The Short Straw What a pointless exercise in futility. Reports had come in, from the passive sensors, of movement in this trackless nothingness. So Command had decided, in their infinite wisdom, to send him and his little band of toy soldiers to investigate. Nothing lived here. Not a blade of grass or the toughest of plants, not even the hardy lichen could survive the complete lack of moisture that surrounded him for a thousand klicks in any direction. Anything capable of autonomous movement needed, at the very least, some form of sustenance. Water, food and air to breathe were the little things needed for survival. None of which were available in this hell on earth. The land was parched, the atmosphere poisoned, and whatever faint traces of nutrients that might be available were all securely locked into the stony excuse of the surface. Completely inaccessible without a major undertaking involving hundreds of people accompanied by all their support machinery that would have had to crowd this deserted plain. And yet here he was, searching for something in the empty nothingness. He felt foolish standing there, with his envirosuit in full camo and the rifle set on Acquisition. His squad deployed around the skimmer in a defensive ring. Maybe the rocks would suddenly levitate off the ground to attack. Someone was teaching him a lesson and he couldn’t just turn around and go back to the Three City, telling them that there was nothing there. Procedure had to be followed. The passive had to be checked for a malfunction, and if none was found then it’s on board storage had to be accessed to evaluate the data. A whole lot more fun was to be had there. Find a camouflaged passive sensor with the size, shape and appearance of a small pebble on a plain covered with thousands of the real ones. To add insult to injury, a field tech had been seconded to his squad. One of those freaks who were little better than the First City scum, most probably originating from an illicit union of those criminal outcasts, and who revelled in being topside. Who, in his right mind, enjoyed being up here? There was only death in every direction, and no way to survive for more than a couple of days in this awful loneliness. With the harsh natural light, causing his eyes to squint even with the face mask polarised, that relied on the intermittent sun that only shone for half the day. This was nothing like the warm and gentle glow that filled the Inner City. <SCAN COMPLETE. NO TARGET FOUND.> He didn’t need the feed-back from the rifles scope. He could have told both the computer and command that there was nothing out here, just by looking. “You don’t like it much, do you Corporal Smit?” The tech shit was lounging very casually in the back seat of the skimmer, sprawled all over it as if on leave. “Find the passive. And get a move on. We’ve important duties to attend to in the Citadel.” The disgusting top side creature seemed to be mocking him. “You make it sound like you’ve been there.” The tech abled over, and surveyed the bleak terrain. The Corporal had the feeling that the tech knew exactly how close he’d been to the restricted access of the Citadel. Half a dozen shifts at the outer entrance security point. He’d never even met one of the residents of that enclave for the leadership. “Have your men spread out and use their scanners on each of the rocks.” Damb tech was taking over his command. “You’re the field tech, why don’t you just activate it and find it. And anyway whoever set it off might still be around.” His argument was weak even to his own ears. The deserted plain that surrounded them had not even the slightest cover to offer. A pop up on his HUD alerted him to a file download request. “Download the file. And it will tell you that a passive is exactly that. It doesn’t transmit anything except for an alert to the relay station, it only records. Otherwise it would be next to useless for extended exposure and easy for anyone to find. So spread your team out to search please.” He’d been dismissed. The options available to him were simple. Either he could carry on the struggle to assert his authority, or he had to cave in and follow the tech’s orders. Corporal Smit had the feeling that he would lose, that the tech would turn out to be more than just one of the First City outcasts. Admitting defeat, Corporal Smit deployed his squad into a short line with barely an arm’s length between each of his men. Their allocated paths would glow a faint green on their suits HUD to make sure that nothing was missed. As they moved out, each of the multitude of time worn pebbles had to be scanned with the tiny sensor fitted into the index finger of every enviro suit. It was a simple process of pointing at every stone in their path until the passive revealed itself. He felt foolish. If someone at Command decided to check up on them through the skimmers monitors, he could only imagine how absurd the scene must look. A team of heavily armed men in full camo and battle armour, strolling through the trackless dessert and pointing at stones on the ground as if this small field of stones was more interesting than the any other of the thousands of kilometres that surrounded them, while the pair of officer types stared on. “Corp, how long do we have to do this for?” He wasn’t the only one who found this mission farcical. “Till one of the rocks tells you it isn’t. So focus on your duty and get the job done.” He hadn’t meant to be so harsh, but boredom was rapidly replacing the fear of being Top Side. It was too much of sameness. The irritation of constant whirring from the cooling fans keeping the suits at a survivable temperature, the knowledge that death was just a scant few centimetres from their bodies, all began to fade with the tedious walking and looking at rocks. Bored men might get careless and miss the faint glow that would show that one of the stones was different to its multitude of brothers. “We came from this Top Side, you know.” The tech seemed to be starting up a conversation as if to pass the time. “Evolving over millennia under this sun that you seem to find so erratic. My name’s Aaron, by the way Kevin.” As if he would have the faintest interest is being on a first name basis with someone who was regarded by even the scum of First City as the lowest rung in their society. This Field Technician needed to be put in his place. “I have been through the history sessions. I know where we come from. Its people like you, the ones who celebrate technology as a toy that took this away from the rest of us. So do your job and we’ll do ours.” How could he not get that message? The men seemed to be engrossed in their task of searching, but the conversation had been on the short range open band and the entire squad had been within range to pick it up. All he needed was for one of his men to put into their post mission report that the Corporal seemed friendly to the tech, and he could kiss any chance of a career goodbye. “If you really knew you history, then you would be able to see the similarity between what’s happening now and the City Before?” Inadvertently, he was drawn in. What comparison could possibly be drawn between the Three City complex and the destroyed City from Before. All the citizens were the descendants of the handful of survivors