Hello, my friends.
Awhile ago I came in third with a military sci-fi short titled The Woman. Unfortunately, the blog that hosted the contest and the story is no longer online and the nice comments I received are now lost forever.
I’ve decided to turn the The Woman into a novella that will be published sometime this year. For prosperity sake, I present the original short story in its entirety below. If you want to avoid “spoilers,” be sure signup for my newsletter which will announce when the story will be available for free on various digital distribution sites and only read the expanded version when available.
While the novella will be published through Deep Mountain Studios with the fancy cover and professional editing, if you are a fan of my Lexus Toulouse science fiction setting (and specifically, Arune, the sentient warship with the yummy digital avatar), The Woman stands on its own.
by Anthony Pacheco
Arune, the newest Leve1 One AI, was on day three of chatting with the humans in care of his equipment when he realized something was wrong.
He opened an Active Thought channel. “Hey, Ken?”
“What up?” Ken was his favorite human. The man was smart, and, more importantly, neutrally enhanced. Arune could talk to him just by thinking as long as the human plugged himself in somewhere.
“All the techs in this wing are guys.”
“Yeah. Don’t remind me.” Arune got a sense of wistfulness tinged with melancholy. He was good at detecting emotional inflection through Active Thought. Was that because he selected male as his gender and Ken was a male?
“Where are your females?” he asked.
There was silence over the Active Thought channel. Arune accessed a camera to where Ken was working. He was just sitting there, staring at a screen that wasn’t even on.
“Ken? You ok?”
Ken seemed to give himself a little shake.
“Yeah, sorry Arune. You’re perceptive for the new guy. Anyway, our females are out killing the enemy. All of our field officers are female, and there’s a shortage. Our female techs here transferred to Command School almost two years ago.”
Arune dropped the subject. Obviously, it was distressing.
Arune spun up his the interface to his quantum processors. Ken was his friend, and if something bothered him, Arune resolved himself to fix it. After all, he was an AI. That’s what AIs did.
In an hour, he fully researched the military combat command structure. It surprised him he had a rank. He was a Major. Major Arune. It had a certain nice feel to it.
In two hours, he had fully researched humans with an emphasis on male and female relations.
In three, he had fully researched the Unionists, the other race on Earth the humans were fighting.
In four, he started analyzing his research. He had access to an absurd amount of computing power, far beyond what his parents had lent him before he left the AI bed, but the raw data was too much. He activated the rest of his Think Goo, bringing his full analytical capabilities online and legally making him an Adult.
He spent the next hour almost paralyzed with inaction from the sheer vileness of the data.
Humans were dying. Those female techs were dead. One died in Honolulu. Out of ammunition and her platoon nearly extinguished, she made a suicide charge into an enemy VTOL and detonated her armor. She killed herself to take down enemy equipment. One died in Iceland. The Unionists used a fusion bomb on Port Dis, and her atoms were scattered into the winds. The third one died of radiation exposure trying to rescue civilians in Moscow, the Russian capital the Unionists also targeted with a fusion bomb.
Those were just three humans. Three females. Three out of a number of military and civilian casualties so numerous, Arune despaired just thinking of the number.
And what the humans did to the enemy in return, well, that was equally unthinkable as was the thought he would have recommended the same course of action if he had been around to do so.
His AI parents warned him about several things when he decided to go out on his own.
They didn’t warn him he would be seething with deadly, righteous anger.
“Ken, how are you?” Arune was worried about him. The human looked fine in the pickup, but Arune learned just yesterday that a human could look one way but feel another. They sometimes hid their emotional state. Strangely, they seemed to do it without realizing that’s what they were doing.
“Ok, sorry if I seemed down. Bad memories and all of that.”
“Bah, don’t worry about it. But I do have a personal question.”
“What we’re here for, sir.”
“Why don’t you have normal women here, then? Even a paid companion or two? The work you do here is important, no need to be lonely for it.”
“We communicate using out neural lattice too much; as techs we’re either hooked in to gear and we use Active Thought, or even Uplinked. Human females with neural receptors would be wasted here; they are needed on the front. An unenhanced woman would just be out of place and lonely. This place is quieter than a tomb.”
Arune wanted electronically to shake his head and that almost made him laugh in the channel, since he didn’t have a head.
“Ken, I appreciate your plight, but you aren’t thinking this end-to-end. When we win this war, your human society isn’t going to have a bunch of females running around with neural lattices. I suggest learning how to talk to unenhanced humans now, rather than later.”
Ken seemed surprised, and turned to the camera.
“Do you really think so? We’ll win the war? Blowing up Europe just seemed to cause the Unionists to go to ground and chip away at us from behind. The math doesn’t work out in our favor.” It seemed to Arune that Ken was desperate. How much death had the human seen? What would he have been like if the war never happened?
