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Caught between heartbeats, a single breath skelterways in her hurling lungs, Natalie Chan wondered if operating the proxy rig herself had been such a good idea.
The boneheads in R&D hadn’t sent up the people she needed for this mission—real soldiers with real combat experience. Instead, her rig operator was to be chosen from a trio of shivering indentures, too young and too stupid to have any real combat experience—lab rats sent to do a soldier’s duty. She’d stared at their skinny bodies and sleepless eyes, remembering a time when she was the one stuck in front of a frowning citizen with director’s tabs, terrified down to her bones and trying her best not to show it.
“You’re not in the military branch at all? Any of you?” she asked.
The tallest one—young, dark-haired, exhausted—blinked. “I’m a janitor,” he’d said, stammering it out. “We’re all janitors.”
Another boy lifted his chin. “Are we getting upgrades finished today?”
She took one more look at the exterior cameras: Vancouver was still losing the battle over Bittersweet, and orders were orders. She thought about the twelve yawning minutes it would take to get decent infantry replacements, muttered an epithet against cost-effective savings, then marched to the proxy rig herself.
“Strap me in.”
“This isn’t a good idea, sir. It’s not like they need to shoot anyone.” App-K’s head researcher frowned from behind a curtain of fashionably slashed bangs.
“That’s not the point, Mx. Ascanio,” Natalie said.
“It’s just a half-mile walk!”
The proxy rig looked like something straight out of a holovid—an open black cube hung with spiderlike cables, straps, and neural interfaces. Applied Kinetics had been working on the project all year, using the guts of captured and defused Vai devices to elevate the formerly simple infantry helmet-cam into something far more useful. Natalie stepped inside the assemblage, picking her way to the center.
The techs hovered around her, making sure the cold, sticky neural patches lay flush against her sweaty temples. They drew the straps supporting Natalie’s chest harness tight enough to sting, then tested her balance. Natalie jabbed the button that tightened the thick, shining support cables above, lifting her feet off the floor. She heard the same quiet whine she always did—a whine the techs swore they couldn’t hear. She hadn’t wanted to use the rig in combat before eliminating that annoyance, but it was too late now.
Natalie stretched her fingers, kicked her feet, felt the give. She checked her center of gravity, feeling the tug of Vancouver’s antigrav on her feet, making sure the Vai-slippery cables were gathered far away from where they could catch on her elbows and ankles. The harness dug into her belly. We really should be doing this in zero gravity, she thought, but while Auroran R&D could stick her consciousness in a puppet drone thousands of kilometers away, artificial gravity was still a ship-level constant. Nearby, the janitors wavered, their eyes wide, their faces more confused than grateful.
Natalie sighed. “What were you doing during the Vai war, Mx. Ascanio?”
“I was completing my robotics degree.”
“Right. You were basically sitting on Europa Station eating candy with your thumb up your ass,” Natalie said. “Infiltration is a specialist’s game, and I don’t care what the board says—you can’t just drop unconditioned indentures down the chute and expect them to do a good job. I’m the only one here who can.”
Ascanio bristled. “Ms. Chan, if the board finds out—”
Natalie sighed. Her head researcher’s blatant brown-nosing was exhausting. She made a mental note to deal with it later. “I’m sick of the board getting in my face on this. No other directorate on Vancouver gets this kind of oversight. Just me. Just Applied Kinetics.”
“They must have their reasons.”
“And this is mine—people are dying, Ascanio. Drop me.”
Natalie caught some hesitation in Ascanio’s stance—she wondered about it, briefly, because the engineer was always so confident—but before Natalie could ask about it, Ascanio’s hands slipped clean and quick into the now-familiar motions that activated the proxy rig. After that, it all came very quickly, exactly as Natalie expected: the prick of the needle, the rush of the meds, the ache of being poured into the proxy puppet pancreas-first, followed by the silence of her beating, thrashing heart and the sheer animal panic of death death this is death—
—until the puppet’s HUD matrix smashed straight into her prefrontal cortex, jerking her awake, bringing her boggled senses back online. Sunlight wailed around her as if she were actually on Bittersweet, her feet covered in its thin golden dirt.
Natalie struggled to stand and walk, feeling sudden, stabbing adrenaline spike behind her sternum. Something’s wrong, her adrenals shouted, and she spent a few precious seconds searching for hostiles before she realized the wrongness was wrapped around her tongue, was the half-sweet filtered air of Vancouver rather than the tin-strong tang of a tank on her back. A view of the Applied Kinetics lab—Ascanio, the techs, the lab rats—flashed in front of her eyes for a moment, unstable and withering.
