Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Collateral

They got Becker out in eight minutes flat, left the bodies on the sand for whatever scavengers the Sixth Extinction hadn’t yet managed to kill off. Munsin hauled her into the Sikorsky and tried to yank the augments manually, right on the spot; Wingman swung and locked and went hot in the pants-pissing half-second before its threat-recognition macros, booted late to the party, calmed it down. Someone jammed the plug-in home between Becker’s shoulders; wireless gates unlocked in her head and Blanch, way up in the cockpit, put her prosthetics to sleep from a safe distance. The miniguns sagged on her shoulders like anesthetized limbs, threads of smoke still wafting from the barrels.

“Corporal.” Fingers snapped in her face. “Corporal, you with me?”

Becker blinked. “They—they were human . . .” She thought they were, anyway. All she’d been able to see were the heat signatures: bright primary colors against the darkness. They’d started out with arms and legs but then they’d spread like dimming rainbows, like iridescent oil slicks.

Munson said nothing.

Abemama receded to stern, a strip of baked coral suffused in a glow of infrared: yesterday’s blackbodied sunshine bleeding back into the sky. Blanch hit a control and the halo vanished: night-eyes blinded, ears deafened to any wavelength past the range of human hearing, all senses crippled back down to flesh and blood.

The bearing, though. Before the darkness had closed in. It had seemed wrong.

“We’re not going to Bonriki?”

We are,” the Sergeant said. “You’re going home. Rendezvous off Aranuka. We’re getting you out before this thing explodes.”

She could feel Blanch playing around in the back of her brain, draining the op logs from her head. She tried to access the stream but he’d locked her out. No telling what those machines were sucking out of her brain. No telling if any of it would still be there when he let her back in.

Not that it mattered. She wouldn’t have been able to scrub those images from her memory if she tried.

“They had to be hostiles,” she muttered. “How could they have just been there, I mean—what else could they be?” And then, a moment later: “Did any of them . . .?”

“You wouldn’t be much of a superhuman killing machine if they had,” Okoro said from across the cabin. “They weren’t even armed.”

“Private Okoro,” the Sergeant said mildly. “Shut your fucking mouth.”

They were all sitting across the cabin from her, in defiance of optimal in-flight weight distribution: Okoro, Perry, Flannery, Cole. None of them augged yet. There weren’t enough Beckers to go around, one every three or four companies if the budget was up for it and the politics were hot enough. Becker was used to the bitching whenever the subject came up, everyone playing the hard-ass, rolling their eyes at the cosmic injustice that out of all of them it was the farmer’s daughter from fucking Red Deer who’d won the lottery. It had never really bothered her. For all their trash-talking bullshit, she’d never seen anything but good-natured envy in their eyes.

She wasn’t sure what she saw there now.

• • • •

Eight thousand kilometers to Canadian airspace. Another four to Trenton. Fourteen hours total on the KC-500 the brass had managed to scrounge from the UN on short notice. It seemed like forty: every moment relentlessly awake, every moment its own tortured post-mortem. Becker would have given anything to be able to shut down for just a little while—to sleep through the dull endless roar of the turbofans, the infinitesimal brightening of the sky from black to grey to cheerful, mocking blue—but she didn’t have that kind of augmentation.

Blanch, an appendage of a different sort, kept her company on the way home. Usually he couldn’t go five minutes without poking around inside her, tweaking this inhibitor or that BCI, always trying to shave latency down by another millisecond or two. This time he just sat and stared at the deck, or out the window, or over at some buckled cargo strap clanking against the fuselage. The tacpad that pulled Becker’s strings sat dormant on his lap. Maybe he’d been told to keep his hands off, leave the crime scene in pristine condition for Forensic IT.

Maybe he just wasn’t in the mood.

“Shit happens, you know?”

Becker looked at him. “What?”

“We’re lucky something like this didn’t happen months ago. Half those fucking islands underwater, the rest tearing each other’s throats out for a couple dry hectares and a few transgenics. Not to mention the fucking Chinese just waiting for an excuse to help out.” Blanch snorted. “Guess you could call it peacekeeping. If you’ve got a really warped sense of humor.”

“I guess.”

“Shame we’re not Americans. They don’t even sign on to those treaties, do anything they damn well please.” Blanch snorted. “It may be a fascist shithole down there but at least they don’t knuckle under every time someone starts talking about war crimes.”

He was just trying to make her feel better, she knew.

“Fucking rules of engagement,” he grumbled.

• • • •

Eight hours in IT when they landed: every aug tested to melting, every prosthetic stripped to the bolts while the meat attached to it sat silent and still and kept all the screams inside. They gave her four hours’ rack time even though her clockwork could scrub the fatigue right out of her blood, regulate adenosine and melatonin so precisely she wouldn’t even yawn right up until the point she dropped dead of heart failure. Might as well, they said: other schedules to clear anyway, other people to bring back across other oceans.

They told her not to worry. They told her it wasn’t her fault. They gave her propranolol to help her believe them.