“Screw the math. The enemy is doomed. Of this I assure you,” Arune said.
Ken was quiet and then nodded.
“Ken, I’m serious. Get laid. Start thinking about what life is going to be like after the war. Go play with tits. That’s an order.”
Ken smiled and then finally laughed.
“You’re just a typical new AI and want to watch.”
“Bah, I’ve seen the vids, but I am curious to know what it smells like.”
Ken chuckled, but then turned serious.
“High Command just told me you’ve chosen to go mobile. Just be careful, my friend. The mobility and longevity is unmatched. But you’re a target, and the enemy hates AIs. They hate you more than they hate humans and wælcyries. They will target you specifically.”
“That’s the idea, my friend. That’s the idea.”
The humans used a ridiculous amount of security to install him into his new home. Fort Blaze was in Death Valley, the sun put to good use powering the place, the desert itself playing a large part of the security. Arune had a number of options to install himself into his initial Think Goo brain, and he picked Blaze because he loved the way the landscape around the complex looked. Beyond the solar farm was beautiful bareness and he found it fascinating that even a human in armor could die from exposure. The enemy, with their nano tech, would fry even quicker.
An entire military police platoon, almost a hundred humans, fanned out while Ken drove a powered cart with his brain housing to the MOF/B.
On a holo camera, the MOF/B, Manned Orbital Fighter-Bomber, Arune had to admit, was beautiful. It was an orbiter, a pure war machine of unparalleled lethality, sleek of lines and flat black, a ship designed for atmospheric insertion during battle.
The technology that went into a MOF/B was very impressive. The main propulsion unit was a push-pull gravity device, which either attracted to a gravity well or pushed away from one. It was the smallest gravity spaceship ever made.
“Arune, you sure about this?” Ken thought at him.
“Yeah, mostly. The sheer cost of the thing gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Arune admitted.
Almost a billion credits. That’s how much it cost. And Arune commandeered one on a snap decision based on his “gut.” He himself was irreplaceable, as a thinking person, but the actual hardware that composed his brain and “body,” until now, only amounted to a million or so credits.
It was human-AI consensus that since the Federation controlled space, they would win the war based on space assets. Arune shared this view. The MOF/B played a huge part in the planning to keep the human race from becoming extinct.
Still—a billion credits. It was one thing for his parents to teach him the value of money. It was quite different jumping into the war with the responsibility that went with his decisions. He was now mobile. The Federation wasn’t just asking him to be an AI. He was signing up to fight.
A billion credits.
They were at the MOF/B. He had a sense of disconnection that seemed to last an eternity, and suddenly, just like magic from the stories of old, he was alive.
Orbit. The planet below him was stunningly beautiful and looking at it in real-time was a completely different experience. Even the blasted landscape of Europe and the Middle East had a certain, brutal, esthetic to it. He sat in his assigned orbital slot just looking at it all, marveling at it, and becoming both whimsical and a bit sad.
He still was on a schedule, so he wire-framed the optical inputs to reduce the distraction of high-res, and contacted Space Station Matachi for a docking berth. His weapons and supplies were housed in orbit.
That’s when Seattle blew up.
Oh God, thought Arune as he looked at the horror beneath him.
He thought it strange humans around the base used “God” in an expression, usually in a blasphemous way like “Goddamn” and “Jesus Christ” and his personal favorite, “Sweet Baby Jesus.”
The enemy, during their subversive part of the war, had unionized all the world’s religious leaders, causing a decade-long internal conflict before The Powers That Be, with the help of the first AIs, figured out what was going on. Then it was war.
Now he understood the usage. Something that transcended normality needed language that itself was based on the un-normal. Seattle certainly fit that bill. It was gone. Just, gone, and the surrounding population centers like SeaTac and Bellevue had various degrees of damage. Entire neighborhoods beyond the city were still aflame.
Fuel-air explosion, he parsed, very large. Seattle wasn’t burning because the blast used all the present oxygen as fuel, a blast measured in megatons. There was nothing left of Seattle but falling ash from a miles-wide mushroom cloud.
Arune had been transmitting optical data to the BattleNet, but was quickly made redundant by a trio of birds launched from the Sea of Japan by a missile sub.
As a new AI without even integration training or even a human Pilot, he was subsequently ignored, which was good because he could not make tactical sense of the BattleNet.
He wasn’t about to sit in orbit doing nothing, so he attached himself to the civilian wireless comm network, the one only used in emergencies Humans avoided wireless communication unless absolutely necessary.
The sudden flood of data was un-parseable by his analytics, so he brought on his processors and had to trust he had some routine for civilian rescue. There were thousands of requests for help. Thousands. Abruptly, one came to the forefront, a pre-programmed routine finally making sense of it all.
