By James Lipson
WORKERS NEEDED: Full-time, off-world positions. Medical, dental, vision and full limb replacement benefits. Experience preferred, military training a bonus. Contact – The Array.
That was the holo-ad running every 45 decks in the capital city of Kraan for the last three cycles. Blaen had seen the ad dozens of times, but he read it without processing, blending it in with the push for limb enhancements, alien brothels and off-world law mediators.
The semi-exposed bar he was trying to drown his rising depression in was directly across the street from a building-sized holo advert. An immersive tropical vacation ad emitted enough ambient glow to light four city streets.
Blaen ordered another glass of alapetha-infused Grulsh. The advert changed from the off-world vacation to the help wanted holo. Giant red letters lit up the night sky – WORKERS NEEDED.
Accompanying visuals of exotic planets floated directly in front of him. This time, it registered.
There was no information regarding the job other than the contact information embedded in the holo. What was there to lose? With the farm facing closure and his family again growing by one, did it really matter what the work was? Downing the remainder of his drink, Blaen captured the advert’s code on his implant, instantly bringing up the location of The Array’s office. Luckily, it was just a few blocks away; he wouldn’t have to waste a single note on a shuttle ride.
One block from the main transport path through downtown, the landscape changed dramatically. Gone were the crisp buildings, blinking and sparkling reflections of an up-and-coming downtown metropolis. Though the area was still clean and tidy, it lacked the “just-polished” feel of the main strip that the state-paid-for bots provided.
Blaen’s implant showed the fastest path to his destination; he memorized it and switched over to find out anything he could on The Array. The building arrived faster than he would have liked, as the only thing he had ascertained about The Array was its name. Other than that, it didn’t seem to exist.
Still within the downtown region, the address he stopped in front of was a neoclassical tranium-and-thermoglass structure typical of industrial buildings. The only marker on the building was the zone and number: TR19/201518. There were no other signs or indications that someone conducted business here.
Checking the holo screen for the tenants of the building, he found the number from the advert and waited a moment to convince himself – once again – that taking a security job was the last and only solution he had available. He entered the number for The Array.
“What do you want?”
“I’m responding to your holo-ad,” Blaen replied.
Unsure if he had been heard or disconnected, Blaen started to reply again before he was cut off by the calming voice of the building’s AI.
“Blaen Dresden, 32, PR15/2052119, retired military, repeat action in the Crebarian and Xeonal conflicts.”
In addition to his name, age and address, a projection of his farm, in stunning three-dimensional detail, hovered in front of him as the voice dispassionately summed up his life.
He was given no time to process this, however, as the door lock was released, and he was asked to proceed to the lobby drone-lift. Any company that could gather that kind of intelligence on him in such a short time unfurled the first red flag. But the thought of going home without the prospect of a job quickly quashed his lingering doubts, and Blaen walked through the dissipated energy static of the door.
Like all expensive lobbies, this one was clean and sparse, decorated in minimalist colors and simple exotic wood furniture. It was nothing special at first glance, until you looked closer. Not only was the furniture made of organic wood, the plants weren’t projections, either. They were real.
A faint odor of cleaning solution from the bots permeated the lobby. The live flora was kept in stasis fields atop floating rocks that gently hummed; the plants created an ambient noise close to tonal zero. (You could only hear them when you weren’t trying.)
Momentarily questioning his decision, Blaen thought of his wife home alone, taking care of the farm, three kids with another on the way, and what was left of the livestock. I’ve no choice, he thought. It’s either this or we lose the farm and move back to Bruuton to live with the in-laws, again. Get on with it, Blaen ordered himself.
The lift was open, patiently waiting for him to enter. In the time it took to walk the two steps to the center of the lift and turn around, he had arrived at the 33rd floor. With absolutely no sensation of movement or distance traveled, Blaen tried to understand why it felt so different than an ordinary lift or mover. He didn’t feel any nausea! That was it. The lift dampened all concept of movement independent of speed or direction.
Whoever placed that ad was becoming more and more intriguing. Why would a company that could obviously afford such high-end features run an advert in the TR zone?
Time did not allow Blaen any further reflection. The lift door faded away, revealing a small room with a desk. It seemed that the only entrance (and exit) was the lift he was standing in. The office was nearly twice as wide as it was deep, the only furniture a single desk with a man seated behind it. No decorations adorned any part of the room. This was utilitarian craftsmanship at its finest.
The desk was simple and industrial-looking, four legs and an unimpressive slate-gray top. Seated behind it was a striking middle-aged man, wearing a meticulously tailored black-and-gray suit but looking awkward in it.
Two minutes passed and still the man didn’t look up. If he didn’t know better, Blaen would have thought the man was staring blankly at his desk, ignoring him. This desk, though appearing static, was anything but; the entire slate top was a Quantum Artificial Intelligence System, normally referred to as a Case desk.
