The pain hit Spinner everywhere at once when he came back online. He ran a quick diagnosis on what still worked in his system and winced. Or tried to. He was still losing blood through two major wounds in his thigh and upper torso, though it had been a while since the injuries had occurred. He couldn’t tell exactly how long because his internal clock had stopped working along with most of his enhancements. The newest implant was a bust. The last blast had fried it, paralyzing him. He couldn’t move from the neck down. He couldn’t connect to the command center either. That explained why he was still trapped underneath a pile of metal and mangled corpses instead of lying on a hospital bed. They probably thought he was dead.
He should have been. During today’s exercise, a platoon led by a telecharger had fought the new bot, a prototype that the army was proud of. This one was already considered a success, ready to stand up to the enemy’s army. Only the bots weren’t supposed to blow up that easily, not on the training field. It had taken away with it sixty men, plus one telecharger whose worth surpassed his weight in gold. Not good at all.
Despite his hazy brain, Spinner tried to remember everyone’s location just before the blast. Maybe he wasn’t the only one lucky enough to survive. Hard to tell since his visual sensors didn’t work properly.
“Rake … are you there?” His voice came out hoarse, but his jaw worked enough to produce the words.
A groan came from his left. “I wish I was dead.”
A relieved sigh escaped Spinner’s lips. Life wasn’t so bad if his best friend had survived.
“Any idea what happened?” he asked.
“Another screw up of our wonderful scientists.” Rake’s gruff voice was strained.
“What’s the status?”
“I think I broke my back. I can’t move,” Rake said.
Tough luck, but not unfixable. A month of rehabilitation would do. It meant they weren’t going to be shipped to the battlefield together this time around. Bummer.
“Any tingling?” Spinner asked.
“Yes…” Rake said.
“Me too. It’s not the back, it’s the implant.”
“Right … I can’t think straight. It keeps firing inside my brain.” Rake groaned again, possibly another failed attempt to extract himself from the pile of mangled bodies. “Can you move at all?”
“Then we’re stuck until the cleaning team gets here,” Rake said in an unhappy voice.
He hated not being in control of his body more than anything else. Spinner shared his feelings, but with a more moderate disgust. That was what all of the enhancements were for, to ensure their survival. And they had gotten them through several campaigns, more than most people still alive had ever survived. This was a disgrace.
“Twenty years in the service and this is what we get,” Rake said, “rotting under a pile of corpses. Do you know I’m turning forty this year? I think I’m ready for retirement.”
Spinner frowned, taken aback by the avalanche of words. Rake spoke little, and he never complained. That was Spinner’s department.
“We could apply for early retirement when we return to the base,” Spinner said. “I doubt it will get approved but…” He hesitated. This was going to sound like treason, but if anyone was still alive around them, they would have spoken by now. Truth be told, Spinner was fed up with fighting in this endless war, too. “If we survive the next charge, we can not report back and disappear from the field. If we leave our ID implants behind, they’ll write us off as died in action, and we’ll be free.”
Easier said than done. Surviving another charge couldn’t be taken for granted just because they had been lucky so far. Chances were at least one of them would die in the next fight. Well, there was nothing they could do at this point other than to wait.
“I’m going to reboot,” Rake said. “This noise inside my head is driving me nuts.”
Spinner sighed. He’d thought about doing it too, but the total lack of stimulus, even if only for a few seconds, was disorienting.
“Did you hear that?” Rake whispered.
“What?” Spinner instinctively lowered his voice.
“Someone’s … whistling.” Pause. “We’re not alone.”
Grimacing, Spinner did his own rebooting. All sensory input disappeared for an instant, leaving him hanging in a void, and when the system came back online, he heard the whistling and more. Someone moved across the training field, someone big.
He turned his head with great difficulty, and the intruder entered his vision field. Spinner’s enhanced retinas zoomed in on a big man, massive rather than fat, with a round, bald head, a skin disease, and an unusual complexion, but the light was too dim to figure out all of the details and what they meant.
The stranger advanced in no hurry between the fallen bodies and debris, stopping here and there to inspect things. Twice he kneeled and dug something out that he put in the bag hanging on his shoulder. Spinner’s insides twisted. Was he harvesting prosthetics? But how had he gotten into the training grounds? The security was tight. The world’s future depended on what they did in here.
Oblivious to the danger, the man walked slowly but heavily, so no enhancements. It would have made a difference if Spinner had been able to move, but the way it was, all he could do was watch while the man hovered around the place and eventually found his way to him until his large shadow loomed over Spinner.
“Interesting,” the man murmured when the device in his hand came to life.
Light flashed over his face, and Spinner could swear his complexion was green.
He took one step forward.
“If you lay a hand on him, I’ll kill you,” Rake said. His voice sounded menacing even when he didn’t want it to be.
“Oh, another one … Is your friend conscious too?” the man asked.
