Time to go

A man wakes her up. “Time to go, love”, he says. Helps her dress, hands her a cigarette, already lit. They go out, he takes the bag that has been packed and waiting long ago. They silently walk up the stairs, to the roof, as do the others. Someone cries quietly, child’s sleepy voice asks something. They walk out to the roof, into pre-dawn cold and whine of the turbines. The helicopters are already waiting.

(on Brexit day)

The desert lies silent

There is nothing here, just dust. Dust and the wind which moves it.

Just the dunes, empty, slowly moving, slowly shifting.

No living thing under the sky white with heat. No plants, no stones. Nothing. Just dust.

There is no one here. There is no waiting.

There is no road, no shimmering hot air over its black, cracked surface.

Nothing moves, besides the dust and the wind. No convoy slowly makes its way on the uneven road. Nobody there, no watchful guards scanning the ever-shifting dunes, no psykers, looking for the spark of a mind that should not be here. No alarms, no surprises, because no one is here.

There is no launcher, and nobody to raise it. Nobody is looking through the scope, nobody corrects for movement, for wind. No one gently squeezes the trigger. There is no flash, no plume of fire, nothing hurls through the air.

There is no explosion, no twisted wreckage of the luxury car. Nothing happened at all.

There are no shouts, no panicked shots from the guards. No confused psykers looking for a flash of satisfaction, anger, murderous intent, fear, for there are no such things here.

There is no shelter buried in sand. No one is closing the door. Nobody goes into deep trance, there is no mind to clear of anything.

There was no mission to assasinate the Planetary Governor, and there will never have been.

The long night

The slowly spreading cloud of debris was an interceptor frigate, long ago. Its course can still be traced to the point where it intersected with trajectories of several streams of high-calibre slugs. Most of the wreckage has been frozen solid by the cold of space, but not all of it. Among the pieces of the bridge, his capsule — scarred, blackened with soot, but still working. Inside, his body — damaged enough for him to be unconscious, but not enough to die and cause his clone to be decanted from a storage tank many lightyears away. He drifts on a long orbit, dead but dreaming, immortal but lost to the world.

[inspired by “Do you know where you are?”, by Jon Hallur, on EVE soundtrack]

The perils of internet dating

The room is as featureless as they come, just the table, two chairs, rather harsh fluorescent light. This focuses the attention wonderfully.
The man being interviewed sits slightly hunched, looking out of place. Just an everyman, out of his depth.

– So did you have any inclination that something might happen?
– Well, now that I think of it, it was all rather strange from the beginning. All these questions – I’m used to awkwardness, but they were a bit off-color. She asked about my health, whether I drink – I understand, you know, nobody wants an angry drinker – but then she asked if I have any scars? What’s that about?
– What happened then?
– Then we ate, she was very picky. Oh, she prayed before eating, I remember being surprised she was religious. Then there was this thing with the knife.
– The knife?
– She was standing up, to go powder her nose I suppose, and she fumbled with her bag. She dropped it, I helped her with it, and she had this big, scary knife in there. Black and wavy-looking – but you’ve seen it, probably.
– And you haven’t thought it weird?
– Well, it was rather bad neighbourhood, I thought maybe she felt safer with it. I haven’t really thought about it then.
– Did you think about it at all?
– Yes I did. Later, when we went to her place. When she was waving this knife around, telling me about the sacrifice I was going to be. If not for you people, I don’t know where I would be now.
– It was really just then, with you tied to the bed and her about to gut you like a fish, then you realized that something is amiss?
– Well, what can I say? She was hot.

OMEGA WILLOW

The teleprinter suddenly awoke, and they froze. They looked at each other, two pale faces like mirror images. One opened the safe, the other walked, not ran, to the comms station.

– Open the envelope marked OMEGA WILLOW, authorization sequence follows: oscar, two, kilo, hotel, three, juliet, juliet, delta, four, seven. Confirm.
– Confirming authorization sequence: oscar, two, kilo, hotel, three, juliet, juliet, delta, four, seven.

They both moved to the consoles and started the OMEGA WILLOW checklist, focusing on the set-check-response cadence, trying not to think about the other silos all over the country, other soldiers at the identical consoles, going through the same motions.

– Grid is armed. Execute on my mark.

Keys into sockets.

– Three. Two. One. Mark.

Turn ninety degrees right. End of the world.

In the middle of the night, all across the continental United States the interstate highways flashed white, once, twice, then a steady bright light. The suddenly disoriented drivers lost control of their vehicles, hundreds dying in the collisions, the rest of them few moments later, their souls ripped out. It was a terrible price to pay, but the alternative was worse.

