see if anyone had taken any photos of her we can use to supplement our records. It's doubtful, and we can probably use what we've got already and extrapolate, but you never know. We might get lucky.

Sanato turned toward the door, "Please inform me when we're ready for implantation." The technicians knew that despite the polite way it was phrased, the statement was not a request.

As the fluids drained from the tank, a mechanical cradle bearing the cyborg braincase and life support systems raised up above the surface. The plastic shell glistened under the bright lights overhead. Two lynx med-techs entered the room and maneuvered the cradle containing the unit into the next room and phase of transformation.

As Sanato approached the lab from the clean room, Dr. McGuire, the head of the cybertechnology department, was explaining the ongoing procedure. As soon as they were inside, the doctor addressed the nearest Lynx, "Is the brain and spinal unit ready for implantation?"

"Yes, doctor, her spinal trunk neural connections are completed, and we're just now ready to close everything up."

Suspended from the overhead racks was a parody of a human form—a half-completed full-body cyborg, its armored sections uncovered as yet by any synthflesh. Where it wasn't covered with armor yet, it looked rather like one of those biology mannequins meant to show where all the muscle groups were on a human being. Except in this case, the muscles weren't made of flesh, but of myomer plastics and alloy. The panels on the back of the armored skull and upper spine were open, and a cats cradle of wires and tubes stretched between the braincase and trailing spinal unit into the openings in the back of the artificial body.

The doctor inspected the whole arrangement carefully, jotting the occasional notation down as he walked around the dais.

Sanato watched quietly from the side of the room, taking it all in, including the skimpy outfits of the Lynxes, who were dressed, not in standard nurses uniforms, but what amounted to a burlesque parody of a nurses outfit, complete with corset, garter belts and hose.

Sanato noted, "I didn't know Frederick's of Neo York were among the contractors supplying uniforms, Doctor."

Looking up distractedly from his notepad, the Doctor said, "Pardon? Oh that!" He grinned, "Well, I work with them all the time, so I may as well make the scenery a little more pleasant."

Sanato smiled knowingly, and gestured in an offhand way so as to show he was amused rather than offended, "It is your lab, Dr. McGuire, you may run it however you like as long as the results are good."

Doctor McGuire grunted noncommittally and went back to checking the artificial body setup. It was a good thing the cyberphysician restricted himself to supervising full-body cyborg conversions, Sanato thought, because it seemed the doctor had absolutely no bedside manner or "people sense".

Finally, the checks were complete. The doctor made a final notation and looked up, "Alright, let's close up."

"Yes sir," the two Lynxes said almost in unison.

The brain/spinal casing was retracted fully into the cyborg chassis and the connections were carefully arranged and packed in by the Lynxes. The access panels closed one after the other up the back of the spine and the armored titanium skull closed snugly over the internal braincase with a hum and an audible click as it locked down.

Sanato remarked, "So, how is this new full body cybergraft technique supposed to solve the problems we've had in the past? Extensive cybergraft operations such as this usually destroy esper abilities or severely dampen them. What is different in this case that will prevent that?

The doctor turned to Sanato and said, "Well, the technology isn't really much different than the usual cybergraft operation. The cyborg frame is normal enough, if extremely high performance..." He added, offhandedly, "By the way, this is a full military grade combat/covert ops cybergraft, isn't it?" At a cold look from Sanato he amended, "Oh, don't worry, it's not as if I personally care about the legalities of the situation, I just like knowing what I'm working with, is all. How you manage the paperwork and licensing dodges with the local feds isn't my concern."

He turned back to the scene before him and watched the Lynxes lock down the last bits of armor over the limbs and torso, saying, "But the neural net is something else again. The density per square inch for the sensors we're implanting in the synthflesh and through the rest of the body is an order of magnitude higher than anything else currently on the market. It's much more than the amount needed for sensation of touch and other normal sensations. Or at least what's considered adequate for psychological purposes. But this goes beyond even a premium neural net. There's a good reason for that."

