Episode One



On Earth

His leg ached.

No, it couldn't ache. There was nothing there to ache.

McQueen opened his eyes reluctantly, staring in puzzlement at the colorful ceiling above him. Where was he? The last thing he removed was being carried into a transport, presumably headed for a military hospital. This wasn't like any military hospital he'd ever seen. Not like any hospital he'd ever seen. He turned his head to look around the room.

It was, he had to admit, a very nice room, large, airy and done in fairly cheerful colors. The bed appeared to be standard hospital issue but the rest of the furniture wasn't. For one thing, it actually looked comfortable. A bookshelf nearby was filled with books and there were even French doors leading out to a patio.

Next to the French doors, set in the wall, was a circular piece of rubber. He studied it with a frown, wondering what that was for. The next thing he knew, a slender sable paw came through that patch of rubber, followed by a sharp, angular face and a long, lean body. As soon as it was clear of what had to be a cat door, the animal paused to stretch elegantly, the front end first then a subtle stretch of the left hind leg, before trotting over to leap onto the hospital bed.

"Are. . ." McQueen's voice broke from disuse and he paused to clear his throat. "Are you supposed to be here?"

The cat 'rrow'ed in reply and it. . .no, he. . .made his way up McQueen's body. He paused briefly to examine the flat sheet where McQueen's right leg should be, pawing at it as if wondering what was missing. Finally he gave up, walking up the length of McQueen's body to lay on his chest, legs tucked neatly under his body and staring at him with inscrutable blue eyes.

Luckily the cat wasn't very heavy and McQueen hardly noticed the slight weight. He continued to stare at the cat, wondering what he was supposed to do now. He remembered something about cats liking to be scratch and he raised a hand slowly, using a finger to lightly stroke behind an upright ear. That must have been the right move; the cat began to purr. Blue eyes narrowed contentedly but did not close, just continued to study him intently. McQueen had the uncomfortable feeling that the animal was somehow. . .reading him.

"Why do I have this horrible feeling you're about to whip out a deck of tarot cards and tell my fortune?"

A burst of laughter came from the door, startling McQueen but not, he noticed, the  cat. He turned toward the sound, feeling a light flush creep into his face at the thought of someone actually witnessing his brief flight of whimsy.

"I've been saying the same thing for three years now." A tall man with graying dark hair and wearing a doctor's coat in a rather vivid shade of purple was standing in the doorway, holding the door open with one hand and a chart in the other. He stepped in, letting the door swing close behind him. "It doesn't help that last Halloween one of the nurses made him a harness with a little tarot bag on it with a little deck of cards inside. Of course, it probably would have been a little less unnerving if he hadn't actually kept pulling cards from the deck."

Once he was close enough, the newcomer offered his hand. "Dr. Dale Stienbeck." He introduced himself. "And that's Kiki Ming."

"We've meet." McQueen shook the offered hand. "So this is a hospital?" He cast his eyes around the room. "Not like any military hospital I've ever seen."

"Well, it's a private hospital, more or less. We specialize in limb replacement and artificial limbs. You were recommended for a new procedure.

"By who?" McQueen demanded, still absentmindedly stroking the cat.

Stienbeck shrugged. "We get a lot of referrals from the military, especially since the war started."

McQueen didn't doubt it. Even so, he couldn't help but wonder who referred him. "What kind of new procedures?"

Stienbeck glanced down at the chart he held then back at him. "It's a new type of permanent limb, surgically attached. Just as good as the real thing."

"But there's a problem?" McQueen asked.

Stienbeck didn't seem surprised at the question. Instead, he quirked an eyebrow at him and smiled slightly. "And what makes you ask that?"

"I've heard rumors about permanent artificial limbs but haven't heard anything concrete."

"There's a couple of reasons for that. First off, the procedure comes from the same technology that created AIs. . ." He noticed McQueen's wince and nodded. "That's part of the problem. A lot of military personnel, especially veterans of the AI War, don't like that thought. Another part of the problem is that the procedure works best when the replacement is done as soon as possible, preferably while the body still believes the limb is still there."

McQueen grimaced, aware of the dull ache still emanating from his leg. "I definitely qualify for that."

"The question is whether you want this type of artificial leg or the other, detachable kind of leg."

McQueen threw him a surprised look. "I have a choice?"

Stienbeck looked surprised. "Of course. The procedure works best if the patient wants it. But it also works best if the operations is done as soon as possible."

"So, in other words, make up my mind quickly."

"Very quickly."

McQueen frowned. "When do you need to know?"

"Honestly, I'd like to do the surgery this afternoon."

McQueen looked at him sharply. "You've got a leg built already?" He'd have thought it would take some time to built a leg for each individual.

"Your medical records came in with the recommendation so the leg is already being built."

"Pretty sure I'll do it, aren't you?"

Stienbeck raised his eyebrows. "I read your file, Colonel. You're a military man through and through and you want nothing more then to get back into action. You know as well as I do that getting this leg and not one of the older version highly increases your chances of doing that."

McQueen narrowed his eyes at Stienbeck, very much like the Siamese laying on his chest. He looked at Ki thoughtfully. "I'm beginning to think I'd like to borrow your cards." He said to the cat.

Ki purred and tucked his nose under McQueen's chin. McQueen did his best to ignore both that unusual sensation and Steinbeck's grin.

"Operation when?"

"In two hours."

"And I'll be ready for duty when?"

"Operations. . .two." He added at McQueen's questioning look. "This first one and then the one for the artificial skin covering. Physical therapy until we know you can use the leg. The average is six weeks. It could be as long a three months. Depends on the patient."

Three months. Three months and he could be back at the Saratoga. Back where he belonged. He looked into the sapphire eyes of the cat on his chest and saw, in part, his answer there.

Well, they did say cats were oracles in fur.

"Do it." was all he said.

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