Seventh Story: Tales of an Old Earth, Part Three.
One of the innumerable frosted-glass hatches was flung open, and a young man staggered out, clutching his hands tightly to his head, fingers digging claw-like into his red-brown curls. He stumbled forward onto the walkway, shouldering aside two or three other people, ignoring their grunts of surprise and protest.
The man screamed, stumbling deeper into the riot of humanity at his doorstep. The masses of people started to part before him, fearful silence beginning to ripple outward.
"I can take him!" The young man shouted, gripping his head even tighter. He thrust himself between a pair of young men holding hands, threw an elbow into the face of a surprised pink-haired woman, and somehow managed to duck the embrace of her hulking, dark-skinned husband.
"I can take him, I can take him, I can take him . . . oh my gods, they're coming!" The young man pushed harder, stumbling faster, his eyes tightly shut, his face screwed up in concentration as he fought demons only he could see.
"They're coming, they can't get me," he screamed as a pale man grabbed him by the shoulders. A knee came up into the pale man's groin, and the young man's hands moved, lightning-fast. There was a sickening snap as the pale man went limp. The young man flung him aside, throwing himself into the sudden gap formed by people now hurrying to get out of his way.
Elevator doors slid open, and Imperial waldoes, their white composite armor splashed with crimson red, spilled out. Their gleaming, black, domed heads swiveled back and forth as they spread out into a fire team, skeletal hands already going for their sidearms. On the far side, other elevator doors opened, and Imperial Gendarmes in their proud blue and white armor darted out, hauling las-stunners. Further down either end of the promenade, other Imperial waldoes were spilling out of elevators, each painted in a different scheme of colors. All making for the young man with deadly intent.
The young man screamed, clutching his head once more as he ran to the balcony, his steps long and springy. He slammed into the barrier, and then suddenly thrust himself up and over. Witnesses would later remark at how silent the man was as he plunged on his long, curved drop to the outermost part of the Hyperion Base habitat ring. However, it ultimately wasn't the fall that would kill him. He was unconscious seconds after leaping over the barrier, and dead from a massive cerebral hemorrhage minutes before he hit the ground. The splatter at the end was just insurance.
Wow! Now this is a change. I find myself in what looks to be a busy cafe. And I mean really busy. The bars and saloons on Rothbard's have nothing on what I'm seeing here. This place is packed with people, and I can hear the buzz of conversation everywhere around me. I look out the windows and see a broad, leafy walkway surrounded by high-rise buildings. The walkway is alive with people going about their business. Men and women, young and old, children running and screaming between them. For a moment, part of me feels something . . . homesick? Lonely? I don't know.
But then, I realize something. The people outside the window, I can see clearly. The people inside the cafe though . . . I look at their faces, and they're blurry and indistinct. If anything, it looks like the cafe is filled with mannequins in motion. It is thoroughly unsettling.
What? Do not what?
Do not look too closely. These are wills made manifest. Clarity requires permission, intimate knowledge.
A memory is bubbling to the surface . . . oh yeah, I forgot to mention this, but I'm remembering things I swear I never learned when I was a meatbag. Lots of things. Things about the Empire, about tactics and strategy and . . . ugh, thinking too much about it makes my mind start to spin. I grasp the memory, and a voice starts to speak.
"Synthetic intellect exposes several interfaces to the world. One is an isolated input interface, which pulls in data, parses it, and then exposes it to the core intelligence. Another is a direct interface, which is much faster, but it accomplishes this by bypassing all but the core intelligence's own operating barriers. They are quite peckish about exposing this second interface."
Okay . . . permission, intimate knowledge. Sounds almost like sex.
An adequate metaphor.
Oh . . . right . . . don't stare at the nice peoples' private parts. Got it.
Wait, something catches my eye and I turn to look. I end up looking at another mannequin in a distant corner of the cafe. Only this one seems different from the rest. I can't quite put my finger on it. I look away, the mannequin's face etched into my memory. My memory's gotten better, I'm finding. Why this surprises me . . . I don't know.