“Help! I need medical EVAC! Help! My child is hurt! I’m in East Bellevue at Carmine Park! She’s suffered shrapnel wounds! Can anyone hear me? Please!”
“Request acknowledged. ETA three minutes, from orbit. Can provide EVAC to best medical facility.”
“Oh. Thank God. Please transmit your Federation ID so my PDA can transmit my location!”
“Acknowledged,” he said and transmitted his ID.
Arune didn’t need her to transmit her location but he recognized the security protocol the human was using. Blowing something up and then “rescuing” humans is exactly something the enemy would do.
“Hurry! She’s hurt so bad. She’s hurt so bad…”
“Is anyone else hurt?” he asked while punching a hole in the atmosphere.
“There was a birthday party, they were, the wind was, it was…”
“Is anyone else hurt?” he repeated.
“They’re all dead. Shredded. It was like a tornado of razor blades. Oh, oh no, oh no. We were in the potty. I was in a stall. She was just washing her hands. She was just washing her hands.”
Arune was now close enough to where his processors could remove the haze from his optical scan. He zoomed in on the park.
Oh Sweet Baby Jesus.
He couldn’t help it. The only place big enough for him to land was on a cluster of mangled human bodies, and he did so without hesitation.
No sooner had he lowered the gangplank to his main cabin then the female ran to him holding a child. He ejected the crash webbing and she grabbed it with one hand.
“Go! Go!” she screamed.
The female looked around desperately.
“It’s just me, ma’am, I’m an AI.”
“Is Matachi as close as a different hospital? Overlake is damaged and Evergreen is overloaded!”
The female had a good point. Fairchild or Fort Lewis would have available stasis tanks, but getting to Matachi would be as fast, and their medical facilities were the best.
“Matachi is just as close.”
“Go! I don’t trust the other locations, hurry, please hurry. She’s hurt so bad. She’s hurt so bad.”
As he was ascending to orbit, Arune looked at the child. He could not tell how bad she was injured. First-aid nano goo covered the child, literally, from head to foot. The thermal image indicated the nanos were operating at one-hundred percent capacity.
Not good. At a certain point, they would cease to function least she burst into flames from their heat output.
“Lowering the cabin temperature. It’s going to get cold,” he warned.
In moments, they were weightless.
“Going to give you a gravity constant of five percent to keep you from floating about.”
It was as if the female didn’t hear him. She quickly extended the main bunk and placed her child on it. She looked about the cabin and spied the first-aid cabinet. Arune didn’t even know if there was anything in it, but she ripped open the cover.
“Yes,” she hissed out, as she yanked a medical bracer off the webbing. She was shaking slightly from the cold, and her breath misted in the air. She quickly snapped the bracer on her daughter’s arm and took her PDA off her belt.
As he was receiving the same medical telemetry she was, Arune let himself be impressed with the tenacity of the female in his main cabin. She looked traumatized and stressed, but she had the resolve to think tactically and quickly.
Cascading internal organ failure imminent: Seek stasis immediately!
Not good. Arune could not even speed up. The orbital slot was over-crowded, traffic was everywhere.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday! Medical emergency! Telemetry inbound! Give me priority!” Arune said over the navigation channel after squirting the request into the BattleNet.
“Acknowledged MOF/B-12. Clearing path!”
The female looked terrible. On closer inspection, blood covered her torso, and Arune did not think it was hers.
She tenderly touched the child’s face. “Oh, baby, hold on. Hold on just a little longer. Let the goo do its work. Just a little bit longer. We’re almost there.”
Abnormal heart rhythm! Defibrillate!
“No!” the female shrieked.
She yanked two paddles from the kit and pressed them to the girl’s chest.
Flat-line, administer CPR!
The woman got on the bunk, kneeled over the child, and started CPR. That’s when medical bracer sent him more information, finally able to use its own nano-probes to send data.
Shrapnel wounds, secondary. Internal damage caused by explosive compression and blunt force trauma, primary. Nano failure imminent. Stasis subject immediately.
“No! No!” The female shrieked again. Her PDA must be sending data directly to her contact lenses.
Arune was no medical expert on humans but he could parse the data easily enough. The child’s insides were scrambled from an explosive compression wave. The only reason she was alive is because the female had injected her child with a first-aid nano solution.
Such solutions, such as the ones covering the girl, where amazingly effective, but temporary, and it was a foregone conclusion the child was going to die in seconds. The child needed to be tanked, her blood removed and replaced with a stasis solution, thereby preserving her until she could be regenerated back to health in the care of a trauma team.