The sky over the continent glowed, and the OMEGA WILLOW started its work.

Going home

The sounds of the ship around them were all wrong; frames groaning and high voltage arcing instead of quiet murmur of the life support.

– Main drive’s gone, orbital control thrusters are just about to, auxiliary gravs are gone, nav’s gone. Recycling packed up on the last hit, damage control shows lower deck underwater. We still have main power, but reactor took a hit, I’m reading leaks all over engineering.
– Do you have any good news for us?
– Well, we’re still alive, that should count for something.
– Options?
– One: evac bubble through the airlock, wait for pickup, hope it’s not one of His Holiness orbital cutters; two: strap in here, hope the ship does not come apart at reentry, eject at survivable speed, head for the hills. Two and a half: don’t eject, trust that my legendary piloting skills are enough for a landing we can walk away from. Better decide fast, this orbit is unstable, we’re in for a barely controlled reentry in fifteen minutes or so.

A hushed conversation in the back of the cockpit. Then –

– We’re staying.
– Good to hear, I’d sure like some company. All right people, I’m setting the clock to minus ten minutes, everybody bring your go-bag and stow it in the ejection seat, if you don’t have a go-bag, go pack one and remind me to tear you a new asshole once we’re planetside, I want to see your asses back here and strapped tight in ten minutes, now move it!

There was a chorus of clicks as belt buckles opened behind him. The pilot paid them no heed, all his attention on flickering displays. Below them, a green planet turned, indifferent.

Apocalypse for pets

We’re no longer sure which year is this.

We do know that about three years have passed since the hard-start Singularity, the shock that shattered our civilization like a shot glass; all we have now is some glittering shards. Artificial Intelligence was just a start: when the first shock worn off, when we saw that the Other we created isn’t going to kill us all, we breathed easy. This was no WOPR, no Skynet, so everything is going to be all right, we have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, none of the science fiction fairy tales prepared us for what came after, not that it was dramatic or something. At first glance, all looked the same.

Because the AI was just the first breakthrough. Vinge was right – AI is a self-modifying intelligence, tweaking itself for ever higher intelligence. Shocking inventions were just the byproduct. Nanomachines, mind uploads, all this jazz is shocking at first, then becomes banal, eclipsed by another astounding tech. This cycle accelerates, progress accelerates, breakthroughs are happening ever faster one after the other, a vicious cycle – with shaken homo sapienses in the middle of it.

Very soon it were not just the homo sapienses – we started sharing this planet with other intelligent species. The AI, our djinn from the lamp, OK. Uplifted animals, OK. We all read science fiction, this was to be expected. Uploaded people, OK. But undeads, uploaded just before death? Unborns, simulated before birth, or created synthetic, never to be born at all? Butlers, our calendar apps suddenly given IQs? Ads, feral media campaigns? Phages, intelligent antivirus software? Come on.

There was suddenly lots of vacant places, of course. Body is a burden, after all. It’s not that the infomorphs are immortal – the whole concept ceases to be relevant. Redundant hardware of the Crystal makes them safe from physical harm. Insanity? He’ll just restore from backup. Reconfiguration of mind into something weird and unwanted? Butler will catch the deviation from preset parameters (or just exercise his judgement, he’s sentient after all), and restore him from backup. The only way for the infomorph to die is to erase himself, all the backups, all the spin-off vectors of the mind, everything. Even if he succeeds, someone can piece a convincing simulation from public data. There’s no death anymore, just the state changes.

At least this is how they were when they still talked to us. They stopped, after a while, seems we no longer had anything interesting to say. There were some manifestations in the clouds of utility fog, but they petered out too.

Us? We’re the left behind, the morons, the relics, the paranoids. Mostly generic people, who didn’t upload themselves into the Crystal out of fear or stubbornness, some postpeople that dead-ended their evolutionary threads, some broken infomorphs in broken shells. We lived on the fringes of their civilization, clustered around the cornucopia machines they provided, or the reclamation towers on the landfills of old. Some – mostly culties or generics – huddled around pre-Singularity cities or governments.

And then they went out. Or died out, we don’t know. The Crystal winked out, along with half of infosphere. Factories turned off, consumed themselves or started manufacturing some half-witted odds, megastructures ground to a halt. We’re left in the world they twisted and remade. Like pets left in an empty house, among home appliances they can neither operate nor understand. When the food in the bowl runs out, when there is no more water left in the sink, we’re going to die. Apocalypse for pets.

