Martin L. Shoemaker is a two-time Writers of the Future finalist. He has sold a pair of stories to Analog,
as well as to Digital Science Fiction 2 and 4, The Gruff Variations, and The Glass Parachute.
He has also written a book and a comic strip on software design.

Martin L. Shoemaker

My platoon marched through the red jungle, each of us a walking death machine in the best powered armor the Stronghold’s engineers could design. Rifles, missiles, armor, scanners, even a recycling life-support system: a suit had the firepower of a small army by twentieth-century standards, and yet the mobility of a single soldier on foot. But deadlier than all that hardware was the trained warrior inside it, each of us an expert at spreading death and destruction across dozens of planets in our war with the League. With the neural controls in the suits, we only had to think at a target, and a barrage of destruction would rain down upon it.

But the League had plenty of firepower of their own. A whistle came over the suit’s audio, loud enough that I could hear it through the helmet, too. The suit sounded the missile alert, but too late: a bright light flared ahead, much too close, and the ground heaved. Even with the suit gyros, I lost my footing when the shock wave hit. I was still falling when the heat wall from the explosion arrived. My rad alarms didn’t go off, small blessing there: at least it hadn’t been a nuclear strike. But the heat was still scorching. If I hadn’t been in an armored suit, I would’ve been flashed to ash. Even through the suit, I took nasty burns.

Then the shock wave drove me back into the rock wall. The stabilizers and cushions did everything they could, but my head still snapped back in an instant of agony that shot from my neck and through my torso—before suddenly I felt nothing at all. The last sight I saw was my fellow soldiers similarly tossed and toasted. Then all went black.


When I woke, the suit was walking back through the jungle to our pickup point. When I had lost consciousness, it had switched into Corpsman Mode: analyzing my injuries, applying medicines, immobilizing broken bones, and then walking me back to medical aid. A suit didn’t have the brains to fight and react, but it could follow simple programmed commands and adapt to the environment. In Corpsman Mode, the suit was in charge, and I was just along for the ride.

I couldn’t guess how long the suit had been in Corpsman Mode, but those red-gray trees looked like something we had walked though almost three hours before the League’s missile had shattered our platoon. Suits tended to go slow in CMM so as not to make injuries any worse, so it might have been walking four hours or more.

I peered ahead through the red brush of EJC49-3. (Yeah, my team had bought it for a shitty rock so remote, top brass hadn’t even bothered naming it.) It made no sense, but sense wasn’t part of my job. The League was on this rock, the Stronghold wanted them off, and my job was to kick them off or die trying. And “die trying” was looking pretty likely.

I caught movement in the distance. I thought hard about quadrant three, and the suit’s neural scanners picked up my intention. The display zoomed in on three. There, I could see it: four more suits, Stronghold colors like mine. Those were making better time than I was. That could mean the soldiers in them were still in control; but from the metronomic way in which they moved, I was sure it was because they had shifted from CMM to PBM: Pallbearer Mode. They no longer had to keep their wearers alive, so they could move to pickup at best speed.

Who else was still out here? I turned the suit around to check—only I didn’t. I thought I moved legs and arms, and so the suit should match my moves. Neural control is all about tricking your brain, taking the parts that evolved for tasks like lifting things or focusing on one conversation in a crowded room, and training them to do the same work on simulated inputs with neural pickups to translate the outputs. Most soldiers could do basic neural control, enough to run a suit while blasting everything in sight in collaboration with your team; but a few of us got pretty good at it. I had a bit of a knack for neural control, which had recently earned me a promotion to Armor Officer.

So I was accustomed to a very natural control of the suit; and so I was completely surprised when nothing happened. The suit was overriding my neural control, which was common in CMM: you didn’t want a delirious soldier driving a suit to injure him further after all. I would have to try harder, really move my legs, and then maybe the force feedback system would kick in and I would regain control. Force feedback lets you do with muscles what you might not be able to do with your brain.

So I really stopped my legs … and they didn’t stop. I struggled. I tried to look down at my legs, and … Nothing. I didn’t feel a twitch, not even a twinge from where my neck had … had … I didn’t feel anything below my neck.

This time I didn’t black out from injury; I just … collapsed, my vision going gray as if I slid backward into a long tunnel. Soon all I saw was gray, until that faded to black.


