"Somewhere deep inside," she told me once, "you are still a man."
I never believed her. She was a Stelline psych, and they work on commission. It was her job to make me useful again; even though I was in the GIMP, prison of prisons. Even though I remember things that make me not a man.
I remember her now. Here, on this foreign planet, my ankles deep in mud, my StrafeMaster pressed against a fleshy chin. This guy I want to kill ... I feel his pulse through the gun grips. He is nothing like me: he's full of a self he likes and memories he wants to keep. But he is expendable.
There is only one way out, and this is it. One more.
But I remember that psych now. Her calculating gaze; the way she always touched her lips. The things she got out of me; the one thing she didn't.
Five Hours Earlier
The drop boat stunk of burning metal and new-grunt fear. They put us together moments before they chucked us out of orbit: twenty guys straight from the GIMP transport cells, all volunteers. Sheathed in fatigues, familiar strangers. And one of them had a Mouth.
"Aw, shit man, what's that smell?"
Everything reeked. A busted latrine was leaking something pure, bright and chemical. The gear was old and musty. But one stink cut above the rest. Anyone who'd ever left a desk in the Stellines would have known what it was.
"Ablative shields burning down," I growled.
I know how to pick the ones who won't last long. Mouth had a half-collar neck tattoo of binary digits: mark of the Hacker Corp. He was a lanky, wide-eyed desk jockey. Probably got slammed for a cybercrime, and should have known better than to try this way out. Code-happy kids don't win at Deputised Combat.
"Yeah, carbonising phenolic sacrificial tiles. Last just long enough to get down."
"What the fuck, man? This is one way? What if we need evac?"
I didn't like the way Mouth talked to me. The guy next to him picked it and thumped Mouth hard in the solar plexus: shut the fuck up. I liked this guy a little better. Morale Boy. He had a tat too: a third eye with a crystal blue iris right on his forehead. Intel Corp, serious shit. But another desk jockey. Second to die.
I grinned at them both. "Didn't they tell you? They don't waste fancy reusables on us pressgang arseholes. You gotta finish the game and make the pod to get out."
Smart guys like these should know that, but I'd been here before. Twice. So I knew not to assume about the gear or the gamefield. The ballistic in my arms said StrafeMaster, but who knew if it was the real biz. I had CamSkin implanted face colour, because I used to be in the field. Everyone else had camo paint that stank like an oil field. Real subtle.
But all I had to do was survive Tartarus.
Just once more.
We crashed into the jungle, short of the open field. The gunwale opened with a wet crack. Outside was a mess of broken branches, undergrowth and giant trunks. Last trip, one of the guys went on about "primeval forest," but he was a sucker. You let the blue sky get to you, you think clear liquid is water, you think about Earth ... that's the moment you die. There's a reason this planet was kept for war.
We weren't the only boat. Deputised Combats happen all the time; cheaper to buy into lawfare than actually go to courts, and more entertainment. Might have been anything; patent infringement, industrial action. Each side could commission a squad of Stelline slammer volunteers and send them to Tartarus to work it out. They could spend their lawyer budget on equipment, or alienoid enforcement. Whatever; still cheaper than the traditional channels. Cheaper for the Grand Interplanetary Military Prison, too, because lots of us die.
The other boat must have been full of cleanskins, because they got out too fast. Never a good idea.
Mouth got his jittery voice up in my ear. "What's waiting Cap? Other boys are going?"
They'd put me in charge just like that. My gut clenched. Being in charge is a bad memory. But I could hear splashes, right overhead, and something sizzling like the Sunday-morning bacon pan.
Screaming started then, the hysterical kind. My heart valves kicked into overdrive, probably voiding the SyncoTech warranty, and some of those bad memories tried to creep back in. I'd heard those screams before.
"Came down in some Atlantic fire-weed," I told the others. "Hydrofluoric acid raining on us. Get something over your head and move it."
"Holy fuck," Mouth said.
I slapped my visor down, hefted the StrafeMaster up. Through the monocle, I tried to pick a path out into the clear. I'd have gone it alone, but the bigger the squad, the better my odds of surviving till the end.
The squad made it to the edge of the cleared field through shape-shifting undergrowth. Trees branched twenty feet up and grew into their neighbours: many trunks, but all connected. Creepy Tartarus shit.
