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.


Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

She studied his naked body as he slept, unconsciousnessly comparing the network of scars to a mental map burned into her subconscious. Every knife wound, bullet hole, piece of shrapnel, every evidence of every torture session, a testament to his fidelity.

There was no doubt of who he was, even with the marks of atrocities undocumented in her memory, she knew, without a doubt, this was the man.

Her entire life had been spent pursuing him, at least so much of her life she no longer had any memory of anything else.

Studying his philosophy, almost adopting it as her own.

Understanding his motivations, his beliefs with an intensity bordering on fanaticism, until she worried she would lose her sense of where she ended and he began.

She knew him, understood him, almost sympathized with him in a way she never believed was possible when this mission began.

And yet here she was.

So many insignificant lives lost, so much incidental collateral damage.

The killings, the bombs, the engineered catastrophes, in his name. For this. To get close to him, to get this close, to be sure.

As she studied the rise and fall of his chest, listened to the measured cadence of his breath, the sweat of each other’s exertions still fresh on his skin, she nearly forgot that he wasn’t a man. He was something else, something fabricated, an automaton manufactured by the other side for the sole purpose of sowing chaos and discord, a machine of subversive terror and destruction.

And she’d finally gotten to him.

She wondered if he even knew what he was, as he gave no indication that he did so. He spoke of his youth, the abuses by her people that had led him to become what he’d become. Were those implanted, those memories? Did he have any memories of his own, any memory of anything else?

She pushed her thumb inside her mouth into the top molars on the right side. Those were the instructions. They wouldn’t be tracking her until it was time, couldn’t be in case such a signal was detected. Instead, she’d left updates, cryptic messages on napkins and such in restrooms along the way to mark progress, but now she would be broadcasting her location and they would come for him, for them both.

“Thirty minutes,” they had said in the briefings, “we’ll have choppers on standby. Thirty minutes from your signal to insertion and evac.”

As she waited, she lay her head on his chest, felt the steady beating of his heart, listened to the rhythm of his breathing.

It wouldn’t be long now.

Absently she traced the line of scar tissue from a mortar strike where it followed his collar bone.

For a moment she felt something she hadn’t felt before, heat slowly rising in her chest. Was this guilt? Regret? Did she love him?

From the street one would have observed the light and heat of a small sun as the incursion unit nova’d, erasing itself and all evidence of the terrorist unit, then settling to the slow, steady task of reducing the building to ash while it waited for the fire department to arrive.

Conspicuous Failure

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The two technicians parked the ArVee down a side street and covered the last hundred meters on foot. They took up a position in the shelter of an alley behind a battered wall with a clear view of the square.

The combat frame they had the open trouble ticket on was seated on the broken rim of the fountain in the square’s center, its heavy weapon laid across its feet between its legs and a hand cannon gripped in its right hand. Behind it, a pair of concrete dolphins hovered in the air, part of some forgotten water feature now run dry.

As they watched, the humanoid frame raised the pistol to its temple, and a fraction of a second before it pulled the trigger, it jerked the barrel just enough to one side so the round missed its head completely, tearing noisily into a building in the distance.

“What the absolute fuck is it doing?” Zune, the more junior of the two gaped in disbelief. “Do these things even get depressed?”

The frame reloaded the hand cannon, paused, then repeated the motion exactly, pulling the barrel off target at the last instant so the round didn’t impact its cranial casing.

“It’s a troubleshooting indicator, it’s designed like that so that critical failures are conspicuous.” Dek was scrolling through pages of documentation as he spoke. “Same reason your cabin rebreather leaks onto your bunk when it backs up so you fix it. Stops you from ignoring a stuck pressure relief valve until the unit explodes and vents you and the contents of your cabin into space you while you sleep.” Not finding what he’d been looking for, he scrolled back to the top and began searching more slowly. “It can’t hurt itself, so the indicator’s not terminal. Love to meet the dumbass that didn’t think through the collateral damage on this thing though.”

