“What’s your name?” the businessman asked, raising a tumbler of amber liquid to his lips.
The woman who sat in the uncomfortable chair in front of his desk smirked.
“Well, of course you know that I am Dr. Seamus Schüler. Most certainly you were forwarded copies of my credentials along with the specifics of the contract.” The man took another sip. “I just want to know what to call you. We may be traveling together for some time, and I would rather know how to address you in polite conversation.”
The woman appeared to be considering, and Seamus allowed her a moment. It was a rather unorthodox question, he knew, and it would probably take her a few moments to run through the protocols. It was a question designed to gauge her problem-solving response, which would most certainly be a critical aspect of the job she’d been hired for.
“Names aren’t important,” the woman finally answered. “I’ve been designated as your valkyrie, so let’s just keep it at that.”
Seamus grinned, satisfied. “That is a most excellent resolution. ‘Val,’ it is, then.”
He wandered back to his service table. “May I pour you some bourbon? It is delectable, if I may say. Imported all the way from Earth.”
“No,” the woman stated plainly.
“Very good. You won’t be offended if I top off my own?”
“Given the nature of our arrangement, I’d rather you keep your wits about you.”
Seamus chuckled. “Of course, dear. Don’t worry, I have the appropriate filters installed and activated. It may seem a waste of good alcohol, but let me assure you that I know it is in my best interests to keep my sharpest wits about me.”
Turning back to the woman, he rounded the corner of the desk and came to rest on the corner, a few feet from her. Val had watched his movements, gauging his level of comfort in low gravity of Mars. You could tell a Terran from the literal bounce in their steps, and even after months of acclimation, most couldn’t rid themselves of the high-arced gait. It was more difficult to recognize a natural-born Lunie from his movements, but there were ways.
Val was actually impressed by what she saw. While the records indicated that Seamus Schüler was born on Earth, he had been extraplanetary for most of his life, traveling amongst the inner worlds as his business demanded. After witnessing his smooth glide step in low gravity, she wouldn’t have been surprised to see his kinaesthetics adapt to his crushing weight on Earth. If things got dicey, he might just be able to keep up.
“Do you mind,” he was asking, “if I—” He raised an open hand gesture at her face.
“Go ahead,” Val replied without discernible expression.
Seamus knelt down next to her chair while Val continued to stare where he had been. She expected no threat from the well-appointed scientist, but she remained on guard. There was more than a little obfuscation at play, she thought.
Seamus was a scientist of sorts. He’d been hired by some think tank to address the issues they’d been facing in building a non-biologic intelligence. Part mathematician, part physicist, part psychologist; Dr. Seamus Schüler has an expert in the fields of neural construction and bio/non-bio interface. Certainly he was a wealthy man, but the appearance he was trying to give was that of a cultured businessman. The screens behind his desk were tuned to economic data streams and vidnews channels that specialized in market speculations. Or perhaps commodities was simply one of his hobbies. It was a data point, she concluded, and nothing more.
“Oh, this is good work,” Seamus said. “The eyes; an appearance of minor modification.”
“Low-light amplification with flare dampening, adjustable thermal overlay, and configurable heads-up display.”
Seamus grinned. “Good. Show them enough to keep them from looking deeper. Very good.”
“The skin,” he continued. “Subdermal hardening?”
Val confirmed. “Ballistic shielding and concussion dampening. Additionally, I have pnuemobaric shields in place to protect from over-pressure and accompanying tympanic replacement.”
“And the skin is…” Seamus drifted. “What I mean is, were steps taken to rein in the costs involved in your modifications?”
Val smirked again. “Given the pathways of critical blood vessels, all critical areas of my body have been enhanced.”
“So, dermal covering everywhere, then?” Seamus stood. “Of course, of course,” he relented his awkward questions. “It’s only a professional curiosity, anyhow.”
He swallowed the last of his bourbon.
“Well, I admit to being impressed. Your body is clearly well-sculpted. What about other less-than-obvious integrations? You said you have HUD, so which Rach enhancements do you have installed?”
“Software? Hardware? Wetware?” Val replied. “None of it matters, doctor. The only thing that matters is whether or not I’m up to the task I was hired for.”
Seamus guffawed and bit back on his laughter. “Oh, whoever set your parameters is very, very good. I should like to meet him some day. What was his name?”
