Chapter Four: Stigmata
“We serve most those beliefs that we first reject.”
—The Cynic’s Book of Wisdom
“[Animals] do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.”
(1819 – 1892)
Date: 2525.10.15 (Standard) Bakunin – BD+50°1725
Nickolai Rajastahn slowly woke from a drugged slumber. For a few brief, precious moments, he didn’t remember the past year. His subconscious still refused to accept his punishment, or his exile. For a moment he was ready to find himself in his own bed in the southern palace, to smell the scent of his siblings, his sisters. . .
Then he remembered.
He wasn’t in the southern palace, and he wasn’t on Grimalkin. The priests hadn’t been able, politically, to have a member of the royal family put to death, but they had made sure that he would never set foot on his home planet again.
“Easy there, big boy.” The voice spoke a dialect of the Fallen. It burned in Nicolai’s ears. Even after a year, the alien, almost squishy, tones of their languages were a constant reminder of his crime, and his exile.
The priests had maimed him, and threw him to the chaos of Bakunin to be little more than a beggar in Hell. A lesser person might have spent their time finding an honorable way to die.
Nickolai always had a contrary nature.
“Are you awake?” the voice repeated.
“Yes,” Nickolai slurred.
“Good news. The implants took. I’m going to remove the bandages now. You may want to close your eyes.”
Nickolai couldn’t bring himself to do so. After a year of blindness, he already could sense a fuzzy light source on the periphery of his vision. Then, suddenly, the bandages came away from his face and the world was a bright white light that was too intense for his brain to process.
Surprisingly, his new eyes didn’t hurt.
He blinked and the world changed, eyes adjusting to the brightness quicker than he had ever remembered. Shapes resolved for him and he found himself looking at a too-small examination room. He was reclined in a chair that seemed barely able to hold him.
“Colors seem wrong,” Nickolai slurred.
A human face leaned into his field of vision, looking down at him. “Variable spectral sensitivity. Takes a while to get used to.” The man reached down and pulled up Nicolai’s left eyelid. “Good. No sign of any inflammation.”
The man hit a switch and the chair slowly tilted upright with a pneumatic hiss. The progress was slow, but Nickolai still felt a little dizzy.
“Standard military specs,” the human said. Now that he was awake enough to place the voice, Nickolai remembered his name was Dr. Yee.
The doctor took a double-handful of bandages from an examination tray and tossed them in a disposal chute. “Once you get used to adjusting the settings, you’ll be able to duplicate your natural range of vision. The hard part was scaling up the human design— and the pupil of course. . .”
Nickolai nodded. It was sinking in. This wasn’t just a dream vision, he could actually see. If Dr. Yee wasn’t here to see the loss of dignity, Nickolai would have been jumping off the wall, and roaring an epic curse on the house of the priests who had burned his eyes.
Compared to that, his right arm was almost an afterthought.
He felt his shoulder itch, and he reached over to scratch it. He felt a new scar and looked down.
He had a new right arm. He touched his bicep, and even the yellow and black-striped fur felt real. He flexed his right hand, and his brain told him he could feel bones and tendons flexing even though he knew that the bones were metal and the tendons some sort of mechanical analog.
He extended the claws on his fingers and saw the only obvious sign that this was a prosthetic. The claws on his right hand weren’t black, but a gray metallic alloy.
Dr. Yee noticed Nickolai looking and said, “I apologize for that. This was all custom work, and unfortunately the mechanical tolerances on that hand turned out to be too tight for me to apply any sort of finish to the claws.”
“You did it all in a single operation?”
“I decided it would be easier to hold your body in stasis until I completed all the work. It shortens the recovery and rehabilitation time not to have multiple surgeries. And your benefactor suggested it would be, uh, better if you recovered quickly.”
Nickolai shook his head. Could this actually be real? Could he be whole? No, that is the wrong word. . .
“Intact” was better. He doubted he could be whole again, not after what happened. And now he was three times removed from his home. Once for his crime, twice for the blasphemous mechanical prosthetics now connected to his flesh, three times for the way he had chosen to pay for that blasphemy. His “benefactor,” as Dr. Yee put it.
