Remember back in November when I wrote about receiving an Honorable Mention with a story called IMPLANTED DANGER for Writers of the Future? I’ve submitted that story to a few places since, and… it isn’t getting published. That’s okay, though! I was so pleased it did so well, to begin with. It was such a vast improvement over my very short dragon assassin story (Lady Assassin), and I learned so much writing it, I have nothing but happy thoughts. As happy as this cat and his toe beans!
As it isn’t going to get published, I thought I’d share it here with you. I hope you like it, but more importantly, I hope you see the improvement! Practice really does pay off for writing. I wrote this story as part of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Intensive Class, and I recommend it if you’d like to level up your storytelling game.
Iris scooped up the screaming four-year-old with one arm and took him to a nearby plastic chair, keeping one eye on him and the other on the gaggle of remaining children as they played with blocks on the edge of the daycare activity area. Her little ward didn’t notice her eyes looked in different directions, but his lack of attention to her skill appeared to be the only advantage of going undercover with children.
Pain shot from the center of her head to the base of her skull and the familiar pressure on either side of her temples flared in response to his wailing. She needed to get off this planet so they could remove her implant, and soon. Once I’m finished with this surveillance mission.
Dull gray carpet matched the dull gray chairs of the underfunded and understaffed childcare facility. They tried to dress the building up and make the name sound more appealing, but the Pitter Patter Playhouse still served the poorest area of Kelna. The only things bright or cheery about the establishment were its customers; in Iris’ case, a room full of eleven four-year-olds. The kids were adorable, if loud. They’d never assigned her a task like this with children, and she wondered how normal people did the job without enhanced eyesight. Or earplugs.
It was the perfect undercover location for her current mission, as the evasive Dr. Roberts would be there soon for a “Meet a Doctor” day for the children. The man left a trail of good deeds as he hopped across the outer planets, seeking out those who needed medical assistance while at the same time avoiding the revelation of his true identity. His charity was about to get him killed.
Her left eye watched a girl trip and fall while her right eye watched the door to the classroom. Iris stood and left the now more quietly sobbing child in the chair, at which his volume increased. The girl had begun crying when Iris arrived; her speed boosted by the ability to see everything in front of her at the same time. Bright red dots danced at the corners of Iris’ peripheral vision as she knelt next to the girl, and she closed her eyes.
Iris had headaches from the moment she woke up from her procedure two years prior. The doctors said those were normal; it was only the brain rewiring itself for the new visual inputs after twenty-two years of normally developed binocular vision. They assured her the pain would go away and gave her some painkillers so she could join their celebration of a medical miracle. She passed out as soon as she stood though, so partying was off the schedule for the first few weeks.
The headaches never did disappear, and lately, had been joined by dots that bounced around her field of view. Those were “somewhat concerning,” and they promised to take out the implant upon her return following this mission. She wondered if they would find it cheaper to kill her instead, but they were her only option.
Iris let out a deep breath and opened her eyes. The girl in front of her, in the left eye, had stopped crying. The right eye turned to the door as it opened. The dancing red dots streaked across her vision as a sharp streak of pain crossed from her temple to her nose. She barely registered Dr. Roberts’ arrival.
“Ah, you must be Miss Iris! What a lovely name. The office told me you’d be here.” The tall man approached, and she thought he smiled as he held out his hand.
Iris tried to clear her head, and refocus her eyes. They settled eventually on his face, which held all the features of a kindly grandfather. Not for the first time, she wondered if he’d hidden children and grandchildren away from the Republic as well. “Dr. Roberts.”
He studied her face as he helped her rise, his smile never vanishing. “My dear, I know this isn’t why I came, but why don’t you stop by the office sometime for an exam?”
His office was only three blocks away, a sturdy red brick building tucked between two larger gray structures. One of them sat abandoned and had served well for her surveillance of the rogue doctor. She had yet to find any suspicious associates or connections to report to her agency, but she had hoped meeting him here at the school would provide an opportunity for her to meet with him in person. Iris’ job to gather information was almost complete; then it would be Aso’s turn.
The man kept talking lightly as he took in the room. “We may have some therapy which can help you with your focusing problem. Perhaps some glasses might help too.”
That was easy. She nodded.
Dr. Roberts walked several feet away to the play area and glanced down at the children. “Well, hello there! I’m Dr. Roberts!”
“Meet a Doctor!” One of the children yelled, and everyone stopped playing with blocks to run screaming around the new visitor.
