A short story set in the Dropverse.
The damn light was never reliable.
Hard enough to get new batteries to connect properly in the flashlight when she could see what she was doing, let alone going by feel like this. The engineers touted the ruggedness of their testing, but she had always rolled her eyes at their standards.
Muttering a curse while feeding the batteries back in for another attempt, the light responded in kind and filled her eyes with pain. A grunt and a moment of recovery, then she began to scan the room.
Dust obscured her vision, but from what she could see the room appeared to have held up as well as could be expected. Thought to herself she might not have been so lucky if she had still been searching the offices ringing the perimeter when the barrage arrived.
Moving around to inspect the space was too risky until the dust settled, so she looked through her pack to see how the contents had faired. Knife still strapped in next to plenty of ammunition, but her SMG and grenades were nowhere to be seen. Rations to last a few days, first aid kit mostly intact, canteen was fine. A groan as she pulled out the electronics; the lenses on her night vision glasses had joined the rest of the dust in the air, the heat dampener was crushed, and the radio was clearly no longer usable. At least their batteries could be devoted to flashlight duty if needed.
Considering how she could get in touch with her squad, it dawned on her that there may no longer be a team to contact. The Raven had been waiting on the roof for her when the plasma struck. Even if they evaded the barrage, she had to assume they had given her up for lost, considering the lack of signal and intensity of the destruction.
All that could be done at this point was to give in to fatigue and hope to investigate the room once the air cleared. The low groan of settling rubble accompanied her to sleep.
Trying to orient herself by remembering details of the room would be no help. The doorways were filled with rubble, and while the walls stood strong enough to hold complete structural failure at bay, large portions of them had transformed into chaos. The ceiling had partially collapsed and settled at a sharp angle on one side of the room, but seemed otherwise intact. Walking about had been a slow task with the floor groaning and shifting at every step, but arduous probing proved the room to be safe enough.
Digging her way out through one of the collapsed doorways seemed like the only choice. Choosing the pile that looked easiest to clear, she sat down beside it to eat before beginning her work. The silence of the room accentuated the crunching sounds of the ration bar in her mouth. She swallowed the last of it, and went to grab her canteen to wash down the dryness.
The sounds continued.
She leapt upright, drawing her knife and sweeping the room with the light. Nothing to see, nothing to hear, other than the same small scraping and the pounding of her heart. She realized it was coming from behind her, in the rubble pile she had planned to start digging through.
A squad member buried with her? The rest of the team had been on higher floors, but it’s possible someone had come down. Unlikely as no one had radioed ahead about it. A worm searching the remains for survivors? The area clearly had enemy activity where none had been suspected. Drawing any attention to herself would be a death sentence now if they had sent in the creatures, armed as she was.
The sound stopped.
Nothing to do but dig and hope for the best. Each problem to be dealt with in its own time. She reached up and pushed a cinder block aside, and got a face full of boot as a leg shot out.
He wasn’t in great shape.
What she needed to get this bit of debris moved was a lever. Looking around the room, she spotted a sturdy looking piece of steel laying near the man. She glanced at his wounds once more while picking up the bar, and wasn’t sure if she could even refer to them as wounds. It looked more like someone had crushed a tool box in a hydraulic press.
“It will not be of much help to you.”
Whipped around. The man was still lying in the same spot.
He motioned his wrist towards the handle of the gun.
She glanced down. No trigger.
“It is fired through a neural link.”
She removed the ammunition and stowed it in her bag, then returned to digging. The man draped his cloak over himself as best as he could.
“Not the most polite way to initiate a conversation,” said the man.
“I’m not here for conversation. Got a question.”
He looked up at her.
“You’ve got some sort of radio in that suit of yours, right?”
“You call for rescue?”
She glared down at him, waiting for elaboration. The man did not seem concerned. She kicked him in the gut, aiming for a patch of broken armor, and he let out a short grunt.
“Good to see it isn’t all cables. Why haven’t you called for help?”
“Do you respond as such to all unasked questions remaining unanswered? The majority of my communications equipment was damaged in the collapse. Buried as we are, potential assistance would need to pass within a few hundred meters of this building for any request to reach them.”
“Would getting out into the open help?”, she asked.
The man nodded, and she turned back to the rubble.
