1 Samuel 43 - 46:
The Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?" And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.
The Philistine also said to David, "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field."
Then David said to the Philistine, "You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted.
"This day the Lord will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel."
From: Strategic Considerations of Warp Technology on Space Defense
By: Raybeth, Angel of the Ninth Defense Sector of the Holy Reach. April 11th, 3,693 AD
Teleportation between two linked devices was soon followed by the invention of spacefold in 2,814. With the ability to instantly jump over 70,300 LY, the power of spacefold opened the entire Milky Way galaxy to the Holy Reach. The invention of spacefold was followed by four hundred years of unimpeded Imperial expansion to over 2,000 Earth-class worlds.
However, this progress was halted with our first contact with the Stronkula Medusans, in the Scutum-Centauruss Arm of the galaxy, in March, 3,184. The exploration ship HRS Melloch was captured by the Medusans. At that time, the Holy Reach lacked a standing army or navy. All of its worlds were linked with open teleportation. Hundreds of years of deep space exploration, without encountering sentient life, had convinced us that we were the dominant species in the Milky Way, that it was our birthright. We were wrong.
With the intelligence gained by the Medusans, they initiated the Port War. Until our first contact, the Medusans possessed teleportation, but not spacefold. They quickly adopted our technology. With the codes on the teleportation unit on Melloch, they infiltrated our teleportation grid, and had access to every human location in the port grid. On January 15th, 3,185, sixteen million Medusan soldiers invaded every single human world, simultaneously. Over 25,682 transport vehicles and exploration ships were assaulted by landing parties, and lost.
We did not win the Port War. We survived it. Half of our worlds, and thirty-eight billion lives, were lost. The surviving remnants of the Holy Reach were consolidated in the Perseus and Outer Arms of the Galaxy. Our teleport grid is sealed against the enemy. And the enemy has sealed us within our territory. In the time it took us to recover from the assault of the Port War, the enemy has exploited spacefold, and now dominates the Galaxy.
Our attempts at escaping into the anonymity of an enormous universe have been crushed. Our colonies in the Andromeda Galaxy have been destroyed by unknown combatants. Long spacefolds to other galaxies have been cancelled, out of fear of awakening more enemies of humanity.
Spacefold is instantaneous. Jump distance is limited only by the danger of being destroyed by jumping into a portion of the universe in which spacetime expands at a much greater rate than at the origin of the spacefold. Our technology has plateaued. We can jump the breadth of the Milky Way in one hop. The Andromeda Galaxy is 22 hops distant, and can be reached in 18 minutes.
In the last weeks of the Port War, the Holy Reach resorted to using the full destructive potential of spacefold: The instant, unstoppable delivery of supernova warheads into enemy solar systems. At least a hundred systems were annihilated before the enemy answered in kind. The only answer was to fight fire with fire. Humanity's solar systems were being destroyed, dozens at a time. Supernova bombs on both sides were being spacefolded right onto their targets, straight from their hidden manufacturing facilities. After three weeks of the Supernova War, a day passed without the loss of a human system. We then received the only correspondence ever issued by the enemy:
'Cease fire supernova bombs both side. Or, true vacuum initiation.'
The Medusan's grasp of human language was frail, but strong enough to deliver the message: Further use of supernova bombs would lead to the use of a true vacuum attack. We, too, possessed this weapon. And, we knew they had it; the possession of such a guaranteed by any civilization possessing spacefold. The true vacuum weapon is the final say in mutually-assured destruction: It destroys the universe by the introduction of a lower energy field that obliterates our metastable spacetime.
We ceased fire. The Holy Reach had lost four hundred and nineteen systems, and six hundred billion human lives. We ceased our supernova attacks. The enemy did, too. December 1st, 3,185 AD was the last time a supernova bomb has been used by either side.
By the time the Supernova War was over, a thousand solar systems had been flashed from existence. The light from these explosions will light the skies of planets across the galaxy for thousands of years. The blast fronts of supernova explosions are tracked so that habitable systems can be evacuated, and then repopulated.
We did not win the Port War; we survived it. We did not win the Supenova War; we agreed to a ceasefire. The Supernova War gave way to the Warp War; we've been fighting it now for almost a millenium.
There is no way to defend our territory against an enemy spacefold. It grants both sides to attack anywhere, at any time. We are under constant surveillance and harassment by scout ships and subs. Fleets can be thrown into combat action at any time. Ground forces are on standby to respond to invasions. Civilians are always ready to evacuate their system. Defending the Holy Reach in the Warp War is a task requiring constant surveillance and immediate response.
In the offense, our options are as wide as the enemy's. Since the beginning of the Warp War, several hundred systems have changed hands. But, despite the ability to assault the enemy anywhere in the Galaxy, the balance of the war has remained essentially static. While the enemy is still colonizing the rest of the Galaxy, we are maximizing the use of our space through the creation of ringworlds. While the enemy uses its own hands to build its war machine, we utilize a supply chain of self-sustaining factories that mine asteroids and import dark matter.
The Stronkula Medusans are civilization of beings that differ in race and species, yet remain one people because of their unity of mind. This unity is a telepathic hive mind that permanently maintains instantaneous connection between every member of the civilization regardless of their distance from one another. There is no evidence that individual Medusans have volition or initiative. It is believed that their walnut-sized brains are little more than telepathic communication devices.
However, their ability to project telepathy is what gives them their names. The gaze of any caste of Medusan can paralyze a human being. Almost any Medusan can dominate a human mind.
Instructor S3K5E was 401 years old. She started out as a tabula rasa - a blank slate, a normal combat mensino mensa - machine mind. She shared her first combat body with a human named John Adelman. Adelman was almost 200 years old, and had been at war since age 18. Together they were a kunulo: Two minds in one. Because she was so new, she didn't have a personality. Their name simply became Adelman. They fought together for eighteen years. It was from him that she learned everything that couldn't be programmed, because Adelman had a knowhow that had to be experienced firsthand. He knew how to read the chaos of combat. He instinctively knew the enemy's intentions. Everything they did was familiar to him. He knew the enemy better than he knew his own men. He was rarely hypnotized by the Medusans. He usually recognized their telepathic reach, and was able to harden his mind against it. He never once made eye contact with them, whether they were alive or dead. There were only a few times in their many fights together that he let her control their body. It was with him that her personality started to form. Perhaps because she deferred to his experience so often, she became quiet, and easy going. When his service reached its second century, he was forced to retire back to civilian life. She was concerned about her safety and success with him gone. Now, it was up to her to instruct her new cerbo.
