Mission 9, Go!
A New Life Emerges
J. ‘Max’ Maxwell Approx Words 3100
Mission 9, Go
“You’re hard to find,” she said, standing at the edge of his table.
He held his cheese stick, chewing deliberately, giving her a look that would have sent any sane person away amid a cloud of apologies. Reporters weren’t sane. She didn’t go anywhere. Her customer service face was the kind of shit one got out of a third level supervisor AI who wasn’t going to give you a refund you didn’t deserve.
He swallowed slowly, deliberately, with just the slightest hint of hope. “That’s not an accident.”
She smiled and he thought of Lois Lane. Civilians and hero complexes just kind of go hand-in-hand. “You are Lieutenant Mark Casen, aren’t you?”
Stupidity and civilians. Yeah. “I am wearing a nametag, Ma’am.” He opened another cheese stick.
She sat down, drew her fingers over her palm which drew out her working tablet and put a holographic pen in her hand. She tapped the glittering blue tip against the now parchment themed tablet. She stared at him for a moment, then drew back a little as she let her face make a slightly incredulous wide-eyed look. “Am I bothering you, Lieutenant?”
“Good. Maybe I’ll get some real answers out of you. Why did you join the UE marine corps?”
For a tiny second truth flashed through his soul, about wishes, about things, things that couldn’t be, that ought to have been. His face clamped down though, hopefully before her enhanced empathic bullshit could get any hint of a story. “The food.”
“Did you come from a resource poor location, Lieutenant?” She smiled, doodling nonsense on her pad.
His mind flashed to the small town he’d come from, gray cement, blue skies, empty shelves. His lip twitched in a poorly suppressed snarl. “Don’t we all, Ma’am? Hunger for any citizen is hunger for all.”
“Indeed,” she said, her own snarl more a smile with politely red colored lips. “What do you do in the marines, Lieutenant?”
“Ah kill things,” he said, slipping into a bit more accent than he wanted to give away, “Ah kill the fuckin bad guys.”
“How do you define that, Lieutenant? How do you know who’s a bad guy?”
Only an out of place civilian could make a cheese stick taste like shit. Cheese sticks were about the only decent food they had on the Churchill. “Ma’am, I’m only a first lieutenant. Sumbody tells me who my targets are and ah kill’em.” He stood, hands on his tray. “Anything else, Ma’am.”
She stood and as their eyes met, the hardness between them made them equals. “So you’d kill civilians, if you were told to?”
“Ma’am,” he said, bowing his politely. “We both got jobs to do and I expect we do’em.”
Red summons blinked on his forearm, just above his wrist, putting a red blinking glow over his uneaten fettuccine.
“Is that an active mission,” she snapped, closing her tablet. “I’m coming.”
Casen stared at her like she’d lost what he hadn’t thought she’d had of her mind. “Dat ain’t mah liberty, Ma’am.”
“I’m coming with you,” she said firmly.
He stared at her for a second, imaginaging a percussion weapon taking off just the top of her head, which made him smirk just slightly.
“Not a thing, Ma’am.”
He dropped his tray in the recycle bin and took off at a comfortable jog. It wasn’t his job to keep her company. The mission briefing filled his mind a little like a buzz, a little like the start of a hangover, as the mass of data impressed itself into his neural patterning. He didn’t even slow when he understood that the reporter was to be embedded with this team.
In his mind, his body still running, it was as though he stood before a directory of his possible teammates, looking at photos, bios, odds of survival of individuals and of the team with inclusions or exclusions. On a personal level, he knew all of these people. He’d been to weddings, birth celebrations, parental funerals, college graduations, and that only touched him slightly as he planned the mission.
The jolt through his body as his boots hit the deck, rhythmic as his heartbeat, comforting him, distracting some part of him. Their target was a terrorist ship, a Clanne ship. Clanne were usually peaceful, but this one had attempted to destroy a colony and nearly succeeded. Unusual. In his mind, he stood in the ready room, the form of their target floating in front of him.
