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Cyborg by JCH Rigby

Cyborg

The Deep Wide Black Book 1

JCH Rigby

Published by Castrum Press, 2017.

This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.

CYBORG

First edition. 20 November, 2017.

Copyright © 2017 JCH Rigby.

Written by JCH Rigby.

Cyborg

A thrilling military science fiction story of a dystopian future of corporation greed, exploitation and secrets worth dying for.

It started as just another assignment.

Invited by big-hitting corporation ARTOK, combat journalist David Chambers, is visiting the planet Parnassus to report on the ‘Human Enhancement Programme.’

Chambers witnesses the unthinkable..

.. an alien ship crash site

Billions of corporation dollars are at stake..

And they will do anything to keep their secrets safe.

Prologue

The Approaching Arrow

The berries were certainly very tempting. The group had been foraging widely across the area, having killed and eaten several red colobus monkeys on the previous day. They’d eaten well after finding a termite nest, but now they were interested in something different. While meat formed a significant part of their diet fruit and vegetables made up the bulk, and the berries were a delicacy.

The old female initiated the move. She headed away from the stream and clambered onto the lower branches of the nearest tree. The rest of the group waited around the base and watched. She went carefully; big as she might be, leopards were still a threat.

Just as she reached the most promising-looking branch and stretched out a hand to grab some of the berries a figure sprang down onto the limb and snatched her prize away, leaping back up onto a swaying bough. She pulled her lips back and shrieked with rage, but she kept well clear.

The newcomer ripped at the fruit and chattered back at her. A curious-looking thing. Breath hissing strangely through distorted nostrils. Twisted and folded ears, plugged with mesh, protruded from its shaved head. Eyes hard and lifeless metallic orbs. Silver-flecked skin showed through bald patches in its fur. A leather strap buckled around its neck. The newcomer finished the berries and sat motionless, staring at her.

The female dropped back to the ground and knuckle-walked rapidly away from the unnatural stranger. When it finally moved the creature began swaying back and forth on its perch, moaning and slapping at its head. The group watching from a safe distance.

After a few moments, the old female picked up a small stone and threw it experimentally in the general direction of the newcomer. One by one, the rest of the chimpanzees followed her example and, after suffering several near misses and one painful hit on its leg, the stranger quickly withdrew into the higher branches from which came.

#

Vladimir Maskhadov watched the hunter take aim. Pulling the bowstring back to his right ear, Patrice Uche drew the laminated plastic limbs of the bow fully to the rear, waited until the image became stable in his sight, thumbed the targeting button, and paused a further split second for the accept light. Uche released carefully and drew his right hand smoothly away from the bowstring.

The slender arrow swept through the concealing leaves, its fletching warping fractionally to adjust its course as the range to target decreased and the weapon’s rudimentary brain compensated for any sighting misalignment or string snatch. Entering the enhanced chimp’s thoracic cavity just to the left of the midsternal line, penetrating the heart at the anterior leaflet of the tricuspid valve and longitudinally rupturing the tricuspid leaflet.

The animal died instantly and dropped, bouncing through branches before hitting the forest floor ten meters away from the startled group of chimpanzees. The arrow point and part of the shaft protruded from its back. The youngest chimps fled, while the adults shrieked their approval and pelted the corpse with stones, sticks, and excrement.

Maskhadov nodded at the hunter. “Nice one, Pat. Good hit, considering that’s two million bucks’ worth of improved heart you’ve just ripped apart.”

Uche grunted, only now lowering the bow. He flicked the off-switch on the sighting system and placed the weapon carefully back onto its stand. “You’d prefer I’d used a shotgun to blow its lunatic head off instead, trashing all the gizmos you put in there? Shame you didn’t just add an off-switch while you were at it. We might have saved ourselves all this effort when you guys let it go walkabout.”

Maskhadov considered this. True, they’d been a little careless, but at least the animal had been fitted with a tracker. The chimps escape had been a stupid error. A supply vehicle entered the compound at the same moment as a keeper busily exercised the creature. The duty security guard foolishly left both the exterior and interior gates open while checking the driver’s documentation, and the chimp had seen its chance. With a partially accelerated nervous system and uprated heart and lungs, the animal had been unstoppable. The keeper suffering a bad bite to his thigh, while the guard received a stinging slap across his face from the trailing lead and a hard blow to his stomach leaving him momentarily winded able to do little beyond watching the chimp go.

They walked over to the body scattering the watching chimpanzee troop. Maskhadov glanced after them. “They don’t like it much, do they?”

Uche nudged the corpse with his foot. “Well, would you? It can see further than them, and it’s faster, so it’s always going to beat them to any food around. It looks wrong and it smells wrong, and it’s obviously mad. And they can’t kill it. Of course, they don’t like it.”

Uche rolled the limp body over, giving the arrow’s nocking point a slight twist. Feeling the bodkin head contract Uche put his foot on the animal’s chest and, with a grunt of effort, tugged the arrow free. Surprisingly, the shaft wasn’t badly bent. The fletching looked to have survived and, with a little time spent on the straightening gauge, he’d be able to reuse it. All that was left to do was to bring the wagon up here and move this weird chimp back to the compound.

“You guys are going to be putting this stuff into people soon, aren’t you?” Maskhadov stared at him, startled. Uche grinned back at the scientist. “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Who needs super-chimps for anything? This is some kind of trial run.”

Maskhadov bent down and stared at the chimp’s head, stuck for an answer. He couldn’t say, “Actually, we’ve been doing it for a few years. This is an upgrade we’re trying out.” So, he settled for silence and carried on inspecting the animal noticing a tiny movement in the eyes.

Although clearly as dead as a post, the lenses contracted and dilated slightly as they stubbornly processed the ambient light. He wondered if they still held in their memory the image of the approaching arrow.

Part I

ORCHARD

2450

War does not decide who is right; war decides who is left.” –Bertrand Russell

Chapter One

Machine Voices

Sunday, July 3rd

This was the week when they were going to start filling the seas, and Chambers had forgotten all about it. It just didn’t seem important now.

He’d woken around four-fifteen, knowing straight away he’d catch no more sleep that night. The room sensed him waking, and softly brightened the corridor lights. On his return last night, he’d tried to rig them so they would chase the shadows away from the bedroom, his efforts only making the corridor seem like a place of safety just out of reach, while the bedroom got darker and the shapes he made from the shadows got scarier. He needed light.

David Chambers painfully pulled himself out of bed, trying to keep the dread at arm’s length, struggling to stop it from filling his head with images of fear and blood and death. A glance at the wall clock told him it was just over four hours since he’d fallen into the once-familiar bed which now seemed so strange. Sore and lost he’d felt dislocated from his once familiar surroundings. The security police either finally believed him or simply gave up caring, dropping him at the train stop by Beaudoin as if they’d been a cab.

He’d had only the clothes he was wearing, the small backpack full of fusty laundry, and his battered slate—not that he trusted it any more. The memory would have been raided, raped, and copied within minutes of him being bundled off the lander and into the police vehicle. However, miracle of miracles, some credit remained on it when he’d boarded the train. Even more remarkable, the apartment remembered him and let him in.

As soon as he’d entered the little vestibule, his fingers opened of their own accord letting the backpack fall to the floor. He’d leaned back against the door and breathed deeply, slowly, gently. His ribs hurt, but that wasn’t why he felt on the brink of tears.

Five years away, then back on the habitat for ten days. It felt both more and less. The interrogators’ probing had been legally just short of torture. Pushing everything else aside except for their questions, the doubt and the ridicule, before finally the curious possibility the interrogators might believe him but somehow not care. Why would they do that?

Everything Chambers had been through welled up inside him, like bubbles rising to the surface of a simmering pot. This ring-shaped world of Orchard had been his family home for a couple of generations, now it felt like a tiny and very vulnerable irrelevance in a big and scary universe.

Home should have been a shelter where he could hide from what he’d met out there—and what he’d found back here. Yet he’d felt apprehensive about entering the apartment. That made little sense considering he’d been in some pretty scary places recently. This was home. It ought to feel safe.

When he had left Orchard five years before David had known he had been running away from events in his personal life. He had used the excuse that he had been going after fresh stories. He was a journalist after all. Now he was back on Orchard he would have to confront what he’d been running from in the first place.

Entering the kitchen, he found the unit had evidently been talking to the slate and catching up. Trying to meet his presumed changing tastes, the unit experimented with brewing some of the cheff Chambers had in his backpack, rather than the redbush tea he’d been drinking back before he left. Perhaps the slate wasn’t a basket case after all.

Chambers liked cheff, first encountering the drink in the ARTOK company’s research station in the Dead White zone, high above the Parnassus snowline what felt like a life time ago. Chambers cursed silently as he thought of his meeting with Vladimir Filippovich Semyonov, Chairman of the mighty ARTOK. Semyonov requested that the journalist do a piece on the Human Enhancement Program. If Chambers had just said no to the smiling Russian, he would never have met Richter and his team. Would never have come within an inch of losing his life. Chambers shrugged his shoulders in resignation. What was done was done and you can’t do anything about it so just get on with it he scolded himself as he returned his attention to the steaming cheff.

It wasn’t tea, it wasn’t coffee, and it tasted as good cold as it did hot. Sipping from the steaming cup, he padded through to the lounge cautiously nudging a low table toward his favorite old armchair facing the picture window. The table paused, briefly resisting him, then got the idea and edged itself into place. Like everything else in Orchard, the apartment was old, creaky, and decrepit.

Her empty chair reproached Chambers from its place against the wall. Reaching out his hand stroking the air, just there. Exactly there. Directly in front of the window where a sound faded down to silence, a stutter-edit hanging in the air as the pixels shrank. The image came here and found him, and he could do nothing to help her. Chambers had seen her die, right here in the lounge.

Hand stroking the place where a lock of her hair faded to transparency. Chambers glanced at his outstretched arm, confused by his own gesture he walked to the window taking in the view.

Once the terminator line passed, he’d be able to see an almost-spectacular view across the roofs and treetops onwards toward the empty seabed. Dad had chosen the location wisely, back when there were no trees, no roofs, and when all you saw was dull grey rock. One day the view would be perfect.

Putting down the cup Chambers sat, feeling his ribs pull and creak where the creature had kicked him. The pain brought those memories rushing back, the dizzying horror of blades, claws, and teeth. Chambers felt his heart start to race. His breathing quickening. Get a hold of yourself. That bit’s over. You’re alive. He admonished himself.