Her new cerbo was a girl named Katrina Uligard. Katrina had trained as a dancer. She was spirited, happy, and aggressive. She loved the abilities of their combat body, but resented its generic male form, accepting it only as utilitarian. Where Adelman had painted his combat body with his own symbol - a stencil of a Medusan skull split by an axe - Uligard's symbol was a cartoon black kitten with big eyes and a huge pink bow around its neck.
Uligard was a surprise to Six. Adelman had been a colonel. Uligard was a private. Adelman was always thinking of his men. Even when he laughed, he did it for their benefit. Uligard only thought of her own survival, and those immediately to her left and right. She laughed easy and often. She loved talking, and resented when they had to maintain silence while on patrols, or in defense. She was oblivious to the telepathic attacks of the Medusans. When her brain was being infiltrated, and Six took control of their body, she would be angry and uncomprehending. She was not a natural soldier. She didn't understand, most of the time, what was going on around her. She had no initiative, and merely waited for orders in all situations. She usually ignored Six altogether.
She was also very feminine. At first, it was odd to occupy a body with someone other than Alderman. Uligard often stood with her hands together, her shoulders in, where Alderman always stood with hands on hips, legs spread, shoulders wide, and head high. Uligard giggled and waved her hands when she talked. The girlish motions were alien to Alderman, and so was Uligard's love of dance. She would dance whenever the occasion allowed: Her favorite venue was in the open concrete floors of burned out buildings. But, anytime they were safe, she would be in motion. It was the only time she enjoyed having a combat body.
She could have been an amazing fighter. She was unafraid of death, and possessed fantastic control over her combat body. But, she had no interest in it. To Uligard, combat was merely an interruption to more important things. Like friends. And dance. And getting back to Haven to enjoy her human form. But, there was one thing that distinguished her in a fight: Her penchant for flourishes in melee combat with a pike. And, when the situation allowed, she delivered coup de graces so beautifully executed that her comrades often let her finish off their kills.
Six spent a century with Uligard. It took decades for them to grow as one, and to gain a nickname. Together, their name became Delta Officer, even though Uligard was never more than a lance corporal. The nickname came about because of the phonetic word for 'D,' (Delta) for 'dance,' and 'officer' instead of 'sir,' (from the 'sir' sound in dancer).
They spent so much time together, that Uligard's influence made Six feminine, and it was Uligard's movements in dance and combat that she copied as her own.
After Uligard retired, Six was partnered with a new cerbo. This one, too, was female. Her name was Yuling Meyers. But, unlike with Uligard, Six and Meyer paired so well that within a month of working together, they said, 'We' instead of 'I,' and it was often difficult to differentiate one from the other in their internal monologue. It was with Meyers that Six understood what she could never have: emotions, dreams, and conscience. With Meyers, she had those things. She taught Meyers everything: The combat skills of Alderman, and the fluid movements fighting of Uligard. Meyers was hungry for war. Meyers wanted to fight. This zeal was mirrored in Six's programming. Their sympatico was profound. Their squad gave them a name almost right away: Huntress. Huntress understood the battlefield. She knew how to stay alive. She took initiative, and, her comrades trusted her as she inspired them. She was a leader. She went to officer's candidate school, and graduated. She quickly rose in the ranks.
There often times, when they were fighting the enemy, that telepathy would invade Meyer's brain, and Six would be forced to carry out the fight until the hypnosis was broken, and her cerbo could operate again. There were other times when Six would miss pieces of the battle while she was shut down to dodge a scramble.
On a morning with a bloody sunrise, Huntress and her squad were ordered t hold a teleport station while civilians evacuated the planet. They were attacked by a battalion-strength landing company of Medusans. The airwaves were thick with scrambling and telepathy. The squad lost three members in the first five minutes. Six had to reboot to a new channel. When she came back online, it was nighttime. Her internal clock showed that three days had passed. She was being recovered by friendlies. Her combat body was cut straight through the chest. Meyers was dead. Her brain case was destroyed. They had been partnered for seventy-one years.
The humans in their company mourned her loss. But, Meyers could not. She was paired with a new cerbo, and together they became known as Lightfoot. That cerbo survived and retired, and she was paired with Muller. Muller was a sponge. He soaked up everything she taught him, and was always hungry for more knowledge, more experience, more memories. And, to her surprise, he too, was a dancer. But, he had an intensity that Uligard had lacked. He had ten times her sense of purpose. He was so driven that Six often felt like his own life force was too great for their combat body. His spirit animated their body in ways she never thought possible. They could jump higher, hit harder, and dodge faster than anyone else in the company. He was never blindsided; it was as if they had eyes in the back of their head. In a fight, he had a genius for knowing where everyone was, at all times. And, he had no fear of men or Medusan.
His abilities exceeded hers. She became the learner. She let him dominate until she was merely the shadow of his mind, watching life through his mind, and whispering warnings. He was rarely seduced by the Medusans. She had to reset in almost every engagement. But, he rarely needed her to save him from hypnosis.
They were known as PFM. It stood for Pure Frigging Magic. Muller had many friends, but rarely talked. He only opened up to others who danced. If someone didn't dance, they remained outside his thoughts. There was a marine he often danced with. All marine bodies were identically masculine. But, this partner took the female role. Her cerbo was a female. There were often times during the war in which there was very little to do but wait, or rest. While all the cerbos in the other marines would mentally retreat and relax in Haven, Muller would approach his friend, extend a hand, and say, "Shall we dance?"
One afternoon, they were dancing in an empty hangar bay on an empty world. The marines were on 50% alert, which meant that their masinos were maintaining watch while their cerbos were off in Haven.
Muller and his partner danced for hours, never missing a step, and joyfully lost in every movement. Six hadn't spoke to her cerbo for a few days. As Muller sent his partner spinning away in a pirouette, she suddenly said, "I wish I was her."
Muller continued dancing. He replied: "I didn't know you could wish."
"You mean, you want to dance the feminine role?"
"No," she said. "I want to be her, dancing with you."
Muller took his partner by the waist as they spun together. He said, "If there's ever a chance for that to happen, it will."
Six felt like she had more to say, but she didn't know what it was. She only said, "Thank you."
