Jared would have screamed, if he could have controlled his mouth. Every part of his body hurt, hurt bad enough to cut through the haze of morphine and other painkillers to wake him up.
The worst part of the problem was that he wasn't lying in bed. He was sitting up and looking around the room with unnaturally keen eyesight. He was staring, for the moment, at a screw in the wall opposite his bed; and he wanted to scream. He could see the top of the screw as clearly as if it were three inches and not ten yards away. His eye was tracing the slight irregularity in the grooves from where the screwdriver had oh-so-slightly deformed it.
He could hear not only the sound of his own heartbeat, thumping away in his ears, but the breathing of the technicians working at a nearby computer. The whir of a fan in a ventilation shaft bored its way into his skull; some part of his mind noting a slight irregularity in its rotation on sound alone. Every half a second the sound would hitch up for about a tenth of a second, creating a regular pattern that somehow he knew meant the engine was preparing to fail.
Sight, sound, touch, all of it magnified a thousand fold and then interpreted and analyzed for meaning poured into his mind, and he wanted to scream.
Oh God, just one scream!
"Doctor, look at the alpha waves!" someone shouted in his ear, their soft, shocked voice breaking the deafening silence of the room.
"Shit, he's awake!" someone swore. "Lock down the neural feeds, cut the augmentation out of the loop!"
Seconds later Jared collapsed back into the bed, thrashing convulsively for a few moments before finding the control of his body returned to him. He promptly passed out for a few hours. The next time he woke up, he groggily licked his lips as he tried to roll over and managed only to dislodge the sheet covering him. He felt... strange. Light. Good. The small aches and pains of a lifetime had faded away, and he felt like... like a kid again!
He almost grinned as he opened his eyes and sat up. Then remembered he most definitely was not at home as he saw the grinning face of a nurse enjoying the show he was putting on. Grabbing the sheet, he rearranged it so that he wasn't engaged in indecent exposure. "Um... hi?" he asked.
"I'll let the doctor know you've woken up," the nurse's rich contralto was thick with laughter as she walked away, hips swaying inside her far too tight skirt. Jared smiled seeing her glance seductively over her shoulder as she slipped out the door. Apparently, yet another woman was aiming to set her hooks in him. Fat chance!
Soon enough the doctor bustled in, ending Jared's inspection of the hospital room. It wasn't the room he'd woken up in earlier; this one could pass for a normal hospital room. White walls, the smell of antiseptic and a second, thankfully unoccupied, bed with medical equipment lining the walls and doubtless filling the cupboards on the walls. "Sergeant Major Warren?" the doctor asked, checking his chart.
"Yes sir," Jared answered.
"Well Sergeant, let me congratulate you on surviving something that would have killed most men," the doctor smiled. "I'm Major Williams and the head of Project Prometheus's medical staff," the doctor offered his hand, and Jared shook it firmly. "Ouch!" the doctor snapped, pulling his hand back sharply. "Watch it!"
"Sorry sir!" Jared barked reflexively.
"Oh, don't worry about it," the doctor apologized, shaking his hand. "I should have expected that; given the lack of prep time with you."
"Expected it, sir?" Jared asked, confused.
Major Williams sighed and shook his head as he sat down into the room's only chair. "This is a bit of a long story," he told Jared. "Project Prometheus is one of a number of projects dedicated towards advancing the US military position. I don't know how much you've kept up with the science journals," the doctor said with a laugh, "so I'll go slow and start from the beginning."
"That works," Jared said with an answering laugh, "because I don't really follow them! But first, can you tell me about my kids?"
"Kids? Oh yes, David and Cody," the doctor checked the folder he'd brought in with him again. "David is going to be fine; he's bruised and battered but his only real injury is a broken arm. Lucky boy, he should have come out far worse. He's over in the regular section of the hospital, and according to the notes I've gotten, he really wants to see you. Cody is currently in post-op recovery, but it looks like he'll be fine. I'll cover his medical information after we go over your own, a lot of it's pretty similar to what you need to know. And some of that stuff you really do need to know now, as shown by your nearly breaking my hand."
"Breaking your hand?!" Jared gasped. "I didn't squeeze that hard!"
"Let me finish my show and tell and you'll understand, but right now you're a lot stronger than you're used to," Major Williams said.
"Alright, take it away Doc," Jared leaned back in his bed.
