Ary took the bus from the CM tent to the medical centre. It wasn’t very far away. On the way there he looked at the big generators. They hummed distantly. They were huge; Ary had never looked at them properly before. They were big and grey and had angles everywhere.
They had given him a pass for the superbunk until he took the Big Red up, since he had no legal home. He had also gotten clothes wrapped in plastic. They had had a bit of trouble finding a set his size but they had dug up something eventually. It was all greenish military stuff but Ary had weighed the parcel in his hands and tried to feel the fabric through the plastic. He thought that those clothes would be warm. It was a large parcel and he couldn’t squeeze it under one arm so he held it with both hands instead.
At the centre there was a sign that said: IMPLANTS/INTERFACE – COMBINED MILITARY ONLY and Ary went where it pointed. The corridors where long and white. No-one looked at him this time, and he liked that. He had never been a place like this before. There was a desk outside the waiting room and there was a man at the desk with narrow eyes who said nothing and just looked as Ary when he walked up.
“I’m getting my Implant today,” Ary said. He stopped, uncertain. “Am I supposed to be here?” He did know know what to say in this kind of situation.
“If you are getting your implant today,” the man said. His voice was completely flat and he looked straight at Ary. Ary did not like the look.
“I was told I was getting it today. The – Lieutenant Crane –”
“Yes, yes. Touch this please.” The man pushed a flat black rectangle to Ary and looked back at his desk. “Go on,” he said, not looking up.
It was warm and metallic.
“Ary,” the man said.
It was a shock, to hear this name said by someone else, in that manner. “Yes?” Ary said, thinking something had gone wrong.
“Is that your name – is your name Ary?” the man said.
“Yes,” Ary replied.
“Take a seat. We’ll come and get you. Don’t be away for too long.”
Ary went over to the waiting room. He looked through the glass and saw that it was full. There was another waiting room just a bit further down the corridor and that one was nearly empty. He went back to the desk. The man there was talking to someone else from the centre; Ary stood and waited. The man frowned a lot and shook his head. He moved his hands as if he was dismissing something. When the friend left Ary walked back up and said, “Sorry. I was thinking, how long will this be?”
“I don’t know. You should get a seat.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Ary went back.
The man said, “It depends. It really depends on how the doctors are doing.”
Ary stood there. “Oh,” he said.
“Everyone’s a bit different, you know? Sometimes it takes very long and some people are out almost immediately.”
“Okay,” Ary said. He went to the second waiting room and sat down. He looked at the people walking past the waiting room. They all looked very busy. Sometimes a pair would come in coats, talking to each other. There was a heightened sense of attention that places like this generated.
There was nothing to tell Ary when he would be called. He kept thinking that this particular person would come in and call his name, kept thinking that this particular person looked like the one who would do something like that, but this never happened . The place smelt very clean and there was a chemical lilt to the air.
There was a small table in the room with magazines on it.
The guy opposite Ary was asleep but the young woman beside him was not. She had a sharp look. She was one of these people that always looked alert in a tired sort of way. She had her hair back in a messy bun and she fiddled with it. She held a small cup with pills. She kept taking out her phone and looking at it. She would flip the phone around, flip it again, absentmindedly, light the screen, glance and it, and then look at something else. She tried to project a movie for a while for she didn’t really seem to be watching it because she looked right through it to the wall, or so it seemed to Ary. Eventually she turned the movie off and then looked through the glass at the people walking past. She didn’t look like a person who would want to join CM, Ary thought. Then he wondered why he had an idea of what the kind of person who would join CM in the first place would look like.
The young woman picked up a magazine and started reading it. She riffled through the pages one way, stopped, and went a couple of pages back. She leaned over the page like she was reading it but she stayed on the page for a very long time. Ary tried to see what she was reading. It was one of those sleek things that CM put out. He tried to notice the page she was stuck at. It was something about pilots. There was a column of small text about pay and big images of aircraft, spacecraft. Things that looked restless and deadly. The young woman stayed on that page for so long that Ary was convinced she was not reading anything.
Then she leaned back and closed her eyes and it seemed as if she was going to sleep. Then she said, “Why don’t you take another copy? There’s lots over there.” She gestured at the table without opening her eyes.
Ary didn’t know what to say. “Were you reading that?” he said. “The magazine.”
“No, I was looking at the pictures.” The young woman sighed. “Take it,” she said, pushing the magazine over and opening her eyes.
“Don’t stare at people that way in the future. If you want something just ask.” The young woman smiled. It was a strange smile on her; there was something aggressive to it.
Ary held the magazine in his hands but he did not turn it on. “Sorry,” he said.