When I woke again, the suit was still walking; and I was still inside, just a hundred kilos of meat for the suit to transport. That’s all I might be for the rest of my life. I would be in this suit or a civilian suit until the doctors determined whether I was part of that lucky twenty percent for whom neural regeneration was successful. And I had stopped believing in luck when the missile had exploded.

Despair swept over me like a wave, and I saw myself drowning in it. Again I slid into the gray tunnel, and again the black took me.


When my eyes fluttered open again, I muttered, “Stop it, Alex. Take charge.” I needed to vomit, but the suit’s meds suppressed and dismissed that urge almost before I felt it.

Yes, stop it. Once upon a time, the odds of neural regeneration were zero. Now I had a twenty percent chance at full recovery, almost sixty percent for a meaningful partial recovery. Once a person so paralyzed was doomed to a bed, unable to even sit in a chair unless strapped in. Now I could wear one of the new civvy suits. Those weren’t powerful war machines like ours, but rather sleek, form-fitting models that would let me walk, run, climb, dance, diaper a baby …

… everything but feel. I would never feel Lena’s skin under my fingers again. Never …

I was falling into darkness again. My odds were positive, but I just didn’t believe them. I was doomed to life in a suit, except when Lena would have to take me out of the suit to bathe me and wipe my ass. And she would do that, too, but I couldn’t put her through that.

“Suit. Stop.” If the suit wasn’t responding to neural commands, I would revert to voice. I would stop and find something, some way to finish what the League had started.

But the suit had other ideas. Its synthesized voice, calm and neutral, spoke in my audio pickups. “Unit EIA-5372961 is unable to comply. SPC Fitzsimmons, Alexander is classified disabled and unable to perform his duties or serve in a decision-making role. This unit has switched to Corpsman Mode until reset by the Armor Officer.”

I would’ve shouted, but I couldn’t find the breath. “I am the Armor Officer, you fucking moron! I order you to Reset.”

“SPC Fitzsimmons, Alexander is classified disabled and unable to serve as Armor Officer. This unit must report to the new Senior Armor Officer at the recovery vessel.”

Fine, that would be good enough. “Who’s the new Senior Armor Officer? Sullivan?” Sully would understand. She would let me … well, do what I had to do.

But the bad news just kept coming. “This unit has no data on who is the new Armor Officer. Contact with the recovery vessel Duke Phillips, SV-12703J, has been broken. A channel is available, but no one is responding.”

Oh … Fuck … If the League had hit the Duke as well … Well, that would take care of my problem eventually. Stuck on a League-controlled rock with no pickup was as good as dead, just a question of when. But the suit could make that take a long time. In Corpsman Mode, it could feed me (recycling my own wastes and scavenging from local vegetation), medicate me, and provide artificial respiration for weeks. Four other platoons had dropped here, but I didn’t know where their recovery ships were, nor if they were even still planetside. Unless the League found me and finished their work, I could be stuck in this tin cage until the batteries ran out.

No. There had to be a way. “Suit, open the channel to the recovery ship.”

The suit paused, running through its decision cloud. I was on the disabled list, but opening a channel had no risks, right? But if the suit saw it as a security risk, it might override me.

After the pause, the suit said, “Channel open.” And then I heard crackling sounds on the audio.

I called to the ship. “SV-12703J, this is SPC-73732. Respond if you’re able.” I used only Code Tags, just in case the League was listening. Operational Security had been drilled into me for too many years, and I wasn’t going to break it now.

I heard moaning, nothing coherent. Then I heard Sullivan’s slurred voice. “73732 … Fitz … That you?”

Sullivan sounded awful, in pain. I checked my comp for her tag. “Confirmed SAO-73129, this is 73732. What’s your status?” I had planned to work my way around to my … situation. But now it sounded like Sully might be worse off than me. It wasn’t like her to break OpSec.

She took a long time answering. “I been hit, Fitz. League cruiser happened by … blew off our cover. Pilot got ’em, but … We drew fire, three squads in suits plus some EMP beamer. Cap flamed the suits, and took the survivors with a scattergun. But they beat up the hull, took some hits. Lost most of the team here. Cap put me in a med cabinet. Then EMP beamer … did something to neural control circuits. Fried pilot’s brain, Cap’s too. I took the inducer off in time, but … I’m hurt, and I can’t get outa this cabinet … Can’t get to the controls.”