that had managed to escape when the city had been destroyed in a war between cities over two centuries before. The Field Technicians had been the leadership then, and because of their poor defensive planning, the city had fallen with the survivors escaping into the wilderness. Because of them, the paradise had been lost. Hardship had replaced a life of ease and luxury. “According to the logs kept by my predecessors, and your own history, the City Before fell at the end of a long and drawn out war with two other cities that had formed an alliance against us.” He knew all this. The schooling days weren’t so distant that he would have forgotten the reason why he’d joined up. To protect his city and its people from the same happening to again, still was the driving force behind his focus on being the best he could be. “Ah. But that’s were your history and the logs branch off.” Corporal Smit should have cut off the garrulous Tech, but he wanted to hear more of this alternate history, no matter how self-serving and delusional it may turn out to be. Besides it would pass the tedium of the search. They had been at it for two hours now, and maybe it would take the rest of this shift as well. So he listened as the tech described the last days of the City Before, according to the gospel of the Field Technicians. How the cities had been involved in sporadic fighting for nearly three decades, with none of the few surviving records explaining how or why the conflict had begun. All the forces involved were unable to gain a decisive victory against each other because of the carefully constructed level of defence for each of the participating subterranean cities. The tech described how fruitless assaults and pointless bloody victories eventually brought the leaders of the cities into the beginnings of a diplomatic peace. And then barely weeks before the cease fire would come into effect, disaster had struck. “Yeah, I know. Those scum launched a surprise attack that destroyed our city. No one is sure how it happened. But what we do know is that you tech shits ordered the army to stand down. The other cities saw their chance, and took it.” “Not quite. The city forces were still on full alert when the end came.” A sudden commotion broke in as one of the troopers called them over. The passive had responded. The flash of the pointer laser had awakened its long dormant activation systems. The tiny circuits had been exposed to decades of erosion from the incessant wind and weak sunshine, but the titanium alloy skin had withstood it remarkably well. The antigravity power units hadn’t. Instead of leaping to an easily retrievable waist height, the unit spun momentarily in an uncontrollable whirling that spewed up the dirt that quickly enveloped the discoverer and the pair of troopers alongside him in a blindingly impenetrable maelstrom that hid not only them but their quarry as well. If not for the closed system of the enviro suits, Corporal Smit was sure that they would have suffocated in the choking cloud of rapidly widening dust. As it was, the situation quickly became dangerous as the uncontrolled unit tore into the rock field, sending slivers of smashed rock in random directions. His frantic instruction for them to fall back was accompanied by a shriek of pain as the wildly gyrating passive slammed into one of the obscured figures. Panicked by the sudden cry, the two remaining troopers added to the confusion with their own repeated shouts of “man down”. The remainder of the squad, unnerved by the sudden explosion of violence in their midst, scattered. His bellowed order for them to form a defensive perimeter brought the chaos under control even as the scream from the wounded trooper quietened to a pain filled whimpering and the dust cloud began to settle. “Report in. Who’s hit?” “Me, uh trooper first class Michaels. It’s stuck in my leg and I think it broke it.” “Corporal, you might want to use the low visibility option here.” At least Aaron had used the private channel, to save him from looking even more stupid than he already felt. He swore under his breath. First mission and one man injured by little more than a flying rock. He didn’t know which was worse, the injury or that all of them had forgotten to turn on their HUD’s low-vis setting except for the lanky technician. Allowing the computer to peer through the murk, the ultrasonic sound waves reverberated off all surfaces to throw back a monochrome image onto the inner surface of his face mask. Once the on-board’s filters had taken out the confusing reflections of the dust particles, the resulting image was hazy but clear enough for him to be able to see the crouched form of the tech bending over the injured troopers prone. “What are you doing to him?” “His suit is compromised, so I’m extracting the passive and then putting a field dressing on. That will seal him up long enough to get him back to the city and some medical attention.” “How long will it take to access the passive and get an answer?” “It will be bout’ four hours. But I have to do a software update as well, and that is going to take the rest of the day. Most probably till tomorrow morning” He was going to have to send the injured Michaels back in the skimmer, leaving the rest of them out here. Goosebumps formed on his neck and arms, he barely managed to still the involuntary shudder, at the thought of being stuck Top Side on foot. A couple of days march from home, if for some reason the others couldn’t come back to fetch them. Loading the injured man onto its open cargo area was the work of minutes, with the pair of escorts who would return the following morning to collect the rest of the squad. As the repulsion motors kicked in, taking the skimmer back, he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He’d only ever done one sim of being stranded Top Side, and although his pass rate had scored in the range of exceptional, the reality was far more terrifying. In the training sims there was always the option of failing by simply taking off the sim-suit. Here there was no easy out. Remove the head piece and he would be assailed by the poisoned heat that was all that remained of the atmosphere. He would slowly and painfully choke out his last moments. Despite the sheer quantity of open space outside the suit, claustrophobia pulled stronger at the edge of his consciousness, pulling stronger the more the skimmer faded into the distance. “You’d better get a grip. We’re going to be here for the night. Extend the perimeter.” It took him several moments to realise that it wasn’t the tech gently goading him on, as the remaining troopers spread out into the nothingness to follow his order. Even behind the mirror reflective face mask, he knew the crouched figure of the tech was smiling. Finding out what had set of the passive would take hours yet, and he could either keep up the façade of aloofness or give into the gnawing curiosity of the tech’s alternate history. At the very least, it would pass the time and hold the fear of Top Side at bay until he could find some way of dealing with it. “You said that the Field Technicians weren’t responsible for losing the City Before?” again, the feeling that Aaron was smiling. He most probably had a full grin by now. “As I said, when the attack came, the army was