Recognizing this, Blaen stood still, waiting for the man to finish whatever concealed project he was working on. Without lifting his head or acknowledging Blaen’s presence, the man finally spoke: “Mr. Dresden. Most people who make it here feel the need to get my attention within a few decks. My name is Decanus Fliix.”
Fliix finally looked at Blaen before continuing, “Before we move forward, I have two questions.”
Blaen waited in silence. He recognized a military lifer when he saw one. Fliix typed a quick note into his desk before speaking again. “First question, Mr. Dresden: Are you willing to leave the planet for extended periods of time? Second, do you have a problem taking life?”
Blaen looked at Fliix a moment before answering, “Yes, and it depends.”
Fliix walked around his desk to formally greet Blaen with an old-fashioned handshake. “Mr. Dresden, please come with me.”
Without any noticeable action from Fliix, part of the right wall vanished to reveal an adjacent room with 32 individuals working at Case desks. It took Blaen a full 2.27 counts to realize what was wrong. He couldn’t hear anything coming from the room.
Blaen ran the numbers in his head on approximately how much this room cost to furnish. By the time he had a rough estimate, they had crossed the floor and arrived at the now-open far wall.
They both stepped into an office roughly the same size as the first, while the wall behind them solidified. Rising as they entered, a man in his mid-30s first greeted the well-dressed lifer silently.
Flixx offered the introduction expeditiously. “Mr. Dresden, this is Tribune Parsons; Tribune Parsons, Blaen Dresden.”
He turned and left through a standard – and well-marked – plasma door.
Parsons also extended his hand in greeting. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Dresden.”
His firm grip reaffirmed to Blaen that both men were, indeed, soldiers dressed as civilians. “Thank you, sir, a pleasure to meet you.”
“Mr. Dresden, I’ve been reviewing your records, and I must say I am modestly impressed. Normally, the TR advert attracts those with a dire need to either disappear quickly or make a large number of notes in a relatively short amount of time.
“Now, while you are a number of credits delinquent on your farm and have a growing debt ratio, you still have options,” Parsons noted as he made his way back to his chair.
“Please sit down, Mr. Dresden.” Parsons pointed toward the only other chair in the room. Blaen waited until Parsons was seated, then sat in the chair directly opposite his desk.
“I do find it odd, though, that you haven’t been recruited before, with your military background and experience.”
Waiting a few counts, Parsons added, “Why do you think that is?”
Responding without a hint of arrogance or guile, Blaen said, “Mr. Parsons, who says I haven’t?”
Parsons smiled. “Very well, Mr. Dresden.” He thought to himself he might have something here that was, impressively so, more than the datum had described. Fliix truly had an eye for talent.
Blaen and Parsons shared the unspoken language of those who have seen war from the inside. Parsons calmly locked eyes with Blaen, who revealed nothing more than a mildly interested gaze.
“Mr. Dresden, we are a privately held entity that specializes in assistance and discovery.”
Expecting more than a marketing slogan, Blaen wasn’t sure how to respond. Choosing to stay silent, he waited until the man finished his prepared speech.
“We are looking for individuals who can lead a team in and out of situations that call for responses, incursions and/or extractions. We are not part of the military, but we are sanctioned for lethal action, should it be required.”
“Of course,” Blaen offered succinctly.
“I understand that definition is broad, but at this point in the interview, this is all I can say with regard to the position.”
“I assume your holo-ad was not for the position we are currently speaking about?” Blaen asked, five questions ahead of average.
“You are correct, Mr. Dresden, it is not. Your detailed military background was reason enough that you were brought to me, and, obviously, we already know that anyone coming to us has no problem leaving this planet.”
Parsons didn’t detect any reaction from Blaen. He continued, “The second question, however, shows us your underlying character. Had you said either yes or no to that question, you never would have met me.”
The next few questions were no longer of importance, so Tribune Parsons skipped ahead.
“Mr. Dresden, we would like you to take an exhaustive aptitude test, to see where you qualify.”
“What entails exhaustive aptitude?” Blaen asked, fully processing the weight of Parsons’ question.
“Physical, mental and psych evals, three days.”
There was no further explanation offered, and the entirety of Blaen’s question had been answered. His decision was once again made before he had time to answer.
“Please scan this card, Mr. Dresden.” Floating 18 clips in front of his meticulously crafted tie-knot was a holo of Parsons’ contact information.
Capturing the information instantly, Blaen stored it in his directory.
“Done,” Blaen replied.
“Good. Please contact me tomorrow morning at 6:30 sunrise, and I will give you the address where the tests are to take place.”
As if no time had passed since his retirement from the military, Blaen responded crisply, “Yes, sir.”
Enduring the stench of broken men and used women, Blaen called his wife, Fiora, from the low-rent motel that probably looked depressed since the week after it was built. Through his implanted holo-phone he dialed, making sure to switch off the visual holo so she couldn’t see the deplorable conditions. After three rings, it automatically switched to messaging.