With a smile, the doctor leaned forward and started. "Almost ten years ago a scientist managed, through pure serendipity, to create a computer with a neuron linkup that worked. Since then, hundreds of scientists have spent thousands of hours trying to advance the technology. One of the really interesting facets of the technology..." the doctor shook his head and waved his hands to toss the subject aside. "Sorry, you don't need the full medical details, just an overview. Basically, we can't connect a person's conscious mind to a computer, but we can connect his senses and subconscious to it. Don't ask me why it works that way, I barely understand the details myself."
"Alright, I won't!" Jared quipped.
"Anyway, with the advent of neural tapping the military recognized the possible combat applications of the technology, and started up several programs to try and take advantage of it," Major Williams continued. "Project Prometheus is the most pie-in-the-sky of those, which makes it being the only one to pay off even more amazing. Well, so far anyway; some of the other projects are still going strong. Project Prometheus started almost two years after the others when another scientist managed to create a practical nanite system."
"Nanites? Those are really small machines, right?" Jared asked. "Microscopic robots or something like that?"
The doctor took a deep breath as he winced. "That's... a decent layman's understanding of the subject," he allowed grudgingly, "but please forgive me if I don't care for it much. It's... much more complex than that."
Jared laughed again, "Alright Doc, I can buy that."
"Anyway, Project Prometheus took the two and tried to combine them. There were a number of early failures that led to... well, they led to advances in the project even if they weren't originally part of it." The doctor shook his head. "Anyway, over the last five years we've been working on using the two technologies together to create enhanced soldiers by merging medicine and technology. Cybernetics, at a level beyond what most people associate with the term."
"Wait, are you saying I'm half-robot now?" Jared asked, glancing at his very human arms and legs.
The doctor hesitated. "Yes and no. Technically you can be called a cyborg, but the machine parts are all very small and are actually distributed around a mostly human body. You've been cybernetically augmented in a thousand and one small ways, but you don't have any large robot parts floating around. For example, your bones have been essentially rebuilt with an advanced alloy reinforcing them, but they're still there. A similar alloy has been woven through your muscles, but that one expands and contracts based on electric impulses, essentially enhancing your strength in a passive manner. It's completely passive and EMP proof, and the alloys in question are also non-magnetic. If you need even more strength, there are specially designed electric... well, call them motors that will provide it, but they require the cybernetic augmentation to be running so they can be taken offline by an EMP."
Jared looked down at his body and shivered. Raising a hand he looked at it, flipping it back and forth. He still looked human at least. "Any other improvements I should be aware of?" he asked softly.
"There are hundreds of things to go over. Most of the augmentation is locked down until we can teach you to control and use it, and other things are locked down until you can take the time to adjust to them. Enhanced senses, for example. You woke up -- we're still not sure how -- while we were doing calibration on your senses."
"That hurt," Jared complained.
"I imagine it did," the doctor said apologetically. "Your nanites were still rebuilding tissues throughout your body to incorporate themselves properly, and we had the... 'gain' on all your senses turned up to maximum. You weren't supposed to wake up while we were doing that because the human mind can't handle that kind of gain, and certainly not without training and preparation."
"Kind of like having the volume turned up too high on the TV?" Jared asked.
"No, nothing like that!" the doctor said indignantly. "It wasn't 'volume' that was causing the problem, it was your mind's inability to process that level of clarity. Your senses normally act as a kind of filter simply because they can't detect everything going on around you, and having that filter removed creates a neural overload that will eventually degrade into-" The doctor cut himself off with a shake of his head. "This isn't important, if you're really interested we can cover this later. For now, we have stuff we really do need to cover."
"Alright, I hope the owner's manual is written in English though!" Jared quipped.
"I'll make sure you get a copy of it, and I'll even make sure it's re-written to use words of two syllables or less," the doctor quipped back.
"That works for this grunt!" Jared laughed. "Doc, one question before you continue, why do I feel so... so good? I should be a lot more upset than I am over everything that's going on, shouldn't I?"
"Well, no. You're on a mood-enhancer to keep you from freaking out as I explain what we've done," the doctor admitted. "And I'm sorry, but you are not coming off it until we're sure you've adjusted to this; you could do a lot of damage to yourself and others if you lose control right now. We literally can not simply tranquilize you now. The augmentation will filter out most tranquilizers, and none of the ones it lets through are fast acting."
"I see," Jared said, a touch of anger creeping into his voice. "Did the General order that?"
