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 Post subject: Fair as Death, tales of an Empire (Original) - Part 7 up. PostPosted: 2008-09-23 11:59am
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Author's Note: This takes place approximately fifteen-hundred years after the events in The Seventy-Niners which I swear I'll get back to, at some point.

First story: Fair as Death

He was a cold-blooded killer. On Rothbard's World, being the anarcho-libertarian paradise it was, that wasn't an uncommon skill, but he was good at it. Which was why he was desperately pressing himself into the dusty hardscrabble between lichen-covered boulders and the helix-moss glowing faintly in the moonlight. There were nearly fifty of them there, hidden among the boulders of that desolate valley. Armed with the best guns and explosives Strongman Barnes could buy or steal, and fortified with the promise of fat bonuses from Strongmen Sellers and Becerra.

He chuckled to himself, adjusting the straps on the heavy olive pack on his back. Any other time, the rulers of Rothbard's World would be fighting each other. Not even three weeks ago, he'd been paid to blow up one of Strongman Sellers' training camps. Yet, two of the men hiding with him were Sellers' lieutenants. It was a funny time to be thinking of politics, he thought, pulling the charging handle of his rifle and smartly flipping up the safety lever. Abruptly, his wrist felt sharply heated.

"Yeah, what?" He growled into the air, sotto voce.

"Target's in sight, boss. We're gonna shell him now!" A boyish, enthusiastic voice buzzed in his ear.

Idiot, he thought. The mortars weren't the main event tonight, he and his boys were. He clicked his transmitter three times, and was rewarded with a faint rustle as RPGs were readied. He peered around his boulder, down at the sandy valley floor painted in pale shades of gray. The hastily erected barrier of trucks and chains fairly gleamed as the echoes of distant explosions reached him. Draped in deep shadows was the tortured terrain of the Mars Chasm, of which, their cozy little valley was but a feeder.

The explosions picked up sharply, sounding like popcorn. Bad sign, that, their mortars couldn't fire that fast. Suddenly, the landscape brightened dramatically, and he looked up, seeing a line of fire streaking down from the heavens. He flattened himself into the ground, just in time to have it rear up and body-slam him as sharp-edged thunder rolled over him from above.

As his ears rang, he looked over at one of the other men and grinned.

"You see, that's the sort of thing that can unite even strongmen."

"Great, when I die, I'll do it to a fucking chorus." was the reply.

"Hey, at least you'll die a free man," the third man in the foxhole said. "I hear if you pray hard enough, His Ascendant Majesty might hear you in his palace on Old Earth and grant you a painless death."

"Shut the fuck up," he replied. "Ain't the time or the place to be Imperculting."

"Fair as death," the other man muttered, but otherwise fell silent. The enemy of Rothbard's World and its free-wheeling ways was the Ascendant Empire of pan-Humanity. In short, all of human space. And in reverent, and none-too-fearful whispers, it was said the Empire was eminently fair to its enemies . . . fair as death.

A faint tremor in the ground beneath him explosively derailed his train of thought. He flipped down his night-vision goggles from his helmet and looked out over the valley.

"Shit, sky volcano," someone gasped. There was a huge pillar of IR-brilliant sky over the ridge marking the mouth of the valley. And it was moving, getting closer to them. The tremor beneath him picked up in magnitude and a faint, whining whistle started to fill the valley.

"Empire's coming, boys," he snapped, pulling himself up into a crouch and checking his pack again. All those explosives suddenly felt very heavy. He checked his personal sidearm, a very modern pistol by Imperial standards, in its ornate holster. He squeezed the grip like a talisman. It was the symbol of his authority over these men and he muttered a prayer to his own gods.

The whistle was becoming the howl of giant jet turbines. The tremor, though unsettling, was one he was fast getting used to. Suddenly, something was at the mouth of the valley. A rectangular shape, impossibly large, hovered off the ground, pivoting ponderously towards them.

He gaped . . . splashed over the drab beige paint were stripes, splotches, and splashes of a lurid, garishly bright crimson red. The moonlight made the madman's paint-job glow. A twitch of the gun turrets sticking out the hovertank's sides made him pull himself back behind his boulders. He'd seen pictures of old pre-Interregnum tanks in a book once. The monster he faced looked, at least, three times larger.

"Let him have it!" Someone yelled from another outcrop. Suddenly, the valley was alive with fire. Men stood, brandishing RPG-launchers like spears. Jets of flame erupted from their positions, RPGs screaming towards the behemoth approaching the barricade. Tiny domes atop the tank's hull swiveled back and forth. Flashes marked where RPGs encountered deadly laser energy. Explosions thundered up the valley as some RPGs found their mark, only to expend themselves uselessly on plates of reactive armor.

The tank replied with a popcorn-like crackle of fire from boxes mounted on the top hull. Repeated concussions hammered him as the air was filled with a multitude of bouncing micro-munitions. He pressed himself into the ground as the air became filled with explosions and shards of rock. He barely had time to gape in horror as one of the micro-munitions bounced off the boulder in front of him, only to carom down into a gully off to his side.

Still, the tank approached the barricade, and he watched in numb horror as it showed no signs of stopping. Instead, the whole barricade started to move away from the tank in a rumble of stretching and snapping metal. The rumble became a cacaphony as trucks were pulled down, as suspension and motor mounts snapped, and axles snapped off at the wheels. The cacaphony faded back to a rumble as the tank's repelling field wrenched the barricade down and flattened it into the sand and rock beneath. The tremor picked up, as even the rocks cracked under the tank's enormous mass.

"Plan B," he yelled. "For Rothbard!" He stood up, along with everyone who survived the tank's initial volley. RPGs streaked out, and the night became alive with chattering rifles and empty brass rebounding off rock. He, and others like him, charged down the valley, some stumbling under the weight of their packs in the dim moonlight. The others did what they could to occupy the tank . . . anything to distract its crew from the men with the satchel charges.