“Hey babe, it’s me. Sorry I forgot what time it is – you’re probably in the barn. Listen, I have a promising interview in the morning that should take most of the rise. I’ll buzz you when I’m done. Tell the kids I miss and love them. I kiss your forehead.” He disconnected.
She wouldn’t waste the credits calling him back for inconsequential pleasantries, so Blaen turned off his implant and poured a pre-sleep, much-welcomed drink.
Conditioned to rise before dawn, Blaen went for a run, showered and enjoyed a large breakfast before it was time to call Parsons. By 6:20 sunrise, he was ready to go. He switched his implant back to “Available.”
There was a single info-message waiting. “I kiss yours. Good luck.”
Blaen knew he was doing the right thing. She deserves so much more, he thought. Blaen directed his implant to call Parsons at exactly 6:30 sunrise. Half a ring in, Parsons answered, “Good morning, Mr. Dresden.”
“Good morning, sir,” Blaen said.
“I am sending you a carrier that will take you to a facility outside of town where the tests will take place. It will be there in three decks. Will you be ready?” Parsons asked.
“I am dressed and ready to go, sir.”
“Excellent, please go outside. They will pick you up in front of the Inn.”
Blaen wondered how they knew where he was staying. He never told them; he hadn’t told anyone, including his wife. Ignoring the cross traffic, a military-style carrier dropped from the sky directly in front of the Inn. Blaen had been in many different types of carriers before, but never one like this.
Outfitted for high-ranking officials, it was more opulent than any private vehicle he had ever seen. The outside gave nothing away. The cabin held no interest for him beyond noting the other passengers: seven men, three women and one Stray.
Not a word passed between them as he found his way toward the back. They all nodded or raised an eyebrow, except for the Stray. It offered no movement or recognition at all, socially stoic, as always.
The empty seat one row behind the Stray seemed like a nice place for Blaen to settle in for the ride. He noted that everyone on the carrier was likewise ex-military, or had an enforcement background.
Blaen recognized the branding on the Stray’s lower left arm. It was the insignia of the Strays’ equivalent of a Gray Matter Light Ship (GMLS) captain. He had never met a high-ranking Stray before, and as much as he wanted to now, he knew this was not the time.
Stray did not like to be approached. If they wanted to speak with someone, they would initiate. If they did not, there would be no interaction. This ranking Stray did not initiate.
Seventeen holds later, they landed 75 cords away from the city. Tracking their position the entire time, Blaen calculated the carrier traveled 220 cords-per-cycle (CPC). This was no ordinary carrier.
For three turns, Blaen was put through every test he knew about, and another dozen he had never dreamed of.
He never again saw any of the others he had arrived with. The tests took place in isolation – the physical, the mental and the psychological. The only people he saw were those administering the tests and those observing. At the end of the first turn, they allowed him to send a message to his wife explaining that the tests would take another two turns, after which he would return.
Exhausted both physically and mentally, Blaen kept his communication channels muted as he arrived back at the Inn well past his family’s bedtime.
On the morning of the fourth day, when Blaen reactivated his implant, he had two messages waiting. The first was from his wife; she had received his communication and understood. She told him that they were fine, he was not to worry, and that they all loved him. The second message was from Parsons: “Mr. Dresden, when you awaken and have had breakfast, please contact me.”
Short and to the point but with absolutely no indication of how he had performed. Blaen knew the type, and he was comfortable with them. Words mattered.
He reached out to his wife after ordering breakfast. She answered almost immediately. He could hear the relief in her voice. “My love. How are you doing?” she asked before he had the chance to say hello.
“I’m fine, a little tired, a lot beat up, but otherwise I’m good,” he answered. “I’m sorry I couldn’t contact you while I was testing; they had us blocked.”
“Who are they? Why were you blocked? Where were you?” Fiora fired at him.
“I said I’m fine; I would rather not discuss anything over the implant.”
Pausing, she replied, “I understand. Are you coming home soon?”
“I think so. I’ll know more later this morning.”
“Good, please call me then.” Fiora said in a calmer voice.
“I will. I miss you.”
“I miss you too,” she returned.
Blaen went back to the privacy of his room to call Parsons. He was asked to come to The Array’s office to discuss his results. He assumed he had done well; if not, he was sure there would have been no follow-up meeting.
They offered a private transport to pick him up, but he said he would rather walk the few blocks to stretch his legs. The hike provided Blaen with time to play out the upcoming scenario in his head.
Blaen had no need to bring up the map. He had an uncanny ability to remember places, directions and people.
Walking up to the building, he lifted his right hand to call The Array, when the familiar voice came on: “Please take the lift to the 33rd level.”
As before, the lock disengaged at the same time the voice spoke. The lift doors dissolved on the 33rd floor, revealing to Blaen he had arrived not at Fliix’s office, but rather Parsons’. Diagonal lifts, Blaen thought to himself. Impressive.