So the Duke had been hit, and Sullivan might be the only survivor. Her neural inducer might have let her control the Duke. It was the same technology you use to control a suit, letting you map your natural neural impulses to the signals of the hardware. Without the inducer, Sully was as much a prisoner of the hardware as I was. She was desperately waiting for help, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t even help myself. That I was just waiting for a chance to off myself. I would’ve laughed, if I’d been in the mood for funny. Here I was, a brain trapped in a suit walking on its own mission; and there she was, trapped in a treatment cabinet with only her head free. Weren’t we a pair?

I didn’t laugh, but I could’ve cried when Sully got on the line again. “Fitz? You’re comin’ for me, right? You can get me outa here …” She sounded weaker and more desperate.

I stalled. “I’m no pilot, 73129.”

“Easy … Like wearin’ … suit, only think bigger. You can do it …”

“We’ll see.” I closed the line. I didn’t want to lie to Sully. It looked like her number was up right along with mine. With Cap and the pilot gone, no one seemed to be in charge. Shit, I might be the most senior officer still functional. Except the suit I wore didn’t think I counted as functional.

Wait! The suit didn’t think so, but maybe the Duke hadn’t gotten the message. I changed to the command circuit. “Command Unit SV-C-12703J, this is SPC-73732.” I had to phrase this carefully. If I reached too far, the Command Unit would reject it as a cyber-attack. It might even counter attack, possibly disabling the suit I wore. That would finish me, but only when I died of thirst. I had to be vague and let the ship fill in its own details. “I am reporting for duty, and I claim all command powers and duties appropriate to my current status in the command structure.”

The Command Unit was much smarter and faster than a suit computer, of course. Even though my phrasing had been tricky, the Command Unit didn’t pause at all. “Understood. All routine command decisions have been delegated to Command Unit until relieved by proper authorities. Contingent decisions to be handled by best judgment in consultation with human officers as available.” Great. This entire mission was now on auto-pilot, and the auto-pilot would decide when to consult me.

Then the Command Unit added: “SPC-73732 is duly promoted to Senior Armor Officer and is given full authority to direct CMM and PBM operations.”

Great! That was all I really needed. Now the suit would have to listen to me. “Suit, this is Senior Armor Officer Fitzsimmons, Alexander. I order you to stop.”

But the suit’s decision cloud reached a different conclusion than the Command Unit had. “Negative. Senior Armor Officer Fitzsimmons, Alexander is classified disabled and unable to serve as Senior Armor Officer.”

We were at an impasse: the suit had registered my field promotion, but it still refused to recognize my authority. As the suit marched along the path to the Duke, it at least gave me something to distract me from my black thoughts: I was pissed!


I tried every override code I knew. I tried logic and reason. I tried screaming, but that only earned me a quick jolt of tranquilizer. Eventually I decided the suit was defective, its decision cloud damaged, and it had locked into core protocols. It had made up its “mind,” and nothing I could do would change it.

But while my head swam from the tranquilizer, a wild idea struck me: this suit saw me as disabled, but maybe the other suits would see me as Senior Armor Officer. I’d received the field promotion, the suit knew it, so the news was out on TacNet. Maybe I could make the other suits do what I couldn’t.

When my head cleared, I revisited the idea. What did I have to lose? Then I laughed. Everything. That was what I wanted, to lose everything. But I couldn’t see any obvious flaws in the plan, so I got on TacNet and called up the suit command channel. “All suits, this is Senior Armor Officer Fitzsimmons, Alexander. Pause program.” I checked the heads-up display; and I was glad that our comm systems were mostly on neural control, so I could change the display with a thought. I switched it to tactical map mode, and I watched as the green dots all slowed to a stop. The tally showed twenty-eight suits: twenty-seven PBM, one CMM. The other fourteen suits tallied as not responding.

My whole platoon gone! Over half could be recovered so their families would have something to bury, but only if the Duke somehow survived.