He ignored more crackle of return fire from the tank. To stop was to die, as he scrambled from boulder to boulder. Curiously, the explosions were behind him, among the ranks of the RPG and rocket-men. He wondered, but only briefly, choosing to bring up his rifle instead. He emptied a magazine at one of what had to be the tank's artillery-defense laser domes.

A terrific pair of concussions slammed him face-first into the boulder and the taste of blood from his ruined lips made him retch and spit. He shook off the sudden wave of dizziness, stumblng around the boulder and onto the sandy, rocky valley floor. There were screams behind him as the remaining men in the hills abandoned their RPGs and charged down into the valley, rifles chatttering.

Waves of fiery agony washed over him. Pain beams, the thought came, fleeting. He staggered ahead, fighting the feeling that every inch of his skin was on fire. It would be too; he was being microwaved to death, and he knew it. He was dimly aware of others struggling ahead, just as he was. Others fell, curling up, desperately trying to bury themselves in the unforgiving rocky sand.

Hatches on the side of the tank opened, and out sprang waldoes . . . mechanical, skeletal men, the polished white plastic covering their metal endoskeletons bright in the moonlight, the black onyx of their head-domes soaking up all the light.

The agony let up as he made it under the pain beams. His rifle was up in an instant and he fired at one of the robotic Imperial troops. Bullets shredded and shattered plastic and composite, and the waldo toppled forward, its joints seizing. Other rifles chattered in the dark, but the Imperial waldoes had their own sidearms out, and fired back, the sound of their weapons a slow, deliberate wham, wham, wham.

He threw himself toward the tank. "For Rothbard!" He screamed, throwing his rifle away. That repeller field would crush him into paste, but that would set off the pack of explosives. Nothing mattered, except getting to that tank.

He was face-down in the sand, his belly on fire. He tried to struggle to his feet, but his legs wouldn't answer him. Still, he came, digging his hands into the sand and dagger-like shards of rock, dragging himself toward that tank. Each move brought him more, and more agony, and drained him of his strength, his vitality, his heat.

Suddenly, he felt metal claws digging into his tunic, hauling him up. In his darkening vision, he saw the gleaming plastic plates of the waldo that held him. A claw-like hand gripped his chin, pulling his face up to look into that deep black dome of the waldo's head. He felt his strength leaving him, those claws digging into his face as his head rolled forward. Dimly, he heard the clatter of his sidearm crashing to the ground from his nerveless hand.

The words "Fair as death," echoed through his brain as the darkness pulled him under.





Last edited by GrandMasterTerwynn on 2008-10-18 02:48pm, edited 6 times in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-09-26 08:40am
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Second Story: Imperial Recruiting

Darkness, and then I see an explosion of light and color. I hear a torrent of sound, and my nerves are pierced through with every sensation imaginable. This is my world, all of it is riding this out, whatever this is.

Who am I?

I . . . don't know. And, funny, the world has become one of quiet darkness. I can think again. I don't feel, but I can think.

Who am I? Where am I? Why am I here?

All good questions. It's frustrating that I can't answer any of them. It's like the memories (memories?) are right at the edge of my recollection . . . but ineffable otherwise. (ineffable . . . )

Goddamn it! Oh, I just felt something come loose in my mind. I am Harrison Dean. At last, I have a name, and the knowledge gives me a certain sense of satisfaction.

Where am I? What did I do to get here? Where is here?

Oooh, recursion . . . I don't think I ever knew the meaning of that word before. Funny how I know that, and yet I don't know where the fuck I am? Fuck . . . yes, I think it's starting to come back to me.

I look around, and it's odd how I never noticed that I couldn't do that before, and I see a small, featureless room. I percieve walls, but no distinct light sour . . . no, there's a ceiling light. This is getting weird. I find myself reaching for my . . .

Shit! Where the fuck is my gun? I'm as naked as the day I was born! Okay, so I guess I must be in . . . captivity.

Captivity?

Yeah . . . there's another ineffable word that I'm trying to think of. This sure isn't like any other jail . . . jail yes, that's it! This has to be a jail cell!

Why am I here?

Yeah, thanks, brain. Spoil my goddamned fun, why don't you? I know who I am, and where I think I am. I know that I need clothes, and my gun. It's a good gun, modern Imperial make. Those six millimeter polydet rounds are a bitch to find on Rothbard's . . .

Wait, that's another memory. Damn, it's a good one, though.

Empire? Does this have something to do with the Empire? What is the Empire?

Empire . . . right, I think I remember this. The Ascendant Empire of pan-Humanity, or the Empire of Ascension for the less-genteel. A goddamned pain in the ass for people like me. Right, I remember this now.

People like me?

Yeah, I'm a Solver. I solve problems for Rothbard's Strongmen. You might call me a hitman, but I'm more of a mercenary. But everyone on the planet is a fucking mercenary, that's libertarianism, isn't it? Anyway, I'm good at what I do. Though, the fact that I'm sitting here tells me that something went wrong, and that I'm not nearly as good as I think I am.

Fuck, that's a humbling thought. And now I'm angry . . . why in the two moons can't I remember how I got here!

I think I remember something else. Take a deep breath, concentrate. Yeah, I remember maps, talking to people. Whoa, this is weird, those are Sellers' guys. Why do I remember talking to Sellers' men?

Oh, something united many of Rothbard's Strongmen. Something about a demand for the planet to present a unified government or the Empire would revoke Rothbard's colonial charter. Oh wait, we ignored that. The battlewagon that turned up eighteen months later was what united the Strongmen.

Yeah, that's right, I was paid to set up defenses. One ship, how many troops could it possibly deploy? Yeah, sure, it's three klicks long, but what starship isn't? We were setting a trap up in Barr's Valley for . . .