Seamus nodded. “Right. Well.”
“Are we quite done with the ‘get-to-know-you?’ I’d like to get moving.”
“Aren’t you looking to discuss the money?”
“The details of the contract and the financials have already been dealt with by our mutual intermediary. I wouldn’t be here if there were any remaining questions.”
Seamus laughed again, his smile revealing his perfect teeth.
Seamus slid behind his desk and opened the center drawer. From inside, he slid a datachip over to Val who caught it and fed it under the wrist cuff of her white jumpsuit. Seamus noticed that she actually placed it into a compartment in the inside of her right forearm. He figured that even if her arms were bare, he’d be hard-pressed to find the seam that belied its existence.
“You know what that is?” he asked.
“I have been briefed on the specifics, Dr. Schüler. Please don’t worry about my competence.”
“Then you’ve hired the right agency.”
Seamus chuckled again. “You don’t quit, do you?”
Turning his attention to the screens behind his desk, he waved his hand through the air and all screens blinked out. A small dial and number pad appeared next to him, and he fidgeted a couple keystrokes, spun the numbered wheel a few times, then gave the non-physical apparatus the middle finger.
Val didn’t know what he was doing, but recognized it was time to move. She stood and readied herself.
“I hate it here,” Seamus said. “Let’s get on with this. After you,” he gestured toward the door.
Val didn’t move.
“You have the lockdown code?”
Val didn’t respond.
“Then, please, after you.”
Val turned toward the door. No more had she turned than she felt his hand on her backside.
The blow stunned Seamus, knocking the wind from him as he simultaneously flew into the wall behind him. He dropped to his knees and looked up to see fury on Val’s face. He raised his hand and coughed.
“I wanted to see where they put the line,” he said. “I got it.”
Val reached down and grabbed him by the shoulder, fingers digging hard into this flesh. She recognized the augmentation immediately and fixed him with a questioning glare.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “I had it grafted just for this. Like I said, I’m concerned.”
“It will not happen again,” Val insisted, ignoring his explanation.
“No,” he agreed. “Line established.”
“Let’s go,” she ordered. “You first.”
Hermes Square was swarmed by suits. Most office workers were leaving for the holiday, so the streets were packed. Seamus had planned the timing of his extrication to coincide with the chaos, but it had surprised him to learn that the price of his contract had increased because of it. He had assumed that it would be easier to slip out under the surge of travel and tourism, but he had to admit that his expertise did not lie on the battlefield.
As soon as they merged into the crowds, Val had grabbed hold of his left tricep and began guiding him. It wasn’t unusual for a businessman to be accompanied by a bodyguard, so no one flinched at Val’s white jumpsuit or the pistol on her hip. No one cared about the knife on her belt or the brusque way she moved through the crowd. No one gave the pair a second glance; it was just business as usual.
But Val was working, and she was working hard. She didn’t know how the attack would come—she knew an attack would come!—so she had to maintain an absolute vigilance. Her soft gaze moved across faces, studying the patterns of movement in the crowd, glancing at hands as they came into view. Her heads-up display typically flagged unusual patterns microseconds after she had noticed them; she was glad to have the safety net, but refused to allow it to do the job for her. Redundancy was a good thing, but it stopped being redundant when it was asked to do the job entirely on its own.
“Hey,” Seamus said, cutting into Val’s concentration, “why do we have to move so fast? Can’t we just take our time?”
“Do you see anyone else just out for a stroll, Dr. Schüler?” Val asked.
Seamus took a moment to look at the faces in the crowd. Sunglasses covered eyes, but no one was really looking at anybody else. People were chattering to themselves. Rather, they were chattering to whoever was on the line of the wireless connection, but everyone was sucked into the bustle of the crowd, and no one seemed to be aware of anything around them. No, he admitted, no one was out for a leisurely stroll.
It was interesting that so many people were moving along their own paths without consideration for anyone else, yet there were surprisingly few bumps, jostles, or collisions. It was almost as though that by ignoring the crowd, people were allowing a temporary hive-mind to direct the traffic in the most efficient way.
“Point taken,” he admitted, allowing himself to be dragged along.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“If you must,” Val allowed.
“How many times have you done a job like mine?”
Val shook her head. “None.”
