Ennay awoke every day at precisely 0500, not a second before or later. He hated trusting his sleep schedule to the computers in his head, but experience had taught him that if he didn’t, he would spend the extra hours in the nightmares that had plagued him ever since The New People’s Republic had hacked his brain. Or rather, ever since those fascist fucks had been beaten by The Democratic Confederalist Alliance, and he’d been in charge of his own mind again.
The doctors told him that if he just let the hormone dispensers in his body do their work, he would have been free of the nightmares years ago. The shrinks told him, though they phrased it more gently, that there was no reason to keep being such a pussy about that. They didn’t get it. But how could they?
They hadn't spent five years without control over even their own thoughts; they couldn't see that what the implants did was the literal stuff of nightmares. Even now, he wasn’t totally free of the programming, and he likely never could be. The modifications he had were illegal to install in pretty much the entire world. Any one of the procedures he went through could have killed him like they had killed hundreds of the other soldiers the NPR tried to make into demigods. The fact that he was still alive after everything they had put into him was a miracle of modern science.
Or whatever the opposite of a miracle is.
Ennay wanted to be anything other than the war machine they had turned him into. Much of his brain was merged with the computers they’d put in it, none of his organs were stock, his skin could photosynthesize, his bones had been replaced with some kind of fancy synthetic metal, and the self-repair nanomachines meant that he could walk off being blasted apart by a drone strike as if it were a paper cut. It would take time, they would have to grow a whole new Ennay, but even if the nanites provided a closer-to-birth-human body, he would still be Ennay.
They called it, "continuity."
Still, when he'd been freed from the NPR and tried to reassert his own identity, his computer-enhanced brain continually spat back one thing over and over with regards to his name: "N/A." The therapists kept trying to tell him his given name, but all he could hear was radio static, a lingering consequence of the self-erasure in the programming. So Ennay accepted it, made it his own.
He was one of the luckier ones. A few of his fellow “soldiers” had their names replaced with racial or sexual slurs. For obvious reasons, they worked harder to undo that damage, even to the point of undergoing further neurosurgery, but Ennay didn’t think he could ever go back to being the person he had been before. And so, a new name made sense.
The DCA offered him a job with the militia. Of course they had. They needed people to maintain this new peace, to help them find holdout supporters who had committed the sort of atrocities that had been inflicted on him, and Ennay was filled with so much military grade biotech that he could probably do the job entirely by himself. Instead, he took work in one of the community gardens, where the new government of ‘West Kamikaw’ needed volunteers to build up safety nets left in ruins by civil strife and war machine mismanagement. It didn’t make up for the way he had hurt people, but it was quiet, and he could at least feel like he was creating life instead of taking it. Plus, he was good at it. Not as good as he had been at murdering, but he hadn't been built and programmed for gardening. The computers in his brain he couldn’t turn off could at least be turned to constructive use, telling him everything about the plants: how much glucose they needed, if they were getting too little or too much sun, soil acidity levels, air and ground humidity. It was nice.
Eventually, they’d stopped making him go to therapy, and they’d stopped trying to recruit him into the army. For a while at least. So it was frustrating when, after years without being bothered, a man with short, cropped dark hair in a DCA military uniform approached Ennay in the garden as his shift was ending.
Ennay greeted the man in his deepest tone, not bothering to hide his annoyance.
Even more irritating, the man ignored this.
“Son, my name is Renny, and you want to listen to me. I’m about to offer you a chance to do some real good.” There was something unsettling in his voice and tone, but none of Ennay’s enhanced senses picked up anything in this man that would have made him remotely a threat. He didn’t even have a gun on him.
“I thought I’d made it clear, I’m not gonna sign up to kill for you.”
“No killing, I promise, I got plenty of killers." Renny shook his head. "Hear me out. There’s a lot of folks still suffering the way you suffered. You can stop them suffering, son.”
Ennay sniffed the air. The man wasn’t lying. Ennay raised an eyebrow. He was interested in that at least, but for the conversation to continue he needed to get one thing clear. His eyes shifted to red to emphasize the seriousness of his demand.
“Stop calling me son.”
Renny nodded. “You got it. Look, you listen to me for 10 minutes, say yes or no, and I’ll get out of your hair.”
Ennay sighed, standing up and dusting off his hands. He left the trowel he'd been using on the ground, ignoring the parts of his programming that told him seven ways he could use the implement to efficiently end the man's life. “Fine, but you’re paying for the drinks”.
“But of course.” Renny held out a hand to shake. Ennay ignored it.