It had been slow going, and the rations were little recompense for the ache in her muscles. She glanced over at the man after she finished her meal. Could he be as incapacitated as he appeared? She knew from the rifle he wasn’t as helpless as a man in his condition may seem. What else could be hidden in that armor?
“Hey,” she said.
The man looked towards her.
“Your arms and legs. Anything real there?”
“I do not think we are made of dreams. What remains is material, as near as I can tell,” he said, lifting a stub.
She immediately regretted her decision.
“Cut the poetics, you know what I meant.”
“Not in the way you would think of it, no.”
“Another way to think of it? Either it’s an arm or leg or it’s not.”
The man waved his wrist in the air. The contrast between his mangled body and the composure with which he moved gave her a tinge of unease.
“It has been a great deal of time since our routes diverged. Our culture has been shaped by our experiences just as much as yours has. In any case, these are not my first set of limbs, if that is what you wish to know.”
“Not the first? Has more of you been replaced?”
“Body hopping like the runts?”
“No. We have a fundamental disagreement on the importance of continuity of consciousness.”
“And replacing your brain with a computer is different?”
“We remain organic at our core.”
The man paused a moment.
“We do not view their processes of teleportation and mind transfer as ‘body hopping’ so much as sophisticated replication procedures. I find it amusing considering the Shaltari perspective on death, but I suppose rationalization is inevitable in the face of such an effective technology. I believe the story of a grandfather’s axe has persisted in your culture? I think you can conclude our ontology on the issue compared to theirs.”
She smirked at him. “You talk philosophy, but I’d bet you just don’t have a clue how they do it.”
“Our technology may be cruder than the Shaltari, but their culture is centered on vainglorious strife and mortality. I feel comfortable in our superiority in that aspect.”
“Yeah, your sense of superiority has always preceded you,” she said.
“I do not mean to offend,” said the man, seeming genuinely hurt at the insinuation, and continued.
“I will concede that a number of us do feel a superiority to you and your fellows. When you see someone struggle with a problem you have the tools to solve, and you are refused in anger upon offering the tool, is it not simplest to brush them off as hopelessly backwards? Day upon day, year after year, such willful inefficiencies begin to be felt as direct insults of a people proud of their ignorance, and hardens your heart all the more! Worse, and easier to succumb to, is pity. We do our best to avoid either judgement, but we are human, and not all of us succeed.”
She yelled out. “You specifically call yourself ‘Post-Human’! What else could that possibly mean other than thinking you’re no longer human, better than us now?”
“A name is in part an ideal. How truly united are your Colonies, after all? A component of the decision to choose this name was to represent our goal of elevating our humanity into something greater, not shedding it to become something new,” the man said.
“I’d say you left your humanity behind when you fled in cowardice and abandoned us to suffer,” she spat out.
“‘The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son’,” the man quoted.
“You can vomit up all the religion of old Earth, but it doesn’t change a damn thing about the consequences of what you did. You said yourself you think like continuous sum of the parts! Then the PHR of the past is the PHR of the present, and you’re just a new handle on that same axe, as responsible for their crimes then as now,” she said.
“I have not agreed with your assessment of our actions as criminal. I was only attempting to approach it from your viewpoint. The Colonies are defined by their fixation on the sins of the past, are they not? The Shaltari for their deception, the Scourge for their atrocities, the Republic for their ‘betrayal’. You have built a machine that can not adapt for the future, but only lash out at an ever-receding past.”
“So justice is letting yourself be brutalized and moving on? We can talk about the future when we’ve finished taking care of the biggest threat we’ve got right now.”
The man sighed.
“Let us say you succeed in driving the Scourge to destruction. The elation of triumph comes and goes. What now for the Colonies?”
“Rebuild the Cradle Worlds, of course. Isn’t it obvious that’s the entire purpose of the Reconquest?”
“So ready to beat their swords into plowshares? Your people would now be aware that not only are there predators lurking in the forest, but believe they have the strength to face them.”
“You’ve been gone too long. I think you underestimate the importance of these worlds for us!”
“I do not underestimate the power of your propaganda, no. I ask what you believe those who derive their mandate from war and vengeance will do once casus belli has been satisfied.”
“This isn’t a minor scuffle of war profiteering! It’s a fight for our survival!”
“It is a fight for the survival of us all.”
She needed a moment to swallow her anger.
“You call yourself a republic, so you must hold some of the same ideals about governance we do. Or is ‘Republic’ just an aspirational ideal too? I don’t think any of you elected the Sphere.”