Across the field was the Waypoint, but I pulled up in the open space. Time to up my chances. "Anyone got visualisers?"
Two grunts pulled down slimline goggles.
"Good. UV's dominant spectrum so turn down the filter or you'll blow out your retinas. Comms?"
The comms op gave me a diver's OK-index finger to thumb-which stopped me dead. I breathed, and took in the details. She had a nasty old wireless hacking pack, and signal jamming dish; looked like a camouflage Hulk. But there was some other stuff too: a slimline console peaked from a pocket, and I saw the matt, cubic-patterned side of a high-end EMP device. No way that stuff was issued. No way. So I picked her for a smuggler, and divers are useful in smuggling. Made sense; and let me roll the memory of my old squad diver away.
I gave Comms longer than Mouth or Morale Boy, which was good because we needed her to keep the enemy blind. But we still weren't friends. "You keep the Deltas off our signal," I said. Then, just like the commander I didn't want to be again, I told them: "We're going to the Waypoint for orders, then to the Hot Gate."
They moved, and Mouth fell in step beside me. "How many times you done this, Cap?"
"Can't tell you that. You know better," I said, giving him the hard eye. Superstition; bad luck to say it; but I held up two fingers for them all to see. One more and I was free.
That let them think there was hope. That it might happen for them too.
A refuse pit marked the Waypoint like a grim, stinking target. There were bodies in the pit; not everyone made it that far. I let the others look while I scanned my chest implant against the pill box. It spat out the SCM-wafer.
Which was black.
I thumped on the ground-mounted shutter. Twice.
An irritated voice answered through a tinny speaker. "What?"
"Open the fucking shutter."
Curses accompanied the roll-back, revealing a hollow-eyed gamemaster down in the pit. The headset hung off his ear. "What?" he repeated.
"This order card is blank."
"Name and rank," he said, bored.
I told him, and he punched at the console.
"Just go to the damn coordinates," he said finally.
The shutter began closing. I stuck my foot in it, letting the carbon sole take the pressure. The rams squealed. "I want the orders. When did you guys stop doing your fucking jobs?"
The gamemaster flicked his gaze to the console, then narrowed his eyes. "The card will activate inside the Hot Gate. You have five minutes to get there. Remove your foot before I report you."
A countdown timer had started in the SCM's top left corner, showing negative time. I pushed down the qualm until it was writhing just in the soles of my boots. Blank orders meant no advanced warning: type of game, map to the pod; who'd hired us to resolve their real-world squabble. And I remember the last time I went on a mission without info. The one that landed me in the GIMP; the whole reason I was there. But the time was a bigger problem. If we didn't make the Hot Gate, the game was forfeit. Ka-boom.
It might have been the better option. But I wanted that memory wipe. I wanted to be clean and new.
So we moved.
Hot Gate is a fancy name for a pair of flimsy poles sticking up out of the undergrowth. They were on a ridge, a gap in the perimeter fence. Beyond, the combat zone dropped into an undulating, continuous-canopy valley. The tree tops were blue, capped with white spackle. The squad conversation murmur stopped; all except for Mouth.
"Cap? What's with the trees? Don't look right."
I knew what they were. But Tartarus was hardly a secret. "Why don't you ask your Intel friend," I said, nodding at Morale Boy.
He shifted under my stare. "Frost-trees. Integrated biological heat exchanger. Ecosystem soil warming function."
I grunted. "You forgot about carnivorous. Now, inside the gate."
They passed through and I kept my insides in check. Took a deep, silent breath. I was ready to kill, ready to brave Tartarus, just once more.
And then everything changed.
Inside the gate, the SCM lit, as did everyone's timepieces. What I read liquefied my insides.
You see, both other trips to Tartarus had been standard us vs. them. Two teams, one winner. And if you were still alive, you got out in the pod. Last time, that was me and another guy. All the opponents, the Deltas, were gone. But we'd made it. We'd evac'ed in the pod with twelve empty seats. And I'd known I just had to do one more...
But this was different. I stood holding that card while the seconds ticked loud; as my throat dried out and my heart thudded against my stomach. I thought, just once more: I could do this, and I was out.
So I lied to them. "Listen up. This combat game resolves a conflict between Magenta Corp and FibreStorm." That part was straight off the card but I knew it was bullshit.
"Our duly deputised opponents are human." I could tell them that much.