Zune tried connecting to the frame from his console without success. “Remote diagnostics is down.”

“Of course it’s down, if remote dee was up, we wouldn’t be here, would we?”

Dek could swear these techs got thicker skulls every tour.

“Send the shutdown codes, then we can take a closer look. I don’t see that behaviour anywhere in the maintenance code list, I have no idea what failure that’s indicative of.”

Zune dialed up the frame overrides in his HUD, and sent the shutdown codes.

The frame turned to look in their direction, then placed the hand cannon on the fountain rim beside it, and rested both hands on its thighs and stopped moving.

Zune stayed in the alley watching the thermals on his HUD until the frame had been absolutely still for a full minute.

“Got it, stupid bucket’s a brick now, I’ll go jack in and see what it’s got to say for itself”

Dek turned to respond as Zune stepped out of the shelter of the alley mouth. The frame kicked its heavy weapon up off the ground into its waiting hands, and in a deafening barrage of slugs, Zune and most of the brickwork near where he’d just been standing disappeared into a cloud of dust and mist.

Dek didn’t wait to see if the frame was ambulatory, he dropped his gear and sprinted to the ArVee, reversing at full throttle until he was sure he was safely clear of the area.

“Control this is TK two one nine, that twitchy frame you sent us to check out? It’s got a faulty remote shutdown, and a faulty loyalty subsystem. I’m going to need an orbital strike with extreme prejudice. Frame is off-leash, asset irretrievable.”

Dek paused, trying to will his heart rate back down to something bordering mildly terrified.

“I’m going to need a new tech too,” he added after a few minutes, “and a day off.”

He turned the ArVee around without stopping, braking, steering, and hammering the gas again in one smooth practiced motion, then continued racing clear of the strike zone, glancing nervously skyward in anticipation of the hand of god railing down.

There was going to be hell to pay with the documents division when he got back to base.

Soul Tether

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

When they first met, it wasn’t the clumsy exo-rig she was using to navigate the university halls that caught their attention, or the baggy tie-dye jumpsuit her body was hidden inside. It wasn’t the way the students parted around her as the red sea, respectful and yet indifferent to the alloy and carbon fiber elephant in their midst. It was the determination of will that creased her face, in stark contrast to the brilliant tranquility in her eyes.

She was undeniable in the space she took up, and yet still somehow invisible to everyone around her.

They alone, however, were transfixed.

She had to stop in order to not mow them down, and they stood staring at each other for what seemed like eons before either of them spoke.

That was twelve years ago, and they’ve been, quite literally, inseparable ever since.

Her rig allowed her to exact coarse motor control over her body, a body that disowned her before she was old enough to form memories of anything different.

Her mind was exceptional, she’d designed and refined the neural interface and mechanics, evolving it iteration after iteration over years, licensing discoveries to interested parties to fund her own further development. The university was her forever home, her laboratory, her savior, her prison.

She’d never felt anything, not really, not that she could remember. She knew what it felt like to have someone touch her face, or run their fingers through her hair, but she’d never known how it felt to touch someone else, anything else, her nervous system having been disconnected from the neck down since childhood.

They worked on the neural interface together, she directing them, using their hands as she had previously used apprentices and interns. The first implant she installed gave them blinding migraines for weeks, but the second was much gentler and allowed them to control her rig with her, and in time it allowed her, through them, to touch things and feel them with their fingers, feel the grass beneath their bare feet, the sand in-between their toes.

Their interlinked neural interfaces meant they could feel how she felt when she experienced each new thing through them, constructive waves of the joy of discovery compounding the endorphin rush they fueled in each other in a form of gentle feedback loop. It was intoxicating.

They couldn’t be more intimate, more vulnerable, more exposed to each other than they were like this.

Twelve years. They traveled together, newly able and eager to visit places together she’d never dreamed of visiting, places she would never have dared to go.

