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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
would’ve shouted, but I couldn’t find the breath. “I am the Armor Officer, you fucking moron! I order you to Reset.”
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
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.
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
… 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.
There had to be a way. “Suit, open the channel to the recovery ship.”
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.
the pause, the suit said, “Channel open.” And then I heard crackling sounds on
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.
heard moaning, nothing coherent. Then I heard Sullivan’s slurred voice. “73732
… Fitz … That you?”
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.
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.”
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?
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
stalled. “I’m no pilot, 73129.”
… Like wearin’ … suit, only think bigger. You can do it …”
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.
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.”
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
the Command Unit added: “SPC-73732 is duly promoted to Senior Armor Officer and
is given full authority to direct CMM and PBM operations.”
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.”
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.”
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!
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.
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
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.
whole platoon gone! Over half could be recovered so their families would have
something to bury, but only if the Duke
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
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.
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 …
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.
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!
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
no, my arm was still. Goody’s arm was
still. The spasm was all in my mind.
was no spasm. I believed: there was no
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.
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
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.
there before my “eyes” was a right hand, raised, fingers flexing, wrist
twisting as I thought it should.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …”
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.
answered, “Sit tight. SAO Fitzsimmons and His Wind-Up Band are on the way!” And
we started marching in double-time.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I called out, “Hang on, Sully!” Not that she could move in the cabinet, but I
wanted her to know we were getting out.
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.
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.
turned the Duke in a barrel roll,
just because I could.