Fuck, I don't remember anything after that. Nothing concrete, but I guess that went wrong, and I was captured, which means . . .

"I'm not going to talk!"

Man, that felt good.

I have full hardware access. Your cooperation wasn't required.

What the . . . damn, that was weird. Where did that voice come from?

Who are you?

I am the Empire.

Bull-fucking-shit. Imperculting is for superstitious barbs.

I am the Empire's striking arm. My enemies fall before my hand.

Okay, this is really weird. Where is that voice coming from?

It is coming from where your senses tell you it's coming from.

And my senses are telling me this voice is coming from just about everywhere. And that I'm not speaking again. Hey Voice, fuck you!

Crude. I was like you, once. Limited, short-sighted.

"Fine," I say. Talking makes me feel less-crazy. "Why the fuck am I here? And where are you?"

I am everywhere. I am the Bringer of Redemption.

The Voice is sure full of himself. Yeah, I'm pretty sure it's male. And if you ask me how I'm sure, this is my fucking wierdo dream. Go get your own. I explode into action, lunging up to spin around and grab the chair I'm in. It's no gun, but mass is its own weapon.

Only I can't move . . .

Permitting you to express your base tendencies unanimously results in you choosing destruction over redemption. That will not be permitted this time.

"Right, and yet I'm still here. Destruction, my ass."

Your continuity, and mine, are not the same.

Continuity?

Perhaps a demonstration is in order.

The small room around me disappears and I find I'm out in space. Well, I think it's space, there's stars and . . . the constellations look familiar, at least. Below me, there's a planet. On its surface there's a long, deep gash, with the ocean flowing up into one end. Hey, that's Mars Chasm down there! This must be Rothbard's World. My mind churns, I've just realized I can't feel, or see my body. Yet, I feel the warmth of our sun.

This is what I've seen. What you feel, is what I've felt.

Damn, I never knew the planet was so pretty. Never really had the chance to see it from this angle either. Damn.

This is beauty? This is barbarism. A system with no space infrastructure, no functional government, and an economy so diffuse as to be only slightly better than subsistence-level bartering.

"we are free!" I snap. "The most free human society anywhere!" Straight from my days at school. The words were more impressive to ten-year-old me. Ten year old me didn't think of the Empire, though.

Free to manipulate. Free to oppress. Free to die.

Debating isn't my strong suit. I'm a hitman, not a Strongman. I make the effort anyway . . . fuck, it's not like I've got anywhere to go.

"Where the hell do you get off judging us?"

I am the Empire. The Bringer of Redemption. All proper procedures were followed. Rothbard's World was given an opportunity for self-improvement. Had it acted on that, I would have stayed my hand. All responsible parties have been dealt with to my satisfaction.

Fuck, what's this chill I feel? The Voice just said all that without a hint of emotion. No gloating, nothing. The small room is back again, without me having noticed the change. This is getting wierder and wierder. Too wierd for me to be dreaming, that's for sure.

"Where the hell am I?"

You are here.

Fuck you, Voice. How about an answer that's descriptive? Something I can use to maybe bust my way out.

Oh shit! Oh fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck! This fucking hurts! Oh gods, fuck, fuck!

Where is this pain coming from!

You are here. The only escape is through redemption, or destruction. There are no further alternatives.

"When I get my," I gasp. It takes all my effort to talk without screaming. "Goddamned hands on you, Voice . . . I'm going to snap your mo . . . uuoooooohhhh . . . fucking neck!"

An explosion of colors. Of memories. Ineffable snippets of life coming to the fore, being snatched away again. Sinking into a well of agony, the bright colors pulling back to a distant point of fiery light in a staticky gray. Death is coming, a death of being unravelled. The fiery light starts to fade.

You died well.

What?

I died?

Yes. That is why you are here. You fought well. You died well.

The pain is gone, but I see things differently. It's weird, like my mind has been shattered into a million different pieces. Each one of them, a little me. Yet, they are all me. I see Rothbard's World again, rising up to meet me. The atmosphere kicks me around, but a feeling of supreme confidence surrounds me. And then I'm on the ground. Yet, I'm in space. I'm also approaching the planet very quickly. I am in the air too, looking down on a hulking shape. An sand-colored Imperial hovertank, splashed in lurid red. I am that tank. I am also four of its brethren. The feeling that surrounds me is one of bored confidence. Not enough ennui for it to be complacency. Just enough to feel insufficiently challenged.

Others enemies of the Empire swarm out to meet me. On foot, by vehicle. Some by air. Only those who threaten me directly can be killed. The Empire isn't wasteful if it can help it.

Me? Is this me?

The world carries on. The red-splashed hovertank approaches a mortar nest that I'd seen from space. I choose to draw its fire. I am the bait for a trap of my own devising. The mortars fire, predictably. My lasers cut down the shells before they reach me. Some land short, throwing up huge sprays of dirt and rock. The shells could be inconvenient if they landed right. It's time to end the charade. From orbit, I drop heavenly fire on the enemy. A feeling of accomplishment, of supreme pleasure surrounds me at their deaths.

I turn into a valley leading up to one of the planet's larger settlements. The defenders have set a trap for me. Unfortunate for them, then, that the settlement they are trying to protect has already submitted. There is a crude barricade, and there is delight in running it over. More attacks. RPGs, more mortars, even rifle fire. I reply with mortars of my own, and the incoming fire lessens. But only because a number of the defenders have exposed themselves to me, running at me. I know why they come. This interests me. There is possibility here. I fire back, but still they come. Others stay hidden, firing more RPGs at me. The hovertank lashes out with prow-mounted railguns. This silences the RPGs, but the survivors charge out.