“Ahhh, Mr. Dresden, nice to see you again,” Parsons said, rising to greet him.
“Sir,” Blaen responded.
“Can I get you anything to drink or eat?” Parsons offered.
“No. Thank you, sir. I’m fine.”
Parsons returned to his seat behind the desk. Blaen sat in the chair. “First off, let me thank you for taking the time to test. We understand they are long, and at times, can be laborious. But they are designed to establish a better understanding of the person you are.”
“No need to thank me, sir. They are but a longer form of an application process.”
Again, the subtlest of smiles briefly passed across Parsons’ face.
“Mr. Dresden, you did well. You did very well. There are a few hiccups in your psychological makeup, but if you didn’t have those after two wars, we would be worried,” Parsons said without a trace of judgment.
“At this point, Mr. Dresden, I would like to present you with a formal offer of employment,” Parsons continued succinctly.
A holo of a secured folder appeared in front of Parsons.
“Once you load this to your implant, it will be encrypted to your genome and brain wave pattern. The bio-datum will be taken and verified each time the file is opened. The file cannot be transferred to anyone else, nor can it be displayed for anyone but you. The file is for you, Mr. Dresden.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Furthermore, should you decline our offer, the file will automatically be erased from your directory. Please look over the offer, discuss it with your wife, let me know by the next turn, 5:15 sunset. If we do not hear from you by then, we will take your answer as a no, at which point the file will be deleted.
“You will not be able to change your mind after this. You will not be able to reach me after the next turn, nor will you be admitted to this building. Do you understand, Mr. Dresden?” Parsons finished.
“Good. I look forward to your call.”
Parsons returned his attention to the desk as the wall door faded to expose the lift.
Blaen walked directly to the light rail terminal without remembering how he got there. It was only a 15-hold ride back to the farm, but he didn’t want to waste time. Contacting his wife, he asked her to pick him up at the station as soon as she could get there.
He had yet to open the file. He knew there was no way for anyone to access his implant, yet he somehow felt exposed in the public station. Ten holds later, his wife showed up in their beat-up floater. It had logged over 500,000 cords, but it was reliable, and, most importantly, it was paid for.
Fiora didn’t ask him anything about the interview on the ride home. Instead, she caught him up on everything farm related. The full cycle it took to get home gave her enough time to fill him in on the kids’ recent activities.
Blaen felt the pressure of the last four days evaporate from his shoulders as they turned into the driveway. The kids ran from the house and threw themselves into his outstretched arms. He kissed each one, while telling them how much he loved and missed them. The children followed their hand-holding parents into the house, chattering excitedly.
The kids caught him up on what was happening in school and with their friends. Giving them 20 holds to relay their stories for a second and third time, Blaen loved every mundane facet of each of their lives. Finally, he told them he and Mommy had to discuss something in private.
Blaen told Fiora everything that had happened in precise military detail.
“Well, what did the offer say?” she asked when he finished.
“I haven’t opened it yet.”
“Are you waiting for an invitation as well?” she asked sardonically.
Entering the password, Blaen saw the offer unfold on his implant. It was neat, it was concise and it was shocking. Sitting on the bed, Blaen adjusted his focus from the offer to his wife. “It’s a three-rotation commitment,” he told her.
“Oh … ” she replied softly.
“Off-planet with only one week a rotation of down time,” he continued. Fiora said nothing.
“Insurance is completely paid for – for you, for me and for the kids.”
She slowly raised her eyes to meet his. Continuing, Blaen said evenly, “The salary is 175,000 notes a rotation, with the possibility of 50,000 in bonuses per rotation.”
Fiora stared at him as her eyes welled up. “That’s more than we make in five.”
“Yes, it is,” he replied.
However, the excitement faded quickly. “Three rotations is a long time. It’s a long time for the children not to see their dad. It’s a long time for us to not see each other.”
“I know it is,” Blaen murmured.
“How long do we have before we have to give them an answer?” she asked.
“Tomorrow. After that, the offer is withdrawn.”
“I think we should do it,” Blaen told his wife as they lay awake staring at the dancing shadows on the ceiling.
“I’m not sure,” Fiora responded. “Three rotations is so long. You’ll miss three important rotations of the children’s lives, plus your new son won’t know who you are.”
Blaen remained quiet for a few moments, carefully framing his position. “I know it’s a long time, but after three rotations of work, and proper investing, we’ll be set for life.”
“If we don’t take this offer, we will lose the farm, and we’ll have to move in with your parents. With the money I’ll be making, you will be able to hire help around the farm to make it profitable again. Plus, it will make your life easier around … ”
“Honey, I get it,” Fiora interrupted. “I know what you are going to say. While it doesn’t make me happy, I understand. Go ahead, make the call.”
Kissing his wife gently on her forehead, Blaen went to the bathroom to place the call. Not expecting an answer at this late hour, Blaen was surprised when Parsons answered after one ring.
“Good evening, Mr. Dresden. I’m glad you decided to accept the position.”