"But there's a problem. The maps are corrupted. We've got no game rules, and no pod location." Lies, all lies.
The squad shifted on their feet, but no one asked to see the orders, not even Mouth. I stared round them, daring someone to challenge me. Daring someone to save themselves. But no one did. They just looked at me.
"So whaddawe do?" asked Mouth.
"Pod's got a control screen with a copy of the orders, right?" said Morale Boy.
Comms jerked her chin in agreement.
I looked down at the SCM card. The timer had gone through zero, and was now counting up.
"Game's started," I said, softly. "Better move."
happened for what seemed like a long time. The squad moved downhill, under the vaulted, under-canopy space. Among the massive frost-tree trunks with their fat, fleshy bases, the air was tropical-hot and stank like the refuse pit.
I swung the taser-tipped StrafeMaster as I crept forward, but my head wasn't really there. My thoughts fragmented. I was thinking how I would do this, but I also remembered the first time I'd been to Tartarus, when the Deltas had been temporal-substantial alienoids, freaky things that could shift between energy and matter, go poofing across the landscape. They'd used poison darts, and only showed up in UV. We'd lost half the squad before we'd realised they were there. Not that it would help me now, but that's what happened in these combats. Men died. You did what you had to do. Just once more.
I pulled myself back before memory could reload something darker. Comms and Morale Boy were in a huddle, checking out her scope. Three other grunts were arguing with each other, pointing off into the trees. Mouth, who was orchestrating all this, beckoned me over.
Morale Boy spoke first. "The pod's linked to the game system. It has to activate when the game is over. So we can bounce a signal off the perimeter fence, look for a disturbance from a big receiver and track it back to the pod."
"Whaddaya think, Cap?" said Mouth.
"I think you'll give away our position," I said, even though it didn't matter. I was checking over the rest of the squad, still assessing. Too many.
More furious discussion. What about passive? said Comms. An executing program? Mouth said, What type of console you got?
I left them to it. I slid away, soaking in the silence of the alien forest. It was a harsh place, dangerous. The heat was bloody murder; every skin crease oozed salty grime. Further down, the land folded into a narrow crease, stuffed with darkling ferns.
Then Mouth was back in my ear. "We got a solution, Cap." He pointed towards the ferns. "Signal says we should go that way."
I didn't move my gaze. "Then let's go that way."
It was further than it looked. They trekked down through the jungle, arms up, on alert. The frost-trees were high above us down there. We approached the ferns, which looked more and more angular. I'd seen them before. I stopped and tossed a small rock at one; its fronds ratcheted high, creaking like old ropes, before a limit passed and the branch flared. Metallic spurs unfolded and the frond struck, like a moving bear trap. Viper bush. The path through was pretty narrow.
I could hear the heavy swallows of the whole squad. "Fuck that," someone mumbled. Morale Boy and Mouth chattered about the viper bush. Incessant chatter, like old school radios. Radios. Like in terran choppers. I sucked in some hot air, teetering; the connection on reality held. I turned back to Comms. "You really want to go through there?"
She checked her scope. "Getting close, Cap. Point one one, bearing five degrees and minus four elevation. Right below us."
I looked around. I knew we were nowhere near the pod, but they didn't know that. Someone might make a mistake. And if we went higher, I'd have to pass some frost-tree trunks. I faced down the valley. "Fine," I said.
We skirted round each bush, in the halo where each had carved out its fellows. We dropped into more oppressive air. Mouth grumbled about saunas.
Finally, Comms pulled up in the lee of a stunted viper bush. "There," she said, pointing at one of the frost-tree megatrunks.
"Don't see a canopy break," said Morale Boy, scanning skywards.
"Can't be the pod then."
"Well, the signal ain't moving and it's connected to the game grid," Mouth said.
So I wondered what it was. "You three with me. Rest of you, stay put."
I put the StrafeMaster between me and the giant frost-tree trunk. Inched forward. Didn't like getting this close. Its features resolved through the haze: the trunk was finned from ground to canopy, bulging at the base. Each fin was as thick as a thigh and had room for two men between them. The heat came in great waves; each one broke a fresh sweat.
"Would ya look at that?" Mouth said. "That's some crazy shit."
"Yeah, frozen up top and baking down here," Morale Boy said.
