WARNING: SURGERY ON CHILD
“You got the stuff?” Frank asked.
“Yes, yes,” Stitches groused. “Only the best your credits can buy.”
“This is not going to get any blow back from the Dowager, right?”
“Yes, I’ve made sure to deal with people outside of our little jungle,” the doctor said. “When have I ever failed you?”
Frank stiffened at the retort. His legs shuffled. Stitches glanced at Frank’s groin uncomfortably for a moment as the younger man flushed red. A snarl ripped from his throat and he shoved the doctor against the wall. He pressed a forearm across Stitches’ throat. “Do not make me remind you when you’ve failed me!”
The older man fought to push the well muscled Frank off but to no avail. If the air wasn’t squeezed out of his lungs in panic, Stitches would have flinched at the rage in Frank’s eyes. With a feral growl, Frank released him. The doctor rubbed his neck and dragged air into his lungs.
“Sorry,” he rasped.
Frank’s snarl was replaced with a benign smile in a flash. “Don’t worry about it. Just get it done right,” he said. The smile never reached his eyes.
Stitches shuddered but nodded. “Just bring her to me.”
Frank nodded and left Stitches to his preparations. Tenner was outside waiting for him. “Are you sure about it?” he asked.
“This is cheaper and it keeps Stitches happy. Three months discount and we get the girl hooked up with an experimental amp and implant,” Frank said, “what’s not to love about this arrangement?”
He glared at Tenner. “You run the numbers. I make the decisions. You got that?”
Tenner stifled his protests and nodded stiffly.
“All right, get Scars or Cutter to bring the girl here. It is time she makes my investment worthwhile.”
“Here,” Nike said as she tossed her leftovers at Burger.
He missed as the day old fries slapped against his snout. She laughed. “You’re just awful at this.”
There was nothing else to do today. Her rounds were completed. Meg didn’t have any of the movies she liked. “I’m doing a Tom Cruise special this week,” Meg said. “You’re not going to sneak in to watch one of them?”
The posters for Mission Impossible, The Firm and Vanilla Sky stared at her. She grinned and shook her head. None of these were her favourites. Meg stopped pretending she didn’t know Nike had been sneaking into the projector room. The door was, after all, always left unlocked for her. In turn, Nike left peace offerings in form of food. Burger was even allowed up there with her.
“No, I’ll come back next week and see what you have,” she said.
“What do you want to watch?” Meg countered.
“Anything that I have.”
Nike tapped her foot and thought about it. “Do you have Moulin Rouge?” she asked hopefully.
“I may have that,” Meg replied slyly, crowfeet streaking from her eyes. “All right come back next week, maybe Moulin Rouge will be on.”
“Yes!” Nike cheered, punching her fist into the air.
With a happy skip in her step, she walked home. Burger trotting by her heels. She made a quick trip into the base to drop off the credit chits on Tenner’s overflowing desk. He would add that to their little stash. Cutter and Scars were at the makeshift range out back, trying to one-up each other. So she grabbed the bags of fries from yesterday and headed out again.
Since their raid of the Razors’ base, they were eating a little better, but the biggest difference were their weapons. Frank made sure they were always armed. Pistols for regular daily use, SMGs for when they went raiding.
The pistol was a comforting weight. Normally she kept it hooked against her waistband at the small of her back. With her back leaning against the fence, she faced the street and admired the pistol. She held it up against the light. The pistol though badly scuffed up, worked well. Her right hand was busy stuffing more fries into her mouth when Burger pushed his nose against her hand, not keen on waiting anymore. “Hey!” she protested as Burger snapped his jaw around the entire bag of fries.
With one quick jerk of his powerful neck, the bag tore, leaving her a single fry in her hand. Burger danced away as she lunged for the bag, spilling fries all over. “Asshole!”
The rumble of bikes distracted her and Burger escaped with what fries were left in the torn bag. It was Frank and Tenner returning. The old petrol scooters spluttered loudly. Tenner rode straight into base while Frank turned towards her as Burger was busy scuffing down his ill-gotten gains.
Nike surged to her feet when she realised Frank had no intention to slow down. She grabbed Burger by the scruff of his neck and pulled him out of the way. The dog yelped in fright. Frank laughed. He dismounted and kicked in Burger’s direction. But the dog was faster than the boot.
“What the hell, Frank!” she shouted. “Leave the dog alone.”