“How did you know?”
“If you weren’t going to accept, you wouldn’t be calling this late; you would have waited until tomorrow after several lengthy discussions with your family. The logical decision for you IS to accept this job, and once you made that decision, you called,” Parsons said.
“Mr. Dresden, now that you’ve accepted, you will sign a contract covering everything in the offer. You will be obligated to The Array for three rotations, with an option for a fourth. I will have it to you by tomorrow sunrise. Once I have it back and genomed, I will contact you with the details of your starting date.”
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate the opportunity,” Blaen replied.
Sleeping in for the first time in many, many rotations, Blaen felt as if a liquefied thermine blanket had been lifted from his back. After a micro-shower and a fresh set of clothes, Blaen activated his implant’s holo-record camera and opened the bedroom door.
From the hall, he saw his children playing a holo game between the couch and the kitchen. Gently humming in the kitchen, his wife stood at the stove, content. They hadn’t noticed him yet, so he stopped and let the implant record the perfect, unfiltered moment.
Jalen saw him first, shouting “Daddy” as she ran through the game itself. She threw herself into his arms, begging him, “Toss me to the sky!”
At breakfast, Fiora placed an envelope in front of Blaen. Knowing its contents, Blaen excused himself to read the offer from The Array:
“Extraction Leader.” Starting date was four days away, and the length of contract, insurance, salary and vacation were exactly as discussed.
Blaen had always been careful regarding his decision-making process; he made sure to examine all angles before committing, but once committed, he rarely second-guessed himself. There was no hesitation as he signed the contract. There was a handwritten note from Parsons congratulating him on the position.
He put the genome-signed chip back in its self-sealing envelope as Fiora told him the delivery drone was waiting on the porch. Sure enough, the drone waited patiently for its package. With the chip integrated back into the common-appearing delivery drone, Blaen stepped back and watched as it lifted off, zipping back to the city without a sound.
Fiora drove him to the station, barely speaking. They simply held hands, gently caressing one another. Blaen agonizingly watched the tears roll down her face.
“It will be OK, sweetheart, it really will,” he offered. “Three rotations will seem like nothing, down the road.”
Fiora smiled wanly, “All my heart.”
“All mine,” Blaen solemnly replied.
A private carrier waited for Blaen at the station. The craft was smaller than the first, with only four, empty seats. The ride back took only 10 holds, even faster than the light rail. Parsons was waiting for him in his perfectly tailored suit on the roof of The Array building.
“Mr. Dresden. A pleasure to see you again.”
“The pleasure is mine, sir.”
“Please, follow me and we’ll get you processed and integrated.”
The drone lift down took 9.5 counts. Blaen figured silently that they were approximately 123 levels below ground.
Parsons didn’t say anything on the ride down. As soon as the doors opened, he explained to Blaen that he would be processed and after that, integrated into The Array’s system. It would take three cycles to be fitted with his exo-suit, to install and test upgraded implants, and to be issued weaponry.
The exo-suit was a combination of form-fitting nanobots and performance-enhancing neuro-connectors that were wired directly into the brain. The exo-suit couldn’t be burned or frozen. It couldn’t be cut by anything less than an electron scalpel, while allowing its user to perform physically up to eight times his or her normal speed and strength. It was a second skin that became so intrinsic, some users experienced violent bouts of depression without it.
After processing, Parsons informed Blaen he would have a two-day training school that would explain in fine detail his new exo-suit’s capabilities. During this period, he would meet his new team, those above and below him. After the exo-suit training was completed, his team would be sent to Fulgora, one of the planet’s moons, for team integration.
His team consisted of five men, including himself, four women, two Stray and one superior officer – Fliix. The first half cycle of suit training was uploaded through their implants; the second half was physical, which included the newly installed software. The suits were far beyond anything Blaen had ever seen in the service. Their intuitive nature, combined with The Array’s algorithms, shortened the training period from .25 rotations down to a single revolution.
Still marveling at the quality of every meal, Blaen loaded his dinner tray at the cafeteria. He sought out an empty table, where he could run through the day’s exercises alone. One deck later, Fliix sat opposite him. He explained a few things for Blaen.
“The reason you saw me working upstairs is because The Array forces lifers to cycle back every five rotations; they like to update psych and phys evals. It’s only for a few weeks while the docs do their thing. For my part, I get to sleep in a warm bed and visit the L-houses,” Fliix continued, unrepentant.
The rest of the team sat close by, but not quite close enough to listen in. “Very well trained,” Blaen said with a knowing nod.
“Yes, they are, sir,” Fliix answered.
Confused, Blaen responded earnestly, “Sir, I was under the impression you were the Team Leader.”
“I am not. You are. And don’t call me sir. I am your sergeant,” Fliix told him.
“I don’t understand, sir … uh, Sergeant.”
“Was this not all explained to you in your offer?”