Calm didn’t stand a chance against the noise, and Iris shut her eyes again in a futile attempt to lower the volume. She’d wondered if the implant had somehow affected her perception of sound, but the scientists had said it was unlikely.
She moved to the back of the room and allowed Dr. Roberts the floor. Iris attempted to study him while he spoke but grew distracted by the dots her brain superimposed on the room. The implant, meant to make her a better assassin, was about to blow her cover and make it impossible for her to accomplish her task. It figured the scientists’ little experiment would backfire on them.
By the time she focused, the doctor was explaining the benefits of glasses to the children. She realized with a start none of them had on glasses; all the groups of children she’d ever seen had a few with glasses. Even with modern medicine, the eye issues were a difficult problem to solve, at least outside the agency.
“Now I know many of you have never met with a doctor like me,” Dr. Roberts scanned the room full of tiny faces.
Tiny faces with families who couldn’t afford glasses. I used to be like them.
“But when you go home tonight, you can tell them you can stop by my office anytime and set up an appointment. I’ll see you. I can help you.”
Iris closed her eyes again while he spoke and the children asked questions. They ranged from “Why are you a doctor?” to, “Can I be a doctor?” to the more depressing, “Can I go home with you?”
Her headaches occasionally subsided if her eyes were shut, though it didn’t seem to work on this occasion. She repeated a breathing pattern to calm herself.
Dr. Roberts continued to answer questions, and encourage healthy eating to the children while she thought. There was nothing about his stance or manner which indicated a military background, and there had been nothing in his file to identify him as dangerous. The Republic did want him dead though, and there must be a reason. She rarely worried about the reason, but it was important if he was a physical threat.
Why send Aso to kill him? As one of the initiate’s final missions, Iris would expect a more challenging target. She’d have little opportunity to provide feedback on such an easy mark.
Dr. Roberts started to wrap up his talk, again suggesting they stop by and see him in his office sometime for an exam.
He’d taken around ten minutes. Iris knew the attention span of a four-year-old was sixteen minutes, on average, from her research. They’d be good to sit for a moment longer while she escorted him to the door. “Thank you so much, Dr. Roberts, for coming to visit us! Children, let’s thank the doctor.”
“Thank you!” They started to get up.
“Wait there, please.” She waved them down with a hand. “After I walk him out, I have a treat for you!”
Iris’ heart slowed as she controlled her breathing on instinct after many years of training and practice. She smiled at the unsuspecting doctor as they ambled toward the classroom door.
“I do hope you’ll stop by too.” He paused a few feet from the door.
“Do you think you can help?” It was somewhat challenging to keep her eyes aligned as if she was normal, but the doctor didn’t appear to notice any problems as he kept eye contact.
“I really think we could give you some exercises which would help your focus. Your eyes are very important, Miss Iris.”
“Thank you.” She’d been watching him for weeks, waiting for the right opportunity to visit him in person and complete her report.
The children’s playful yells from behind called her attention, and she spun to face them.
Floodlights from the building next door cast shadows across the floor. Iris followed them with one eye while she traced the contours of the abandoned warehouse with the other, looking for unnatural movement. The bare metal wall behind her sucked out whatever heat the evening chill left, and she breathed deeply against the instinct to move and generate heat.
Aso was late; not an endearing trait for a spy. As one of his final missions before he qualified for solo operations, he’d linked up with Iris so she could provide feedback on his performance and an evaluation to their officers. She was unimpressed, and also a little concerned. The mission to take down the doctor seemed too easy for his involvement.
A scrape to her left drew Iris’ attention, and she turned to wait for Aso’s approach. His eyes lingered on her position for a second too long, though he pretended not to notice her. She stepped out of the shadows. “You’re very loud.”
His face fell though his eyes remained hidden behind dark glasses. “I’d hoped to arrive with some stealth.”
She raised her eyebrows in response.
The younger man strode forward as he took off the glasses. Though there was little light, she knew his eyes were all black, devoid of any resemblance to human eyes. He never talked about what he saw, but she’d read the reports. Aso could call for distances, speeds, biometrics, or other information silently with a simple thought. Data replaced most aspects of his natural view.
Did he also have headaches from his procedure? Or did a full transplant come with fewer side effects? One eye tracked him as he moved around; the other focused on the door.
He could see practically everything, but unfortunately, had never figured out how to be unseen. His plain worker’s clothes granted him easy movement around this district, and the glasses hid his most interesting feature from most, but he was terrible at sneaking. She’d caught him following her from every meeting, though she had said nothing.