The priests might have enjoyed the little shame Nickolai felt, until they realized that it was not for his crimes or for Dr. Yee’s unclean attentions. Nickolai’s shame was only for his own impatience.
He was strong enough. He could have waited another year, another five. To collect enough of his own resources to pay for his reconstruction without accepting the terms dictated by Mr. Antonio.
As he pushed himself upright, he knew the reality. What value was his pride and the distant possibility of becoming himself again, when measured against the certainty of regaining his eyes, and his arm? If it required a pact with the Fallen, so be it, the priests had declared him damned already.
“Be cautious with that arm until you are used to it,” Dr. Yee said. “It is unlikely you can damage it, but it could cause you harm if you miscalculate any aggressive action.”
“It is stronger?”
“In some senses. The musculature is calibrated to match your natural limbs, but it has more tensile strength and can move faster—” Dr. Yee touched Nickolai’s shoulder. “You do not want to stress where it is attached.”
Nickolai touched the scar on his bicep, where the amputation had been.
“Oh, yes, that’s the biological skin, but I needed to excavate the remaining bone and much of the muscle that was left so we’d have a clean connection to the joint. Much less likely to have a failure that way.”
One more pound of flesh. No matter.
He looked at Dr. Yee, a full meter shorter than him now that he was standing. He wondered if Dr. Yee was short for a human. He was the first one he had actually seen in person.
“Have you been paid?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” Dr. Yee said. “Quite handsomely. If you have any further need—”
Nickolai ducked down and walked out the door of the examination room.
Nickolai stood outside Dr. Yee’s offices for a long time, facing the city of Godwin. The chaos of noise and scent was familiar, but he hadn’t been prepared to see the city for the first time. A clot-red dawn sky scabbed over the nightmares of a mad architect. There was no coherence to the blocks, spires and twisted forms that made up the buildings of central Godwin. Aircars sped by at every level, dodging pedestrian walkways and tubes that seemed to connect buildings at random. What spaces weren’t filled by buildings, and traffic, and people, were flooded by massive holo displays throbbing with colors too saturated to have originated in this universe.
Godwin was an ugly, overbearing city. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
New eyes also made him more aware than ever that he was alone among the Fallen. Thousands of people moved around him. All in his sight were human. He had known their scent, and had become used to the dull miasma of fear that followed the sons of men around him.
This was the first he had seen their faces. They showed a palette of expression that was alien to him. Most stared at him. Most gave him a wide berth. Most were as short as Dr. Yee.
Nickolai smiled, and that caused the humans nearest to him to turn away and walk faster.
Eventually he began the long walk back to his apartments. He could have taken a cab, but few were built with the descendants of St. Rajastahn in mind. Most of the world of the Fallen was too small to fit Nickolai. Occasionally, he would stop and close his eyes, because it was easier to remember his way without the visual distractions.
He had reached his neighborhood on the desolate fringes of East Godwin when he heard a familiar voice call his name.
“Yo, Nick, that you?” The words were uglier in this mouth than Dr. Yee’s. It was fitting, because the mouth belonged to an uglier person. Nickolai slowly turned to face the speaker. “Has to be, can’t be too many Tiger-men this side of Tau Ceti can it?”
The squat man talking to him had just walked out a bar rank with the smell of alcohol and human musk. The garish pink holo above the entry spelled out “Candyland” in cascades of undulating pink flesh. It was almost a visual expression of one of the scriptures’ name for human being, “Naked Devil.”
“Well fuck me, eyes too— went the distance did you?” The odious little man took off a pair of sunglasses, and before pocketing them, Nickolai could see a streaming display showing several views inside the club, where dozens of naked men and women danced for a packed crowd. He was briefly astonished at the clarity of the image, making him realize that his new eyes were an order of magnitude more sensitive than the ones the priests burned out of his skull. The man rubbed the bridge of his nose. “When you coming back to work?”
Nickolai wondered to himself if he had simply passed this way by oversight, or if on a subconscious level he had planned it.
“Mr. Salvador, I gave you my notice.”
Salvador laughed. “‘Notice,’ he says.” He broke off coughing. “Really, Nick, I forgive you.”
Nickolai noticed movement out of the corner of his eyes.