"Actually, the General is the only reason you've gotten away with only the mood-enhancer and not some additional controls," Major Williams said sternly. "General Sheridan was quite insistent that you didn't need any help, and that in the unlikely event that you did you'd know to ask for it."
"Well, I'll prove him right by not throwing too large of a fuss," Jared decided, "but I want off that pill, Doc."
"We'll discuss it later, for now I want to do a basic rundown of some of the things you really need to know about your augmentation," the doctor ordered.
"Yes sir!" Jared snapped out, responding to the tone of command the officer had used.
The doctor ran through a checklist of warnings and notices, explaining a few details. Jared was faster, stronger, more flexible, and just generally better than before. He'd have to exercise to get his endurance up where it belonged, but most of his enhancements started out at maximum. His body was capable of enduring massive amounts of damage, thanks not only to his new skeleton but another alloy reinforcing his skin and internal organs. As his augmentation was brought fully online, his reflexes would be significantly enhanced, and the neural interface would become capable of feeding him information through his subconscious mind as well as providing visual and auditory overlays. Oh, and he had built-in wifi.
"So I've got a computer stuck in my head too?" Jared complained. "I could just turn my desktop on if I wanted that!"
"Well, it's utilizing a distributed computational system with neural synaptic interlink memory, so it's nothing like a desktop. On top of that, the cybernetic neural network is designed to dynamically mirror your own organic synaptic network, with heuristic algorithms to-" Major Williams explained.
"Doc, Doc, Doc!" Jared tried to interrupt. "I don't understand a word you just said!"
The doctor sighed as he shook his head. "Sorry, one of my favorite hobbyhorses. I was in charge of the medical procedures necessary to install the augmentation, but I spent a lot of time working on the computer stuff too. Basically, rather than having a single processor it uses thousands spread throughout your skull. They talk to each other in a manner designed to develop and grow, and it uses your own brain as a model to do so. The end result is that as time passes, the augmentation will learn to talk to you better. It's possible, but highly unlikely, that it'll eventually link up to some parts of your conscious mind for direct neural controls. I doubt it; expect to use the sub-vocal and peripheral nerve controls for a very long time."
"Doc, simple words please!" Jared complained. "Sub-vocal would be talking really quiet, but peripheral nerve controls?"
"Sorry. That's fancy language for the way the augmentation taps into various minor functions. Basically, you twitch your left pinkie or flex your toes to interact with the visual and auditory overlays. Oh, and eye motion, it uses eye motion too. It's based on a heuristic system, so it'll learn and adapt to you over time."
"Doc, simple! Simple!" Jared begged with a laugh.
"Grunts!" the doctor complained. "Rather than pre-setting the controls, as the augmentation gradually activates and unlocks itself it will start working with you to find out what controls work and which ones don't. If it works like it should, you should find yourself naturally using additional functions as they come online, without any special training in the controls needed. You will need training to know what functions you can use, and what you can use them for, but controlling them should be natural."
"What kind of abilities are we talking about?" Jared asked.
"That's... a topic for another day. We haven't finished deciding which functions to upload to you," the doctor admitted.
"Wait, you mean this stuff isn't finished?" Jared freaked.
"The hardware is all finished, the core software is all finished, it's the peripherals that aren't there yet. And this is an experiment, Sergeant, expect hiccups and mistakes," Major Williams warned. "I'm trying to avoid specifics because nothing is finalized and won't be until we work with you to find what works. Just as an example, we've got five different versions of what we're calling the C-HUD -- the combat heads up display. Most of the variations aren't in the core code, but in the way it interacts with you and your needs. We don't know which version will work the best, and you're going to help us evaluate it."
"So I'm a guinea pig now?" Jared complained. "God, I shouldn't have gotten Cody into this."
Major William's lips twitched. "Sergeant, I didn't want to tell you this but maybe I should..." Chewing his lip the doctor looked away.
"What is it, Doc?"
"Well, your son..." the doctor sighed and looked directly at Jared. "Sergeant Warren, your decision to let us include Cody in this saved his life. The regular doctors missed a bleed in his brain stem, completely inoperable with normal techniques. The nanites were able to correct the issue before it killed him. Without them, he wouldn't have been crippled for life, but dead."
"The more I hear about these nanites, the more miraculous they seem," Jared commented. "They really saved my son's life?"