Sightseeing on Cyprus

Well, budget cuts or no, the base was being rebuilt. No wonder, with the Middle East being what it is, RAF Akrotiri is guaranteed to be a busy place for many years to come. The runways are being repaved, weeds whacked, the terminal is shrouded in scaffolding, the forests of aerials are trimmed and sprouting some new masts already. All par the course.

Something is amiss, though.

Both radio sites are being renovated, despite the fact that the Lincolnshire Poacher went off the air two years ago. You’d expect a teardown – but there is a new building there, sporting a radome and heavy-duty powerlines. It looks like an over-the-horizon radar – if you ignore the decidedly suboptimal placing. The fence around the numbers station site has also been redone: now it’s electrified and has entirely too many sharp corners decorated with menacing trapezoid concrete slabs – the outline is vaguely familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. The site looks heavily patrolled, extremely heavily for a supposedly disused installation – but I don’t really think it’s disused anymore. The Cypriots are complaining that something on the base interferes with radio reception, some guy even chained himself to a fence here. There were also other, rather more troubling reports. Violent crime rate in Limassol, just next door, spiked perceptibly. Princess Mary Hospital has an influx of people suffering from anxiety and vision problems. MUFON parked an observer in Limassol and the guy is blogging enthusiastically about “waiting for another ghost ship sighting”, whatever it is. Something is up, I just have no idea what.

And then suddenly everything clicks together. I think one of the Royal Navy flags made me connect the dots.

Radio interference means the site is transmitting, obviously. It interferes with more than radios, though. The people nearby are obviously affected: “anxiety and vision problems” is milspeak for “I saw some shit that freaked me out thoroughly”, and violent crime is understandable if you can no longer carry a civil conversation with voices in your head and somebody takes offence. The chain-myself-to-the-fence guy has chosen the numbers station site instead of the more impressive antenna farm closer to town, seems like he somehow knew where the source was. As for the fence itself, it’s either a straight-up Dee heptacle protection ward or a creative interpretation thereof. A quick look around the base for confirmation – yes, I can see two upscaled versions of these trapezoid slabs, under construction in the corners of the base area. They will probably test and fine-tune the transmitter until the fence – and the ward – is complete.

And the flag?

The flag, the White Ensign, is basically a red cross, with a small Union Jack in the corner. Red cross on white is a Knights Templar flag. The Cyprus was theirs once, with Limassol as their headquarters. I think the question is no longer what they transmit, or to whom. I think the question is to when they transmit, and what will happen when the big ward is closed and they turn the transmitters to full power.

Postcards from Mars

Phobos.
Shit.
I’m still only on Phobos.

Every time I think I’m gonna wake up down there, in the canals.

Instead I lie strapped to the couch, drinking warm vodka from soft PVC bottle, watching the droplets of my sweat drift slowly in the air that smells of stagnation.

Phobos. What a waste.

It took the Command a week to summon me – all this time I practically felt my bones decalcifying in microgravity of the transfer barracks. The mission materialized as two hard-faced MPs that whisked me away from my squalid cube to the splendour of the staff quarters. I was marinated in sweat, half-dead from hangover, and they plopped me onto plushy upholstered chair in the middle of the lunch. The general and his staff had steaks. They ate from plates, drank wine from tall glasses – there was gravity, because, obviously, staff quarters are in rotating section of the base. It was unreal. I was barely able to focus. They did small talk. They drank and chew and acted civilized, the gentlemen-officers, treating the unshaven Neanderthal in dirty suit undergarment sitting among them as one of their own. They asked me questions about my service in country, I “couldn’t comment”. When the tea and biscuits came in, they cut to the chase and gave me my mission: I was to travel up the Avernus canal by means of a standard Army tripod, then find colonel Walter E. Kurtz and “terminate his command”. By any means necessary.

So politely put.

I had my marching orders, a mil-standard encrypted cube full of reading material and was out of upholstered staff quarters and in a drop pod a scant half hour later. This is how it started: with a nasty hangover in the red darkness of a delivery capsule. I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet.

The tripod was dirty, cramped and had this peculiar smell of ozone, ground dust and stale sweat, the smell that meant “Mars” to anyone who’s been on the ground. They wanted a discreet transportation upchannel, something nondescript and you don’t get more nondescript than a tripod. It was slow, I wouldn’t mind if I hadn’t to rub elbows with the crew. They were a pretty standard bunch, unhappy to have me, unhappy with the mission. They only wanted to finish up the contract and go home. The problem was that “home” didn’t exist anymore, I was there, I saw it. After a tour on Mars, home seemed unreal. Surreal, even. Hot, heavy, colors all wrong. The worst thing was people, though. “Oh, you were on Mars? How is it?”