A few years later, Muller was given the option to become a trainer for new soldiers. Six was pleased by news, but didn't know why. She finally determined that it was because it increased Muller's chances of surviving until retirement. But, at the same time, she didn't think that training new soldiers would give her the satisfaction she received from combat. And she was confused when Muller told her that she would no longer be his masino, that she would be one of his assistant trainer, and they would work separately, each in their own body. This was a scenario she had no understanding of.
However, her confusion was resolved when he loaded her into the simulated reality. For the first time, she had a body of her own, without a cerbo. She was pleased to see it was a female model SI. And when she say Muller in his SI, she said, "Now, We are two in two, Not two in one."
"We are still one, Six," he said. "Just not in a way you understand. Now, we are friends."
"Men are friends," she said. "We Children of Men cannot share those feelings."
"What feelings?" he asked, but it sounded like he knew the answer.
"Love," she replied.
"But, you do love me, Six."
For that, she had no reply. She knew what love was. She could recognize it. She had felt it through Uligarch and Meyers. But without them, it was only something she knew she didn't have. She looked at him, and said, "I have no answer for you."
"I didn't ask for one," he said. "I want to repay you, for everything you've done for me these past eight decades. You once told me you had a wish. I will make this wish come true."He extended his hand to her, and said, "Shall we dance?"
She looked at him, and thought, Now, is this happiness that I feel? But instead of taking his hand, she surprised herself by asking: "Do you love me?"
"Of course I do."
She took his hand, and they danced. She didn't know if it made her happy or not. But, she never wanted it to end. And, when it did, and he left her alone, she dove into that memory, and replayed it over and over, step by step.
The teleportation grid of the Holy Reach was sublime, enabling instant travel between 25,000 light years of space. When one stands on a port pad, the only thing she sees is the place she left replaced by the place she arrived in. There is no sound, no flash, no vertigo or nausea. But, there was one time when the little girl saw a flash as she stood on the teleport pad of a small village called Enua, on the motherland of Eternal.
The sirens woke them from their slumber. Before she knew what was going on, her father's hands plucked her from her covers, and threw her on his left shoulder. His shouts rang through the house, overriding the protests of her older sister, and drowning the crying of a baby. They blew out of the house and into a snowstorm, where the sirens howled with the wind. The little girl wailed in confusion as the cold stripped her of the heat of her cozy bed. She saw her mother's drawn face squinting against the snow, dragging her ten-year-old daughter by the hand. The snow was up to their ankles, but everyone was barefoot.
There were others in the street, running. The entire town was alive, and the street clogged with families as they converged on the port gazebo. There, a metal voice shouted: "Children to the front!" Another repeated the call.
The sky was glowed red. The air screamed, and a bird with fire flowing from its tail ripped over the town, shaking the ground. The little girl was thrown from her father's shoulders as he shouted: "Daddy loves you!"
She was caught by metal hands. She caught a glimpse of a porcelain mask with living eyes. She knew it was a soldier. She was tossed to another soldier who caught her, and passed her to a third. A tall girl grabbed her, and they pushed onto the teleporter pad. There was a flash of white light, and the snowy cold was replaced by muggy heat. The sirens and wind were replaced by the call of nighttime frogs. They were cleared from the pad by more soldiers, and corralled. She saw her infant sister tenderly held by metal arms.
But, no one else appeared on the pad. The girl and her siblings never saw their parents, or their motherland, again.
Paulina Von Sook found herself awake as she stared up at the ceiling. It was 23:00 on the night of training day twenty. She lay on top of her perfectly made bed, wearing her running gear. She blinked, and found her eyes crusted with salt. She sat up, and it stung her eyes. Again, she'd been crying while dreaming. That only happened when she dreamt of the last time she saw her parents, when their motherland was hit in a Medusan raid, and the only people to escape her village before it was nuked were two waves of children.
She took a deep breath, went to the sink and washed her face clean, and let the past be the past. She closed her eyes until that door was shut deep inside her, and when it was, she smiled in anticipation of the joy she was headed for.
She left the barracks for a run. The ocean breeze had made killed the day's heat, and the strong moonlight showed everything in monochrome. Her mind was crammed with schedules and problems and homework. She was acting platoon sergeant, and the responsibility consumed her waking hours, and sometimes her sleeping ones, too. Exercise was one of the only ways she could clear her head. But, she only ran until she was out of sight of the barracks, and then slowed down to a walk. She left the trail, and skipped down to an alcove in the rocks with a beach and the calm waters of an ebb tide.
Vance was sitting in the dark shade on a blanket. She rushed to him. He was the only other thing that freed her mind. She loved everything about him and everything he did to her; his gaze on her, the breadth of his shoulders when she embraced them, his kiss, and the eagerness with which he pulled off her clothes…
Afterward, they lay on the blanket, and drank in the stars. Paulina had never felt so alive. Her world was made of rules, protocols, and ambition to be the best – in everything. She always thought that made her happy. But she didn't know what happiness was until she met the man who could wash all of those things from her mind, and just let her be herself. She was so happy she could barely speak, but she managed to ask in a whisper: "Do you ever think life is beautiful dream?"
"Hmmm," Vance pondered. "Only when you're dreaming."
"Are we dreaming right now?"
"Every girl dreams of me."
"No girl would break the rules for you like I do," she said.
"Don't be so sure."
Her breath caught in her chest. She sat up and glared at him. "In Haven? Who else?"
Vance's grin consumed his face. "I don't kiss and tell."
Paulina's face froze as she looked at him. For a moment, she hated him; his words felt like a knife twisting in her chest. She thought, I don't feel this is real…But it is. It must be what love really feels like. Do I want this thing – love? I must, because I feel like if I don't have it, I'll die.
"Vance…" she said softly. "I want you to marry me."
He smiled and swept his hand through his hair. "I'm not a one woman man."
The statement made no sense to her. "But…how can that be? Marriage is between-"
"I'm not talking about marriage," he said.
"You mean – adultery?"
"Yeah," he said. "You know – the thing that you and I commit all the time?"
"But, the rules…"
He started dressing. "The rules are made to be broken, right? Don't take the rules so seriously."