"And your own," the doctor answered. "And they are damned near miraculous. They literally rebuilt your body to incorporate the various technical components we've added, building most of those on-site, rather than requiring surgical installation. Some of the bigger things we had to go in and install ourselves, but even there the nanites helped pave the road and did most of the detail work for us. And they're still there; assuming they work as expected they'll accelerate the healing process if you're injured, help filter your blood for toxins, maintain your general health, and keep all the components we've installed functioning within standard parameters!"
"Doc," Jared said with a sigh, "do we have much more to do today? I think I'm about ready to take a break, maybe see my kids... please?"
The doctor sighed back and looked down on the documentation he'd been flipping through. "Alright, one more thing and then we can go see your kids, both of them. Cody's augmentation is different than yours. Since he's still a kid, we couldn't go the full route. We had to lock out certain functions of the nanites to leave him room to grow. He received the cognitive and sensory interlinks, which is to say he has the same enhanced senses and computer augmentation of his thought processes that you do. He also received a partial tissue-restoration treatment. Basically, he will heal from injury but the nanites won't try to filter his blood for chemicals. We had to leave it that way because he has to go through puberty, and with the nanites trying to even out hormonal surges, well it just wouldn't work."
"Thankfully, we had most of the software already in place for what we're calling the 'civilian' model of augmentation, so it's not something we slapped together at the last minute. Even the child-proofing we had to do was considered in advance. We didn't plan to actually have to do a child, mind you," the doctor added nervously, "we simply... well, we're scientists, and... well..." The doctor cringed. "I hate to put it this way, but it was something of a game."
"A game?" Jared growled. "My child's life was a game?!"
"Please, Sergeant, stay calm," Major Williams urged. "It was only a game as long as it was theoretical, once we actually had a child come up as a candidate because of the life-saving nature of the procedure, we took it very seriously."
Jared took a deep breath and cut off the tirade rising inside his chest. Having a kid come up as a candidate for an experimental military program was rather unlikely, so they were just lucky the scientists had something to offer in the way of life-saving miracles. "I'm surprised the General even approached you with my son if there's that big a difference between the two programs," he said instead. Major Williams started laughing. "What?" Jared asked.
The doctor shook his head as he forced himself to stop laughing. "The General didn't know," he said through a grin. "I'll have to get the video for you to watch, but his reaction at discovering that there was a difference, and that the only reason we had the child profile loaded was we'd made it into a game..." the doctor broke back into laughter, and Jared joined in. He could just imagine the General's reaction, and it was rather funny.
"Alright, anything else Doc, or can I go see my sons?" Jared eventually recovered enough to say.
"Well, let me track down a hospital gown for you, and then we can go see them," the doctor agreed. It didn't take him long to rummage through the cupboard in the room. "One other thing," the doctor added as he tossed the traditional hospital garment at Jared. "You and your younger son are going to be under twenty-four seven observation, and armed guard, for at least the next six months. Don't try to avoid or evade it, or people will become upset."
"The government has poured the better part of a billion dollars into the Prometheus Project, and they don't want you, or agents from foreign governments, walking off with it," the doctor said sadly. "Worse... There are some concerns about your sanity."
"My sanity?" Jared froze, halfway through donning the gown.
"The early versions of the neural interface tended to drive people insane," the doctor admitted. "We solved the problem by connecting through the subconscious mind, but there is still some concern over it. There's no evidence to suggest concern, but there isn't enough evidence to _dis_prove it, either."
"Great, just great," Jared fumed. "I suppose the General knew all about this and just didn't tell me!"
"In defense of the General, you were pretty close to death, and he did tell you it was an experimental procedure," the doctor said defensively.
"Yeah, and now my son and I are both lab rats, probably for the rest of our lives!" Jared snapped. "Dammit, it's not like I even had a choice, 'do this or die'."
"It's not the General's fault those damned terrorists-" the doctor cut himself off.
"Terrorists?" Jared demanded.
"The general was quite clear that he wanted to handle that discussion himself," the doctor answered. "Sorry."
"Figures," Jared sighed. "Well, now that I'm dressed in this absurd thing, can I please go see my sons?"
"Alright, let's start with the younger boy, he's just around the corner. You won't be able to talk to him, we're keeping him sedated for the final adjustments to his augmentation, but you can see him," the doctor led Jared through the surprisingly empty hallways to a room filled with computers.