“I was told I would be the Extraction Leader. But when I saw you, I assumed you were running the outfit,” Blaen continued.
With a hard stare, Fliix looked up from his potatoes and said, “Apparently, your test scores rated high enough for you to run your own team. I am only here to assist you on your first assignment; after that, I move on and you are on your own.”
Blaen took a moment to process the information before answering.
“I understand, Sergeant. Thank you for the update.”
The last thing he wanted responsibility for was life. Life – and death – decisions had their price, an onerous tab he had already paid in full. The pressure to keep the farm afloat was the only reason he took this job. It was a job he had promised himself he would never return to, but that was before. Before the kids, before the farm and long before the responsibility of his cherished home life on Eeoos.
While training on Fulgora, Blaen came to thoroughly appreciate how advanced the exo-suits were. The suit’s help at the upper end of physical exertion was nothing short of miraculous. But its true gift was the middle and lower ranges. Without the need to burn excess energy, Blaen rarely grew tired. There was a small piece of him that wondered if the suit had hacked his brain. If it has, I don’t care. I’m never taking this thing off, he thought warmly.
As his team went through its exercises, Blaen kept notes on each member, for strengths and weaknesses, apparent or hidden. He ranked them every night, keeping concise notes of the day’s events. The two Stray were always at the top. At over 7 steps in height, with muscle tissue 2.5 times denser than a human, they were a sight to behold, all without benefit of an exo-suit.
Blaen was sure three of the men and two of the women in his unit had gone through some sort of genetic enhancement. Those five tested in the upper 95 percent range; the Stray, on the other hand, were so far off the charts, it wasn’t possible to measure their capabilities. That left two men, one woman, and himself, rounding out the bottom of the lineup.
The night before the last day of training, his door chimed. Understanding now how the disappearing doors worked, through his implant, Blaen opened the door as he made his way from the kitchen. Filling the entire doorway was one of his Stray.
“Come in,” Blaen said.
Since there is no way for a human to pronounce a Stray’s given name, his two were given nicknames that came as phonetically close as anyone could guess.
“What can I do for you, Grysson?” Blaen asked.
Through his translator, the Stray spoke.
“Sir, Gry__sson__nn would like to request to be put on point.”
Succinct, exactly what you would expect from a Stray.
“What makes you think you are more qualified than Jyrrian?” Blaen asked.
“Sir, Jy__rr__ian is a female of our species, and is my younger family.”
I’m an idiot, Blaen thought. He had always assumed Stray to be male. Neither had he ever considered a family structure for the Stray.
“Grysson, you will take point, not because Jyrrian is female, nor because she is your sister. Those two things don’t matter. What matters is you are faster and slightly more accurate than she. However,” he continued, “If the day comes when I see her surpass you, she will take point and you will take second.”
“Yes_ _ _ _ sir,” Grysson replied, with respect but indignation. He stared at Blaen for a moment, turned and left.
With Grysson on point, the entire team moved effortlessly through the final course. Losing no one, they finished in record time. Having two Stray on his side was like having an additional six men, without sacrificing the exposure.
Instead of having to bark orders through a traditional implant voice connector, the upgraded implants enabled every team member to be in constant communication. The more they practiced, the shorter the conversations became.
What started as “Illon right, three and six,” became an instant transmission to Illon, with the simple shift of Blaen’s eyes. Each team member had his own marker in the system; Blaen could switch from an overlay topographical map to a 3D holo taken from the four micro-drones that always followed them.
The Stray took the longest to master. They did not think in linear fashion like humans, but rather in an orbicular manner too complicated for the rest of the team. It became incumbent on the Stray to pare down their thought patterns to the immediate present.
It was believed the Stray could see into the future; their minds not only seeing what was happening before them, but also what was about to happen. Blaen eventually learned the truth, They couldn’t actually see into the future. their ability to recognize probabilities and respond almost immediately was so accurate, it seemed they could.
Blaen’s team shipped out at four thirty pre-rise the next sunbreak. With the help of the exo-suits, the weight of their packs was negligible.
Where they sat inside the GMLS mirrored their incursion positions, with Grysson and Jyrrian in the front, and Blaen and Fliix taking the rear. They had not been told where they were going or what their first objective was. The trip would take 5.35 cycles. At the speed they were traveling, that could put them almost anywhere in the system.
Blaen’s implant alerted him he had an encrypted message; upon the completed genome scan, he learned where they were going and why. Extraction Leader. Well, now I know what that really means, Blaen thought.
They were to land on the sun side of Opis, during the day, when the sun broiled the planet. Blaen read they were to infiltrate The Reach and bring back two captured associates of The Array.
The orders included a succinct history of The Reach: a two-world organization that preyed on non-military GMLS and used Opis as a cargo exchange port. Most exchanges were never recorded, due to the contents of the cargo. The Collective was aware of The Reach’s activities, but as the presiding government of more than 200 planets, The Collective simply didn’t care about thieves preying on other thieves. The Array, however, did.