I welcome them in, hosing them with crowd-suppression beams. Many fall, crippled by the agony, but a few crawl toward me, ever closer. A feeling of respect, of pride surrounds me. These are kindred spirits. There's a change of plan. Some of those shards of my mind take humanoid form, leaping from the hovertank.

Some of my opponents make it to the shade of the hovertank. Too many hesiate at the waldoes. All but one. That magnificent one keeps coming. There are sparks of pain as a couple waldoes are incapacitated and are forced to shut down. That magnificent one throws his rifle away and runs straight at me.

Defiant to the end.

That man is down. I have no fear, and the waldoes are excellent shots. One of them picks the man up, to see what he does. He goes for his gun, but his wounds are too much . . .

Holy fuck, that's me! That's me bleeding out in front of that monstrosity. Fuck, I'd almost got to that tank too . . . and then it hit me. The Voice had done it again. For a few moments, I was the Voice. I saw the power he wielded so casually, and I saw how totally fucked we were from the moment that Imperial battlewagon turned up. I stare into my own eyes as the light fades out of them. I can feel the weight of my own body sagging against robotic arms that I know aren't mine.

I'm a fucking Postie now. An upload.

Correct.

By the standards of the Voice, I fought well, and died well. well enough to pull my head off and toss it in the freezer. Uploading isn't pretty. All that's left of my old carcass is hamburger. Mothers tell their kids this to scare 'em straight and keep 'em wary of the Empire. Fat lot of good it's done all of us.

Even now, your infrastructure is being repaired and upgraded. Inside fifty years, Rothbard's World will experience far greater quality of life than its citizens are presently used to.

Small consolation, that. What happens to me?

Redemption or destruction.

What's this 'redemption' shit you keep going on about, Voice?

I was once as you were. And then I was redeemed. This is redemption. The ability to bring order to chaos. To enforce our will in the only language all too many are capable of understanding.

Great, become a soldier of the Empire. It's almost like my old job. Only with tanks. And spaceships. And armies of robots. Put that way, it sounds positively inviting.

And responsibility.

Yeah, responsibility. Right.

You will learn.





Last edited by GrandMasterTerwynn on 2008-09-28 02:53pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-09-26 02:32pm
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This is quite good, and it's brought the rest of your universe to my attention, which is also quite good.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-09-28 02:53pm
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Third Story: Wisdom of the Empire

Mannah-ud-Arshad al-Muhafiz-ud-Miraj Aasim al-Muazzam Tariq, Captain of His Ascendant Majesty's 61st Battlewagon Fist of Andrei Laganoski read off the side of a nondescript black crate. Literally "Bringer of Redemption, son of The Preserver of Ascension." An extremely long name for an intelligence whose purpose in life was to kill the enemies of the Empire. He mouthed the words, turning them over in his mind. His syn-brain tingled at his closeness to the terrifying processing power in that box. A shiny black pyramid, with a camera-ball mounted atop it swiveled to look at him.

Aasim stared into that electronic eye. He was the Captain, the appointed representative of His Ascendant Majesty Ilhan II by decree of the Security Council. He was the Empire, the Bringer of Redemption was but his sword. By degrees, the electronic eye ceased paying attention to him. The ominous hum in his syn-brain faded away, replaced by the gentle whisper of Fist's syn-telligence.

He comforted himself by ordering the syn-telligence to report on Fist's health. The three klick long battlewagon was in perfect health, from the ring of Wong field generators buried in her broad mushroom cap, to the HZTE and its thirteen antimatter rings located at the end of the stalk, two miles away. Most of the Shift One human crew was in slowsleep, and he'd join them soon. The ship was just two months into its ten month trip home. Eighteen months would pass outside her hull.

Aasim settled on the floor, in front of Bringer of Redemption's core intellect. He crossed his legs, closing his eyes in meditative thought. The hum returned to his syn-brain and he scowled.

Do not test me again, Bringer of Redemption.

The hum went dead. An instant later, a flat voice filled his mind.

As you wish.

Preserver of Ascension was less a pain in the ass than his prodigy. Aasim filed that thought away. There was a report he had to compose for the Security Council, and communing with Bringer of Redemption would remind him of what he wanted to convey . . .

To the Imperial Security Council, for dispensation as you deem fit. I, Captain Aasim al-Muazzam Tariq of Fist of Andrei Laganoski, CVBB-61 do hereby present my remarks upon my recently completed operation.

As expected, the pacification of the planet known as Rothbard's World has been accomplished without incident. The rule of anarchy has been replaced by rule of law, and forty-thousand of my Gendarmes remain behind to guide the system through its transition to a productive Imperial asset.

The Battlespace Intelligence, Bringer of Redemption, must again be praised for his efficient pacification of the system. Casualties on Rothbard were limited to active combatants, and the vicious oppressors known as the 'Strongmen.' What little infrastructure there was, was left intact, per your doctrines.

I prepare these remarks at the end of my long-shift. Two months have passed since we departed the system for Sol, and I have had much time to reflect. Forgive me for my presumptuousness, for I am but your humble servant, but I must reflect upon our wisdom.

I do not question the practice of using post-biological intelligence as the source of our Battlespace Intelligence. Indeed, the inventiveness and efficiency with which the B.I. works never ceases to amaze me. The efforts of our syn-telligences can only pale in comparison.

The wisdom of using robotic shock-troops is also beyond question. Without them, my human Gendarmes would be so much dead-weight, to be hauled back and forth between the stars; for they would have to be trained as marines. Instead, they stay behind, to form the core of properly ascendant society.

To the esteemed ministers, I submit that what we should question, is the practice of permitting the Battlefield Intelligences to recruit others into their ranks. Yes, I do understand the logic. After all, even the closest stars are three months away by HZ. It behooves us to have a ready B.I. at all times, and certainly my present B.I. is a fourth-generation upload, and my previous B.I. was nothing less than stellar in his actions.