Four hours, flat on her back, staring at the ceiling.

Now here she was: soul half a world away, body stuck in a windowless room paneled in oak on three sides, the fourth crawling with luminous maps and tacticals. Learning just what the enemy had been doing, besides sneaking up on a military cyborg in the middle of the fucking night.

“They were fishing,” the PAO told her.

“No,” Becker said; some subconscious subroutine added an automatic “sir.”

The JAG lawyer—Eisbach, that was it—shook her head. “They had longlines in their outriggers, Corporal. They had hooks, a bait pail. No weapons.”

The general in the background—from NDHQ in Ottawa, Becker gathered, although there’d been no formal introduction—studied the tacpad in his hand and said nothing at all.

She shook her head. “There aren’t any fish. Every reef in the WTP’s been acidified for twenty years.”

“It’s definitely a point we’ll be making,” Eisbach said. “You can’t fault the system for not recognizing profiles that aren’t even supposed to exist in the zone.”

“But how could they be—”

“Tradition, maybe.” The PAO shrugged. “Some kind of cultural thing. We’re checking with the local NGOs, but so far none of them are accepting responsibility. Whatever they were doing, the UN never white-listed it.”

“They didn’t show on approach,” Becker remembered. “No visual, no sound—I mean, how could a couple of boats just sneak up like that? It had to be some kind of stealth tech, that must be what Wingman keyed—I mean, they were just there.” Why was this so hard? The augs were supposed keep her balanced, mix up just the right cocktail to keep her cool and crisp under the most lethal conditions.

Of course, the augs were also supposed to know unarmed civilians when they saw them . . .

The JAG was nodding. “Your mechanic. Specialist, uh . . .”

“Blanch.” From the room’s only civilian, standing unobtrusively with the potted plants. Becker glanced over; he flashed her a brief and practiced smile.

“Specialist Blanch, yes. He suspects there was a systems failure of some kind.”

“I would never have fired if—” Meaning, of course, I would never have fired.

Don’t be such a pussy, Becker. Last month you took on a Kuan-Zhan with zero cover and zero backup, never even broke a sweat. Least you can do now is stand next to a fucking philodendron without going to pieces.

“Accidents happen in—these kind of situations,” the PAO admitted sadly. “Drones misidentify targets. Pillbox mistakes a civilian for an enemy combatant. No technology’s perfect. Sometimes it fails. It’s that simple.”

“Yes sir.” Dimming rainbows, bleeding into the night.

“So far the logs support Blanch’s interpretation. Might be a few days before we know for certain.”

“A few days we don’t have. Unfortunately.”

The general swept a finger across his tacpad. A muted newsfeed bloomed on the war wall behind him: House of Commons, live. Opposition members standing, declaiming, sitting. Administration MPs across the aisle, rising and falling in turn. A two-tiered array of lethargic whackamoles.

The general’s eyes stayed fixed on his pad. “Do you know what they’re talking about, Corporal?”

“No, sir.”

“They’re talking about you. Barely a day and a half since the incident and already they’re debating it in Question Period.”

“Did we—”

“We did not. There was a breach.”

He fell silent. Behind him, shell-shocked pols stammered silent and shifty-eyed against the onslaught of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The Minister of Defence’s seat, Becker noted, was empty.

“Do we know who, sir?”

The general shook his head. “Any number of people could have intercepted one or more of our communications. The number who’d be able to decrypt them is a lot smaller. I’d hate to think it was one of ours, but it’s not something we can rule out. Either way—” He took a breath. “—so much for our hopes of dealing with this internally.”

“Yes sir.”

Finally he raised his eyes to meet hers. “I want to assure you, Corporal, that nobody here has passed any judgment with regard to potential—culpability. We’ve reviewed the telemetry, the transcripts, the interviews; FIT’s still going over the results, but so far there’s no evidence of any conscious wrong-doing on your part.”

Conscious, Becker noted dully. Not deliberate. Conscious. There’d been a time when the distinction would never have occurred to her.

“Be that as it may, we find ourselves forced to change strategy. In the wake of this leak it’s been decided we have to engage the public. Doubling down and invoking national security would only increase the appearance of guilt, and after that mess in the Philippines, we can’t afford even a whiff of cover-up.” The general sighed. “This, at least, is the view of the Minister.”

“Yes sir.”

“It has therefore been decided—and I’m sorry to do this to you, I know it’s not what you signed up for—it’s been decided to get out in front of this thing, as they say. Control the narrative. Make you available for interviews, prove we have nothing to hide.”

“Interviews, sir?”

“You’ll be liaising with Mr. Monahan here.” On cue, the civilian stepped out of the background. “His firm’s proven useful in matters of—public outreach.”

“Ben. Just Ben.” Monahan reached out to shake with his right hand, offered his card with the left: Optic Nerve, twinkling above a stock-ticker crawl of client endorsements. “I know how much this sucks, Corporal. I’m guessing the last thing you want to hear right now is what some high-priced image consultant has to say about covering your ass. Is that about right?”