“You’re undocced, yes?”
Something clenched in Ary and was held there.
“You should take off the sticker.” The young woman gestured at Ary’s hand. “I’m Hatherance but call me Hath. Take it off, go on. No point broadcasting it.”
“Are you okay with undoccs?”
“Hmm. I don’t have a problem with them. This wait is killing me.” Hatherance went out and came back with coffee and took the pills. “They could have at least put up some movies,” she said. “Why are you in this?”
“I’m getting my Interface – ”
“I know, I know. I mean why join CM.”
“I thought it would be good to leave.”
“Figures,” Hatherance said, even though she looked at Ary curiously. She looked at people sideways, like a bird.
Ary was so relieved that he surprised himself by saying, “Why are you joining?”
“Well,” Hatherance said, and pushed herself back into her seat like she was going to say something important. Then she shrugged. “It’s awful out there, you know.”
Ary did know if she was talking about the war or about the things that were happening to the people they were meant to protect. “Is that a reason?” he asked.
“Well if it helps the people on Ebannen, Essen – I know this sounds naïve, and it is a little I suppose – we probably should sign up. At least think about it. You know what I mean. You know what I mean?”
“Is that it?” Ary asked, testing how far he could go.
She leaned back and said, “No. That’s the bullshitty part. The main thing is that two years back my brother signed up. Didn’t go to university. He always wanted to go, always watched all the movies and stuff. I didn’t have a problem with him going – your life, your choice, all that. We had lunch at Cozo’s and he said stupid jokes and then he took the Big Red the next morning.”
“How is he?” Ary asked. “What is it like. Out there, I mean.”
“He didn’t write back much. He told me about basic training but then after than they took the Gate to Ebannen.”
“Oh,” Ary said.
“Yeah, so I haven’t heard back from him since. I thought I would be okay with it, and I sort of am, but it would be good to find out how he is. See him again. I keep thinking about lunch at Cozo’s. I think I got every single word from that time memorised. I think I’m going crazy or something. Do I sound crazy?”
Ary smiled, “No,” he said, “I know the feeling.” He put his hands on the edge of his seat and leaned forward and kicked his legs.
“Yeah, lots of undocced – you know, at the university there were a lot of people who were unhappy with the way undoccs were treated. There were rallies and stuff, invites to talks. I never really went but I ended up kind of absorbing all that, just by being there. Osmosis.”
“They didn’t get much done,” Ary said.
“No,” Hatherance said.
“But it’s nice knowing some people care.”
“It kind of stays inside the university.”
“It’s still good.”
“They got the amnesty, so they managed to get you here, at least.” Hatherance stopped and thought. “Although it’s good that you don’t look too happy about it.”
“I’m getting my calibration done tomorrow. For Hynder.”
Hatherance stared at Ary. She was looking for a word. “Idiot,” she breathed.
“Should I say no? I thought it made sense. Just now I thought it made sense but I am – I am really unsure now.”
“I mean it’s no wonder you look like you’re about to cry all the time.”
“Should I say no?” Ary asked.
“I mean – well – why did you say yes?”
“Everyone on Ebannen got it, I was told.”
That made Hatherance think for a while. “You are very, very, brave,” she said, making it sound like a warning.
“I am very, very, scared — is more like it,” Ary said. The words came out just before he thought about stopping them.
“Is someone going with you?”
“It’s just me.”
“You know people are wrecked when they come out, you know. They can’t walk, can’t talk, it’s screwed up.”
Ary said, “You know, it’s funny that both of us don’t really want to join but we’re here.”
“No,” Hatherance said, “We both want to join. We just don’t have the proper reasons. But I want to talk about this Hynder thing you are doing. Are you going to do it?”
“I think so,” Ary said, “But I don’t know.” He adjusted the bundle of clothes on his lap.
“If you want to say no you should tell them tomorrow morning. Do you have a phone?”
“Go back to the tent.”
“Okay. I might go back.” The plastic bundle made gentle crackling noises.
“I think you’re mad.”
“When is your appointment tomorrow? For the calibration.”
“It’s here, at 4.15”
“If you’re doing it I’ll be here.”
“What’s your name?”
“Is that it?”
“I’ll come by at 4. If you aren’t around I’ll assume you did the sane thing. Otherwise I’ll ensure you’re still alive after the procedure.”
“Thank you.” Ary was so grateful he felt it like a kind of pain. “Thank you very much.”
The door opened up and the doctor said, “Ms Soreha.”
“I’m here,” Hatherance said. “I’m coming.” She took her bag and got up.
