Saint Helene's Hospital didn't appear on any maps. You couldn't Google it or look it up in the Yellow Pages. The only way to find it was to know that it was there.
Extracting himself and his packages from the Smart Car was an exercise in contortionism. The man called "Bullfrog" had driven golf carts with more leg room. On the other hand, it was better than a big-ass SUV that guzzled gas like a fish and handles like a drunk hippo. The day I can buy a car without worrying if it has enough room to carry the entire team plus tactical gear is the day I'll know I'm well and truly retired..
Willow trees lined the red-brick path that led from the parking lot up to the hospital grounds proper, shading it from the midday sun. The dappled sunlight on the red brick reminded Bullfrog of a leopard's hide. Can a leopard change his spots? Why would he want to?
A young boy's delighted laugh broke through the silence, accompanied by the sound of leaf-springs hitting concrete and the boy himself: hale and happy, with bright white teeth that struck a strong contrast to his dark, coffee-black skin. "Monsieur Grenouille!" he shouted.
"Bonjour, Alain," Bullfrog said cheerfully, then continued in French: "It's good to see you again!" He picked up the young boy and embraced him in a fond, strong hug.
"Alain! Alain! Where has that troublemaker gone t— OH! Mister Grenouille! I didn't know you'd arrived!" The harried young woman in the nun's habit adjusted a wayward lock of hair behind her ear. "I'm sorry, sir. It's these new legs. Since the moment he got them, he's been running all over the place. We can't keep track of him any more."
Alain's legs had been amputated below the knee. When Bullfrog first met him, they had been replaced by twisted, crudely attached tendrils of scrap metal and steel. These carbon-fiber running blades suited him much better. "It's all right, sister. Alain is just making up for lost time, is all."
"They're the same kind that Oscar Pistorius uses!" Alain said excitedly. "Some day I'll run with him in the Olympics!"
"Is that so? A good goal to strive for. Run along now, Sister Amelié and I need to talk." Bullfrog put the boy back down and watched him dash back up the path, happily. He was joined by a one-armed girl and a boy who wore sunglasses and carried a red-and-white cane. "He seems happy," Bull observed.
"The amnestics are doing their work. Sometimes he has nightmares, but most days he's like this: excited, happy… ordinary. We'll be ready to place him with an adoption agency soon, then our work here will be done."
"You've done well," Bullfrog reassured her. "But… those legs. They must be expensive. Especially for a growing boy."
"They're hand-me-downs," Sister Amelié admitted, "adjusted to fit him. UNICEF's black fund helped with the rest." She sighed and shook her head. "But you're not here to talk about Alain's legs, are you?"
"No," Bullfrog admitted. "Is Doctor Lai around?"
"I'll take you to see him."
"Brigitte's case is unique," the older man explained. "She was, by far, the most heavily altered of that madman's test subjects who still maintains her own will. Thankfully, we got to her before the brain alterations were completed. Unfortunately, it means that her treatment will take longer. We can't just remove the foreign matter and replace it with Zero-Generation technology. Replacing her jaw alone will have to wait until she reaches her adult size, not to mention the need for lifelong hormone therapy… still, we were ready to begin removing some of the more extreme alterations, when this problem came up."
"Had she ever been violent before?" Bullfrog asked.
"It's inaccurate to claim she's being violent now," Dr. Lai admitted. "She hasn't tried to actively hurt anyone. She's just… uncooperative. The changes to her nervous system make her impossible to anesthetize. When we try to restrain her physically, she resists until the risk of injury to herself is so great we have to stop. Finally, we asked her if there was anything we could give her in exchange for her cooperation. She said she wanted to talk to you. We agreed not to remove any more of her alterations until you had the chance."
"Yeah. Sorry about the wait, doctor. There was this thing with the U.S. military that kinda blew up. Paperwork and hearings for months…"
"The 'Project Pandora' incident?"
"You know I can't confirm nor deny that, doc."
"Well, you're here now. Do you want me to go in with you?"
"Nah. I'll handle this one myself."
"I'll be waiting inside, then. Call me if you need me."
It was a very nice garden, with high walls covered in climbing roses. Four wedge-shaped plots radiated from the center, each one dominated by a different flower: pansies, marigolds, tansies and violets. Willow trees provided shade, their supple boughs swaying in the afternoon breeze.
Brigitte sat at the edge of the fountain, wearing a yellow sundress and holding a pure white flower. She stared at the blossom in rapt wonder before handing it to Bullfrog as he sat down next to her. "pretty colors," she said, in a voice that buzzed and crackled like an old AM radio.