Becker swallowed, and nodded, and retrieved her hand. Phantom wings beat on her shoulders.

“The good news is: no ass-covering required. I’m not here to polish a turd—which is actually a nice change—I’m here to make sure the truth gets out. As you know, there’s no shortage of parties who are a lot less interested in what really happened than in pushing their own agendas.”

“I can understand that,” Becker said softly.

“This person, for example.” Just Ben tapped his watch and wiped Parliament from the wall; the woman revealed in its place stood maybe one-seventy, black, hair cropped almost army short. She seemed a little off-balance in the picture; doubtless the helmeted RCMP officer grabbing her left bicep had something to do with that. The two of them danced against a chorus line of protestors and pacification drones.

“Amal Sabrie,” Monahan was saying. “Free-lance journalist, well-regarded by the left for her human rights work. Somali by birth but immigrated to Canada as a child. Her hometown was Beledweyne. Does that ring any bells, Corporal?”

Becker shook her head.

“Airborne Regiment? 1992?”

“Sorry. No.”

“Okay. Let’s just say she’s got more reason than most to mistrust the Canadian military.”

“The last person we’d expect to be on our side,” Eisbach remarked.

“Exactly.” Monahan nodded. “Which is why I’ve granted her an exclusive.”

• • • •

They engaged on neutral territory, proposed by Sabrie, reluctantly approved by the chain of command: a café patio halfway up Toronto’s Layton Tower, overlooking Lakeshore. It jutted from the side of the building like a bracket fungus, well above most of the drone traffic.

An almost pathological empathy for victimhood. Monahan had inventoried Sabrie’s weak spots as if he’d been pulling the legs off a spider. Heart melts for stray cats, squirrels with cancer; blood boils for battered women and oppressed minorities and anyone who ever ended up on the wrong end of a shockprod. Not into performance rage, doesn’t waste any capital getting bent out of shape over random acts of microaggression. Smart enough to save herself for the big stuff. Which is why she still gets to soapbox on the prime feeds while the rest of the rabies brigade fights for space on the public microblogs.

Twenty floors below, pedestrians moved like ants. They’d never be life-sized to Becker; she’d arrived by the roof and she’d leave the same way, a concession to those who’d much rather have conducted this interview under more controlled conditions. Who’d much rather have avoided this interview entirely, for that matter. That they’d ceded so much control spoke volumes about Optic Nerve’s rep for damage control.

If we can just get her to see you as a victim—which is exactly what you are—we can turn her from agitator to cheerleader. Start off your appies as a tool of the patriarchy, you’ll be her soulmate by dessert.

Or maybe it spoke volumes about a situation so desperate that the optimum strategy consisted of gambling everything on a Hail Mary.

There she is, Monahan murmured now, just inside her right temple, but Becker had already locked on: The target was dug in at a table next to the railing. This side, flower boxes and hors-d’oeuvres; that side, an eighty-meter plunge to certain death. Wingman, defanged but still untrusting, sent wary standbys to the stumps of amputated weaponry.

Amal Sabrie stood at her approach. “You look—” she began.

like shit. Becker hadn’t slept in three days. It shouldn’t have shown; cyborgs don’t get tired.

“I mean,” Sabrie continued smoothly, “I thought the augments would be more conspicuous.”

Great wings, spreading from her shoulders and laying down the wrath of God. Corporal Nandita Becker, Angel of Death.

“They usually are. They come off.”

Neither extended a hand. They sat.

“I guess they’d have to. Unless you sleep standing up.” A thought seemed to occur to her. “You sleep, right?”

“I’m a cyborg, Ms. Sabrie. Not a vacuum cleaner.” An unexpected flicker of irritation, there; a bright spark on a vast dark plain. After all these flat waking hours Becker almost welcomed it.

Monahan didn’t. Too hostile. Dial it down.

Sabrie didn’t miss a beat. “A cyborg who can flip cars one-handed. If the promos are to be believed.”

Be friendly. Give a little. Don’t make her pull teeth.

Okay.

Becker turned in her seat, bent her neck so the journalist could glimpse the tip of the black enameled centipede bolted along her backbone. “Spinal and long-bone reinforcement to handle the extra weight. Wire-muscle overlays, store almost twenty Joules per cc.” There was almost a kind of comfort in rattling off the mindless specs. “Couples at over seventy percent under most—”

A little, Corporal.

“Anyway.” Becker shrugged, straightened. “Most of the stuff’s inside. The rest’s plug and play.” She took a breath, got down to it. “I should tell you up front I’m not authorized to talk about mission specifics.”

Sabrie shrugged. “I’m not here to ask about them. I want to talk about you.” She tapped her menu, entered an order for kruggets and a Rising Tide. “What’re you having?”

“Thanks. I’m not hungry.”

“Of course.” The reporter glanced up. “You do eat, though, right? You still have a digestive system?”

“Nah. They just plug me into the wall.” A smile to show she was kidding.