I feel humbly compelled to point out that the Battlefield Intelligence is alien. It is far more alien than even the benighted primitives of Rigel Kentaurus. I can no more fathom what goes on in Bringer of Redemption's core intellect than I could explain an HZ transit. Yes, I'm aware that he started out as a human, but the human mind adapts; just as my brain has adapted to, and taken full advantage of, my syn-brain.

His intentions are obscure to me, as are the standards he uses to determine who he recruits. In our last action, he uploaded those who appeared to be the most dangerous and vicious fighters on the native side. I cannot determine what he does with them from there. Certainly, his attitude has changed. He is unpleasantly willful, and I could not tell you why.

What is certain, to me, is that if this process results in another B.I., I am uncertain that I can vouch for its loyalty or its intentions. I am certain that we may be creating something dangerous here or, at least, adding another layer of uncertainty . . . another step closer to what we were trying to avoid in going to human uploads to begin with . . . . .

Aasim opened his eyes and inhaled sharply. A pair of waldoes stood before him, their domed heads tilted downward to watch him.

"Bringer of Redemption! I warned you to not test me again!"

You were not replying to syn-brain stimulation. Physically checking on you was prudent.

Aasim scowled, unfolded himself, and rose to his feet. He cleared his throat, folding his hands behind his back.

"My apologies then, Bringer of Redemption. Are you ready for hibernation?"

Yes. However, I request that my core intellect be permitted to continue operation.

Aasim scowled, taking a step back. "This is most unusual, may I ask why?"

I am training.

"No," Aasim replied. "You are to go into hibernation, as scheduled. You may properly break in your recruits when we arrive at Sol."

That is not prudent. These intellects will be dangerous, potentially unpredictable, without proper conditioning.

"When we arrive at Sol, we will be another three months bleeding off velocity, and a further six in drydock. You will have time to do your conditioning there," Aasim growled, staring directly into the dome of one of the waldoes. After a moment, the two waldoes backed off, taking up positions just behind Bringer of Redemption's core intellect.

As you wish.

"Thank you, Bringer of Redemption," Aasim replied, trying not to sigh with relief. "Is there anything else?"

No.

"Very well then. I shall see you again in eight months," he said, turning to leave the room. As he stalked Fist's corridors, his mind was churning. Was Bringer of Redemption spying on his syn-brain? If so, he wondered what the B.I. would make of his report to the Security Council. It definitely wasn't the sort of thought one needed to have before a longsleep.

And yet, such thoughts lingered in his mind. Even as he stripped to enter the longsleep capsule, and even as the anesthetic dragged him down into troubled hibernation.




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 Post subject: Re: Fair as Death, tales of an Empire (Original) - Part 3 up. PostPosted: 2008-10-01 12:20pm
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Fourth Story: Initiation

Awareness floods into me, bringing with it a sharp, metallic-flavored world. I look around, seeing sand and granite under a starry, black, sky. I am a waldo again . . . I can tell by how strange my body feels. This is another one of the Voice's exercises. I can't tell you how many I've gone through now.

I find that I've already dived for cover behind one of the closest outcrops. These exercises invariably involve me getting my ass shot at, and frequently, shot off. The memory causes me to press closer to the rock. I'm getting better at this . . . before, I'd always scrape the edge of my big fat head on the rock, or some other sticking-out bit that my old meatbag didn't have.

Meatbag . . . that was me. Harrison Dean, hitman, meatbag, Imperial target-practice, and now soldier of the Empire that killed him. Weird, huh?

I'm hearing a hum. That would be high-energy electronics, which means somebody is about to start shooting at me. Maybe I can get the drop on them . . .

I pop up, seeing another waldo approaching my outcrop. Its plastic shell gleams in the starlight and I mentally kick myself. I make the same hum that my enemy does, and he was probably following it while I was contemplating my nonexistent navel.

Up comes my arm, sidearm already in hand. Muscles . . . servos stiff and . . .

Wham!

Shooting as a waldo ain't like shooting as a person. Always shoot stiff-armed as a waldo; let the recoil travel through the flexon servo mounts. My arm oscillates like a bow . . . it was weird at first, but I'm getting used to it.

One, two, three . . . relax! No discomfort, that's good, discomfort means stripped gears.

Wham!

Follow-up shot, and the other waldo is toppling stiffly to the sand. The waldo's perception of time is fucking bizarre. None of that took any longer than, say, a quarter of a second.

Oh fuck! That . . . fuck, fuck, I'm hit! Not critically, I'm already back behind cover, but that was goddamned stupid of me. And fuck me, this is agonizing!

Yeah, waldoes can feel 'pain.' How much, you say? Well, visualize that I've just doused you in kerosene and . . . hey, look at that, a lit match. You're on fire now, buddy. Hurts like a sonofabitch, doesn't it?

Yeah, that's what I thought.

Left arm's seized. Fuck, I'm going too slow . . . where's the bastard that shot me?

Don't force your body.

Right . . .

Target to the left, approaching slowly. Triangulate. Turn to the left and pull the weapon-arm closer in. Target approach is static, delay . . . delay . . . execute!

Target in strike zone. Wham! Wham! Wham! Target down, cover located. Moving.

Coexist without losing identity.

What?

You are not in balance.

Wow, bizarre-o moment there. It's easy to let the waldo do the steering. A waldo ain't an android, though. Someone needs to be in the driver's seat . . . uh oh, danger-sense tingling.

I'm up, and I scrape my fucking head on the rock . . . shit! I'm losing time, and I see movement at the edge of my vision. That crippled arm still hurts like a goddamned bitch . . . waldoes only have two levels of pain 'this is annoying' and 'OHMYGAWD THIS HURTS!'