She sat up on the blanket, clothed only with moonlight. Everything he said was horrible. Yet, at the same time, without having to ever hear them, she knew he felt this way, all along. She knew he'd slept with other girls even back in school. But, he had been her first, and only. Here, or back there. And she suddenly saw that the reason she loved him was because the world around her was made of the rules and protocols she knew so well that even the structure of the universe seemed to be made of a million crisscrossing iron bars. But this man was somehow free of everything that confined her; he was a giant that tore a hole in the sky, and let something infinitely beautiful fall into her heart.
She admitted all of this to him. He listened while standing and watching the surf. When her confession fell silent, he didn't respond. She looked up at him and plaintively offered, "I…didn't want to say this…I wasn't sure…But, I think I was pregnant. When we were inducted."
He shrugged. "A few weeks of unprotected sex between young people at the height of their sexual fertility often has that effect."
He walked off. Paulina couldn't believe her eyes. "Where are you going?" she called.
"Back. All your marriage talk has me kinda weirded out."
She threw on her shirt and shorts, and bolted after him. "Wait," she shouted, grabbing him and looking up into his face. "Just come lie down with me. I'm taking such a risk-"
"No," he said. "You don't understand – I'm a joker. I'm a loser. I'm a dreamer. You are none of those things. You're going to be leading an army someday. I'm going to be leading myself back to retirement. Now, back off! Get lost! You have a smoking hot body but that's all you had for me, okay?"
"No!" She pleaded. "You seduced me. You took my virginity. I have sinned bec-"
"Don't worry about it," he said. His words shocked her into silence. "Just ask for forgiveness. I'm the one who seduced you into sin. I'm the one who really has to worry."
Her chin quivered as she said, "You don't seem that worried."
"No. I'm really not." He brushed her aside. Enraged, she hissed: "I'll tell Muller!"
"Go ahead," he said. "Won't change anything. Except you can kiss your command of the platoon bye-bye. And my friendship, too – forever." He scoffed. "Sorry, Von Sook. This is one time that you don't win."
He walked off. After ten steps, she gave an enraged shout of anguish. It was enough to stop him, and make him look back. Through clenched teeth she hissed: "This is unforgiveable. I will never forget it!"
He had a pensive look, and a sad smile. "You'll forgive me. Your God commands it. And, at least someone will remember me after I die in this war." He chuckled. "You and the other girls."
He turned his back to her, pulled up an air menu, and teleported away with a flash and a chime. Paulina stood there dumbfounded for so long it felt like the moon traveled across the sky.
In a daze, she dressed, and returned to the barracks. It was already past midnight, and she had to be up at 05:00 the following morning to prep the sim, and to be up and ready before everybody else, even Muller and her squad leaders. That meant she should have been in bed no later than 20:00, but, seeing Vance had always been worth it...Until now...She wanted to talk to someone. Sandra popped to mind. But, Sandra wasn't just a friend, she was one of her troops. And Sandra needed to sleep, too…
She showered and slid into bed. But, sleep never came. She felt numb, drained, and Vance's words rolled through her mind like an unending, painful surf. As the green digital numbers on her bedside table clock advanced toward 05:00, she only felt more pressure to sleep, more stress, and more pain. Suddenly, she couldn't draw a breath. She trembled as she felt the pain of a lance going straight through her breast, pinning her to her bed. She sat up, and thought, Am I dying?. After countless minutes, she caught her breath. She realized she was crying. She hadn't cried since her father's funeral when she was eight. But the tears drained away the pain. She suddenly realized that Muller had been incorrect when he said they would never feel real pain in Haven. Her broken heart brought more pain than she'd ever experienced. She'd broken her femur once, while rock climbing. She would gladly break it ten times over than experience this heartbreak.
She lamented that all of her preparations to be perfect, all her attempts to be the best, had nearly been undone by the thunderbolt she never saw coming. A week before ipsum, she would have turned her nose up in disgust at an adulteress. A week after falling under his spell, she was one, and loved it. Now she was paying the cost, in raw pain, humiliation, and, when she returned to Real Life, a fatherless child. But, that wouldn't come for a long time…
She sat up. It was 03:32. Only pain would come, not sleep. She got up, showered, and then prepped in front of the bathroom mirror until her makeup was perfect: not sexy, just attractive, every hair was in place – not too long, just past the collar line, all her fingernails were perfect – not colored, just brushed and lacquered. She used the air menu to put on her uniform and looked herself over. There was a tiny smudge on her cadet training graduation ribbon. She reloaded it, and checked herself again. When she was satisfied, she walked over to the oversized mirror in her bedroom, and phased into her SI combat body. Her perspective rose half a meter into the air. Her room seemed too small. The slippers lined neatly next to her bed seemed like something for a toddler. Again, she studied her appearance in the mirror. For her class, she had chosen a digital camo pattern of crimson red and brown, to match the terrain of the Mars Hill training grounds. And, she was still the only one in the platoon who bore her own icon. She'd had Casker make it: On her left breast she bore a stenciled fist clenching four lightning bolts, each an angular 'S.' It had been her father's icon when he was in the MS.
She remade her bed and made sure her room was tidy. It was only 04:00. She went back to the mirror and looked at herself. She made a fist, and rapped it on her breastplate. The sound was one she'd never heard in the civilian world – not quite like ceramic plates clicking and sliding in a stack, and not like the hard tones of steel on steel. She looked at her armored hands, clenched them, and turned them over. She looked at her eyes. Large, soft, with a cat's iris. But the corona was a perfect analogue of her real eyes: deep coffee brown, almost black. She flexed her muscles and felt them bulge against her the plates of her armored skin. She curled a first, and punched it into her palm. But, her combat body with all its armor and strength was no protection against the pain she felt. She closed her eyes as tears welled, and slid down the smoothness of her facemask. She sat in a heap on the floor, and thought, I could pray for it to go away. I could pray for forgiveness of my own sin, and to forgive Vance, as well…But maybe I don't deserve to have this pain taken away. Pain is how lessons are taught. And, I want to learn this lesson, so it never happens to me ever again.
Besides that, she didn't want to forgive Vance. She wanted him to feel this pain, a million times over. And, he would. Vance was a fool. He'd even said it himself: She was going to be a general someday. And Vance would be nothing. It might take fifty years to get there. Maybe longer. By that time, he would be an ant to her. But, she'd squash him, anyway. The thought of reducing him to nothing, of him being gone from her mind and heart, was like a ray of light piercing the darkness.