Since he had nothing to lose, Spinner said, “Yes.”
“Hmm.” The man tapped his thick fingers against his chin. “This is unfortunate…”
“Why so?” Spinner asked.
“I came here to see if I could salvage a few prosthetics, but I expected everyone to be dead. I didn’t come prepared … I’m afraid this is going to hurt.”
Did he mean he still intended on stealing their prosthetics despite them being fully conscious? What kind of cruelty was that? This wasn’t some war torn, abandoned country. This was Berlin, the middle of civilization.
The man was speaking again. “That’s a nasty cut.” He nodded at Spinner’s thigh. “Do you mind if I close it for you? I have a strong aversion towards wasted potential.”
“Are you a doctor?” Spinner asked.
“No, but I’m familiar with the way the human body works. And I just happen to have everything I need in here.” He patted the bag by his side.
“Hey—” Rake said.
“It’s all right. He can’t make it much worse … I think.” Spinner added as an afterthought.
“That is correct.” The man dropped the bag on the ground and rummaged through it.
The pain in Spinner’s thigh increased, so he must have found what he needed. Spinner couldn’t see because his upper body was twisted to the left, his middle trapped under contorted metal parts.
“May I ask you a question?” the man said.
“Shoot,” Spinner said between gritted teeth. He was out of luck as the ad-hoc doctor wasn’t using any anesthetic.
“Your prosthetics are different from the others I found here.” He nodded back at the bodies. “And since your colleague is the only other survivor beside you, I assume so are his. Why is that?”
“We … fiddle with them. Tweak them,” Spinner said. “Been doing it for years.” The army technicians had stopped checking them because they deviated too much from the current standards, but that was exactly what had saved their lives so many times.
“You know how to work with prosthetics?” The man sounded surprised.
“Yeah, we both do … there’s a lot of dead time when in the army, and we filled it with studying stuff that can be useful on the battlefield.”
“Spinner—” The warning in Rake’s voice was hard to miss.
“Oh, shush. Who is he going to tell?” Spinner asked with disdain.
“I assure you I have no interest in exposing you,” the man said. “I have a few secrets of my own.” He grinned in the pale light of the flashlight, showing a set of sturdy, yellow teeth. “Actually—” he moved to dress the chest wound without asking for permission, “—I could use men with your skills. If you ever decide to drop the war business, I have a job for you.”
“Are you a factory owner or something?” Rake asked.
“Something like that.” He smirked at himself. “You can find me at The Nightingale Circus day and night … well, except for the times when I’m haunting deserted battlefields, looking for spare parts.”
Spinner winced. That’s what they were, spare parts. “Who should we ask for?”
“Big Dino. I’m the owner.” Big Dino put his tools away and turned in Rake’s direction. “Do you need any help?”
“Rake?” Spinner asked when his friend didn’t answer.
“I’m thinking … Do you have any experience with brain surgery?” Rake asked.
Big Dino bounced on the balls of his feet. “I might … What do you have in mind?”
“We have a faulty implant that’s keeping us paralyzed,” Rake said. “It needs to be removed.”
“Here?” Big Dino made an incredulous face and looked around at the messy field.
“All you need is a scalpel and a pair of tweezers. We can coach you.”
“I don’t know about that…” Spinner said.
Big Dino had tended to his injuries with confident hands, like someone who had done this sort of thing before and didn’t need to stop and think about it, but to let him dig into his brain…
“Like you said, how much worse could he make it?” Rake said with a tinge of irony in his voice. “But you’ll have to do it on Spinner first,” he told Big Dino. “I’m lying on my back, and I’m too heavy for you to turn me over. You don’t have any enhancements, do you?”
“How did you know?” Big Dino’s thick fingers slipped around Spinner’s head.
“Most people who work in the business don’t use prosthetics themselves,” Rake said. “Now, you’ll find a scar on the back of his head, right above the cerebellum. Cut along it, peel the skin away, and remove the metal plate underneath. You need to extract the third module from the right. Do not touch anything else.”
The scalpel pressed against Spinner’s skin, and he let out a hiss. No matter how many times the procedure was done, it still hurt. The world blurred around him, and he lost track of Rake’s instructions for a while. Conflicting orders fired inside his brain, confusing his system. When his vision momentarily blackened, instinct took over, and he pushed away the metal above him and rolled on all fours, remaining in a defensive stance.
Big Dino froze with his hand raised, still holding the faulty module with the tweezers.
“You alright?” Rake asked.
“Yes—” Spinner drew in a satisfying breath, “—I’m fine.” With the interference gone, the pain caused by various injuries became the central focus in his brain, but at least he could move again.
He crawled up to Rake and tossed aside the body lying on top of him. “Hello, handsome!” He grinned into his friend’s blood-streaked face. The explosion had hit them from the front, leaving its mark on their faces, arms, chests, and shoulders.