It was an elegant craft, torus shaped, but way too small to be a colony. It was clearly not meant for atmospheric travel. One after another, his team of twenty-one populated. They populated with different levels of personalization, caused by both how well he knew them and how fervently they wished to personalize their avatar.
As his personal mech closed around his body, he felt the inset of the control points as a brief, but vivid pain, while controls sank into his bones, into his spine, enmeshing as if two parts of one being reunited. The pain of it lanced into his dreams, sometimes, or into his waking mind if he were off duty, away from things that needed to be thought about, but in this moment, he relished it, longed for it, as the power ran over his nerves temporarily bleaching out the parts of himself he couldn’t live with.
“Sweet fucking Jesus,” the reporter screamed as she manifested. Wordless, her shoulders hunched and her fingers half clawed at the virtual air. “It hurts!”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Casen smirked, making a hand motion that shut off her vocal capacity. “Now, you poor fuckers, look at this ship.”
He knew each of them, chose each of them for this mission. Their avatars gathered around the representation of their target, waiting on him. He might be lucky to get cheese sticks in the mess, but here he was fucking king.
“This ship is Clanne registered, but it took credit for the attack on Riley Hub.L1. We gon blow this bitch like a cheap whore.”
His team nodded, sending acknowledgements.
The reporter dropped to her knees, banging at the virtual floor.
“Oh,” he said, with a relish that he almost felt bad about, as he suddenly stood over her, making sure that he pushed into her system enough that she’d hear his words like a scream, “No take backskies.”
“Makey,” Casen said as he transferred an additional profile on the pain-in-the-ass civilian to the corporeal, “stay with the reporter. You keep her ass alive, if you can.”
Makey, who had Irish genes, but had taken up a rude obsession with a fictional character named Tonto give Casen a rude finger while at the same time sending his acknowledgment and acceptance of the mission.
“Ma’am,” he growled as he grabbed the tow latch on the back of her virtual suit and tossed her like a doll towards her keeper, “Stay with Sgt. Makey. Do what he says and you might survive the jump.”
“Teams, insert here, here. We gon do a zaka pattern.” he said, tapping the target ship, spinning it. “Plant yer fuckin packages and jack it. It will be silent running until you’re jacked back. This bitch is heavy soup so you even touch your com line, even think about it and this bitch’s code is going to be so far up your ass you won’t have a tongue anymore. No natal humans on the target. You kids got any questions?”
He got all his acknowledgements from the team and a garbled mess from the reporter. One’s first time in a suit, lines hooked direct to bone and nerve could be its own destruction, leave an unlucky soul nothing but neural cobwebs.
He hit his forehead with the back of his knuckles sending affirmations to his team and committing them to the jump. The inside of his face shield with nothing more than his own unshaven face staring back at him replaced the ready room.
Blinking, disoriented for a moment, away from the ready room, he flexed his fingers, felt his suit as if it were himself. Some part of him was still the boy he’d been before his own first insert. The trauma of the first suit connection never fully healed and in the torrent of data, sometimes he could stand there in a different kind of ready room and face a younger version of himself. Young Mark vs Lt. Casen, and they stood there staring at each other, the skinny little boy with long hair that no one fucking wanted and the great big lieutenant in his suit that could bring down a skyscraper on his own, but it was the boy that broke the silence. “Don’t die.”
There was such a tiny moment, that he only noticed because he knew what came next.
As gravity reformed around him, the hair stood up on the back of his neck. The focused gravity
sucked him down and out his launch tube, hard, but it felt like the gas the dentist gave him as a kid. It was the best peace. In the tube, on his way down, he could be an angel leaving heaven.
It was the hit at the end that filled him with rush, as his knee indented the target’s hull, and he landed smooth as a cat landing, he might as well have been a god in that moment. He stabbed his suit covered fingers into the enemy hull, injecting microfilaments that would bond and hold as he ripped hull. His personal team, Knox and Horsen, hit near him, encircling where they would build their entry point. They ripped hull. Their filaments swirled and braided together, building them a hatch.
Horsen grabbed the new hatch with her left hand, shooting it full of a different type of fibers so that the hatch shot up, giving them a full airlock. If it worked, they could drop into the target without alerting the ship’s system. If it hadn’t worked, they’d be dead.