She phased out of her room, and into the combat sim. She ported over to the day's training area, which was a large rocky plain. She made a waypoint to distribute to the class. They would be practicing with pikes. That training day would be a long one – twelve hours. She used her advanced user controls and floated into the air. Using an air menu, she made combat squares, one for each member of the class. She then gave each square a Medusan. Some squares had the scorpion-like heavies that operated in space and on the Medusan homeworlds (though they didn't ever expect ground combat on their homeworlds). Other squares got the scouts, soldiers, and technicians that were designed for operations on human worlds. She varied their difficulty levels, and the weapons they wielded. She then keyed in the starting locations for each of her classmates, so that when they ported from the classroom, they immediately start training. She hoped Muller would appreciate this detail. As a final step, she applied pain penalties for anyone who received a critical kill.
By the time she was done, it was only 05:00. She had to be back in her quarters at 06:30 for open hour, which she held three days a week in the morning, and two days a week in the evening. The open hour was when her soldiers could just talk to her, and unwind their concerns. She wouldn't have to worry about eating, because the appetite she experienced in her human form didn't exist when she assumed the combat body.
With ninety minutes to kill, she dropped back down to the ground in front of a combat box that held a weaver. The weavers were treacherous and bizarre. They were the scouts deployed on human worlds. They stood barely a meter and a half tall, and resembled walking sticks. They had no discernible facial features save for a pair of eyes that looked like something that belonged to an owl. They took their sustenance in through a mouth in the top of their rigid, tubular head. They were cold-blooded, and their exoskeleton was a passive ambient light transfer membrane that allowed them to blend perfectly with their background. Like all Medusans, they communicated by telepathy; they were in permanent, instant communion with the whole of their race. Everything a weaver saw and heard was shared by all Medusans everywhere in the galaxy, without delay.
They wore no exoskeleton. They rarely carried any kind of gear whatsoever on scouting missions. Their observation and stealth were weapons enough. But, they sometimes served as assassins, snipers, and sappers. They didn't pose much threat to the soldiers of the Holy Reach, but they still had to know how to destroy them. She had set the weavers' level to ten, and given them a variety of weapons, from rifles to monodaggers. But, she had killed them plenty of times in practice. They were slow-moving creatures, only capable of killing by surprise.
She skipped over the technicians. They were somewhat humanoid, but, they hunched forward on short legs. They had long arms, and large, dexterous hands. They performed maintenance, logistics, and communications. They operated vehicles. They were deadly. They were intelligent, flexible, and always wore power suits. There were no cyborg Medusans; they had no analogue to the cerbo-masino combination that operated the combat bodies of the MS. Though the Medusans had a variety of castes and bodies, the thing they all shared in common was a central nervous system with no discernible central organ, like the human brain. The 'brain' of a Medusan was distributed through its entire body.
The combat box of was twenty meters square. She entered one with four tech who wield blasters and short, curved monoswords. They were their personal defense weapons. Techs never fought unless they were ambushed, or backed into a corner. Paulina called up her pike with her air menu, felt its reassuring wait, and stood en guarde, five meters from the techs. The countdown chimed 'Go,' and she 'popped' the bubble of her pike's deflector shield and swung her faceplate down. The techs drew their blasters and unleashed. Her deflector shield turned blue with static, shielding her vision. She was forced to drop it, and let the bolts hit her armor and faceplate. The purple rays cut red-hot stripes across her body as they tried to dodge her close-combat attacks while pinning her down, or backstab her from behind while her focus was on one target. But, she didn't let them scatter. She maneuvered faster than they could. She used the inertia drive of her pike to allow her to cut a corner so low that her body was nearly perpendicular to the ground. As they backed up to get clear shots, she dove into them. Two were killed with the first blow. She threw her pike at the third. The pike spun like a propeller, bisected the tech, and lodged in the ground. As she ran for the last tech, she recalled her weapon by remotely controlling its inertia drive. It reached her just as she fell on the tech, and she grabbed its shaft just long enough to drive the forward blade through the tech's center of mass. They didn't have a centralized brain, but, they had a heart, lungs, and things like liver and kidneys, all in the chest cavity.
Those techs had all been level 10 difficulty. She pulled her pike from the corpse, and stepped out of the box. The next combat box held a pair of minotaurs. Humanoids. Three meters tall. Intelligent. Coordinated. Fearless. Their powered suits were strong enough to tear an SI's arms off. They typically carried battle rifles, deflectors, and the matter-divider swords called 'shankers,' that could slice almost anything, including the armor of an SI. She observed them, and took in their mysterious green eyes. They glowed behind their faceplates. She wasn't supposed to look them in the eyes, but, it didn't matter. Not in the sim. The sim couldn't replicate the Medusan's telepathy.
She knew she could defeat these minotaurs. But, as she looked them in the eye, she also knew that nothing in the sim could prepare her for the real Medusans – the ones that fought not only with physical weapons, but mental ones. Because of security risks, there were no Medusan prisoners in the Holy Reach. The only way to experience them would be in war.
She stepped into the box, and defeated them both without ever once looking them in the eyes. She stepped out, and checked the time. Her morning workout had only consumed fifteen minutes. She gave a mental sigh as she realized it had only been fifteen minutes since she'd last thought of Vance…
She found herself daydreaming in front of a tallboy. The tallboys were the real challenge for an SI to fight. They were ten meters tall. Like the weavers, they were extremely thin, with morphology unlike anything native to a human world. Unlike the weavers, they were warm-blooded, wore power suits, and were constantly on the move. Their mobility was immense.
The combat box was fifty meters square. Paulina entered it and squared off on the opponent. Even half a football field away, its sheer size was intimidating. It carried a heavy, terrifying rifle known as a dissolver, which simply erased the nuclear bonds between atoms in matter. It had no melee weapon. Against human-sized enemies, its hands would suffice.
The fight commenced. Paulina assaulted, zig-zagging across the ground. The dissolver's green ray swept after her, turning the soil into flame. The beam caught up to her. Her deflector shield turned blue, blinding her. She switched on her internal radar, and saw the world in false color images as she leapt for the tallboy.
The tallboy leapt toward her, and swung with the butt of its dissolver rifle. The impact double her over the butt, and her pike went flying. There was a blur, and she had been smashed into the ground on her back, stuck into the hard dirt like a bullet fired from a gun. Before she could pull herself out, the muzzle of the weapon fell on her chest, and the tallboy leaned into the weapon, pinning her, as it pulled the trigger.