"Now this isn't really my field, but I understand that the theory is that cybernetics interferes with and dampens esper powers because of lack of proper feedback. Some specialists in the field say that esper talents use the nervous system like an antenna or a lens, directing and amplifying the power. At least that's how I understand it. The analogy is inexact at best. But I guess this is what their solution to the problem is supposed to be. A high grade neural net that has enough redundancy to provide any level of feedback that the human brain needs in order to use its psionic talents."

Sanato nodded, "Yes, I can see how that would work."

The Lynxes lowered the frame holding Lora's essentially finished cyborg frame into another vat with liquid that looked like a cross between cream and quicksilver. This would be the synthflesh in its liquid state. Once applied, it would turn into a flexible solid, permeated throughout with microscopic receptors that would feed all normal sensations such as heat, cold, touch, and pain to the organic nervous system. Within the cyborg shell, he knew that even now, tiny machines would be guiding the biochip connections to the severed ends of Lora's nerves and fusing them together.

If this worked... If this worked, it would be the biggest scientific coup Shiroko Tsuji could ever have accomplished. It would allow them to make the ultimate in human weaponry. A high-powered cyborg complete with esper talents rivaling the most powerful esper weapons. That would be a potent combination indeed. And Sanato would find his star rising in the company. He would see to that as well. Of course, if the project failed, he had any number of options ready to mitigate any blame from himself. The chatty cyber doctor here was just one of many who would be tapped to take a fall for him, whether he knew it or not. Sanato was always methodical in maintaining his position and perceived value to S-T.

Still, he pitied the corporation's newest tool in his own fashion.

True, there technically was the possibility of her buying out her contract, but that possibility was remote indeed. The debts to the corporation that she was incurring with her implantation into her cyborg prosthesis and other medical bills would be staggering, and her contract was in effect an indenture that she might never repay. Indentures were technically illegal in the UNA, but that was a matter of semantics more than anything else. In essence, contract to pay off debts incurred with service was legal, and a verbal contract was as binding as the disc it was burned into. If Lora had been in the military or law enforcement and suffered a body destroying accident, existing hazardous duty contracts and insurance may have paid for her conversion, but Lora had no such options. Which worked in the corporation's advantage of course.

Sanato was corporation born and bred. But still, he had had a choice. When he was young, he could have decided not to work for the company. He had never seriously considered that path as an option for himself though. He liked working for the company. He enjoyed the power and responsibility. And he wanted more. But still, the choice had been there. Lora on the other hand, had been given a Hobsans choice. Live and serve the corporation or be allowed to die.

Sanato was already considering what he should do in order to acquire and maintain Lora's loyalty for real. Some enticements and privileges were in order. If Lora could be made to see enough of the benefits and advantages of her position, rather than its limitations, then she could be molded into a loyal employee rather than one who felt she had been coerced. If there was a cage, then the bars had to be moved far enough away to afford the illusion of freedom. A slave always looked for freedom, and that would never do. A valued employee given a sense of purpose though, that was something that Sanato always preferred to work towards.

Watching as the new cyborg was moved into position inside a molding apparatus, Sanato nodded to himself. He turned to return to his office to make the arrangements. The bird would eventually thank its captors for the gilded cage. He would see to it.


...then dreams the strange kind where you know it's a dream and try to make sense of it all even though it's a dream and it makes it's own kind of sense even though it really doesn't and you try to wake up but you can't remember what it's like to be awake so you dream and try to make sense of it because if you do maybe you can remember how to wake up...

...playing my flute playing a tune couldn't remember but wasn't it but no that wasn't it either but i was playing and the crowd seems to like it...

...a doctor with strange eyes frustrated at something...

...mother and father are there and maybe i could stop playing for a minute and talk to them because i haven't seen them since the funeral... older man looks at me thoughtfully across a desk and pushes his glasses up with his fingers...