Now you’re getting it.

“Glad you can still make jokes,” Sabrie said from a face turned suddenly to stone.

Shit. Walked right into that one.

Down in the left hand, a tremor. Becker pulled her hands from the table, rested them on her lap.

“Okay,” Sabrie said at last. “Let’s get started. I have to say I’m surprised Special Forces even let me talk to you. The normal response in cases like this is to refuse comment, double down, wait for a celebrity overdose to move the spotlight.”

“I’m just following orders, ma’am.” The tic in Becker’s hand wouldn’t go away. She clasped her hands together, squeezed.

“So let’s talk about something you can speak to,” Sabrie said. “How do you feel?”

Becker blinked. “Excuse me?”

“About what happened. Your role in it. How do you feel?”

Be honest.

“I feel fucking awful,” she said, and barely kept her voice from cracking. “How am I supposed to feel?”

“Awful,” Sabrie admitted. She held silence for a respectable interval before pressing on. “The official story’s systems malfunction.”

“The investigation is ongoing,” Becker said softly.

“Still. That’s the word from sources. Your augments fired, you didn’t. No mens rea.”

Blobs of false color, spreading out against the sand.

“Do you feel like you killed them?”

Tell her the truth, Monahan whispered.

“I—part of me did. Maybe.”

“They say the augments don’t do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. They just do it faster.”

Six people on a fishing trip in an empty ocean. It didn’t make any fucking sense.

“Is that the way you understand it?” Sabrie pressed. “The brain decides what it’s going to do before it knows it’s decided?”

Becker forced herself to focus, managed a nod. Even that felt a bit shaky, although the journalist didn’t seem to notice. “Like a, a bubble rising from the bottom of a lake. We don’t see it until it breaks the surface. The augs see it—before.”

“How does that feel?”

“It feels like—” Becker hesitated.

Honesty, Corporal. You’re doing great.

“It’s like having a really good wingman sitting on your shoulder, watching your back. Taking out threats before you even see them. Except it’s using your own body to do that. Does that make sense?”

“As much as it can, maybe. To someone who isn’t augged themselves.” Sabrie essayed a little frown. “Is that how it felt with Tionee?”

“Who?”

“Tionee Anoka. Reesi Eterika. Io—” She stopped at something she saw in Becker’s face.

“I never knew,” Becker said after a moment.

“Their names?”

Becker nodded.

“I can send you the list.”

A waiter appeared, deposited a tumbler and a steaming platter of fluorescent red euphausiids in front of Sabrie; assessed the ambiance and retreated without a word.

“I didn’t—” Becker closed her eyes. “I mean yes, it felt the same. At first. There had to be a threat, right? Because the augs—because I fired. And I’d be dead at least four times over by now if I always waited until I knew what I was firing at.” She swallowed against the lump in her throat. “Only this time things started to—sink in afterward. Why didn’t I see them coming? Why weren’t the—”

Careful, Corporal. No tac.

“Some of them were still—moving. One of them was talking. Trying to.”

“To you?”

Up in ultraviolet, the textured glass of the table fractured the incident sunlight into tiny rainbows. “No idea.”

“What did they say?” Sabrie poked at her kruggets but didn’t eat.

Becker shook her head. “I don’t speak Kiribati.”

“All those augments and you don’t have realtime translation?”

“I—I never thought of that.”

“Maybe those smart machines saw the bubbles rising. Knew you wouldn’t want to know.”

She hadn’t thought of that either.

“So you feel awful,” Sabrie said. “What else?”

“What else am I feeling?” The tremor had spread to both hands.

“If it’s not too difficult.”

What the fuck is this he said I’d be steady he said the drugs—

“They gave me propranolol.” It was almost a whisper, and Becker wondered immediately if she’d crossed the line. But the voice in her head stayed silent.

Sabrie nodded. “For the PTSD.”

“I know how that sounds. It’s not like I was a victim or anything.” Becker stared at the table. “I don’t think it’s working.”

“It’s a common complaint, out there on the cutting edge. All those neurotransmitters, synthetic hormones. Too many interactions. Things don’t always work the way they’re supposed to.”

Monahan, you asshole. You’re the goddamn PR expert, you should’ve known I wasn’t up for this . . .

“I feel worse than awful.” Becker could barely hear her own voice. “I feel sick . . .”

Sabrie appraised her with black unblinking eyes.

“This may be bigger than an interview,” she said at last. “Do you think we could arrange a couple of follow-ups, maybe turn this into an in-depth profile piece?”

“I—I’d have to clear it with my superiors.”

Sabrie nodded. “Of course.”

Or maybe, Becker thought, you knew all along. As, two hundred fifty kilometers away, a tiny voice whooped in triumph.

• • • •

They plugged her into an alternate universe where death came with an undo option. They ran her through scenarios and simulations, made her kill a hundred civilians a hundred different ways. They made her relive Kiribati again and again through her augments, for all the world as if she wasn’t already reliving it every time she closed her goddamn eyes.