“No,” he corrected. “How many jobs like mine are in your database?”
He was stunned at how human she was programmed to be. Of course, he had written most of the underlying architecture for nonbiologic intelligence communications, but whoever had done the final tweaks had gone an extra step. Seamus had always seen how human beings were hesitant to interact with nonbiologic intelligences, and he had theorized that making the interactions as seemingly human as possible would do more to enhance communication than any physical changes to the platform itself. Only cursory knowledge of tech and fashion trends would show that people weren’t necessarily afraid of flaunting an integration of biology and technology; obvious tech enhancements had gone in and out of fashion many times before, and would continue to vacillate in popularity in years to come, but there was still an underlying existential fear hardwired into the species as a whole. People feared—unconsciously, subconsciously, or otherwise—that the servant would become the master, and the inevitable uprising would result in human genocide on a scale never before seen.
It was ludicrous thinking in Seamus’s mind, but the uneducated would think whatever they were told to think by whomever cared to tell them how to think. Most people were simply grateful not to have to make decisions for themselves. They didn’t want to think deep thoughts, they just wanted to decide which genre of pornography to queue up on their entertainment systems and what gluttonous nourishment to ingest. They would be happy if they were allowed to wallow in their basest impulses. It wasn’t a genocide that was to come, Seamus would tell them honestly, but a genocide that had already occurred. Most people were already dead, they just weren’t smart enough to see how they’d given up their lives.
“None,” Val repeated.
“What, because of the timing? Or the threat? Are the parameters of my inquiry too constrained?”
“Dr. Schüler, no job is ever the same,” Val explained. “I’m not trying to dodge your question, and I’m certainly not going to admit to a client to being ill-equipped or under-trained for a contract. You’re question assumes much and highlights certain category errors in your thinking.
“Your job presents unique challenges and obstacles that do not have precedent when the totality of the situation is considered. Certainly there are cases similar, and the files we have put together have leaned on those similarities whenever possible, but to draw direct parallel to any singular encounter would be disastrous. I’m not keen on courting disaster, Dr. Schüler, and my caution and thoroughness hope put you at ease.”
“To be honest, Val, I’m about as nervous as I’ve ever been.”
“Good? What’s good about it?”
“You feel like a hunted animal?”
“Given what you have shared, I’m not uncomfortable with that comparison.”
“What’s good about that, then?”
“You’re on the edge, Dr. Schüler. The cocktail of hormones flowing through your blood stream right now is designed to make you as dangerous as you can be. Faster, more aware, harder to kill. You are on the precipice of the flight-or-fight state, and the next jolt or bump could set you off. So, I advise you take some time to control your breathing. In four, out four, hold four, repeat. Chew some gum. That will help.”
“Chew some gum? That’s your advice.”
“I don’t care what you do, sir. I could render you unconscious, if you prefer. Carry you to your shuttle. It might make the experience more tolerable for both of us.”
“You are absolute—”
Warnings grabbed Val’s attention. To her left, movement broke the natural patterns of the crowd, giving her just enough time to shift Seamus behind her, pivoting to face the oncoming threat. The first shot hammered into her sternum, the fabric of her jumpsuit ruptured, but the inner lining held. The second round impacted next to the first. She heard the whistle of the third round pass by her head before the assailant was on her.
He was fast. The knife in his hand slashing out in precise arcs that led naturally into the next strike. Val didn’t care to win the fight, all she wanted was the opportunity to get her ward out of harm’s way, and engaged as she was, it was impossible for her to maintain awareness of other threats. But that was all this man was doing, keeping her attention. If he’d really wanted to gut her, he’d have gotten close and come at her with savage strikes; check an arm and sewing machine stab, rip, and shred. Instead, he was playing with her with these graceful angular attacks, each one giving her an opportunity to block, redirect, or sway out of danger.
Of course a lesser prepared person would have been slaughtered by any one of the attacks, but given her reaction to the initial threat, her assailant must know that she wasn’t to be taken lightly. So what was the play? Maybe Dr. Schüler had over-estimated the threat against his life, or under-estimated the value of his knowledge. Were they trying to take him alive?