I was about to tell them to shut up when we came on a rumpled, prone, person-shaped mass. Mouth and I bumped heads over the body as we surveyed his gear. All-terrain suit with holographic camo. An empty holster for deconstruction munes; very fancy, and expensive. Didn't smell like a deputised combatant.
"Dead," said Mouth, poking at the body with his foot.
I shook my head, getting a really bad feeling. "If he was corpsified, his timepiece shouldn't be emitting."
"Well, maybe it's busted." And before I could stop him, Mouth poked at the timepiece. The ping from Comms's gear was immediate.
Under the vaulted canopy, I experienced one silent heartbeat. I knew what this was. My pulse jacked over one-seventy. Didn't want to be here.
Trap, I thought. And then I ran.
Most people think there's noise and chaos in a firefight. Shots ringing out, shit blowing up, men yelling above the maelstrom; but that's only for the cinefeeds. Tactical munes are molecular sharp and spat out of silenced accelerators in hypersonic range; they cut through without wasting energy making noise. And men under fire keep their yaps shut, too busy running or breathing, or laying low for sound. So I wasn't sure we were being fired on until the first guy went down. He crumpled in a red atomised cloud, puffed from the gaps between the wafer-useless body armor.
Comms, over the headset, was all I could hear. "Signal lock. Signal lock."
"Fucking jam it!" I was pressed against the earth, watching the puffs of dirt as the munes showered down the hill.
I pointed the StrafeMaster upground and let off a burst. Down came the monocle and the jungle reeled into overlayed spectrum. IR showed the hot trunks; UV lit the viper bush molecular machinery in cool blue. Some of the squad were down and not moving. Counted at least six. Memory-less now, lucky fucks. But there was nothing else to see. Confirmed my theory. I released the trigger and slapped the monocle away.
The others had found cover spots, but no one else had fired back. I could hear clicks, and swearing. "Malfunction, malfunction," began, and repeated. I tried to count them out; seemed no one had a weapon that worked, but I wasn't sure. I thought about vege spores choking the workings, or long-range jammers. Or just old, bad equipment.
A minute later came Comms. "They're off," she said. "Lock's gone."
Ten of us were left. I waited a while before I moved again, until the silence was too much to bear; the squad followed behind. "How many Deltas?" I heard someone ask Comms.
"That wasn't Deltas," I said. "It was a trap. A decoy body and a mune dispenser. Probably left from another game."
But still, it had taken out half the squad. Mouth, Comms and Morale Boy were all still there, so points off me for poor judgement. Maybe, just maybe I would make it.
Let Tartarus do the work.
Rain started, acidic stuff that stung all the scrapes and made the underbrush curl itself into hemispherical rocks. We tripped and stumbled down the last of the hill until it flattened and led to a drop-off: two sheer meters into a fault-line.
I went down into the soft mud and took a rest. I played with the SCM card, spinning it round between finger and thumb. The rest of them fiddled with their gear and weapons before they gave up and sat down.
We were there a while; marking time in pretend sleep and distraction.
"Fucking mechanical shit," Mouth muttered, collapsing in the dirt beside me. He was a software boy; hardware was clearly a puzzle. And it had been a long time since boot. I took the rifle off him. It took only a moment to disassemble. It had no firing bolt, so that explained that. I wondered whether to show him; I didn't.
"Hey, so, Cap? What GIMP block did you come out of?"
I took a breath. The question slammed a lot of memories into the chamber. Grey walls. Deep shadows. Invisible bars. Pain and solitary. Endless appointments. Rehabilitation. Nothing to make me forget. But I said, "E-one-nine-one."
Mouth whistled. "Wow, that's serious shit... treason, huh?"
I gave him a very dirty look.
"Hey," he said. "We're one-nine-ones too."
"Maybe you can stow it, Private. Bigger things happening here than what cell we sat in."
I got up and walked away. I pretended to watch the perimeter, but I was pretty spaced out. I could hear rotorbeats that I knew weren't there. I couldn't afford to lose it. That mem wipe was so close ...
Peripherally, I knew Morale Boy was helping Comms and three of the other grunts in rechecking their signal. As soon as they got a lock, we'd move again.
And that was when I lost it.