Iris had been ordered to collect information on the doctor prior to his untimely death at the hands of her shifty coworker, but something had seemed off about the mission since the start. The doctor was too easy of a target, even for the clumsy Aso. She’d decided to investigate her suspicions about Aso before proceeding with the doctor.
She sat in a solid metal chair as she avoided glancing at a second, rusty seat nearby. Iris leaned back and stared at the high ceiling with one eye and tracked him with the other. “Still nothing on the doctor.”
“No contacts? Nothing?” Contempt flashed across his face, though she doubted he realized it. His inability to see micro-expressions cost him his ability to hide his own.
“Nothing yet. I will visit him in his office in a day or two to see if I can find out more information.”
He grunted and scanned the warehouse. There was a slight pause as he passed the corner.
“Mice.” Aso circled the chair as he resumed his slow examination.
Iris didn’t see anything in the corner. The reports must have left off thermal imaging from his skillset. That’s how he had seen her, and how he spotted the mice. Perhaps they added that later, after the reports on the initial procedure. She didn’t understand what they could do with an implant after insertion; all she cared about was the removal of her own.
He returned his eyes to Iris. “I cannot wait to get off this planet.”
“Soon enough,” she said. “Once I’ve met with him, maybe we will have enough assurance he has no local contacts.”
Aso shrugged. “And then it won’t matter.”
“No.” Iris stood and walked to her left, staring out a high window at the three moons in the distance. “Do you know what this man did to earn our attention?”
“Does it matter?” Aso placed his hands on the second chair and leaned against it.
Did he see the small device affixed to the seat? “Only if he’s dangerous.”
He shrugged again. “That won’t be your concern.”
“I’ll be nearby for backup.”
“I won’t need it.”
She turned back to face Aso. Could he see an eye roll? “Of course not.”
Aso moved around the chair and eyed the rust before sitting. The tracking device was too basic to have a heat signature, but tacky enough on one side to grab clothes if pressed. Hopefully he hadn’t seen it. Iris turned away and wondered if his action was intentional or accidental.
He stared at her. “How long before you speak to the doctor?”
“I’ve scheduled a day off in five days.” She paused and glanced out the window again with one eye. “I could call in sick earlier, of course. If we think it is time.”
“If you get what we need, you won’t have to return to the daycare.”
Iris suspected she’d find nothing new at the doctor’s office, but they needed a final, in-person check. Even if he had no family photos, a kind conversation could reveal social connections. And she found the thought of leaving the daycare appealing. She needed a bit more time, however, for Aso. “Day after tomorrow, then. We can meet here again, that night.”
“I think we should find a different place. There’s an abandoned shack near the space dock I found that would be perfect. Just north of that shop where you found the contraband fruit.”
Iris had also never mentioned where she’d found the contraband fruit; only that she had purchased some. The space dock area was even less populated than this district. It was a curious choice for such an easy mission.
She nodded though, as she would know soon enough if Aso had other plans for her. This empty warehouse wasn’t the place to fight him if his mission involved her termination as well. She’d need cover and ideally, something to take out his imaging. Such equipment couldn’t be found on a backwater planet such as this.
He rose and started for the exit. “I’ll see you in two nights.”
Iris waited fifteen minutes before she returned home. She pretended not to see him as he followed, and again felt professional sympathy regarding his poor skill in that area. Perhaps the implant made it impossible for him to realize how easy he was to see by others as he skulked behind in the crowd. She shuddered, wondering what she was missing as result of her own procedure.
He didn’t follow her into the building, so she was safe until their next meeting. Once settled behind her locked door, she opened her computer to return the favor and follow him. It was time to see what his mission truly involved.
The headaches were a unique hell if Iris was also sleep deprived, and she had not slept in over two days. Iris had too many things to think about, and then prepare, to sleep any before she found her way to Dr. Roberts’s office.
His office was just outside the slums in a modest little corner building. Potted flowers sat on the edges of the porch, and a worn welcome mat lay in front of the door. She walked in, careful to not look over her shoulder as she scanned the periphery with one eye.
Iris had not seen Aso in person since he followed her home after their meeting, though she knew where he had gone after they finished. His tracking device went silent after around twenty hours, which she expected given its battery. Her stomach knotted at her inability to pinpoint the assassin’s location.
A well-lit room, full of comfortable furniture, served as the reception area, though there was no receptionist present. If she’d planned to kill him, that would have been a blessing. Witnesses were messy.