The memories refused to be silenced. The whooping of laser fire and the high-climbing scream of needlers; incongruous amongst the old-fashioned booming of firearms. In the midst of the chaos and terror, curious silence under pressure which he’d come to associate with the Enhanced. The terrible, bubbling screams of a dying man, horrified at what had been done to him. A breathless animal yelping, fading away to whimpers—he’d almost forgotten about what happened to the dog. Somehow, that had been one of the worst sounds of all.

Looking down in horror at the flapping fabric of his own jacket, certain he was going to see his entrails spilling out. The creature had had claws like huge knives, wide-gaping jaws, blades on its feet. He couldn’t breathe. His legs buckled. He was falling, starting to black out, terrified the soldiers would think he’d died and leave him where the nightmare could rip him apart. His vision dimming, narrowing down to a point, head flopping from side to side as he fell to the damp ground.

Lying there, certain he was living his last moments his vision filled with Kirov, face tight with concentration as he fired shot after carefully-aimed shot. A vaguely-remembered image of the ammunition block shrinking in the man’s rifle. Rolling onto his back staring straight up at a fading sky while the creature roared and the weapons crashed. Silence. The soldiers must have abandoned him.

Rough hands grabbing at the straps of his backpack and dragging him away. The feeling of relief that they hadn’t left him. He’d seen his blood start to well from the wounds, the sound of his own screams as fractured bones bounced across hard ground. As he felt himself hurled roughly onto the vehicle’s deck he’d known he had a chance to live, and he’d let himself go gratefully into the delicious rest of unconsciousness.

After all that and the incomprehensible journey back aboard the stolen ARTOK ship, dull and dizzy with the drugs that had flooded his system during his immersion in the medical tanks as they worked to repair the injuries which had come close to ending his life, ten days of grief from the security police didn’t seem like such a big deal. All Chambers had to show for it now was the ringing in his left ear where one of the interrogators had smacked him up the side of the head, the bruises around his fingernails, and a twitchy discomfort if he couldn’t see the door. The creature he’d met out there in the deep wide black was a whole lot worse. And behind it something else again, something even nastier, displaying a frightening interest from a long way off.

He sipped at the cheff. The gingery taste conjuring up images of soldiers brewing up under distant skies, staring thoughtfully into dregs of drinks and wondering what tomorrow would bring. And, now, so was he.

Orchard, Thursday, June 23, 2450

Ten days before, the battered lander bounced and slithered about on the ledge of the landing dock as if the guidance software had been as tired as its weary occupants. The ship had been tracked since entering the system, so it came as no surprise to see the dock cleared awaiting their arrival. A sense of relief had washed over the crew. They were finally here, lying back in the crash chairs, listening to the hull pinging and creaking around them and the falling whines of the various auxiliary systems dying down to silence. A machine voice recited numbers, and was ignored. Frigid air wafted from vents. No one moved. As though they’d done enough just reaching here.

Chambers stared dully at the cabin ceiling, watching without interest as lights and displays flickered and changed. The drugs numbed the pain in his chest, but they’d trapped his thoughts in a feedback loop of dread. Horror tracking them, patiently and with determination.

The lander lurched sideways as it engaged with the cradle. A clank, then grinding movement across the ledge and toward the hangar. Smooth, deep blackness slid away above them, to be replaced by hard-edged, distant ceiling girders, light units, an impression of gantries. A deep rumble reverberated through the hull as the outer doors slid closed, the sound of a faint breeze swelling steadily to become a gale as air was forced back into the hangar. The familiar infrastructure of human space. A hiss as the hull doors slid upwards. Ears popped as the pressure equalized. Still no one moved. A gentle sigh eliciting a muffled curse. After a moment or two Chambers tried feebly to raise his arms, only to find crash straps pinning him in place. He began to struggle, but some command must have been sent to the lander to override the release. Chambers and his companions were imprisoned.

Pounding feet on the entrance ramp, a rush of black-clad bodies as the police entered the cabin, weapons pointing left and right, up and down. Lots of shouting from the cops, though no one argued with them. Welcome home. Chambers saw a distorted face in the mirrored visor of the officer in front of him, curiously saddened by the weariness and pain carved into its features. That guy’s been through a lot, he thought, realizing with a start he was looking at himself.

The police held them there for a while, locked in place by the stubborn crash straps, until two of them abruptly released Keegan and dragged her from her seat. They evidently expected her to struggle, but she simply stood stock still until they shoved her toward the hull door. He watched bleakly as she was bundled out of sight.

Then it was Richter’s turn, followed by Harvetz’s, and one after another they were led out into the hangar. When they finally reached him he went along obediently, yelping once when his escort bounced him against a seat-back on their way to the door. He lurched down the ships steps, catching sight of the others lined up along the hangar floor, surrounded by armed cops. One cop held a kind of hose device across his body; the rest seemed to have rapid-firing needlers. Why do you need needlers? That’s not a police weapon. Soldier humor had it one burst from a needler resulted in pink mist. Orchard’s police seem to have raised their game. Yet even here Richter, unarmed and surrounded by dozens of cops, dominated his surroundings, tired and wounded though he was. Dull metal eyes incapable of showing emotion. Silvery mottled skin hinting at the enhanced exoskeleton lurking within. A face devoid of emotion but with a hint of barely suppressed menace regarded the black uniformed police. The other soldiers kept glancing across at him, waiting for his lead.

Chambers was nudged forward again, and he limped carefully down the steps. At last his feet touched the battered surface of Orchard Habitat. It wasn’t that he felt at peace, but there was a strange emotion like snuggling in against his mother for comfort. However bad things were, this was home.

The feeling didn’t last. Chancing a glance around him to see the rear ramps of the ship lowered, two medical caskets standing on the scuffed dock surface. Arden and Drovan. Were they still alive in those sealed container, in any sense which humans would recognize? Chambers doubted it. Were these few all that remained? He thought back to a shattered corpse in the fragments of a broken landing pod, a screaming woman trapped in the command cupola of a blazing carrier, a raging metal-eyed soldier dying with her in an apocalyptic flash of overheated ammunition, a dreadfully-wounded man screaming as he tried to escape a vengeful nightmare. Yes, this was all of them. All that had managed to escape from the creatures that had nearly ended him and the onrushing Euro-Japanese forces intent on capturing Richter and his comrades.

Paying this much attention was tiring. Chambers was finding it hard just to stand. The cops shoved him into position at the end of the line, and he swayed for a moment as if he might faint. Chambers noted he was staring straight down the menacing muzzle of a police weapon. I’m not the threat, you idiots. It almost made him smile. If they’d known what he knew the cops would have been facing outwards toward the deep wide black instead, and they’d never look away.

The hangar’s inner partition slid out across the floor, slicing into the wide-open space separating them from the battered lander. Chambers turned his head to follow the movement as the heavy partition closed with a resounding boom. Through the glazed panels in the vast, moving wall he saw the burn marks on the lander’s hull, the impact damage around the landing gear covers, the bent and torn panels over the motors. How the hell had it gotten them back to the ship, never mind home?

The cradle started to drag the near-wreck of the lander back toward the outer vacuum doors. Beyond the partition amber and red lights flashed, and a siren began to howl. With the atmosphere seal fully closed, the distant outer doors slid slowly apart. Chambers felt grudgingly proud of his home. Orchard might be poor, overlooked, almost forgotten—but it had a slick dock operation, with no loose rubbish blowing about in the gale of outbound air. The siren noise faded, disappearing with the departing atmosphere beyond the wall. They were going to dump the lander off the ledge, ready for it to be towed away from the habitat. Well, fair enough—how could the cops know there wasn’t a self-destruct weapon on board?

A loud, gravelly voice echoed through the hanger: “Go on, then. Get on with it.” Richter, pissed off but holding himself in check. “Get all this stuff done and then listen to what we have to tell you. It matters—”

His voice cut off abruptly. The cop with the hose device stepped forward and raised the nozzle and squeezed the trigger. Richter was enveloped in a cloud of grey smoke, which quickly settled solidifying around him, sealing his head and chest in a thick coating of hardening polymer. The line of soldiers tensed, Keegan took a step forward. The cop with the hose thing turned to face them brandishing the nozzle.

“Stand still, you people. He can breathe, but he can’t see or speak. The fogzone will come off when we tell it to, and he’ll be none the worse. Now you—”

Richter’s voice boomed out again, the sound coming from the overhead speakers. The cop with the hose thing jumped, and stared around the hangar searching for the source.

“That won’t work. Stand still, everyone. I said listen to us. None of these men and women will resist while you do what you have to do. But what we know is important, and the message needs to get out. So, hurry up and do your stuff, then get us to where we can speak to your government.”

Kirov let out a chortle. “I can’t believe you just said, ‘Take me to your leader,’ Richter. Couldn’t you do any better than that?”

Bad timing. The boss cop was close to losing it. “Quiet, all of you. No more smart comments, no more back talk. You’re going where we say, when we say. All you need to know is we’re taking you out of here.”

And didn’t they just. Within five minutes the lander was long gone, dragged from the ledge by a shunter and towed into the black, edging away until it vanished from view, cut off by the hangar doors. On their side of the partition flashing blue lights announced the arrival of a convoy of shiny new police vehicles, white armored things of a type Chambers didn’t recognize. The cops loaded them all into the wagon’s onboard cells, bouncing Richter about vindictively as they did it. He didn’t react.

As Chambers was being hustled into the wagon he noticed one officer in particular stared at him.

“Aren’t you David Chambers? The journalist?” The cop asked. “How did you get caught up with this lot?” A few heads turned. The cop seemed familiar, probably after some encounter in a police station, when he’d been following a local story.

“Yeah, that’s me.” Chambers replied not having the strength for more. Before the cop got a chance to ask anything more his boss interrupted.

“Move!” the senior policeman urged them on. Chambers was still surprised someone on Orchard remembered him.

The police machines were vacuum-sealed and designed to operate on a dock ledge. At the time in never occurred to Chambers how efficient and well equipped the police were considering when he had left Orchard five years before the security budget had been a pittance. The landing ledge cleared, hard-ball prisoner-handling, disabling fogzones, the lander removed, armored wagons. What had they been expecting?

He still hadn’t found out. That was the last time he saw the others. Richter, Keegan, Barclay, Kirov, Arden, Harvetz and Drovan. Simply disappeared. Fate unknown.

Chapter Two

Cyborgs and Trash Like That

Sunday, July 3rd

Chambers had to admit, the cheff wasn’t bad. Why should that surprise him? He wasn’t sure, but it did. He drained the cup and decided on another. It seemed somewhat positive he took that much interest in life.