“Ms. Chan. Please check in.”
She heard Emerson Ward’s wry, granular voice in a broken half echo, as if he were both six inches from her face and six thousand klicks away. He was all business on shift, of course, tight-shouldered and blanched, his sallow hair drawn up in ribbons, his rawboned frame steady at the interface. He was good at business, good at separating his role as her operations officer from the things he did to her with his hands in the middle of the night.
Her vision blurred, and she stumbled to a halt.
“You’re messing with my immersion, Mr. Ward,” Natalie said, feeling a sudden, saber-sharp headache. “Can you use the interface on the other side of the room so I don’t hear you twice?”
He went quiet for a moment. She heard faraway bootstrikes, and his voice adjusted to fit the tinny suit speaker she was used to.
“Acknowledged. Mx. Ascanio and I would like to go through the pre-engagement tests.”
“No time,” Natalie said. “My head feels like someone’s put a spike through it. I want to get this done.”
More silence, like he was using the haptics to communicate with the other scientists in the room so she couldn’t hear. Typical.
“Proceed, Ms. Chan,” Ward said.
She swallowed. Immersion. She needed to stay immersed in this. I’m the one on the ground, I’m on Bittersweet, there’s only a half inch of fabric and plasteel between me and sucking down certain death, she lied to herself, and she marveled at how similar the interaction felt to querying the memory device she was wearing—no, she reminded herself, that her body was wearing—back on Vancouver. It was going to be hard enough to keep everything straight as the rig’s actual project manager, and the board thought janitors could do it?
She rolled her neck and started walking, relishing the strange, shiny weight of the mech paired with a momentary pride. The puppet drone was a triumph of Auroran scientific design, sporting cruiser-quality sensors paired with advancements in Vai kinetic weapons research. Here on Bittersweet, working the puppet, she felt more like herself than she had since joining Vancouver. She felt like a soldier, not a pencil-pushing lab rat.
It was hard not to feel a little cocky. After all, it was partly her soldier’s skin that Aurora wanted for Applied Kinetics. She was the only one in the company with the required experience, mixing a gunner’s eye for tactics from the war with an engineer’s knowledge of Vai bomb guts from her time as a salvager on Twenty-Five. Even her half-forgotten pre-corporate life was useful here—even though she’d left the Verdict collective years ago, she still knew enough about off-brand biocoders and their work to guide the rig from concept through reality.
If her proxy rig worked as advertised, Aurora would be able to deliver Vai weapons to the battlefield without killing the soldiers who brought them. Her tactician’s heart imagined drones, tanks, entire cruisers driven from haptic rigs, her body writ large in metal and flame, invincible, her blood safely inside her skin where it belonged. There’d be another promotion, honorifics, maybe an important chair on a starship bridge.
Wait. Something’s wrong.
She was familiar with that scratching something from being on the battlefield—it was her own version of a proximity warning, a sixth sense between her shoulder blades, a delicate metal sliver thrust under her fingernails. Beyond that, she could hear the crashing wails of equipment moving at the Baylor-Wellspring airfield, sirens and grav-engines and the rumble of rovers being scrambled to check out the transport crash.
She could handle Baylor-Wellspring. She could handle anything human hands could throw at her. She could even handle Vai kinetics in the puppet rig. Bullets were nothing compared to the weapons she’d seen during the war: the wild, alien light that rained from alien ships and mechs, turning human lives to soup and flame. The screaming, insane city-killing moleculars only the aliens could use.
She could walk straight through all of it.
Natalie pushed away the worry. She paused, tracing her sudden surge of adrenaline to the space where her stomach should have been. She took a deep, calming breath, her heart banging in her ears, the sweet battlefield music of you’re alive you’re alive you’re still alive.
In the puppet’s belly—her belly—App-K had installed a kicker, a particularly useful kinetic Vai electromagnetic pulse weapon. Her old salvage crew on Twenty-Five had found a dozen in the wreckage over Tribulation, and just one could take out every single piece of modern technology at the Baywell headquarters. The problem with the kicker was that it also disrupted electrical signals in the human body that set it off, and previous weapons tests had scattered a dozen unintentional suicides in their wake. With the puppet drone, she’d be able to disable the entire Baylor-Wellspring military airfield at once. Aurora could sweep in and interrogate Baywell executives, and—most importantly—secure the lab where Wellspring technology had turned her former shipmate Ashlan Jackson from an indentured miner into the most desired weapon in the world. It was the most important day of Natalie’s career.