The two of them crossed the street in silence to a small bar, where Renny guided Ennay to a table. Another, older man, also with clear military bearing despite being slightly out of shape, waited for them. Ennay's enhanced senses could pick up traces of the dull metallic scent that marked his skin out as being fused with a mesh, meant to help absorb bullets and prevent damage moving through dangerous terrain. It worked well enough as long as you were dealing with small-arms fire, but Ennay remembered seeing a few too many of his friends blown to bits fighting fascists because they’d assumed the mesh made them completely invulnerable. Not everyone had the nanotech upgrades that Ennay did.
Renny introduced the man as they took their seats. “This is General Pratchet, he works for the DCA, doing all the sorts of things that need doing.”
Pratchet started right in, all business. “How much do you know about Febos?” The general’s voice was synthetic; to normal ears, it probably would have passed for stock, but Ennay could make out the way the devices in the general’s throat worked to allow him to speak, and could see the slight movements under the skin where the implants gently adjusted his muscles to make the proper sounds. Ennay guessed he’d been shot there at some point, probably in an assassination attempt
“Nothing,” Ennay shrugged. If he hadn’t turned off all of his remote connections, he could have just scanned the net, and downloaded everything he would ever need to know about Febos directly into his brain, but he had them disabled for a reason.
The general took a long drink before launching into his explanation. "Febos is basically just a city with some nature preserves and farms around it. Doesn't even have a state, not like anything we'd recognize. No central government, no president or prime minister or monarch, they don't even really care about borders except to... well, they say it's to keep us happy, their neighbours, so we don't have Febosans just wandering into our territory. Of course, they're not alone, lots of places use that sort of model for now, but Febos is different. There's an underclass of slaves there. They traffic in humanity. Oh, sure, every investigator sent in," Pratchet's tone was very clear on his low opinion of government investigators, "says that, far as they can tell, everything is fine, there's no evidence of slavetech being used on non-consenting humans outside of their justice system, that there's no evidence of corruption in their ‘restorative justice’ programs. They claim—with the support of international observers, mind—that every slave has agreed to and enjoyed the process.
"But you know, son," the general continued, and Ennay bristled at the diminutive, "you know better than anyone that agreeing to have a computer in your head doesn't mean consenting to every damn thing someone wants to do with you once it's in there."
Thanks to the chips in his head, Ennay had gleefully enjoyed murder in the name of a bunch of white supremacists. His pleasure didn't make it right at the time, and his happiness then didn't suppress his guilt now.
“And we’ve been doing okay," Pratchet said. "We're getting one or two people freed at a time. But," the general paused to take a drink before fixing Ennay with a straight look, "with the gear you got in you, you could make a real difference in this fight. The pay's shit, son, and you would technically be a terrorist. You get caught, the government will disavow your very existence. You're working on your own, except when you're on home soil. But the work is good. You would be freeing these people. Wretched of the earth, given a second chance.”
Ennay paused to process that information. It would mean returning to active duty, even if unofficially, but this was active duty that would be helping people. Freeing people. People like him, who'd been pressured, manipulated into upgrades they didn't need to make them into people they didn't want to be. Silence hung over the table for a moment, before Ennay made his decision.
“Alright… I’m in.”
They drove him to the desert a few days later. It felt like the middle of nowhere. Maybe it was.
Even with his enhanced sight , Ennay only saw the one building, which he presumed must have been their destination. It was a pretty big structure, four brick walls, a tin roof... From above, from a drone, it would probably look like an abandoned garage, the sort of which dotted the desert after the fascist state fell
"This is where the magic happens," Renny yelled over the sound of their uncovered truck, He didn't need to, Ennay could have picked out a whisper. “Since what we’re doing is technically kidnapping of a foreign nation, a violation of international law, this place is as off the grid as we could make it. It’s a total deadzone here.” Ennay was surprised to find out that Renny was right; even with his tech, Ennay was unable to detect any sort of radio or hi-fidelity wireless signal.
A few armed guards standing about outside saluted the truck, and specifically Renny, as they pulled up. The garage door opened just enough to let the truck inside; if it wasn't for his implants perfectly describing his bodily position to himself, Ennay would have felt the need to duck. At the back of the warehouse, confirming its former ownership, was a painting of a stylized red eagle, faded with age and neglect. At the sight—
he was in what used to be a sports arena, the same red eagle sigil was emblazoned on every wall of the building. his brain was surging. They’d set up a series of barriers between him and a young man, with his arms cuffed behind his back. The kid was sobbing, begging, but he felt nothing. A shock in the back of his brain told him to kill the boy. He ran through the barriers. Brick, and metal and razor wire cut into him, but he didn’t feel it at all, smashing through everything in his path as if it were open air. For an instant, he saw the kid’s face, and his brain flashed him all sorts of data. Name: Rodger Young, Age: 21, Height, 152cm, Born: New Tenoch. Rodger’s medical history, family relations, known associations, aliases, everything flashed through the computer and into his brain. An instant later, the kid didn’t have a head. The chip rewarded him for obeying. he felt the most incredible high of his life. He ejaculated all over the inside of his pants.