Too many pieces of mismatched furniture sat in a tidy and warm arrangement in the large waiting room, like the doctor had an arrangement with every thrift store nearby to send him the best items. His charity went a long way toward goodwill and gifts from others, as she’d learned from studying his past. Almost everything in the office must be a donation.
“Miss Iris!” Dr. Roberts strode out of an office to the side. “It is so good you stopped by. Though should I call you Miss Iris, or is there another name you prefer?”
“Iris is fine.” She smoothed the front of her blouse and tried to smile. This would be easier to show him than it would be to explain. “Dr. Roberts, I’d like that exam, if you’re still offering.”
“Of course, of course! I happen to have some time now.” He turned and walked back into the office, beckoning her with his hand.
The office was much smaller than the reception area, and more dimly lit so the patient could see the backlit “E” displayed on a nearby monitor. A phoropter swiveled next to the patient’s chair, right next to the more modern equipment and a shelf of various unknown devices.
Iris sat in the chair. “Do you do surgeries, Dr. Roberts?”
He put on a pair of glasses with magnifying glasses affixed to the front and stepped in front of her. “I can, but I don’t think that will be necessary in your case.”
She started to speak but stopped. He’d probably notice soon enough.
“Oddly, one of the best things I can give you for this condition is a string with some beads on it. Isn’t that funny? All this technology and one of our best tools remains so simple.” He leaned in to examine her eyes.
She allowed each to go sideways, focusing on points on either side of the doctor’s head. Humans could not do that naturally. Typically, the eyes operated together. If there was a problem which prevented the images from aligning properly, the brain might suppress one image. Or the patient would see two of the same image. They would certainly not see two different images and be able to focus on both.
Dr. Roberts stepped back. “That was not what I expected.” He thought for a moment. “How long have you been able to do that?”
“Two years.” She used one eye to focus on Dr. Roberts and studied the room with the other eye. This was a normal procedure for her to look for dangers, but she did it more now out of nervousness. Her eye settled on the nearby shelf of equipment, and a strange spherical device. The clock on the wall ticked by several seconds. “I received an implant.”
His face paled and appeared almost gray in the dim light, and his eyes quickly glanced at the door. “I see.”
He knew, then. She had wondered how long it might take him to realize she was who he’d been hiding from. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Dr. Roberts did not relax, but his eyes rose. “They didn’t send you after me?”
“Oh, they did.” She opened her hands to her sides. “But I think they’ve grown tired of working with me.”
Aso had left Iris’ apartment two nights earlier but had not returned to his own cover dwelling. Instead, she traced his path across town to another empty warehouse. There was a third agent on the planet. She spotted the man; a higher level bureaucrat, the next day. He was the one who had told her they’d remove the implant. Iris had never trusted him.
She focused on the doctor. “They’ve sent me and at least one other agent to find you. Why would they do that?”
After a quick glance at the door, Dr. Roberts sighed. He slumped in a chair at the edge of the room. “I guess if you wanted me dead, I’d be dead by now. I doubt they’d install one of those implants on an amateur.”
“I was a researcher. I didn’t work on your implant, or at least not one that did what you describe. We experimented with altering eyesight to add distance. There was also an experiment running to add a monitor to the eye, so one saw the world and one saw through a camera, either on the person or somewhere they planted. It was all wonderful research, and could have been used for better purposes.”
“But it was for the military.”
“Yes. There’s a lot of money to be had making soldiers better at their jobs.” He turned in the chair. “I’d like to say as soon as I found out, I left. But that isn’t true.”
“What made you leave?”
“We thought the distance enhancement would work better on a child.”
When he didn’t continue, she didn’t ask. She’d never met a child soldier or assassin, and they’d intentionally waited until she was twenty-two before they’d installed her implant. Aso was twenty. They sat silently for a few moments.
“Does it hurt?” he nodded at her eyes.
“My eyes don’t hurt, no. I have headaches. And lately I’ve been seeing things. Dots. That’s why I asked you about surgery.”
“An implant could cause those problems. There’s a reason we don’t see out both eyes like that naturally. The brain isn’t wired for it. People with vision problems similar to that are two to three times more likely to suffer from health concerns like the ones you describe. And other issues.” He chewed on his lip. “You’d like for me to remove the implant, I suppose.”
“Yes. I can help you escape this planet, and hide a lot better on the next. I’d like the implant out.”
She waited as he closed his eyes and leaned back to rest his head against the wall. It must be difficult for him to setup on a planet, help some people, and then leave. No wonder he didn’t have any permanent contacts.
“I can take your implant out. The surgery is risky, of course.” He leaned forward in his chair. “But the larger issue is I don’t think it will help.”
