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Stupid Sexy Jensen

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The first thing Adam noticed when he woke up was the headache.

It had been a while since he’d last woken up with a real headache. The day following Ruzicka had been one of them, his entire body feeling like it was vibrating and caught in a vise at the same time. Resetting his system had fixed that, but up until then, he had felt jittery and pained. When he summoned the HUD, he found a warning message, which he brought to the fore as he dragged himself out of sleep.

The message said simply, warning – CASIE module has an encountered an error and is not responding. Please reset the module and try again.

He stared blankly at the dark ceiling above a fan that currently wasn’t moving, vaguely aware of cold, damp air on his skin. When a shiver passed through him, he yanked the blankets up to his shoulders and glared at the message. Still groggy, he went deeper into the menus, trying to find more information. All that returned were hex codes and details about memory modules and a threading problem with the “central command unit”, the wetware mounted into his brain that allowed him to control all of his augmentations as easily as his natural functions.

What startled him fully awake, however, was the more plain-English explanation of the error: the CASIE module is currently outputting at high capacity. To return behavior to normal, please reset the module. A little more digging prompted him to groan in irritation: the module was telling his body to produce higher-than-normal levels of pheromones, what he normally used to aid in difficult situations, and while it wouldn’t have a negative effect on him, it would definitely make sweet-talking someone a lot easier.

The problem was that he had no way of actually resetting the module himself. That took someone with the right tools and a direct link to his wetware. While he had high-level access to all functions, root access was denied to him under normal circumstances, and an outside connection had low-level privileges by default.

He was, in truth, two computers, the synthetic one wrapped around the core organic one, and right now, they were working together far too well.

Not enjoying the jarring gap between his higher-than-average body temperature and the cold air of his apartment, Adam forced himself out of bed and briefly rubbed his arms on instinct, trying to rid himself of the shivers. The friction temporarily turned the chill into warmth, but it didn’t last, so he grabbed the blanket and slung it around his shoulders. It was three in the morning on a Wednesday, he didn’t have to go in for another three hours, and he had no idea what had awoken him, but the knowledge of this glitch was enough to keep him up.

The first thing he tried was reaching to his doctor, Vaclav Koller. As the one person who had been roaming around inside his systems within the past six months, he would probably know how to fix this before it became too much of a problem. As long as CASIE behaved and he didn’t talk to anyone too gullible, he would be fine.

When Koller didn’t respond, Adam chastised himself – was it all that surprising he wasn’t up and around at this hour?

Beyond the blinds, fat snowflakes fell out of the sky, with no hint of slowing.

Next, he started to contact his boss, but disconnected the call before it got much further than a few seconds. No, Miller didn’t need to be woken up this early, even though he probably was already close to getting up as it was, not when it had only been about a month since he had nearly died from the Orchid.

Finally, he crawled back under the covers and tried to go to sleep, but his mind felt far too active, so he instead lay there for an hour, eyes closed, but not drifting away.

At four, he dragged himself out of bed again and put on a long-sleeved shirt of a thick, heavy fabric, trapping the heat inside his body and taking the chill away, then pulled on his pants. With the soft whirring of his augs, not normally audible but for his hypersensitive hearing, he left the bedroom and stood in his living area for a long moment, staring out the window. The Blade stretched over the city just stared back at him from a dark, clouded sky, occasionally blurred by snowflakes as they fell through his line of sight.

At the edge of his vision, the warning flickered again.

He briefly bared his teeth and dug into the menus again, but could find no obvious way of making the warning go away, or at least stop showing so frequently.

Going into the kitchen and taking the time to actually make a real breakfast was the only way he could think of easily burning away time, and the repetitive motions of cutting and shifting bits and pieces around gave him a chance to think. He had only gotten back into doing this recently, and muscle memory hadn’t quite recalled the days of making his own food just yet, which worked for his purposes this morning.

For a moment, he stopped and stared at the wall. With the help of CASIE under normal conditions, he could persuade just about anyone to give him what he wanted. With the output turned up to its highest “safe” setting, he had been able to talk down even the worst he encountered, unless they were immune to the effects.

With CASIE turned up far past the “safe” maximum, the realization dawned that, if he couldn’t adjust the output on the fly like normal, that left him with a dangerous weapon.

Adam stopped, leaned on his elbows, and dropped his face in both hands. As a dangerous weapon.

In the few times he had needed to turn the output to the safe maximum, he had been able to sway even savage gangsters to his side, if only for a moment. Most of them had simply been taken in by a tongue silvered by tech, regarding the owner of said tech with obvious disdain despite giving him what he wanted. Others had collapsed under pressure, unable to withstand the ghosts lingering in his words, conjured by a scarred psyche.

There were others, though, who had bowed to his whim rather easily, taken in by the sight of a face made attractive by CASIE’s silken touch, or more attractive. Months of encounters had taught him that, no matter how he still perceived his body, others found his face, his body, his style, even the way he moved to be attractive. Some found the combination of flesh and metal enticing, fetishizing shapes and contrasts of pale skin with carbon fiber, while others simply liked the look of his face and the way his expensive coat fell from his shoulders. Others were unconvinced until he opened his mouth, taken in just by his usual, soft manner of speech.

If even a small part of Prague’s inhabitants were even slightly attracted, just getting to work would be a nightmare. And once in the office, if the analysts and agents giving him side-eyes and whispering behind his back were any indication of the truth of the matter...

Adam suddenly decided he did not want to leave his apartment.

All he could do was tell Miller that CASIE was malfunctioning and hope his boss didn’t decide that the ability to sweet talk anyone who crossed his path wasn’t suddenly quite useful.

But even he knew, deep inside, that it was pointless to hope for. Miller was stern and strait-laced, but also practical, and while he might realize the risks, they were still virtually harmless. Yes, he could potentially cause problems just by being in the vicinity of anyone who might succumb, but all that meant was that his job just got a lot easier. Unethical, probably, but still useful, if it caused him no direct harm.