Ennay shook himself out of the flashback.
“The fuck is this place?” he asked, trying not to look at the eagle.
There was a sort of pride in Renny’s voice, “This place used to be a training camp, and weapons testing ground. Get the militias all caught up on any new toys. It was abandoned as the NPR was preparing to turn it into a staging area for forward operations. Since they were stopped before invasions could begin, their half-finished mods made it perfect for us to step in and get this little operation going”.
Ennay took in everything within the space, carefully not looking at the far wall. A field hospital, complete with a sterile surgical room, a row of roughly a dozen hospital beds, with decent enough equipment, took up the largest portion of the building. The rest was mainly a small armory. A few old civilian trucks were parked here and there. It was cramped, but not so much that everyone was standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Renny led him over to a table, it’s digital display showing a map of the border.
“It’s not that complicated," he said. "You get in, you get the slaves, you bring them back here. After that, your part is done. The medical suite is set up so we can deprogram them. You wanna do it again, great. If it turns out the job’s not for you, you go back to your flowers.”
Ennay nodded. “What happens to them after you deprogram them?” he asked, more from idle curiosity than anything.
“Once they’re adjusted, we get them to the refugee office, and we help them rebuild their lives.”
Ennay’s senses flagged that statement as a possible lie. They said they'd help him rebuild his life, too, which they agreed to do so long as he would fit into the life they'd build for him. The minute he wanted to go his own way, the trouble began. Renny's statement was, best case, an oversimplification. Or perhaps Renny didn't actually know and was just telling Ennay what he was told to pass on.
"Alright," Ennay said, dismissing his concerns. "What's next?"
Renny walked over to a shelf and grabbed a thick disk about the size of a wallet. "Gearing up," he explained. "This is a suppressor. Locks up a vehicle when it's stuck to it, and emits a controlled sedation field inside. Every occupant in instant slumber, like that." He snapped his fingers for emphasis. "Should be easy to bring even the most indoctrinated slaves back without a fight."
He led Ennay to an old, beat-up truck. It looked completely unmodified and may even have predated the NPR. "This'll be your vehicle. Not traceable to us in any way. You're on your way to the west coast." There was a trailer attached with some simple supplies, a bed, and a small entertainment system.
“Nah, I don’t need that shit,” Ennay said. "I can go on foot."
“Take it anyways, it helps with the cover story." Renny smiled. "You were frontline, not intelligence, trust us on this one." He put a hand on Ennay's shoulder. "Before you mount up, there's one last thing."
A frail man in a lab coat hurried over, wheezing a bit as he arrived. Ennay’s sensors told him the man was a heavy smoker, and was on at least his second set of lungs. He held up a claw-like device.
"Fake ID implant," the tech explained.
Without a word, Ennay held out his hand and felt the claw pierce his skin. It was painless even for someone without all his modifications.
"Is that it?" he asked as the medic wandered off.
Renny nodded. "You can get on your way whenever you like. Good luck."
"I'll be back," Ennay replied. Luck is one more thing I don't need, he thought to himself.
It took hours to actually drive to the border, and Ennay almost found himself missing the net and its infinite distraction as he stared around at the old growth that lined the roads. He could see more than most drivers could: animals in the underbrush, insects crawling in the scrub as he zoomed by, but it didn’t make it any more interesting. He set the truck's autopilot and searched the messy cab for something to eat.
It sure looked like he'd been traveling for days.
He found a single serving box of some sugary cereal, only expired by a couple weeks, and decided that was as good as anything else. He didn’t, strictly speaking, need to eat, but it was an enjoyable experience, the taste of dehydrated marshmallows and crispy rice puffs. Ennay knew how easily this simple, enjoyable experience could be taken away from him. He savored every single piece.
The border, such as it was, could hardly be considered to be guarded. Febos considered itself to be open to anyone who wanted to come, and anyone who lived there (other than the slaves, obviously, but they left that part out) was just as free to go anywhere that would take them, so the work of making sure that humans weren’t being smuggled into the territory fell to Febos' neighbours, like the DCA forces in the new West Kamikaw.