What to do now? I could single out one suit and bring it to me; but one might not do the job. A suit is pretty tough against another suit. I might need four or five to finish me off right. Controlling that many individual suits could take a lot of effort and time, so I took the easy way out. “All suits, accept new rendezvous coordinates as follows.” I took my own coordinates from the suit’s comp, projected forward from my rate of travel, and sent the result. “All suits, resume program.” And the green dots started converging on my course. When they reached me, I could isolate the few I needed, and then reset the rendezvous coordinates back to the Duke. It would delay pickup; but my belief in pickup was dropping to the same level as my belief in my own chances: damn near zero.

Damn the suit! It was supposed to serve me. Now I was its prisoner. It was marching to the Duke, and I would have to stop it. I would use other suits to arrest it, and then finish me. So to warm up, I practiced neural control. We had drilled this plenty of times, but not under circumstances like this: a damaged body in a damaged suit on a hostile planet. So a little practice was called for.

I thought back on my training: neural control is all about tricking your brain … Complex selection and virtual control loops were too much for eighty percent of the troops: they could manage the suit they were in, but not hop to other suits. But I was ranked higher than that eighty percent. What had qualified me for Armor Officer were my high aptitude scores in virtual control. So it wasn’t hard for me to “reach” out and “feel” another suit. I “pushed,” and my brain was in the suit.

Identifying information flashed before my eyes: EIA-5372967, PFC Gutierrez, Estefan. A queasy feeling came over me: Goody was one of my best friends in the platoon. I checked his post mortem: Internal injuries, critical overheating. Goody had been fifty meters closer to the explosion than me. His brain had … boiled …

I shoved that thought away. I had work to do. I “blinked my eyes”—not physically, but mentally, the neural signal for changing my point of view. When I “opened” them, I was “looking” through Goody’s suit cam. The neural control circuits fed the camera image straight to my visual cortex, and my brain interpreted it as if the camera were my eyes.

I lifted my arm—and nothing. The suit arm didn’t move. I felt a twinge of pain from my neck through my arm, but that was impossible. My spine was severed, I couldn’t actually feel anything. That was phantom pain, I knew that. But it didn’t explain why neural control wouldn’t work. And it made me pull back in shock if I even tried. Phantom or not, that pain was a bitch!

As the suits marched, I reviewed our neural control drills. I remembered Neurologist Hill’s standard spiel: “You don’t coopt six million years of evolution by pretending, unless you’re really good at it. Then pretending is the way to go. You have to make yourself believe: you are in that suit, or you are that spacecraft or that microprobe or whatever you’re controlling. When you believe that, your brain will know how to control it.”

And there was my problem: I had stopped believing. Oh, part of me believed I was in EIA-5372967 with Goody; but a much bigger part of me believed my arm couldn’t move, it was never going to move again, and so I had no business trying to move it. The phantom pain was my brain, screaming at me: Stay away! Don’t look! This is too ugly to bear! I’d rather be dead!

Yes, for entirely rational reasons, I’d rather be dead; but that made it impossible for me to believe that I could move Goody’s arm no matter how many times I had drilled situations like this.

How do you do the impossible? How do you believe you can do the impossible? That one was easy, the most important lesson from boot camp: you try, you fail, you get hurt, you keep trying through the pain … and one day you see that you’ve made impossible progress. After that it gets easier, because your belief shifts.

So I tried lifting Goody’s arm again. This time when the pain struck, instead of shying away, I pushed into it. And I studied it: it was like a persistent jolt of lightning, radiating from the right rear base of my skull, down my neck, and through my arm, making the whole arm spasm.

But no, my arm was still. Goody’s arm was still. The spasm was all in my mind.

There was no spasm. I believed: there was no spasm.

And the pain slowly withdrew, creeping back up my arm and into my shoulder. Soon there really was no spasm, phantom or otherwise. Because there was no pain.

The pain withdrew from my shoulder, up my neck, and back to its origin: a throbbing little dynamo of pain right where my neck had snapped.

There is no pain. The suit has medicated that. There is only the memory of pain. Don’t believe the pain.

Just like that, the pain was gone. It had never been. The original accident was real, I couldn’t deny that; but the pain since then had all been a belief system and a coping mechanism, a way to avoid facing my condition.

And there before my “eyes” was a right hand, raised, fingers flexing, wrist twisting as I thought it should.

No, wait … In that double vision you sometimes get during neural control, I saw two arms moving: one through Goody’s suit cam, and one through my own eyes. When I realized that, it momentarily shook me out of neural control and back into the suit. Sure enough, there was my own arm before me, flexing and moving any way I wanted.