During testing, the kicker had sung cold and quiet and blue, a razor’s whine married to an understated buzz. On Bittersweet, it worried her already-frazzled nerves with a rattle and howl, humming bright and frightening where her guts should have been, spilling up past her brainstem into her mouth. This felt like wet ashes on spoiled toast: slippery, ungracious, the Cana kind of wrong, the kind of wrong that got people killed.
She cleared spit from her throat. “What the hell, Ascanio? Kicker doesn’t feel right. Did you make sure to check the install?”
Ward answered, his voice even. “The executives are watching, sir, so your language—”
“I don’t give a fuck. The weapon’s active. If I fall on my face because I’m distracted, this all could be over before I get close enough to engage.”
“You built the quarantine system yourself, sir. Trust yourself.”
The humming in her head crescendoed, lancing behind her eyes like a particularly shitty migraine. “I do. I do. Stop arguing with me and figure out why my molars are rattling before we lose the element of surprise.”
Ward’s voice went darker. “R&D is holding the position that nothing is wrong.”
“Oh, fuck this—”
“The executives, sir. Amberworth is on the other end of the feed. Aulander.”
“Hi, guys,” she quipped. “You wanted janitors to do this? They’d be shitting their pants right now.”
“I’m sure the board had their reasons, sir.”
Natalie bit her bottom lip to stop her next response. There was no reason to torpedo her chances at a new promotion by being nasty to the board, no matter how she felt. The executives wanted actionable data, so she sucked recycled air between her teeth to staunch the ache, rolled the suit’s faceplate to face the woozy gray sky, and swallowed every single black opinion she had.
“Acknowledged,” she said, and started walking.
The whirling dirt of the Bittersweet planetoid had already found its way into the puppet rig’s joint mechanism, making it harder to pull her adopted legs toward the target. The buzzing of the weapon inside the puppet’s quarantine belly was behind her eyes now, in her bone marrow, under her fingernails, rattling around just underneath her skull. It was fucking with her immersion.
Lose immersion, lose control. The last thing the eggheads hadn’t really been able to solve with their crappy drug cocktail. Losing control led to capture. And if that happened, the Baywell specialists might be able to defuse the kicker, rendering moot everything she’d done with Applied Kinetics since returning from Tribulation a year ago.
Natalie looked down at her puppet body, concentrating on being in the suit, being on the planet. She imagined it eating her alive, even though that was impossible, even though her meat and bones were nowhere nearby. She imagined her feet in the boots, her esophagus sucking down air from the puppet’s useless airpack.
Next time, she’d ask for canned air.
The ship’s air she was breathing was a reminder that she was safe, no matter what happened to the suit, a reminder that she was a walking miracle, bilocating like an actual fucking saint. That she was the reason for all of this, that the future of warfare would soon spring cursed and screaming from her belly. War without a body count, victories without sacrifice—humanity could learn more than just killing from the Vai.
Natalie’s vision went blurry again, and she fell back against a large rock.
“Status report.” Ward, worried.
My feet are on the ground, she thought. On the planet, on Bittersweet, above the tunnels where Ash used to live.
The memory device in her brain helpfully brought up a memory, and not one of the good ones. Her former shipmate and friend Ashlan Jackson, her black hair in sweaty, dark strings, hovered for a moment in the death-cold ache of the London bridge, her eyes red, her shoulders shivering. Ash had been sick, sick as poison, although Natalie hadn’t known it at the time.
“I’m fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “I reached the last beta point. I need the final go order.”
Natalie felt suddenly nervous, the pressure of the cameras heavy against the back of her neck. An angry shiver skated like a bright current through her shoulders. She licked the desert from her lips and placed the puppet’s fingers against the rock formation, feeling the clatter in her fingertips.
“Go order is given,” Ward responded.
And there it was: the singular stab of focus that came right before battle, the breath in her chest like a hot coal, the awareness in her feet, her hands, her very core. The puppet crashed in around her, feeling like her skin, like her bones.
She pushed off a nearby rock, hauling herself to her feet, stride-stumbling her way toward the airstrip. The enemy saw her almost immediately, which was the whole point; the puppet was a black, crackling scar against the bright horizon, all arms and legs with a barrel torso and a blank, curved helmet, the heavy armor painted in rivulets of sand and dust.