on full alert. People were no more stupid then, than they are now.” Aaron told how the city’s forces, after decades of war, were a highly experienced army ready for almost any eventuality. And yet the entire city of almost a million inhabitants had been overrun in less than a week. After the pitifully small group of shattered survivors had escaped, they had found other similarly tiny groups roaming the wastelands. These had been from the other cities involved in the war, and strangely had almost the exactly the same story of mass destruction. “Our ancestors were battle hardened veterans, and yet despite their experience, they were unable to offer more than token resistance to some outside attackers. What’s even more interesting is that the other cities were beaten and destroyed the same way, at the same time.” “You said there were similarities between then and now.” He carried on his tale. Of how the remote sensors used in that far off time would occasionally send back seemingly false reports of movement in the most remote areas. Soldiers sent to defend against possible attack, found nothing. At first the military leaders had thought it was probes by the enemy forces to draw the city’s forces away in preparation of a surprise attack while the peace negotiations progressed. But when no sign was found of any intruders, they started suspecting the aging defence system itself. Smaller groups were sent out to replace any seemingly malfunctioning equipment as suspicion died, until the units sent out started disappearing without trace. Transponders attached would stop signalling the locations of the dispatched men, with follow up squads finding nothing to show that the groups they were searching for had ever existed. As unbelievable as it seemed, heavily armed soldiers that were at high degrees of alert were vanishing into the waste lands without the slightest sign of even firing off a single round in self-defence. The records of the actual assault were sketchy, not a single survivor had seen the attackers. Every unit used in the defence had died, along with most of the civilian population. It hadn’t been an attack as much as extermination. The few survivors had all been from the groups that had run for the escape tunnels first. Cowardice and luck had been the defining survival instincts. Anyone who hesitated, thought twice or took a wrong turn had died. The survivors had been those who ran without thought of responsibility or concern for others. Another defining rule had been the complete lack of family groups in the sorry remnants from the City Before. “That’s not to say that they didn’t have family, they just didn’t stick around when the children got tired or were moving too slowly. Probably explains why so many of the politician’s got out to start our new city.” “I note that the techs also managed to survive? So maybe your history is there to make you feel better about what actually happened. It seems to me that my history is a little more impartial, a bit closer to the truth. How about you quit with your fairy tales, and get on with your job.” Miserable tech shit. He’d almost started to like the fucker. Just goes to show, they lose a city and are made into the lowest of scum. They hadn’t deserved to be allowed in but the leadership had decided that even shit like that should be given the right to life. Their only response, the gratitude shown, is to create a story involving a magically superior army that appeared out of thin air and putting the blame on the true heroes. The leaders who had shone through the dirt of war, who even in their dying moments had been so focused on giving the survivors of the treacherous attack a chance, that they had sacrificed their own lives to launch the counter attack which had destroyed their enemies. He had a good mind to pop the tech right there for his treasonous bullshit. But tolerance was the key. The techs were the true cowards, and like all weaklings, they needed a justification for their weakness. It was for him to emulate the lenience, humanity and strength of those who built the Three City complex. He must lead while the techs complained about the unjust treatment they received. Aaron should realise that he ought to be thankful in just being allowed to draw breath. With this justification firmly lodged in his thoughts, he quickly squashed the little voice that reminded him that the tech had never complained. Aaron had always been calm and cool, even when the little passive had run berserk and all his superior troops had panicked. So he stood proudly surveying his small band of true men, while the technician sat cross legged in the dirt that he belonged in. He could see the picture in his mind of how he must appear to his men. But there were hours still to go in this exercise and he couldn’t just stand there indefinitely, he would start to look foolish. “How long will it be until you’ve finished analysing the data? I need to send a report to Command.” “As I said, it will be hours. Most probably middle of the shift, what the old people called midnight. But I won’t find anything.” The Corporal gritted his teeth, telling himself that he wouldn’t ask. Sighing in defeat, the question forced itself through the gaps. Aaron paused, in surprise. “Why? Because that’s the way the imaginary army works. This is the sixth passive that I’m inspecting and upgrading in the last four months. The rest of the Field technicians are busy doing the same.” He didn’t need to continue. Command had decided that the passive screen was acting up, probably needing to be completely overhauled. But Aaron’s history was crap? Any similarity had to have been added to make it seem more believable. “Well. It’s not entirely true to say that I’ll find nothing. Let’s just say the findings will be inconclusive.” There, he did it again. Half bits of information dropped, like bait, to draw him into conversation again. Damb Tech was trying to convert him. “Just find it and show me. I’ll decide on the value.” “Look up. It’s your first real sunset. The sun had begun to drop over in the western horizon, painting the grey haze of the sky with its own brilliant oranges and flaming reds, fading to pastel yellow overhead and fading to darker grey and finally a swelling inkiness of pitch black in the East. Darkness so completely lightless, that it seemed to fill his soul. As the flaming star’s waning light turned the bleakness around him into a vision of endlessly wondrous detail, as each tiny pebble seemed to be thrown into a deep contrast with the plain surrounding it. The beauty of the moment seared itself into his eyes, filling them to brimming point. The reality far outstripped the holographic images that computer gen rooms created. As the riot of true colours faded into the darkness of night, Kevin still stood mesmerised, barely able to breathe at the wonder of nature. “Most of that is caused by the level of pollution in the air. So essentially when the people at the end of the 21st century began to die off, it was with progressively more beautiful sunsets.” He could hear the barely controlled grim laughter in the tech’s voice, but even that couldn’t spoil the breathlessness of the moment Even as the last rays sunk below the far horizon, Aaron called him over to view the nothingness that had set of the