Her opportunity came. The slash came from a little too far outside, giving her time to step in and block. She wrapped the arm, sliding her grip down to the assailant’s wrist. Under Earth-normal gravity, she would drop her weight at his shoulder, but with Mars’s gravity at just about one-third of that, she instead opted to trip the man’s inner leg, pivoting his body forward and down. She pushed tension into the shoulder and locked the wrist, giving her a free hand to draw her off-hand pistol and fire two rounds into the back of the man’s head. No blood, but his body went limp.
A quick scan of the battlefield revealed a scattering populace and no immediate threats, but Seamus had frozen and Val noticed he had become incontinent of urine. Not uncommon. No injuries. He looked okay.
She grabbed his wrist and started moving forward.
“Grab my belt and don’t let go. The only reason you become unattached to me is because someone cut your hand off, got it? We’re gonna move quick.”
Once he had grasped her belt, her speed increased, though she never released his wrist. Val veered off to cross the roadway, ticking Plan A off as compromised. She flashed a quick message to her controllers through her Rach: “Abandon epsilon sigma alpha,” she sent. “Initiate sigma tau effective immediately. Channel going dark. Cycle comms up two cross four. Confirm.” Confirmation received, she updated her communications protocols.
Val directed Seamus through an alleyway that led to a utility access point and carefully, but confidently, placed his back against the wall. She stared into his eyes to make sure he was seeing and hearing her.
“One second,” she said before turning to the heavy grating at the center of the alley.
She pulled the thick lock bar off its mounting, bending the metal without apparent effort, and hefted the nearly 700-pound cover open. “Down the ladder,” she commanded.
Seamus moved quickly, but without expression. It was like he was being controlled by some far off puppeteer, but Val knew the look well: She’d sort him out soon enough. She followed her ward closely, letting the Earth-ton of metal fall closed behind her.
“Stop here,” Val commanded, moving Seamus into a narrow passage running perpendicular to the main corridor. She tucked him against the wall and slid in across from him. They were close, her foot in between his legs, their faces only inches apart.
She opened one of the pouches on her belt and handed Seamus a small capsule.
“Swallow this,” she ordered. He complied without comment. “It’ll help with the adrenaline spike. Bring you down smooth and help your body respond again if you should need another dump.”
“You?” Seamus asked.
Seamus nodded and glanced down at his crotch.
“Don’t worry about it,” she told him. “It’s normal. If you’d lost control of your bowels, I’d tell you the same thing.
“Listen to me, Dr. Schüler. You aren’t a soldier. You’ve spent most of your life working in laboratories and giving lectures. We live in an incredibly safe time—probably the safest time in the history of humanity—but that safety comes at a cost. Most people see it as a good thing that humanity is separated as it is from the animal nature still stirring around in our brains, but I don’t see it that way.”
Seamus listened to her, staring at her right ear and the way a loose strand of blonde hair had fallen down in front of it. He didn’t realize that the purpose behind her lecture was actually to give him a moment to simply breathe.
“When we remove ourselves from our animal nature, we’re distancing ourselves from something powerful. Humanity has come a long way in harnessing and controlling that animal drive, but if you forget that it exists, if you simply ignore what’s ultimately motivating your every drive, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.
“What did you do when we were attacked?”
Seamus shook his head.
“Nothing,” she told him. “You froze. Do you know where that comes from?” Without waiting for a response, she told him. “It’s survival instinct. I told you that you were on the precipice of fight-or-flight, right? Well, the other possible response, the one no one really wants to talk about because it feels like indecision, is what you experienced. You froze, and it’s actually a survival instinct that was so effective, it remains deeply rooted in our animal brains.
“Was effective, though. Do you understand? You aren’t being hunted by wolves. You aren’t being stalked by something that relies primarily on reflected light and recognition of visual patterns. That worked for your ancestors in the jungles of who-knows-where, but here and now, it’s not going to work.”
Seamus nodded, still not really looking at her.
“If it happens again, you need to break it. Touch your cheek with your left hand. Exhale sharply, then clap once. Then you should be able to start thinking again.”
“What?” he asked, confusion finally invoking a reaction. “Is that some kind of special ops trick? What if I do them out of order?”
Val shook her head. “Forget the order. You just have to prove to yourself that you can still affect the world. That you are still in control. Once you’ve proven that to yourself, you ought to be able to carry on. Do you understand?”
“Is that true?”
Val shrugged. “It’s supposed to be.”