“Stop wasting food on a mutt. Come on,” he said, grabbing her by her collar.
She stumbled along to keep from falling. Burger growled at Frank, food forgotten. He sighed and pulled his pistol out. “I told you to get rid of the mutt so many times,” he pulled back the hammer on his pistol lazily. “If you can’t do it…”
She struggled out of Frank’s grip and stood between Burger and the pistol. “What the fuck,” she shouted, “it’s just a dog. Leave him be.”
Frank looked at Burger, then at Nike. With a grin spreading over his lips, he said, “Get rid of the dog. We’re not a shelter. I am not asking nicely again.”
He waited with one hand on his hip, pistol held loosely. She turned her back on Frank with a little trepidation. “Go!” she shouted at Burger.
The dog cocked his head but made no move to go. Running towards Burger with her arms outstretched did nothing. He stuck his tongue out as if laughing. “Frank, hey can’t we just go back in,” she suggested.
His eyes were hard as he looked on. “No,” he said, “either you get rid of him or I will.”
The grip he had on his pistol was no longer loose but tight. And the muzzle was pointed directly at Burger.
Nike was careful to angle her body to cover Burger. She prayed she didn’t misread her value to the Reds. She had proven her worth, hadn’t she? Her hands were stained red during that first raid. Maybe she hadn’t helped in the same manner in the raids after that, but she had assisted. She was one of them. Right?
Jaw clenched, shoulders set, she pulled her pistol out. She didn’t allow herself a split second of hesitation. Burger watched her. His brown eyes so big, so trusting. With a grunt of effort, she raised it above her head and pulled the trigger.
The gunfire rang out, heart-stoppingly loud. Burger bolted. Nike took a shuddering breath, whispering under her breath, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
Mastering her expression before she turned back to Frank, she said, “There, done.”
Frank smirked. “Good girl,” he said. “You’re in for a big day tomorrow.”
“Hey doc,” Scars called out. “How long will it take?”
Nike looked around the clinic. Its appearance hadn’t improved. She remembered what it was like living on the streets, so she wasn’t too fussy. Frank had explained to her that she was getting an implant and an amp for the strange blue magic she could do. But exactly how it was all going to be done, he never said a word. Now that she was standing in Stitches’ office, she figured maybe it would be some kind of injection.
“It won’t be fast. At least six hours?” Stitches replied.
A thrill of fear ran down her spine. She wanted so much to check in on Burger this morning, but Scars took her to the clinic on the motorcycle. So that idea went out the window. Now she had to hang around the clinic for six hours?
“Woah, that’s long,” Scars said, before turning to her, “all right I’ll be back for you later.”
Without a backwards glance, he was out the door again, leaving her alone with Stitches. The doctor’s hands were folded across his chest. He sighed and turned to walk back into the curtained-off area. She followed.
She obeyed and perched on the stool across from him. She waited.
“So I’ll need to shave some of your hair for the surgery,” Stitches said.
It was a word she wasn’t familiar with, she lifted her omni-tool to check on the word, but Stitches pushed her hand down.
“I’m going to have to put this,” he picked up a circular plastic component still wrapped in its packaging and showed it to her, “into the base of your head, so I’ll have to shave your head.”
It was the size of his thumb nail and looked vaguely spider-like with four thin and limp legs splayed out. She blinked not quite comprehending the situation. But dread was tightening around her chest.
Stitches shifted his chair closer and pressed his fingers at the base of her head. “Right about there. So I’ll take maybe five centimetres of hair off, maybe more.”
Nike jerked backwards. “I don’t want that. You’re going to cut into my head!”
He grabbed her arm. “It is not going to hurt. Don’t make this harder than it is,” he said.
It wasn’t convincing in the slightest. She struggled, fighting like a wild horse forced to the bit.
“Stop, stop, stop!” he shouted, relinquishing his hold on her arm. “Just listen to me.”
Nike glared at him cautiously. She remembered he helped when Frank sprained her wrist months ago. Pressing her lips into a thin line, she inched backwards, putting some space between them.
“Frank wants me to do this. And I have to do this. If you want to stay with the Reds, you will have to do this,” Stitches said, his arms held up placatingly.
She swallowed, turning his words over and over in her head. It made sense. Frank spoke to her yesterday. He was eager about it. The whole purpose of the raids had been to get funds for the amp and implant. Frank wouldn’t be happy if she had refused.