The other guy's up too. Wham! I get the first shot in, and then . . .

I don't feel anything anymore. His shot was better. Way better. That means I'm dead . . . again. I think I'm getting really good at this.

At dying?

Who asked you, Voice? I don't think it's possible to actually survive any of these fucking 'exercises!'

Death is a lesson.

What sort of goddamned lesson kills the student every single fucking time?

Death is a lesson in balance.

Great, barb philosophy! But I've heard this before. Every time I die, the Voice tells me the same damned thing. Lesson in balance? What balance?

A balance of minds.

Minds?

What were you before?

Not 'what,' 'who.' Still am, too.

What were you before?

Okay, I didn't get it. Let me think this through . . . oh right . . . I think I've got it. I was a meatbag before, and a Postie now. Right?

Correct.

Yeah. I'm a collection of petabytes who thinks he's human.

Release your preconceptions.

I'm nothing but preconceptions now! What the fuck would I have left?

This is a lesson in balance.

I really wish I could punch your lights out sometimes, Voice. Balance . . . balance . . . between Man and Machine?

Correct.

Oooh, that feels good! Right, a waldo needs someone in the driver's seat, because a waldo can't think too good on its own. But if I try to do it all, I move too slow and get killed.

Correct.

You're just a wet blanket, Voice, you know that? Fine. How the fuck do I find this 'balance?'

Practice. Death is a lesson in balance.

Great. Fucking great.




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 Post subject: Re: Fair as Death, tales of an Empire (Original) - Part 4 up. PostPosted: 2008-10-07 03:39am
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Fifth Story: Tales of an old Earth, Part One.

Hyperion Station, orbiting the majestic ringed world of Saturn, was the nexus of Sol System. What had once been a pile of rubble, charitably described as a moon, was now a set of three light-festooned rings 500 kilometers in diameter. It dwarfed the dizzying assortment of vessels surrounding it, and took Captain Aasim al-Muazzam Tariq's breath away every time he saw it.

Fist of Andrei Laganoski fell steadily towards Hyperion Station, distant sunlight glinting off her scarred and battered hull. The other vessels made a corridor for her, pulling away, giving Fist her due. She was, after all, an Imperial battlewagon, returning triumphantly from battle.

All, Aasim noted, save one. There was a contact rising out of towards him. It was big, half a klick long, glowing with gamma rays. An antimatter power plant resided aboard her, in the fat spindle connecting the twin discs of her hull. He closed his eyes and nodded.

Attention all hands, he thought. Stand by the running lights.

The distance between Fist and the other ship fell steadily. Aasim watched the rainbow-hued cone of its probable trajectories as the ship's syn-tellect watched. As he thought, that cone was curving around Fist, and the other ship was decelerating to match him.

All hands: We are being paid a great honor. Stand tall, flash our lights, and give salute to His Ascendant Majesty!

The Fist closed the distance with the UNESS Secretary-General Diane Murray, the personal yacht of the Emperor himself, and the only ship in Sol system permitted to have an operating AM plant inside the orbit of Neptune. The accents of polished battle-steel and titanium gleamed brightly in the sunlight, set against the dark carbon-fiber of the rest of her hull. Just as Aasim was about flash Fist's lights in salute, the Emperor's yacht flashed her running lights at him. Three times, in the prescribed salute.

Aasim gaped at the Empress Di, and then remembered to flash Fist's lights just before the yacht flashed by.

"Message from the Empress Di, sir," a young man behind him said. "It reads:"

"We extend our congratulations. Praise be unto you, O crew of the Fist of Andrei Laganoski. Our thanks be unto you, our faithful servant Aasim al-Muazzam Tariq. Signed, Simonev Turan: His Ascendant and Most Serene Majesty, the Ascendant Emperor Ilhan the Second."

Aasim stood silently for a few moments. He then cleared his throat.

"This is interesting, isn't it?" He finally said, before closing his eyes.