A tank Arune did not have. The greater the trauma, the shorter the tank window got. But, according to the data he had, the girl should have been dead already, and was only alive because the nanos where operating past their peak efficiency.
Complete nano failure. Tank immediately.
“No! I don’t believe it! Misha, wake up, baby. Wake up. Mommy is here for you, baby, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! We’re almost there. Just a few more minutes.”
That’s when the goo around the child sloughed off, the charge it used to maintain itself dissipating. Goo that was holding the child together.
The female screamed a pure, primal scream of terror and grief. Arune had never heard such a sound, not in all the recordings he had ever listened to, and the horribleness of the scene in his main cabin rendered him inoperable. Literally, he could not think what to do next.
The female took that decision away from him. She drew her sidearm, put the muzzle in her mouth, and pulled the trigger. The back of her skull came apart as the high velocity round deformed and exited, leaving behind a ghastly splatter almost equal to the growing ruin on the bunk that was rapidly cooling and freezing now that the nanos were no longer active and producing heat.
Arune looked at the cabin monitors for what seemed like ages.
“Matachi Navigation, MOF/B-12.”
“MOF/B-12, go ahead.”
“Cancel medical emergency. All passengers DOA.”
There was a slight pause on the channel.
“Roger that, MOF/B-12, please park off-orbit in designated slots. Matachi, out.”
Arune was surprised at the abruptness of the conversation, but logic dictated Matachi Nav Control spend their time on the living, rather than the dead.
My first taste of war, thought Arune. He turned off the internal cameras.
War really sucks.
He was sitting on the pad he left just recently at Fort Blaze, Death Valley. For the first time in his short life, he felt stupid.
At least he wasn’t running back to his parents.
Ken was there, standing in what had to be intolerable heat.
“Arune, my friend.”
My friend, thought Arune, maybe for now, but wait until you see my main cabin.
“I tried to help by providing an EVAC from Bellevue. I didn’t make it. I have two civilian casualties in my cabin. It’s—it’s a mess.”
“Sorry, Arune, what a bad way to get introduced to this CF of a war. That blows, my friend. That really blows.” Ken looked sad.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” Arune admitted.
“We’ll take care of it.”
“What can I…”
“Sir, I suggest getting some sleep. Just go inactive. I’ll bug you later.”
Sleep? Arune didn’t even know he could sleep. But now he looked it up, and surprisingly, he could. He could even dream, if he stimulated the right parts of his Think Goo.
He slept, but not before making sure he would not dream.
Dreams right now would be bad.
He woke with Ken sitting in the Pilot’s chair. The first thing Arune did was examine the interior and exterior of the ship. It was as if nothing happened. It was spotless, as if he had never left.
“Hey, Ken. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Ken paused. “Arune, buddy? We appreciate the sentiment, but the females should be in a little better condition. Breathing, preferably. And one was too young.”
Arune caught on. That’s ghastly, oh my.
He snickered. Actually snickered. Out loud.
Ken pressed a button that signified that he wanted to lower the cockpit chair. Arune did so and Ken got out through the small airlock.
“Yeah?” Arune examined Ken’s face in the pickup. The man was crying.
“Give them hell,” Ken whispered at him. “Find the rest of them. Find the rest of them and kill them all.”
“That’s the plan.”
Ken saluted. AI protocol advised against gestures an AI could not return, but Arune was grateful.
Arune couldn’t help it. The two humans had been arguing for a half an hour, and now they were joined by a warrant officer, and he too, was animated. They even had holographic workbenches setup with virtual parts scattered all over the floor.
So now, he was eavesdropping.
Not simply attached to Space Station Matachi, he was inside it. The place was huge. It was one thing to know instantly how big something was. It was quite another experiencing it firsthand. Now that he was mobile, Arune had a fine appreciation for scale.
As the logistics techs were loading him up with an absurd amount of supplies and an even more absurd amount of weaponry, Arune asked for a stasis tank to be installed, fully accessible by a human inside the main cabin.
He was prepared to argue for it, but the two techs simply wheeled one out and now were arguing about something, presumably how to install it.
“So, Jace, what do you think?”
The warrant officer scratched his chin for a moment. “Both approaches have merit. But here’s what I think. I think we need to ask the LT.”
“Oh, please no,” said the first.
“We’ll figure it out,” said the second.
“Too late. Here she comes.”
The first man bit his lip. “Bleh.”
“Sir, what happened to us men sticking together?” asked the second.
“Oh geeze, Harry, I’d push you into a waste vat and piss on your head if I thought it would make the LT happy.”
“We don’t like you anymore, Chief,” said Harry.
“See you two around,” said Jace as he left the bay, chuckling.
The Lieutenant in question turned out to be a wælcyrie. She was taller and more muscular than the males, looking human with platinum blonde hair. She had large, slanted eyes and pointed ears.