I had control of the suit. The damaged element … had been me! I had stopped believing, and I had lost control of the suit. Now I had it back.

I stopped; and I stopped. I turned, and I turned. I jumped, and … Well, I had full control of the suit. I didn’t need Goody and the rest now. I could do what I needed to do all by myself.

Except I no longer needed to do it. I no longer believed there was no hope for me. It was slim, maybe, but there was still hope. I might die here on this rock, but I wouldn’t give up here!

That was when Goody’s suit arrived. Other suits followed close behind, occupying a small clearing in the red brush. I checked the status displays: Kaine, Andersen, Nelson, Frankel … All my closest brothers and sisters just a day ago. Now all corpse passengers in suits that had chilled internally to preserve their remains for burial. I couldn’t stop myself, I checked the causes of death. Most were from lethal overheating. Those were the troops who had been closer to the blast, like Goody. A few suits had developed impact cracks, letting in the noxious atmosphere of EJC49-3. Those remains wouldn’t preserve very well. Some had impact injuries like my own, but more severe. Some of those would have to be … hosed … out of their suits. One privilege of being Senior Armor Officer is I could delegate that duty to a junior—except that all my juniors were now corpses standing silently, awaiting my instructions.

What would I do? If I wasn’t going to give up, what would I do? It would depend on my resources … which right now amounted to twenty-eight suits with their occupants and maybe the Duke back at the rendezvous point. So I might as well keep drilling to make sure I was ready for whatever came next.

I walked Goody’s suit up to me, averting my eyes from his visor. I couldn’t bear to look at what I briefly glimpsed there: the boiled, bloated thing that had once been my best friend’s face. Just a glance at the swollen flesh, eyes squeezed shut, had made my head swim.

But I had to look at his suit to run double-drills: switching back and forth between the suit I wore and Goody’s suit, slowly at first but getting faster. Soon I had the two suits playing patty cake. That sounds complicated; but with practice, it’s not too bad. You learn to give a suit an instruction that will take some time; and then in the time while it’s carrying out the instruction, you swap your brain to the other suit and give it an instruction as well. As long as you can swap quickly—which is the whole point of the drill—you can keep both suits on task. The instructors spoke in terms of time slices, the smallest fraction of time you could devote to a task. Or maybe the smallest chunk of time you could notice and react. It runs about a sixth of a second or so, faster with practice and good genes. Mine was around point-one-four seconds, point-one-three on a good day.

Point-one-four is plenty fast enough to play catch. I started tossing a rock to Goody’s suit and back. Then I did triple-drills, adding Kaine’s suit to the game. Then I added Andersen’s suit, thinking in shorter and shorter time slices as I added suits. When I added Frankel’s to the mix, I started to sweat. I had seen Sully drill with seven suits once, but that woman was a freak of nature. Five was all I could manage, and I started dropping the rock.

I switched to Drone Drills. I picked four suits and then slaved other suits to those: I would give instructions to those four, and the rest of the suits would imitate them. I started marching in ranks. Then I split the squads into separate files and drove the files through each other, using time slices as needed to keep the squads separated. A few suits were in worse shape than others, so I moved the damaged suits to the rear and gave them extra autonomy to override mimicry if they saw a possible collision. They shambled a bit, but we kept in line.

So I had a command, of a sort. Now I needed a mission objective. I lined the suits up in ranks, and we started marching toward the Duke.


Then a call from Sully added new urgency to our mission. “Fitz, buddy … Hope you’re double-timin’ … Saw … scout ship fly over. Command Unit reports two … squads incoming. CU’s locked onto them, but …”

A Command Unit is pretty good, but a couple well-trained squads can usually outwit one just because they have more brains to throw at it. Plus soldiers have better mobility and can attack from more directions. A Command Unit is supposed to support a human defense force, not stand on its own.

I answered, “Sit tight. SAO Fitzsimmons and His Wind-Up Band are on the way!” And we started marching in double-time.

As we ran, there was one crucial thing I had to test. Normally in CMM or PBM a suit’s weapons are locked down to conserve energy and to avoid accidental discharge and injury. Well, these troops didn’t have to worry about injuries. So I tried my newly-minted SAO codes, and … Bingo! Twenty-eight red blips indicated that all weapons systems were armed and ready.