“Please follow me,” the doctor said.
“See you, Ary,” Hatherance said. “Or hopefully not.”
After she left there was nothing to do so Ary looked through the magazines. He turned them over and over in his hands.
Then another doctor opened the door and said, “Ary.”
Ary stood up. “Yes,” he said.
Then someone else came to the door and said something to the doctor. She listened expressionlessly and nodded then the closed the door and left. She came back in right after that and passed him the cup with pills in it before she left again. She’d forgotten. “Take these.” Ary took them and sat down. Now that Hatherance had left he felt unsure about everything. He looked at the pills. They were absurdly coloured, like baubles. He went out and found a dispenser and got some water took the pills. The water was very cold and it felt good. It had a clearing effect. Ary went back to the waiting room and looked at the huge luminous pictures in the magazines. There were soldiers sitting together and smiling in full gear even though their faces were covered with dust and grime. Some of them lay prone in grass, some of them stood weary but happy on sunlit outcrops. There were diagrams explaining weapons technology. There were pictures of orbital snipers silhouetted against the vast curve of some world smiling up at you from their cribs and looking extremely smart with their long rifles and pointscreens. There was a page or two about medics and what they did; Ary dwelled on that bit. And there was a thick section, with no pictures, about Peregrines, and long lists of what a Peregrine could do, and all the benefits they got.
The doctor came back. “Ary,” she said. “Thanks for waiting. Come with me.”
He followed her. She walked very fast and he hurried to keep up. They came to a small white room which was very clean and had a strange chair in it.
“Take a seat, Ary,” the doctor said. “It might be a bit too large for you but it should be alright.”
“Where do I put this?” Ary said, said, raising his parcel of clothes.
“I’ll take those.” The doctor put them in a cupboard.
Ary sat in the chair and the back went down until he was nearly lying down. There was a metal structure which held the back of his head. When he first touched the metal there was a sensation that for a moment Ary could not distinguish as hot or cold.
“I’m not going to do very much,” the doctor said. “But I want you to stay calm and if at any point you feel like you cannot breathe tell me and I’ll stop things. Are you comfortable?”
Ary nodded but the doctor didn’t see as she was looking at the screen.
“You’re getting Hynder calibrated tomorrow,” she said.
“I don’t know,” Ary said. “I said yes earlier.” He felt an intense urge to discuss this with someone. He felt without warning as if this was the last time he would be able to think about it and he desperately needed to know something but he didn’t know what it was he needed to know.
“Brave,” the doctor, said, looking properly at Ary.
“Should I say yes?”
“There are good reasons to say yes,” the doctor said. “But the trick is not to think too much about it. Lean back, please.”
Ary leaned back.
The doctor was back to the screen. “Now I’m just going to take a thin layer of skin off the back the back of your neck, around here. This shouldn’t hurt.”
Something pressed against the back of Ary’s neck and it felt wet. There was a sound like a gentle snap and that was it. Ary barely felt anything.
“There’s a bit of anaesthetic I’m going to put in. It will stop you feeling the insertion.”
“Does it stop all the pain?” Ary said.
“Just the insertion. There’s nothing to be done about the actual embedding, I’m afraid. Don’t think about it.”
Now a cold feeling. It was as if something was growing in Ary’s neck. It felt like it was enlarging, somehow, but that was it. It was strange but not painful.
The doctor turned back to Ary. “I’m going to do the insertion now, and the machine does the embedding automatically after. It will take a minute or two for the initial connections to grow in. It will be bad at first but it will be better very quickly. Do you want restraints? Usually it’s not necessary. You can just hold on to chair here. Grip tight, put your thumb on top like this.”
Ary did not know very much about how the Implant and Interface worked. There were millions of little needles that went up the brainstem, he knew. They put something in there that grew. That was it.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll just hold on.”
“If you start to feel like you cannot breathe tell me immediately. This is very safe but it’s happened before.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m going to start insertion in 5 seconds.”
“Okay,” Ary said, feeling very stupid for still speaking.
There was a scraping sensation. Then it felt like something was pulling at the skin on the back of his neck. Ary thought he felt fluid going down the back of his neck but he did not say anything. Then there was another feeling, a pale transparent feeling. Then it bulbed up into his head and burst into something else entirely. It was incandescent. Ary felt air coming out of his lungs and he made an involuntary sound that he did not hear.
“You’re doing good,” he heard the doctor say. The sick thought arose in Ary that this was impossible.