The single guard was middle aged, and didn’t seem to care for much in the way of rejuvenation treatments. Ennay could smell boredom coming off of him. This wasn’t anything like the sort of militia checkpoint he was familiar with. Still, as he came closer, and drove to the sheltered area that protected the guard from the weather Ennay could detect the stealth scanners checking him and his truck. Basic level. It would take a much more serious effort to detect any of the tech he had hiding inside him.
“Identification please.” Ennay held out his hand to the guard, who reached out with a small scanner. There was a blip, and the guard checked the scanner screen.“Abraham Johnson, that’s you?”
They continued through the routine questions. Date of birth, place of birth, any implants to declare, do you claim any citizenship by birthright or choice. All the information that he'd spent a couple hours going over to keep himself occupied during the drive.
“Duration of your stay in Febos?”
Ennay shrugged. “Eh, just as long as it takes me to pass through, maybe stop and get a bite to eat. I'm headed all the way to the west coast,” Ennay lied easily, “Hoping to get a job with environmental management.”
The guard smiled approvingly. “Another treehugger, huh? Good on you!” He waved Ennay on.
It didn’t take much longer to reach the actual city of Febos itself. The old growth gave way to more carefully tended nature, disturbed only as much as was absolutely required to accommodate human needs. He set his mind to the mission. If things went wrong, he would need an escape route. The computers started mapping out a path through the wood, and Ennay divided his attention between what they were telling him, and the skyline of Febos getting ever closer. The farm towers, and solar collectors made it stand out from the familiar sights of West Kamikaw. The sort of infrastructure that took decades to establish, and that had been entirely allowed to crumble by the NPR, in favor of war machines like him. The slavers lived well.
Once he was in the city, he found a parking lot to abandon the truck in, and wandered deeper into town. It took all the self-control he had not to start murdering half the people in sight. Humans led around on collars like animals, he could smell the hormone cocktails being fed to the enslaved people as they obediently complied with their own humiliation. At one point during his aimless wandering, he walked by an ice cream cart that was being staffed by a woman dressed entirely in cowprint, with massive biomodified breasts, asking if he was "In the Moooood for a free sample?" It made him sick to his stomach, and if he had been capable of it, he probably would have vomited.
The slaves had their own transit system, separate from their owners'. Keep them out of sight when you aren’t using them, Ennay thought, a good way to not think about what you’re doing to people. But it also served his plan. It was a good way to find an isolated group of slaves, away from anyone who might try to prevent their rescue. He walked to a convenient bus stop, used it’s terminal to tell the transit system he was a slave that needed a ride, and sat to wait. Twenty minutes later, a bus arrived, and he climbed on board. There was no driver, the vehicle was completely automated. Ennay was instead greeted by a calming blue screen, reading, State your destination.
“Maid Café,” he said, and the screen displayed a green checkmark, confirming it had been heard, and indicated Ennay should take a seat.
Ennay walked to the very back of the vehicle. While the computers in his head took in all the information about the other passengers, Ennay focused on one thought: Don’t worry, I’ll get you all free soon.
He waited until the bus turned onto a side road where it was less likely to be seen. He reached into his pocket, pressed the button on the suppressor, the only piece of equipment he'd taken from his truck, and dropped it surreptitiously onto the ground. As it was falling, he directed the computers in his brain to hack into the bus and the interconnected transit system. Before the suppressor connected with the metal flooring, Ennay had total control of the bus, and the automated system was already responding by sending another vehicle to replace this one on its intended route.
An implant at the base of his skull protected Ennay from the sedative effect of the suppressor, but none of the other occupants of the bus had his modifications. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for him, as his nervous system felt the jolt of the suppressor shoot through him, it felt something like grabbing a live wire. For the dozen slaves on the bus, though, they relaxed as one, almost instantly drifting into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.
The bus' travel hardly bumped as it started down the new route Ennay had laid out for it. He had it drive at normal speed, not wanting to draw attention, as another part of his brain scanned the local net through the bus to see if the hijacking had garnered any attention. There were a couple transit inquiries, but the system confirmed it had just sent out another bus to deal with "unexpected overflow." It seemed like the systems were convinced, at least for now, by the faked signals he had created. Ennay kept to his seat, trying to look like a passenger, until the bus was away from prying eyes until they were outside city limits, at which point he stood up, went to the front of the bus, and told the vehicle to go full speed. Even at its maximum speed, much faster than it would ever have gone acting as transit, Ennay was positive he could have outrun this bus on foot, but it was still less than a very tense hour later, in a surprisingly smooth ride, that they crossed the border out of Febos at an unguarded point.
They were back in West Kamikaw.
“I fucking did it”, Ennay grinned, suppressing the urge to whoop and holler despite the fact that there was no one to hear. A tear of victory rolled down his cheek.