The kitchen light brightened, and he slid the cup under the spigot. The first sip tasted great, but while the warmth trickled into his stomach he felt selfish and shallow. Here he was, contentedly having a brew in his apartment while the others had been taken who knew where. Coming back to Orchard had been his idea. He’d convinced them this was their best option, here they’d be taken seriously. Instead, they’d been held in police cells, separated, questioned, tormented and vanished, and then he’d been arbitrarily released without them. This was all his fault.

Saturday, July 2nd

Chambers trip in the unmarked police car had been frightening. Sure he was being transported deeper into some paranoid security labyrinth. Vanishing from the sight of the everyday world, rendered away to some clandestine, hidden jail? He’d been well enough hidden already—why would they need to take him further away? Sudden dread filled him—perhaps they weren’t going that far. This might be a one-way journey.

Chambers hadn’t seen anyone other than his escorts during his walk through the long, bland corridors. Richter and the others as lost to him now as on the day they landed. They’d never know he was gone. Who else even knew he was on Orchard? He may possibly die today. How stupid to survive his experiences on Parnassus and Harmony, only to die once he got back home and disappear into recycling. Yet he went along with them passively. All resistance drained from him.

Pale-green paint, bare walls, and a sluggish sensor system which brought up the lights a few paces behind them rather than above, their shadows constantly thrown forward to merge with the gloom ahead. Door after anonymous door to either side, with the occasional halt as his escorts opened barred gates across their path. No pattern to them—a swipe card at one door, an intercom and whispered conversation at the next, here a keypad, there a retinal scan. Finally, an incongruous and ancient iron key in a mechanical lock. An elevator ride down to a parking garage, police vehicles of every kind stretching off into the distance, in various conditions ranging from decrepit veterans to a few gleaming new ones. Chambers guards led him to one of the newer cars, popped the doors, folded his head down, and shoved him into a seat. A figure in the back turned toward him. Recognizing him, Chambers flinched as his interrogator eyed him with a steely gaze before turning to face front without a word. The guards climbed in and the car moved off silently. No blue lights this time.

When they’d pulled up at the train stop, he’d been uncomprehending. Leaning forward, trying to see through the darkened window, the interrogator reached out a hand, placing it on his chest, and pressed him back into his seat. He’d come to think of the expressionless man as Blank Face.

The interrogator hadn’t let a trace of emotion touch his features during any of his sessions with Chambers. He never laid a hand on the reporter, showing neither pleasure nor satisfaction when the guards did. No anger or contempt for crime, no irritation that his work was being made harder than necessary, no hatred for evil or political error, no distaste for tears or screams or blood or vomit. If anything, it was concentration; his brow furrowed in an intellectual effort to understand where truth might lie, what pressure points to touch, how to divine the honest answer from the deception, how to pick data from noise. Chambers came to fear his blandness far more than the guards’ aggression.

The interrogator turned to face Chambers and a sunny, tooth filled smile spread across Blank Face’s normally expressionless features, as if a switch had been thrown on some ancient and rather rusty machine, taking Chambers aback. When Blank Face spoke it seemed to be with genuine good humor, as if thanking him for giving them all such an entertaining time.

“Well, then, David. You have given us some fun. The stories you’ve told us!” The smile vanished, as quickly as it arrived. “Now, don’t make a stupid mistake, here. You might persuade a very few gullible people, but I don’t believe a word of it, and neither will anyone else with a brain.

“We know you, David. You’re a good Orchard boy from way back. You’ve been away from us, making a name for yourself out amongst the other worlds, but you’re still an Orchard boy.”

Boy? At his age? Chambers was probably fifteen years older than the police officer. The image of his own face reflected in the mirrored face mask of the police officer on the landing dock came to mind. An image that belied years of good medical and real food. If anything, he looked more like some old tramp swept up off the streets.

Blank Face was still talking. “Home, family, community; learning, work, self-improvement. That’s what Orchard’s taught you. And that’s good—just how an Orchard boy should be. Your late mother and father wouldn’t be very pleased to hear you tell such tales, or to see the people you’ve been hanging around with.” It didn’t seem puerile, somehow. Scarily, it made Chambers feel small again, out of his depth in a grownup world. Blank Face went on. “And what a curious bunch. Cyborgs, mercenaries, pagans. How can you associate with creatures like that? I’m disgusted, frankly.

“No matter. They’re gone, if they ever existed.” A chill ran down Chamber’s spine. “I’m going to take a chance on you, David. I’m not a fool so it’s not a very big chance, not really. You might have thought something, terminal, was going to happen to you, but I’m going to let you go.

“That might surprise you.” Blank Face removed his hand from Chambers’ chest and seized his jaw painfully, forcing his head around so they stared into each other’s eyes. “But who will you tell your stories to, my little journalist? Are you really going to let all of Orchard know the venerated and trusted David Chambers has been kicking around with cyborgs and trash like that? Will you really sell—no—tell those stories? Trust me, we won’t let you. We know your editors, your sources, your connections. We know all the people you use. And we know they know you’re back. Don’t be stupid enough to get in touch with them.

“You’re obsessed with cyborgs. We thought we’d done away with those things, but here you go dragging them up again. The whole human race wants to forget those creatures, wants them blotted out from history. You will not persuade people these ancient bogeymen are still around, or they’re our only hope against something even more scary and ridiculous and alien that you’ve dreamed up. I don’t know why you want us to think there are monsters out there, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve picked the wrong story this time. You will not destabilize our world.

Chambers felt spittle splash onto his face, but he was too frightened to wipe at it.

“We were all so sorry about your tragedy. Must have been why you left, I dare say. Well, while you’ve been gone, one or two of the more—radical? no, let’s say inquisitive—writers whom you might remember have left us. Tragically, we suffered a spate of accidents amongst journalists a year or two back. Along with the odd mugging.”

That toothy smile returned. “Oh, and do you remember Donna Morant? Found out her husband was having an affair. Killed him, then herself. Tragic. Strangely there are still a few over-enthusiastic types prying about. Take me seriously, David. Don’t even think of contacting any of them.”

Blank Face released his grip on Chambers’ jaw. “No, I’m not worried. We’ll be watching you, and we’ll always know just where you are. Forget your machine-man chums. They never existed. It doesn’t suit us that anyone should think differently. You’ve retired. Keep quiet, stay out of politics, leave things alone. Welcome home.

“Now, this is your stop, I believe. Out you go.”

The vehicles door slid open. Chambers almost falling from the car, catching himself before he sprawled on the pavement. He looked around himself, recognizing nothing in the flickering light of a gap-toothed line of ancient street lamps. After a long moment, he realized where he was. Beaudoin, First Town Sector, the old steps which ran up the chilly side of the strut to the mezzanine level of the station. Condensation, falling like rain from the metal roof made the sidewalk slick and began to soak his meagre coat.

The driver’s window slid down, and an arm emerged to toss his backpack out. Chambers battered slate followed it, slipping off the backpack and into a puddle.

“Quick, now. Here’s your train.” He heard Blank Face say as the glass slid up, and the car purred off into the darkened street. A hand waved cheerily from the rear window.

Blank Face had been wrong, or winding him up. Beaudoin hadn’t changed. It was another ten minutes before the rattling old train arrived, ten minutes which Chambers spent wedged into the corner of the deserted waiting room, with his back pressed hard against the walls, trembling, breathing deeply, his eyes flicking left-right-left like a cornered animal he so resembled.

Chapter Three

Deep Black from Way Back

Sunday, July 3rd

So, they were gone, were they? Never existed? Richter and the others who had risked their own lives to save his. Lost and dislocated Chambers might be, and no threat to anyone, Blank Face had been sure of that. It looked like, somehow, despite the dread and the profound feeling of uselessness, some instinct deep inside him had been obeying a half-forgotten rule of journalism: If you’re not pissing anyone off, you’re doing something wrong.

Why the hell didn’t they want to listen to him? If it had all just been bollocks, why hold him for ten days? Okay, people were still scared of cyborgs, so a jittery government might want to bury them where they wouldn’t be found, but what about the foreigners—Harvetz and his injured mate, Drovan. the two European soldiers who had accompanied them away from the nightmare of Harmony. Why whisk them away? It wasn’t as if a couple of foreign soldiers were evidence of anything.

Or was it just completeness? If they all disappeared, so much the better? Then why let him go free? Weren’t they all equally liable to talk, or equally likely to keep silent? Whatever Blank Face said about “something terminal,” Chambers knew he’d been close to death. Chilling. To have your death dispassionately assessed for cost against benefit, and then to be released as a gamble. Nonsense. Spooks don’t gamble.

The naked threat about killing journalists. Donna and her husband, Richard, were always teased about how in love they still were after years of marriage. A talented team, often working on stories together. No way would Richard have an affair, and even if he had Donna would never have harmed him. Was that the message? Be careful, we kill journalists.

And what was all stuff about his tragedy? He’d gotten over all that, hadn’t he? It was behind him now, wasn’t it? Using it as a pressure point wasn’t going to work. Maybe the first rule was that other one: stories lie behind stuff which doesn’t add up.

No one knew Chambers was back on Orchard. Well, the cop at the dock recognized him, but that was no help. Then a thought occurred to him: You never know. Cops talked to journalists; he’d relied on that himself often enough. Perhaps one of the local stringers had been handed something—maybe about a dock being cleared for some black operation, or a lander towed away, or a convoy of nice new armored vacuum wagons which just rolled out of the hangar and into town one day. There had always been one or two sharp boys and girls on the Orchard news circuit, for all its ramshackle infrastructure and navel-gazing, inbred politics. Surely, they couldn’t all have been scared off? This story might just be more interesting to some bright young kid on a news channel than another ho-hum story about local government corruption. You never know.

Chambers put the cup down on the kitchen table. “Slate. Local news search: Orchard, space, police or politics, last couple of weeks. Give me anything unusual first, then anything obscure.”

A woman’s voice, in a strong Orchard accent came from the slate: “...and today was the day, finally, after a delay of fifty-seven standard years, our habitat’s long-awaited seabed started to fill with water. The timing has been denounced as politically-motivated...” The screen rolled out, showing a date eight days previous, and an image of huge jets of water roaring out of complicated pipe work.

What? Shit. He’d been back on the hab, been here when the very event for which his dad worked half his life finally took place, and the whole thing passed him by while he stared at the walls of some deniable cell. The fractional lift in his spirits turned into a nosedive. It wasn’t that he’d particularly wanted to see it, but just not noticing such an anticipated event felt like a betrayal. A real one, not the clumsy guilt trip Blank Face had tried to send him on. It had mattered so much to the old man.