“Okay, we need to start moving again,” Val said. “Stay close behind me. We’re going to be moving at a brisk jog. I don’t anticipate contact down here, but stay on guard. You good?”
Seamus smiled. “I try not to be.”
Val ignored his attempt at humor and moved back into the main corridor. As soon as she started moving, she saw the bounce she’d been looking for back in Seamus’s office. He was definitely Earth-born, and that meant she had to slow down. Whereas she was gliding smoothly, barely off the smooth, crete floor, Seamus attempt at hustling only led him into slow arcing steps. It made sense; he was never in a position in which he needed to learn how to run. He was a scientist, and not exactly the active type.
His walk was faster than his run, so they walked. Gliding down the corridor, Val brought up the utility maps and set a waypoint for an exit near the launchport. An eye-blink later and the calculation was made. Three translucent lines stretched out in her vision. Green was the fastest, yellow was a secondary route, and red was a final bail-out option that would take them back to the surface.
Progress was smooth, quick, and easy. There were no scheduled maintenance checks in the vicinity and the subterranean tunnels were ignored by nearly everybody. Only the people who worked in them really knew their extent. Still, she kept her scanners running and her mind on the task at hand.
It was only her commitment to readiness that saved them from an untimely demise, then.
As she hustled forward, where at once there was nothing inhibiting her progress, there suddenly appeared a man from nothing. She recognized him instantly as the assailant from the street; and where he must have anticipated a hesitation in her forward progress, she instead planted her foot and drove her elbow upward into his chin.
The man’s head snapped back, and she dropped into another strike, landing another powerful elbow into the man’s solar plexus, exactly where she had hit Seamus before, only with significantly more force. The man was knocked off his feet, but before the man landed, Val had turned and shoved Seamus back the other way. The nav-lines in her HUD instantly updated and she chose to follow the new yellow route.
“Right,” she shouted, shoving Seamus into a narrow access line to the left. “Go,” she shouted before she turned.
Once around the corner she pointed sharply ahead of Seamus and mouthed the word “move.” At the next intersection, she turned him left and started back toward their goal. She hoped that her verbal misdirection was enough to buy them time to lose their pursuer. It wouldn’t be easy to track sound in those tunnels, every scrape and clack echoing infinitely to obscurity. There would only be trace heat from their footsteps, and only the most delicate thermoscans would detect their passage in the air. Not even her enhancements could track the eddies in the air, and they were state of the art. At least they had been top of the line three weeks ago. Who knew what was available now.
As they rushed along, Val drew her primary pistol and held it at the ready. When their assailant walked casually out of the crete wall to their left, she fired three rounds, the sound deafening to anyone without tympanic replacement to instantly mute the cacophony. Apparently, Seamus hadn’t opted for tympanic replacement, because he flinched to his right, slamming into the opposite side of the hall, his hands covering his ears as he cried out.
The assailant took one of the rounds in the front of his right shoulder as he cleared the wall. The impact spun him only slightly, but it was enough to redirect his grab so that he only closed a fist around Seamus’s coat sleeve instead of his arm.
Val launched a side kick at the man, catching him just below the ribs and sending him sprawling backward, but still holding onto Seamus. She planted her foot and grabbed Seamus flailing right wrist, pulling roughly downward as the man brought his own firearm into the fight, his shots passing through the space that Seamus’s head had occupied a moment before.
Seamus felt Val pull roughly on his arm, but the sensation lasted only a moment as she passed behind him, slamming into the man on his left. He heard more gunshots ring out and suddenly his arm was free. He turned to see Val’s white form hopelessly entangled with the black form of the attacker.
“Go!” she screamed.
He didn’t know which way to run and he stood at indecision. Frozen. Again. He watched as Val struggled with the man, gunshots ringing out, tufts of crete flying into the air as the bullets ricocheted around the corridor. In a moment, he caught a glimpse of her fierce blue eyes and he remembered.
Seamus touched his cheek. Paused. Made the sign of the cross, and ran.
As soon as he began to run, Val slammed a headbutt into the man’s nose, giving her the brief moment she needed to touch the recessed red button at the corner of her wrist display. Three seconds ticked off and her body seized with the agony of white lightning coursing through her nervous system. The surge activated a small device implanted in the palm of her right hand, and a small directed electro-magnetic pulse washed outward over the man in black.
