We dropped onto the retail mall’s parking lot from a silent anti-grav paratroop plane. My commanding officer hit the pavement first, then waved up at me, and I followed. The fall was eighty feet, and we had no chutes, but we were cyborgs, so the landing did us no damage. The tarmac got some dents in it, though. I wondered why they’d gone to the trouble of delivering us in an expensive, silent craft when we were going to land with loud thumps.
My C.O. turned to me and said, “Ready?” I nodded. We headed for an open-air section of the mall, where a platoon of cyborgs awaited us.
Recently I’d finished a tour of duty in the Asteroid Belt, where I’d won multiple battle ribbons and medals as a regular human grunt and sniper. I was planning to muster out and go back to school when I received a request from High Command to re-enlist on special assignment. There was a mole in a company of robotically enhanced humans where no normal person would be assigned. They wanted me altered mechanically and genetically, becoming a semi-machine like my quarry, so I could infiltrate the company. I was a famous war hero — what was I going to say, No?
So the deed was done. First, my face was altered (to hide the well-known mug). Then bones were replaced with high-impact ceramo-steel, my neural network with a much faster material, and large parts of my brain with quantum microchips. Most of my internal organs got replaced while muscles were genetically enhanced. I still looked like an ordinary human, but wow! I could fight like a superhero. And now here I was, carrying out my cyborgian task.
We worked our way through the rubble from recent fighting. Shopkeepers and patrons had evacuated a week earlier when the front reached this neighborhood. Enemy soldiers had been cleaned out only yesterday. My commander switched on his helmet com-link and muttered to me, “Remember, you’re my adjutant.” Like I’d forget? I still wasn’t used to the overly thorough redundancies in the thinking patterns of cyborg soldiers. I answered, “Yes, sir.”
On the bottom floor we found the empty store space where the platoon was bivouacked. The space had been unused since the war began: most commercial real estate activity had, of course, long since ground to a halt, and empties had stayed empty. Which was just as well for the platoon of cyborgs, who had a nice cozy stall where they now leaned against dusty synthetic drywall or stood in corners on bare supercrete. A few were drinking the strange blue fluid that passed for army nutrition among the partially mechanized.
On seeing my C.O., the troops jumped to attention. “At ease,” he ordered. He handed me his rifle and walked over to their lieutenant. I set down weapons and backpack and followed him, discreetly taking stock of the soldiers around me. Half my mind listened in on the officers’ conversation while the other half checked off names and faces of the platoon against the list I’d memorized back at High Command. I knew already that my quarry was in this room. The trick was to strike first without getting myself killed.
My C.O. gathered the men in the center of the room and instructed them on tactics for the next phase of the sweep, which would take place tomorrow near the town’s civic center. He gave the orders, then repeated them. (It’s that cyborg OCD thing again.) He said recent hiccups in strategy had forced changes in plans, and the platoon would be stationed in this region longer than expected, and that all leave had been canceled. The soldiers groaned. I knew, however, that this information wasn’t exactly true; it was, instead, a coded message to me, saying that the coast was clear and my hunt was a go.
The C.O. left shortly thereafter. I was on my own.
There wasn’t much for the platoon to do until tomorrow. A squad moved out into the mall, searching for a few minor supplies they could requisition (which is to say, steal). The rest napped or chatted. Or they played games with other platoon members, using the heads-up displays that shimmered in front of their computerized eyes.
I sat against a wall and pretended to nod off while trying to overhear nearby conversations. After a few minutes, someone kicked my foot. I acted sleepily startled, then looked up. It was a young woman — I recognized her as Lance Corporal Anya Sanchez — and she said, “Why aren’t you with your C-O?”
I stretched, stood, and looked down at the nametag on her shirt, pretending to learn her name. “Well, Sanchez, he told me to hang out with you guys until he calls for me. Apparently he doesn’t need my services at the moment.” I frowned, as if I regretted being stuck with the grunts.
Sanchez punched my shoulder. “Hey, we’re not a bad bunch.” She winked, swiveled, and sashayed away.