Chambers paused in his nosedive to despair as his journalistic antenna twitched. Where had all the investment come from? No one had spent that kind of money on Orchard in decades. The economy had never been strong enough. There had to be another story here, but he didn’t want to hear any more right now. Search again.

“Slate—”

“I’ve got you now, Chambers.” The faint voice came from somewhere near the slate.

Chambers yelped, bashing into the table, the cup of cheff went flying spraying its contents over walls and carpets all this passing Chambers by as he stood open mouthed as the figure of a man rapidly drew itself in the air, downwards from the top, as if a scrolling stylus was extrapolating an approximation from bad data. A translucent head, face, shoulders. As he stared, mouth agape, the chest and arms started to appear. The lounge door clearly visible through it. Chambers backed himself against the wall, as he’d done in the train station. His scalp itched, as if his hair was standing up. His breath coming in those panicky gasps once more.

“I’ve been waiting forever for you to make yourself known. What the hell kept you?” A flat voice, tinny and distant, like an ancient recording. The torso complete, a sketch of the figure’s hips was forming.

“What– what–” Chambers struggled to speak. It looked like a poor-quality phone agent, that made no sense. No phone agent he’d ever heard about just appeared without your agreement. That took you into artificial intelligence territory, and nobody used AIs any more, not if they wanted to stay alive.

A dripping noise—spilled cheff running off the edge of the table and onto the floor. Legs and feet not quite entirely drawn, the figure gradually solidifying, depth and form being added from the head downwards. The face was almost complete, and Chambers recognized it.

“Richter. You’re alive. Thank fuck! Where are you—and what is this?”

The shock followed by the recognition stopped Chambers from really looking at the face. But now he saw the empty eyes, literally. While everything else was solid, he saw right through the figure’s eye sockets, out of the back of its head and the slack-jawed hopelessness of its expression. Whatever this apparition was, it was nothing to do with the confident, assertive Richter he knew.

“Alive? Well, maybe. And maybe not. I was hoping you’d know.”

Sunday, July 3rd

The trailing, day-night division was striding toward them now, closing in at a brisk jog. When Chambers first spotted it dropping toward the village, the terminator line had shown him only a bright, truncated wedge of distant landscape, sweeping up into the curve. Anything nearer lost in deep night.

“So, what are you?” Chambers asked knowing it was a weird, unreal thing to say. However, everything about the conversation was unreal, dreamlike. He couldn’t really be standing on the balcony of the family home, staring out across the dark and waiting to see if water finally filled the sea, and talking to—well, what was he talking to?

The Richter-figure leaned forward, elbows resting on the low wall, head cupped in its hands, staring out into the dark—eyes or no eyes. Chambers recalled the power he’d felt from the eyes of a man lying wounded in a deadly street, bullets fizzing through smoke. He wouldn’t forget those eyes. Eyes belonging to a soldier long dead in one of the numerous conflicts he had covered in his career. This though, this eyeless thing, it wasn’t blind. It saw him. Whenever it moved, the image quality dropped, and it became a sketch-man again. When still, its body solidified. The voice faded and grew stronger in response to some unknown logic.

All Chambers life, there had been a smooth, bare plain stretching away from the foot of the little hill on which the village sat. The houses and apartments spread in tangled knots and clusters around a twisty road, every unbuilt space cultivated with vegetable gardens, lawns, flower beds, and the pretty orchards which gave the hab its name. The rocks which underpinned the hill broke through the soil and vegetation at its foot, to reach out in a chaotic tumble toward the machine-smooth skin of the seabed. These hills had been planned, assembled, made as part of the huge construction project which was Orchard Habitat, way back when it was new and exciting. Way back before the wheels came off.

All through Chambers childhood his dad told him stories about the sea, and how one day it would reach a quarter of the way around the hab to their back door, and how it would lap and splash against the rocks, how they’d be able to swim in it and fish in it and go boating on it. Down, way down below the apartment balcony, there’d be a jetty with boats tied up: little ones for fishing; big ones for traveling from place to place, to towns and villages further up around the curve. Out there, on those raised bits, a little lighthouse guiding the boats into port. Dad had seen the plans often. Further out, as well as the fish would be dolphins, and maybe whales. And if you looked way out, up around the curve of the hab, you’d see ships and boats coming down toward them out of the sky. One day.

That had been almost fifty years ago, and the magical day never came. The funds had never been available to finish the job, somehow. With every budget review the government moved the program back again, in favor of new industrial sites or meteor defenses, or another train line, or tax breaks for investors, or unemployment cover. Having seas would be nice, once the money was found for it.

Then the crunch came, the foreign money went away, and the local money dried up. The smooth, grey plain of seabed curved up and away for years, huge and barren and empty and useless, an embarrassment to government after government, and a joke on every other hab. If you came from Orchard you were a rustic, a country bumpkin, an unsophisticated peasant from the sticks. And your government was so inept it couldn’t even finish building the place.

The day-night line moved close enough for Chambers to see there really was water now covering the once barren seabed. Light from the distant curve reflecting off a gently- rippling surface, reminding him of a moonlit night by a genuine sea. He’d seen the real thing a few times, and he had to admit, while this didn’t look the same, it didn’t look bad at all. Far off Upspin, beneath and beyond the trailing terminator which heralded morning, the sea was day-lit, and right there was the difference: you couldn’t look at sunlit water from the night side of a planet. Chambers always found it strange how the horizon on planets fell down everywhere, instead of up in two directions and dead flat in two more, how you couldn’t see the other side of the world if you looked up, and how the daylight grew gradually out of the night, rather than trotted toward you with a sharp-edged line.

Richter’s musing voice brought Chambers back from his daydreaming “What am I? Good question. I don’t know if there’s a name for it.” The voice stronger, a faint German accent Chambers associated with the—the real? —man. “I feel like I’m me, but I’m actually data, I suppose. I know another me exists, a physical one. Or there was. He’s gone, and I’m still here. He might be dead, but I don’t like to think about that. When I decided to do this, I assumed I was going to be the real one; that I’d go on in my body. I never guessed the data would feel like it was the real me. Or I’d be the data version.” The image suddenly looked stricken which struck Chambers as ridiculous.

His reporters instincts must have been pretty deeply buried. He already had ninety-nine percent of the biggest story ever, but he was battered and scared, and he was forgetting another rule of journalism: Get them relaxed, then get them talking. It didn’t really matter who or what he was talking to—if they had the story, let them tell it to you. Next: Listen. He gave it a go.

“Tell me what’s happened since I last saw you—the physical you.” Nice distinction, Dave.

“But that’s the point. You know more than I do—I need you to tell me what’s happened. I downloaded myself on the route back into Orchard, when you were still healing in the tank, so that’s the last thing I know. We reckoned you’d be good to go, warm before we got to Orchard, and here you are, so I presume we did. I know we’re on Orchard, and I know what the date is, and I’ve found you, but I can’t find me. That’s all I know.

“I need you to tell me, Chambers. Where are the others? What’s happened to them? And where have you been?” The Richter image sounded – exasperated. Chambers decided his best recourse was honesty.

“I don’t know. The police took us all, right off the dock ledge, and I haven’t seen anyone since. They kept me away from them. And for some reason they let me go, just last night.” He didn’t feel able to go through it all. A nasty thought surfaced: Was this thing actually Richter in some way, or was it something the police had cooked up?

Chambers looked up. The image stood motionless, more like some emotional fugue state than a failure of whatever technology was involved. “All right, then.” Chambers own psychological condition felt precarious, and he wasn’t sure if he was up to calming this distressed being. “Let’s rewind a bit. What do you mean by being downloaded? You’re not the Richter I know, but you’re no phone agent. What’s the first thing you remember since being downloaded?”

A pause before the Richter image answered. “Nothing. Nothing until just now, when I found you here in your kitchen.”

Headlights appeared in the darkness below them. Chambers watched as a vehicle appeared and disappeared again between the houses further down the hill. From time to time the lights bounced off the water, the sight reaching deep down inside him to something young and excited. The vehicle turned toward the new shore, tires crunching on some stony surface he didn’t remember, and stopped. Faint voices, the clatter of equipment, the jiggling beam of a flashlight heading toward the water’s edge, something heavy being dragged. Somewhere in the village a dog barked. He remembered another dog barking back on Harmony before its life was snuffed violently out and it brought back the dread. Chambers shook it off he needed to know what this Richter could remember.

“But you said you’d been waiting forever. What did you mean?”

“I did, didn’t I? That’s strange. Wait, do you know what a seal was? The animal?”

Chambers cocked an eyebrow at the odd question and answered before he realized he had. “Some kind of Earth animal; a mammal, I think. But they lived in water. Why?”

“That’s it. I saw a vid years ago. They lived in the Arctic—that’s the bit of the Earth which was frozen solid once. They ate fish, I think, but the whole sea was covered in ice, so they dove down through holes to find them. They breathed air, but there wasn’t any under the ice, so they couldn’t go too far from the holes.” What did seals and fish have to do with this... ghost?

“Where are you going with this?” Demanded Chambers. Over by the stopped car the dragging noise stopped. Splashes, a few clanking noises, a little engine started to purr distracting Chambers from his questioning of Richter. A boat. They’d really done it. Somehow, more than the sight of water the sound of a boat told him they’d actually made a sea.

“Like I said, I can’t remember anything between then and now. Nothing except a kind of feeling I had to be somewhere, if I didn’t reach there quick I’d have real problems.” Explained Richter.

“Like the seals and the air holes.”

The image of Richter nodded. “Like the seals. The thing was, a white bar—bear—which ate the seals. Big creature, almost as big as that thing that nearly killed you and me.” Chambers’ heart stumbled. “It used to wait by the holes to grab the seals when they came out.” The empty eye sockets turned toward Chambers. “I couldn’t stay under any longer, but I was scared to come up. I don’t really know how to be this kind of me, and I can’t be the old kind anymore. But I felt certain it was dangerous to—appear in public, I suppose.”

Chambers’ mouth went dry. If a hardened combat veteran like Richter was scared, then Chambers knew he should be worried. “Look, let’s take that step back once more. I hardly understand a thing you’re telling me. Is this something to do with AI? You must realize we’ll be watched.” What would that flush out? If this Richter was a police plant of some kind a question about illegal AI’s might garner something.

The boat noise faded away, and Chambers looked out to see the terminator line was closer now. A tiny light bobbing about on the sea, heading for morning.

“I’ll come to that.” Said Richter. “It’s deep black from way back. And don’t worry about the spooks listening in: I think I can pretty much control what can be seen of me, and of you whenever we’re talking. Orchard Security isn’t quite the equal of the military tech that lets me do this. It seems there’s a lot more to this me than in any phone agent. Like I said, I’m not sure I really thought it through. I’ll tell you this much: It’s not what I expected.