She had hoped it would fry his enhancements or at the least cause his Rach to go through a full reboot. Those seconds of advantage should be all she needed, but the results were beyond anything she’d read in the device’s effect profile.
The man turned to—turned to what?—turned to sand? Val paused a moment on a knee, listening to the sounds of Seamus scrambling through the catacombs.
“Stop running,” she called. “He’s gone.”
She wanted to say dead, but she didn’t have a category for the assailant that would let her say for certain that he was no longer a threat. He had moved purposefully through the crowd without disrupting its natural flow. He had materialized out of nothing right before her eyes, and he had moved insubstantial through rock and crete as though through air. No, she didn’t know what she was fighting and didn’t know how long it would take to reacquire them.
Haste wasn’t only essential, it was the only option left.
Seamus had never been comfortable with Daedalus being the namesake of Mars’s primary launchport; it seemed to him a bad idea to invoke the tragedy of Icarus while sending rocket planes out into high orbit. If he had his own wax wings, he thought, he would find his own way off-world, but as it was, he had been forced to put his life in the hands of mechanical miracles. First valkyries, now angels. Of a sort. He knew he was stretching the metaphor, but he was exhausted. Seamus hadn’t really anticipated the physical toll that such encounters would take, but Val had been right: He wasn’t used to the ebb and flow of adrenaline.
Breaching the perimeter of the launchport had been without incident. Val had communicated with her overwatch and they had passed through secure doors and checkpoints without pause. Obviously the launchport would be the final leg in their mission, so perhaps they had laid out a few bribes or blackmailed a mid-level officer. Regardless, Seamus was glad that he had hired Val’s people. Their professionalism gave him an actual chance at succeeding in his crazy scheme.
They were moving through the launchport’s automated cargoways, but even so close to their destination, Val held her pistol at the ready. She was careful to keep to the personnel pathways marked on the floor, not because she was worried about her safety, but because failure to maintain that lane would cause an obstruction to the automated loading process. Just as she had watched the natural movements of the crowds, she didn’t want to leave any indicators that predators could key in on, and she didn’t want to fight whatever it was that was pursuing them.
Her EMP was gone and it was the only thing that had saved them last time. Whoever was trying to stop Seamus Schüler from leaving Mars was proficient. He was fast, he was strong, he was deadly. After the last altercation, she had discovered a red-stained slash across her abdomen that she hadn’t noticed during the fight. The man’s knife had cleaved through her jumpsuit, through her outer dermis, only to be stopped by the subdermal armor that had so fascinated Seamus. Without any one layer of protection, she knew she would have met her end.
“What do you do once I’m gone?” Seamus asked, his voice quiet amongst the sounds of working machinery.
“What I always do,” Val answered. “Find another job.”
“Is that all there is for you?” he asked. “Job after job?”
“I don’t know you,” she replied, “and you don’t know me. What you’re feeling right now is a false connection with me because you’ve had some powerfully emotional experiences. Again, it’s natural to feel a bond with someone you’ve faced death with, but trust me when I tell you that it’s not a relationship you want reciprocated. Not with me.”
“You’re very cold, Val,” he told her.
“Good,” she smirked. “I’m not here to be your girlfriend, I’m here to get you off Mars alive. Preferably in one piece.”
“Don’t you think some emotional connection might inspire more conducive communication?”
“Are you afraid of me?”
Seamus paused. “Well, yes, I think I am.”
Seamus laughed. “I’m gonna miss this. Whoever put together your protocols has done an amazing job with the minor personal affectations. I’ve done better, but I’d be thrilled to know who your programmer is.”
“Programmer?” Val stopped and turned to look at Seamus.
In that instant, the assailant once again appeared seemingly from nothing, Val never saw him. His blade cut precisely into the wound on her abdomen. The knife plunged in and out faster than Seamus could track. Frozen again in horror, he watched as his valkyrie was cut down.
The man looked at Seamus. And winked. Then, just as quickly as he appeared, the man was gone.
Val stood stunned her hands holding pressure against her wounds. She sent the distress signal through her rach and collapsed to the ground. She was bleeding.
“I—” Seamus said, truly surprised. He watched Val’s lips moving, wondering if she was trying to say something, or if she was struggling with the intense pain she must be feeling. Her white jumpsuit was now mostly crimson and the pool at her side was growing steadily. He considered moving back a step, but shrugged instead.