“As a soldier yourself, I know you are aware of necessities with respect to certain topics.” A hint of ice in his words.
“Of course, of course. You folks are defined by your reluctance to share,” she said.
“The only thing your agents and spies are interested in are the secrets of our martial capabilities. It is not surprising from a culture so militarized as your own. There is so much we have to offer in discussion, but you choose to fixate on those few matters shut to you.”
The man gave out a slight groan.
“For the moment, rest and recovery takes precedence over conversation.”
She waited to see if he would continue, but the man said nothing. Her worries and anger soon lost the fight against sleep.
She pushed her way back into the room through the completed passage.
“Leads into another open room. Looks clear enough, there’s some daylight coming through a small pile of junk. Just a bit more digging and I should be able to get outside.”
The man turned on his side.
“Do you see the small protrusion on the left side of my pack?” he said.
She peered under the cloak to his back.
“I think so.”
“Remove it and bring it with you. Once free from the building it should have the signal strength to contact a drone that has been observing the area. I have already recorded the transmission.”
The bump slid off his pack at her touch. It was smooth and featureless.
“And how can I be sure you’re not getting in touch with just your own, leaving me to rot?” she said.
“I have included instructions to transfer an extraction request for you to the closest active Legionnaire group. I can have the transmitter convert the message into audio and replay it if you’d like.”
She would like that. Satisfied after listening, she noticed the man seemed hurt by her disbelief in him. She cared little.
“Once deployed, it will transmit until receiving a response, then deactivate and await retrieval and playback. I can not say how long this process will take. The signal is encoded, but there is always the risk of detection when broadcasting. They will not be able to pin down the precise location, but it is possible someone may arrive to investigate the area. Arm yourself accordingly.”
She glanced at her knife.
“Take the rifle,” he said.
“Not sure a gun I can’t shoot is the most effective of weapons.”
“The neural link is not a one-way data transmission. Sensors in the rifle are fed back to my systems. I can observe and fire remotely at a range you are likely to stay within. All that is needed is for you to aim at any potential targets.”
“And how will I know if and when you’ll fire?”
“As we have no means of communicating at a distance, you will not know.”
She grew frustrated with the inordinate amount of trust that was being asked of her, but focused on sorting out her supplies and reloading the rifle. Strapping on her pack, she turned back to the man.
“There’s a drone floating up there?” she asked.
“How long has it been there?”
The man said nothing.
“You knew they were in the area.”
The man said nothing.
“We only came through this district because it was deemed a low risk search. The death of my team could have been avoided if you had been more open with us about your intel.”
The man shifted his severed leg, and she crawled through the passage.
She was grateful for the rain providing an opportunity to refill her canteen, as there had only been another day or two of water remaining. Turning back to look over the building, she marveled at her luck. The remnants of the upper floors had been blasted out, littering the jungle with hunks of scorch marked steel and concrete. Twisted bars reformed under the heat of the plasma jutted out like compound fractures from the top of the surviving floors.
She had been on the second story when the attack came, and it looked as if damage from the strike began near the top of the third floor. Switched focus to her current task when her mind began to wander on thoughts of where the squad had been at the time.
How did this transmitter work? The man hadn’t specified anything besides waiting for it to finish. Pulled it out to look over. No buttons. Just a lump of some sort of ceramic feeling material. Glanced around the area. Remnants of a street. The surrounding buildings were overgrown and faded into the dense upper foliage, with glimpses of darkness where windows lay buried in the vines. Cursed her sloppiness and dashed to cover, feeling as if their gaze bored into the back of her head.
Collecting herself, she looked down at the rifle. Of course it had no iron sights, let alone a proper scope. She was confident in her marksmanship, but getting a target for the man with an anti-material weapon of this size and no targeting aids could prove difficult.
Peering back into the open, she picked out a route through the overgrowth that led to a clearing where an intersection had once been. Given it had to come out of the building to signal, she did not feel confident in any assumptions about the strength of the device and wanted clear line of sight to the sky.
Arriving at the edge of the clearing, she kneeled behind a patch of tall grass and put the device down. It sat there for a few minutes to her growing concern, then at last emitted a soft click. A portion of the exterior lifted off the surface and to the side, revealing a smooth metal plate.
She slunk back to the thicker growth along the building edges, laid herself down among the roots, and aimed the rifle towards the clearing. The clouds cleared and the rain faded away as the sun began to set.