Colors? Oh. Right. She can see in ultraviolet. Bullfrog took the flower from her, suppressing a shudder as his fingers brushed against the crudely formed steel talons that had replaced her arm below the elbow. "It's very pretty, yes," he agreed, admiring the pure white petals.
"pretty colors," Brigitte repeated. Her one normal eye sparkled happily. It looked grotesque compared to the horror of wires and steel that was the left side of her face. Her upper lip (all that was left of what had once been her mouth) moved in what was probably meant to be a smile.
Bullfrog cleared his throat and looked away. "Mister Petomaine and Miss Chaton were sad they couldn't come. But they sent gifts." The broad-brimmed white hat he took from the hatbox was a bit too big for her, but she would (he hoped) grow into it. And the look of delight as she picked up and hugged the doll was impossible to fake. For a moment, she looked like an ordinary girl, delighting in new gifts given to her by people who cared very much.
Then the blinking device that had replaced her jaw clicked and whirred and turned over. Oh well, Bullfrog thought. It was nice while it lasted… "Doctor Lai says that you've been refusing your treatments," he said. "He says you've been…" He paused and reconsidered saying a bad girl. Who was he to make a moral decision in this instance? "… stubborn," he concluded. "Is something wrong?"
Brigitte hugged the doll a little tighter and bowed her head, hiding her eyes under the brim of her new hat. "doctor lai says that the surgery will make brigitte normal again," she said. "is that true?"
He did, did he? A cruel lie to tell to a child… and a transparent one, too. "No," Bullfrog admitted. "It can't make you normal. But it can make you… ordinary. Just like Alain or Claire or Denis. Maybe they don't have legs, or an arm, or eyes, but they can still live a good, long, fulfilling life."
He was surprised when Brigitte shook her head violently, causing her hat to slip off her head. "brigitte does not want to be ordinary. bad things happen to ordinary people and they don't stop it."
Oh. Bullfrog quickly re-evaluated the situation. "Bad things happen to special people too," he pointed out. "It's better to be ordinary."
"chaton is not ordinary. chaton does not let bad things happen."
Ah. Bullfrog grimaced as his mind returned to a place of rust, blood, and gunpowder smoke. Team Sparkplug had only been assigned to do the infiltration and assessment, but after what they had found in that abandoned bunker, all three of them had begged to participate in the takedown. It was just blind luck that Kitten had been the one to see the clockwork-and-flesh monstrosities come out of the walls. Little (then-nameless) Brigitte had recieved a front-row seat to a Grade A Psycho-Killer Kitten Rampage. I'd always felt the bit with the crowbar was over the top.
"brigitte is special. brigitte can do things other people cannot. brigitte does not want to be ordinary." the little girl insisted. "brigitte wants to help"
Would they let it happen? Brigitte was borderline: her deviations might be too far from baseline to fall under the GOC's "Special Assets Directive." She might end up back on the "harmless misfits" list - Tier 1 response, monitor but do not engage. Could the GOC use someone who could read a CD-ROM from the pattern of lights on its underside?
This isn't my decision to make.
Bullfrog picked up the white hat and put it back on the little girl's head. "I'll see what I can do," was all he said.
"Yook? Would you mind explaining this?"
"It looks like a standard request for access to Downstream Technology. Personnel enhancements, specifically," the smiling man said.
"… it's a request for personnel enhancements… for an eight-year-old girl," D.C. Al Fine sighed. "The U.N. just issued a statement condemning the use of child soldiers in warfare, and one of your Team leaders is requesting augmentation for a little girl? How do you think that makes us look?"
"Mmmmm. From what I can see, this is a request for a twelve-year course of treatment. Most of the alterations are cosmetic in nature - replacing Gen Zero artificial limbs with Gen Plus Two, that sort of thing. Most of the ones that aren't are "leave in place" orders for existing augments. She can opt out at any time, and nothing that could be construed as combat-oriented is scheduled until after she turns eighteen. This all looks above-board to me."
"The Security Council will crucify us. The Americans are still bitter over losing that entire SEAL team. They're not going to look favorably upon the "U.N.'s personal stooges" building up paratech while they're still forbidden to do so by international treaty."
"You know," the smiling man said, off-handedly. "You've been doing a lot of complaining, but I haven't heard you say 'No.'"
"I just wanted you and your team to know just how irritating this is," D.C. explained. She signed her name on the dotted line and threw the page into Assistant Director "Ukelele's" face. "Go on. Build your goddamn super-cyborg. See if I care."
"Yes, ma'am," Ukelele said, grinning. He put his own signature (an alto clef symbol) in the appropriate space, then tossed the form into his outbox. Shine, little girl, shine.
Then he went back to doing his quarterly budget request. Even when it came to saving the world, it was best to dot every i and cross every t.