...there was something there I forgot how to do but know all the same and the doll is floating mother sees it and screams and i drop it and can't remember how to do it again because it frightened mother and i can't I can't remember...

...a woman with long white hair and a cloak and a young man with dark hair stand back to back atop a mountain of a building the moon low in the sky behind them...

...and the gravestones are the buildings all around Cathedral Square where the children play and run...

...a woman in a pageboy haircut business suit and hooded eyes asks what I can afford...

...running away from father not father uncle don't think about that look away look away...

...a young angry girl with blue hair levels a gun and lets loose with a yell... the flute and the notes to play to forget and remember reach for the song and make it climb higher and dip low and dance and the crowd likes it when it floats like that and reach that extra measure...

...a girl with raven black hair is smiling at me i know her but i don't know her...

...but the song reminds me and the song soars and I'm floating floating and then above me who is he black hair wild eyes wearing a cape says his head hurts and shut up shut UP SHUT UP a giant hand reaches down and grabs i'm sorry i'm sorry i can't stop it don't know how and...

...fighting against a blonde woman throwing bolts of force at me...

...can't feel anything at all nothing nothingnothing...

...bring my hands to my face...

...the machines that are my hands...


MARCH 21, 2028 0934 HOURS

Lora slowly moved from her dreamstate to a wakening state. It was hard to tell, though, because she awoke from dreams to utter blackness. No sight, no smell, no touch, no hearing, no taste. Then something changed. The blackness faded into static across her field of vision that scrolled madly. It was dizzying. She wanted to turn away from the images, but she couldn't. Then she noticed that she could hear something. It took her a long moment to realize that it was voices. But she couldn't understand what they were saying. She felt she ought to understand them, but there was some key to it that she didn't have. She tried looking in the direction of the voices, but all she could see was static. Then something happened and all of a sudden she could understand what was being said. Why couldn't she understand before? They were talking in English after all.

"Got it. Linguistic field mapped and locked in. Finally! Lora can you hear me yet? Can you understand me?"

She tried to speak, but nothing happened. What was wrong with her? She tried to move, but couldn't. Wait. I couldn't feel anything before, but now I can. Indeed, she had felt numb all over before, but could now feel her body. It felt like she was lying in a bed and a something was covering her torso and upper legs, a hospital nightgown? Sensation was fading into sharper definition with every passing second.

The first voice said, "Interface is still mapping. She can't vocalize yet. Lora? Keep trying to talk. The more you try, the more the interface will sort itself out."

Lora tried to nod, and this time she felt her head move slightly. Oh thank god! I thought I was paralyzed. She still felt behind the curve.

What happened to me?

As soon as she asked that internal question, she remembered the white room and the corporate executive telling her what had happened to her.

Oh my god, no. That was all real!

She was waking up for the first time in her new body and the interface between her brain and body still wasn't quite sorted out yet. She felt like crying in frustration. Instead, she tried talking again.


"Good, Lora. Keep working on it. Hang on. Aha! There we go!"

And all of a sudden, the static vanished with a snap and her vision cleared. She was looking up at a woman - the doctor apparently, a lynx nurse standing off to one side, and a man who she recognized as the man from the white room, who was standing at the foot of her bed. Lora remembered his name. Sanato. She blinked a couple of times. The doctor was looking at a screen next to her bed that she couldn't see. Her nametag read "A. Escher"

"Okay, try it again. We're almost there, Lora."

"" she shook her head slightly. Then, surprised that she could do that, tried moving her hand to look at it. At first, she had trouble. The movement was stiff and jerky, but she could get it to move. She moved her hand in front of her face. The first thing she noticed was that it looked normal. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had expected to see metal and plastic. But the synthflesh covering her looked completely natural.

She flexed her fingers, one by one, and the movement became noticeably smoother. It was getting easier by the second. She formed a fist, then flattened out her hand, moved it around.

Again, then, she tried to speak. "Uhhh... Hello... I guess... I guess it worked. Hey!!" The first thing she noticed was that her voice sounded wrong. It was pitched higher than she was used to.