Harvest always took place during the rainy season. Underground passages flooded, forcing the crop up to more vulnerable positions. Their produce was valued highly for its quality; nothing like the withered supplies from the facilities that most lessers were forced to accept for use by their spawnings. They had taken care to prune and trim the early stock, and patience had resulted in a harvest that greaters were eager to take for themselves or as rewards for effective lessers.
This was typically the time of peak production, but they were far short of the usual yield. Their greater had gotten into a dispute with another who knew of their fondness for the crop in this area. The recent pest issues provided them with justification to the assemblage to disrupt the sector under the guise of security. Thankfully this had only taken the form of a pass through by a cluster of artillery. The stock was frightened into hiding, but this was preferable to sending a wave of lessers that could have damaged it below sustainable levels.
Their helmet echoed a notification.
Perhaps the edge could be taken off today’s poor reaping. They checked the holding pens, picked up the shard cannon, and made their way into the jungle.
With the rain gone, the air filled instead with the cacophony of nocturnal life. At least it was unlikely the transmitter would notify her by sound; there was no way she’d hear it.
It must have been hours by now. Could it be long done? Staying out here was risky, even hidden as she was. A patrol could easily spot her signature now that she was without the heat dampener. She decided to check on the device.
The moonlight was scant, only enough to make out shadowy outlines. She made for the clump of grass, and squatted down.
Couldn’t find it.
The wrong area? No, this had to be where she put it. She had barely moved her eyes from this spot since she first arrived. She laid the rifle down and ran both hands through the grass, finding only dirt.
She pulled out the flashlight, and hesitated. It should only take a second to check, but she felt uncomfortable with anything that could draw attention.
The light decided for her, and turned itself on with the usual click.
Vegetation on the other side of the clearing erupted as a mass burst out towards her. She dropped the flashlight and whipped the rifle upwards.
A metallic clunk as something fell to the ground, an arm seemingly bisected at the shoulder. The charge was not slowed. She moved the rifle higher, and with a ringing sound something exploded into fragments. It was upon her now.
The gun was ripped from her hands and smashed it into the ground, crushed beyond use. She dove to the wounded side and could feel the heat from the exposed flesh radiating down on her as she darted by, grabbing her light as she went. Need to keep away from the good arm, need to find an opening. It was losing a great deal of blood, but waiting for something of this size to bleed out was hopeless.
She ran towards the closest building. It would easily overpower her in the open, even wounded as it was.
It turned towards her and charged, arm outstretched. She spotted an open window and dove inside. The destroyer crashed into the wall, sending fractures through the concrete. She saw it move back to make another charge and turned her light off while ducking behind a nearby desk.
The destroyer burst inside. Moonlight broke through the fractured wall, framing the monster’s profile. It wouldn’t be long before it found where she had hidden. Time to take a gamble. She broke cover and ran towards the alien, switching the flashlight on as she went.
It beamed onto the alien’s face, who held up their arm to block the light. She only had a second until it oriented itself.
Jumping onto the tattered shoulder, she pulled herself within reach of her target. The knife sank into the alien’s face, and she twisted the blade. It lashed out, slamming her in the chest and sending her skidding across the room. Droplets of blood and saliva sprayed onto her face as it roared. It took a step towards her, wavered, and then fell forward in silence. A squelching thud as it hit the floor.
Pain crept in as the adrenaline wore off. She guessed it was a broken rib, and thought it a fair enough trade with what her foe had gotten. She waited a few minutes to gather herself before walking over to pick up the light, then looked at the corpse. Blood from the head wounds and frayed shoulder had spread over a floor wet from the earlier rain. She went to retrieve her knife, and was able to get a closer look.
Seemed she was right; the round to the helmet had damaged any visual sensors that would be able to filter out a bright light or spot her in the dark. The blade had found purchase in an exposed eye.
As she pulled the knife out, the light snapped off. A curse rang through the night.
“They will be here shortly for me. Your comrades estimate they will arrive within the next two hours.”
She nodded and continued wrapping bandages around her chest. Pushing herself back into the room to return the device to the man had been a somewhat unpleasant experience.
“So you heading home now, banged up like that?” she asked of him.
“Are we not home already?” he replied, waving a wrist in the air.
“Oh? Are the ‘post-humans’ not ‘post-Earth’ as well?”