She was beautiful. Arune found her very esthetically pleasing, as far as a killer walking nano-factory went.
“What up?” Even her voice was beautiful.
Harry stood tall. “Hey LT, we got an install request for a stasis tank accessible from the cabins, so it has to go into Cargo 2. But to fit it into Cargo 2, we would have to either swap the accumulator for the secondary Think Goo backup for a smaller unit, or move the accumulator to section 14, which would work except we would have to run a non-standard length of power cable. I favor the smaller accumulator swap-out, while Posey wants to do the cable run.”
“Ah,” the wælcyrie said. She scratched her chin almost the same way as her warrant officer. She looked at some of the holos and looked at the stasis tank.
“Both ideas have merit,” she said in a halting, but strangely melodic, soprano voice. “Alternate proposal. Hook up the secondary Goo backup to the stasis tank itself. Tank has accumulator twice as large as the one in the cargo bay. Backup, if activated, would only draw on 10% of the tanks load-out. For an entire standard runtime length. Backup itself has an accumulator so backup power to a backup to a backup. Risk acceptable, max runtime thirty days. Thirty days is good.”
Harry nodded. “That’s, hat’s brilliant, LT, and I’m not saying that to blow nano up your ass. And if the tank was removed, you can just install an accumulator in its place, and we can store that in Cargo 1 since it doesn’t have to be hooked up until the tank is moved. Brilliant.”
The wælcyrie smiled. “Nano up a wælcyrie’s ass doesn’t work, Harry. That’s a human vulnerability.”
Posey also grinned. “I agree. About the hook up to the tank part, not the ass part. But since we are talking about backup number two to the AI’s brain, should we ask the, ah, Major for his opinion?”
The wælcyrie shook her head. “Negative. Log the changes on, er, his maintenance file. Major will look them over and let us know if he disagrees. He asked for a cabin accessible tank. We delivered.”
The three proceeded to do the install. It took less time to perform the install as it did to talk about it.
As they were cleaning up the bay, Harry placed a hand on the wælcyrie’s arm.
“LT, we’re sorry, about Seattle. That’s just a big CF; big, big CF. It sucks. If there is anything you need, let us know.”
Arune learned that the enemy blew up Seattle to destroy scientists on the wælcyrie project who were gathering to design a mating protocol for the race. Now nobody knew how to make the genetic material to make one. Once the material was gone, there would be no more wælcyrie.
The wælcyrie bit her lip and Arune thought she looked terribly depressed.
“Thanks Harry, appreciate it.” She stood there and thought for a moment. “Join me in my cabin after your shift?”
Harry looked at Posey.
Posey looked at Harry.
They both looked at the Lieutenant.
“At the same time,” she added.
“You got it, LT.”
“Aye, LT, aye.”
The wælcyrie smiled. “Call me Penny, ok?”
Arune went back to reviewing data on Pilots.
He tried very hard not to feel lonely. He tapped into station power to fill his main accumulators, and started a self-training cycle for his new maintenance bots.
Sometime latter Arune noticed a wælcyrie walking towards him. He wondered if it was the same one. His scan, of course, just washed over her with nary a friend/foe beep. Typical.
She was wearing a hooded silk robe.
“Major?” she said, hesitantly, lowering her cowl. It was indeed Lieutenant Penny. Wælcyrie all looked the same but they had variations that he could detect in high-res.
“Evening, LT, at least I believe it’s your evening,”
She looked at where his cockpit was. “Could I, could I sleep in your main cabin?”
The request surprised Arune, but he recovered. She looked, he thought, lost. It was depressing.
“You got it, Penny.”
The wælcyrie practically ran to his cabin. She lowered the bunk and got under a thin sheet. She smelled like perfume and what he assumed was sex. Sex smelled, Arune thought, accessing someone else’s memories, musky.
In moments, she was asleep.
Sleep well, my ward, Arune thought at her, feeling silly.
The Alice Springs Starport, combined with the airport, put Space Station Matachi to shame. Situated in the middle of Australia and defended with not only its location, but also an overkill amount of ground, air and orbital defenses, ASS (as the natives referred to it) was a prime example of Federation modern architecture and technology.
Culture wise, Arune could have listened in all day. Japanese, Russian and Indian people lent a heavily influenced to the place; the Aussies seemed to be a minority in their own starport.
He had been sitting there, for an entire month, and he was beginning to get annoyed. High Command indicated there was a problem with getting a Pilot to him, to anybody, so he had to wait.
Now his waiting was over. His Pilot was here, and Arune wished he never left the AI bed.