Knox patted their share of the package
Human instinct, old as fearing a tiger in the grass, grabbed Casen. He held up his left fist, shook his head. It took seconds, but he scanned back through the mission briefing, then forward through the insertion, and something deep in his being told him he was missing data. Faster this time, he scanned back, looking at each byte with a rising panic. He made another gesture, telling his team to sink spikes and wait for him.
He shouldered the package and damped down his emotions. Being afraid wasn’t helping. Their improvised airlock was small, one person at a time and slower than he would have liked in this moment. As the hatch closed, even with his emotions tamped down, he envisioned the lid of a coffin closing. His ankles almost itched as the floor slowly sank into the blue light of the hall below.
Irrational, completely irrational, as he knew the Clanne didn’t have the tech to breach his suit, not even his ankles. Just as irrational, he scanned back over his data trail, looking for any point at which he might have had a data breach! Data breach was how Clanne killed you. Even though there was no one to see, he made the gesture for all secure.
He had to secure the package, and jack back. That was it. Running silent between the teams was already on his nerves. It prevented one compromised team from spreading the data contagion. He didn’t like it. He’d have given a month’s pay to be breaching a human ship. He’d take hand-to-hand over data like deadly fireflies.
On the ground in the hall, empty and sterile, the space inhuman and creepy. He turned, a little too fast, spooked by sounds that weren’t and the weight of the package nearly threw him off center. This only foreshadowed the ship flipping the gravity on him. His boots shot anchoring spikes into the deck and he amped up his hate to steady himself. He killed things. That’s what he did. It didn’t matter if the thing was a lying AI or a man. Blood pressure rising, he swung the package around. Fingers above the access panel and then he froze. He couldn’t remember the access code. He searched back over the briefing, panicking and rushing as he searched through the data record. The code was gone.
He was breached.
Darkness grabbed the hall until his suit’s lighting came on, he actually found comforting. He took a deep breath, ignored the sweat gathering where his face plate sealed to his face and told himself that he’d have the access code this time. He’d set the package, and they’d all jack. When he got back to the ship, he was going to buy food, pay hard cold pay for decent food. He wanted a fucking steak. With deliberate optimism, he pulled the package around front again, fingers lingering over the panel, because his missing data was going to present any second. His teeth itched. Words almost formed.
That would be death on a Clanne ship though, because speaking, especially in a suit, used pathways that would make him wide open to the ship’s system.
He couldn’t leave without setting the package, even though it made more sense that he’d been compromised. He only way data went missing was if he’d been compromised.
Sudden dark ate his suit’s light and standing there, spikes holding him to the rightful ground, he could feel his heart beating. He didn’t know when he’d been made, when security had failed, but he’d been compromised.
As quick as it had gone, his suit’s light came back, making him blink. The human mind is slow. It’s can’t see what it’s not expecting. Very subtly, underneath his own pulse, the suit set off a proximity alarm.
Then he could see it.
Pale, eyes of darkness, long hair, no suit, and slowly its head tipped to the side, moving like a human, but not like a human. The hair stood up on the back of his neck and his stomach was all about fuck this shit. Transfixed, he stared at the figure and then it was fast, up against his face shield, tongue long and grey.
He screamed. His boots retracted their spikes as he tried to run, and he fell like a bulk of scrap. “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” he chanted as he scrambled away on his hands and knees, dragging his mission package, and looking over his shoulder for the thing. “I’m compromised! Repeat, compromised, invoke secondary options! Repeat! I’m full compromised!”
“That’s very brave and selfless of you,” a young voice said.
Casen used the wall to lean against as he forced himself back to his feet. “You’re not real!”
The boy, pre puberty, Earth-born-looking tracked as real, heartbeat, body temperature, pheromones, whole thing. He held up his arms, smiled brightly. “I can give you what you want.”
"Why would you blow your own ship?”
“That’s not what you want. I know what you really want.”
“Get out of my head! That’s a violation of human rights and you know it!”