"Where's my son?" Jared asked as he looked around the room. Noticing a window in one wall, he walked over to it and saw the most wonderful sight imaginable. Red hair, freckled face, dimples dancing at the corner of a sleeping smile, and though he couldn't see them he knew if the boy opened his eyes they'd be the most beautiful shade of blue, just perfect. "Cody..." Jared whispered, pressing his hand against the glass. There wasn't a single sign of injury on the boy, he looked like he'd just laid himself down for an afternoon nap. "That's my son," Jared said happily, tears forming in his eyes. "My son is alive... Thank you God, oh thank you!"
Major Williams stepped up beside Jared and put a hand on his shoulder. "You really love those two, don't you?"
"They're my children!" Jared answered simply.
"Far too often, that doesn't matter," the doctor said sadly. "I spend my work time on Project Prometheus, but I also volunteer at a local free clinic in the poor section of town. The things I see... Thank you, Sergeant, for this reminder that some people are human, some people actually love their kids."
"You're welcome," Jared took his hand off the glass and placed it over the hand on his shoulder. He still couldn't look away from his boy, but out of the corner of his eye he could see the doctor smiling.
"We're almost ready to start calibrating his enhanced senses, but we don't want to start until after we figure out what went wrong with you," another man said, coming to stand on Jared's other side. "We're reasonably sure where in the code base to find the problem, but even with its general location we've still got a lot of code to go through. I've got three of my men working on new code to act as a safety cut-out if we can't find the base problem in time, though."
"In time? Can't you just leave him under until you've fixed it?" Jared asked, turning to face the man. "Sergeant Major Jared Warren, the boy's father," he introduced himself, sticking his hand out.
"Captain McCullough," the man answered, taking his hand. "I'm the guy in charge of all the programming involved in your augmentation."
"Hello Captain," Jared replied. "Mind explaining what this calibration thing is?"
"Well, basically we need to spend some time teaching the augmentation how to talk to the biological senses, and vice-versa," the Captain explained. "We've got all the basic code in place, but we need to zero in on the exact settings to use. Think of it like zeroing in a rifle; sure the sights are kinda-sorta right but you can't use them until you spend some time getting them set right for you."
"So you need to zero his sights before he can see right?" Jared asked.
"Yes, precisely. The natural senses are still perfectly good, mind you, but the augmentation needs some help linking up with them, and that's best done with the subject unconscious. The process involves running the augmented senses in parallel to the natural ones, and slowly increasing the augmentation up to maximum while constantly adjusting it to agree with what the natural ones report-"
"Doc, I don't understand half of what you're saying. I'm a ground pounding grunt, not a techno-geek!" Jared complained.
"Sorry, us techno-geeks like our toys a bit too much, I suppose," the Captain joked. "Oh, and I'm not 'Doc'; Captain, Captain McCullough, or even just plain Steve, but not 'Doc'. Only medical doctors get called that," he smiled at a laughing Major Williams as he sneered the word.
"You aren't a doctor?" Jared asked, surprised.
"I'm not an M. D., no, my doctorate is in computer science with a Masters in engineering," the Captain responded. "I've got a good practical background in medicine thanks to my job, but none of the credentials."
"A doctorate and a masters? That's impressive!" Jared complimented the man. And to a man who'd barely gotten his high school diploma, it was impressive, leaving him to wonder why the Captain suddenly looked upset and walked off.
"It's not your fault," Major Williams said softly. "He was scheduled for the oral defense of his doctoral thesis, but instead was called in to answer an emergency call here. He was really looking forward to being a 'double-doc', and on top of that none of us has gotten much sleep the last three days."
"Me?" Jared asked, equally softly.
"Yes," the doctor agreed. "You and your son, both, have kept us very busy. Once he gets some sleep he'll feel a little better, and I've already contacted the university to explain the situation. I suspect this is the first time they've ever had an engineering student called away for a medical emergency, but when I explained that he was involved in the programming of several experimental medical devices that were needed for a life saving procedure, they were more than happy to accommodate things."
"That does sound like a rather unusual situation," Jared agreed. "Should I do anything? Talk to them for him or something?"
"And tell them what, that you've been magically healed thanks to his computer skills?" Major Williams quipped.
Jared opened his mouth, paused, took a deep breath and then let it go. "OK, stupid me."
"Let's go see David, huh?" the doctor asked softly.
"OK, lets," Jared said with a smile, looking over his shoulder as they left the room.
Beautiful, just beautiful.