Outside the window of the spacious office, the city was bathed in the glow of a warm mid-morning sun. Except it wasn’t really a window - just a projector screen that used cleverly layered holograms to mimic one. All the exterior walls of the EuroCorp headquarters complex were hardened to protect against anything up to an air-to-surface missile, and what windows did exist were made from bulletproof, blast-resistant glass. The sunshine wasn’t real either - outside, the heavy grey sky was drizzling yet another shower of acid rain onto dull glass and pitted concrete, but the screen edited the view from the external cameras into something a little less depressing. The ersatz sunlight beamed in to illuminate a smartly dressed woman and two scientists in their shirtsleeves.
“That’s all well and good.” junior executive Britta Engel was saying, “But are the modifications effective?” She was a striking woman in her mid thirties, with dark blonde hair and deceptively soft features offset by a confident bearing and shrewd blue eyes. Her voice, like her face, was a deceptively soft south-German dialect.
“We analysed the data from De Luca’s Agents,” replied one of the scientists, “And it seems Asari’s weapon somehow interfered with their CHIPs’ control signals. So we’ve reduced the Agents’ dependence on them. As a side effect they’re a little more independent, but they still have all the usual failsafes and command protocols. They can’t disobey orders.”
“Show me.” said Britta.
“Agent Kerberos, enter.” called the second scientist. A man in a long black coat with loose sleeves swept wordlessly into the room. His features had a Slavic cast, though they were distorted by scar tissue where previous injuries had required considerable repair work. His eyes were cold, black and unfathomable. It was a face that Britta Engel knew well.
“And how do you feel, agent Kerberos?” she asked him. It wasn’t a pleasantry, it was a test - a normal agent would not have understood the question.
Kerberos' brow furrowed for an instant before he replied. “I feel well, Executive Engel.” His voice was grim and tinted with a Slavic accent as usual, but had a new, almost indiscernible quality about it; like there was a person behind the voice.
Britta listened with interest, and a little disconcertion. Even for the grim and monotone Kerberos, the difference was noticeable. Once people were converted into Agents it was easiest - and probably best - to stop thinking of them as people. If the others were like Kerberos, then Britta was left with the uncomfortable feeling that she might have to reassess her stance.
They were interrupted by a knock on the door. A clean-cut young man with closely cropped hair stepped through, and acknowledged all three of the office’s occupants with a curt nod. Britta recognised him as Dawson, another one of the junior executives.
“Just so you know, ma’am, the boss wants an update on that new team. He wants them out in the field yesterday.”
“Xenakis always wants things done by yesterday.” Britta smiled thinly. Marco Xenakis was the half Greek, half Italian leader of one of the many crime families in the loose alliance that had sprung up in the late 60’s, and one of the first to get his foot in the door with EuroCorp. The syndicates had always been power-brokers. Fifty years ago it had been politicians that they sponsored in return for continued immunity - but as the corporations had grown it had become executives and chairmen who held the real power, and the more sharp-minded crime bosses had been swift to recognise it. People like Marco Xenakis.
The crime bosses were all exceptionally good businessmen, and they didn’t let ethics get in the way of their profits. It was capitalism at its most ruthless; pure and simple. Britta wasn’t from a Camorra or Mafia background, but she was used to the somewhat direct manner of those in the company who were.
“And yes,” she went on, “They’re ready. We’ve remodified three existing agents and recruited seven more. They should be coming out of surgery any minute now.”
“Ten?” Dawson said, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s all within the assigned budget. Since De Luca’s team failed I didn’t want to take any chances. I for one don’t fancy ending up like De Luca.”
“Quite.” said Dawson. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Be my guest.” Britta shuffled the papers on her desk into a neat sheaf, and passed them over. Dawson flicked through them briefly.