It was all in her head, of course, even if it wasn’t all in her mind; a high-speed dialog between synapse and simulator, a multichannel exchange through a pipe as fat as any corpus callosum. A Monte Carlo exercise in tactical brutality.

After the fourth session she opened her eyes and Blanch had disappeared; some neon redhead had replaced him while Becker had been racking up the kills. Tauchi, according to his nametag. She couldn’t see any augments, but he glowed with smartwear in the Megahertz range.

“Jord’s on temporary reassignment,” he told her when she asked. “Tracking down the glitch.”

“But—but I thought this—”

“This is something else. Close your eyes.”

Sometimes she had to let innocent civilians die in order to save others. Sometimes she had to murder people whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time: blocking a clean shot on a battlebot that was drawing down on a medical team, or innocently reaching for some control that had been hacked to ignite a tank of H2S half a city away. Sometimes Becker hesitated on those shots, held back in some forlorn hope that the target might move or change its mind. Sometimes, even lacking any alternative, she could barely bring herself to pull the trigger.

She wondered if maybe they were trying to toughen her up. Get her back in the saddle, desensitized through repetition, before her own remorse made her useless on the battlefield.

Sometimes there didn’t seem to be a right answer, no clear way to determine whose life should take priority; mixed groups of children and adults, victims in various states of injury and amputation. The choice between a brain-damaged child and its mother. Sometimes Becker was expected to kill with no hope of saving anyone; she took strange comfort in the stark simplicity of those old classics. Fuck this handwringing over the relative weights of human souls. Just point and shoot.

I am a camera, she thought.

“Who the hell makes up these scenarios?”

“Don’t like judgment calls, Corporal?”

“Not those ones.”

“Not much initiative.” Tauchi nodded approvingly. “Great on the follow-through, though.” He eyed his pad. “Hmmm. That might be why. Your cortisol’s fucked.”

“Can you fix that? I don’t think my augs have been working since I got back.”

“Flashbacks? Sweats? Vigilant immobility?”

Becker nodded. “I mean, aren’t the augs supposed to take care of all that?”

“Sure,” Tauchi told her. “You start to freak, they squirt you a nice hit of dopamine or leumorphin or whatever to level you out. Problem is, do that often enough and it stops working. Your brain grows more receptors to handle the extra medicine, so now you need more medicine to feed the extra receptors. Classic habituation response.”

“Oh.”

“If you’ve been feeling wobbly lately, that’s probably why. Killing those kids only pushed you over the threshold.”

God, she missed Blanch.

“Chemistry sets are just a band-aid anyway,” the tech rattled on. “I can tweak your settings to keep you out of the deep end for now, but longer-term we’ve got something better in mind.”

“A drug? They’ve already got me on—”

He shook his head. “Permanent fix. There’s surgery involved, but it’s no big deal. Not even any cutting.”

“When?” She could feel her insides crumbling. She imagined Wingman looking away, too good a soldier to be distracted by its own contempt. “When?

Tauchi grinned. “Whaddya think we’re doing now?”

• • • •

She felt stronger by the next encounter.

This time it went down at street level; different patio, different ambiance, same combatants. Collapsed parasols hung from pikes rising through the center of each table, ready to spread protective shade should the afternoon sun ever make it past the skyscrapers. Sabrie set down a smooth rounded disk—a half-scale chrome hockey puck—next to the shaft. She gave it a tap.

Becker’s BUD fuzzed around the edges with brief static; Wingman jumped to alert, hungry and limbless.

“For privacy,” Sabrie said. “You okay with that?”

White noise on the radio. Broad-spectrum visual still working, though. The EM halo radiating from Sabrie’s device was bright as a solar corona; her retinue of personal electronics glowed with dimmer light. Her watch. Her smartspecs, already recording; the faint nimbus of some medallion packed with circuitry, nestled out of sight between her breasts.

“Why now?” Becker asked. “Why not before?”

“First round’s on the house. I was amazed enough that they even cleared the interview. Didn’t want to push my luck.”

Wingman flashed an icon; a little judicious frequency hopping would get around the jam. If they’d been in an actual combat situation, it wouldn’t even be asking permission.

“You realize there are other ways to listen in,” Becker said.

(FHop?[y/n] FHop?[y/n] FHop?[y/n])

Sabrie shrugged. “Parabolic ear on a rooftop. Bounce a laser off the table and read the vibrations.” Her eyes flickered overhead. “Any one of those drones could be a lip-reader, for all I know, and you know what? If all those eyes and ears can see the next Michael Harris before he draws down, I’m actually okay with that.”

“Michael who?”

“Guy in Orlando? Shot up a daycare a few years back?”

“I must have been—” (FHop?[y/n])

(n)

“—wait, he shot up a daycare?”

“Whole new level of fucked-up, I know. Killed forty people across three generations before they took him out.”

“Why’d he do it?”

Sabrie fixed her with a look. “Why did you?”