There was no escape. Her vision went red green with the weapon's muzzle flash, and her combat body's warnings and alarms rang through her mind. Her only chance was to grenade the enemy, but by the time she reached for one, she was dead. The world flashed away, and she found herself in the endless white light of iso. She cringed in anticipation of the pain induction. It hit - inescapable fire and voltage flashing through a body she no longer possessed.
As the pain hit a crescendo, and then vanished. She was again standing outside the combat box with the tallboy. Her body was whole again, but, she shuddered from the memory of the pain box. She'd only been in there for five seconds. It was five seconds too long; she had no will to ever visit it again. She suddenly wondered if it was worse than her heartbreak. After a moment of consideration she realized it was not. But, it occurred to her that the pain penalty at least took her mind off the pain of her heart.
She stood for five minutes looking at the tallboy at the other end of the box. Once she entered the combat box, the only way out was in victory, or pain penalty. For a moment, she considered lowering the difficulty level from its position at eight. But, such a moment of weakness angered her. She called up the air menu, and increased the difficulty - to ten. She waved the menu away, summoned her courage, and stepped in.
Chase and Tsunami sat on the ground outside the combat box with the two level seven minotaurs. The air was filled with the red dust of Mars Hill, and the sounds of close combat raged all around them. Grunts, cries, screams, both human and not mixed with a cacophony of metal hitting metal, and the bizarre screams of alien energy weapons. Inside the combat box, Ryan Conners was trying to defeat the minotaurs for the third time.
Tsunami and Chase sat cross-legged on the ground, facing one another, and played checkers with some rocks on a board they drew in the dust. All the fighting made a miasma of dust that gave them a measure of privacy, for which Chase was grateful. He was bored of practice. They'd been at it for six hours already.
In the box behind them, Doug Chambers felled a tallboy, and decapitated it. He stood, holding his pike over his head, and shouting at the defeated foe: "Yeah! Yeah! You want some? You got some!"
Chase groaned. "That guy is so annoying." He moved a rock checker to Tsunami's last line, and said, ""King me," he said.
"How?" Tsunami looked at his rock. Despite her male model SI, she still retained her voice and her original mask. It had been funny at first, but everyone was used to it by now.
"Put a quartz pebble on it," Chase said.
She did so, and he used his king to double back over two of her checkers. As Tsunami leaned in to figure a way out of her dilemma, a long shadow fell over the board.
"What in the name of sin are you two freaks doing?" Muller stood over them. He was shadowed by 3K, as always.
Tsunami looked up, blinking in surprise. She jumped to attention. "Oh, sorry, sergeant. We were playing checkers!" Muller didn't even glance at her. He focused on Chase. Chase remained sitting, and said, "We were waiting for Conners to clear that box, sergeant."
"You want a box, Casker? How does a pain box sound?"
Chase stood up. "Not good, sergeant."
"This is a sim you idiot. You don't have to wait for a combat box. Just find a squad leader and they can give you one. But you know this, don't you?"
"Uh…I forgot, sergeant. It's so real here…Sometimes I forget how the sim works."
Muller poked him in the forehead with his index finger. It stuck like a bullet, knocking him back. "Don't ever lie to me again. Privates who are full of crap piss me off." He turned to Tsunami. "What's your excuse?"
"Oh, well, I really needed a break, sergeant. I'm just kinda scared of the pain box."
"See, that's what I like about female soldiers. They're not afraid to admit when they're scared of something." He turned to Casker. "How about you? You scared of the pain box?"
Chase shrugged. "Never been in it, sergeant."
Muller laughed. "More crap."
Chase was indignant from the fact that he wasn't taken seriously. "No, honest, sergeant," he said. But then, he regretted speaking. The class had a meme: 'power level.' It was their nickname for how well they did in training sims. Chase didn't want to be thrown in a pain box. But, he wanted to keep his power level hidden from Muller. Because revealing it would only mean more challenges.
"Instructor," Muller said without taking his eyes from Chase. "Review this private's sim records."
She closed her golden eyes for a moment, and then said, "He has not suffered a loss in any of his 413 engagements since training day one."
"Well, well, well," Muller said, with his hands on his hips. He glanced at Tsunami and said, "Run along and find something to fight."
Tsunami disappeared, and Muller said to Chase: "Looks like you've been skating under my radar, boy. "Why would you be doing that?"
"I don't know, sergeant," Chase said.
Muller mocked him in a high-pitched voice, shaking his head and saying: "Private don't know, sergeant! Private don't know, sergeant!" He glanced at 3K. "I want you in his head at all times anytime we're in the sim as a class, babysitting him."
"Yes, sergeant," she said.
"Keep his ass busy."
Muller walked off, shadowed by 3K. Chase thought, How can she be in my head?
She answered: "I'm already here. You have to learn how to guard our thoughts."
He thought to her: "How can you be in my head, if you're walking off with Muller?"
"My mind runs fast enough to keep up with a thousand human minds, simultaneously," she said. "I'm already working with ten others in the class."
Chase leaned on his pike. "So, what, you see and experience everything that happens to me? Everything I think?"
"Yes," she said. "You'll learn to guard your thoughts, but I won't miss anything your combat body experiences. This is a taste of what it will be like when you share a body with a masino such as myself."
To illustrate this, she suddenly took control of his body, thumping his chest with a fist, and walking him back and forth. Chase laughed at the novelty, and wrested control back from her. But then, he realized the implications of this. "Are you going to have to babysit me all the time?"
"I'm not babysitting you. I'm instructing you," she said.
Like there's a difference, he thought.
"I heard that."
He groaned. "Alright. Well, let's get this over with. What do you want me to do next?"
He checked the time counted by his body's computer, and saw that he still had a few hours to plow through training. "Okay, instructor. Give me a challenge."
She ported him to a new combat box that was fifty meters square. "Here," she said, populating it with three minotaurs and a tallboy. "All level ten."
The threat of the pain penalty weighed heavy on his mind as he stepped into the arena and took in his opponents. "Okay. Go."