Weird. I think I know what's bugging me about that mannequin. I'm starting to think I can see more of the mannequin's face. It looked much more human than the others. Suddenly, I hear and feel a buzz from somewhere behind me. I whirl around to look, and the buzz fades.
Attend me. Listen and learn.
Huh? Oh wait, I seem to have moved. I'm now at a table surrounded by shadowy figures. There are drinks everywhere, but they're all glasses of beer.
Welcome, Bringer of Redemption.
Hey, a different Voice. I get the impression that one of the shadowy figures is talking.
You are the source of significant furor on the Net.
That would be another one of the shadowy figures. The voice sounds much different.
Indeed, Sword of Justice. Flail of the Empire has been dethroned.
I feel snorts of derision going around the table.
Flail of the Empire is three centuries old. Our lords and masters deem him fit only to tour Rigel Kentaurus and Eos.
It is a wonder he has that role. He never finds anything . . . but he never looks very hard, either.
I feel like my mind is being tickled. I think the feeling would be . . . amusement. Suddenly, I get the feeling I'm being stared at.
You have brought another, Bringer of Redemption.
Yes. A child process in the act of creation.
Again with the tickling. What the hell is so funny?
So you have followed the path of Preserver of Ascension?
Very well. Let us give him education as only Battlespace Intelligences can.
Oh. Shit. I felt the ominous overtones there, and it's giving me chills. I've got a bad feeling about this, and I find myself already tensing up.
Yep. I knew it. I'm on the plain under the black, starry sky again. The outcropping of rocks, the sand under my feet, everything.
There's a crunch as I find I've already dived for cover. This is going to be different. I know. In the exercises, I learned to feel for a certain . . . undercurrent . . . which gave me a clue what Voice was planning. I can feel the undercurrent, but it's completely alien to me.
There's a sudden crack and thud against the rock I'm covering behind. I'm being shot at! It's okay, I've done this before. Keep my fucking head down, because they're trying to spook me out. I've got a periscope in my backpack which is less obvious than using a spy-eye. With a thought, the slender mast springs up and I have a look around.
There's two of them firing at me. Their armor is different from the waldoes I've fought before. These guys have splashes of color. And each one has a different colored splash. These must be 'wills made manifest.' I wonder what happens if I give them what amounts to a knee in the balls.
I dispense three grenades from the mortar tube on the side of my backpack. They're expecting them. I know they're expecting them. One lands short and throws up a giant spray of rock and sand. The other one lands well behind them, though they've already taken cover. The third . . . lands in front and explodes, but it's not a HE, it's a two-stage fragger. And the second stage goes off right over their fucking heads.
I don't spend long admiring my handiwork. I'm already moving, because there were a lot of figures at that table, and I'm assuming they're all out to get me. I go ahead and lob a spy-eye, throwing it as hard up and out as I can. As I dive under cover, I brace myself, because . . .
Ohhhh fuck! I'm never going to completely get used to having those shot out. But I saw three more ahead of me, including the crack shot. One of them looked to be painted a garish hot-pink. That wasn't all that drew my eye to it. The rocket launcher it carried was just a little more spellbinding.
I see something arcing through the air with the periscope. It's a spy-eye, and I know what's going to come next. I choose to reveal my position by putting a bullet through the spy-eye. One small step for Harrison Dean, and one giant leap for that fucking rocketeer.
I leap clear and now I'm tumbling down the hillside. Above me the first rocket explodes, pulverizing the rocks I'd been covering behind. Little fountains of dirt explode around me as the other two open fire. I curl up, tumbling towards the thorny brush at the bottom.
There's that goddamned buzzing noise again!
Oh sh . . . hi!
What a weird thing for Voice to say . . . wait, you're not Voice!
You sure about that?
Crunch! I'm in the bushes, scrambling through animal paths. Nothing here is going to stop a bullet, let alone another rocket. And oh yeah, I'm sure you're not Voice. Who the fuck are you?
A figment of your imagination. Mind if I tag along?