“Let me explain something else.” The Richter figure’s voice faded, before strengthening again. “The thing is, I’ve met one of those lizard-things that attacked you before, a long time back.”

Chambers couldn’t believe it. “What? You knew about that alien thing? Where? When? Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Not your best dispassionately objective style, Dave.

“What makes you think I didn’t?” Replied Richter. “Understand this: They’re even more dangerous than you think.”

“More dangerous than I think? It just about ripped my chest out!” Chambers tried not to scream.

“I know. But there’s something else. There’s a whole lot of data about us we’ve been collecting for years. I’m giving it to you. You’ll need it. When I saw that thing again it took me way back, I realized you were our best hope of getting the story out this time.

“Look, Chambers, you’re a bit of an idealist. For a journalist, you’ve got some romantic ideas about war and soldiers, I don’t know how you’ve seen what you must have seen and still held on to that. There’s some weird and scary people out there, if you are near enough to big money and power, you start bumping into them. If you think we’re killers, you’ve seen nothing. The rich and powerful tend to leave a hell of a lot of bodies behind them. Usually very well-buried.”

Like Richard and Donna? Thought Chambers as Richter continued.

“Well, I’ve met a few of these guys over the years; in our business, you tend to. They sometimes are us—or were. Schutzes – squaddies - like me call that ‘going over to the dark side.’ I’ve never cared for that type personally. And when I ran into one of those lizard-things before, well, I tried to get the news out. But somebody didn’t want that news out, and people died before I got the message. So, I ran away. I was a lot younger, and maybe it made things worse. I’m not proud of it.

“I screwed up the job last time, this time though I’ve got you with me. I need you to get the story out, and you need our data, and you need me to explain it.

“I knew we all had a good chance of disappearing the instant we arrived on Orchard. So, I downloaded myself, and here we are. And now I’ve lost more friends, and this time I’ve lost me. But I’m not abandoning those people, and I’m not letting anyone bury this story again.

“So, start thinking about how we can circulate this story to the other worlds, if your local guys aren’t interested. Look, I don’t know how long I can exist like this. This isn’t what I call life, but it’s all I’ve got, and I want to hang onto it.

“I think that’s enough for now. I don’t want to stay—visible—for too long. I’m going.”

Chambers remained nonplussed. “What, just like that? You can’t go now—we’ve a lot to talk about. How do I contact you?” Did that make this Richter thing genuine, or was it another level of spook trickery?

“You don’t. I’ll find you. I know this much: We all leave a data trail, and you’ve left a particularly broad one. So, wherever you pop up, I’ll pop up.”

The Richter figure flickered and vanished leaving Chambers looking out over a dark sea.

Chapter Four

Skipping Stones

Monday, July 4th

Chambers slept restlessly until the morning line rolled round again. When he woke, he couldn’t make himself think about Richter’s demand to tell his story yet. The fear too raw, too real.

Padding naked and barefoot into the lounge, Chambers swerved around that spot in the center of the room, heading for the window. Squinting against the sudden glare. The light from the sun mirrors bouncing off something and blinding him. He didn’t remember this.

Hold it. It had to be water reflecting the light. Turning, he went back to the bedroom. Pulled on some clothes, grabbing the battered slate, he rummaged around for shoes and headed for the door, hands full and feet still bare. It was time he looked at the sea.

Hopping on one foot on the doorstep, thumb caught in the heel of a shoe, he wobbled around awkwardly until he dropped the other shoe and the slate barely managing to keep his balance. It would be dumb to fall down the steps and break his neck he chided himself. Calming down for a moment, he straightened up and looked out across the rooftops.

The view didn’t disappoint. Down the hill, beyond the buildings below, an expanse of a thousand shades of blue stretched out both directions up the curve, Upspin to the left and Downspin to the right. At its near edge, the water lapped against a shingle beach, which must have been the source of the crunching noise he’d heard the night before. Further out the two lighthouses his father had told him about, a pair of neat little red and white towers facing each other across a couple of hundred meters of sea. And way off in front of him, toward Leftside, the sea ran on and on toward the far wall.

Chambers knew the distant shore had been planned to be around three kilometers wide, but from here it was only visible as a thick green band below the wooded hills that rolled up to the black. Pretty village, beach, lighthouses, sea view, farmland, forested slopes, the wall, and the smoothly-turning constellations. Above it all, the curve arching upwards and inwards until it disappeared behind the mirrors, more than fifty kilometers overhead, before emerging from the sun glare to arc downwards and around to the village once more. And as the curve approached, it grew from a thin scimitar line to a broadening sweep of green and blue. Peace, beauty, grandeur. Nature and majestic construction in graceful harmony. This finally was the perfect view old Pete Chambers had hoped for. The younger Chambers inquisitive journalistic mind would not be sated as he asked himself a few pointed questions. So why now? So many years unfinished, then suddenly this perfect loveliness. How had the squabbling, penny pinching Orchard government found the money to afford this?

Ignoring the dropped shoe, Chambers leaned against the low balcony wall and let his gaze follow the waterline on around the hill. This was the first time he’d taken a proper look at the neighborhood since he’d come back. Everything looked a lot cleaner, brighter, and better maintained, as if the government finally spent a pile of money on tidying up Orchard’s act. The village roads spotless and litter-free, and all the buildings seemed to be in some sort of use. Now he looked more closely he couldn’t see any graffiti, any dilapidated apartments, any flaking paint or broken windows. Even the gardens and paths seemed neat and well-tended. No discarded junk lying about.

A clatter and hum from far off to his right, the unmistakable sound of a train pulling into the village. He leaned further out on the balcony wall, twisting around to look away from the sea and back along the side wall of the house and across the street. This would be a local train, like the one he’d caught from Beaudoin the other night, but it sounded a lot less decrepit. No squealing wheels, no clanking couplings. Chambers caught a glimpse of movement through the trees, an impression of white and blue wagons moving briskly. This one wasn’t slowing for the station. What the hell? He followed the movement as far as he could, then quickly crossed to the other end of the balcony to pick it up again as it emerged into view on the far side of the house.

From this side, he plainly heard the drumming of the wheels on the rails and the humming of the motors, but he still couldn’t make out much through the buildings and trees. He followed the noise until it faded, finally spotting the line of freight cars as they emerged from the wood line and went on up the curve. Not the local passenger service, then, but something new. Large-scale haulage; an expensive thing to start up. What’s going on here? From the distant wood the line ran straight Upspin, and he stood and watched until the details of the twenty or so freight cars were lost to distance. Eventually, all he could make out was the cars’ upper surfaces. Yet, even from this distance the train looked modern, clean, well-maintained. Not the usual Orchard thing at all.

Chambers turned back looking at the village with fresh, questioning eyes. The last time he’d seen it from up here rubbish had been piled high in the alley below, the empty lots blighted by scattered broken machinery, and the whole place looked neglected. Now, the alley looked like a pleasant place to stroll, the gardens ablaze with color, and the rooftop deck of the apartment below him was bright and clean in the morning light. He heard footsteps and voices, the smell of fresh coffee and baking bread, between the trees he made out people going about their everyday business. Which was, it seemed, shopping for groceries, fiddling around with a few very new small boats and their associated gear, tending to their animals and their smallholdings, taking little kids to and fro, and chasing bigger kids off to the local train for school and college.

Surely no one was talking about wars and cyborgs, old religions and mass murder, about torture and disembowelment and bloody great lizard-things which ripped people’s limbs off.

Nothing was real here. How the hell were people going on doing just what people do, when all that horror lurked out in the deep wide black? That beautiful velvet vastness would never look the same to him again after the sights he had witnessed on Harmony.

Okay, let’s think logically said the journalists side of Chambers brain. Most people didn’t know about what was going on beyond the peaceful walls of Orchard and the other colonized worlds. But those few who did didn’t seem to care. And he would be deep in a world of grief if he tried to do anything about that. Telling Richter’s story wasn’t a decision he couldn’t make lightly.

Chambers remembered something Pavel Kirov, one of Richter’s disappeared men, once said to him. He and Kirov had been having a casual chat and, as so often with soldiers, it happened over a brew. He’d been trying to get to know this curious man with his metal eyes, his weird senses, his mixed ancestry, and his endless jokes.

He’d asked a vague question about ambushes, hoping to learn what the Enhanced, as these soldiers with their extraordinary abilities liked to be called considering Cyborg to be some kind of insult, felt. What they thought when the target walked right into their sights. Kirov took his meaning differently. He’d been ambushed himself, more than once.

What do you do when it all turns to crap? Listen, David Petrovich, you go forward and fight, or you run like hell to get out of trouble, away from the danger. It’s called breaking contact.

But then you stand, and you listen, and you look. You look for your friends, and you see if there’s anyone else still alive. Then, you all take off again. Or you’re alone, and you do it all by yourself.

Once you can stop running you make a list of what you’ve still got, and you carry on with that. You don’t beat yourself up and waste time grieving over what you’ve lost, or wishing for what you’d like, or dreaming about “if only.” You just go with what you’ve got.

Fair enough thought Chambers. I’ve got a beach and a sea. Let’s go and skip some stones.

#

Which was what he was doing when the Richter avatar came back. Standing up to his knees in the sea, clutching a fistful of pebbles in his left hand and skipping them with his right. Things were looking up: his ribs still tight, but at least he was able to swing his arms. He’d been skipping stones for a little while, and with a bit of luck and concentration he’d found he managed six or seven bounces in succession.

A group of teenage kids a little distance away, paddling or swimming or just fooling around as the mood took them. Whenever he got a stone to go a decent distance, they’d glare at him. Why weren’t they in school anyway? Chambers wondered. He ignored them, engrossed in his simple game. The last time he’d tried this he had been a kid himself; he’d never really got the hang of it then. Now, it seemed to be coming together.

His last shot still skipped and splashed across the surface when the Richter avatar returned. This time the thing didn’t scare the crap out of him by materializing directly in front of him. It scared the crap out of him by whispering in his ear:

“Delightful place you’ve got here, Chambers.”

He spun around, heart thudding once more. His handful of stones splashed into the water. Would there ever again be a moment when he wasn’t petrified? He couldn’t see the thing. “Where the fuck are you?”

“Scheisse.” The Richter avatar swore in German. “Keep your voice down and stop freaking out. Here I am, trying to be just a tiny bit covert and you’re acting like a nervous virgin at her first orgy. Stop prancing about and calm down.”

“What do you expect?” Chambers got a hold of himself a little. “All right, then. Let’s stop playing games. Where are you?”