Becker didn’t flinch. It took some effort.

“Malfunction.” She kept her voice carefully colorless. “As far as anyone can tell.”

“Same with Harris, probably.”

“He had augments?”

Sabrie shook her head. “Wiring can go just as bad when it’s made out of meat. Turns out he lost a sister himself, six months before, in another shooting. They say it tipped him over the edge.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“That shit never does. It’s what people say, though. They have to say something.” Something eased in her posture then, a subtle relaxation in the wake of some critical moment passed. “Anyway. I’m not one of those kneejerk privacy types, is what I’m saying. Sometimes the panopticon saves lives.”

“And yet.” Becker nodded at the device on the table.

“There are limits. The cameras are up there. Your bosses are literally inside your head.” She dipped her chin at the jammer. “Do you think they’ll object to you providing a few unprompted answers? Given this new apparent policy of transparency and accountability?”

“I don’t know,” Becker said.

“You know what would make them even more transparent and accountable? If they released the video for the night of the twenth-fifth. I keep asking, and they keep telling me there isn’t any.”

Becker shook her head. “There isn’t.”

“Come on.”

“Really. Too memory-intensive. “

“Corporal, I’m recording this,” Sabrie pointed out. “16K, Slooped sound, no compression even.” She glanced into the street. “Half those people are life-logging every second of their lives for the sheer narcissistic thrill of it.”

“And they’re streaming it. Or caching and dumping every couple of hours. I don’t get the luxury of tossing my cookies into some cloud whenever my cache fills up. I have to be able to operate in the dark for weeks at a time: You stream any kind of data in the field, it points back at you like a big neon arrow.

“Besides, budget time rolls around, how much of your limited R&D funding are you going to take away from tactical computing so you can make longer nature documentaries?” Becker raised her espresso in a small mock toast. “You think the People’s Republic is losing any sleep over that one?”

Which is awfully convenient, remarked a small voice, when you’ve just—

She shut it off.

Sabrie gave her a sidelong look. “You can’t record video.”

“Sure I can. But it’s discretionary. You document anything you think needs documenting, but the default realtime stream is just numbers. Pure black-box stuff.”

“You didn’t think you needed to document

“I didn’t know. It wasn’t conscious. Why the fuck can’t you people—”

Sabrie watched her without a word.

“Sorry,” Becker said at last.

“It’s okay,” Sabrie said softly. “Rising bubbles. I get it.”

Overhead, the sun peeked around an office tower. A lozenge of brightness crept onto the table.

“You know what they were doing out there?” Sabrie asked. “Tionee and his friends?”

Becker closed her eyes for a moment. “Some kind of fishing trip.”

“And you never wondered why anyone would go fishing in a place where there wasn’t anything to catch but slugs and slime?”

I never stopped wondering. “I heard it was a—cultural thing. Keep the traditions alive, in case someone ever builds a tuna that eats limestone.”

“It was an art project.”

Becker squinted as the hockey puck bounced sunlight into her eyes. “Excuse me?”

“Let me get that for you.” Sabrie half-rose and reached for the center of the table. The parasol bloomed with a snap. The table dropped back into eclipse.

“That’s better.” Sabrie reseated herself.

“An art project?” Becker repeated.

“They were college students. Cultural anthropology and art history majors, wired in from Evergreen State. Re-enact the daily lives of your forebears, play them back along wavelengths outside the human sensory range. They were calling it Through Alien Eyes. Some kind of commentary on outsider perspectives.”

“What wavelengths?”

“Reesi was glassing everything from radio to gamma.”

“There’s a third-party recording?”

“Nothing especially hi-def. They were on a student budget, after all. But it was good enough to pick out a signal around 400 megahertz. Nobody can quite figure out what it is. Not civilian, anyway.”

“That whole area’s contested. Military traffic all over the place.”

“Yeah, well. The thing is, it was a just a couple of really short bursts. Half a second, maybe. Around eleven-forty-five.”

Wingman froze. Gooseflesh rippled up Becker’s spine.

Sabrie leaned forward, hands flat on the table. “That wouldn’t have been you, would it?”

“You know I can’t discuss operational details.”

“Mmmm.” Sabrie watched and waited.

“I take it you have this recording,” Becker said at last.

The journalist smiled faintly. “You know I can’t discuss operational details.”

“I’m not asking you to compromise your sources. It just seems—odd.”

“Because your guys would have been all over the bodies before they were even cool. So if anyone had that kind of evidence, it would be them.”

“Something like that.”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have a mole. Or at least if you do, they don’t report to me. You want to blame anyone, blame your wing man.”

“What?”

“Your preconscious triggers tie into some pretty high-caliber weaponry. I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you what kind of games physics plays when multiple slugs hit a body at twelve hundred meters a second.”

Momentum. Inertia. Force vectors transferred from small masses to larger ones—and maybe back to smaller ones again. A pair of smartspecs could have flown twenty meters or more, landed way up in the weeds or splashed down in the lagoon.