passives alarms. Tapping the feed directly from the passive’s memory into Kevin’s helmet, they viewed the last moments before the almost undetectably short micro burst alarm transmission. With its full 360 degree, it made no difference how the sensor was positioned. It viewed in all directions simultaneously, making it impossible to approach without being seen. The level of sensitivity in its hearing made even the almost undetectable movements of the turgid air over the field of time worn pebbles and rocks moan and wail as if it the very hosts of hell had risen to begin the first days of Armageddon. Over and over, he replayed those few seconds. He watched as the target acquisition system seemed to awaken, without any provocation from the harmlessly unchanging drabness that passed itself off as scenery, and focus its target pointers on an innocently empty spot several dozen metres away. Was it just as Aaron had said? Nothing would be found. Was it a malfunction in the software, like the mini repulsion motor, had the sensors themselves began to breakdown after the decades of being subjected to the Top Side elements? Procedure dictated that no matter how unreasonable the task, every possible avenue must be exhausted to ensure the fault was mechanical and not an actual alert. Again Kevin viewed the memories, filtering out the natural sounds of the environment. Gone was the howling, wailing shriek of the air currents, the gentle rasping made by the grains of sand as they rubbed against their fellows. What was left was the almost inaudible crunch of a single footstep. In the middle of nowhere, as if materialising from the imagination of the lonely mind of a computer, the sound of pressure exerted by someone taking just one step. Unaccompanied by required body and legs, a single pace had been taken. The machined intelligence was designed to observe, to tirelessly monitor the unchanging view. No thinking was required, so it hadn’t been programed to do so. It just watched and listened. And when a sound from the stillness could be matched to one of the millions stored in its data banks, it responded as it had been programmed to. Identify the source, lock on to it and send the alarm. It never rationalised the lack of a body, or even a foot, to accompany the step. It never paused to see if something else materialised to accompany the implausible sound. It reacted. That even the slightest bit of analysis would have shown just how impossible it would be for a step to be taken without some sort of accompanying appendage for locomotion, never entered its micro circuit brain. It just reported. It was left for him to ascertain the value of the report. And he was inclined to dismiss it as some joining of natural process which culminated in the sound of a footstep. Procedure said that he had to investigate, and if the skimmer had still been here, he would have called it a day. Filled in the report to say the passive had been fooled, climbed back in and headed for the almost womb like protection of his subterranean home. But as he was still here, and would be until at least morning brought the sun back to light up this inhospitable desert. He might as well do the job properly, and waste a few more of the dragging minutes. Calling Aaron over, he sent the filtered data over, and started off towards the innocuous point highlighted by his helmet, as the tech viewed the file. “You see the similarity to what happened to the City Before? I think we are in trouble.” “Please. Enough of that shit. This is reality, not some god-dammed fairy tale. The machine got confused by something easily explained away. I’m going to record that target area so that command can see it for what it is.” Meandering over to the offending bit of useless ground, he started scanning it into the data storage for analysis. His on-board was far more sophisticated than the dumb little passive, but it would still need about an hour to run through all probabilities. Wasted processing, as far as the Corporal was concerned, but there wasn’t really anything else to do. Almost immediately the on-board began to superimpose grid lines on his facemask as it began to probe the small stretch of ground that the passive had identified as the source. A tiny square that looked as undisturbed as the thousands of kilometres around it. Except for? The on-board began outlining an area, inserting a faint reddish hue that filled a vague indentation. When it had finished, his disbelieving brain simply refused to interpret the impossible which his eyes and the machine saw. If the machine’s interpretation was to be believed, it showed a single human footprint. No other was to be seen, just that solitary indentation that was unaccompanied by the trail of similar prints which should have brought it here. Silently gesturing to the tech, not trusting his voice to stay steady, he waited as Aaron also stared at the impossible. “How did it get here?” he could hear the fear distorting his voice, making it sound high pitched. “Not by itself.” The dumbass tech fucker was making jokes? “Well, that’s that. They are here, so I don’t think we’re going anywhere.” Kevin raised his eyes, expecting Aaron’s mythical army to have magically appeared. The dessert was as empty as before. “Think about it. That footprint is a message telling us that someone is here. And the point is that they have the ability to move without being seen, even by electronic viewers.” The implausible story was back. Was it possible for the tech to have somehow put the foot print there himself. It wasn’t like they’d monitored his movements. In fact any of them could have come here by mistake. But it was a solitary print in an otherwise undisturbed area, at least fifty metres from the closest anyone had been. And the passive used exactly the same tech as what they were using right now. Nothing fancy, just enhancement of any available light so that even the darkest shadow in the night was revealed as if it had been hit by a searchlight. The enviro suits had the size to allow them all to use the built in ultrasonic that further augmented object recognition programs. Never before had soldiers gone into battle with their vision enhanced to such a degree. And he was saying that his magic army was camouflaged against it. Ok, although the thought was completely crazy, the squad’s safety was his responsibility. He wouldn’t be much use as their leader if he didn’t at least check. He ordered the squad to swap over to the redundant infrared viewers. Instantly the world around him faded into an indistinct grey soup, as his own on-board followed suit with the rest of the squad. “I’ve got movement. One eight five metres forward of my position.” He was moving, even as the exited trooper shouted out in speaker distorting volume. Racing up to the prone form, Kevin turned to face the same direction the trooper was pointing to. The calmly strolling figure was a glowing white in the monotonous grey. It was just one man, not an army. But somehow the single sauntering figure was more threatening in its aloneness. Enhancing the indistinct shape didn’t do much. Enough to see that it was clad in a skin tight suit, with none of the bulkiness associated with impact armour. He couldn’t really make out the helmet, unless it was also so thin as to be