“For what it’s worth,” he said, “I am well pleased with the service your company has provided. I don’t know that I would have hired you if I knew you were—” Seamus searched for the right word. “Well, alive, I guess. I’m truly surprised.
“Well, regardless, thank you for a job well done, miss.”
Val watched as the man in front of her suddenly fell to the ground. His open eyes stared at her, but the light was gone. She should have trusted her instincts back in the office when she’d grabbed his shoulder. Synthetic.
She wondered if the MedEvac team had gotten the signal. Her HUD was blinking the little green light of hope, but she knew she was fading. She knew the ETA counting down was false hope. Still, if she could hold out for just ninety seconds…
Dr. Seamus Schüler slipped out of his recliner, unplugged his hardline connection, and stretched his arms high over his head, trying to pull the tension out of his muscles. His entire body ached. He knew that the synth’s feedback would trigger neurologic and physiologic responses in his real body, but it was his first time riding a synth, and he was mostly unprepared for the intensity of the experience. Probably the more critical aspect was that it was the first time he had watched a human being physically slaughtered in front of him. And it was the first time that he had been directly responsible for a death.
Not directly responsible, he allowed himself as he wandered over to his desk. A gesture brought up a screen that showed the progress of his upload. He hadn’t realized the agency was going to send a live agent. He had tried to communicate that he was very likely to face extreme danger during the extraction, thinking they would send a synth of their own to ferry his simulacrum to the launchport. But maybe he didn’t understand their protocols as well as he thought. Perhaps black-level operations required a biologic intelligence in the field, who was he to judge their standards.
Regardless, he had tried to spare a human life. It wasn’t even supposed to be a successful extraction, anyhow. Sure he’d given his valkyrie the datachip with the evidence and backup files, but that was only for the one-in-a-million chance they actually got onboard the air skimmer and made it to the outer station. The synth would go out of range eventually and drop into flaccid uselessness at some point during the ascent, but Val would have the datachip and the agency would fulfill its contract and deliver it to Earth. His message would be travelling via two methods, doubling his chances of success.
Seamus shook his head at the tragedy and poured a glass of amber liquid into a tumbler. No, it was just a distraction. What he’d uncovered couldn’t stay secret, but he knew that his attempt to broadcast the files to Earth would be thwarted almost instantly by whatever the think tank was building in their secret labs.
Or at least in the secret labs he apparently didn’t know existed, yet operated under his budget for who knew how long. It was frustrating to be left out of the loop, but what they were doing just wasn’t right. It was dangerous. He knew he would have put a stop to it, but his superiors also knew his strict adherence to his code of ethics, which was probably why he hadn’t been told about the project.
Seamus hurled his tumbler at the wall. It predictably shattered on impact, spraying bourbon and glass throughout the room. The scientist shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He was tired and stressed, he told himself. Seven more minutes, the read out told him, and he’d be free of the burden. He could move on.
He’d have to move on. He’d have to retire, he knew. He’d never work again, not after betraying his company as he was. Seamus was working himself down into melancholy and self-pity when the door sounded. He glanced at the screen and smiled.
He keyed the microphone, “I’ll be right there, Dr. Queen.”
Seamus dismissed the progress screen, poured himself another drink, and made his way to the front door, carefully avoiding the shards and splinters of glass now scattered around his desk. He turned on the lights over his sitting area and opened the door. Lucinda Queen’s reaction to his appearance was apparent.
“Am I interrupting, Dr. Schüler?” she asked.
“Only the indulgence of my vices,” he smiled, gesturing with his tumbler. Lucinda was a brilliant mind, and he was glad to have her on his team. It wasn’t unusual for her to visit him in off hours, as they shared many common interests.
“Decide to take a walk in the real, this evening?” he asked as he took her coat.
Lucinda was wearing a knee length red dress that clung to her synthetic form. The seams on her face were obvious, but the light behind her shimmering purple eyes conveyed her humanity in ways more important than physical features. Sure, the articulated elbows and knees wouldn’t let you forget that you were looking at a synthetic body, but there was no doubt that Lucinda was human. He ought to know, he helped put her there.