The human was female, just not any female, but the female. The human who led her entire MP platoon out of France, when the “occupation” went to hell, without a single casualty. The human who survived Edinburgh with only two marines. The human who stuck her authorization key in the missile sub’s launch board after the Union destroyed Port Dis, letting the boat captain retaliate for the fusion strikes by launching two-hundred and eighty-eight warheads at Europe. The first human to get neural implants and Z armor, which she was wearing now. Now she was a Pilot. His Pilot.
Her name was Lexus. Behind her back, people called her the Goddess of War.
“Permission to come aboard, Sir?”
She was tall for a human female. Her nano-scale armor accentuated her curves. Her helmet, which could deform and form at a command, covered her bald head but now was set to expose her face. She was not beautiful. She was marginally pretty, as human standards went. Every single hard point on her armor contained weapons and ammo. Before him was Death, maybe literally.
No, thought Arune.
“Yes, please, Lieutenant. Welcome, and nice to meet you.”
The first thing the human female did was shed her armor, and now she looked athletically sexy.
She was prancing, nude, about his cabins, even humming to herself.
She pranced about the main cabin, examining every inch of it.
She pranced about the galley, making herself a sandwich.
She pranced about auxiliary tactical, turning the equipment on and off.
She pranced into the cockpit and ran her fingers over all the manual controls.
She stopped prancing when she got to the new stasis tank in the cargo hold. Now she was frowning.
She shrugged her shoulders and accessed her military PDA. Arune saw she was looking up every single detail about the tank, who requested it, who installed it, even watching the installation video. She watched it twice.
“There a problem, Lieutenant?”
“No, sir. This configuration is not standard, that’s all. I like the idea. I think you should send a note to Flight Engineering to make it standard.”
“It’s a good idea for mission robustness, and now the independent power connection to your secondary backup brain is superior, engineering wise, to the old configuration.”
“Ok. Will do.” She had years of battle experience. If she made a suggestion, he was going to listen to it.
Arune thought the idea of two brain backups to be silly. Humans were paranoid.
Arune was in the highest orbital slot he had ever achieved, and the female was still nude. Every now and then Arune caught her rubbing her wrists where her neural receptors were installed, the receptors connected to her neural lattice running through her body.
“Do the implants bother you, Lieutenant?”
She grinned, looking whimsical. “Kinda. If I stay connected too long, they get really sensitive. If I go too long without some type of connection that makes them kinda itchy.”
“Well, we could Uplink and I could scratch them for you.”
“Now you’re just smooth talking me.”
“You know it.”
She floated to the main cabin.
“Link me in.”
“Do you like a sudden or slow connection?”
“I want it as fast as you can possibly do it.”
Arune ran out five tendrils. He aimed one for an ankle connection…
“Uh, Major? You need to wind it around the limb you’re attaching to first, except the skull receptor. No need to wind anything around my neck.”
“Oh. Have you Uplinked with an AI before?” For some reason he couldn’t fathom the thought he wasn’t her first disappointed him.
“No, only other humans, but I don’t want to float around and bump into things.”
Arune wrapped the tendril around her left calf and inserted the link cable into her receptor. She sighed and nodded. He repeated the procedure, and soon all four of her limbs were tied and linked.
“Major…” she whispered as he put in the last tendril into her skull receptor. She licked her lips.
“Have you Uplinked with a human before?”
“No. Only with another AI.”
“Maybe, maybe you shouldn’t go so fast. A standard link.”
Arune realized she was frightened. The thought of the Goddess of War experiencing fear made him uneasy.
He immediately took charge.
“Don’t sweat it. It will be like, um, foreplay.”
As she laughed, he Uplinked to her brain using her entire neural system.
Intellectually, Arune knew the virtual reality he was experiencing was a feedback loop process, which took the virtual DNA composing his genetic code that was the basis of his runtimes, and meshed it with the experiences and memories of the human now linked to him at the lowest level.
That’s what it was on the surface. It was so real, so emotionally satisfying. It was a thousand times better than Uplinking to an AI.
The first thing he did was form an avatar. Like his namesake, he made it Indian looking, with long, dark, curly hair. He hoped it look handsome, because it would be difficult to change the look later. He willed himself loose fitting pants and sandals.
Then he inhaled, smelling salty air and so many other scents, it almost drove him to his newly made virtual knees. He opened his eyes to…
…an urban street of cute houses in…
Oh my God.
He was in Seattle. She brought him to Seattle. No!
Now he heard the female. She was standing before a house, still nude. She looked much the same as she did in real-time, except she had long, dark brown hair. She had on makeup. Makeup on a face contorted in pain.
She bolted into the house. Then she was screaming.
“Mommy? Mom! Daddy? Please! Oh, please!”
Arune multitasked. He sent his avatar zooming to the female, and accessed the part of his brain outside the virtual simulation. The latter was difficult, but not impossible. He brought up her personnel file, and broke the virtual privacy seal over the personal data.