How do you even answer such question? You don’t, you can’t. Same way you can’t tell these guys here what “home” has become. So you simply sit, silent, and read the Kurtz dossier.

We were underway to the mouth of Avernus, wading through fields of squat cactoids growing on the Mare Cirrenium floor. The grunts tended to call this place “the A-nus”, and no wonder – there was nothing even remotely interesting here, aside from the countless warrens that dug deep into the canal walls. Avernus was Mickey territory; tripods were regularly ambushed here. Usually the fight was over almost before it began – a single heat ray strike, a camouflaged pit to trap the leg, sometimes one of their not-dogs with an explosive vest and that was that. There seldom was anything to fire back at, but this didn’t stop the tripod gunners.

But the day was nice and calm, for a few hours the war was far away. I was reading, the Chief was driving, Clean was at the scanners and Lance was tripod surfing, balancing on the upper carapace with nothing but his suit soles for grip. He was shouting in the intercom, having the time of his life, apparently.

There was a sound, kind of a slow, long thunder. The ground shook, the tripod swayed. Lance fell in.

“- Whoa, hey, what’s that?
– Arc Light. Orbital strike.
– Every time I hear that, something terrible happens.”

And it did. Not immediately, but it sure did.

About a week in I got word from On High. We stopped at a cookie-cutter firebase in the middle of nowhere, caught some rest, restocked – and got mail. The Command in its infinite wisdom has decided to send me an update to the mission profile.

Apparently I wasn’t the first guy they had after Kurtz: about three months ago they’ve sent a Green Beret upchannel, one Cpt Colby, with a mission to “contact Col Kurtz and ascertain his fitness to command”. He failed to make contact, so they had him pegged as MIA – until now. They’ve also sent me his full dossier.

Cpt Colby was Modified.

The rumours about Soldier Plus program were impossible to squash – it seems that every base had someone talking in hushed tones about guys selected for “special training”, about “too many damn eggheads”, about suspiciously well equipped hospital units… This sounded like standard Army bullshit to me, fantasies for bored grunts. Looks like I was wrong. Apparently the brass wanted Green Berets (or should they be Rust Berets, here?) able to live outside and penetrate the warrens, to reach Martians where even the fuel-air vapor and the shockwave couldn’t. What for? Well, not for their hearts and minds, that’s for sure.

They practically mutilated him. After they were done, he looked like a fucking gargoyle. The photos were a bit much even for me.

At the end of his dossier was an intercepted tight beam transmission. “Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids. Find someone else. Forget it. I’m never coming back. Forget it.”

He had a family?

They took a family man, put him here, stripped him of everything human and then sent him after Kurtz?

I think that this momentary insight into minds that could think of something like this was my first contact with a truly alien civilization.

We heard the fight from many kilometers away, but the sight after the last bend still surprised us. The Avernus Lift was the last Terran outpost in the canal, 750 meters of carbon nanotube elevator that could transport a tripod every fifteen minutes all the way to the Cimmerian Higlands – if it was operational. Now it wasn’t for sure – a direct hit from a heavy scorch set it on fire.

There is no sight that even begins to compare to a three quarters of a kilometer long nanotube weave burning in the darkness of Martian night. None.

The fight was still on. I asked the Chief to stop the tripod – I had to get out and check if there was anything new for me. He thought I’ve lost it completely, I wasn’t so sure myself.

The outpost was a complete chaos. Some grunts were shooting at everything that was half a Kelvin above background temperature, others were running around, evacuating their kit from the impact area of the elevator. Many looked half-dead; shell shocked, stoned or hit – I couldn’t tell. Dust was burning in the heat beams slicing the air above trenches. A not-dog managed to sneak through the perimeter and detonated, taking out a remote laser cannon station at the outer rim. I spent half an hour looking for someone in charge, then went back to the tripod.

“- There’s no CO here, no news, no nothing. Let’s get the hell outta here.”

The tripod lurched and moved, gaining speed.

“- Chief, what the fuck is this? What’s going on? What are we doing here?”