fitted. The visor was a full face covering. The only bulkiness was on the right arm. From elbow to wrist was covered in what appeared to be a set of thin tubes. “Should I put him down Corp?” The trooper was acting as if this were a sim, the figure out there being no more than a construct. Without effort the decision was made. Whoever it was out there, was no friend. Maybe Elton was right. Just treat that thing out there as a training exercise. No thought, just do as you were trained. Kill it. “Wait. You won’t be able to hit it.” Startled by the sudden interruption, he turned to face Aaron, as the tech raced up with arms outstretched. “The old logs say that those things are impossible to hit. They have some kind of evasive technology.” “The fuck I won’t. And I don’t take orders from some First City shithead. Corp, gimme the word, an’ I’ll put one right up his effing nostril.” At less than two hundred metres, any of the squad would be quite capable of taking the shot, and with the rifle’s targeting system they could literally put a round within a centimetre of their chosen point. His phantom army of super soldiers had evasive technology as well. Aaron was getting inventive. Or maybe he should be cautious. That thing out there was all but invisible to the on-board’s systems. “Can you get a lock on it?” Elton grunted in surprise. “Acquisition’s all over the place. That dude has some kind of counter measures. Can I switch to manual? Got you now mofo.” How was that strange figure out there able to throw off jamming signals? There was no space in the sleek suit for any kind of on-board, just several small bulges on its back. For that matter, how was it able to survive without air tanks? Possibly some kind of advanced filter to pull what little oxygen remained in the foul air. Perhaps it would be wiser to ask command. Let them know that there was a visitor less than a hundred clicks from the city, inside the supposed safe zone. A single person couldn’t survive out here, so where was his support. Make the problem someone else’s. After all he was just a Corporal, and a new one to boot. None of his training had readied him for this kind of situation. “Command says take it out. We’ll retrieve the body for inspection.” Watching the distant figure, the expected crack of the rifle still caused him to start slightly in surprise. The slight shake in his view, made him doubt what his eyes interpreted. Even as Elton had caressed the trigger, sending the shell on its racing course, the stranger moved. Not the uncontrolled recoil from the impact of a heavy slug, more of a slight angling of its body as if to avoid bumping into something that was in its way. Simultaneously, it raised the strange tube covered right arm across its body. Twin points of light streaked across the intervening distance, accompanied by the faint popping of compressed air that would have been inaudible without Kevin’s audio gain being set at max. “You missed and it’s got a weapon. It’s using some kind of air gun, against impact armour.” The forming smile slid off his face as a small blinking alarm on his HUD drew his attention. Elton’s on-board monitors registered zero brain activity. The trooper was dead. Kneeling alongside the prone trooper, he pushed the slack, lifeless body onto its back. A pair of matching holes had been drilled through the armoured polymer of the face plate. In the indistinct green hued back glow from the trooper’s still operational HUD and face plate, Kevin could make out the pools of blood where Elton’s eyes had been moments before. He didn’t need a medics report to know that the strange projectiles had drilled though both hemisphere’s of the brain, causing instantaneous death. While Kevin kneeled next to the body in disbelief, Aaron came up alongside and picked up the dead trooper’s rifle. The manual scope, which Elton had been holding up to target the stranger, had been neatly drilled through. The level of target acquisition needed to achieve that level of accuracy defied all his knowledge in processing power. He turned to peer at the strange figure. It stood in exactly the same place from where it had taken the killing shots. No longer pacing, it stood in slack limbed motionlessness with its head cocked to one side as if puzzled by their lack of reaction. Even as he watched, the figure faded ghostlike from his view. IR could pick up nothing. “Sir, I’ve got visual on the target in normal enhancement. And acquisition is working again.” Switching his view back, he could see the figure standing out there, the quizzically angled head questioning them as if waiting to see what their response would be. Clad in dramatic black, he noted the dense musculature of an athlete trained to the peak of physical prowess. The massive shoulders of a wrestler set above the tapered waist and legs of a dancer. He could sense the exact moment when Kevin snapped, even as the young man lurched to his feet, Aaron reached out vainly in an attempt to stop him. The Corporal was too quick. Putting the stock of the rifle into his shoulder, he locked the targeting icon to the stranger, and simultaneously with a wordless cry, opened fire in full auto. Even as the stream of bullets left the barrel, the relaxed target sprang away. Diving to the left as the wasted torrent poured over its shoulder and harmlessly into the night. Still Kevin tracked the black suited figure, as its gyrations to avoid the steady flow of bullets became more became more exaggerated, resembling a ballet more than a battle. Dry clicks announced the clip had run dry, yet still he didn’t stop yanking at the trigger. Even as he began to fumble with a spare from his belt, other troopers overcame their shock and raced up alongside him to take up the barrage. The figure’s movements began to take on the appearance of almost floating, as it twisted and spun out of the way of the new streams. And even as the fusillade reached a crescendo, the stranger began to return fire with the strangely powerful tube like weapon. Even as the body’s erratic movements kept it out of harm’s way, the arm itself steadied and fired. The troopers that had come to help their Corporal dropped. Each had the same twin holes in their face plates and the same instantaneous death as Elton. As Kevin finally managed to cram the fresh load into his rifle, he looked up and saw the still forms of his men lying only metres away. Drawing ragged breath’s he looked at the black clad figure in the dessert beyond. It had resumed the slack limbed stance from before. “We’re dead, aren’t we? You and I are going to end up like them. Your imaginary army turned out to be only one man. What now?” “I don’t think it would help, but maybe you should call for reinforcements.” “Duty Command, this is Echo 5 requesting assistance. We are taking heavy fire with casualties. Please respond.” <Good evening Corporal Smit, unfortunately I cannot permit your transmission to go through. I do apologise for the inconvenience.