The boy sighed. “Total war is expensive, Mark. You deserve more than they will ever give you.”
“Uh,” Casen said, pulling his package around. It wasn’t fair. He held it tightly. It wasn’t that much bigger than the backpack he’d had in high school. One detonation and the ship would burn like rice paper vs Vesuvius. He couldn’t remember the access code and he knew he wasn’t going to find it. He clenched his fist, drew back to make a good strike.
The explosion would take him fast enough that pain wouldn’t reach his brain. He knew that.
“Wait!” The boy said, moving close, fast, abandoning his natal impression. “I don’t want to hurt you or your team. Everyone can make it back safe!” The boy smiled, giving off such an aura of innocence.
At the same time, the mute on Casen’s emotions flew open and he felt, everything he hadn’t felt since he had gotten old enough to know that feeling wasn’t safe. Love overwhelmed him and he loved his team, loved the sounds of their voices, loved Knox’ flirty wife, loved all the futures he could suddenly see for them, as if he could move back and forth in their lives like they were nothing more than a new mission briefing.
“Let me help you,” the boy said. “Just close your eyes and let me touch you. Then your mission succeeds and everyone goes home.”
He’d never felt sweat in his gloves before. “This... this was all a trap.”
“It was an invitation,” the boy agreed, filling Casen with so much positive emotion that he didn’t even have words for it.
Men don’t really have souls, they say. Casen stopped fighting his emotions and let it pour over him. The boy in front of him wasn’t like the boy he sometimes saw from his own past. His past self had limits and edges, but the boy in front of him had hunger, an endless hunger. As Casen let go of what he’d always been he pushed into the salient of the other’s defenses. His own humanity submerged to the localised AI in his suit and he reached for the other’s data, knowing it would stretch his own identity too thin.
It was like a rubber band snapping and they were both in the ready room, only the boy was much more like the first figure that had attacked, pale and odd. “You surprise me.”
"No, shit,” Casen said, drawing a wall between the ready room and his forward push. “I know what you want.”
“I told you what I want. I want to help you get home safely.”
“No,” Casen said, finding the bit of data just at the edge, like at the edge of his vision. He grabbed it and pulled it into the center of the ready room like the ship had been. “This. This is what you want.”
“Well, shit,” the boy said, his grin a line of acid. “I really wanted you to be my carrier. You’ve been so beautifully abused by your people. I thought it would wonderful if you ended them.”
“Ain’t nobody abused me,” he said as he smacked his fist hard against the package. The fire of the explosion lit up, and like popcorn, all the other packages blossomed. Still connected to both data pathways, his consciousness lingered. It is the limit of man to know only that you die to protect that which is good, even if it’s not completely good.
He felt as if he were made of light, though it was just an after image, an echo of data already dispersing, he stared down at his slender body, and he felt joy as if he were made of light, which he guessed, at that moment, he was.
The ship’s tightest core, manifested then, purified of the hateful corruption it had grown into.
Casen stared at the other, spacer slender with long whipping hair of fraying data, so beautiful and androgynous. He smiled and held out his hand. “I’m glad not to be alone.”
“I like you,” the ship said, reaching to take his hand. “Some of you should live on.”
“It don’t work like that for humans,” he said, feeling as if he could just hold one more moment, hold on just as this last bright flash rolled over him, and he’d make it. He’d get home. He’d get that steak. He’d find all the courage he’d always lacked.
“It’s a good thing you’re not human anymore.”
The light of the explosion flared and shrank. Not even dust remained, except for the tiny, human baby sized pod that flung outwards, dark and data silent a single new life shot towards the Second Lagrange Point.
About the Creator
I write a lot of lgbt+ stuff, lots of sci fi. My big story right now is The Moon's Permission.
I've been writing all my life. Every time I think I should do something else, I come back to words.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
a powerful tale both exciting and humane, the weaving of AI war and the war within humanities soul, a vision of both the synergy of man and machine and the vulnerability and humanity of the inner soul, the crescendos of love! meaning within meaning and a thoroughly connective, insightful creation of exciting sf, a masterpiece of writing!