After breakfast, he again tried contacting Koller, and once more received no response. He paced for a few moments, trying to gather the courage to leave, before once more pinging his back-alley doctor. He kept at it, ashamed of himself for giving in to the faint touch of panic at his throat, but seeing no way out of his predicament otherwise.

Then, the line clicked open. “Jensen! You never do this, man, what’s going on?”

The shame deepened. “Got a problem with my systems.”

“What, again? What, you hit your head real good this time, or you get blown up by some Dvali?”

“No, uh... CASIE broke.”

Pause. “CASIE... broke how?”

“It’s outputting beyond the safe limit, and I can’t turn it off.”

Longer pause, punctuated by a mumbled string of what he could only assume were Czech swears. “Jensen, you know, you should be more careful how you deal–”

“I woke up like this, Koller.”

“Oh.” Pause. “Well, this is a new one. How about this: you come by, and I’ll see if I can fix you up, okay? We’ll get your little problem fixed up real good, and you have no more worries, how about that?”

Somehow, Adam doubted that outcome very much. “Sure. Be there soon.”

It took him longer than usual to gather his courage, and he stood at the door, rooted at the spot, for nearly a full minute. He already didn’t like being treated as some kind of product. He already didn’t like the stares and the whispers behind his back they thought he couldn’t hear. While it might be nice to have less disdain surrounding him wherever he went, he also knew that the other end of the spectrum was one he didn’t really want to encounter.

One hand grasped the handle before his courage again faltered. In the enclosed space that was TF29’s Prague branch, the HVAC system might be his worst enemy.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to open the door and stepped outside.

This early in the morning in winter, there weren't many people out. There was no snow at all, though a little frost sparkled in the corners in the dim light around him. One woman stood at the railing, a half-finished cigarette in one hand, but regarded him with only a mildly curious, lingering look before taking a long drag. The incident offered him a little relief; he made his way to the ground level, hesitated near the doors, and pushed them open.

A drone hummed overhead, its robotic voice noting the area as being “secure”, while across the alley, an elderly man stood at a barrel holding coal with his hands over it, paying nothing else any mind. A masked officer briefly glanced his way from a distant corner; he felt his skin prickle, but for the moment, the CASIE readout offered him nothing. Either no one was close enough yet, or he wasn’t affecting anyone.

He turned toward the metro, determined to soldier through the checkpoints and get to work with as little–

“Hold it right there, Aug.”

His stomach immediately plopped to the ground as he faced the voice. “Yes, ma’am?”

The officer was shorter than him, stout, and clearly strong under her uniform – she had checked his papers before, but it had been a few weeks, so perhaps she found it prudent. He remembered her being nice enough before, so he shifted his weight and dug around for his ID and papers. It wouldn’t take long, after all.

“It’s been a while since I’ve checked your papers,” she said, her voice stern and strong. “Hand them over.”

CASIE blipped. He pointedly ignored it and handed her his ID.

She took the stack and fanned it with one hand, the other resting on her rifle. The chilly air picked up a moment in a breeze that flowed right across his collar and brushed exposed skin; he shivered and pulled the coat a little tighter around himself in response. This wouldn’t take very long, he knew, no matter how much the CASIE icon flashed in the corner of his vision and pestered him to please just look at it. He was not going to give it the satisfaction.

“And where are you off to so early, Mr. Jensen?”

He winced. None of the officers ever used his name when addressing him. “Work.”

The stack of papers and plastic shifted; she turned it a different way, then looked up at him, eyes studying his face for a long moment. CASIE pestered him again; he felt himself tense. “This early? What could you be going off to do, I wonder? What could be so urgent that you would be in such a hurry, hmm?”

Adam’s resolve cracked, and he expanded the CASIE notification. The readout told him she was doing a great job staying professional, but that some... interesting physiological changes were taking place.

He felt warmth touch his cheeks. “It’s important work.”

“An Aug walking with your urgency isn’t normally up to any good. This ID you have here... I remember it.” She waved the stack, keeping it out of his immediate reach, though his fingers twitched to snatch it away. “Maybe I should keep you here a little longer, hmm? Just to make sure you’re not getting into trouble?”

Oh. Oh, no. “No, ma’am, I’m not getting in trouble, but I do, ah, need to get going.”

She squinted. “I’m not sure. Maybe I need to bring you in to be sure.”

Good thing his stomach had already fallen through his feet, though he could feel the rest of him trying to follow. “Ah... no, ma’am, that won’t be necessary.” And now he was using “ma’am”. Normally, he reserved that for his superiors, and now he called on that to try and maintain some kind of distance. Maybe, if he kept using a term clearly meant for an authority, she would eventually get the hint.

CASIE cheerily provided information about changes occurring – blush response and pupil dilation, for the moment – that he recognized, and really didn’t want to.

“If... you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I really need to get going.” He extended a hand, palm up. Body language.

After a few more tense seconds, he noticed her pulse briefly spike before she handed the stack back to him. The edge of her finger brushed his; he swallowed and quickly tucked the papers into his inner breast pocket, not even bothering to say anything further over his shoulder as he strode away again to the next checkpoint.

As he waited in line, however, he grew aware of someone whispering behind him. Folding his arms, he tried not to look, but CASIE seemed absolutely thrilled to tune into his surroundings. The notification blinked at him; he opened it with great reluctance to find several signatures around him, regarding him with interest. Two were significantly more so than the others; he shifted his weight and willed the line to go faster.

Thankfully, the officer he encountered was purely professional, a stern youth who only looked at papers long enough to get the gist before moving on.

At this hour, there was no one to notice as he went through the cast-iron gate into the Time Machine’s courtyard, crunching across dead leaves and frost as he walked. Even down where drifters normally liked to gather for their morning smokes, he found no one, and he entered the bookstore without incident.