> the clipped cadence of the cultured voice filled the receivers of all the remaining survivors. To do so meant that the military grade encryption had been breached. Not only that, but they were being jammed at the same time. “Who is this?” he hadn’t meant to sound so panicky, but after the last few moments, Kevin was surprised that he could even talk. <The question is irrelevant. But as adding to your stress levels may increase my personal enjoyment, I shall answer. My designation is JW16, and I have been tasked with the containment of your squad until such time as the assault on your city has been initiated. This will occur in slightly under four hours.> The emotionless voice spoke with the pleasant tones of a book reader. He spoke of the impending attack on the city as if the centuries of defensive planning, with all the carefully sighted short and long range emplacements, didn’t exist. Kevin wanted to dismiss the statement with the contempt it disserved, but he had seen how ineffective their weapons and computer systems had been against just this one person. He could imagine the destruction that could be wrought by an army of these units. “And then what? You gonna try kill us.” <I will first conclude my assessment for potential donors. The remainder will be superfluous.> “You’ve already killed four of my men. Were they superfluous?” <Correction Corporal Smit, the total now stands at seven. The crew of your ground vehicle were dispatched within twenty minutes of their departure.> He turned to Aaron with a multitude questions roiling through his mind. But all he could manage were profanities. His men were dead, they were blocked out from any kind of contact and the only hope of getting away was, according to JW16, gone too. What the hell would they need donors for? Why had his men been killed, where he was left alive? That man out there was crazy, who in his right mind got “personal enjoyment” from killing? He, Aaron and the trio of survivors from his squad were trapped in an endless desert with a bullet proof psychopath, and he didn’t know what to do. All directions pointed to death. Kevin blinked away the childlike tears of frustrated impotence that were filling his eyes. It wasn’t fair. His first ever command, and they were all going to die. Not in the glorious heat of battle, severely outnumbered, but heroically fighting off a multitude of enemies and saving the lives of countless others. To be forever remembered as a hero of the city. He didn’t want to be a soldier anymore. He just wanted to go home. The tears became real, flowing unheeded down his cheeks to fall and pool in in the creases of the enviro suit’s neck joint. The sudden slap on the side of his helmet jolted him out of his misery. “Get a grip Kevin. It won’t help to fall apart. He’d just enjoy it more.” What was he supposed to do? Be calm and collected? He was just a kid. The only reason he got the promotion was because he said “yes sir”, followed orders and could shoot straight. Fat lot of use that was against a target that seemed to know where the bullets were going. It was almost as if JW16 could read his mind. Aaron stared down at the crouched figure of the Corporal in front to him, and felt the familiar wave of sympathy that had swept over him from the moment they’d met back in the city. Even then he’d known that Kevin had been new. All bluster and bullshit, a kid dressed up in his daddy’s uniform and playing at being a soldier. Beneath that thin veneer, Aaron had seen the young man Kevin would become if given the chance. But now, he was out of his depth. None of the weeks of inadequate training had prepared him for what he was facing. This was supposed to have been a milk run for the new Corporal in preparation for understanding his position as an Officer candidate. Instead his fragile ego had dissolved as fast as the squad around him. In less than a single shift, Aaron had watched him broken from copycat arrogant man child to just a scared little boy. If Kevin had been a little less thoughtful or even a little less observant, then the single smudge of the foot print left by JW16 would have passed unnoticed and perhaps that ominous figure would have never had attacked. Most other career soldiers would have called it a day after the initial incident with the defective passive sensor. All would have accepted his report that that there was nothing to be found in the emptiness, but not Kevin. The Corporal had noticed what even he had missed, and Aaron had been exhaustively trained to notice the little things. Turning his thoughts away from the visibly trembling figure, Aaron was under no illusions. When JW16 had spoken about evaluating for donors, he’d been speaking directly to the Field Technician. The three remaining troopers were as useless as their fallen comrades to the attacker as they were to Aaron. Grumbling and prejudiced foot sloggers that were only useful as long as they could hold a gun and pull a trigger. All were old hands at the game of seeming to follow instructions from green commanders, while doing next to nothing. Although Kevin had pretended not to notice, most of his men had gone to sleep when ordered into the defensive perimeter. So if the soldiers were meant to die, and he was supposed to donate whatever thing it was that JW16 wanted, what was to become of Corporal Kevin Smit? In another time, they would have returned to Three City and Aaron would have recommended to his fellow techs that they try and recruit the kid. But that wasn’t going to happen. It was up to him to lead this pitiful band back to the city. A full shift, at a Forced March rate, would get them across the intervening desert before the sun set. Pulling Kevin to his feet, Aaron told the truculent troopers to fall in. “You aren’t in charge of shit, techie. The Corp’s the only one who can tell us what to do.” “Who’s the best shot here? Huh? Corporal Smit shot a full clip, one hundred and forty rounds of propelled seekers, and he couldn’t hit our friend out there. I’m taking him back to the city. If you want to stay here, that’s your funeral?” Pulling at the shoulder tabs of the shattered Kevin’s suit, to get him moving, Aaron strode off towards the distant hills that shrouded their home, with the corporal in tow. Within moments the troopers grumblingly followed. Anything was better than being left alone with the motionless black figure that radiated malevolence until it was almost tangible in the air around them. As they walked, JW16 turned and kept pace with them. The grace in the way he moved reminded Aaron of one of the long extinct feline hunters that used to roam over the grassy planes, and they were his prey. If what he’d said was true, then when they eventually got to the city, it would be in its last moments. Dying as its population was being decimated, the vaunted military having no more chance than the army from the City Before had. Their nemesis might even relish the extra emotional anguish inflicted. “Why are we going back? If he’s right, then there’s nothing left to go back to.” Kevin was starting to come back. He’d even used the close range suit to suit. Aaron smiled grimly. There were several reasons, and the kid was one of them. Aaron was old by the Field Technician standards. This was supposed to be his last Top Side mission before being reassigned to internal duties, and like most of his select corps, he’d never had a chance to have a family. If one had been possible, he would have wished to have a boy like Kevin. If there was the slightest possibility of the kid surviving, then he’d make sure Kevin had it. As the lightless night slowly ebbed away into a vague glow that signified the return of the sun’s weak light to the wasted planet’s surface, they were still far out on the plain. The hills had slowly grown into a low range of starkly bare mountains. <The assault by our eradication force has begun. You may again communicate with your city Field Technician.