Rake growled, and Spinner hurried to roll him onto the side. Without enhancements, Big Dino would have never been able to maneuver his over half a ton weight.
“Scalpel.” Spinner held out his hand.
Big Dino placed the scalpel in his open palm.
Big Dino handed him the tweezers, muttering something unintelligible under his breath, obviously not used to playing the role of a nurse.
The instant Spinner unplugged the module, Rake rolled onto his knees and stood up, only to stumble because his left leg had been so badly injured the bone was visible. He scanned his surroundings and zeroed in on their savior’s bag.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Rake asked over his shoulder while he inspected its contents.
Big Dino took one look at Rake’s bulky frame that came close to matching his height even while on his knees and shook his head, grinning. “By all means, help yourself.”
After some digging, Rake found a twenty-centimeter-long screwdriver. He held it with both hands in front of him and shoved it in the right side of his chest, grunting.
“What-what are you doing?” Spinner asked, puzzled. One extra chest wound was the last thing either of them needed, but he made no attempt to stop him. Once Rake set his mind to something, he couldn’t be stopped.
“I’m handling in my resignation.” Rake pressed harder and turned the screwdriver, his features twisted in concentration. “I didn’t sign up for this shit. I wanted to protect people, not be killed by our own.” He turned the screwdriver again, and when he removed it, it came out with a small tracker, still covered in blood, attached to its end. “There.” He smashed the device under his boot and left it there. “We can remove the other parts that can be tracked later on. Are you coming?” he asked when Spinner didn’t move.
“Uhh … yeah … now?” Spinner stammered. He wanted to leave now? Of course, it was doable but … Damn, he was going to miss some of the implants they would have to get rid of. He’d been living with them for half of his life.
Sighing, he took the screwdriver from Rake.
“Fascinating.” Big Dino clasped his hands. “I’ve never seen someone performing the procedure on himself.”
“We have an elevated pain threshold,” Rake said.
It didn’t stop Spinner from grunting when he pulled out the tracker. “Done.”
“I may have something for you to cover that.” Big Dino nodded at the puncture in Rake’s chest and retrieved a spray can from the bag.
Rake sniffed its contents and sprayed a generous amount on his chest then handed the can over to Spinner.
“It itches,” Spinner said, resisting the urge to scratch after he sprayed his chest.
“Yeah, well … we don’t sell it, and it does the job.” Big Dino shrugged.
Now what? Spinner looked at Rake. They had some money put aside since the army provided them with everything they needed during the service, but they couldn’t access it any longer, not if they wanted to disappear. So, they would have to start from scratch. A wave of nausea washed over him, and Spinner swayed on his feet. He felt too old to start a new life.
“You said something about a job earlier.” Rake pulled on his tattered clothes. If he pulled any harder, there’d be nothing left of them.
Big Dino eyed both of them pensively before answering. “Yes. The offer still stands if you’re interested.”
“What does it entail?” Rake asked.
“I’ve got a workshop in the train we use to carry the circus around, and we fix prosthetics for the locals when we travel across the continent,” Big Dino said. “My assistants are doing all right with the tasks I give them, but they’re not truly gifted in this field. I could use some help from people with a good understanding of the technical side of the business and who can come up with new ideas. I do like experimenting myself quite a bit.” He smirked. “And there’s good money in it.”
Money wasn’t an issue. But their security was. After all, they were fugitives.
“Where does the circus travel?” Spinner asked.
“All over Europe and part of Asia, too,” Big Dino said. “We don’t stay long in one place. It’s the best way to keep my crew safe. But you will need an act. Everybody has one.”
“We would work in the shop,” Spinner said. “Why do we need an act? Can’t we handle the security instead?”
“Sure, you can help with that, too.” Big Dino nodded. “But if you want to try something new for a change, now’s your chance.” His voice became alluring.
“I don’t know what we could—” Spinner muttered.
Rake held out his hand, and the screwdriver flew out of the bag and into his hand.
Show off. Spinner rolled his eyes. “And there’s that…”
“Nice.” Big Dino grinned, his eyes gleaming with interest. He took Spinner’s hand in his to palpate his wrist. His skin was rough and cool to the touch. “Magnetic fields, right? I can work with this. How do you feel about knives?”
Spinner shrugged. He hadn’t used any since his troubled youth, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t work it out. His reflexes were good, and where they were lacking, the magnetic fields would make up for it.
“The scars would have to stay then,” Big Dino said. “I mean we’ll heal the burns, but keep cosmeticized scars. It looks more realistic this way.”
This time, Rake shrugged. He had to be the one person in the whole world who couldn’t care less about his appearance.
“Very well … follow me, boys.” Big Dino waved his hand at them. “There’s someone charming the guards for us outside, and she doesn’t like to wait.”
Spinner chuckled. He hadn’t been called boy in a long time.
This short story was first published in the collection The Nightingale Circus.