“It won’t hurt,” Stitches went on. “I will put you to sleep and then when you wake up it is done. It will help you control your biotics.”
“Biotics?” she parroted back to the doctor.
“Fuck,” he sighed. “How much do you actually know? Frank never said that I needed to give you a crash course too.”
He stood up and started pacing, running his hands through his thick hair. She watched quietly, committing the words to memory so that she could look them up later.
“I’ve got to do this. It’s not about ethics, I fucking work in the slums. What ethics? That’s useless to me. I have to do this. It doesn’t matter,” Stitches muttered under his breath.
Glancing at her direction, he approached again. This time, he held her hand gently and knelt down, putting him at her eye level. “Right, you’re a biotic. With this, you will be able to use it better. It is just a little nick and you’re done. Think of it this way, with this,” he said, shaking the implant in her face, “nobody can make you do things you don’t want to.”
The memory of Burger’s eyes turning from trust to fear flashed across her mind’s eye. Her heart clenched. She didn’t want to have to do that again. “I can protect Burger,” she murmured.
Stitches frowned but chose to ignore it. “So shall we get this done?”
Nike nodded. He took a buzzer to the back of her head and black hair fell to the floor. Once that was done, he led her to a separate room and handed her an adult sized medical gown
“Change into this, I’ll be back later,” he said.
She looked at the gown then at the room. The brave front she had put up earlier was rapidly crumbling. There was a medical table in the middle of the cramped room. Devices, plastic tubes and metal equipment cluttered a side table. And a large lamp hung on a retracting arm overhead. Memories of another room flooded into her mind, a girl with a ripped open chest, blood flowing, pieces missing. Nike gagged, flinching at the image flooding into her mind. She clenched her fists, her nails bit half moons into her palm.
I’m a big girl. This is a good thing. I will be able to protect myself after this. This is a good thing.
When the door opened again, she was dressed but tears were standing in her eyes. She stiffened, staring at the strange man dressed in scrubs and a mask. Only his eyes were visible. “It’s me,” the strange man said with Stitches’ voice.
She relaxed marginally.
“Get up on the table,” he instructed.
The table was hard and icy to the touch. Her only view was the lamp as she listened to Stitches shuffling around her. She tightened her jaw when her lower lip started to trembled, blinking her tears furiously away.
I’m a big girl. I will do this.
She repeated the endless litany in her head. It didn’t take long before Stitches’ face appeared overhead. “You’re going to feel a little sting,” he said.
Pain lanced up her arm as he plunged a syringe into it. Her world started spinning as her vision went hazy. She opened her mouth to speak but he pressed a mask over her nose and mouth. Her limbs twitched in a vain attempt to fight against the drugs. As her vision started to tunnel and dim, Burger’s goofy face was the last thing her disoriented brain threw at her.
Stitches worked. Sweat beading across his brow and upper lip despite the cooler temperature of the room. He snorted inwardly. It was nothing like a surgery room. This was no place to implant biotic hardware in anyone let alone a child. He was a doctor, and he knew he was nowhere qualified to do the job. His hands trembled from fatigue, his fingers couldn’t keep a steady grip on his tools. He sighed and dropped them on a waiting tray.
The girl lay still, face down, a mask over her nose and mouth. It was the only thing keeping her down. And he had made sure the dosage was high enough for a biotic, albeit a child sized one. He knelt down to check. Everything looked fine as far as he could tell.
Not girl, her name is Nike, remember that. Nike’s face was slack, she looked almost dead. No, she is not dead, she is just under. I just need to get this done.
Stitches took a shuddering breath to steady himself. He glanced at the uncapped bottle of booze sitting on the table next to the tray of soiled instruments. The straw bobbing from the mouth of the bottle was inviting him. He wasn’t stupid enough to contaminate his gloved hands by holding the bottle. That was what the straw was for. His eyes couldn’t quite bring themselves to look at the task at hand. He blinked and swallowed. His throat was parched.
Just one sip, to calm the nerves.
He nodded, giving himself permission. His mouth opened and caught the straw between his lips. Taking a deep breath, he took a single sip. He drank like he was a man dying of thirst. When he finally relinquished the straw, the originally full bottle was half empty. He sighed happily and held in a burp.
“Excuse me,” he said to nobody in particular.
Stitches held out his hand and they seemed steadier than before. “Yeah, that’s the right thing to do,” he muttered, “I just need a little break.”
