The humidity clung to me like a desperate lover, unable to leave when the relationship was over. The eaves dripped steadily. I stood, waiting, not knowing what I was doing here exactly. Sure, I was invited, but what use the NCORPS could have for a lowly midtech like me, I had no idea. Granted, I was one of the few midtechs allowed the use of cybernetics, but I fought for that.
So, at the request of NCORPS 3rd Division Commander, 2nd Colonel Jefferson McKeeghan, I stood on the sweating asphalt at 0500 in the morning. Waiting.
The footsteps warned me ahead of time. I stood at my version of parade rest, hands clasped at the small of my back, feet apart, which was unlike the one they taught new recruits at general training. A double strand came around the corner and headed straight for me. I didn't know whether to be relieved or insulted. He saluted me, palm out, acknowledging me as a higher rank. I returned the salute, palm in, because I was a superior tech. I noticed he was shaking a little with nervousness. I remembered how hard it was for me to remember the subtleties of hand signals in the NCORPS.
"It's all right, kid," I said quietly. "You did fine."
He relaxed visibly, with a small sigh of relief, and with good reason, too! Lesser rank than I were known to punish immediately for the slightest infraction in the saluting protocol.
"Ma'am, I'm 2nd Lowtech Anders. If you will follow me?" I nodded, and he turned and led me around the building. The tarmac was visible from here, and I could see several R-3 Griffons and one beautiful B-7 Phoenix. Crews swarmed over the aircraft, prepping them for flight. The B-7 was almost twice the size of the R-3, but the R-3 had almost the same wingspan. I loved the Phoenix though. It was my favorite plane. I snapped out of my thought pattern and turned my attention back to the 2LT. He was holding the door open for me, patiently.
"Ma'am?" he said, and I realized I'd been staring at him for almost a minute. I shook my head sharply. Must be the humidity. I walked past him into the blessedly cool corridor. The door closed behind us and the magnetic lock snapped into place. 2LT Anders walked past me and led me to a security check.
"Greetings," said the computer. I chuckled, because even in this high technological age, the computer's speech was invariably the calm, feminine voice made famous by Star Trek. "Welcome to Katharté Air Base. Please prepare for identity scan."
I stood in front of the computer's "eye". A flat beam of blue light shot out and scanned me from top to bottom.
"State full name, rank, identity code, and security code," said the computer.
"Llewellyn, Gabriel Athena, 1st Midtech, B559389, C-6," I recited.
The screen next to the computer lit up with my body scan. The cybernetics in my left leg and arm, as well as the left side of my face, glowed red, while the rest of my body showed green.
"State serial code of class 1 cybernetic, infrastructure 3."
"Serial code 359110ZRAM37."
"Identity confirmed." The computer screen went blank. I turned to my guide. He was pressed back against the wall, trying not to gape.
"Yeah," I said coldly. "I've got class 1. Come on. You've been doing fine, don't fuck up now."
He immediately snapped to attention, and led on. It is considered rude to ask a person how he or she acquired their cybernetics, especially when a person like me is involved. I should've only been allowed class 5, with upgrades upon promotion, but I have connections, and I deserved it, after what I did. They gave me the choice of rank or cybers, and I chose cybers. It would cost more to rank me than to outfit me, so they were agreeable. That is, until I said that I wanted the best that was available. They gritted their collective teeth and agreed. Their loss, my gain.
We stepped into an elevator, and he pushed sub-level 17. 17?? Wow. This base had expanded since I was here last. The doors slid quietly closed.
"Ma'am?" He was tentative, hesitating.
"Hmmm?" I turned to face him.
"What's it like, having cybers?" I knew it. The question always came. I tried not to get upset, he couldn't know any better.
"It's a blessing and a curse. Sure, I've got some things better than a reg. But a reg doesn't have to go to a cyberop for tune-ups once a month. You know those planes out there? The Phoenix?" He nodded. "Well, to the cyberop techs I'm just like one of those planes. Only I can be scolded, too."
"Oh," he said. He was silent for a moment. I could almost hear him thinking.