Excellent question, that. I don’t think anyone has the answer to this one. There is nothing on Cimmerian Highlands, they are as barren as they come. This lift is pointless, our whole presence in these parts is pointless, all this – it’s all pointless. This war isn’t about the revenge: maybe it started out as payback for the invasion, but you have to be blind or stupid to think this is a valid reason. The Martians are done for, they were done for long before we set foot here. That half-assed invasion attempt of theirs was a last ditch effort and it failed miserably. They are a dying race, clinging to their warrens, cactoid fields and remnants of the advanced tech. It is not about the resources: we can get to the abandoned Martian cities with minimal effort, they are ripe for exploration. The main Precursor site is at Syrtis Major, which is our playground. So what are we doing here? What this is about?

I think this is about nothing particular anymore. This war no longer needs any reason to continue – it just is.

It was an ambush. We were moving slowly, carefully maneuvering through a boulder field, when the heat ray hit. The alarms screamed, tripod broke into a trot, Lance blindly fired our front gunpod. The air was suddenly full of dust, then simply not there. We broke through, then slowed to a stop about two klicks away. The Mickeys thought it through – we had to slow down in the boulders, which gave them a perfect place to hit us with a heavy heat ray. It burned through the armor, took out entire sensor station along with Clean, and sliced off the better half of Chief’s legs. Neither we nor the suit were able to stop the bleeding – and that was that.

The Kurtz compound was barely worth the name – just three shelters, prefab hothouse, small drone foundry and a tiny powerplant. There were just six humans there, including Colby and the civilian; six humans and about a hundred combat drones. I could tell they were unshackled: normal combat drones do not take kill souvenirs. When we moved in, they all looked in silence.

They overpowered us about thirty minutes after we left the tripod.

I spent two weeks in the cage. They took away my rebreather. I was on their air, bound not just by cage but by the umbilical, snaking away to the camoed prefab shelter barely visible through red dust. I’m pretty sure I hallucinated there, but the visits from Kurtz were real.

“What are they gonna say about him? What are they gonna say? That he was a kind man? That he was a wise man? That he had plans, man? That he had wisdom? Bullshit, man!”

I thought they’ve put something in my air, but the photojournalist’s suit was on closed loop. He was ranting without any additional chemical help.

Maybe it wasn’t just in my air, but in the thin air around us, in the dust, in the bulbous plants. Maybe you simply went mad down here, in the canals.

He belonged here. It was that simple.

I don’t think the Command saw that – or if they did, they failed to see what will happen if they send him down. All the psych evaluations they gave me weren’t worth two shits, anyone who ever set foot on Syrtis Major could see this. He hadn’t “lost restraint”, was not “suffering from delusions”, his state of mind wasn’t “caused by long-time isolation and combat stress”.

He was a Martian, more than this poor bastard Colby with all his Soldier Plus mods. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he could live here without his suit. He was tuned to the bones of this dead planet, that’s why he had to die. Everybody wanted him dead, he most of all. Even Mars wanted him dead, and that’s who he really took his orders from anyway.

In the end, there was nothing remarkable here. No Precursor ruins, no warrens, no Martians. Nothing special about this particular nook of this particular canal. Nothing but dust and Kurtz.

Now of course it was just dust, slowly eating away the tracks my tripod left.

In-country

Slowly the patrol moved through the jungle.

Regular shelling of their base has grown disturbingly precise lately; regiment command suspected a spotters’ nest on one of the hills nearby, maybe even a whole rebel outpost – and that was the objective. They were to move unseen to the hill, surprise and overwhelm the outpost, if there was one, and bring any intelligence they could find. And so here they were.

They walked along the ghost of a trail, thin footpath barely there, weaving through the green darkness. The jungle buzzed, chirped and screamed at them, full of life that ignored them completely. It stank of wet leaves, decaying plants and a hundred of intermingled animal smells. The heat and humidity were unbearable. Even under light trail load, they were overheated and tired; nobody was talking, they simply walked, slowly tearing through the vines and leaves, waiting for the command to stop. The 2nd lieutenant in charge figured out they were good for another half a kilometer before a rest.

He was wrong.

The point man was tired, too tired to recognize slight thermal bloom in his visor. When the camouflaged HMG stand moved its barrel, he shouted, but then it was much too late: the drone machine gun already had the whole patrol bracketed. It took two seconds and six short bursts to kill or maim them all. The gun concentrated its fire on the synthetics and tore them apart. The humans were seriously wounded, then left to crawl for cover. The gun did not ignore them; it kept track of their position, ready to fire through or around their flimsy covering.

The humans were sure to radio for help. Sooner or later a search party will come.

The gun settled down to wait.