The Array knew exactly where its men were being held, thanks to the pinpoint accuracy of their implants. With full access to both team members’ implant holo-cameras, Blaen knew their health and mental condition. In addition, The Array had pre-dispatched 25 micro-drones that were sending back live feeds from every conceivable angle over the hostages.
The captured men were kept 55 stories below ground in a bunker that had been thoroughly mapped by the micro-drones. The Reach used a former saline mine as a hiding den. It would soon be returned to a dried-up mine. Forty-five men guarded the two Array members. Everyone was targeted and tracked by the drones.
The team’s ship landed three cords away. Blaen was sure The Reach knew they were there. He would. It won’t help them though, he thought.
The team members exited the carrier and were on the move. At speed, they would reach their destination in less than one cycle. Knowing The Reach would be tracking them, Blaen sent out an additional 35 pings via the mini-drones. This, hopefully, would hide the team in now-scrambled gray noise.
Though the Stray slowed dramatically for the rest of the team, it was difficult keeping up with them, even with the exo-suits. Blaen tracked each team member in three ways: physically, implant holo and through the feed from the hovering micro-drones.
They did not slow down as they approached the mine’s crater. The Stray bolted ahead of the team with an alarming burst of speed. Blaen had 35 extra pings now circling the approaching crater; the strike would appear as a 360-degree incursion.
His team spread out at a 23-degree angle, attacking with pinpoint accuracy. The two Stray were the first to cross the light gate, easily leaping over it and landing safely while simultaneously firing at the guard towers. All four guard towers were decimated within three counts of the breach. The rest of the team followed. Moving in, they closed the attack down to a 17-degree angle. The edge of the mine loomed, and with it came wall-mounted light guns. Normally, these were not easily destroyed, but technology and money bought an exo-suit solution.
With just three counts remaining, Blaen ordered Jyrrian to fire off 15 self-destructing drones that would magnetically attach themselves to the light guns. Nearly simultaneous with his command, the drones streaked away from Jyrrian and disappeared over the edge.
I wish I could react so fast, Blaen thought. Before he had a chance to tick off his mental wish list, the first of the drones exploded. He counted 11 explosions before he saw both Grysson and Jyrrian bound into the pit. Two counts later, Illon, Kray and Aeos followed the Stray into the cavernous mine. Bringing up the rear were Blaen, Fliix and the remaining two members of his team, Sharp and Tria.
As Blaen jumped, he took in everything that was happening below him. The two Stray were still free-falling, firing with deadly precision at members of The Reach who thought they could match a Stray’s speed.
The remaining members of the team activated their exo-suit thrusters as they breached the pit. They lightly touched the ground, cutting their thrusters. Blaen noted that the Stray didn’t need to activate theirs.
Grysson and Jyrrian took out 32 combatants during the fall. Blaen was so impressed that he almost didn’t notice that one of the micro-drones had failed to explode. A light gun swung around to take aim, and a flash from below electrified the air as a bolt hit the gun, destroying it.
Counting the four guards in the front towers, plus the 32 the Stray decimated, only nine Reach were left. At the bottom of the pit, Blaen and his team secured the area. With Grysson on point, they moved as one. Blaen glanced to his left; he could see Fliix was talking to someone outside the team.
Moving decisively through the first level, the team maintained its position next to the lift shaft. Switching to the trailing micro-drones, Blaen could see no one was following them, nor had any ships landed recently. Something felt off, though. No time to think. Two Array associates needed rescuing, and that was exactly what was going to happen.
Wrenching the lift doors open, Grysson leapt, followed closely by each team member. This time, the Stray utilized their thrusters to keep the fall manageable. Blaen was the last to land. By the time his feet touched the ground, Grysson had opened the lift door, as he and his sister ran through at blinding speed.
Blaen counted three shots. He didn’t need the micro-drones to tell him there were three more dead guards.
They were to make a hard left, then two rights before reaching the “prison” room. Three secured doors had to be breached to reach the hostages. Arriving just behind his team, Blaen turned the corner to see Illon setting six charges on the first door. The team had three counts before the blast hit. Without the exo-suits, they would have been killed by the reverberating shock, but they barely noticed the wave as it passed.
Thirty steps beyond, the next door loomed defiantly. Unlike the last, this door was a composite, far stronger than a standard Thermine barrier.
Once again, Illon pushed forward, this time setting up a centrally located charge. Instead of blasting through the door, he was creating an absolute-zero zone through it. After the gel froze, Grysson had approximately 2.15 counts to kick it in, shattering it like dried wood, after which he would break his leg trying.
Point-fifteen counts after the charge froze the door and some of the surrounding wall, Grysson ran straight through it. Fliix and Blaen secured the perimeter, ensuring no one was coming behind them. Convinced, Blaen returned to his team through the shattered door. Fliix stared at him as if he were studying a newly discovered species of insect.
“Something wrong, Fliix?” Blaen asked him on a secure line.