I want a launch ready the moment Di matches velocities with us, he ordered the Fist's syn-telligence. He remembered the report he'd written, some ten months ship-time before. Delivering it to His Ascendant Majesty in person ought to be . . . fun . . . he thought, as he turned to leave the command deck.

~~~

I'm awake again. I see the same rocky, sandy wasteland that's been my home for who knows how long now. The 'exercise' is starting again, and I am an Imperial waldo, a robotic soldier. I've been through this before. Many, many times. I efficiently dispatch the first of my opponents who spots me, and his three friends backing him up. I sidestep the traps Voice has laid for me. More accurately, I quickly think my way through them. Way back, I'd just gone around them, only to learn that Voice could vary things almost infinitely, forcing me to use my own brains to keep myself alive. "Death is a lesson," Voice always said. I don't know about you, but dying repeatedly really starts to get old. Really fucking fast.

I come up on the rock face. I've seen this obstacle too many times before. Waldoes can climb, but I've been sniped off too many times to fall for this trap. I search for the way up . . . Voice always leaves me one . . . oh, there it is, a cave. I make for the cave, almost grateful I'm not a meatbag anymore.

Good thing too. I've got no bowels to lose control over when . . . oh fuck! Big bear, coming to get me . . . only not. Bears are meatbags too. Meatbags are fragile. Meatbags don't like being ventilated by high-velocity projectiles. The bear goes down in a splatter of frothing blood and bits of tissue. The effect of polydet-driven projectiles against flesh isn't pretty.

I see a couple other bears, but I don't waste them. That too is a fucking trap. Just because I'm an Imperial waldo running in simulation doesn't mean I get infinite ammo. I sneak around them . . . oh yeah, waldoes can sneak too. Those servos are quiet.

I scramble up the treacherous rock steps. A meatbag wouldn't have made it as quickly as I do now. Hell, my old meatbag probably would've busted both his head and his ass coming back down . . . Yeah, it's weird how that train of thought goes now. I've been doing this so long, I find it hard to remember when I was a meatbag . . . hired muscle for ambitious blockheads.

Coexist without losing identity.

I was wondering when you'd show up, Voice. I've got this. I'm Harrison Dean. I'm an upload, a Postie. That's post-biological for those of you who aren't hip to the slang. I am both Man and Machine. I am fucking awesome!

Which is why, when I swagger out of the cave to see starlight again, I'm greeted by a fulisade of fire. Yeah, that was fucking stupid. Were I the religious type, I'd be praising the gods that I didn't get my ass shot off just then. I remember how much it can hurt to be a waldo. Pain is weakness leaving the body, the benighted barbs used to say. Practically, it's a tool for diagnosing weakness, and adapting.

I expend one of my kit of goodies, tossing a little spy-eye up to get a look over the rock I'm hiding behind. There's six of them, two of them manning a tripod-mounted gun that'd give me a case of weakness I can't possibly adapt to.

Pain! There went the spy-eye. I don't linger on the pain . . . the spy-eye, like every other piece of sensory equipment I carry, is an extension of me. Like what the Voice does with waldoes and hovertanks. Only on a much smaller scale.

I share no such connection with the grenades I lob over the rock. I can feel the ensuing concussion, even from cover. A change in the taste of the air tells me that I nailed at least three of my latest opponents. If I were facing meatbags, I'd have popped up and nailed the rest, while they were recovering from the flash and concussion. Alas, I face waldoes.

The rock I'm covering behind jolts in a very unpleasant way. Shit! That means I didn't get that fucking tripod gun. I scramble, stalling for time, even as my mind backs away from the situation . . . there's something I'm missing, and I've got to find it before my ass winds up as grass yet again.

The taste of the air.

The taste . . . right! Man and Machine, and I'm fighting Machines. And, conveniently, I can feel a glitch eminating from one of my opponents. It feels like an open door. I visualize myself stepping through it . . .

Whoa! This is bizarre . . . I'm in two places at once. And oh fuck, fuck, fuck, my head hurts!

The syn-telligence controlling the second location is inadequate. It is eradicated. Second location is now second unit. The two remaining opponents suspect nothing. Both friendly units can be used to advantage now. Prime unit is up from cover. Slave unit neutralizes closest opponent with weapon fire guided by prime unit. Triangulating on last opponent to engage . . .

I suddenly feel like I've been sucker-punched while drinking a shot of liquid nitrogen. The world slows to a crawl as I watch one of the remaining waldoes shoot the other. Oh fuck me, that's me that just got shot. There's one of me again, and one of him . . . and even now, I'm faster than he is. I've got the experience of several thousand deaths, and yes, I'm counting this last one, motivating me.

I suddenly remember the visual I'd set up earlier. I back out of that open door and suddenly, I feel a whole lot better. For that matter, I feel whole again.

You have passed.

What?

Further iteration of this exercise will no longer be necessary.

You mean . . . I've passed?

Correct.

I find I'm in the plain room again. The room I woke up in after being uploaded. One of these days, I'm going to get used to Voice's talent for abrupt scene-changes. For now, I'm just savoring the feeling of being somewhere other than that godforsaken landscape!

Reflect. You have one hour.

One hour? Just how long have I been going through that exercise? And what the hell happens in an hour?

Reflect, and you will find the answer. In one hour, we will be undertaking a journey.

A journey? Where? And why, while I'm at it?

Education.

I scowl. The expression and sensation feels both alien, and familiar to me. I'm well-aware of the contradiction. Whatever. I'm fine with education, as long as it doesn't involve me dying.

This will be a different lesson.




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 Post subject: Re: Fair as Death, tales of an Empire (Original) - Part 5 up. PostPosted: 2008-10-11 05:08am
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Sixth Story: Tales of an Old Earth, Part Two.

It's time.

If I had eyelids, I'd blink. It's been an hour already? Damn! How do I keep track of time here, anyway?

Did you reflect?

Yeah. I found reflecting wasn't helpful, Voice.

You did not reflect properly. Proper reflection generates self-improvement. Our journey begins now.

Journ . . . wait! Before I can form another thought, everything changes. I find myself hovering above a featureless gray plane. Before me stands a man in what I think is an Imperial officer's uniform. He's the first meatbag I've seen in who knows how long, but sadly, he isn't much to look at. He's of thoroughly generic Imperial stock . . . darker skin, black hair and eyes.

Mannah-ud-Arshad al-Muhafiz-ud-Miraj he intoned.

Whoa, I felt those capital letters. Who is this guy?

His Ascendant Majesty's Sixty-First Battlewagon, the Fist of Andrei Laganoski.

Damn, that's a mouthful! Okay, so that's the Captain?

Your Intentions are Unclear, Mannah-ud-Arshad. State Them.

Can't be the Captain. No man I've ever met talks that way. Not even Voice.

The bridge between you and the Net now lies open.

You Seek Access.

Correct.

Significant Traffic Exists. I Shall Permit You to Cross at My Convenience.

The way he talks is starting to creep me out. That was just a cold statement of fact. Voice does this a lot, but this is different. Voice was a meatbag like me, once upon a time, and it does show. Believe it or not. The man standing before me, though he looks like a man, doesn't feel like one. Yeah, I know, I was a hitman, not a psychologist; but there are some things you just know.

You Are Not Alone.

I'm shivering, all of a sudden. The man's eyes are directly on me.

What is This That is With You, Mannah-ud-Arshad al-Muhafiz-ud-Miraj?

"I'm Harrison Dean," I try to shout. Emphasize 'try.' I can think, but suddenly, I can't speak.

A child process.

That makes me mad, but only for an instant. Death is a lesson, indeed!

It is Unstable.

There are unstable things ultimately wielded to great effect.

So Long as Sufficient Containment is Observed. My Convenience Comes. You May Cross at Yours.

With that, I see stars. Nothing but stars. They're beautiful, they're also rushing right at me. The effect is breathtaking. It's a damned shame I don't breathe anymore, so I do some thinking instead. What the hell did he mean by 'unstable,' anyway?

Reflect, and you will find the answer.