With the front door locked, he ascended to the second story, unstuck a window, and squeezed through the resulting narrow gap with a few grunts of irritated effort. At the very back of the store – long cleaned up, thankfully, with shelves back in place and books lined up neatly once more – he slid the secret shelf aside, punched the elevator button, and waited with a little anxiety as the car rose to his position. The sooner he got this fixed, the better.

In the dimly-lit surgical ward of Vaclav Koller, he found the augmented doctor leaning on the chair in the middle of the room, looking far too eager. “Hey, Jensen, there you are! You took your time.”

“I got held up,” he muttered. “Let’s get this over with.”

Koller’s eyes seemed to light up. Or maybe it was just a trick of the strange illumination he liked to use. “Right, yeah, of course. Just get in the chair and we’ll... take a really, really close look at that hardware of yours. You know how much I always wanted to get my hands deep in your hardware, Jensen.”

He froze in place. “Ah... Koller–”

“What? It’s fine, don’t worry. I know what I’m doing, and if I get to play with that wonderful hardware–”

Adam took a step back. “Look, maybe I sh–”

The other man laughed quietly and waved his hands. “I’m just teasin’, Jensen. It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with something like this, okay? I’ve got my immunity set up. I can’t smell a thing.” He tapped the side of his nose. Adam could only assume he had something there. “Now, come here and let’s fix you up.”

Adam gave him a long, reluctant look, then shrugged off his coat and settled himself in the chair, feeling Koller connect a cable to a port on one arm. A prickling feeling came from there for just a moment.

“Okay, let’s see... diagnostic systems... hmm. You change the root pass– wait, no, I got it. Ah, Unix, how I love thee.”

Adam flexed the fingers of that hand. “Sarif is all proprietary.”

“It’s as ‘proprietary’ as Apple or Solaris, Jensen. It’s all built on a familiar platform, even if it’s buried. Okay, so, let’s go ahead and– okay, fine, ‘sudo’ it is...” Koller’s fingers tapped at a keyboard, one that sounded mechanical from the chunky sound each key made as it actuated. “Okay, going down... going down... stop that... no, I don’t want you... no, go back you stupid– okay, yeah, here we– no, no, I don’t need you–”

“Having fun there?”

“Oh, yes, plenty. Sarif has nice bloatware.” Koller couldn’t have sounded more annoyed if he tried. “Ah... okay, here we go! Found the logs!” More keys clicking. Koller mumbled to himself, though all Adam could make out was a mantra more or less made out of “logs” and “come on” in a singsong sort of voice.

Adam tried not to move, but the feeling of his synthetic limbs becoming restless urged him to do exactly that, so he made do with shifting his legs around and flexing his free hand. It was a phantom syndrome, of course, but he knew he would likely continue to deal with it for the rest of his life.

“Oh.”

He looked abruptly at the doctor. “Oh?”

“Ah... it needs... it’s a kernel problem. Basically, there was a breakdown in some of the packages. The CASIE ones got corrupted. The main kernel can’t talk to the module, which is why you can’t talk to it. Oh, man...” Koller straightened, one hand on his hip and the other rubbing through his unkempt hair. “I need an update to repair it.”

Adam didn’t have a lot of idea what had just been said. “Okay, fine,” he said impatiently. “So, let’s do it.”

“Problem.” Koller looked sheepish. “Ah... Sarif updates were stopped in early 2028, when R&D shut down. There’s a nice homebrow community, but it’s not easy stuff to come by. I also need to match the update with your kernel and all the packages and drivers, and since you’ve got unique hardware... um, well... it’ll be a while.”

Adam stared at him. “Koller? How long is ‘a while’?”

“Uh, well...” The hand in the hair moved a little more vigorously. “...last time I tried something like this, I had to dig around for a few days. For you, it’ll probably be longer.”

Adam swallowed the rising panic. “Can’t... can’t you do–”

“I’d need to shut down every process and thread CASIE uses, and since it’s all unique, I would probably turn off stuff you actually need. If you want me to shut the module down totally, I’d need a few hours to go over the code.” The hand stopped moving, and he took a step back. “I’m sorry, Jensen, but I’ve got a lot of work to do, and so do you. I’ll devote every minute I can spare, of course, but for now... you’re kind of on your own.”

He slumped back in the chair, mind immediately racing to all the terrible things that were sure to follow. He couldn’t even think of anything to say. There was nothing to say. Though he considered staying right there in the bookstore, hiding away from the world, he also knew it wasn’t realistic. Miller would only tolerate so much, and he wasn’t all that likely to think of this as being critical enough for disability leave.

Even though he probably could get disability for it, he would still have to wait for approval.

No, for now, he would just have to be brave.

“Alright, then. Thanks for trying.” Reluctantly, he peeled himself out of the chair, picked up his discarded coat, and put it back on. The growing dread in the pit of his stomach made him feel a little sick. “I guess... I’ll hear from you when you have the... whatever it is I need, exactly?”

“I need to get a new kernel pack, so it’ll have kernel updates and packages to take care of your systems. You’ll have a new kernel version, but it’ll work the same as your old one, probably. Close enough, anyway. Thank goodness I didn’t need to do the BIOS, because that–” Waving his hands, he drew the last word out, eyes widened. “I’m not touching that. So, anyway, yeah, I’ll keep in touch. Uh... anything else you need before you go?”

“Yeah. Anything I can do to make this less dangerous?”

Koller gave him another sheepish look. “Not really, man, sorry. Just don’t get close if you don’t have to, don’t talk if you don’t have to, and, ah, keep your coat on. The ladies don’t need to see that.”

Adam looked down at himself. In objective terms, he did have what was considered an attractive build, so it was probably for the best. While he still had some trouble seeing himself being as attractive as before his augmentations, he knew it was a reality, even in today’s world. “And, uh, if I’m in an enclosed space with an HVAC...”

“Don’t do that.”

“I won’t be able to help it.”

“Then, ah... then try not to... breathe too much?”