“And, in fact I’m feeling real generous. I’m not even going to dock you for the two weeks you missed.” Salvador smiled at Nickolai. “A blind one-armed morey was more a novelty than a bouncer— but fully functional? That’s useful.”
Nickolai could smell the quartet of humans circling behind him. And when he heard Salvador use the ancient slur “morey,” Nickolai knew he had come this way on purpose.
He shifted his weight on his digitigrade legs to lower his center of gravity, and positioned his arms in preparation of a confrontation. He looked down at Salvador, who was oblivious to Nickolai’s shift in posture or what it meant.
“I no longer work for you,” Nickolai said.
“Nick, Nick, Nick. I cut you slack because you aren’t from round here. You don’t know how it works on Bakunin. You owe me tiger-boy. You think a cripple like you’d survive half a day in East Godwin without my protection? You think that ends when you get some flesh hacker to make you nice and pretty? No, you work for me until I give you notice.”
Nickolai shook his head. “No.”
“Nick, I’m disappointed. For a morey it seemed you had good sense.” Salvador shook his head. “Don’t mess him up too bad.”
The four figures behind him converged. Nickolai didn’t need to see them to understand their positions. He could hear the heavy footfalls, and he could smell their sweat. Four males, large ones, and their strides carried a mass beyond their size. Either powered armor or heavy cybernetic implants, and because he heard no servos, Nickolai thought the latter.
He pivoted on one digitigrade leg and crouched to face his attackers. He also did something he had never done while bouncing for Salvador—
He extended his claws.
Four perfectly matched enforcers. Hairless, with muscles so perfectly delineated that they might have been taken for dancers inside the club. Time slowed as adrenaline sharpened most of his senses. His vision was already sharper than it ever had been, even in the thick of combat training.
Two grappled him just as he turned, wrapping their arms around his waist, aiming to take him down and make him vulnerable to the others’ attacks. Nickolai was already braced against their momentum; they were of secondary importance.
Primary, was the man swinging a pipe at his new eyes.
Nickolai grabbed the man’s wrist with his left hand and thrust up with his right, at the elbow. Nickolai could feel a jarring sensation in his shoulder as his new arm connected. However, whatever Nickolai might have felt was dwarfed by what his attacker must have felt when his elbow— cyber-enhanced or not— gave way in the wrong direction.
The man’s gasping intake of breath had barely begun to turn into something more urgent when the second attacker brought his own club to bear. Nickolai blocked the blow with his new right forearm. The impact shuddered through his whole body, but the new limb withstood it.
That man stopped a moment, as stunned by the lack of reaction as if he had been struck himself. Nickolai did not give him a second chance. His own cybernetic hand struck out, claws first, into his neck. It was a blow developed by the warrior-priests of Grimalkin that simultaneously crushed the windpipe and opened the jugular. The man instantly dropped his weapon to clutch his throat.
The two men grappling him had just realized something was amiss. They weren’t warriors, and they weren’t prepared to deal with one.
Nickolai brought his right elbow down on the back of one’s neck, dropping him, and as the last one let go, Nickolai brought the first attacker’s weapon— still clutched in that man’s hand— down on last one’s skull.
The fight had lasted five seconds.
Nickolai turned around to face Salvador. The man had backed up to the doorway of his club and was holding a cheap laser handgun at Nickolai.
“You fucked up bad here, Nick.”
It was Nickolai’s turn to laugh. “Mr. Salvador, I am a scion of the house of Rajastahn. I have been trained to shed blood since before I could speak, and it is the highest sacrament of my faith to offer the blood of the Fallen to God. Do you think I cannot kill you before you decide where to aim that toy?” Nickolai struck with his new arm. The laser spun out into the darkness and Salvador gasped, cradling a lacerated hand. Nickolai leaned in toward him, so their faces were only centimeters apart. “Do you forget why we were created?”
“You can’t do this, Nick. People will find you.”
“My name is Nickolai.” Nickolai stood up. “And, despite the pleasure it would give me. I am not going honor you with death at my hands.” He glanced back at the four attackers, all quite literally fallen now. “And if you value these men, you should get them medical attention.”
Nickolai turned and walked away.
“This is a big mistake, Nick.” Salvador shouted after him. “You’re going to regret it!”
“I think not,” Nickolai growled to himself in his native tongue.