Unless it signified a war on hernias? That was all they did at the Shomberg Clinic: eradicate the scourge of ruptured abdomens.

Borland managed to chuckle at that, was sure he would have laughed if he wasn't sober. He couldn't drink before the operation.

That was the deal.

And the hard part.

His face drooped into a frown as he hefted his bags and walked toward the entrance.


A pair of middle-aged nurses with throaty, heavy smokers' voices scowled at Borland after taking his name, then they ordered him to have a seat in the waiting room.

He hesitated to give them a glower of his own.

What's your Goddamn problem?

He crossed the carpet and paused at the open doors of the waiting room to frown at the crowded couches and chairs-hoping his toxic expression would free him from doing more than sitting quietly and waiting for his turn with the hernia doctors.

Borland resented the Joe Anybody approach but he'd already messed up his first exclusive crack at it, and he didn't want to-check that, couldn't blow it again.

One short week before, Borland showed up drunk for his appointment and the doctor that Brass had arranged for his pre-op wouldn't touch him in that state. When the sawbones asked Borland to leave and he refused, a couple of burly orderlies dragged him out. They'd been nice about it, like the doctor gave them a wink or something-but the bulls deposited Borland on a bench at the curb and called a taxi for him.

He'd only meant to have a couple blasts to take the edge off. After all, it wasn't much more than a month after Parkerville and he was still feeling shaky with nightmares full of panic, spooks-and zombies now.

Ssskin. Let it go. Get past it.

Night terrors were old hat, it was the day terrors that he couldn't get used to.

That's why you're a Captain and they're not.

The Variant Effect was on the rise again. Simple as that. He didn't believe Brass' projections that presentations were gradually tapering off, and he knew that maintaining a cordon around Parkerville was just a show for the media.

Variant was already in Metro.

Borland knew how it worked. The Variant Effect came out of the shadows, explosively. One minute, it was on the decline, the next you had presentations everywhere. And with a new hybrid on the loose, anything could happen.

Knowing that, it was understandable that he needed a drink before he'd let some stranger handle his testicles in a building full of scalpels. That was part of the reason Brass had arranged his surgery at the Shomberg Clinic. It had an almost perfect record going back long before the day, and was the favorite of armies, law enforcement and athletes. It wasn't state-of-the-art in hernia repair, it was the art with only a one percent failure rate.

Safest place in the world to get it done.

So why are you worried?

Borland slapped a hand against the ornately molded doorframe and glared at the assembled guests, some rookies and others he knew would be veterans either getting old scars checked or new holes plugged. You could tell by the look. Anyone showing confidence either wasn't about to have his groin cut open, or he'd had it done before.

Most everybody looked nervous as hell. Family too, he guessed, and friends were packed into the large waiting area looking put out.

Then he realized with some chagrin that his eyes had lingered too long on a wrinkled old face-fat jowls sagging-white brows clenched over furious blue eyes.

Similar, he realized, if not exactly the way his own face would be-if he lived that long. Borland had to admit that his own rugged good looks had hit the road so many times that applying the term 'good' required some mental soft focus. But that was the way it was for the survivors. Time passed and the years had their way.

Borland covered the social discomfort of locking eyes with grandpa by gripping and pulling on his own tie- and playing with the lapels on his jacket.

He let a great puff of air buzz over his lips as he scanned the room trying to find a chair where he could hole up.

Private clinic maybe-but the waiting room was public.

Borland cleared his throat and lowered his gaze before bending to snatch up his bags. He shambled across the thick carpet to an easy chair covered in antique floral upholstery. It didn't suit him at all, but the seat was wedged into a corner away from all the faces.

Borland was still feeling the squad's first mission, and he'd tapered himself off the painkillers, thinking whiskey could do the trick.

Then they told him to lay off the sauce.

His back and knees were killing him and there was a clicking noise when he breathed through his nose. The squad doctor who'd treated it said the septum was fractured and would require surgery to mend.

Thanks Aggie.

Crossing the room, Borland noticed that the old man read the move as rejection. He heaved himself out of his chair with a grunt to show his displeasure. A white plastic bag was wound around the old man's wrist. French doors set in the wall behind him allowed Borland a backlit X-ray of its contents: pill bottles, toothbrush, razors and comb.

Borland huffed derisively and his nose clicked.

A life's work in an airsick bag.

Borland dropped his luggage and settled into his chair, but something caused his hair to prickle. A sound: a curious clicking, tapping background noise that filled in the edges of the scene. Then he grumbled.


All of them had phones, eBooks and palm-coms: a menagerie of wireless devices, one in every hand. Touching base. Updating days. Messaging machines. He frowned at the behavior. That was why Varion was gobbled up by the bottle-full-why the day got out of hand so fast.

Obsessive tendencies from cradle to grave.

Borland grunted.

Obsessed with their obsessions.

Fingers tapped and stroked at keys and touch screens. Click, tap, and rattle, click, click, click O

They were all the same. Tappers. Clickers!

No better than Biters, a waste of…


He cleared his throat, compelled to make some kind of human sound to cover the mechanical whispering.

But the cough was answered by a painful throb behind his navel, and he burped.

The hernias got worse after Parkerville. He was a wreck generally, with an injured lower back, pains in his legs and bruises all over. And there were several deep ugly lacerations on his face, neck and side that were barely healed. No question though: the hernias were worse. All the fighting had torn things up. When he sneezed now it felt like his guts were coming out.

A nurse appeared at the doorway and yelled a name. A rustle went through the gathering as a woman in her early forties got up, grabbed her bags and hurried after the nurse.

Borland's stomach made gurgling noises. His belly button had completely inverted, and the grapefruit-size hernia in his right groin bulged out under his belly. He had gas all the time and he couldn't get comfortable.

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