Heavy, smoky air. A queasy feeling in my stomach as I force down a burger dripping with oil that pools on the shiny plastic plate and I feel the stock of an assault rifle digging hard into my back, sitting awkwardly as it does in the bucket seats. There’s music, heavy grinding industrial stuff. It’s all I can hear, it’s filling my head with painful crashes of cymbals. Perhaps the others at the table are talking to me. I just hear noise, white noise, a painful wall of sound. I’ve got a headache.
The food is finally gone, done with, but I doubt it will stay inside me all evening. Sweat is running down my back in cold lines against hot, close fabric. Each moment, each deafening instant in this run-down diner, is another tick closer to tonight and what I’ve been trying to hide myself from. Our first combat exercise.
I am K. I ran away from home – my grinding daily life in the crush of the electric towers, my fat brainless girlfriend, my prospects of being a salaryman or a street-sweeper or whatever else fate might have had in store is gone now. For almost a week now I have been K, the new blood. When I ran away I fell into a bar, running to escape city patrol looking for scapegoats. Idlers and the homeless are rounded up and found guilty of crimes they probably never even knew happened to keep the broadcasters happy. They won’t go into the bars, though, because even cops need to drink sometimes and causing a nuisance gets you thrown out.
Picture the scene – it’s a dark dingy place of chipped chrome and rough-textured metal floor. The ceiling is a knot of cables and ducts and bare neon tubes throwing down rough strips of white light. You’ll have been in a place like it if you’ve ever been in the Electric City at night. I’m quite past caring about anything, because it takes a lot of drinks to forget the fact you’ve walked out on a girlfriend and a degree course at one of the best financial colleges in the three cities region.
Then she walks in. I know that’s the sort of bullshit line that gets thrown out a lot in detective stories but this wasn’t some smoky broad with a dark secret and eyes that you could swim in, this was Siv. Well past six feet tall, and not an inch of it wasted. A lot of people in the Electric City carry a pistol – as much to keep the patrol off your back than anything else. Siv had a machine gun, slung over her shoulder like Yukiko back home might have her handbag. She didn’t make a scene, didn’t posture or anything, and indeed there was no theatrical silence. She just walked in, looking pretty purposeful, and disappeared into the restroom. When she emerged she sat down, ordered a drink, and it was like the whole world was studiously avoiding the fact she was, well, a soldier. On duty.
I think that nonchalance was what damned me, because I offered to buy her the next one. I’d kept my… idiosyncrasies, my chuunibyou, a secret from my family and Yukiko, but I couldn’t from Siv.
I’ll say it now so you can laugh. I love robot girls. And Siv was, pretty obviously, a combat cyborg. I was very drunk. It ended badly.
How badly? Suffice to say the following morning I was definitely signed up with her PMC for a five-year tour, corporate security. I’d run away from home in the morning and joined the army by midnight.
Our employer is Geon, the biotech conglomorate, and they’ve been kind enough to let Siv take a “night off” to train the next batch of grunts. I’ll be working alongside a couple of factory-fresh drones and another trainee, versus another team of the same. Paint guns, but they feel real and weigh heavy enough to be otherwise.
The music won’t stop. I’m getting, dare I say, used to it now.
As one the crowd in the diner – Siv, a suit from Geon making sure she doesn’t slack off, the other trainees and the drone operator – rises. Some plates are left half-empty. That was supposed to be our briefing, you see, the part where we’re told what to do. I was given half a sheet of screwed-up paper with Engage Targets of Opportunity in the Designated Area written on it.
The first challenge is the combat drop; it looks easy but when you’re there, on the edge, sitting with your legs hanging out of the Geon tiltrotor the ground seems very distant and unfriendly. I’m clinging onto the rope and I can sense someone will push me if I don’t jump and then that cheap burger is decorating the rooftops as I fall. I hit the ground hard, nothing breaking thankfully but I hear a plastic clatter and see a magazine skittering across the grey concrete. I’m away, hands-and-knees, crawling frantically to grab it and with shaking hands reseat it in my rifle. Somewhere in the night are the opposing force.
I’ve got a map, it’s a pathetic blue wireframe on my visor like a computer-game (for that’s all war is now). I can see the location of L, my sniper support, and the IFFs of the two drones. For the moment I’m waiting, letting them make a move, waiting to know what the situation is.
One of the drones speaks, its voice loud and unexpected in my ear. “Target. Drone. Distance two-two metres. Firing.”
There is a crackle of assault-rifle fire from a distant part of the maze of rooftop. Tracers – actually lasers – play out and I hear the drone speak again. “Target. Drone. Neutralised. Advancing.”
Speaking to a robot – not an amiable human face on a steel-and-plastic body with curves and hair, but a skeletal faceless mannequin – is something I can’t get used to, and I stumble over the orders.
I don’t see the enemy drone but apparently L does, because I hear a sniper rifle split the air shortly followed by a dull snap of a missed shot. The shot, according to my map, headed off towards a small raised area far to my left. I’m about to recommend L fires again when I see something moving in the distance. I can’t tell what it is but I flag it up to L and wait for a response. It feels like forever – I daren’t move because I know there’s a sniper out there. My empty stomach is stabbing at me, and I am acutely aware that-
There’s a double-crack of two shots in the darkness, a standoff broken. L’s voice is welcome in the moment of terror at the thought I’ve lost my comrade. “Enemy sniper detected. Good kill.”
Drone 1 moves up to where the enemy sniper had been waiting and there’s the triple-chatter of a battle rifle. My opposite number. Clearly thinking themselves safe, but now clearly exposed on my map thanks to the drone’s triangulation.
L is scanning the rooftops. I feel safe letting her fight alone.
There is a burst of gunfire and my headset suddenly bursts into life. “I’m down, K. Target is-” It goes dead. Geon seem to think once you’re dead you’re dead. But I know now where they are – where they must be. It was the drone L took a shot at not too long ago, and so I break the other way, sprinting through a hail of gunfire which bounces off walls and debris, and then the target is in my sights. She’s confident, not like me, but the mask is breaking as she realises her magazine is running low. Somehow I don’t hesitate, perhaps because I’m not thinking about anything and L’s dead and so there’s three heavy impacts in my shoulder as the rifle kicks back and three neon pink starbursts on her chest.
I got a kill.
All that follows is a formality – the last drone, without orders, tries to bunker down in a tall building but I’ve got two drones pouring fire on it and I eventually get the kill.
Our playing at war is over, and we dust ourselves off; L has a green smear across her helmet, the opposing fireteam leader will have spectacular bruises from the paintballs, and the drones will just be hosed down before returning to their patrol-routes at Geon HQ.
“As it stands I don’t think either of you could lead a fireteam. You can shoot, though, I’ll give you that.” Siv places a heavy metal hand on my back. “And running straight at someone well-entrenched takes a sight more courage than I thought you had.”
I don’t want to say it was because I didn’t really know what I was doing, or that I never gave it any thought. I just smile. Tonight will be another set of uncomfortable, sweat-stained bunks, awkward closeness in the dark. I’m, I suppose, blooded now.
This means Siv will put me on active duty, doesn’t it?