“You won’t see me. But I’m here. I’m learning more about this kind of life, and it looks as if I don’t need to be quite as—apparent—as the other night.”

“I take it you mean my apartment, or was it the village?”

“What?” Said Richter confused.

“You said ‘delightful place you’ve got here.’ Which did you mean: my own place or the village? And what have you been doing since you terrified me the other night?” Chambers couldn’t trust the thing, but maybe he might learn from it.

Richter’s voice originated from nowhere, but it seemed to be outside Chambers’ head, not inside. Not going nuts, then, with any luck. “I meant this cute little habitat you live on. It’s drollig - quaint—isn’t it? No, that’s not it. What’s the right word in English? Twee? Pretty views, nice little lake here, green fields and woods as far as the eye can see. Like the lid on a box of chocolates. A bit lacking in mountains, though, for my taste.”

Nice little lake? Chambers bit. “Can’t see why that would worry you right now. You’re not going rock climbing any time soon, are you?” Was Richter trying to wind him up? A little petty, perhaps, but two can play at that game.

The audio quality dropped, and the avatar’s voice became frosty. “No, I’m not. And I’m not fooling around when good people are missing, and the biggest threat ever to face our whole species is coming right at us, either. Get your ass into gear, Chambers. You look like shit; you haven’t shaved in ages. You’re wasting time. You’ve got work to do.”

“I’m not taking a ribbing from thin air, Richter. Shaved? Who gives a shit? And you think I’m lacking perspective, do you? I don’t need to explain myself to something half-way between a video game and a voice mail message, either, but just this once I’m going to.

“Get a hold of this lot. One: I listened to you when you told me how to behave in a firefight, because that’s what you do. But I’m the journalist here, not you. I’ll decide when I want to do research, and when I want to talk to people, and when I want time to bloody think. Don’t tell me how to work. This is what I do.

“Two. A lot of strange stuffs happening here on Orchard, above and beyond the story we’ve brought back.”

“But...” Interrupted Richter only for Chambers to cut him off.

“No, don’t interrupt me. I haven’t told you this yet, but the police here, and I guess the government, just don’t want to know what we met out there. I know they’re not stupid, so why don’t they care? Someone’s been spending a load of money here, money Orchard didn’t have a few years back. Funny, two odd things in the same place at the same time. Connected? Maybe. Where did all that money come from, and what’s in it for whoever’s making it? Journalism 101: Follow the money.”

If the Richter avatar had been sent by the police, they wouldn’t expect him just to lose interest and walk away. If it was real, then perhaps both he and the avatar did want the same thing. However old Richter was, surely he’d never think a threat this big just didn’t matter.

The kids were all standing and staring at him. Chambers realized he’d been shouting, lowering his voice to a near whisper. “Three. Not too many people will want to listen to my stories about foreign wars and alien lizard monsters once they see me up to my knees in the sea talking to myself, and looking like shit, as you put it. I’m heading back to the apartment. If you want to talk rather than have an argument, I’m sure you’ll find a way of joining me. Dress code: visible.”

Chambers did his best to stomp off through the shallows, soaking his rolled-up trouser legs as he did so. He looked to Upspin. High up in the distance he could still make out the train, a long white and blue shape rolling steadily onwards around the curve.

#

Chambers wanted to hold on to the anger. It felt so much better than the dread and the doubt. Whatever this thing might be it looked and sounded like Richter, and Richter and the others had saved his hide more than once. So maybe he owed it some consideration. And maybe the avatar was genuine; if so maybe it was right, and he should be moving faster with this. No; he knew well enough how to work at a story, and he needed his thinking time or else he’d be chasing after trivial details while the whole direction of his research vanished in a delta of meandering streams of thought. He also knew he was still no surer about the avatar.

Chambers walked up the new shingle beach and crossed the strip of marram grass running along the shore, studying one of the shiny little motorboats beached near the footpath, before climbing the winding stone steps leading up from the waterfront into the lane below the apartment, he realized he had been so absorbed in every new thing which the village had to show him that his anger simply evaporated. And he realized he was ready to start thinking seriously. Chambers didn’t need a thrill of indignation to validate his certainty something was seriously weird in his home. Follow the money, indeed.

When Chambers entered the apartment, he took that same curious route around the lounge, setting the slate down on the table while telling the kitchen to organize breakfast. By now it should have restocked itself, and the brisk arrival of a plate of scrambled eggs and a pile of toast answered that one. Tea, juice, and he started to feel marginally in control of his life for the first time since they’d smacked back down onto the dock ledge. Just so long as he didn’t think about the things out in the black.

And, as if the avatar calmed down as well, it waited until he’d almost finished his meal before quietly announcing itself by sketching its outline faintly in the air.

“Hello, Chambers. Shall we try again?” For Richter, the voice was practically apologetic, almost timid.

Chambers swallowed a mouthful of toast, and nodded. “Yeah, we should. Have a seat...” he trailed off and then laughed. “Screw it. There’s no protocol for this. Do whatever you need to feel comfortable, if anything makes a difference to you. But first things first. How sure are you we’re secure?”

“Completely. Like I said, I don’t think your local spooks are on to me. I’ve spent the time since we last met learning more about your home, and more about me, so I’m confident enough. I can feel what’s going on around me, just like you can tell when there’s someone standing near to you in the dark. And I can deal with it.” The image solidified, showing the Richter-avatar at an angle, as if the man leaned against an invisible wall. Virtual hands tucked into virtual pockets. Non-confrontational body language from a creature without a body. Good trick. But still no eyes.

“Right, now, there’re three different bugs in your apartment and another one in the right- hand toy lighthouse out there, aimed at your window. That’s what that little boat was up to the other night, by the way. But I’ve dealt with them. The data they’re recording now is harmless. So, let’s talk, shall we?”

“Okay. We’ll talk.” Chambers stopped himself from looking around for the bugs. If they were there, and working, he was already far beyond the point of no return. “But don’t try trampling over the top of me again. Remember, you came looking for me. We need to do this, whatever the hell it is we are trying to do, so let’s start by agreeing what the hell we’re trying to do, and then we’ll talk about how we do it.”

The Richter avatar nodded in agreement. “Abgemacht. Fair enough. It’s simple, for me. I want to find my people, I want to find me, and I want to let the whole bloody race know what’s coming at us. Big, nasty, carnivorous aliens who we know have wiped out other, competing races.” There. At last the words had been said. The truth that Richter and Chambers had both witnessed out in the depths of space had at last seen the light of day. “There isn’t really anything else, is there?”

Chambers wondered if that made the Richter avatar trustworthy? “No, that’s true, so far as it goes. And you’re right: it’s the most important news anyone should ever need to hear. But like I’m trying to tell you, I don’t understand why the police reacted the way they did. And I don’t know who the hell’s been spending money around here, or why, but things have really changed since I was last home.” Chambers realized he’d been tapping out points on his fingers with a piece of toast, and dropped the offending piece of food onto his plate.

Brushing the crumbs from his fingers, he went on. “You don’t know Orchard, but people have always teased us we’re a backward kind of a place, a bit rural. Now here I come, running back home for the first time in a few years, and the police have got fancy new cars, there’s a bright, shiny, freight line running right round the hab, everything’s had a paint job, and we’ve finally filled up the seas.

“That’s a big deal, Richter; that last one is a really important spend. It means we’ve finally got enough money to waste some. Now that’s nice, you might say, but it doesn’t end there. When I announce humanity has just run into a major threat with a track record of wiping out annoying animals like us, you’d think someone would be a little bit interested. But no one gives a damn. The lander is towed, and we’re locked up. Everybody else vanishes, but I’m tossed back onto the street and told I’m not worth the effort of killing.

“You can see why I’m curious, whenever I can spare the time from being terrified. And, in case you’re wondering, I know I don’t sound like I’m taking this seriously, but I’m trying very hard not to scream.”

The avatar straightened up and started prowling around the apartment, peering at pictures, furniture, the little statues which Petra collected. Chambers found himself wondering how much of it was unconscious habit and how much a calculated effort to seem as human-normal as possible. Or—errant thought—was the avatar being worked from somewhere?

After a few moments the Richter avatar stopped its prowling. “Okay. You’re right, that’s strange; and there may be a link between what we know and how the police behaved. And between that and all the big investments. But does it change what we have to do?”

“Damn right it does.” Chambers spluttered. Why couldn’t Richter see? “This twee home of mine—” the avatar turned around and raised its hands, palms out, in conciliation, “—we’re not big enough to have an army, or loads of cops, or much in the way of a security force. There’s never been the need for it. We just try to stay friends with people. That’s not hard—out here, we’re the farm, the supermarket for all the moon stations and the orbitals, and everything else. So, people don’t want to attack us, I guess. You don’t blow up the grocery store if you want to eat. There hasn’t been any serious conflict in this system since we first came here. At the moment, there’s enough of everything to go around, I suppose.

“What I’m trying to say is this place has always been quiet, calm, a bit rustic. So, I don’t understand what’s going on to make it suddenly wealthy, and the cops suddenly scary, and I certainly wasn’t expecting you when you appeared out of nowhere. So, I’ll be straight: I don’t know if I can trust you, whatever you are.

“And if I can’t trust you, I’m not in a rush to tell you anything about the stuff you say you’ve missed. I don’t see what I’d gain. So, before I do trust you, I want you to tell me about how you download yourself, about what it feels like, about why you’d do such a thing. I want to know a lot more about you. Just what exactly is the difference between you and an artificial intelligence?” Suddenly, the avatar leaned forward confrontationally from the waist, translucent hands on its hips, head up, chin forward. If it had been solid, he’d have been ready to dodge a punch.

Chambers pressed on. “When you’ve done all that, I need you to explain to me why anyone even wants to be enhanced in the first place. Face it, Richter, you’re doubly frightening. You’re not just a scary cyborg from out of ancient history, you’re the ghost of one. Before I start telling the worlds you’re the good guys, I need to believe it myself.

“So, tell me: why did you want this done to you?” Chambers barely saw the avatar’s face now.

The sketch-man sighed. “That’s the point—I don’t remember a thing about Enhancement. I certainly didn’t agree to any of it. Who I am now is a very long way from who I intended to be.” The Richter avatar waved a dismissive hand. “But never mind me. You’ve heard us talk about Feroz Mahmoud. If you want to understand us, you need to know about him. A very careful man, Feroz. Right from the start he figured there might come a time when we’d need to... argue our case, I guess. There’d be a moment when we wouldn’t be useful anymore, and someone might just decide to uninvent us. No one ever believed that shit about ‘we’ll reverse the surgery and then you can go home.’ Most of us realized damn quickly that, once we became inconvenient, we were dead. So, we tried very hard to be useful.