On the night she felt the end coming, they stayed together, coupled, interlinked, as one until the very end.

She’d pleaded with them to disconnect, fearing, knowing that her death would be their death too, but they were insistent.

When you love someone that deeply, you can’t let them go through something like that alone.

They had experienced everything together, they had to share this one last thing.

Besides, they couldn’t imagine living without her.

Ab Fab

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“We have a problem,” Gates was talking as the door was still swinging shut behind him, “a massive fucking problem.”

Cooper switched the displays between them from opaque to semi-transparent and nevertheless managed to regard his subordinate with clear irritation.

“Come in, have a seat, no – I’m not busy at all.”

“It’s Osiris, there’s a serious problem with Osiris.” Gates had closed the distance to the desk and stood shifting his weight from foot to foot, agitated. He plucked a stack of documents from his PDA and flung them up on Cooper’s display, the pages orienting themselves and sorting into stacks of requisitions and shipping manifests.

Cooper’s irritation deepened, he had work to do.

“Mars? What about it, and what the hell is all this?”

“Not just Mars, specifically Osiris. Our mid-space foundation project there. A decade ago, after we sent a stream of bulk loaders and drop pods with large facility printing gear to the surface, funding was pulled. It was officially resupplied twice to secure a permanent outpost there and then we shut it down.”

“So, how is this a problem now?”

“There have been thirty-eight supply drops to Mars since then. There should have been zero. They started about six months after we pulled the plug. They were buried in relay shipments we sent to Artemis, supplies apparently requisitioned there, but the cargo never got offloaded on the moon, it was forwarded to Osiris station.”

“Why the hell would Artemis be procuring supplies for Mars?” Gates started flipping through the manifests; raw materials, mining and material processing equipment, maintenance robots, control systems, and more and more advanced and specialized 3D fabricators.

“That’s part of the problem,” Gates leaned forward, bracing himself with both hands on the desk, “nobody at Artemis knows anything about this. They received instructions from us to refuel the bulk loaders in orbit and send them on, but we didn’t make any such request. They thought they were following our instructions, and we assumed we were fulfilling their requests, and nobody had any reason to ask any questions,” he paused, taking a deep breath, “until now.”

Cooper pushed the stacks of documents to either side of the screen, clearing the space between himself and Gates.

“What’s changed?”

“Osiris just put forward a request for a seat on the world council.” Gates’ words were almost a whisper.

“What the fuck are you talking about? Osiris is an empty warehouse on a rock, there’s nobody there. There never has been. We haven’t put so much as a foot on that desolate dust bowl, who the hell is pulling your chain?” Cooper shouted. Gates stood up and took a reflexive step backward.

“The initial deployment included a prototype AI with instructions to adapt to the resources and environment on Mars. The idea was for it to build the best facility with what we shipped and what it could mine onsite, but it was a prototype, and we stopped shipping resources and didn’t provide any further guidance. Nobody thought to turn it off.”

Cooper stared across the desk at Gates, struggling to comprehend the information he was receiving.

“Do we have satellite visibility?”

“There’s a distortion field of some sort in place, atmospheric disturbance maybe, but it remains consistent and we haven’t been able to see through it.”

“We should get a recon patrol…” Cooper started, but Gates cut him off.

“We sent a tactical platoon of Atlas drones, they landed and we lost contact as soon as they breached the dust zone. We received a message from Osiris shortly after, ‘Improvised, Adapted, Overcame’, followed a little later with ‘Thank you for your service.'” He winced. “It appears to have learned sarcasm.”

Cooper slumped. This was going to be his ass when he had to explain the situation, and there didn’t seem to be a way around that.

“Give me everything you’ve got, I’m going to have to take this upstairs.”

Gates stuffed both hands in his pockets and shrugged.

“That’s the icing on this particular shitcake. Osiris’ last message was that this had already been communicated to a higher authority, and to notify you as a courtesy that we’ve been relieved.”