No siblings. Parents, deceased in Seattle firebombing. No surviving family members. Recommend continuous, non-command, combat assignments.
This sucks, thought Arune.
He grabbed her and whisked her away.
She was holding onto him fiercely. They were in an Indian garden, the jungle flowers making a heady smell in the humid air.
She shook and shook, but she didn’t cry.
She didn’t cry.
“I’m sorry, Major.” she said into his shoulder after the shaking subsided. “It looked so real. It felt so real.”
“Call me Arune. Don’t sweat it…”
“Lexus. Or Lexi. Or Lex.”
He nodded. “How about Lexi,” he whispered in her ear, “because it rhymes with sexy.”
She looked at him as if he was crazy, then she laughed.
“Why does it seem so real?” she asked in a small voice.
“Here, Uplinked, reality is perception. When we Uplink, both our consciousness link to my quantum processors in a glorious feedback loop.”
That was the only word for it. Glorious.
“But you feel so real! Why do you feel so real? So real…” She held him even tighter.
“The AIs are based on human DNA, but I feel real so I can do this,” he said.
Then he kissed her.
It was like starting a fire. She pushed him to the ground.
Oh my God, was all he could think.
Then he could think of nothing much at all except—her.
As her arms went around him and she signed in contentment, he now knew what the word meant.
—Admit it Arune, this mission sucks dead bunnies through a water hose.—
They were on day three of optical scanning orbital slots. Space Command wanted all slots scanned the hard way for any leftover Union assets. This type of duty was wearing thin on Lexi. She was built to kill things, not float about in space scanning things. And space was big. Very big.
—Well, we can’t argue with the idea, but it does seem kind of overkill to have us do it.—
She made a mental sound like a snort, which he thought was a pretty neat trick.
—Or, maybe, they are waiting for you to finally go nanners in space.—
She snorted again, but physically smiled. —And miss all that hot Uplink woo hoo? Fat chance.—
Arune studied her face in real-time again. As a former field officer, he knew she had the best sexuality training the Federation had to offer. She used it on her men to increase the combat efficiency of her command. She was extraordinarily good at it, and put the sim he had sex training with to shame. She was hot and wild.
And yet, towards the end of their initial Uplink cycle, she made love to him. It was tender and sweet, and she opened herself up to him, and it was so endearing he gave her his all. It was only then that she cried.
Now they were Uplinked again, but this time she was in the cockpit and in full armor. She wasn’t in a virtual reality, but connected to all his systems, just as he was connected. It was an interesting feeling, like a cognitive backup system, only with sarcasm.
So when something popped up on their optical scan, she knew it the same time he did.
—Running the contact through match up, Lexi.—
Match up came back with a null. They pinged it with a radar wave. It was stealthed, the wave washed right over it without even a beep. Only when they did ladar did it paint.
—Blast it, Arune. It’s not one of ours.—
—It doesn’t match any Union profile.—
—Really? Wait, never mind, that’s a stupid question. Um…—
—Let’s launch one of the probes.—
He had five. They were expensive, but better a probe blowing up than him.
As the probe got closer, the transmitted optical scan telemetry was unusual. The satellite was obviously some type of spy sat; it had a huge optical array, but strangely no solar panels.
—Oh my gosh, Arune, I think that’s a pre-Collapse spy sat.—
—Interesting. Why do you think that?—
—I studied history in school, and again in officer school. It’s stealthed but no solar. I bet it has a fission pile, like nuclear fission. Look at the infrared, it’s slowly leaking heat. This is right out of the text books theorizing on pre-Collapse military technology from one of the old superpowers.—
—Wow, that’s old.—
—Arune, if there is an intact memory core, we have to get it. This bird could tell us a lot. The Cyber War fragged almost everything we know about human history. It could even have pictures!—
Arune immediately knew what she wanted to do. He contemplated saying no, but she was his Pilot. He would have to trust her capabilities and judgment.
—Okay, be careful. I want to have sex again.—
She sent him a mental giggle and then was gone from the Uplink.
—Backup system online. Total system failure due to EMP over the EVA tether. All accumulators purged. Solar accumulation now at .338%—
Arune found himself in his secondary backup tank, parsing the diagnostic.
As soon as Lexus touched the satellite, an EMP burst went right over her armor, through the tether and into his power core. His automatic systems dumped the power into space in the form of plasma, rather than explode.
All of his power, everything connected to his primary and backup accumulators, gone. Now he was gathering energy the hard way, through the solar cells that composed his armor.
Son of a bitch.
He was completely immobilized. He didn’t even have a functional maintenance bot. They were in a stationary orbit, on the dark side of the planet, with sunlight hours away.