“We wouldn’t have even known to look,” Becker murmured.

“We did.” Sabrie sipped her drink. “Want to hear it?”

Becker sat absolutely still.

“I know the rules, Nandita. I’m not asking you to ID it, or even comment. I just thought you might like . . .”

Becker glanced down at the jammer.

“I think we should leave that on.” Sabrie reached into her blouse, fingered the luminous medallion hanging from her neck. “You have sockets, though, right? Hard interfaces?”

“I don’t spread my legs in public.”

Sabrie’s eyes flickered to the far side of the street, where a small unmarked quadrocopter had just dipped into sight below the rim of the parasol. “Let’s talk about your family,” she said.

• • • •

Monahan didn’t seem put out.

“We thought she might try something like that. Sabrie’s hardly in the tank. But you did great, Corporal.”

“You were monitoring?”

“Like we’d let some gizmo from the Sony store cut us out of the loop? I could’ve even whispered sweet nothings in your ear if I’d had to—acoustic tightbeam, she’d never have had a clue unless she leaned over and nibbled your earlobe—but like I say, you were just fine.” Some small afterthought made him frown. “Would’ve been easier if you’d just authorized frequency hopping, of course . . .”

“She had a lot of gizmos on her,” Becker said. “If one of them had been able to pick up the signal . . .”

“Right. Good plan. Let her think it worked.”

“Yes sir.”

“Just Ben. Oh, one other thing . . .”

Becker waited.

“We lost contact for just a few moments there. When the umbrella went up.”

“You didn’t miss much. Apparently the collateral was doing a school project of some kind. Art history. They weren’t actually fishing, it was more of a—a re-enactment, I guess.”

“Huh. Pretty much what we heard.” Monahan nodded. “Next time, might help if you went to active logging. You know, when we’re out of contact.”

“Right. Sorry. I didn’t think.”

“Don’t apologize. After what you’ve been through, I’d be amazed if you didn’t make the occasional slip.”

He patted her on the back. Wingman bristled.

“I gotta prep for a thing. Keep up the great work.”

• • • •

All those devil’s bargains and no-win scenarios. All those exercises that tore her up inside. Turned out they were part of the fix. They had to parameterize Becker’s remorse before they could burn it out of her.

It was a simple procedure, they assured her, a small part of the scheduled block upgrade. Seven deep-focus microwave bursts targeting the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Ten minutes, tops. Not so much as a scar to show for it afterward. She didn’t even need to sign anything.

They didn’t put her under. They turned her off.

Coming back online, she didn’t feel much different. The usual faint hum at the back of her skull as Wingman lit up and looked around; the usual tremors in fingers and toes, halfway between a reboot sequence and a voltage spike. The memory of her distant malfunction seemed a bit less intense, but then again things often seemed clearer after a good night’s sleep. Maybe she was just finally seeing things in perspective.

They plugged her into the simulator and worked her out.

Fifty-plus male, thirtysomething female, and a baby alone in a nursery: all spread out, all in mortal and immediate danger as the house they were trapped in burned down around them. She started with the female, went back to extract the male, was heading back in for the baby when the building collapsed. Two out of three, she thought. Not bad.

Sniper duty on some post-apocalyptic overpass, providing cover for an airbus parked a hundred meters down the road below, for the refugees running and hobbling and dragging themselves towards salvation. A Tumbleweed passing beneath: a self-propelled razorwire tangle of ONC and magnesium and white phosphorus, immune to bullets, hungry for body heat, rolling eagerly toward the unsuspecting evacuees. The engineer at Becker’s side—his face an obvious template, although the sim tagged him as her brother for some reason—labored to patch the damage to their vehicle, oblivious to the refugees and their imminent immolation.

Oblivious until Becker pitched him off the overpass and brought the Tumbleweed to rapture.

The next one was a golden oldie: the old man in the war zone, calling for some lost pet or child, blocking Becker’s shot as a battlefield robot halfway to the horizon took aim at a team of medics. She took out the old man with one bullet and no second thought; took out the bot with three more.

“Why’d you leave the baby for last?” Tauchi asked afterward, unhooking her. The light in his eyes was pure backwash from the retinal display, but he looked eager as a puppy just the same.

“Less of a loss,” Becker said.

“In terms of military potential?” They’d all been civilians; tactically, all last among equals.

Becker shook her head, tried to put instinct into words. “The adults would—suffer more.”

“Babies can’t suffer?”

“They can hurt. Physically. But no hopes or dreams, no memories even. They’re just—potential. No added value.”

Tauchi looked at her.

“What’s the big deal?” Becker asked. “It was an exercise.”

“You killed your brother,” he remarked.

“In a simulation. To save fifty civilians. I don’t even have a brother.”

“Would it surprise you to know that you took out the old man and the battlebot a full six hundred milliseconds faster than you did before the upgrade?”

She shrugged. “It was a repeat scenario. It’s not like I even got it wrong the first time.”