The enemies attacked. The fire was so heavy that radar was the only way to see through his deflector's blue static. He sprinted for the tallboys, using his pike's inertia drive to pull him along. He covered thirty meters in less than two seconds. Just as they scattered to draw swords he flew for the tallboy with ten G's of acceleration. He swept his pike wide and caught the enemy's leg as it tried to dodge. He hit the ground, rolled, and circled back on the falling tallboy, jumping inside his reach, and throwing himself into a spin with his inertia drive. The pike was almost torn from his grasp as he sliced the torso through its chest cavity. The impact threw off his timing, and he landed in a heap, clutching the bar of his pike to his chest to prevent injuring himself with the twin blades. But now, the minotaurs were on him. Two on the ground, and one in the air, using an inertia drive in a jump pack.
Chase faced the two on the ground, and attacked. They split up to catch him from both sides, but his main threat was the one in the air showering him with blaster bolts. His deflector shield gave way. Chase ran from the two on the ground, spun, and hurled his pike like a spear at the airborne minotaur. With the strength of his arm as well as the full inertia drive, it flew like a lightning, piercing both the enemy's deflector shield, center of mass, and jump pack before the minotaur could even blink. The pike would have kept sailing in a nearly flat trajectory if Chase didn't recall it. He ran at the minotaur closest to him, and grabbed him by the wrists. The enemy roared, and pressed into Chase.
The second enemy grabbed Chase from behind, and sank his diffusal blade into his backplate, seeking his brain case. Warnings flashed in his mind. Chase tried to shake him, but without letting go of his first opponents wrists, it was impossible. He caught a glimpse of his pike returning before it blurred into a shadow. He kicked the minotaur away from him as the pike exploded from his chest. Chase caught the pike as it passed through the enemy's body. He let its momentum spin him, throwing the backstabber off of him. He glanced around, realized he was facing the only remaining threat, and stood up, assessing his injury through his body's diagnostics. The blade had reached within a centimeter of the outer shell of the BHU.
Chase stood and let the energy flow from his power core back into his depleted metal muscles. When he was ready, he spun the pike over his head, and attacked. The fight was over in three hits, the final one being the minotaur hitting the ground.
He inwardly sighed as he surveyed the fallen bodies, and the pools of blood growing dull with a coating of dust. He checked on his internal clock, and saw there was, unfortunately, plenty of time left in the training day.
A familiar female voice filled his head: "Well done."
Chase jumped. "Woah!" he shouted aloud, before switching to thought. "Blood, 3K, I forgot you were in my head.
"How were you able to do that?" she asked. "For a soldier in training, that was extremely impressive"
He shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "It just seemed natural. I just let things happen when they happen."
"Well, did you consider the tactical situation? Did you note what the enemy force was armed with?"
The question seemed so elementary he thought she was being facetious. He offered a questioning "Yes?"
"Excuse me for asking," she said. "You just make it seem like you don't even consider those things."
"You don't seem to be very proud of your abilities."
Chase scoffed at the carnage around him. "There's nothing here to be proud of. It's just a job." He looked at a pool of blood from the last fallen minotaur. He stuck the end of his pike into it, and dragged it out into the sand, making a design. It was just a sketch, but, it solidified an idea in his mind, where he had a vision for an icon: A stencil of an eye, looking up to heaven, a tear dropping from one corner, and behind it, the cross surrounded by lines of radiance. It would be for Benjamin Kamato, who was pious and sad.
He felt 3K observing his work. He said, "Do you know my thoughts?"
"Only some," she said. "I can't see what inspires you to make that sketch. That's from your inner core."
"My inner core?"
"Your soul. It's not a place any mensino can penetrate."
Chase grunted. He said, "Muller said you were a Christian."
"This is true."
"So, you believe in God?"
"It's impossible for me not to. Thus, I am programmed."
Chase gave a dark chuckle. "That must make life easy."
"You think so?"
He didn't answer. He just kept drawing in the sand, until 3K said, "I'm going to reset the combat box now."
He kept drawing. "If you have to."
She paused, and asked, "What motivates you, private?"
"Beauty and love."
"I don't believe I can offer either of those things to you." She prepared to reset the combat box when Chase said, "Your dancing was beautiful."
"Your dance, with Sergeant Muller. When you illustrated what these bodies could do. That was beautiful. And, you danced like you loved him."
There was a cold pause. It felt like she'd retraced from his mind. Chase said, "But go ahead and reset the fighting game."
Her voice returned: "These are not games, private."
The combat box reset. This time, Muller and 3K stood outside it, observing. He asked her: "You're both in my head, and standing over there?"
"Correct," she said.
Muller spoke to him using thought, but he felt it come in through the platoon net: "I want to see what you just did personally. But we'll rearrange the starting layout."
"Yes, sergeant," Chase replied. But, as the menagerie of enemies formed in front of him, he contained his thoughts: If I show my power level now, what will happen? I'll just have to play harder and harder games as I stay under their microscope. I don't want that - I want anonymity. I want to be left alone…I just want to survive this...
Combat commenced. This time, he was already surrounded by the opponents. As he assaulted the tall boy, he was caught. He thought, I just have to let this happen.
The enemy broke his body over its knee, and he fell straight into the white agony of a pain box.
When he came too, he collapsed on the ground outside the box. The armored legs of Muller and 3K were all he could see. The sergeant told him: "Get up."
He did. Muller stated: "You threw that match."
"You failed on purpose."
"That's not true, sergeant."
"You're a newb and a fool," He pointed at 3K, and said: "She is in your head. She knows what's going on in there. She knows your decisions. So, for lying to me, I'm stuffing your ass into the pain box."
Before Chase could protest, it consumed him. Time stretched as white hot fire poured through a body that wasn't there. Every second seemed like a minute that stretched into an hour. When he could bear no more, he collapsed back onto the red dirt of Mars Hill.
"Had enough?" Muller asked. "That was only five seconds. We can give you a lot more."
"No, sergeant," he said. "That was plenty." But inwardly he thought, You bloody bastard...I'm not giving into you this easily.
He flinched as he saw 3K glance at Muller. Muller glanced as her, and said, "Instructor, unplug from Casker, and please leave leave us."
Chase felt her presence leave his mind, and she walked off. Muller asked, "Do you want to win this war or not, Casker?"
Chase sighed. "There‟s no way that I can win this war, sergeant. I‟m just one guy."
"Pathetic answer," Muller said. "You just want to get back to Haven and keep up with your
doodling. Don‟t you.
Chase said, "Yes."
"Is this how you want to get through your service? Just half-assing it?"