Mr. Sanato smiled slightly, and said, "Welcome to the real world, Lora. I am glad to see you awake."

Dr. Escher checked the screen again, nodded, then smiled at her and said, "Well, that went rather well, I think."

"I suppose." Lora said.

Lora wondered at her new state. She breathed in, then realized that she could and did it again, taking in the scents of the hospital room around her. She ran her tongue along the inner surface of her teeth. She flexed her fingers again. Then her toes. Everything felt at once familiar and strange. Like being reborn, she thought. Which I guess is kinda what happened.

Then she noticed the scrutiny of the other people in the room and became self-concious. She decided to ask a question, "Why couldn't I move or feel anything when I woke up?"

"Well, what basically is going on is that your nervous system interface had to calibrate itself to the feedback. You're at about, oh.... 95% right now. And I expect that over the next couple of days, you'll work out the last few kinks on your own. Any other questions?"

"Why does my voice sound so strange? I don't sound like me at all! And... Everything else sounds a little... off, too, now that I think about it."

"I'm sorry about that. We tried to match your original vocal chords as closely as possible. We can adjust your voice to sound as much like your original as possible, but even then, it'll probably not sound quite the same to you. We did the best we could, but sound depends partly on the acoustic character of the skull and yours is now made of different materials."

"Oh. I see." Lora said, amazed with the amount of calm she was taking all this with. Maybe later she'd indulge herself in an emotional breakdown. Right now she felt rather detached, actually.

"How's the touch?" Dr. Escher asked.

Lora looked again at her hands. Touched the fingertips together. The sense of touch seemed to be just like she remembered it. As she looked at her hands, she noticed that there was no hair on the backs of her hands or on her arms. The light, almost invisible fuzz that had been there on her original body was not in evidence.

"It feels normal, I guess. I don't have any hair on my arms."

Sanato spoke up, "As I understand it, it's difficult and expensive to implant hair in the synthflesh to that degree. It could be done, but it's usually not worth the trouble. Most people don't mind not having to worry about it."

That made sense, she supposed. At least she wouldn't have to worry about shaving her legs.

"Can I try to get up?"

"Hold on just a moment. Lift your head up" Dr. Escher said, as she rolled her chair closer to the head of the bed. As Lora complied, she became aware, for the first time, of something attached to the back of her head and upper neck. Dr. Escher reached behind Lora's head and pulled gently, unplugging the cables plugged into the ports at the nape of her neck and lower skull.

As soon as the doctor removed her hand, Lora reached back to feel the back of her neck at the datajacks just under her hair. It was rather disturbing, she decided, to feel a hole where there shouldn't be any.

Becoming concious of scrutiny again, Lora decided to get up. After checking to see that, yes, she was wearing a hospital smock, she sat up and removed the bedsheets. She swung her legs out over the edge of the bed and stood up.

And promptly fell over.

The sound of her rump hitting the floor was loud and embarrassing. She looked up. Sanato's face was unreadable. Dr. Escher looked concerned. The Lynx nurse had an almost imperceptible yet sympathetic looking smile.

Dr. Escher asked, "Are you all right? Do you feel dizzy at all?"

Lora checked, then said, "Uhm... no, I don't think so. I don't know what happened."

The doctor replied, "Probably you just need more practice."

Lora nodded, then held her hand out, "Somebody want to help me up, here?"

The doctor motioned to the Lynx, who moved forward and braced herself, then held Lora's hand as she levered herself upright. Lora noticed that the Lynx seemed to be straining. She felt for her center of balance and found it, standing up straight.

Dr. Escher exclaimed, "Excellent! Very good! How do you feel?"

"Just fine, thanks. Uhm..." She looked at the Lynx next to her and asked, "Keep a hand on me while I walk?"

The Lynx nodded, "Yes, Ms. Doubet, I'll watch out for you."