“I say “we,” but I came along when the program had already been going for a bit. Feroz wanted a bargaining chip. He wanted to be able to threaten he could reveal where the bodies were buried, literally. There’s some very scary stuff in the data he collected; it names a lot of names and it’s very convincing. Because it’s true, and there’s not much we can say that about. So that’s what he did. He saved everything. And what he didn’t have,” The Richter avatars face split into a wicked grin, “he found ways of acquiring.

“I’ve been looking after it for a long time. It’s on your slate now, but it’s in a load of other places as well. This data’s not being wiped, whoever goes missing. If you want to understand how this version of me came about, you need to start there. You ready to see some of it?”

Chambers shook his head. “No, not yet. I want to ask you about what you said just then. What did you mean you didn’t agree to it, or remember it? The getting enhanced.”

The Richter avatar shrugged its shoulders. “Just that. I never signed up for these modifications, and until the Pietersberg I’d not thought about it at all, for over a century.” Once again, the avatar sounded lost. “I can’t understand why that is. But it matches with everything Feroz warned us about. About checking downloads, about not believing a thing we’re told. About how they’re messing with our heads all the time.”

Chambers recalled the words of Semyonov, the ARTOK chairman from their fateful meeting that had started this nightmare he found himself in: They have no continuous and uninterrupted personality. And how the man referred to the Enhanced troopers as weapons or constructs. Okay, a lot more to know here. And it didn’t make him any clearer about who he was dealing with.

Chambers decided to press on the way he had been going. “All right, I get that, for now. Let’s go back to talking about your data.”

“Fair enough.” Said the avatar. “You can start with Stevie Arden. He’s not quite the oldest of us, but he’s been around since the program really took off. Here goes, then.”

The world around Chambers fades as his reality becomes someone elses.

Chapter Five

Leaving the Dreamtime

Waking up?

I’m cold. I must be leaving the dreamtime.

I’m bouncing around in a vehicle. I can feel the needles withdrawing from my arm, and the shivers start. They always do. I pull down the sleeve of my smock, rubbing at the irritated skin. Feels like my regular combat smock.

So where is it this time? The doors are hissing open on a battered landscape of rocky hills, scrub, and a yellowish sky. Thunderous noise fills the air—yes, there’s air, real air. Tastes a little like a chemical plant, tainted but breathable. Gravity feels about Earth-normal. Might even be Earth. Some of the noise must be tactical transport aircraft, the thwock-thwock meant aircraft in an atmosphere, probably flitters or tilt-rotors. Explosions batter at my ears.

Davis is sitting opposite me—we’re in an armored vehicle, a personnel carrier—and he grins and shrugs. The others are coming out of the dreamtime, and start doing whatever they do: chewing gum, reading quietly. We’re waiting for data now. God, they’re sloppy; this should all be done before the doors open, long before we get to the job.

At last I snap into the trance as the orders start to download. The carrier doors, and what we can see of the world outside, move at a crawl. A few Slows, our slang term for the unenhanced, are in view. One, a rifleman crouching beside a box of machine gun ammunition, is fixed in a frozen glare at our vehicle. The Slows like us as much as we tolerate them. Not a lot. The noise of battle drops downscale, to a low growling as my enhancements filter out the sounds of combat allowing me to concentrate fully on the incoming orders.

The orders flow on and the situation comes alive for me, starts to become real. I’m support on phase one, assault on phase two. There won’t be a third phase. Simple, neat, and precise. At least something’s not sloppy.

Time check gives us long enough for a ground recce and maybe even a Slow’s eye-view of the battle. I pull on my battle order, settle my helmet, and we check all our comms systems. Five minutes to go.

The doors are open at last. We come out of the vehicle in neural overdrive, moving fast, and go to ground well spread-out. At least the terrain is right: I’ve been on jobs where we debussed into desert, expecting jungle. My flank looks familiar, the orders are good. The data map in my head scrolls as I look around. My eye display updates me on bearings, and crosschecks key features with the data map. I’m happy with the location.

What about the situation? Around us, Slows are under fire. So are we, in fact, but it’s hard to see it as a problem. The world is full of a low growling, sounds downshifted almost below our hearing. It all adds to the dream feel which can easily end with you dead.

All the frequencies are full of rumbling and yowling; we’re okay on frequency-agile comms, fed direct to the ear. It helps us make sense of it all.

One man near me is running, in mid-stride, with both feet airborne. I watch as he sinks and starts his next stride. Low clouds drift by, metal shards puffing out of them. Airbursts. It’s possible for us to see the pressure wave when we operate at these speeds, and often to anticipate the shrapnel’s fall.

Not so the Slows. I see a wave front bearing down on the runner, see the fragments that are going to kill him. It’s just too far for me to push him aside, and the kinetic energy of my body hitting his would do the shell’s work for it, anyway. I look away as their paths converge.

Mahmoud starts his move forward. He heads for a gully in a weird ballet, leaping to dodge drifting shrapnel and then freezing like any Slow to check for mines. Following his lead, we all take our own routes to the start-line. I move off, King and Irwin to my left. Davis backs me up.

The start-line’s a small dimple in the ground, maybe fifty meters broad, running across the front of the enemy positions. From it we can see the emplacement halting the advance. Beautifully chosen defense; it covers the gully with enfilade fire and can’t easily be approached. If we linger, the enemy Slows will see us eventually.

We flicker, moving from point to point without hanging around, pausing only long enough to capture the full picture. I scan in thermal, false-color, and times-four optical. We stay maybe three or four seconds. The whole section uses data-link to confirm to Mahmoud they’ve seen enough, and we head quickly back to the stalled point Company.

Once there we home in on their major, and drop out of overdrive. The major jumps. The Slows always jump when we pull that one. Eight enhanced troopers materialize around you, when your nerves are already keyed up. Sure, you jump. We tell him what we’re going to do to extricate his company out of its hole and he hates us a little more. Slows are just different, I guess; it’s hard to remember how it felt.

#

We do it. It goes mostly to plan—it usually does. The emplacement never really sees us, but that’s normal too. We are just so much – better than Slows. Ashford loses his eyes to a laser burn, and Davis takes a bullet in the head and one in the thigh. Little enough, considering. A bit of dreamtime in the casevac tanks, a repair session somewhere, and they’ll be back with us for the next job.

The armored carrier jolts us to an airfield in the middle of nowhere, a hostile Slow sergeant escorting us. He seems to think we ought to be interested in his battalion’s little battle, but we’re all too wired to give a rip about the details. We’re ready for the piss-up. At the airfield there’ll be a bar, maybe women; maybe Command won’t have gotten its act together to get us back to the dreamtime just yet. Maybe.

We debus...

“Right, people. Once Keegan’s unloaded you, it’s clean weapons, ammo to the safe-locker.”

...and Mahmoud down arms us. A good clean, then the weapons are into their boxes, the ammo into his safe-locker. The tanks holding Ashford and Davis, powered down to tick over, are taken away to an aid post. They’ll catch up with us; we’re all too expensive to lose in the military system. Mahmoud flashes authorizations about and accesses the comms nets; I hear him giving Command an after-action report, we all try eavesdropping to find out how much leave we’re due. But he’s too fly for us: he’s gone into a white noise zone, and even turns his back so we can’t lip-read.

Keegan—she’s the section second in command—leads us away while Mahmoud’s still gassing. Five minutes later we’ve found a bar, and the beers are getting hammered. Mahmoud joins us in time to stop a Slow from being taken apart. The man’s bugging us about who do we think we are, why are we hanging around in uniform, and why do we think we’re so great. Usual stuff.

They never know what the comedown is like: post-adrenaline depression, tenfold. The whole stinking world seems to go past at a snail’s pace when you are not in Overdrive, that place your enhancements take you too when you are in combat; even talking to a Slow takes forever. I mean, they’re all right as people, but who’s got the time? The temptation to power back up and marry the body to the pace of the mind again is almost overwhelming. But Overdrive costs you; they say it’s near enough a year off your life for every ten minutes. I’ve no idea how they know that. But you don’t waste it.

Besides, I fall over and hurt myself even when I’m pissed at Slow speed.

#

“Beers incoming.” Calls Keegan.

“Cheers, bud.” I reply.

“Who’s paying?” Asks Davis.

“Command!” Laughs Keegan.

“Did I say how much I like them?” Rejoins Irwin.

“Fine bunch of men and women.” Echoes King.

“I wouldn’t go that far. Fine bunch of credit on this card, though.” Says Keegan as she slips the credit card into her uniform blouses pocket.

Mahmoud doesn’t drink alcohol. As far as I know, it’s not a religious thing. It’s just, well, he’s not the kind of guy who ever fully lets his guard down. He’s careful. Doesn’t get stressed about the rest of us having a laugh, and—thank God—he doesn’t go all sanctimonious if you’re a bit hungover.

“Where’s this stuff made, then?” I ask holding my amber drink with its frothy head up to the light.

“Who knows?” Mumbles King. “Drinkable enough, though.”

“You’re no judge. I’ve seen you drink aviation fuel.” Jokes Keegan

“Oh, yeah; I remember. Good brew it was, too. Trouble was—”

Davis finishes King’s line for him. “It didn’t get you high. We’ve all heard it, mate.”

Fred Irwin, on the other hand, seems to have a limitless capacity for any kind of alcohol, anywhere, anytime.

“Here, what’s this? Thought you’d got me whisky.”

“I thought it was whisky.” Replied Keegan.

Irwin held the glass closer to his metal eyes examining its contents minutely. “I think it’s nail varnish remover.”

“Don’t be soft. Look at the state of your nails—how would you know?”

“Gimme the bottle; let’s see. It is bloody nail varnish remover!”

Billy King just likes winding people up to see them blow. He’s particularly good at making Carol Keegan mad. She likes everything just so, which is why she’s such a good deputy section commander.

“Did you see that major’s face when Mahmoud popped up in front of him? He nearly crapped himself.”

“You’ve got to hand it to Mahmoud: he’s got great people skills.”

“Hiya, you lot. Anyone seen my nail varnish remover?” Asked Angie Barclay as she sidled up to our table an evil smile on her face.

“I think we were just set up, guys.” I growled even though I really felt like laughing.

“I told you: never go drinking with girls.” Admonished Keegan.

The piss-up’s a good one; Mahmoud uses Command’s magic credit flash and the autobar keeps filling us up, until Angie Barclay tries to see what makes it work. Once she’s got its head off it doesn’t want to play anymore.