“No,” he replied, turning and walking through the door.
Odd, Blaen noted, very odd.
With no time to ponder the psychological makeup of the seasoned sergeant, Blaen switched back to the task at hand. One door left. The Reach guards would be waiting on the other side. By the time he caught up to the rest of the team, the new charges were in place. Everyone awaited his signal to blow it.
But the guards would be expecting an attack on the door. Blaen instructed Illon to move the charges to the wall, a much weaker and completely unexpected entry point. The six charges were moved. Blaen gave the command. The blast tore a hole large enough for a Stray to walk through, but instead, Grysson and Jyrrian ducked and ran into the smoking wreckage. The blast killed the two guards who chose to stand next to the door.
Blaen and Fliix made their way inside. The Stray had eradicated six more soldiers. The Array employees were alive, strapped to chairs by their wrists, ankles, knees and throats. With one guard still lurking, Blaen sent Tria to flush him out.
Blaen and the team waited as Tria backed through the newly created “door.”
A flash echoed an instant before the post to Blaen’s right exploded. The guard had them pinned against the back wall. Every few counts, someone would toss a piece of rubble inside the room, hoping to keep the sniper occupied while Tria sneaked upstairs.
A body landed awkwardly on the ground, arm and leg obviously broken. Blaen and Aeos made their way past the fallen guard to the hostages.
Even with the aid of the exo-suits, neither Aeos nor Blaen could break the bonds holding the prisoners. Exasperated, Jyrrian disdainfully stepped over the newly captured prisoner and snapped the restraints without any apparent effort. Falling forward, the first hostage was free. Blaen watched in awe as Jyrrian effortlessly released the other.
Blaen turned to check on The Reach guard. He had come around after his fall and now stared straight ahead.
The man’s eyes then rolled back in his head, a few specks of blue spittle escaped his lips, and his skin started boiling.
Recognizing what was about to happen, Blaen told everyone to stand back as the man melted from the inside out. Dismissing the bubbling gelatin that used to be a human, he turned his attention to the two battered hostages.
Blaen had the Stray carry them up to the landing zone, where the armored carrier was waiting. The whole operation from wheels down to rescue had taken less than 10 holds. More importantly, no one from the team had been injured or killed.
While the on-board medic and prearranged triage containers attended the rescued duo, Blaen and Fliix settled into the rear of the carrier to discuss the mission.
“From your perspective, what could we have done differently or better?” Blaen asked. Unsure if he had been heard, he started to speak again when Fliix held up a finger to silence him.
“Did something go wrong that I am unaware of?” Blaen asked on the private channel.
Softly replying, Fliix told him, “Blaen, there has been an attack. It happened moments before we touched down.”
Thinking the attack had been local to Opis, Blaen remained stoic.
Fliix continued. “The attack consisted of 32 Xeno warheads.”
“Sergeant, I thought Xeno had been outlawed.”
“It has, but that doesn’t stop terrorist factions like The Reach from utilizing it.”
“Fliix, where was the attack?”
“I’m sorry, son, but all 32 missiles hit Eeoos simultaneously. Kraan, Bruuton, and most of the outlying areas have been decimated.”
“How … ” Blaen tried but couldn’t get words out.
“The Eeoos-based Array post and training centers have been eradicated. We still have operations on Fulgora and three outer planets, but our numbers have been reduced by an estimated 67 percent,” Fliix finished.
The entire team was watching the tragedy unfold on their implants as the news spread across the quadrant at light speed.
Regaining his composure six holds later, Blaen asked, “Who did this?”
“It was The Reach,” Fliix answered. “We tracked the missiles back to the dark side of Opis. They used the moon Socii to hide and slingshot the devices toward Eeoos.”
“If we know where they came from, let’s go,” Blaen said between gritted teeth.
“The missiles were placed in desert locations, then fired remotely. There is nothing for us to attack,” Fliix responded.
Opening and closing his fists in an effort to control his rage, Blaen felt hot. A broken calmness spread over his now-exposed homicidal madness. He knew without a doubt the exo-suit introduced chemicals into his system to help maintain physical and psychological equilibrium.
“We have to do something,” Blaen murmured.
“We will, son. We have been rerouted to Tanchi, where we will meet with The Array.”
Even the newly introduced chemicals couldn’t control the riptide of unmitigated fury that was driving Blaen over the edge.
James Lipson’s debut book, Fallen and Other Stories, was published in 2019. His writing is a combination of science and fantasy fiction, influenced by some of his favorite authors, such as Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. With a background in art, James has naturally turned to illustrating as he writes, bringing many of his short stories to life not only with descriptive detail, but also detailed visual imagery.
You can find his illustrations and other art works at www.jameslipson.com, follow him at https://www.instagram.com/jameslipsonart/, and his book is available at https://www.amazon.com/Fallen-Other-Stories-James-Lipson/dp/1090468822/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1567065843&sr=8-1
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