"But," he started, but the chime of the elevator stopped him. Saved by the bell.
He stepped out and I followed him. The air was a little stale, with that peculiar recycled smell so common to sub-level bases. I always hated it, it dried me out. He led me through a small maze of corridors that looked identical. We stopped by a door that looked like all the others. Here he placed his hand on a palm reader. The door clicked open, and we went in.
I was immediately confronted by a 2nd Hightech, hand outstretched.
"Midtech Llewellyn!" he exclaimed, as I shook his proffered hand. "I'm so glad to see you!"
"Anything to get paid more," I said, and he smiled uncertainly, unable to decide whether I was being insulting or amusing.
"I'm 2nd Hightech Giles. 1st Captain Howell said you'd be interested."
"Oh, did he?" I said. Captain Howell had been a partner of mine, a while back. He asked for a transfer after I got my cybers authorized. Thought that techs shouldn't be allowed cybers, only officers. Prick. I wondered what he was up to, if he'd been talking about me in a 'nice' way. I didn't trust him, or his motives.
I turned my attention back to 2HT, who was gesturing around the room. "...and this is where it all takes place," he said, concluding a statement I hadn't heard.
"So, why exactly am I here?" I asked, looking around at all the displays of data.
"We need you to fly a plane."
"What?!" I exclaimed. "I'm no pilot!"
"I know, but we have a new aircraft. It's somewhat experimental. We needed someone who didn't have any piloting experience so we could see if the plane would do what it was supposed to. Howell said you always wanted to fly," he said.
"Huh," I sniffed, "Experimental, huh? What's the catch?"
He hesitated, then said, "We'll need to give you new cybers. Cerebral implants."
"No way!" I hissed. "No way is someone messing with my head. Uh-huh!"
"The procedure is very easy," he said soothingly, like a salesman. "There's no open surgery involved."
"What? How?" All the cybers I knew of had to be installed by hand.
"The chips involved are so small we just use nanites to take care of the installation. They also perform the upkeep of the circuitry," he explained.
"Oh," I said. "What else is involved?"
"Well, because the plane itself is experimental, your security clearance will have to be upgraded."
"Oh?" I said, "to what?"
"K-5." he responded.
"WHAT? That's almost the highest..." I shook my head. "No way. People with K-5 get knocked off a lot."
"What would it take to convince you to accept?" he asked.
"You'd have to meet some conditions of my own," I said, standing firm.
"All right," he said, looking exasperated. "What are they?"
"First," I said, "I get upgraded in pay, too. Plus I want a guarantee that I'll get whatever upgrades there are for my existing cybers. And those nanites had better be programmed to upkeep my entire system, not just my head." I stopped, and waited for the haggling to begin.
"Done," he said, and my mouth gaped open. "Anything else?"
My mouth snapped shut, and then I said, "Yeah. Breakfast. I'm starved."
"No problem," he said, and motioned me to stand before the "eye." "Computer, upgrade Llewellyn, authorization code 765TangoZulu1."
"Authorization code confirmed," said the computer. "Proceed."
"Upgrade to pay, 3 marks," he said. I started at this statement, because that put me at one rank below himself! "Upgrade to clearance, K-5 authorized."
"Upgrading," said the computer. "Upgrade complete. All necessary record changes made."
He turned back to me. "If you will follow me, please?"
"Now I'll take you to see the plane. After that we'll do your cybers." I suppressed a shiver at that statement. I didn't want to think about the upcoming nanite insertion.
He led me through so many corridors that I was lost within minutes. Finally, he opened a door, and we were in the hangar. It was huge, with a large NCORPS flag hanging from the ceiling at one end. Then I saw the plane.
The plane seemed too big to fit the hangar. It was beautiful. Painted black and dark milky blue, it seemed obviously meant for night flying. It had variable geometry wings that were currently swept gracefully back along the fuselage. Overall the aircraft reminded me of an old plane I'd seen in a museum once, a Lancer...or was it the Blackjack? It was much larger, though. Even in this day and age, it seemed too big to be able to fly. One other thing I noticed, though, worried me. There didn't appear to be any weapons. It was an impressive plane, but I really couldn't see what the big deal was.