Lora took a tentative first step, then another one. The balance problem seemed to still be there at first, and the Lynx held a hand to her back to keep her from falling over. But as she walked across the room, she quickly found her balance. Or something found it for her. She wasn't sure which. She turned around to face the others, unconsciously brushing some of her hair out of her face where it had fallen.

Dr. Escher was smiling. "That's about as fast as I've ever seen anyone acclimate, Lora. I think you'll be fine." She stood up from her chair, and motioned to Mr. Sanato, "Come along now. Let's leave her alone for a bit." She said to Lora, "I'll leave Jolie here," obviously referring to the Lynx, "with you in case you need any help. I'll come back later and bring some food, there will be some more things I need to tell you about how your body works and what you'll need to know in order to take care of it. For now, though. You can walk around the room a bit, or relax if you want. Just get used to things as much as possible."

Lora nodded, still a bit overwhelmed. "Thank you. I'll see you later then."

Mr. Sanato finally spoke again on his way out the door, "Good luck Lora. I'll be back tomorrow to speak with you about your new status with the corporation. I'd like to say I'm glad to see you're going to make a full recovery."

Lora was struck by something which occured to her, she gave it voice, "I would be dead if it weren't for you. I owe you my life. I... don't know what to say, other than... Thank you."

Mr. Sanato smiled, "My pleasure, Lora. Tomorrow, then?"

She nodded, "Tomorrow."

The door closed between them, leaving Lora alone with Jolie.

Lora noticed the sunlight coming through the drawn curtains of the room. She checked the clock and saw it was morning. She looked around and saw the bathroom.


"Yes, Lora?"

"I'll be in the bathroom for a few minutes, okay?"

"Of course. Call me if you need help."

Lora entered the bathroom and closed the door behind her. The light was already on. For a long moment she just stood in silence. Her eyes closed.

What are you afraid of, Lora? She asked herself. But the question was a rhetorical one. She turned to where she knew the sink was and opened her eyes to look in the mirror.

That's... me...?

She looked at her reflection with wide eyes. The face was hers, and it wasn't. She had the same cheekbones, the same jawline, the same mouth, the same eyes and nose. But they were all perfect. It was her face if she had seen it in a magazine. But what really stood out was her hair.

She brought some of it forward to look at. She had been a blonde before, but not like this. Every strand of her hair was pure white, almost transluscent. It felt like real hair, but smoother than her original hair had ever been. She looked like an albino. Or a ghost.

She leaned forward, looking at her reflection from only a couple of inches away. Her eyes were still blue, but a shade brighter than she remembered them. Her skin was, of course, perfect. She couldn't see any pores even this close up. Although it looked completely natural otherwise. Her skin tone was slightly lighter than it had been. Her face had been a bit suntanned from exposure in the zone and elsewhere. Now it looked like she had never seen any sun at all.

Lora noticed the full length mirror on the back of the bathroom door out of the corner of her eye and turned to look at herself in it. Then she slowly reached up and undid the ties at the shoulders of her hospital smock, letting it drop to the floor. She stood there completely unclothed, looking at herself.

It seemed like she had the same general build as before. But that was where the similarity ended. There were any number of small imperfections that a person accumulates over the years and gets comfortable with. Lora remembered little moles, a scattering of freckles across the top of her chest near the collarbone area, a scar on a finger from not paying attention while slicing an onion, maybe too much or too little body fat in certain areas. She'd always though she looked a little too heavy in the hips. None of that existed for her any more. Her body looked... airbrushed, idealized, flawless. She thought her breasts looked bigger, or was that an illusion? The perfection of her skin was the same all over. That seemed wrong, somehow. There was no variation in the color of her skin no matter where she looked. It was all the same light, almost alabaster tone. Her nipples were a brownish pink, and she had no hair anywhere but her eyebrows, eyelashes and head. She looked again at her hands, at her fingernails. She noticed that, instead of different shades of purple under the nail, hers were now a perfectly even shade.

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