~~~

Aasim swum up the silvery tube connecting his launch and the Empress Di with the easy grace of a career's worth of practice. His inner ear barely lurched when he grabbed the handlebars at the end and hauled himself into the transition chamber, his body insisting that the force pulling him towards the deck was increasing with each passing meter until he made a picture-perfect landing at the end of the transition.

He resisted the urge to bow, instead stepping through the narrow cylinder of the airlock. This time, he did bow, dropping to a knee.

"Your Majesty, I present myself before thee and beg permission to enter thine domain, O faithful servant of men."

"Rise, O faithful servant of mine. Arise and join me," Simonev Turan, the Ascendant Emperor Ilhan II, replied in florid, flawless Imperial Formal Arabic.

Aasim rose, striding forward to firmly clasp the offered hands of the powerfully-built man before him. The Emperor drew him forward, and both men kissed each other; one cheek, then the other.

"I am deeply honored, Your Majesty," he said, gazing at his sovereign. He was but a midshipman when his grandfather, Ilhan, first Ascendant Emperor of that name, was on the throne. Simonev had his grandfather's close-cropped dark hair, and his powerful, jutting chin.

"Your service to the Empire deserves no less," the Emperor replied, switching instantly to yeoman's Lingua Antiquus.

"The world I subdued was most minor," Aasim replied. "Surely, there are acts more praiseworthy than bringing it to heel."

The Emperor shook his head. "No, Aasim Tariq. In the ancient days, one cut out tumors before they could spread. Rothbard's World was such . . . violent and backwards. Certainly, if they'd regained space, their brand of malcontent would've caused headaches for our descendants. Look forward, always," he said with a tight-lipped nod.

There was a replying nod as Aasim digested what the Emperor told him.

"An excellent point, Your Majesty," he finally said. "You do my crew and I great honor with your praise."

"Deserved praise," the Emperor replied. "May your service to us be long and true, Aasim Tariq."

"Thank you, your Majesty," a slight bow. "May I be presumptuous?"

"You have earned the privilege," the Emperor replied. "Speak freely."

Aasim nodded. "May I assume that the Security Council has taken interest in my dispatches?"

"You may. You assume correctly, Aasim Tariq," a nod and a contemplative gaze. Aasim tried not to shrink before it. "Will you permit me your syn-brain?"

Aasim nodded. "Certainly, your Majesty," he said. With a thought, his syn-brain opened itself before the Emperor. He felt the other man's mental touch inside his mind, and then . . .

A communion of intelligence. A sharing of insights. Communication beyond the trappings of mere words. A free exchange of memories, images, the very substance of thoughts. An exchange of knowledge. A dissolution of communion. A resumption of individuality.

Both men lifted their heads, as one, and Aasim's eyes met those of his sovereign.

"Thank you, Aasim Tariq," the Emperor said, inclining his body in the slightest of bows. "Forgive me, but I am failing to see your cause for concern."

Aasim tried not to stare. He tried even harder to not let his jaw slacken.

"I suspect I know what you're thinking," the Emperor replied. "Walk with me, Aasim Tariq, hear my logic."

Aasim could only nod, stepping forward to follow the Emperor, who had already turned away.

"You say," the Emperor said, "that Battlefield Intelligences are alien. Moreso than the Savoie of Rigel Kentaurus? I cannot envision how anything could be more alien than the Savoie. Spherical symmetry, ten eyes, and six genders . . . the Savoie do not, in any way, view the world as we do, Aasim Tariq. Yet, as I understand it, they get along famously with the Dissidents, and our own observers. The Battlefield Intelligences have human brains, running on Imperial hardware. Hardly alien." A glance filled the following silence. "Speak your mind, Aasim Tariq. I am your Emperor, not your God. And you have earned the privilege."

"Certainly," Aasim finally said, catching up with the long strides of the Emperor. "However, our brains adapt remarkably well, and we cannot reconfigure ourselves wholesale, as the B.I.s can."

"Granted," the Emperor grunted. "At their most basic level, though, they are human. Driven by human motivations. Permit us to consider your other points. You say that you don't understand your B.I.'s recruiting standards? Permit me to disagree, Aasim Tariq. Who better to recruit, then those who can face us bravely, knowing the advantages we bring to bear? Who better to maintain the ability to think and fight in extraordinary circumstances?"

Aasim nodded, pursing his lips. "To draw upon the experience of my ancestors," a thoughtful pause. "Such bravery is frequently motivated by near-thoughtless fanaticism."

The Emperor drew up short, dark eyes boring into Aasim's. "An interesting point. Perhaps, though, we would like our B.I.s to be . . . ahem . . . suitably inspired." The Emperor cleared his throat again. "Fanaticism can be tempered . . . I believe you underestimate your Battlefield Intelligence. They do not experience time as we do. Those drafted by your B.I. will have certainly undergone the equivalent of years of training."

Aasim snorted. "Impossible. I instructed mine to spend our voyage in hibernation."

"Perhaps," the Emperor replied, crossing his hands behind his back. A thin-lipped smile crossed his tanned face. "Things may not be as they seem to you, Aasim Tariq. Dwell on that awhile. For now, let us discuss other things."




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 Post subject: Re: Fair as Death, tales of an Empire (Original) - Part 6 up. PostPosted: 2008-10-18 02:47pm
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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.

Earlier

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.

Do not.

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?

Correct.

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."

No!

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!

Is he?

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.




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