Hours later, in the middle of the night, Ennay finally started getting close to the shed. The city bus wasn’t made for offroading, and the ride was uncomfortable. Ennay worried about the people he had just saved waking up with sore necks or backs. A pair of the guards gripped their automatic weapons as he pulled back up to the shed, but relaxed when they saw that it was Ennay in the driver's seat.
Ennay hopped out of the bus as a medical team went in to remove the former slaves. Each one was affixed with a suppressor to keep them sleeping even after they were taken out of the range of the general tool Ennay had used, and carted unceremoniously to a hospital bed. They were physically safe, but until their modifications were deactivated and the conditioning removed, they would still be slaves. They would likely fight to return to their slavery. It was safer for everyone to keep them sedated.
Ennay hung around watching while the doctors did their work. Nothing much to do until they paid him, and it was nice to really see the fruits of his labor. The formerly quiet shed bustled with activity; Pratchet had said they were used to bringing in one or two at a time, so while they were equipped to handle a dozen, they weren't used to it. Ennay paced back and forth around the curtained medical rooms, looking in on the slaves he'd rescued, really taking them in now that he wasn't occupied with the mission. He watched as the nurses removed an outfit from one; underneath an identity destroying latex bodysuit and completely featureless helmet was a slightly pale young man. Most of these people he had brought in looked pretty plain, nothing but their outfits distinguishing them from their enslavers.. A pair of women in maid uniforms, both wearing collars that said ‘It,’ had some more extensive aesthetic mods. One of the slaves even had their normal ears replaced with cat ears on the top of their head and had a tail attached to their spine, though it looked to be robotic, rather than some extreme bio-mod.
Ennay watched, proud, as the young man who had been in the bodysuit was wheeled into the surgical center to have his chips deactivated. It was a far more difficult process than putting them in; it could take hours, depending on how long they'd been installed and how deeply they had been integrated with their neurology.
“Renny? Sir?" A doctor's voice interrupted Ennay's reverie. "We, uh, we might have a problem here.” Ennay walked over, curious, standing outside of the curtain, listening in.
“What is it?!” Renny’s voice was quiet, but harsh.
“This girl, uh, she’s not chipped.”
Intrigued, Ennay pulled back the curtain, causing the doctor and Renny to look back at him in surprise before turning back to their patient. Ennay took in the girl. Soft brown hair, braided back. No fancy dress, a white shirt, tan shorts, a pair of sandals. If not for the collar around her neck, a symbol of her non-personhood, Ennay wouldn’t have been able to guess that she was part of the Febos underclass. She was still peacefully asleep, and the suppressor on the bed was making sure she stayed that way while they prepared her for surgery.
“What do you *mean* not chipped?”, Ennay asked.
The doctor pointed to the monitor by the girl’s bed. It was an outline of her body, in grey. “That display should be showing us her chip, and all her other implants, but there’s nothing there.”
Ennay narrowed his eyes. “Let me, she might have something more serious, hidden where your scans won’t pick up, maybe something like what I have.”
The doctor looked to Renny, who nodded, and the pair stepped aside. Ennay walked towards the bed, standing at the foot of it, his eyes shifted and emitted a green grid of light. It was a pretty high-grade scan. It told Ennay everything about her body. He could tell that she wasn’t on her period, that she needed a little bit more potassium in her diet, how hydrated she was (“Could use a bit more fluid in her,” he said idly to the doctor) and even her height down to the millimeter. It picked up scars all over her legs, which were likely either the marks of her servitude or possibly self-inflicted.
But even more startling was what the scan didn’t show. No modifications, implants. No enslaving technology. Ennay’s fist balled up in rage. The chips were monstrous, but at least they suppressed your sense of what was happening to you. It was like a waking dream, a powerful high, with greater and greater reward for doing what the chips compelled. But whatever this girl had been through, she went through it fully aware.
Ennay was horrified. “Yeah, there’s, there’s nothing there,” he said, and then, under his breath, “Those fucking...”
Renny and the doctor didn’t seem to hear him, or care if they had. “I fail to see why this is a problem, doctor,” Renny huffed.
Ennay noticed the doctor’s pulse rise slightly, and he smelled nervous. “I suppose it’s not, not really, Sir, um… sorry to bother you.”
Renny pulled the curtains open slightly to leave. “Keep her suppressed, and we’ll deal with it after we’ve handled all the harder cases.”
Ennay walked over to the girl, reached behind her neck, and broke the lock that kept the collar on with a quick twist of his fingers. He gently slid it off her, looking at the broken silver heart-shaped medallion in his hand. He threw the thin strap of leather into the garbage pail beside her bed, followed by the metal lock.