So sudden. Tartarus became a grey block command room. Peeling posters, a tangle of busted comms gear recovered from a chopper. Two Charlie, two Charlie. The Comms is sending, over and over, as blood slicks from his nose onto the console. Mayday, mayday. The dive room door is barricaded; it thumps. I walk behind Comms and draw my weapon. Mayday, mayday.
Somehow, I scrambled out. I swallowed the panic and counted out my breathes. Tartarus was back; so was the squad. It took a while to feel real again, the memory lingering like bitter tonic. I checked the timepiece. An hour had passed. I tipped my head back and let the tears run down my throat. I didn't want to go there again. Swore I wouldn't. Just like the last time, and the time before.
And then I became aware the squad had drifted.
Down the fault-line, one of the frost-trees was right on the edge, its big fins sticking out over the crumbling rock wall, showing the deep, red-hot tap root punching down into the crust. Alongside were three dark bushes, elegant things, like bonsais of origami cranes. Three grunts were there, real close, checking it out.
I watched it happen; didn't move. The frost-tree shuddered and the next instant, the two grunts were gone. The trunk fins had closed, and flattened into a vice. One muffled shout made it out before a thick red splash came down the dirt. The third grunt stumbled sideways, coordination undone by what he'd seen. He tripped over himself and put a hand straight into the dark bushes. The whole lot collapsed. One moment, it was a zen garden, the next, a broken card house. The grunt sat on his arse and stared at it.
Run, I thought, but I gave it no voice.
The crane-like pieces began re-assembly. They slunk over each other, angular edges articulated, and swarmed the grunt. His shriek cut off as the plume invaded his lungs. Flat out, mouth open, he became fertiliser stock. The bush reassembled over its new base, spreading in an elegant branch structure. Then all was still, like the event had been erased. Nothing to see here.
The remaining six squad stood, shocked. I remembered that realisation, too. That everything here could eat you. That what seemed familiar was more alien and menacing than you could imagine. But at least here, I thought, when you were dead, that was the end of it.
But not everyone saw it that way.
Three grunts ran, straight down the fault, which left Mouth, Morale Boy, and Comms with me and the carnage.
Mouth opened his. "Are those self-assemblers?" Morbid fascination.
I didn't answer. I watched the runners until they disappeared.
"Looks like," said Morale Boy. "Can't tell till they move. Fractal patterns, can you see? Probably stochastic, emergent behaviour from simple rules."
I had no idea what fractals or stochastic was; I just wondered how long the runners had. But the three of them were staring at me, so I said, "Yeah, well simple rule is Don't Touch."
Several more of the bushes were collapsing and moving towards the one with the catch. I backed up, nice and easy.
Comms shifted her gear around and swore. "One of the runners had the bounce receiver."
I twitched my mouth. This made it easier. I knew from the SCM that they'd gone right towards the pod. "Guess we better see how far they can run."
Two hours passed; they'd gone a long way. We paced down the fault, keeping clear of the veg, tracking the footprints. Stopped to rest and started again. Mouth, Morale Boy and Comms kept pace pretty well for desk jockeys. But I tried not to feel attachment. Every step I worked on focus. I just needed to get out this time. Once more, and I was out. So I could do this. I could get through.
A headache descended, like it always did after a re-live; memory afterglow. It stayed an hour, and retreated, just as the air cooled. The canopy was thinning, letting in fresh atmo and harsh green-hued sunbeams that burned up the foggy undercurrent. The edge itself was scalpel cut; branches and foliage ended in a neat line. The four of us stopped before we crossed it, just soon enough to save ourselves.
What was left of the three runners was laid out just beyond the edge. Well, pieces of them. I'd seen a lot of munes damage in my time, and this wasn't munes. I lifted my eyes. Not too far away was another tree-like thing, different from the frost-forest. Branches like zombie arms; massive reach. Trunk like an armoured python. I knew the name of this one, but I'd never seen it.
"Weeping wraith," said Morale Boy, like he'd read my mind.
I lifted the StrafeMaster and slid my hands down the grip. I pushed the muzzle out; one inch, two. Sunlight touched barrel's end. There was a whisper hiss, and the tip fell. I stared at the slice of aerated metaloceramic, cut like a laser through grease.
Not even Mouth said anything. I pulled the monocle down and looked through the polariser. In the spectrum view, I could see the tendrils. Morale Boy was rattling off about loops of atom-thin buckyrazor strings. About plant territorialism. A floating, near-invisible grid net. And a green zone just above the ground. All I could think was, there's only four of us left now.