He tried to breathe. He concentrated so hard on his breathing it was like fire. He really felt himself breathing, the air going into him and then coming out again. For a moment his vision went. It did not become blur or fade. It simply went and then it was back. The thing inside his head was pushing out, he could feel it pushing out. Tightness grew everywhere over his body. His hands reflexively left the handles and immediately grabbed them again.
“No, no,” Ary said.
It went on for some time. Then it went away.
“Very good,” the doctor said. “You handled it very well. Don’t move.”
“It hurts,” Ary said.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “But now it’s over and done with. I want you to close your eyes.”
Ary did so.
“Open your eyes,” the doctor said. She was holding a piece of paper with a long string of numbers and letters on it, right in front of Ary’s face. She waited several seconds and then said, “I want you to read this out.”
Ary did so. Immediately after he did so he felt something open up in his head. It felt as if something was echoing in his head. Something was different about what he was seeing.
“Ary. Do you see a little red square there, at the bottom right? Is it red?”
Ary did not understand. Then he saw something in his field of vision. It was just there. It was disembodied. He could not look directly at it but it was there.
“That red square indicates that Hynder is not activated. After tomorrow that should be green. Say ‘Point Test Confirm Link 1’, please.”
Ary did so and something that felt like YES flashed across his vision.
“Wow,” he said.
“It does a lot more. You’ll learn offworld. I’m going through some basic things now to ensure it’s gone in correctly. It’s not hurting anymore, I assume?”
There was a dull ache but that was it. “No,” Ary said.
“Let’s move on. Say ‘Point Test Confirm Link 2.’ You should see the red outline of a rectangle, dead centre of wherever you look.”
“I see it,” Ary said.
“I know”, the doctor said. “Now want you to picture something simple. No colours, just a black or white shape.”
After the tests were over Ary went back out and asked the man at the counter where the showers were. When he got to the showers he spent several minutes spitting into the sink and shaking his head. He had been told that his sense of taste might change for a while but he was not used to it. He looked at himself in the mirror. He was never used to the way he looked. He always found himself looking far too observant. He did not like the way he looked at himself.
He felt very alone now. There was no-one else around.
He went into the shower. The water was warm. He cried listlessly in the water. At least he sniffled a little, without knowing why. He thought it was easier to cry this way, when he was in the water. When he heard someone else come into the showers he instinctively turned his own showerhead off and listened. He realised what he was doing and he stood there feeling stupid again. He didn’t know anything and yet here he was. He stood in the water for a long time.
When he realised blood was pouring from the back of his neck he put the towel around himself and ran in a blind panic up to the counter, where a doctor promptly appeared and told him as he dripped that this was normal, this sometimes happened, it was nothing to worry about.
Later that evening Ary went to his home. Not the superbunk; he would go there soon enough. He thought the door would not open but his key still worked. He stood in the doorway and kicked mud off his shoes before he went in.
It was empty. The living room, what had always been called the living room, was still and quiet. The evening light made it look better than it actually was.
Ary boy stood there, lost. He had no idea why he was here. He did not know what he had to do. He went to the refrigerator and opened the freezer. He had been afraid that the power might have gone but it had not. He opened a cupboard and took out a glass from where it stood with two other glasses. He put some ice in the glass and brought it to the dining table. He put it there and he just watched it melt. The cubes cracked and then they slipped and collapsed into each other. A ring of condensation grew on the table. He sat in the chair and watched.
He went out of the house and came back a while later with a box. There were only two other rooms apart from the living room and kitchen and one of them was neater than the other. The boy went into the neat room and he started taking things and putting them into the box. He folded the clothes. The books he put at the very bottom. They were mother’s but he had read all of them. He was careful to stack them. There was a small container of medicines that he held for a while and then threw into the rubbish. While he was clearing up the things in the room he started crying again. He tried to feel angry at himself for this but it simply was not possible. Then he thought that since it was the last time he would indulge himself and not feel anything more after this.
He dragged the box out into the living room. He sat on the floor held it in his arms and he thought, this is what it’s all about, this is the reason we do this, any of it.
Outside people moved past, doing their daily things.
After a while Ary got up and got a drink from the tap, even though he had always been told that he was not supposed to. Then he left.
Hath came to the Medical Centre at 4, like she had said. She told the man at the counter that she was seeing Ary and he brought her to the waiting room. Hath was surprised at how many people were waiting there and for a moment she thought that Ary had not come after all. Then she saw him.
“If you did not come I was not going to go in,” he said.
“You should not go in,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
After a while the doctor came and called Ary to the room. Hath went with him and the doctor did not ask any questions. Ary thought as they walked into the room that both he and Hath shared something which was the common anticipation of pain and to Ary it seemed that that was world enough.