“You’ve busted it, you daft bat.” Moaned Irwin. “Now where we gonna get a drink from?”

“Never trust a girl with anything technical, that’s what I say.” Said King as if stating an undeniable fact.

“I dunno. Wouldn’t you call the guys who fly those amazing hypersonic orbital lander things a bit technical?” Asked Barclay dead pan.

“I suppose. Why?” Responded King.

In answer Barclay pointed a finger in the direction of the bars entrance. “Keegan’s just pulled one, and she is a girl, too, last time I looked. That’s them off out the door just now.”

“My point exactly. I don’t trust her with him.”

“I doubt he’ll break—he looks like a big strong lad. Way to go, Carol!” Shouted Barclay, clapping enthusiastically. The rest of us ignore her and order more drinks.

We even find some women. None of the fellas have anything against Barclay or Keegan but it just never occurs to us—or them, I guess—to start something within the Section. They both ended up wandering off with pilots, anyhow.

Chapter Six

The Other Bastards are Shooting Back

Abruptly, Chambers hears new voices and sees different images. He’s watching someone who’s watching someone else. It feels immediate, present, now. He sees two people looking at the same data he has just seen.

“So, when was this?” The first speaker is a man used to exercising authority. Surely this is a soldier.

“About ten years ago, I think. Yes, that’s right—look, the dates on the top right of the screen.” This one sounds civilian, for some reason. His drawling speech is a little less formal.

“And how fast are they really moving? That guy who got blown up was like a statue.” Said the senior soldier curiously.

“Don’t be misled by the images. You’re seeing it from Arden’s point of view. He’s not Superman, but he is a hell of a lot faster than you and me. They all are. Most of the speed comes from how fast he’s thinking, and how fast he can react. What he sees is probably a bit misleading for him as well, and it’s clearer for us looking at these images now than it was for him actually doing it then. He probably thought that man was like a statue as well but if we look again we can see he’s actually moving, albeit very slowly by comparison to the trooper.” The civilian appears to be a corporate suit of some kind.

They’re in a meeting room, looking at images of battle. But Chambers can’t see either of the speakers. Perhaps they’re behind whatever’s being used to capture the scene.

“Right. Can we see further over here, to the right of where the enemy position is?” A uniformed arm waves at the display.

A short, dismissive laugh from the corporation suit. “No. You’re making a common mistake, I’m afraid. People do, when they see this kind of stuff for the first time. All we can see and hear is what Arden saw and heard, what went into his backup. He’s just like a camera in that respect. If he didn’t look in that direction we won’t be able to, either. We can enhance the images, freeze them, zoom in, gain some 3-D by comparing his eyes’ separate pictures, or if there’s someone else’s viewpoint as well—all that stuff. But if it’s not there, it’s not there.”

“Yes, of course. Got it.” Acknowledged the uniformed man gruffly.

“What would you like to see next?”

“Let’s go back through the actual engagement again. Take it from where they closed on the gun position and started clearing the trenches.”

“One moment, please, uh, here?”

“Yeah, that’s fine. Now this one here—what’s his name, Arden? —he’s just now firing over his fellow soldier’s head at this laser guy, who looks like he’s going to throw a grenade. What had his marksmanship been like?”

“Arden’s? Just a jiffy again, please.” The suit turns his head to address someone out of visual range. “Iqbal? On screen, please—the Brigadier would like—ah, thank you, ha-ha—yes, here; eighty-nine, ninety-one, eighty-eight, ninety flat in his last four combat tests. Why? Oh, I see. He missed with the first shot. Yes, I was surprised, too, when I saw that earlier.”

Uniformed guy leaned into the display squinting for a few seconds as his combat seasoned eyes took in the whole scene before he stood back up right seemingly satisfied he had found what he had been looking for. “I’m not. I think that first round was bloody good. Put laser-man, here, right off his stroke.”

“Well, you’re the customer and I’m the contractor, but he really should have done better. Disappointed to see it, to be honest. The first-round-kill-probability of these units is supposed to be point-nine-nine-eight, always.”

Now it was the older soldiers’ time to chuckle at the naivety of civilians. “Well, there’s a key difference here, and this time you’re making a basic mistake, I’m afraid. The difference is the other bastards—sorry, units—are shooting back, and it does tend to put you off. Trust me, I know.”

#

“In conclusion, Brigadier takes us through the current enhancements and capabilities of the units within the program. There have been other modifications in a few cases, but it’s these that have proven to be the most useful and successful,” mm-hmm

“Now, I’d like to suggest a bit of lunch in the boardroom—perhaps the majors would like to join Iqbal in the canteen? —and then I’d really like to show you some of our proposals for the future. Now I know the, uh, the budget isn’t quite settled yet—”

The Brigadier cut the corporation man’s sales pitch off mid-flow. “Thank you; very generous, but I’m afraid we don’t have the time. There are several things I need to know quite urgently. My own interest is primarily in the operational and deployment particulars.” The Brigadier gestured toward a small cluster of lesser uniforms behind him. “Major Garner has the details, and she’ll share them with your Mr. Iqbal shortly.

“In essence, I wish to know how many of the units have been made, including any test sets. How many survive to this day, what happened to the remainder, the whereabouts of any not deployed with ourselves, the ratio of time on standby to time on operations, the time spent on route between missions as compared to time deployed, and so forth—”

Remotely, Chambers found himself hoping for the same data.

A bead of sweat formed on the corporate man’s forehead, the Brigadiers request had thrown his carefully orchestrated pitch into disarray. “But I don’t think—”

“Be so good as to let me finish, please. Then Major Garner has some questions of her own which she’d like answered, concerning, shall we say, the engineering aspects. Design and actual capabilities. Mean time between failures of various artificial components. Cost and availability of spare parts. Refurbishment and upgrades—that kind of thing.” The muscles at the edges of the Brigadiers mouth twitched as if it wanted to form a smile at the corporate man’s squirming under the unexpected interrogation.

“And, finally, Major Sondberg wishes to look at the human resources minutiae: initial selection of personnel, reaction to surgery, including psychological failure, endurance, adaptability, and so on.” The smile now formed fully on the Brigadiers face. “You may wish to call on additional personnel.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I have that kind of information.” Blustered the suit. “We’d need to talk to Engineering, or possibly even Accounting, if they have it. Um, some of it would be company confidential, I fear. I would require quite unprecedented authority from the Board. In any event, it will, uh, take some considerable time—possibly as much as a year—to obtain all that detail.”

“You have seven standard days to deliver the whole lot, without exception. The Anglo-Russian Trading and Operations Conglomerate has been living very comfortably off this contract for many years now. And, for some inexplicable reason, the Directorate has allowed this to go on.” The military voice—this brigadier—is stern.

“Now I’m in post, I’m giving you notice the days of the open book contract are over. Another war is certainly coming, and I’m required to ensure our weapons are at maximum effectiveness, and the Directorate receives value for its money. Doubtless, our respective lawyers will love thrashing out the details underpinning my statement.

“You may wish to consider the precise meaning of ‘company confidential’ in the context of a company which has been requisitioned by the Directorate, in its entirety and without recompense, which is my alternate suggestion. We may, of course, choose to bypass the legal process entirely if it looks likely to take too long. It would then be necessary for me to draft the majority, or all the company’s employees, who would consequently be subject to full military discipline of the most rigorous nature. Any drafted employees considered to be surplus to the requirements of a slimmed-down program might be more profitably employed in a remote and classified location, or in deep space, or perhaps in a combat zone as their skill sets suggest. You are a company employee yourself, I believe?”

Suit’s face paled as all the blood leached from it as he struggled to process the full implications of the Brigadiers statement. Time the older soldier did not intend to give him.

“From this moment forward, the ARTOK company’s famed Human Enhancement Contract is working to a set of key performance indicators. The cost and performance of these clever but ridiculously expensive supermen will now be scrutinized most carefully.

“Your company is about to leave its comfort zone.”

#

The tiny speck of light became a patch, then a circle, then an ellipse, and finally resolved itself into the lounge window of his apartment. Chambers shook his head, trying to throw off the mental confusion the scenes left. After hearing what others had heard, seeing what other eyes had seen, almost thinking the thoughts of strangers, he barely knew who he was any more.

“So that was Arden? Who were the other ones?” Chambers asked of the stoic Richter avatar.

The sketch-man floated in the air, legs crossed, still transparent. Face strained. “The ARTOK people. That’s one of the best bits Feroz found, and it led him to so much more. It’s from some time after the first Chinese War, when the Enhanced Human Program was still fairly young and not so well known.” Richter’s voice became faint and scratchy. “Once Feroz found that I guess he dug harder and found more of the commercial stuff, and that took him to some of the classified stuff from the Directorate. At first, it’s just Top Secret, but then it all goes very black indeed.”

In that moment Chambers felt that if the avatar had had eyes they would have been firmly fixed on him. “You want to know why anyone even wants to be one of us? Work your way through this, and then you’ll understand a bit more. Listen to Steve Arden, from way back before he became Enhanced. When he was a Slow, just like you.”

Chambers felt the world around him becoming distant as the mental confusion returned and he became someone else.

###

Thank you for reading Cyborg, The Deep Wide Black book 1.

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About the Author

JCH 'Charlie' Rigby

Prior to his SF novel series set in the galaxy of The Deep Wide Black, JCH Rigby (Charlie) wrote well-received short stories and professionally-performed plays, on subjects as diverse as a comedy about a medieval bishop who takes up piracy, and a satirical near-future in which motorbikes are forbidden until a covert brotherhood of bikers reclaim their ancient freedoms.

In the 1990s he published and edited the Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine Far Point. Later, he developed “Nano Futures”, mini short stories which distil SF tropes into one hundred words.

After Ampleforth and Oxford, Charlie served with the Royal Air Force Regiment in Cold War West Germany, in Northern Ireland, in Cyprus and in the Falkland Islands. When his first military exercise was launched, he watched from underneath his steel helmet as a squadron of Vulcan bombers scrambled from a Cambridgeshire runway. There and then, he knew he’d made the right career choice. The “big boys’ toy box” thrills continued with Scorpion and Spartan light armoured vehicles, cross-country motorbikes, helicopters, Hercules transport aircraft and a huge range of things which went bang, generally when they were intended to. Much of the rest of his service seemed to involve carrying heavy things while running, generally in bad weather.

He subsequently worked in the print industry and in publishing. Born in Newcastle, he lives in Grantham, Lincolnshire, with his extremely tolerant wife and the world’s fastest Labrador retriever. Father to three daughters, he is joyously surrounded by smart and wonderful women.

They will do anything to keep their secrets safe.

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