Koller.”

“Look, sorry, man, but that’s your problem.” The doctor seemed to smile. Maybe. “All I do is fix your broken bits. I’ll let you know when I have the stuff, but I have other clients, too, and you can live with this for a few days.” As Adam’s face darkened, Koller definitely smiled. “Ah, think of it this way, Jensen: it’ll be a lot easier to bargain!”

“And what about just trying to go to work, huh?”

“That module has a minimum distance of sorts. As long as you’re not in an enclosed area, you should be fine.” Adam could practically see the finger-quotes around “should”, making his expression sour. “Besides, it’s not an aphrodisiac. People aren’t going to fall madly in love with you out of the blue. They’re just kinda more susceptible to doing whatever you ask of them, okay? Sure, you’ll find some, ah... of ‘those folk’ in your travels, and ah... other things like that, but just don’t encourage them, and you should be okay.”

Looking down at himself, he was suddenly very aware of how much of his clothing hugged his figure. It was practical, of course, keeping him from snagging on his environment or generating too much noise, but it also had the side effect of getting a few appreciative looks here and there. The Red Light District had been particularly bad, and the number of those who cared nothing for his status as an Aug, or outright fetishized him for it, had been high enough that he had ultimately needed to flat-out ignore the people to keep from being uncomfortable.

CASIE had a minimum effective distance. That was going to be his saving grace as he walked through the much busier central plaza and along the waterfront.

“I need to get to work.” He shook out his hands. “Thanks for your help, Koller. Keep in touch.”

“Yeah, sure.” The other man rubbed his chin, furrowing his brow. “Be careful out there, Jensen. It shouldn’t be too bad, but I would still keep your eyes open just in case, alright?”

“Yeah.” He took a breath, rubbed his temple, and nodded. “Probably best.”

Chapter Text

Prekazka was the abode of the augmented, all decaying walls and dead leaves strewn across cobblestone. Those who could not afford to live in the nicer apartments, as he did, eked out their living instead in run-down complexes of sagging roofs and yellowed windows. Those deeper still in economic depression were forced to live instead wherever they could find something between them and the sky. Normally, this meant they watched him warily from shadows and over shoulders, eyes darting about, worn clothes pulled tight around their shoulders. When he moved close, they shied away, put off by his shiny augmentations and well-fitting, expensive clothes. He always felt a little out of place, both part of the outcasts and separate from them, uncomfortable in his finery alongside dirtied skin and tattered trousers.

He always had to wander near someone exploring the trash, or huddling near the coals of a fire. He often bumped shoulders with women in questionable styles, who had long given up on offering him their services. The narrow streets provided tight quarters, and the wind always walked the same path.

Normally, he didn’t notice any of this. But then, normally, reality didn’t turn inside out.

The first thing he noticed was the wind. It blew against his back, slow and lazy, but strong enough to carry the scent of every restaurant and overflowing trash bin from far behind him. Cold and damp, it fiddled with his collar, demanding to be let in to touch his skin; he cinched the jacket closer to keep it out.

The second thing he noticed was a change in the atmosphere around him. Someone bumped his shoulder, lingering longer than usual; he didn’t let it bother him, continuing on his path back to the main plaza. None of the street-walkers would dare accost him here, right in front of the officers... or would they? Would the police care much about Augs fraternizing with their own kind, engaging in services usually denied to them elsewhere?

The metro station wasn’t far. That was what kept his feet moving beneath him.

Something touched his arm. It felt warm, even through his coat; he instinctively tensed, but maintained control over his limbs as he looked over at the source.

The woman was one he had seen many times before – tall, slender, and leggy, undoubtedly attractive, with worn but still stylish clothes and a little too much eye makeup for his liking. Her outfit exposed a section of her thighs, just below her figure-hugging shorts and above nylons that stopped high above the knee. “It’s cold out,” she murmured, in a thick accent, but soft voice. “Are you going somewhere warm?”

“I– ah... yes. I am. To work.” It had been a while since anyone had been so bold as to just reach out and grab his arm, but it was hardly a truly intimate gesture.

“That’s too bad. I know of something much warmer.” When her other arm looped around his, he froze. “I’ve seen you around here. You are always alone. Does that make you sad?”

Not wanting to be rude, he said, “I haven’t... really... thought about it.”

Her hand glided up his arm; he instinctively flinched away, but she didn’t let go, or seem to notice. “Here, why don’t you call in and go somewhere very warm? I can give you warmth. My mouth is a garden of sun-warmed roses.”

Adam yanked out of her grip, feeling his skin flush hot. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“But you’re not fine. You are alone. I can–”

While he couldn’t immediately tell if she was augmented, he knew he would be stronger and faster regardless. Still, he could feel his fight-or-flight instinct prickling up his spine. “I am fine, thank you.” Against the chilly air, his skin felt so hot that he might as well have been on fire.

But the woman, though looking disappointed, seem undeterred. “I’ve heard that many times before. I am–”

“Is this one bothering you, sir?”

Adam’s skin promptly reversed course and drained itself of color. “She– I– she– we– I’ve got–”

The same female officer from before came striding toward them, helmet closed and hand on her rifle. “You! Even here, you should not be accosting people in the street! If they tell you to leave, you do so!”

“Many of these men are lonely and feel guilty for saying yes! A few assurances–”

“You do not accost people in the street!”

Not wanting to cloak himself this close to the two women, knowing the sudden shift and faint sound would draw attention, he instead attempted to sidestep out of their peripheral vision, counting on them being too busy arguing to notice. For a few moments, it seemed to work, and he got a good distance away before deeming it safe enough to walk normally again. If that was the worst he would encounter, he could deal with it.

But his stomach, which he had just barely recovered, again plummeted to his feet when he heard the officer shout behind him, and he looked back to see her – and the street-walker – fast approaching.

He found his voice with some effort. “I’m fine!”

