Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The crawler sat heavily on massive tires in the only area of the hanger not lost in shadow. Its exterior bristled with scanning apparatus, and Baker knew from experience every cubic unit of interior space was packed with storage. The smell of diesel exhaust and carnage clung to it, off-gassing slowly into the cavernous expanse of the building.

On a cluster of hastily assembled tables beside the crawler sat banks of field processors, tethered to it with thick fibre lines. Nearby squatted the base unit for the field VR rig and beside that a pair of alloy frame and mesh loungers, their headjack lines coiled, waiting.

“We combed the zone for nearly two days. If there was an asset down in there, we’ve got their cerebral IP in the bank. It’s been defragging since eighteen hundred, and we’ve got a bunch of completes.”

The technician pointed Baker towards the VR rig. “If you want to jack in, we can start spinning them up for review.”

Baker nodded. He was tired – adrenalin, stimulants, and hope were the only thing keeping him together, but he had to know.

“Light me up.”

He straddled one of the loungers, leaned forward, and held the end of the datacable behind his head. The limp strands of fibre twitched to life, each straining to find purchase in the socket at the base of his skull. He let it pull itself close, and once the first tendrils engaged the entire bundle slithered from his grasp into his skull, jacking him fully into virtual.

The transition into the suite was rough. This was a primitive field hospital terminal, and each of the lives his squad had scraped out of the massacre would get spun up into an androgynous, grey body, their eyes molded shut with bandages to prevent them from seeing what or where they were. They would struggle with the sound of their voice, and if they tried to feel their own bodies, the struggle could get much, much worse.

For hours Baker paged through one retrieved asset after another, the virtual hours taking a fraction of that time in the real, but Baker’s body logged the fatigue in perceived time just the same. Many came in screaming and thrashing, irretrievable, and he spun them down and marked them for deletion. Most were confused, they’d been fighting what seemed to them only moments ago, and now they were… where? Dead? Alive, but incorporeal? Baker spun those down too, marking them for potential refurb and redeployment.

Then he found the needle in this hellish haystack.

They came up calm. Took a moment to explore the edges of the gurney they spawned in on with tentative fingertips. Felt the swath of bandages covering their eyes.

“I’d recognize this low rez medivac horseshit anywhere.” The voice was clear, focused.

“Do you know who you are?” Baker asked, hopeful.

The construct smiled the nearest approximation of a wry smile. “Of course I know who I am Baker, don’t you?” There was a pause as the VR rig matched their brainwaves with coded signature reference points and rerendered the commander’s avatar more accurately. “How long have I been down?”

“We lost you four days ago, took some manoeuvering to get a team in here.” Baker stood, forcing his weary body to attention. “Welcome back Sir. We’ve got a body in the tank waiting, the tech’s will start infilling any gaps in your recovery from your backup and prep for reinsertion.” He allowed a tired smile to find purchase. “I’ll see you in the real, real soon.”

Baker took a long look at her, magnificent even in low rez, and ejected, letting the cable slip lifeless from his neck.

The technician was hovering nearby.

“This is her?”

Baker nodded. “Get her back in a body, we’ve got a mission to finish.”

He lay back on the lounger, fatigue and relief washing over in waves. It would take most of the night to reconstitute her, but he could wait now, wait and sleep.