Comms nudged me in the back. "Cap. Look."
And there, just visible in the wraith grove, was the goddamn pod.
"They must have blasted a tunnel before they dropped it," Mouth said.
I didn't care what they'd done. It was the pod. The gateway to my mind-erase. It was cylindrical, crystalline; jammed into the ground on its drop spikes. Above all, I wanted to know that it was real.
I got down on my belly. Through the monocle, I could see the slice-n-dice tendrils wisping through the air. About two feet of air above the ground was clear.
I crawled. The pod was near the trunk; I went straight towards it, weaving through low scrappy bushes. Something they were exuding made my eyes water, but I didn't stop until I was beside the pod. Above, I saw the tunnel the gamemasters had made through the wraith. A safe zone. I stood up.
The pod seemed undamaged, and small, so small. The diamond panel over the control screen slid away in a well-oiled whisper. The screen was red: game still in play, and showing me exactly the same info the SCM card held. I ran my fingers over the pod's smooth shell, making it real.
Just one thing left to do.
Cold sweat began at my nape and tracked its way south. I glanced back towards the frost-trees. With the polariser on, Mouth, Comms, and Morale Boy were just shadows behind the floating field of wraith fronds. My first thought was: what are the chances any of them were going to make it anyway? They'd have to come back two more times.
But one could make it now. The pod was real enough.
One could make it.
I looked down at the StrafeMaster, hanging from its shoulder strap. Memory was trying its reload again. They'd trusted me, back then, too, just like those three did now.
If I could have left, I would have.
Instead, I got their attention. Called them over.
I watched them come, hoping they'd make a mistake and the wraith would finish them first. But none of them did. Too soon, we were all by the pod.
Mouth, naturally, had the screen cover off before I'd gotten my shit together. But maybe that was better. Forced my hand. He read the game type. "What's Highlander?" He looked back at me. Morale Boy and Comms too. A moment later, their hands slowly rose.
Because my StrafeMaster was up and ready. I inched the cut tip until it found the flesh at Mouth's throat. I felt him swallow. "It means," I said slowly. "That only one of us can leave."
"So, leave," Mouth said, his jaw making only small movements. "Not going to stop you."
I had become flesh wrapped in sweat. "Sorry. Pod's not active until there's only one of us breathing."
I was going to do this. Had done it before. Once more: could do it again.
"Doesn't have to be this way," Morale Boy said.
Someone else said that to me once. I see their eyes again, before I close a door and weld it shut. I growled, and the memory retreated, but only just. I was shaking. "Yeah it does. Don't know why you volunteered for this, but you're not going to make it. So I'll make it easy."
Mouth's face twitched. Was he laughing? "What, you think we don't know what's going on? Stellines want us dead, Cap. If we'd stayed in the GIMP, they'd have had someone do it there. Couldn't stop us coming here, though. So they're playing you to make it happen."
My eyes flickered.
"Don't you remember, Cap?"
I screwed my eyes shut. "I don't want to remember. So shut it."
Comms voice was low and steady. "You should. Think about it. What did you do to get thrown in the GIMP?"
And so, we come back to now.
Two muddy feet and fucking hesitation.
A memory reloads: I am back in the GIMP. In the grey-walled cell, with that Stelline psych. She touches her lips. I'm talking, like I didn't want to. "We were on recon," I say. "Live planet. We didn't know about the alienoids. Squad got compromised. They didn't want to die." Dimly, I feel the StrafeMaster in my hands, the pulse beating through the grips. "They were all done for," I go on, talking through the memory. "The compromised turned on us. Our comms were short range. I didn't know anyone was coming for us."
The psych's fingers linger on her lips. "You did what you had to do," she says.
I snap back. Tartarus returns, green and deadly. Comms, Morale Boy and Mouth are all in my firing line. "I killed them. All of them," I say. "That's why I was in the GIMP."
I finger the trigger, but Mouth cuts in. "We had the same psych, Cap. I hacked her records. That's how we met."
"Do you remember her, Cap?" asks Comms. "Do you remember what she told you?"
I can only remember one thing. "She told me I'm still a man." My fists work the gun grips. "But she was wrong."
Comms is unmoved. "She said you were useful. She recommended you for special service. Because you're an easy trigger. We read the transcripts."