Glancing at the battery operated clock, he realised he was coming up on the five hour mark. Scars would be back for the girl soon.
Nike, her name is Nike.
He sighed again and picked up a pair of retractors. Carefully, he inserted the retractors into the incision he made earlier. Blood oozed from the wound as he pulled the gauze he stuffed in to stop the bleeding. His suction machine wasn’t working so he had to make do.
This entire surgery was one massive session of making do. He glanced down, the girl’s brain stem was exposed and the site looked clear. He couldn’t help but pat himself on the back for getting it done with the limited equipment he had. He clenched his slightly shaking hand. It would have been so easy for his hand to slip and he’d lost control of the medical drill. It wouldn’t just be the girl dead, he would be as well. Frank wouldn’t just let it go if he killed the Reds’ resident biotic.
Biotics were a rare commodity. The Dowager collected most of them. She ruled simply because she had the credits and muscle to back up her threats. Snatchers made sure to test for biotic abilities before cutting kids up for their organs. Gangs would kill to have a biotic on their team. Life would have been easier with a biotic on their side. But the main reason was a gang’s ability to field a fighter in the ring. Everyone bet on the fights. A gang like the Reds could stand to win more than mere credits at one of these fights. Territories changed hands on the result of a fight. And the Dowager was the reigning winner of these fights. Simply because she had the best of the best. And her fighters were all well motivated to win, because a loss meant being cast out. The Dowager wasn’t in the business of second chances. The other gangs would snap up a failed fighter quickly but they had other methods of keeping their biotics in check.
Stitches shook his head. He had a job to do. He didn’t have time to dwell on the politics of the Underbelly. He ripped the packaging and pulled the tiny chip out. The thin wire like material was supposed to latch onto the nervous system. How? Stitches had no fucking clue. But the theory was to gain access to the largest concentration of biotic nodes - the brain. He flipped the packaging around and looked for installation instructions. Blood smearing over the white packet made it impossible to read.
“I can get access to cheap implants and mods, even some experimental ones. But I am not an implant specialist. I told Frank, does he listen?” he muttered. “No, he insist that I do it. And this implant? This is some damn experimental implant I’ve seen before. Does it even install like the regular ones?”
Stitches flipped the packaging left and right in quick, curt motions. “No, going through the Dowager is too expensive. It raises the tithe and that boy just want to juice his pet biotic up!”
Exasperated, he flung the packaging at the wall.
“So the girl ruptured his testicle and he takes it out on me!” Stitches said, his voice no longer a low mutter but full bodied and loud. “How is this my fault? I had no ultrasound to diagnose his problem. I fucking took the damn thing out. And it was only one testicle, he had another one. He should thank me! And this was months ago. The girl punched him in the balls and somehow it is my problem.”
He looked down and looked the girl again. Pity and worry colouring his gaze. Nike was the only innocent soul here. Though her time with the Reds had only been mere months, he had heard of the random bouts of violence that were slowly and surely being attributed to the Reds. Frank had always been ambitious, but he had stepped up his plans since she joined them.
Stitches sighed. He glanced at the bottle again. One more, for the road. And he finished whatever was left in the bottle. He smacked his lips in satisfaction. “Now, the package says it is plug and play, easy peasy,” he muttered, “it had better be.”
He looked into the site again. Blood was welling up again. “Shit.”
He pressed a fresh piece of gauze and it was saturated just as quickly. “Ok here goes fucking nothing, girl.”
Gingerly, he lowered the implant down. Nothing happened. Then, Nike twitched, his monitors screeched in response. Stitches flinched.
“Thank the fuck I’ve strapped you down.”
He glanced down again. “I think that worked,” he muttered as he pulled the amp out of another sealed package.
“Tab A to Slot B.”
It took more time than he anticipated. Closing the wound up, then bandaging up as best he could before he turned down the gas. Scars popped into the room when he was moving the girl onto her side. Stitches glanced at the clock, the boy was two hours late.
“How’s it going doc?” he asked.
“Just done but it will be a while before she wakes up.”
Scars shuffled on his feet. “Can I just leave her with you? She can go back to base on her own tomorrow or something.”
Stitches shrugged. “I know how to reach you if I need you to get her back,” he said.
“Sweet,” Scars smiled as he turned to go, “You’re the best doc.”
He was too tired to respond, instead he picked up his empty booze bottle and left the room, leaving Nike alone.