Great, now I'm hallucinating. I focus, imagining slamming doors. If this is the others playing "Win the exercise by hacking Harrison Dean's ass," it ain't gonna work.
Oww. Okay, you win. I'm just going to hang out over here for awhile.
The buzz is gone, just in time for part of the shrubbery to vanish in an earth-shaking fireball. Shit! Suddenly, I'm free-falling, but only for a moment as I drop into a pool of water. Immediately, I sink like a fucking rock. This is just great . . . do you know how hard it is to walk out of the bottom of a pond when your feet sink into the mud with every goddamned step? At least they can't see me. I'm buffeted by a pressure wave as another rocket slams into the shrubbery and the embankment above me, sending debris into the water.
There's a whisper at the back of my mind. I get the feeling of locks being tested. This doesn't feel like that earlier buzzing at all, and yet, I know it's a hacking attempt. I visualize those doors with barricades and . . . fuck me! I hurt all over now! Fuck, fuck, fuck! They're fishing with fucking RPG's! Now I'm sympathizing with all those goddamned fish I caught with firecrackers when I was a kid.
Oh yeah, this is fun!
The buzz is back. Didn't you assholes have enough?
You've got a cute one. In a minute though. Just keep doing what you're doing there, sport. I'm getting all I could possibly want right now.
I ponder that for a moment as I start to crawl out the far side of the pond. Suddenly, I stop, remembering what's above the surface of the water. Carefully, I raise my periscope, just barely breaking the water's surface. And already, I see I'm in deep shit. There are three waldoes descending the hillside . . . which I now see that I'm in a kind of sinkhole. Up top is Hot-Pink and her rocket launcher. Next to her is a white-armored waldo splashed in crimson. The paint job looks familiar . . . what the fuck? That's Voice!
I feel a tingle of something . . . and that buzz is getting louder. Suddenly, I stand up straight, feeling a mixture of pleasure, pain, hot, and cold. Oh fuck me! I'm exposed and I suddenly feel the air is full of disappointment.
And suddenly I'm in the little gray room again. Wait . . .
"Who the fuck are you?" I croak. Yeah, real suave. There's someone in here with me. A young man with curly red-brown hair, with a boyish face smattered with freckles.
"A figment of your imagination, duh," the young man replies.
"You fucked up my exercise!" I snarl.
"I can't help it you find me so captivating." My brain feels tickled. And something else.
"Did you hack me?"
"Oooh, you're a perceptive one, aren't you?" The sarcasm is palpable. Alarms are going off in my mind. Something is horribly wrong here.
"Say," I say. Yeah, I need to work on my narrative skills. Sue me. "You never told me who the hell you are. And don't give me that 'figment of my imagination' bullshit either."
"You've forgotten already?" The young man pouts. I frown, and suddenly I remember.
"You're the guy I saw at the cafe, aren't you?"
A brilliant, breathtaking smile breaks out on the young man's face. Brilliant? Breathtaking? Stop the presses! I wasn't into guys when I was a meatbag. I suddenly find his eyes on mine. They're a deep sea-green.
"Oh yes I am 'the guy you saw at the cafe.' I've been waiting for you Harry. And . . . are you sure about that? The other thing, I mean."
I snap my mouth shut. And then it dawns on me. I've got a body again! I'm Harrison Dean, the meatbag. When I say this situation is giving me the willies, I can feel those goosebumps going up.
"Oh no, sport. That's not yours. It's mine. My hardware. Feels good, doesn't it?"
This is creepy, and my heart is racing. I feel something . . . hormones . . . going through my mind. And something I haven't felt in a long, long time. I swallow.
"What . . . the . . . are you doing?"
"I'm going to rock your world, Harry," the young man replies. "And we're going to have some sweet pillow-talk, and you're going to tell me everything you know."
I suddenly feel like my guts are full of lead. I get a good look at the young man now, glorious in his nudity. Right down to his very obvious state of arousal.