> He could almost feel the men turning up the resolution on their face masks, the sharp intakes of breath and muttered half curses of disbelief as they saw for themselves what JW16 had pointed out. The almost impossibly strong defensive perimeter, with its layers of carefully placed weapon systems using the most advanced targeting computing, had been breached. The outer wall of the city had also been broken through, and the army was in shattered retreat towards the Citadel, the strongest of the strong points, situated inside the deepest part of the mountain range in which the city had been built. Decades had been spent in ensuring that the new Three City complex would be able to resist being destroyed for months, years or if ever. The worst case scenario had put the holding of the city at two weeks, and that would involve attacking forces of several hundred thousand units. This had all happened in less than half an hour, if their self-professed executioner and the now visible column of smoke rising over where the city sheltered, was to be believed. The Command com channel was filled with vague order and counter order as the panicked commanders tried to understand what and where their enemy was. According to what he was able to piece together from the fragmented reports, First City had already been overrun with it nearly half a million inhabitants being systematically hunted down in the maze of twisting corridors that made up its construction. Aaron could barely understand the driving compulsion to cross the dozen or so kilometres that still separated them from their home. All through the long morning, they marched while listening in on Commands frequency. Kevin’s transmissions were all but ignored in the chaos of the assault. It was only once the city’s forces had regrouped behind the all but impenetrable barrier of the titanium alloy door, which separated the Inner City from First City, that someone finally answered his insistent requests for assistance. Far from the rational and controlled response Kevin had been expecting, the Captain on duty started screaming orders for them to immediately attack the outnumbered JW16, with any trooper who failed to follow the order to be summarily executed for cowardice. “There’s a war on Corporal, sort your shit out by yourself. When you get back here, I’m going to personally charge you with incompetence and make sure that you are stripped of your rank. Carry on.” They were alone. There would be no reinforcements sent to assist. The weight settled on Aarons shoulders as his last futile hope disappeared faster than smoke in a vacuum chamber. He could better understand why JW16 had let them start this futile walk. The black suited figure had said that he would enjoy any extra mental suffering that could be inflicted on them. With no other option, they carried on towards the city. Each step brought them closer, the distant pall of smoke grew larger, and through it all JW16 kept tireless pace. Always there, mocking their impotence. When would his promise of death materialise? With the early afternoon, came the attack on Inner City and the massive door. The fractured reports said a ringing sound emanated from it as if a giant bell was tolling. After less than a quarter of an hour, the seemingly impregnable door started glowing, and within minutes, melted away under whatever strange weapon the attackers were using. Again the chaos descended over the network. This time it was the computer defence system itself that started calling for the civilian population to assemble at defence stations for issuing of weapons. Aaron knew it was only a matter of hours until the city was completely overrun, with the panicked survivors heading for the escape tunnels. Some would survive. Half an hour later, Command went off air in mid-sentence. And with it, were two centuries worth of human development. The small group stood less than half a dozen kilometres from the burning mountain that had sheltered their now ruined home. Beneath the kilometres long cloud of smoke, the conflagration still spewed flame from the hundreds of burning defence stations. Of the great door that had been set into the side of the mountain which had sheltered the Three City, nothing remained. A great bellow of black smoke poured from the now open passage way from the blazing remnants of the subterranean city. Of the expected attacking army, almost nothing could be seen except a few flitting delta winged shapes that dipped and soared through the smoke. Scattered around the smoking remnants of the entrance, lay perhaps two dozen stubby winged box shaped vehicles that also appeared to have flown through the carbon rich atmosphere to land there. Slowly circling the mountain was a massive skeletal structure of girders several hundred meters long. The last fifty or so, being made up of a drive motor that spewed an electric blue flame. It didn’t take too much imagination to see how the box shaped drop ships around the entrance had fitted into the mid-section of the mother ship, while the winged flyers had been attached to the tapered front end. The small band stood stunned at the scene before them. None had ever seen or heard of a vehicle that could fly. It was an ancient concept that had ended hundreds of years before, when the air had become too polluted to breathe. The carbon in the air clogged the intakes and the high methane content turned any kind of combustion engine into a bomb. Repulsion motors attached to most vehicles was the closest they had seen to flight. Turning slowly, Aaron faced their tormenter. He had resumed the familiar slack limbed stance from their first encounter. again the head was cocked as if asking him what was next. Their options had run out. “So what happens now?” He knew the answer, there wasn’t any hope left. <I thought we might converse for period that remains. It has been many lifetimes since I last spoke with an unpaired human, or machine for that matter.> “Have you chosen the donors?” <Of course, but it is singular not plural. I see by your brain pattern, that you are perplexed. So let us analyse the needs of the society from which I am bred. We have melded part of our consciousness with that of the machine. Such a joining has both advantages and disadvantages. Our ability’s in logic are without comparison and physical enhancements make the assault units unmatched. What we lack, for all our logic, is the imagination. Too much control stifles creativity. Without a steady influx of new concepts, we would stagnate. Without adding to the genetic reserves, we would be unable to have sufficient variety to make us a viable population.