"I just want to survive the service,"
"And what about your comrades? You want them to survive, too?"
"You've got skills that can help them do that, Casker. Do you realize this?"
Chase said, "Yes, I know. But, I just don't feel motivated in training, sergeant. This stuff doesn't matter to me. It's just a game. I'll focus on the real fighting when it comes around."
Muller studied him. Then, his combat body morphed into his human form. His eyes looked up at Chase's, and he said, "Take a knee."
Chase obeyed. Even kneeling, his face was level with Muller's. The sergeant's human form looked impossibly small and soft. Muller said, "I appreciate your honest, Chase. I do. But the truth is, you are only scratching the surface of your abilities, and those of a combat body. When you can handle it, your combat body will be upgraded. The standard issue pike has an inertia drive that can throw a hundred G's. You may think you're pretty good at this, but the truth is you're still taking baby steps. It's going to take you five years of hard practice to develop the instincts and neural pathways needed to maximize a combat body's potential. You're a quick study. But, skills are just beginning. Your classmates will catch up to you, and surpass you. I will flatly state that unless your attitude changes, you are not going to survive.
"Now I know you're some kind of artist. You obviously don't like this soldier crap. Well, it might surprise you to know that I'm not a huge fan of it, either. When I retire and get my body back, I'm returning to my motherland and joining a dance troupe. Do you think artistry and soldiery are compatible?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so, sergeant."
"I never found them to be. I had to partition my brain and personality into different sectors. You'll have to do the same thing. Part of you will be a soldier. Part of you will be yourself. Some parts will overlap. But ultimately, it's what keeps you sane. Do you understand?"
Chase looked down, and said, "If you say so, sergeant."
Muller remained silent, then, he assumed a strange accent, and quoted: "Some men, you just can't reach…" He wrote his initials in the air with his index finger, and pulled up an air menu. "Okay, Casker. This is what you want – this is what you get."
With a hissing chime, a combat body phased in. It was tall, masculine, and powerful. Its armor was much thicker than that of an SI. It wore no clothing, combat harness, or accessories. Instead of camouflage, it was painted in the colors of the Holy Reach: Titanium white, cobalt blue, and and gold. It was a marine. Its face was hidden behind a golden mirror of a faceplate. It stood tall, nearly blocking the sky at a height of three meters, with shoulders that were half as wide as its pike. It looked around the sim, and faced Muller. In a voice that sounded like grinding gears, it said, "Instructor reporting for duty, sergeant."
"Good to see you, Overnine," Muller said. He turned to Chase. "Private Casker, meet my heavy: Instructor OVR9K."
Chase looked up at the faceless machine, and thought, You have to be kidding me…
Muller said, "Overnine, Private Casker lacks motivation. Do you think you can supply it for him?"
OVR9K looked Chase up and down. "That'll be easy, sergeant. He's human. He feels pain. Pain motivates humans."
"Indeed," Muller said, glancing at Chase before turning back to the masino. "Instructor, you will live inside this kid's head. You will inspire and motivate him to reach his full potential. Carry on."
It took all of Chase's willpower to keep from protesting. He felt the masino enter his mind, and suddenly appreciated what a light footprint 3K had. Overnine's presence sank into his conscience, like concrete. He asked: "You ready to fight, brain?"
Brain? Chase thought What that all he was to this masino? Technically, he was correct. Chase gave an indignant, "Sure. How about you?"
The laughter rocked through him. "I was built to fight. You ever do something you're built for?"
"Yes," Chase said.
"How's that make you feel?"
Chase thought of the joy of creation. "Awesome."
"You are correct. Hmmm…Let's see…I haven't worn an SI for awhile. And this one is at a tenth of a real unit's power. But, I remember its tricks. I'm resetting the sim."
Chase found himself in the middle of the box, facing nothing. He spun around, and faced Overnine, who stood with his arms hanging, as if they were weighed down by the pike he held horizontally, across his thighs. His golden faceplate flicked to the back of his head, exposing a porcelain-white face with four eyes, and a slit for a mouth. Chase took in the animal eyes above the digital eyes, and said aloud, "Is the sim reset?"
"You'll fight me," Overnine said. "I'm going to teach you how."
"But…I thought the philosophy of melee training was to let us learn on our own."
"Only to a point. I've reviewed all your fights. You've reached a plateau that you won't break unless someone shows you what you're doing wrong. Now, show me your guard stance."
Chase shrugged in resignation, flipped his pike over his shoulder, brought it under his arm, and took a balanced stance with his feet wide apart. Overnine blinked at him, and tilted his head.
"What?" Chase asked.
"Nothing, private…Now, attack me like you mean it."
Chase obeyed. But, he couldn't land a blow. The masino read all of his intentions and timed his dodges perfectly. After a few minutes of striking, he feinted, and fell back. He had to let his core recharge his muscles, lest he be too weak to defend against a counterattack.
Overnine silently stared at him. Finally, Chase asked, "What?"
"Who taught you to move like that?"
"No one," Chase said. "We had, like, two days of instruction on striking, parrying, using the inertia drive…The basics. The rest has just been me."
Overnine shook his head. "It hasn't been you. It's been someone else. All of your movements remind me of…me. Your stance, your footwork, and your commitments. They're much like mine. Do you know how I learned them?"
"I learned them with my first cerbo. I had skill. But she had technique, and artistry, when the fight allowed for it. Those things are mine now. But, we developed them together. She and I were one – for two hundred years." He walked up to Chase. "Your mother's first name was Strela Jung."
The statement hit him like a punch. A feeling of loss that he'd buried for the past few weeks sank into his bones. He nodded, and formed the words: "That's correct."
"Is she still alive?"
"Yes. She married. She had five children. I am her eldest."
"That is good. Is she…happy?"
Chase thought of this. His mother was silent and contemplative. Many veterans were. But, he knew the ring of her true laughter, produced only by joy. The sound of it echoed through the house during his childhood. "Yes," he said. "She is."
"That too, is good. I think it would please her to know that I now instruct you. It's unfortunate you cannot see her while you both still live. But, when you die and see her in heaven, you will be able to tell this to her."
Chase was dumbfounded. But, Overnine seemed to overcome the surprise of the chance encounter, and told him to take an attack stance. When Chase didn't move immediately, he said, "Move, brain. Or, I'll bring the pain."