“You were being harassed in the street,” the officer said firmly. “That alone is grounds–”

“Hey, he said he’s okay!” A new voice joined the fray, as feminine as the others; he swallowed and cursed the wind for carrying CASIE around the area. A woman dressed in winter clothes peeled away from a nearby group and stormed up to the officer. “I’ve seen him around! He is nice! Neither of you should harass him!”

“I am not harassing him, I am doing my duty as an officer. Now, please, mo–”

“No! He does not deserve this!”

Another woman started shouting in Czech, followed closely by yet another. Adam glanced over at the metro entrance to find it still a long ways off, feeling far more distant than usual after all of this, before being abruptly jostled hard enough to stumble. Two women had appeared on either side of him, both of them clinging to his arms; he wrenched himself free and dodged their reach as they pawed at him again, only to nearly trip over a woman who appeared out of nowhere and caught him before he could fall.

Mortified, he again broke free and quickly made some distance. “Now, hold on a–”

One of the women, a slender brunette with gray eyes, told him, “I personally just wanted to be sure you were okay. No one should be treated like that, Aug or not.” She held out her hands, fingers splayed. “You’ve always seemed nice. Do you have someone at home to take care of you?”

He swallowed his panic. “This...” Pause. “I have to go.”

Pivoting on his heel, he sprinted away from the mob, hearing a lot of disappointed shouting behind him right before the sound of pounding feet filled the quiet. In a second, though, he realized the metro was the absolute worst place he could go, and just as he tried to skid to a halt and change direction – there had to be a way, some way to get to another district without the metro – he ran directly into a police officer and knocked both of them over.

Adam immediately panicked, apologizing profusely as he scrambled to get back on his feet. The confused officer shouted at him in Czech, flailing wildly in an attempt to get back up, and though he didn’t have his translation software running, he could guess the poor man was shouting a stream of obscenities.

The mob of strangely desperate females descended on him just as he got upright again, splitting their time between trying to touch him and arguing with each other. He again wrenched himself free, dodged cleanly, and bolted the other direction, but they followed right on his heels.

Until he suddenly heard the crack of armor hitting cobblestone, and risked a look back to find the female officer having ended up on the ground, but she climbed back up quickly and shoved one of the women – presumably, the one who had knocked her over – away from her. This quickly culminated in a brawl, the viciousness of which made him wince and think of the bar fights he’d broken up in Detroit, and he used the opportunity to bolt out of sight, dive into a gap between buildings down an alleyway, and catch his breath.

The sound of the mob could still be heard even from here.

Swallowing his fear, he cursed CASIE and considered his options. If he used the cloak, he could make it to the metro, though the strain of having to stay cloaked that long would definitely hurt, and it wouldn’t shield CASIE’s output. He would still be at the mercy of the wind. The cloak worked best when he was still, when the faint warping of light caused by his outline was less noticeable.

He peered out from his hiding spot. There was no one around that he could see, and it looked like the drones were more interested in the brawl than anything else.

He checked his energy reserves. They were still fresh.

Deploying the cloak, he slinked out from his hiding spot and began making his way toward the metro. Drones spat out robotic demands from the sky, while several male officers had joined the fray and were now pulling the women apart. He heard one of them demanding to know what had come over the female officer, with her response being a harsh retort about doing her job and why doesn’t he just stay out of it?

Several of the other women had been forced away from the group and now stood around blinking confusedly, as though waking from a dream.

He was currently downwind of them. The immediate danger had passed.

Keeping low to the ground and picking his way, he crossed the plaza to the metro. Only one officer remained on the midpoint landing, helmet deployed and rifle at the ready, though still aimed at the ground, so he kept moving, wincing as the checkpoints reacted to his passing, until he made it to the platform. The ventilation swept across his exposed skin; he froze as the two women on the Aug side looked all around with curious expressions.

Placing each step as deliberately as possible, he crept past them to the map and hunkered down. All he had to do was get to TF29, and things would be better.

He swallowed again. The district was always crowded. It was the business district of this part of the city, after all.

“Is someone there? Why are you hiding?”

Again trying not to panic, Adam took shallower breaths. The ventilation system was no doubt carrying CASIE all around the platform. If he was found, the women outside might find him again, and then he would really be in trouble.

“You don’t have to hide. We won’t hurt you.”

The power drain tickled; he could stay in one spot, cloaked, for a very long time, but he could still feel the strain slightly if he moved a limb or shifted his weight. Just getting from his hiding spot to here had been a strain that made him feel tired – something he could recover, quickly, if he turned the cloak back off.

Reluctantly, he straightened and shut off the Glass-Shield. “Sorry, ladies,” he said, “I was, ah, accosted outside.”

One of them looked him up and down. “I can see why. Is that why you are hidden?”

“Yeah, and I would’ve stayed like that, but...” He shook his head and sighed. “I need to recover my stamina.”

The other woman cocked an eyebrow.

He blinked, considered, and hastily added, “From using the cloak to get here.”

The women seemed all too happy to take him in, but at least they kept a respectful distance. “So, where are you headed?”

“To work.” He shrugged. “Nothing more than that.” He heard the rumble of the train approaching and sent a silent prayer of thanks as it rolled into the station. Excusing himself, he got onto the first car and quickly made his way to a spot away from the others, determined not to have any further incidents. The two women boarded as well, staying within sight of him, but only talked and giggled among themselves, leaving him in relative peace.

The doors to the car opened... onto a thickly-packed platform in the city’s Naturals Only district.

Adam immediately froze, rooted to the spot, before realizing the breeze here went into the car rather than flowing out of it, which gave him a few moments to get his bearings. With some effort, he got himself moving again, squeezing past a grumpy-faced elderly woman and an urbanite youth whose coffee he jostled, then fast-walking to the stairs and ascending them on the Aug side as quickly as possible.

To his relief, no one invaded his space. Instead, he heard chattering behind him and sensed an aura of excitement, which he could live with for the moment.