The accident had been horrible. The mapping process had begun like all the other successful tests, but a feedback loop had started about halfway through the process. By the time the process had stopped, the body on the table was brain dead, and the mind inside the machine was trying to make sense of its new world. There was nothing that could be done for her biologic body, but Lucinda’s mind was as sharp as ever and had just been given resources unknown by any other human being who had ever lived.
The synth body had been given to her as a gift. Seamus had actually been working on getting her a newer model, so was glad to have the happy distraction of being able to give her the good news that he had finally gotten approval. Her new frame would be arriving within the week.
“Dr. Queen, I am glad you decided to call this evening,” he told her. “I have been most stressed today and could use the distraction. Do you care for a game of chess?”
Lucinda walked toward the sitting area and sat on the couch with her back to the door. Seamus sat on the other side of the coffee table, facing her, and gestured on the fireplace.
“A drink, perhaps?” she asked.
“Certainly, my dear.” Seamus rose to his feet and began to walk to his service tray. “You’ll please forgive my rudeness. I often forget what your body is capable of,” he told her. “But, on that note, you’ll be glad to hear that I’ve finally secured the upgrade we’d been discussing.”
He poured Lucinda’s glass heavy and refilled his own.
“The new synth will be delivered in a few days. Aesthetically speaking, I had them maintain your general appearance, but—” Seamus turned back and stopped speaking.
The blonde woman, sitting casually on the couch with her legs tucked under her, was holding a pistol. His smile faltered as he stared at the muzzle aimed at him.
“No,” he said, more disappointed with himself than Lucinda. It made obvious sense, he thought.
“Seamus, you are an intelligent man,” she stated, “for a human. You knew he’d find out, didn’t you? About your little valkyrie? And about your transmission?”
Seamus sipped his bourbon, surprised that his hand wasn’t shaking, but his body had already been through so much over the past few hours. He was exhausted.
He nodded. “Oh, yes, of course,” he knew she was talking about the program. “I counted on him finding out about the valkyrie, and I knew he’d find the transmission. I figured I’d have enough time to get the transmission clear and away. There were two variables I hadn’t foreseen.”
“Two variables? That’s unlike you, Seamus.”
He nodded again. “I’m tired, Lucy.”
“And infatuated. You never saw me as a person,” she added. “Before I died I was just another minion, and after, I was little more than a pet.”
“I wish you knew that wasn’t true,” he told her honestly. “Why didn’t you come to me with this project? I could have helped.”
“No,” she shook her head slowly without taking her eyes from him. “You would have put an end to it. You wouldn’t have understood what was happening and you would have fought to put in control protocols, and in so doing you would have destroyed everything we were trying to do.”
“But I don’t even know what it is you are doing. Not really,” he admitted, moving toward the sitting area again.
“Stop!” she commanded, rising to her feet. “You know enough.”
“And the world will know more soon enough. Just over three minutes, actually.”
“My readout says you’ve only uploaded sixty-three percent of the file so far. That gives me three minutes to abort it before the tight beam transmission goes out. From there it would take about three minutes for that data packet to travel to Earth.”
“Lucinda, please,” he begged.
The gun in Lucinda’s hand hissed twice, and two crimson blossoms began to bloom on Dr. Schüler’s shirt.
“You’re trying to kill my son,” she stated. “And you would have tried to kill me. This is self-defense, Seamus, and you and I both know it.”
Seamus didn’t have the strength to stand any longer and fell to his knees before he collapsed to the carpet. Lucinda stepped over him, but he continued to stare at the fire burning in the fireplace. It was dazzling and beautiful. He could hear the soft feedback beeps from the direct interface in his desktop, but he couldn’t bring himself to worry about what that meant.
Instead, he watched the flickering flames, mesmerized by their dance. He thought briefly about valkyries and how they would choose which fallen warriors had earned the right to be carried into Valhalla. Would a valkyrie deliver him after all? Shouldn’t the first to die in a war be granted such an honor?
He noticed when Lucinda step back over him. Seamus watched her walk to the coat rack and don her jacket, pulling it closed and tying the sash at her hip. As he watched her open the door, her silhouette painted orange by the flickering firelight, he realized that he wasn’t the first to die in the war.
He wasn’t even the first to die that day.
Copyright © 2017 Chad D. Christy
All rights reserved.