The man chuckled. “Earth itself has changed enough by now, at the least, as we all do.”
“That’s something I’d like to ask you.”
“As you like.”
“You’ve changed, of course. But really, how much? To what end?”
“The specifics may vary between us, but we are still born of flesh and blood, and grow much like children always have. The Binding is what changes us.”
The term was familiar to her, but as far as she could recall little was known of the details.
“That phrase doesn’t have the most pleasant implications,” she said.
“I can only relate my own experience. It is a cause for celebration! Regardless, it seems you misunderstand. We are not the ones being bound.”
Why was this man so open with her? With all their agents, the analysts had learned so little of the Republic, and here this soldier spoke willingly. He continued.
“It is no secret that we make extensive use of cybernetic and digital augmentation. It is these that are bound to us. We are the ones that are uplifted.”
“But those are just tools, computers and gadgets doing what they’re built to do. Why make such a big deal about them?”
“The Republic emerges as an entity not just through the work of us, as individual humans, but through a network of connections amongst both ourselves and our ‘computers and gadgets’. To deny their role and contributions is to do them a disservice.”
“An entity?” she said, wincing as she finished tightening the bandages. “You say that like the Republic’s a living thing.”
“We recognize the gestalt that all cultures express, the emergent behavior and identity of a collective. That is no hive mind, no dance of puppetry like the Scourge.”
“Sounds dehumanizing all the same,” she said.
He sat silent, then lifted his head upwards, and looked towards her and spoke.
“In better times.”
She felt a vibration in the air, and a faint accompanying metallic murmur. As it built to a crescendo, a wave of silver gushed through the hole into the room, collapsing onto the man. It pulsated and withdrew back through the entrance, leaving a widened and smoothed passage, and her alone in the rubble.
She lay in her bunk, with a healthy buzz from the painkillers. The ship would be hitting fold space for Niccolum within the hour, part of a wave of vessels tasked with logistics operations. R&R had been granted, pending reassignment once her rib healed sufficiently.
Between the mission plans they let leak and what she recounted from her conversations with the man, the analysts believed their true intentions had remained hidden. It was known from the start the operation would be suspicious, but playing the role of ignorant was something the Colonies were happy to do. It was not difficult to convince the Republic of what they already believed.
Her superiors were disappointed at the failure to retrieve the data, but considered it a blunder on the part of recon and held her blameless. Most of the teams in the area had safely extracted, with her group being one of two that were originally classified as complete losses in the Annihilator strikes.
A second wave of operations was being planned at known satellite locations that could have copies of the information the EAA had gathered. Hopefully something could be recovered that would lessen the blow of losing the laboratory where the White Sphere had been held.
A deep yawn, but sleep would not come. Not while her mind raced like this. She suppressed another urge to glance over at her pack.
Wasn’t sure why she had been overcome with the desire to keep it hidden in the first place, but it was too late now to change course. No gain in thinking about it for the moment. After all, even if it was as simple as plugging in a drive that old, doing it on the ship network would be disastrous. Keep it safe, keep things normal. There were friends back home who would be interested.
The fabricator familiar relayed the status of the refit. He sent a thread of gratitude and returned to his wait in the darkness. Most looped into visuals or interactives to pass the time, but he enjoyed these moments of deprivation in the weave after an extended stay in the material.
A knot sought to be tied. He accepted.
>You have always been the talkative type.
>My thoughts on our tutelage are known to you. A foundation of trust makes for surer first steps, and their history poisons them against us.
>As you know mine. The molders had only just begun to touch on their zeitgeist. That path is now closed to us, though I doubt it was ever open, and so we fall into triage.
>Regardless, I would feel a fool to turn aside an opportunity to plant a seed where I can.
>They will salt the fields wherever they find a single shoot. Those of them that have seen the Binding have deemed it death in their misunderstanding, and chose as such on their own terms. Be wary of revealing.
>And must we watch their suffering as penance for our failures? Are we condemned to shepherd with clenched fists? We no longer have the luxuries of time and subtlety, but they are not children who can only be guided by the rod.
>The rod is all they acknowledge, and we must not spare it. They will not be ready for what is to come if we constrain ourselves to the gentle touch.
Transferred a thread of conviction. Received a thread of resigned dismissal. The knot came undone.
An update from the familiar. Tuning was complete, and he was free to go material. He switched his feed from weave to strand, and rose from the dais.