“You didn’t thaw out Dr Miles’ boy, did you?” he said, sounding aggrieved. It had been a bad business from the start, keeping Miles’ wanted son on ice, and Dr Miles himself had been killed only a month ago when a saboteur - probably on Sonbushi’s payroll - detonated a bomb in his lab. The internal security division was still trying to pick up the pieces and find out how it had happened, while various people tried to shift the blame off themselves and onto each other.
“I made a deal with Division 6.” Britta said levelly, “They had to recoup their losses somehow.”
“Okay.” said Dawson, continuing to flick through until he came to a file topped with the name Sagahara. “What’s a seventeen year old doing in the program?”
“She volunteered; apparently her family was killed by Sonbushi. She was within sizing parameters for the cybernetics so there shouldn’t be a problem. You’re questioning rather a lot of my decisions, aren’t you?”
Her tone was light, but she was looking at the other junior executive steadily.
“I’m just asking the same questions that the boss will.” Dawson shrugged, though Britta saw his eyes dart briefly towards Agent Kerberos who was standing quietly behind her, his gloved mechanical hands folded in front of him.
“Thank you for your concern.” said Britta coolly, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and code in the other Agents.”
+ + + + + +
The med lab was picked out in white tiles and sterile grey furniture. It was well lit, but the white light was somehow disconcerting. It was mortuary light; dissection table light. Doctors and cyber-surgeons stood to one side as Britta made her way down the stairs, her heels clicking softly on the metal steps. Agent Kerberos followed silently behind her. In the wide room below were nine beds, and at the foot of each bed lay nine sets of identical unmarked clothing in various sizes, complete with nine identical black overcoats. They looked innocuous enough, but each coat had special loops and pockets for concealing weapons, and was reinforced with carbon nanotube fibres. Under the coats were much less subtle implements of war - guns, knives, and even a compound bow. For some they were the former human’s own weapons, for others they were items from EuroCorp’s extensive armoury that they had been programmed with the knowledge of how to use. EuroCorp owned several weapons manufacturing companies, and rather than standardise their Agents’ weapons they tended to use a variety, thus fuelling the illusion that the Agents were members of a gang or a mercenary unit rather than an organised force that could be traced back to the corporation. Like the clothes, all the guns were unmarked.
On the beds themselves lay nine people, male and female, of all nationalities. They were naked, and, apparently, asleep. Each one bore faint surgical scars where nanobots and bio-foam completed the last stages of knitting together human tissue and cybermesh. Medical technology had come on leaps and bounds in the last 70 years, and all of this was geared towards getting the Agents up and operational as fast as possible. The cybernetics were all covered with prosthetic skin, virtually undistinguishable from the original, but Britta’s practiced eye could pick out the implants from the scar patterns. Here a pair of cybernetic arms, there a shaved skull and the incision lines where neural implants had been inserted, on the nearest Agent extensive scarring across the torso from the addition of overlapping armour plates over the ribcage and abdomen. The only modification common to all was a silver stud in the back of the neck, where their control CHIPs were implanted.
“They’re all keyed to your command.” said one of the scientists to Britta as she approached. The junior executive nodded.
“Wake up.” she said clearly. Nine CHIPs activated, injecting a surge of adrenaline through the Agents. As one, their eyes snapped open.
“Stand up.” she added. Robot-like, the Agents complied. They seemed more confused than was typical - could it be a side effect of the increased self-awareness granted by the modified CHIPs?
She walked briskly down the line of motionless Agents, indifferent to the fact that they were all naked. She passed the first three, who were established Agents rather than new recruits, and stopped before a tall, square-jawed man with sandy hair. The man’s eyes were still slightly glazed from the memory wiping process, or possibly just residual anaesthesia.
“Your name is special agent Carter.” she told him, before moving on down the line. “Special agent Halton…special agent Trent…special agent Hime…special agent Anderson…special agent Robson.”
Reaching the end, she turned. “Get dressed, pick up your weapons and then follow agent Kerberos -” she indicated the lightly built but imposing figure behind her, “- to room 272. I’ll be waiting for you there. We’ve got work to do.”