He had a much easier time getting through the checkpoints, his explanations taken without hesitation, and one of the officers giving a dutiful glance-over before handing his papers back with only a short nod. Those who stopped him gave him no hostility, not even a slur thrown his way – a refreshing change from the norm.

He exited into the central plaza to find snowflakes – small, dry ones now – drifting out of the sky. A lot of people wandered around him, while others hurried on their way to what he could only assume were their jobs. For the most part, everyone kept to themselves, though he received plenty of appreciative looks when he passed a group of young women – younger than him, if he had to guess – standing on the corner with coffees in their hands.

He dodged a line of pedestrians as he crossed the street. “Excuse me,” he murmured, shouldering his way past.

One of the women responded, “You are always excused for me, beautiful!”

It was, of course, spoken under duress. Under normal circumstances, he never heard any real compliments, just some vaguely appreciative language and plenty of admiring glances from the few who dared do so. Still, the word felt... nice to hear, no matter the circumstance. Two years on, he still had trouble looking at himself and seeing a person, though the pieces were coming together, steadily, if haltingly.

Sometimes, he thought about the parts of him that were gone, and he felt bitter. Most of the time, though, he thought little of it anymore, accepting what had happened as an unchanging part of who he was.

Quite suddenly, as he turned the last corner, he collided with someone. The scent of coffee, thick with sugar, drenched the air, followed by the splat of liquid hitting the ground. Adam backpedaled immediately, apologizing, and swept some of the sweet-smelling liquid off his coat. The synthetic fibers clung to the scent, but most of the wetness flowed freely, droplets flying through the air as he brushed them away.

“Ah, some wrench, not watching where he is going? Typical.” The man grumbled something else, while his female companion glared at Adam. “You owe me another!”

Adam frowned. “Look, I don’t want any trouble. Let’s just go–”

“And what do you think you’re doing?”

The demand cut off Adam’s ability to come up with the rest of the sentence. Puzzled, he looked between them, only to find the woman’s expression having softened, and she seemed very interested in him. “I’m trying to get to work. If you’ll excuse me, I just need to get past–”

You owe me a fresh coffee, clank. You are not–”

“Don’t be like that, now.” The woman patted his arm, then took the coffee and examined it. “Number one, there’s plenty left. Number two, if you hadn’t been a moron and put the top on like I told you, this wouldn’t happen. Now, apologize to this man, and we can be on our way.”

“Apologize? He ran into me!”

“Oh, come now, he hasn’t done anything worth being worried about!” A woman further down the street – and downwind of him, he realized – waved her arm in the air, flashing a bright smile. “It’s just a bit of coffee. Looks like it hardly dropped a mouthful. And look! It has the benefit of a great smell!”

Feeling as though he were surrounded by countless hungry piranhas, Adam squared his shoulders and quickly moved away from the group, only to find a few women following and calling out to him. Painfully aware of their eyes on him, he ducked across the street, then, in his hurry, attempted to push the still-locked doors for Praha Dovos. The abrupt collision of his shoulder with the glass sent a shock of pain through him, and he yelped quietly.

Immediately, several of the women came to his side, all of them cooing and offering sympathy. One of them asked if he was in any pain; he assured them he was “fine”, but it didn’t stop one of them from stroking his shoulder where he’d struck the glass and asking a second time.

The discomfort of being touched by stranger overruled his politeness, and he ducked out of their reach and scrambled away. “Thanks for the concern, but I need to get to work,” he said firmly.

All of them looked disappointed, but took the words for what they were and waved as they wandered off again. Once they were all gone, he quickly went through the door to the small courtyard beside Praha Dovos, locked it, and climbed in through the window into the darkened lobby. He headed to the back of the building, closed that door behind him, slid the painting up, and swiped his card... all before realizing he had been holding his breath.

Adam let it out, and it became a groan as it left.

For a moment, as the lift slowly lowered him into the depths below Prague, he felt a sense of relief. There was something about the enclosed space, buried beneath tons of rock, that made him feel safe. There were escape tunnels if anything ever happened to Praha Dovos itself, and the relative quiet in the hidden corners could soothe his mind even during the most difficult days. Most faces were friendly. He had little complaint.

But as he passed through the scanner near the bottom, reality rushed back in. It was enclosed, the HVAC pumping mostly recycled air through the entire area.

He remembered once more the occasional side glance, the flash of a smile here and there, the whispers he caught when they thought he wasn’t anywhere nearby. While much of it had died down once he had become a fixture, it had never actually gone away, though no one dared approach him about it. The only person who consistently gave him her attention and had become a friend to him was Aria Argento.

The flow of chemicals he could not control would probably embolden everyone.

The doors slid open with a thunk of hydraulics, and the dry air of Task Force 29 momentarily blew into his face. Though it was still relatively early, the place was already abuzz with activity, the central ring of desks and terminals on the ground floor already sporting most of those he had grown used to seeing. A few people glanced up, but went back to their business moments later.

Adam took a breath and reluctantly stepped into the commons, forcing himself to keep his hands away from his pockets and not instinctively scrunch up his shoulders. It was hard enough battling the tension rippling through his body, and harder still to keep even the slightest semblance of it off his face.

And it took willpower almost unlike any he’d ever had to expend not to make a beeline for the stairs.

He relaxed as best he could and headed at his most businesslike, but definitely not at all harried, pace and ascended the stairs without looking back. He might have heard a whisper behind him, and the suggestion of a giggle, but he wasn’t giving anyone the satisfaction of looking. Instead, he squared his shoulders, taking the most direct route to his director’s office.

An office which, to his dismay, was dark and locked when he tried the door.

For a long moment, he stood in front of said door and stared accusingly at the empty desk, blaming it for all of his issues. Only Miller could really give him the okay to go home, as a request for sick leave had to be approved by him anyway, and if he just up and hid at home, he doubted it would go over well, no matter the reasons. Miller was pragmatic, and he would use any possible advantage TF29 had available to him, up to and including CASIE malfunctioning.