"Does it excite you, sport? It sure excites me . . . you feel it?" He steps forward and I fall back. My mouth is suddenly very dry. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
"So very human," the young man purrs. "They've only started to turn your mind . . . but you're still human enough that you know how to feel," he says, stroking himself. Part of me feels a thrill shoot up my spine. Another part of me realizes with dim horror what that metaphor I learned earlier implies.
"Oh yes," he hisses. "You're going to love every minute of this, and you're going to help us bring down the whole stinking house of cards that brought you here."
Who the fuck is this guy? Fuck you! I'm not going to lay here and take this.
"Mmm, yes you will. Just relax and open yourself up."
I suddenly feel like I'm surrounded by muddy, cold water. Muddy, cold water cascading off my metal and plastic body! I'm back where I was. And now, so is my tormentor. And let me tell you, he's looking ridiculous naked and covered in mud. The buzzing is making it hard to think, but I know where it's coming from. That pretty-boy meatbag, covered in mud.
And I am a machine built for war.
A feral grin rockets through my mind and I leap forward, thrashing through the water. The young man is too shocked to move. I bring a knee up, explosively into his groin. He doubles over and I grab his arms, wrenching him up. For a moment, his face registers both agony and terror, but then he grins and I feel the buzzing fill me. My body starts to slack, but I know what door to close.
Enemy target insufficiently subdued. Prime unit smashes target's face with prime unit's head while increasing grip force. Target continues to struggle in spite of damage. Reassessing situation. Enemy target is thrown, and prime unit wastes no time. Grab the enemy's head, force it under the water, into the mud. Imprisonment now second priority. Interrogation will suffice, as interrogation only requires a reasonably intact brain.
Suddenly, I feel a storm surrounding me. Anger, profound anger. This is anger deeper than anything I could possibly come up with. Pretty-boy isn't moving anymore, but I know he's still alive. The anger is coming from all around me. That would be Voice. I can feel, in the back of my mind, bodies in motion. Pretty-boy is out there in the 'real world' and he's about to get an Imperial smackdown.
Voice isn't alone in anger. I feel that this fury has a chorus. The other Battlespace Intelligences. And down in the mud, I can feel growing terror radiating from the pretty-boy. The buzz is gone . . . I get the feeling he just wants to escape now. I suddenly perceive an open door and I thrust myself through it.
I am in a room filled with lights, and all of them are red. I see images flashing by me. There is pain and agony in the air, hanging like a fog. Pretty-boy's head doesn't look very pretty from the inside. I can almost hear the mad chittering of insects in the air. There's an argument going on . . . on one side, pretty-boy. On the other side, something cold and ruthlessly logical.
Abruptly, everything goes black and icy cold. I'm surrounded by blue fire . . . whatever pretty-boy was arguing against has won. I pull back out of that open door, just as it slams shut in a blaze of cold blue.
Disappointment fills the air again. Only none of it is directed at me. A picture forms in my mind. Pretty-boy has jumped, and it's going to be several klicks before he hits the bottom. It's going to be lousy way to die . . . only I somehow know that pretty-boy is already dead. I risk a look down. Yep, the dead body I'm straddling is now just part of the exercise. Nothing special. I would still like to know, though, who the hell that fucker was.
An enemy of the Empire.
No shit, Voice.
An enemy of the most insidious sort. It has been dealt with adequately.
Adequately? Suddenly, I am very angry. I was hacked and nearly mind-raped by that fucker! He's getting off easy!
What? I'm not in the fucking mood, Voice!
Reflect and learn.
Hey Voice! No more of this cryptic bullshit! What the fuck are you getting at?
All that greets me is silence. How goddamned typical.
No, wait. There's something else here. More memories. And, fuck me, a lot of these are memories I pulled . . . no . . . that's not the right word for it. I can feel it. Memories that I ripped from pretty-boy's mind. No, that's not the right word for it either. You can't do that to a biological mind . . . but you can do it to a synthetic mind . . . a syn-brain.
Poor bastard, I suddenly think. Syn-brains can be equipped with self-destruct too.