She was flirting with me!
I called after her: “And not a bad ass, either.” The other soldiers looked up. She stopped, bent over until her head touched her legs, looked at me upside-down from between her ankles, and stuck out her tongue. Everyone laughed. I’d just been mooned by a cyborg.
I pointed at her rear and said, “I rest my case.” They all laughed again. I was in.
The remainder of the afternoon was uneventful. In the evening, squads made routine sweeps of the mall and surrounding streets. All was calm, save for the distant sounds of rocket fire, blasts from laser hits, and the boom of old-fashioned artillery. The enemy was in retreat; we were now somewhat behind the front lines. That would change soon enough. For me, at least.
My C.O. radioed orders to the platoon’s lieutenant to keep me for the next couple of days. I overheard the lieutenant joking with his sergeant that my C.O. had told him I was still pretty green and needed more combat experience, but “we should be gentle with him.” Hah-hah. Still, it enhanced my somewhat shaky cover — after all, why would an adjutant be left behind?
Nighttime for cyborgs can get pretty boring, as we don’t need more than two or three hours’ sleep. Still, we managed, and finally dawn came and everyone packed up — double-checking equipment and instructions like good, obsessive cyborgs — and headed out. Upstairs on the main parking level, a couple of troop carriers stood waiting. We moved toward them.
An agitated young private ran forward and spoke urgently to the lieutenant and sergeant. The sergeant held up his hand; we stopped and waited. The private led the lieutenant back down the line of troops, the sergeant following, until they stopped in front of me. The private pointed at me. “Him.”
The sergent told me, “Step out.”
I moved out of line and stood at attention.
The lieutenant said, “Private Rau seems to think you’re a spy. Claims he heard you talking in your sleep about betrayal and ‘termination with prejudice’ and stuff like that. What do you have to say?”
My jaw dropped. I looked astonished. (I was astonished. This was an unexpected turn of events. But then, war is messy.) I said, “What the hell is he talking about?”
“He tells me you gave details about our squads and you went on about being a traitor, or something.” He turned to look at the private. The private nodded.
Damn. I still didn’t have good control over my enhanced neurology. Apparently I’d leaked info while I was snoozing. But somehow this whole thing might play into my hands. I said, “I think I can explain. Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Well.” I dropped my pack, set down my rifle, and aimed my attention at the private. “Do you know the story of the ancient warriors of Mexico?” He shook his head. I said, “A warrior, before going into a battle he would likely lose, would sing his warrior’s song. In it were the collected stories of his life in combat. If he were older, the song would last longer. When it was done, he’d lunge immediately into the fray, fighting to the death.”
Everyone in the platoon was rivited. The lieutenant, frowning, looked puzzled. The sergeant seemed interested. The private appeared completely lost.
I pressed on. “Is your song ready? Today you may have to fight to the death. Will your song tell of your valor?” As I asked this, I poked his chest repeatedly, as if making my point. In fact, I was touching access dots on his neural array, coding subconscious instructions into him. I repeated my questions, under cover of cyborg OCD, but I was merely giving myself time to finish recoding him.
I stepped back. “I sure hope so, kid. Because I just sang my song.” I pulled out a laser pistol and shot the lieutenant through the eye.
He fell back stiffly and lay on the ground like a broken mannequin. Cyborgs die in a different way than humans: dead people look like empty sacks, while the mechanically enhanced seem like dolls tossed aside.
The sergeant, shocked, raised his rifle to fire at me. But the private, on auto-pilot, lunged at him, knocking him down.
I ran. As fast as I could.
I heard weapons fire and the foosteps of pursuers. Energy pulses zipped past me, making the air shriek. I darted this way and that, trying to spoil the soldiers’ aim. I was enhanced for speed, for just this situation, but I sure hoped their com-links would would transmit my C.O.’s order to stand down before one of their shots found me.
Idly I thought: If I get out of this alive, maybe I can meet up with Corporal Sanchez. I’d sure like to see that pose of hers again.