Groaning quietly, he stepped back and glared at the door, then the desk, before folding his arms and turning his focus inward to try and decide what he could possibly do.

“Good morning, agent.”

The sudden, familiar voice startled him; he jumped slightly and looked to see his superior approaching. “Ah... yeah, it’s definitely morning, sir,” he offered.

Miller just looked at him a long moment before swiping his keycard, unlocking the door. The suspicion was obvious, and Adam wondered if the director was just that good at reading his subordinates to figure out something was amiss. He said nothing further, so Adam followed him in, hearing the door snap closed behind him.

Suddenly anxious, he stopped a solid distance from the desk.

“Clearly there’s something wrong, Jensen.” Miller looked at him curiously as he dropped his bag on the floor. “You want to fill me in on what’s got you so tense?”

Adam rubbed his fingers across one another, a tic he hadn’t indulged in for a very long time. “It can wait.”

“No.” The director straightened, eyes fixed on his. “No, I think one of my best agents should tell me what’s going on.”

Well, so far, everything seemed normal. “Well, uh, CASIE is– you know CASIE is, sir?”

“I know what it is, agent. Spit it out.”

“It broke.”

Pause. “What do you mean, it ‘broke’?”

“It’s outputting at max capacity, and I can’t turn it off. My doctor is working on getting an update of some kind to fix it, but it’s gonna be a few days, so I was hoping maybe I could just head home and lay low until it’s fixed.” Forcing himself to stop, he closed his mouth and looked at his boss in appeal. The effect was dimmed by the shields, of course, but the body language was there.

For a long moment, the two men just looked at each other. Miller seemed thoughtful, brow cinching and fingers twitching slightly. He wondered if CASIE meant he would be able to be convincing enough to spare himself any further humiliation involved with going outside, being stared at and manhandled by strangers on the street. He had long, long been aware of his own attractiveness, but that sense of worth and physical beauty had been lost when his body had been so heavily modified. He was a creature to be fetishized, not admired like a normal person.

There were, in the Red Light District, augmented men and women who catered to clients of particular taste that wished to touch carbon fiber and silicon and sleek aluminum chassis rather than skin. That was what he belonged to. The people who stared and whose eyes lingered could not see past that. They never had.

All of those thoughts swirled through his mind in the time it took for his heart to beat twice.

“That’s quite a ‘condition’ you’ve got there, agent. And a useful one.”

Immediately, Adam’s stomach fell back through the floor. “Sorry?”

“It’s right on time, really. We’ve got so many leads to play catchup on all over the city, and your current condition means you’re even more useful than usual. And if you think I’m going to just let you go back and sit at home, I’m sorry to say, but I can’t spare you even for a few days. You have work to do.”

Every hope he’d held crashed to the floor and shattered into thousands of pieces, taunting him with their glimmer. “Yes, sir,” he said, shoulders softening as he tried not to look at the floor in defeat. Miller left no room for argument, and he’d already learned, long ago, that the director didn’t much appreciate pushback without good, solid reasoning behind it. “It might make things... complicated around here, though, sir. That’s my main concern.”

“It’s not your concern.” Miller’s voice might well have been carved from stone. “It’s mine. Your priority is your job, and nothing further. If you have too many problems, you let me know, and I’ll deal with it. While you’re within the walls of this place, I’ll do what I can to protect you from the effects of this.”

Adam’s eyebrow lifted. Well. Maybe it was working on him after all.

“MacReady can brief you on things that need doing. Go talk to him and get to work.”

He nodded and turned on his heel, feeling his body tense up when he walked back out into the main lobby and followed the walkway around to the CT division. He hesitated before the doorway, hoping that his TL would take only as much time as was necessary, then stepped through and made a beeline straight for MacReady’s office. It was, thankfully, lit, and he didn’t even give a glance around before stepping through the door.

What he found was a combination he didn’t quite know what to make of. MacReady was there, leaning back in his chair, hands folded, looking up at Aria, who currently had her back to the door. They seemed to be deep in conversation he didn’t catch, lasting only a second longer before they both turned their attention to him.

For the briefest moment in time – a split second he wanted to hold in place forever – the flow of pheromones hadn’t yet reached them. Nothing had changed. Nothing at all.

But he saw the instant it did.

His attention, somewhat unbidden, shifted to Aria first – one of the very few people he could call a “friend”, a warm soul who always seemed content just see him. Her eyes always found his right away, and her lips always smiled. Now, though, that pattern changed, and instead of a smile, the corners of her lips turned downward, eyebrows shifting, pupils dilating before her gaze shifted away from his. Her pulse sped up a notch.

It felt like a violation. He never liked to use CASIE with her. Never. He wanted her to give him what she wanted to offer on her own terms. He wanted her to be comfortable with him, without any concern that he might be using any of his augs as tools or means to an end. And, whether he liked to admit it all that much or not, he wanted her to like him. He needed her to like him, as a colleague, a teammate, a friend.

The response to his presence that rippled through her body was decidedly not platonic.

At least partly to alleviate the guilt, he looked at MacReady. The other man’s dark eyes were taut, leveling him with an even stare he didn’t much like the look of. He rose from his position behind the desk; Adam instinctively drew himself to his full height, only slightly taller than his TL, and moved forward. As he did, however, he became painfully aware of Aria to his left, stepping away, and thought he might have heard her breathe deep. Swallow. Maybe.

“Ah, Jensen, about time you showed up.” MacReady took the usual stolid tone, but Adam picked up barbed wire. “What reason have you got for being in late, eh?”

He knew he wasn’t late. In fact, he didn’t have to be in for a while yet. “My CASIE systems are... not working right. I tried to get them fixed, so I had a little delay getting here.” He tipped his head. “CASIE is outputting beyond max capacity, and I can’t change it or shut it off. I’m waiting on an update to get it fixed, but until then, Miller thinks I’m a lot more useful here than sitting at home.”