> Understanding hit with almost a physical force. Their city had been destroyed so that JW16 and his ilk could steal the ideas of his people, and rip the genetic material from those that were deemed suitable as donors. They were harvesting a crop. They would let some of the population escape, as had those from the City Before, and the survivors would begin a new city. In a few centuries, when the population had grown to a level where the thinkers were again coming up with original concepts, that city would also be harvested. “Why did you choose me?” <Come now Field Technician. Look at those around you. Would you have that I select the incompetent Corporal, who is nothing but a useless child, with fantasies of leadership? One failure and he collapses into nothingness. Or perhaps you would prefer one of the three troopers? If you were to find a way to safety, they would turn on you like a pack of ravenous wolves. Make no mistake technician; my society has use for people who kill without compunction or moral quandary, but those men would do it from spite and cowardice. They lack the commitment of either the moral believer or the blood thirsty psychopath.> Out in the dessert, JW16 seemed to sigh. His head swivelled, as if to drink in one last look at the world around him. <I have been recalled, and as enjoyable as this interaction has been, the time has come for it to end.> Even as death began to move towards them with the same tireless leonine grace, Aaron screamed the order to open fire. Pulling the rifle to his shoulder, he started pulling the trigger in controlled bursts. Around him the rattle of gun fire sounded as the dessert erupted around the dark form that leapt towards them. Again the lithe form began its pirouetting ballet that made it dance in his sight. This time the target acquisition was left unjammed, but still he couldn’t quite lock on to the wild gyrations that brought JW16 ever closer. Every time he pulled the trigger, his target managed to move marginally out of the path. Again he was struck at how the agile figure seemed to know exactly where he was aiming. It was like trying to hit a puff of smoke or a ghost. Alongside him, Kevin fumbled for a fresh mag, as he too ran dry. Ramming in the new load, Aaron again pulled the rifle up. Jw16 was less than 10 metres away. With a speed that made him feel as his own body was moving in slow motion, the black suit smashed into him. A pair of blows hit the impact armour on his chest, slamming him backwards until the ground caught his airborne body, sending him into an uncontrolled tumble. Even as Aaron shakily staggered to his feet, he saw Kevin likewise hitting the ground several meters away. The troopers didn’t fare so well. JW16 reached the first and thrust out his hand in a spear like motion at the first one’s torso. The composite armour gave way with the sound of crunching plastic that was almost drowned out by the agonised shrieking of the impaled man. Without a pause, he threw the flailing body at the remaining pair, taking them down in a tangle of limbs. Instantly he was above them, punching down with both fists simultaneously. Both of the soldiers face plates gave way with almost no resistance, and the two bodies were still. Jw16 stood up, flicking the gore from his hands as he did so, and turned to face the remaining pair. Even at full opaque, Aaron could sense the manic grin under the face plate. Kevin’s rifle had skittered away when he’d dropped it while Aaron was left with only the stock and the handle, the fore part of the now useless weapon having been snapped off from JW16’s initial impact. They were now both unarmed. He was coming at them again. Kevin made a frantic, diving scrabble for the rifle, but even as he moved, he knew it was too far and he was too slow. He didn’t even see the blow coming, although he felt it none the less. The contemptuous slap against the side of his helmet had the extraordinary power to halt and reverse his headlong flight, spinning his body around as he rebounded off to land winded and dazed on his back. Rolling onto his side, he could see JW16 closing on the Technician. Aaron swung a short and brutal right, which if it had connected, would have ended any brawl with a normal man. Instead, his opponent angled his head to the side as the vicious fist sailed harmlessly past, launching counter strikes to the technician’s body. The trip hammer jolts were so close together as to sound like one. Again the force used in the blows was too much, as Aarons body was launched backwards from the impact. Rising more slowly this time, breath panting loudly through the speakers in his helmet, Kevin could see the technician had been badly hurt. On both sides of his body, where the strikes had landed, the armour had the crumpled look of used tinfoil. He could only imagine the extent of the damage to the ribcage that lay underneath the shattered carapace. Once more JW16 moved forward, dodging an ineffective jab. Launching his knee into the already damaged ribs, Aaron was bodily lifted into the air as JW16’s elbow crashed into his exposed back between the shoulders. Again the crunching sound of armour as the body slammed into the dirt. Aaron pushed feebly against the ground in a vain attempt to rise. His legs dragged uselessly behind him, as the crushed spine blocked all signals from the frantic brain. JW16 stooped over the broken body below him while pulling a small silver tube from one of the pouches on his back. Attaching it to the technicians shoulder, he pushed aside the Aaron’s weak attempt at resistance. After a few moments he rose, detaching the tube as he stood. When he spoke, there was an almost palpable sadness in the previously emotionless voice. <I thank you Field Technician. And although this current body of yours is in a terminal state, you shall live on indefinitely.> Turning to Kevin, the sadness evaporated. <Boy, yours is the worst kind of weakness. No, I shall not sully my hands with the taking of your pointless excuse for a life. You have two options. Either go to what is left of your city, the eradication force does not have the same disgust as I have for your sort and they will kill you, or remain in this Top Side that you fear so much and slowly die of hunger and thirst. The choice that I have given you is the only entertainment I shall permit myself at your demise. But until then you will care for this man until his last moments.> Spinning on his heel, their executioner strode away in the direction of the burning city. As the figure slowly faded into the distance, Kevin slowly rose and went to his fallen friend. But even without the diagnostics program, he could tell that JW16 hadn’t lied. Aaron had bare moments left. “Don’t stress yourself over words Kevin, because you are more than he understands. You will be more. The survivors need to know exactly what they will face, and I need you to take my data recorder with you to tell them what happened. They will need your help to build a new city, and someone to lead them. You understand what it means to fail and still win.” For long moments he kneeled over the Aarons still form, the technician’s last words echoed in his ears, even if understanding would take years. Would he head for the city? It was the easy way out, to head back into the waste land was another effort in futility. Find the survivors and help them build a new city. Aaron was surely crazy to expect so much of him. Maybe the nearness of death had made him desperate enough to clutch at straws. A short straw. It was a dumb saying. Picking up his rifle, Kevin turned his back on the easy and headed into the wilderness.