"Okay, it's a new stealth or something," I said. "What's the deal? Why all the secrecy?"
"1st HighTech Lewellyn, I'd like you to meet Gavyn."
"Gavyn, huh? What's it mean?" I asked.
"Doesn't mean anything. It's the name."
"Just a name?" I said. "No number? No designation?"
"Nope," said Giles. "Just Gavyn."
"It's beautiful," I said, again admiring the sleek aerodynamics.
"Huh? What do you mean, 'he'?" I asked, walking up to the ladder and climbing it. I leaned into the cockpit. Weird!
"Hey! What's with the instrumentation?" I called back to Giles.
"Gavyn is....special," he said.
I laid my hand on the instrument panel, which looked nothing like I'd ever seen. A faint electrical tingle flowed through my fingers. "How do you mean?" I asked.
"Through your new cybers, you will be able to fly Gavyn mentally. The manual controls are there just in case," Giles replied.
"Comforting," I said, trying real hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. I jumped back onto the ground. Suddenly I felt very eager to fly. "Well, let's get started then!"
I followed 2HT Giles out of the hangar and through another maze of corridors. We finally entered a cyberop room, where I was immediately prepped for insertion. I got a shot of some drug or other, to calm me down, and I was laid back on a table. A vacuum-sealed tube containing the sterilized component parts of my new cybers was placed next to my neck. I shuddered at the amount of stuff it held. All that's going in my brain, I thought dismally. An injector collar was placed around my neck, and the tube was attached to it. A final shot, and I was floating away on midnight blue clouds in a black sky.
I came to in a plush bed, my hands behind my head. My mouth tasted terrible. I looked around in vain for a glass of water. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. For a minute I couldn't remember what I was doing, or where I was. Suddenly, it all came back, on a flood of nanite enhanced brain activity.
I knew the serial numbers of my new cybers. I knew my new abilities. And I knew Gavyn. All the information concerning the experimental aircraft had been downloaded into my new chips. Wonderful. I felt the excitement building. I'd never actually flown a plane before, but I already knew how to do it.
2HT Giles came into the room, carrying a tray of food. He set it down on my lap with a grin, then left. I had just finished eating when he returned carrying a brand new flight suit. It was midnight blue, the same color as my drug-induced clouds. How ironic. I took it and went into the bathroom to change. My new cybers seemed to be acting fine, and my old ones were already acting smoother due to the nanites. A few minutes of briefing later and we were heading out to the tarmac, where Gavyn was waiting.
"Just remember what I said," said Giles. "Don't over exert yourself."
I rolled my eyes at him in response, and turned to Gavyn. I still couldn't figure out how this thing could fly. I climbed the ladder and slid into the cockpit. Before I closed the canopy, I called back down to 2HT Giles. "Hey! How many flights has this thing been through?"
"None!" came the response.
"None!! What the hell..." I bit off the rest of the sentence. I was too eager to just GO! already. The canopy closed, and I settled into my new machine. It seemed like it was built for me, I fit so comfortably in the seat. The ladder was pulled away, and I was left alone in this magnificent aircraft. I mentally linked myself into the plane, and current status was instantly relayed to me. Fuel, engines, everything. Especially the fact that I wasn't airborne yet. I grinned and mentally "turned the key" and the engines roared to life. It was the best sound I think I'd ever heard. As they cycled up to speed, I fancied I could hear the air being sucked through the intakes. My radio crackled to life, startling me. Brother...all this and they couldn't even do a mental link to the tower.
"Looks good from up here. You can take him up any time."
I smiled. I thought about getting to the end of the runway, and the plane moved. It was great. I sat on the runway for a minute. A final instrumentation check, and a mental prayer, and I was set.
I took a deep breath and blew it out. "Okay, Gavyn. Let's go." The engines roared, and we began moving forward. Before me stretched the runway, and beyond that, the open sky.