Alex spent the rest of his night sitting in the eye of a storm, activity swirling around him. A dozen Tslao engineers had gathered around by the time they had adjusted the chair enough to fit him and he was pretty sure there were more by now. He couldn’t be sure, as he was staring at the floor through a heavily padded headrest.
The machine they had wedged him into was an amalgam of robotic surgical arms, wires and computer nodes. The prototype for their very own hardware implantation suite, it had the accuracy and compatible hardware to drive physical interface needles into Alex’s individual bits of hardware. He could be sure exactly how many of those there were. Six for his near-field communicators. Five for his remaining translator nodes and one for the immersion translator central processor. One for his Amp, one more for his circumcranial implant.
As a prototype, the suite hadn’t been used on a live subject before. It was ready for initial testing when Alex took a seat in it and they assured him that most of the basic functions should work just fine. It did drive nearly every needle perfectly and when it didn’t, it missed everything important.
Selan, the technician closest to Alex’s right, started talking. He had a soft voice and was starting to sound tired though still engaged in what was going on. Alex had no idea what he was saying, unfortunately. During deep diagnostic work, his internal equipment had to be shut off leaving him with with his very shallow knowledge of Tsla to work with.
He had some help, at least. Neya was taking a shift at keeping him company and translating when necessary. She had wedged herself in between two of the surgical arms, laying upside down on the floor from Alex’s perspective. The lights on her remote AI flickered to life as she started to slowly enunciate a translation for him. “He says the number six node appears to be free of problems and he is-”
Alex gave a sharp wheeze and winced, eyes watering as the needle was pulled from his translator node. It didn’t release easily, the socket gripping tight and making the hardware pull at the bone and cartilage as it went. All of the analgesics in the human aid kit they had onboard didn’t do much to take the edge off. Someone sprayed antiseptic on the narrow wound, a shock of cold before the area numbed a moment later.
Neya started and guilt creased her features. She hadn’t seen them pull one of the interfaces yet and was unaware of exactly what it felt like.
“Just... Exclaim something. Anything. Make it sound urgent.” His heart raced and his back shivered under the cold, bright lights. The pain was starting to make him feel sick and everything put together was starting to make him snippy. “I don’t care if I understand it as long as I get what you mean.”
“Yes.” She almost shouted out her reply, sibilant accent heavy.
“I think this will help, as well.” Carbon leaned in between two of the arms and snugged a wireless into his ear, fingertips stroking his temple before she pulled away. “I am sorry it took so long to find, it was not where I expected it to be.”
“Where was it?” The earpiece chimed softly as it linked to the disposable translator and gave him a quiet reminder that it had about six hours of battery life. With any luck, that should be plenty of time. If not, he had several more in his bag.
“In the utility drawer.” There was a certain sharp quality to her words, a hint of disapproval.
Neya frowned, suddenly more uncomfortable on the hard floor and started to speak. It took about five seconds for the little battery powered device to begin producing a terribly digitized version of what she had said, devoid of any nuance. “I didn’t think he would need them.”
“Better than nothing, I guess.” He mumbled, wanting to shrug but knowing better. The needles were not forgiving. Instead, he settled on a weary sigh and a roll of his eyes. Alex cleared his throat and spoke up. “So, anything interesting going on up there?
“Perhaps.” Carbon had wandered off, both physically distant and distracted.
“What’s that mean?” He waited, fighting the urge to get up and go look for himself. Minutes went by with no response and even Neya started to look a little concerned. “Hello? Anyone?”
“They have found something. Not the program that attempted to send the data, but some kind of restrictor.” She was yelling at him from across the lab. “They will excise it from your Amp and then initialize it.”
“Oh, good.” That was the best news he’d heard since he’d sat down. He managed a smile, happy at the prospect of being rid of whatever it was lurking in his hardware.
The guitar strum Alex had chosen as the startup sound for this Amp played, the progress widget spinning in the center of his vision. It was warmed up and ready to use twice as fast as normal, not even three seconds passed before warnings about changes to his software and hardware loadout appeared.
The hardware was no surprise, just his IT being unavailable. The software, on the other hand, that was new. He flicked the menu open and poked through his newfound capabilities. ”So we’ve got ARGUS and the ominously named RProbe. No information on what they do. Give me a moment here, trying the first one.”
Alex activated ARGUS and nothing obvious happened. There was a significant spike in processor usage as the subdermal microphone network came online. “Huh. Well, that was kind of a- whoa.”
“What is it?” Neya peered up at him inquisitively, voice still hollow from the translator.
Alex couldn’t see much from where he was sitting, but the overlay in his vision made everything very clear. Objects were given a digital outline and Neya was highlighted a faint green, a box hovering next to her with her name in it. “There is... a lot going on here.”
His gaze settled on Neya for a moment and the box expanded to show relations, possible job functions and other minutiae of her life that might be handy to know off the cuff. His blood ran cold when he realized all of the information were things he had learned from Carbon or Neya herself. But that would mean... “Neya. When is your birthday?”
“It is tenth week, day three. Why do you ask?”
A moment later the box updated, Birthday: April 11th. “You have got to be shitting me.”
“No, I’m not.”
“I know, that’s not what I meant.” He sighed and closed his eyes, the overlay remaining bright as the world went dark. “I think I have compromised the ship. I think I’ve been spying on everyone.”