"I don't want to be useful. I just want out."
Mouth grins. "You're doing exactly what they want. Why else do you think you're the only one with a working weapon? That the gamemaster asked you for rank before he let you go with the SCM? We figured they'd do that. We figured how they'd play it."
This registers. Very slowly. A few sweaty seconds go by. They played me. They all played me from the start.
"We have a better plan," Morale Boy says. "But we need you."
"The hell you do. Bad move. You read the transcripts, so you know my squad could have been treated. There was a treatment. They didn't have to die. And I killed them anyway."
Mouth takes a breath. "You had short-range comms, you said so. You only knew about the treatment later. You did what you had to do," he says, firmly. Like they know this already. Like they all understand how this is going to go, and I'm just catching up. A hostage drama with fucking reasonable hostages. I want them to lose it. Cry, beg, give me a reason. But they don't.
I finger the trigger. "I want out. I need that mem wipe. And the pod will only take one."
Mouth glances towards it. "Cap, the pod's control is just software. And I'm good with that."
I narrow my eyes. "So, you get out. They'll be on you before you blink."
"So we have to hide. He's good with that," Mouth says, thumbing at Morale Boy. That third eye tat stares me down.
I say, "They'll know where you've gone. They'll have a tail on you so fast-"
Comms puts a hand in her gear and pulls out the high-end EMP. "Signal scramble's a bitch with one of these things, Cap," she says quietly. "We have the means. Got it all. We need you."
"Because we wanna keep the stuff in our heads, and we can't shoot for shit. We need a field man. And we know you don't want to be a Stelline anymore."
"I won't be after this," I say. "I'm out and wiped clean. So I end you. I don't care if they wanted me to do it. I won't remember."
Morale Boy has a new expression and my sweat runs cold. "You really think they're going to let you out?"
"They have to. I've done three," I say, but doubt has pooled in the cold sweat. His expression is pity. Of all the nightmare memories shacked up in my brain, I never thought of this.
"We don't think so. Not a useful guy like you. They'll send you back. Do a partial wipe, maybe. They'll tell you it's just one more, then again, one more. Do you know how many times you've been here already?"
The statement makes the air heavy. My lungs struggle and my throat closes. A new headache hammers around my lumbering thoughts. I pull the trigger, but nothing happens. My body won't respond.
The quiet passes for ten standard secs.
Comms says, "You won't shoot because you like us. We worked hard on that. So you won't do it. We know you blame yourself. You don't want to do it again."
Some part of me is broken and unresponsive. I let Mouth push the StrafeMaster aside. My arse finds the dirt and the polariser slips over my eye. I watch the wraith tendrils floating beyond the pod. I stare at the StrafeMaster barrel, resting on my thigh.
My thoughts re-muster around a single idea. "I need a mem wipe."
Comms and Morale Boy exchange a look. "Cap, you've had the mems a long time. They might not go. Might be worse than now. But there's people we could go to."
I believe her for the time it takes them to go to work on the pod. Then I remember the doubt in her voice.
I watch them. They think they're right. Their activity is purposeful; a well-laid plan deep in execution. But I'm only useful if I remember my training, if I remember everything. So, they're never going to get me a wipe. They believe what that Stelline psych said.
They're all wrong.
I am not a man, not anymore. And I didn't tell them all of it; the one thing I never told the psych.
A memory reloads. My gun against Comms' hair. A red spray. Another face, eyes shot with blood, then shot, more blood. They are all dead now, all except me. But I've seen my eyes in the latrine mirror; I'm compromised like the rest. I rest my gun on my teeth, but I can't do it. And it doesn't matter how much I tell myself I'm a coward; how much I know I should protect others from my infected form ... I can't do it. Then finally, rotorbeats of rescue. A stolen treatment. But I'm compromised beyond the alienoid; I have no honour. I have survived, but I am no longer a man.
This is what I have to forget: the knowing I couldn't end myself after ending my own men. The knowing I thought I was strong enough, right until the last moment, when I wasn't.
Just like now.
The re-living loses time. When I come back, it's to the EMP burst and the pod in motion. Comms, Morale Boy, and Mouth are busy with the controls. They're clever; they think they know me.
So I'm looking for another way out. Wipe that memory, so I can be whole again. Maybe I can do it.