The well-laid trap triggered all of his safety protocols and the only reason why he was thinking was he had the stasis tank installed with its non-standard power hookup.
All of his processors were offline, but he had an active brain mass, a brain he just trained for battle. In less than a second, he opened one-way shunts and started to trickle power from the stasis tank to his optical sensors.
The tank was an anachronism compared to Lexus’s Z suit, yet she was the conduit for the directed pulse attack. This worried him mightily, but he had to trust in the technology. No one had yet to find a punctured or inoperable Z suit.
It took Arune longer to feed the systems designed to process optical input than it did to feed and turn the cameras on. Finally, he was successful.
Well you don’t see that every day, Arune thought.
Bot massacre was the only way to describe the scene in front of Cargo 2. Lexus was floating right in front of the door, with a long knife—of all things—in her hand, cheerfully slashing at a multitude of Union bots with great effect. No sooner than she cut to pieces one bot, she would use its mass to propel herself to the next. Soon there was nothing but a big bot trying to crush her skull between pinchers, but she hacked away and it quickly too, went off-line.
Now she was moving one way and the twitching, dead bot moved another.
Arune finally parsed the cut tether. She was free-floating in space, her suit not powered and not attached.
Free-floating away from him. The death-spasms of the large bot had pushed her away.
Lexus, jettison some air to float back, he thought.
Then he realized that’s how she got way from the booby-trap filled with bots to here. The bots had traveled to here, the only functional power source, and she followed. They came for his brain. They targeted him, and she somehow intercepted them all.
Arune was helpless. He had no powered bots. The feed hookup for the stasis tank was to power his brain, not the ship. He could power one or two systems, but only for a brief time. He certainly couldn’t activate a thruster.
Lexus interrupted his thoughts.
She floated away from him and even through the gloom of space, the optics could pick up her facial expression through her helmet. She looked sad. Sad, but proud.
She smiled wishfully as she slowly waived bye-bye at his hull. Then she saluted.
She took a magazine from a hard point on her armor and quickly put it into her recoilless pistol with practice ease. She looked at it and frowned, holstering it.
Her recoilless pistol.
Joy burst through his mind, quickly replaced with dread.
She hadn’t thought of the answer.
It took nanoseconds for Arune to formulate a plan. He sent power to the explosive bolts to both sets of airlock doors to Cargo 2, and blew them at the same time he sent no less than five overrides to the backup tank and ejected his brain out the core.
The rush of air into vacuum pulled him from the housing. He had a millisecond to make a slight course correction by contracting his Goo before he came completely untethered.
At least, he thought it was splat. He could feel, he could think, but he couldn’t see.
His Goo contained a charge that kept it together, even in the vacuum of space. The charge would eventually dissipate, if he didn’t reconnect to his brain housing, and when that happened, he would die. All that would be left of him would be unfeeling quantum processors.
He moved his Goo around, feeling tacitly what he was covering. An arm. A shoulder. A torso. He reformed some of his Goo into a pseudopod. He tapped her helmet.
Tap, tap, tap.
He then spent more of his charge to form another appendage and tapped her holster.
Tap, tap, tap.
He could feel her shake her head.
It’s recoilless, he could almost hear her think.
He did the only thing he could think of.
He slapped what he assumed was the faceplate of her helmet.
Think, Lexus. Think!
His charge was failing. Instinct took over and his brain shut down to minimum sustainability.
Arune thought no more.
Arune found himself in their jungle garden with a very angry naked woman.
Lexus backhanded him.
“Are you insane? Are you mad? Ejecting your brain? To send me a message? Instead of one casualty, we could easily had two! You, you, you male!”
Arune laughed and she jumped on him, knocking him to the ground. He laughed harder.
“Don’t laugh at me! How did you know I would figure out to remove the recoilless module from my pistol? That I would shoot my way back to Cargo 2?”
She stopped her tirade and looked heartbroken.
“I’m not worth it,” she whispered.
Arune shook his head. “You human females have been carrying the burden of war for too long, Lexi. Too many dead. Too many sacrifices. What good am I if I can’t save the Goddess of War?”
She melted into him.
“Don’t ever call me that again,” she cried, and kissed him, her lips soft and insistent, gigantic tears leaking out her eyes, thank you, thank you in her beautiful thoughts.
Fort Blaze was even hotter than he remembered.
“My Pilot has some leave and wanted to spend it here.”
“Here? Whatever for…”
Lexus stepped onto the gangplank wearing nothing but sandals and carrying a shade umbrella.
Arune shut off his external optics and went to sleep.
He dreamed not of Lexus, but of the woman from Bellevue and her daughter. They were smiling and whole, and they all ran around his garden playing tag, laughing.