She couldn’t quite see the battlefield above, hidden by the green-gold lights from the base and a curtain of thin atmosphere. She couldn’t see the damaged Auroran ships running pell-mell from the Baylor-Wellspring cruisers. But she knew people had already died for this, for her, for the end of the war with the Vai and the end of this entirely stupid new war. She was a warrior, a soldier, a delivery system for the kicker EMP inside where her stomach should be—no, in my stomach, in the quarantine box, hot and whirling, bouncing against my mucosa like a sick little pinball.
The feeling of a Vai weapon exploding was blue, the memoria remembered for her, blue like the Hudson River should have been, like a sapphire in a nuclear blast—
—like Marley’s bones had been when the screamer took him, skin first, then the blood, then his eyes and his tongue and his fingernails. For a bright second the memory device put her back in a blackening forest on Tribulation one year ago, running from a Vai kinetic with Ash, trying to get away from the thing that had just killed her team.
Her vision twisted. Natalie stumbled to an embarrassing stop, then gulped down acid-sour spit-up, tasting the bitter remnant of her breakfast. She blinked. She banished the memories of the red-dirt Tribulation for the yellow stone of Bittersweet. I’m here, she thought, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
“Your heart rate is increasing, Ms. Chan,” Ward said. He sounded a lot more concerned than he should have been. “Is immersion still an issue?”
“The memoria is interfering.”
He whistled. “I’ll have the doctors push you another dose of ester.”
“No. That’ll just make it worse.”
He ignored her. “Ascanio agrees with me. Injection in three, two, one—”
She wanted to spit, but she swallowed instead, as the rush of here and now hit her brainstem on a tidal wave of intravenous medication. The executives were watching. They were always watching, especially now that they’d wired Ingest into the fabric of cruiser life. They’d examined the edges of her existence since she was dragged from her molecular-induced coma after the Second Battle of Tribulation and given a memory device. They might as well have followed her around with a camera drone, she thought. The Natalie Chan Show, live and in tri-D, just in case she gets any ideas.
She felt blood at the back of her throat.
“I’ll have a visual of the airstrip in three, two, one,” she said.
Bittersweet was a celestium-rich planetoid. Ash spent years working the mines here before Baylor-McKenna’s merger with her old employer Wellspring Celestial, and the kind of airstrip she’d described warred with the tactical map currently hanging on Natalie’s HUD. Ash’s tales had included squat transports, cargo ships with swollen bellies, slow vessels that made reliable, lumbering trips back and forth to the transfer station above.
What Natalie saw were sharp-edged fighters, aerodynamic craft meant to slip in and out of planetary atmospheres, and pilots running to board them. She saw troop transports bristling with railguns and spinal lances. Celestium mining continued here—that much was certain, from the silver particles kicking up in blank little tornadoes around the mine’s exhaust vents—but the airstrip itself was packed with combat mechanics and pilots, missiles and quarantine boxes like a proper spaceport.
“Vancouver, I’m seeing military assets. They’re expecting us. Tell the board they’ll need to beef up the frontal attack,” she said.
“Sounds like we’re in the right place.”
Natalie examined the airfield. She thought of Ash again and wondered if her friend had ever been allowed up to the surface while she’d been indentured here, if Ash ever thought for one bare second that Bittersweet might be home to the biggest unintentional weapons development in the history of human warfare.
“Of course it’s the right place,” Natalie said. “You think I did all this for fun?”
She continued forward. Beyond the fighters and troop transports were the massive doors that led down to the mine. She imagined the hundreds of miners that lived there, and God knows how many executives and scientists this time, all of them working on the technology that had given Ash her terminal illness—as well as her strange, alien powers. Whoever held Bittersweet held the future. And now that future was up to her: Natalie Chan, one of seven survivors of the Battle of Tribulation, war hero then and now.
Time for the feint. Her attention narrowed, her eyes set only on the task ahead. She walked: left foot, right foot. Dragged a little, added a limp, making it look like she was just one crashed-out soldier from the battle above, hurt and unarmed. It didn’t stop the closest guards from pulling three boltguns on her, or forming into teams, two to flank and one to approach from the center, all of them holding automatic bullet guns that looked powerful enough to punch through the puppet’s armor.
The weapon rattled. She felt it rot her teeth. Yank at her kidneys. She’d expected guns in her face. Welcomed them. She wasn’t going to die here. The Baywells weren’t going to die, either, if they knew what was good for them. This was Aurora’s clean win, and Natalie Chan’s star-bright, post-indenture apotheosis.
All of this, and something still felt very wrong.
Copyright © 2021 by Karen Osborne