“What do you mean it won’t help?” Panic rose in her stomach.
“Although your brain has not acclimated to the implant, it has still rewired itself in an attempt to try. While the implant itself may cause some of the pain, your symptoms are caused by your brain’s confusion. It may be just as confused once the implant is gone; perhaps more so.”
“But won’t it get better with time?” This had seemed like such a convenient solution. They’d both escape Aso, she’d hide the doctor on another planet, and she could continue her life without issue.
He shrugged. “Changes like that become more difficult as we age. It may improve. It may get worse. You’ll lose your ability to see out of both eyes, and likely won’t regain stereopsis.”
“They said it would help…” She slumped back into the chair and stared at the far wall.
“Does it surprise you they would lie?”
It didn’t. They were a bunch of lying bastards. They’d found her in squalor and promised her a better life, and so far, all they’d done was use her.
“They want to kill you too then, I assume.”
She nodded. “I think I may be the primary target. You’re only a bonus.”
The news that the implant removal might not help was a blow but didn’t change the current situation. Iris sucked in a deep breath, instantly making her decision. She’d still run away to whatever planet the doctor had not yet been to, and make sure he remained hidden this time. They could discuss the surgery more later. She stood and nodded at the door. “We should go.”
The doctor took one long, sad look around his office. “I hate to run. There are so many people here to help.”
“There will be more on another planet.”
He sighed as his shoulders sagged, though he stood and looked to the door.
Iris strode out of the examination room and turned toward the door. It burst open.
Aso stood outside. “Going somewhere?”
Iris reacted before Aso stepped through the door, knocking the doctor back into the exam room with one arm. She ducked the other way as Aso’s energy pistol released a bolt just above her head.
Briefly, she considered his eyesight could also include a targeting system. Nothing to do about that now. She rolled behind a plush couch and tensed as the upholstery exploded above her head. Iris pulled her own pistol from her belt.
“I figured you’d catch on.” Aso kicked the door shut behind him, though certainly someone had already heard or seen the commotion inside. In this neighborhood, they might not do anything about it though.
Iris scurried forward behind another couch and ducked as Aso’s weapon fired again. He could see through the furniture and could just shoot through it; this was all a game to him as he teased her before her death. His arrogance was going to get him killed someday.
She stared at him through the reflection of a chrome lamp on the end table. He’d taken his glasses off, and the dark black of his eyeballs stood out against the blurry pale face on the surface. He smiled. “It really is too bad about your headaches. Your implant is obsolete, but you weren’t entirely useless.”
“You don’t know anything about me.” She stood and fired at him, but he was too fast in reacting to her movement and ducked as she continued to fire.
Aso returned each shot, but his movement made him less accurate. She continued to move as well, and several shots missed both until he got lucky. Iris screamed as a bolt tore through her upper left arm, and she fell to the ground to crawl away. The scent of burning skin accompanying the sickening pain as she gripped her pistol to avoid clutching at her arm instead.
His attack paused again as he stalked his prey. Why did he delay?
“Ah, and here’s the doctor.” Aso’s smug voice moved as he turned away from Iris.
She peeked out from around the smoldering sofa in time to see the doctor throw something in the room and retreat back around the corner. Aso shrugged; the doctor was trapped in the room, so there was no rush. He turned back to Iris.
The same spherical item she’d seen sitting on the shelf rolled to a stop in the center of the room. She fell flat at the sight of the grenade, as did Aso, but it didn’t explode. There was a pop and a bright light, and the interior of the office rapidly rose in temperature.
Iris gasped. It wasn’t hot enough to burn, but warm enough to cover Iris’ thermal image from Aso. She smiled at the doctor’s preparedness and darted forward. He realized what had happened a moment after Iris, and began shooting blindly in her direction.
Iris doubled back. She only had a few seconds before he’d find some other way to track her. The chrome lamp lay shattered on the ground next to the sofa as she returned to the ground and crawled to the other side. She glanced at the reflection one more time with one eye as she stood and aimed with the other.
Her shot took Aso in the chest just as he aimed at Iris. He dropped, as a gaping, smoldering hole appeared under his sternum. Black eyes met hers as he sunk first to his knees, and then slumped forward to the floor.
Smoke rose from every part of the office, and several holes in the wall and ceiling allowed sunlight into the reception area. Dr. Roberts’ head poked out at the bottom edge of the door into the examination area.
“Definitely time to go,” Iris said as she shoved her pistol back into her waistband. Dr. Roberts nodded and followed her out the front door.