“Oh, right, Miller said that, did he? How convenient for you.”

“Ah... MacReady...” Aria spoke up, voice wavering slightly; Adam looked at her, and she looked back at him. For a moment, her lips parted, then she seemed to pull herself together and straighten. “I need to get to work,” she stated. “Hit me up later with anything else you can think of.” With that, she turned on her heel and left.

The guilt lingered in his heart. “So, what do you have for me?”

“Tell me, Jensen, this ‘condition’ of yours... if it’s what I think, then you can sway pretty much anyone to your will and talk your way in and out of anything you like, yeah? Everyone is more inclined to do as you say. Women fall over you. And even with all that, you still probably aren’t half as good as I would be.”

He felt his skin prickle. “Look, it’s useful, but it has plenty of downsides, trust me. What do you have for me?”

“And yet, despite all that, you still have to come back to me.” MacReady had the barest hint of a smile on his lips, but his eyes were cold. “I’ve got plenty for you to do, agent. Maybe sending you into the heart of Dvali territory to follow up a lead will teach you some humility. About time you learned.”

He took a second to gather himself, then said, “Alright. What exactly do you need me to do?”

“You know by now that the Dvali are running huge trafficking rings in the area. Turns out, there’s intel showing some kind of deal about to go down. Big one. Don’t know who’s in it besides them, and no idea what the cargo is, but... and here’s the thing–” He folded his arms and lifted his chin. “–there’s rumors it involves the Prague police.”

Adam felt both eyebrows twitch upward. “That doesn’t surprise me, but that could reflect bad on them if it’s found out. If they can’t keep it locked–”

“I know all that already, Jensen. You don’t need to tell me, yeah?”

Again, he gathered himself before speaking. “Yeah, I got it. I’ll get out and see what I can find.”

MacReady nodded. “Good. In the meantime, stay out of my office and keep your nose out of my team. You might be part of it now, but you don’t command any of them. You need any help out there, you contact me, and I will see about getting you the help I think you should get, yeah?”

Adam frowned. “I’m not interested in a dick-measuring contest, MacReady.”

“Then we’re square.” MacReady leveled him with a long, stern look for a few moments longer, then gave a dismissive wave of the hand and sat back down. “Off you go, mate.”

He turned and left the room, shaking his head and trying not to think about what just went down. CASIE made it easier for him to get others to do what he wanted, or sway them to his side... but it seemed to have a very different effect on his TL, if it was affecting him at all. Maybe he was just in a foul mood.

But a few steps later, he slowed to a halt. “Aria?”

The brunette stood a short distance away, one hand on an empty desk and leaning on it, other hand on her hip. She gazed at him in silence for a long moment, and CASIE cheerfully extrapolated every slight shift and change taking place within her body, before his eyes. A faint flush to the skin, an elevated heart rate, pupil dilation, and–

“So,” she said, “CASIE’s broken, huh?”

He nodded slowly. “Yeah. There’s nothing I can do about it for now.” As he looked at her, he wondered if it would be wise to let on that he recognized the signs her body gave off. If he should apologize. But all the same, she was a friend. They were just friends, and she had no control over the physiological responses to his presence. No more than he had control over the warmth in his heart when she smiled at him. It was good to have a friend again, a real one, and in no way was he willing to jeopardize what they had managed to build between them.

“That explains a lot. Sorry.” She shrugged, eyes falling away from his, but it failed to cool the blood in her veins. “At least... at least it’s useful, you know? Did he send you after the Dvali?”

“Yeah.” His brow wrinkled. “How’d you know?”

“We talked a little about it before you got in. Guess he was already planning to send you for a while, but just had to get a few things in order or... or something.” Her hands began to fidget against one another, and she took a quick breath. The resolve in his heart slipped a little. “Ah... so, there’s not a lot of ranking female Dvali, but... but there’s a few. You want a little advice dealing with them?”

The corner of his lips quirked. “I’ve been able to ‘deal’ with them okay so far.”

“Yeah, but this is different.” Dark eyes finally lifted once more, searching his, the faint flush still lingering. “You see, we... we can be visual too. A lot of men seem to think women don’t... that we don’t fall over ourselves, that we can’t forget to look where we’re going, that we don’t get shaky knees when confronted with a... beautiful man.” Though her tone had begun to sharpen as she went on, the last few words tapered off into silk; he felt a faint flush to his own skin, but reminded himself that her ability to think clearly had been compromised. “You’ve got a problem, and yeah, I bet it sucks, but... but you have– you’ll pull the eyes of everyone in the room.” She hesitated, then said, “We have weaknesses, too.”

“Aria, I’m not gonna do anything unscrupulous.”

“You don’t have to. You really, really...” Slight pause; soft intake of breath. “...really don’t.”

“I’m not–” like I used to be, he wanted to say, but cut himself off. She wouldn’t understand. She, like so many others, did not know the reason behind his augmentation. Instead, he just looked at her, a little helplessly, almost wishing he could take the shields, still far too hesitant to do so even for her.

“Adam.” She took a step closer. “Biology can be a tool too, you know. Use it while you can. It won’t take much.”

“Ah...” After a moment, he nodded slowly. “Alright, Aria, I’ll see what I can do.”

Her gaze drifted again. “Keep that coat. It always looked good on you.”

“I...” Pause. “...thanks. I will.”

The silence that followed felt heavy and somewhat uncomfortable. Though they were the only people in the CT zone for the moment, and MacReady’s office was closed, he felt a sense of exposure and unease. Would she move on her own? Would she be able to pry herself away from his presence, or would he have to make the choice for them?

The longer the silence went on, the more he realized he would have to do it.

“I should get going,” he murmured.

“Yeah, that’s probably best.” A slight smile reached her lips. “Be careful out there, okay?”

It was a sentiment she offered every time he ventured back into the field, and he had yet to grow tired of it. “Always.”