So it was with guns blazing that we came over the rim of the valley in which the pilot had concealed the Duke. I had a tactical map from the Command Unit: below us were two squads of League troops, slowly advancing on the ship. Each squad took turns firing chaff rounds to cloud the ship’s sensors while the other squad advanced under cover and dug into its next defensive position. The ship’s point defense guns fired random cover bursts into the chaff, and had taken out four Leaguers; but that wouldn’t be enough to stop them before they reached the ship. The Duke’s hull would stand up against their small arms at a distance; but up close they could break in for sure.

When we came down upon the Leaguers, I spread out my troops so the chaff rounds would be useless. They might block one set of eyes, maybe two or three; but I was time-slicing through twenty-eight cameras plus the Duke’s, so I had the ultimate tactical view.

The Leaguers switched to slugs once they knew they had attackers to their rear. The crossfire was ferocious, shots ringing off from every rock and outcropping. And I heard that through twenty-eight audio pickups, too. That was disorienting for a moment, but I quickly adjusted. As the bullets flew, I expected to lose some control. Stress was supposed to inhibit neural control, or so all the textbooks say. That’s why we drilled so hard. But instead I was amazed to find that controlling the suits was getting easier. Having twenty-eight different perspectives on the battle was strangely calming. I had a better understanding of the ebb and flow, and I knew where my attention was needed and where it could be spared. As I relaxed, I grew more ambitious, taking shorter and shorter time slices. Point- one-two seconds. Point-one-one. Point-one! Unheard of! Soon I found my mind expanding: six suits, seven … ten … a dozen. I lost count after that. I even lost track of which suit was the suit I wore. Being unable to feel my body had freed me from the confinement of one body, one suit. In my head, I wore all of them, all at once.

The shots were everywhere, and the Leaguers were no pushovers. I had numbers on them; but just as with the Duke, they had more brains to throw at the problem and could probably outthink me. On the other hand, I had mobility; and I still had the Duke’s defenses on my side, too. Plus my one brain was more coordinated than their dozen. They had to shout orders and plans, while I just had to think. The advantages just about balanced out.

But we had one more advantage they didn’t have: we weren’t afraid to die, most of us having done that already. When Goody took a round to his power plant, a living soldier would’ve shut it down, shucked it off, and gotten the hell away from it before it could overload. Instead I ran Goody straight into their second squad just as the pack exploded, slicing the Leaguers open with high-velocity shards of shrapnel and cooking them alive with white-hot plasma.

In one spare time slice, I felt pretty bad about that. Gutierrez was one of my best buddies in the service, and I would’ve liked to bring his body back to his family. I wasn’t looking forward to explaining how his posthumous medals were really posthumous.

But his sacrifice was exactly what we needed. With one squad of Leaguers down, the rest of us set upon their first squad. We pinned them in the point defense zone of the Duke; and with fire from all directions, we made short work of them.

The Duke’s troop hatch opened up, and we boarded. I didn’t bother with formation. Formations are for coordinating a bunch of individuals, and we moved with one mind. We all just leapt aboard, the other suits carrying their precious cargo back to loved ones who didn’t yet know they were grieving.

I sent Kaine to check on Sully in her treatment cabinet. It looked like she would be all right if she got surgical care soon. Meanwhile I explored the Duke’s systems. It took three whole time slices—a whole third of a second!—to find my way through the Duke’s Command Unit and into the piloting system. But once I was in, another slice was all it took to find my way around and realize that I could “wear” this ship just like a suit.

So I called out, “Hang on, Sully!” Not that she could move in the cabinet, but I wanted her to know we were getting out.

Twenty-seven suits sat. Twenty-seven pairs of arms gripped the launch braces as I took a time slice to push with my mind. And the engines flared up and heaved the Duke free from EJC49-3. I saw incoming anti-aircraft missiles, so I loosed a couple chaser rockets and pushed us out of there as fast as we could go.

I would be all right. Even if this was the best I could look forward to, I had found … power that I had never imagined. I would learn to live with that.

I turned the Duke in a barrel roll, just because I could.

Original (First) Publication
Copyright © 2014 by Martin L. Shoemaker


by Joe Haldeman

Winner Hugo Award
Winner Nebula Award

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