Tauchi glanced at his tacpad. “It didn’t bother you the second time.”

“So what are you saying? I’m some kind of sociopath now?”

“Exactly the opposite. You’ve been immunized against trolley paradoxes.”

“What?”

“Everybody talks about morality like it’s another word for right and wrong, when it’s really just a load of static on the same channel.” Tauchi’s head bobbed like a woodpecker. “We just cleaned up the signal. As of now, you’re probably the most ethical person on the planet.”

“Really.”

He walked it back, but not very far. “Well. You’re in the top thirty at least.”

• • • •

Buried high above the streets of Toronto, cocooned in a windowless apartment retained as a home base for transient soldiers on missions of damage control: Nandita Becker, staring at the wall and watching the Web.

The wall was blank. The Web was in her head, invited through a back door in her temporal lobe. She and Wingman had spent altogether too much time alone in there, she’d decided. Time to have some company over.

The guest heads from Global’s Front View Mirror, for example: a JAG lawyer, a retired professor of military law from Dalhousie, a token lefty from Veterans for Accountable Government. Some specialist in cyborg tech she’d never met, on loan from the Ministry of Defense and obviously chosen as much for disarming good looks as for technical expertise. (Becker imagined Ben Monahan just out of camera range, pulling strings.) A generic moderator whose affect alternated between earnest sincerity and failed attempts at cuteness.

They were all talking about Becker. At least, she assumed they still were. She’d muted the audio five minutes in.

The medallion in her hand glowed like dim cobalt through the flesh of her fingers, a faint nimbus up at 3MHz. She contemplated the feel of the metal, the decorative filigree (a glyph from some Amazonian culture that hadn’t survived first contact, according to Sabrie), the hairline fracture of the interface port. The recessed Transmit button in its center: tap it once and it would squawk once, Sabrie had told her. Hold it down and it would broadcast on continuous loop.

She pressed it. Nothing happened.

Of course not. There’d be crypto. You didn’t broadcast anything in the field without at least feeding it through a pseudorandom timeseries synched to the mothership—you never knew when some friend of Amal Sabrie might be lurking in the weeds, waiting to snatch it from the air and take it home for leisurely dissection. The signal made sense only at the instant of its creation. If you missed it the first time, wanted to repeat it for the sake of clarity, you’d need a time machine.

Becker had built her own personal time machine that very afternoon, stuck it at #1 on speed-dial: a three-line macro to reset her system clock to a dark moment weeks in the past, just before her world had turned to shit.

She unmuted audio on the web feed. One of Global’s talking heads was opining that Becker was as much a victim as those poor envirogees her hijacked body had gunned down. Another spoke learnedly of the intimate connection between culpability and intent, of how blame—if that loaded term could even be applied in this case—must lie with the technology and not with those noble souls who daily put their lives on the line in the dangerous pestholes of a changing world.

“And yet this technology doesn’t decide anything on its own,” the moderator said. “It just does what the soldier’s already decided sub—er, preconsciously.”

“That’s a bit simplistic,” the specialist replied. “The system has access to a huge range of data that no unaugged soldier would ever be able to process in realtime—radio chatter, satellite telemetry, wide-spectrum visuals—so it’s actually taking that preconscious intent and modifying it based on what the soldier would do if she had access to all those facts.”

“So it guesses,” said the Man from VAG.

“It predicts.”

“And that doesn’t open the door to error?”

“It reduces error. It optimizes human wisdom based on the maximum available information.”

“And yet in this case—”

Becker held down transmit and sacc’d speed-dial.

“—don’t want to go down that road,” the lawyer said. “No matter what the neurology says.”

Thirty-five seconds. Gone in an instant.

“Our whole legal system is predicated on the concept of free will. It’s the moral center of human existence.”

That was so much bullshit, Becker knew. She knew exactly where humanity’s moral center was. She’d looked it up not six hours ago: the place where the brain kept its empathy and compassion, its guilt and shame and remorse.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

“Suppose—” The moderator raised a finger. “—I get into a car with a disabled breathalyzer. I put it into manual and hit someone. Surely I bear some responsibility for the fact that I chose to drink and drive, even if I didn’t intend to hurt anyone.”

“That depends on whether you’d received a lawful command from a superior officer to get behind the wheel,” Ms. JAG countered.

“You’re saying a soldier can be ordered to become a cyborg?”

“How is that different from ordering a sniper to carry a rifle? How is it different from ordering soldiers to take antimalarial drugs—which have also, by the way, been associated with violent behavioral side effects in the past—when we deploy them to the Amazon? A soldier is sworn to protect their country; they take that oath knowing the normal tools of their trade, knowing that technology advances. You don’t win a war by bringing knives to a gunfight—”

Speed-dial.

“—may not like cyborgs—and I’m the first to agree there are legitimate grounds for concern—but until you can talk the Chinese into turning back the clock on their technology, they’re by far the lesser evil.”

Twenty-eight seconds, that time.

“It’s not as though we ever lived in a world without collateral damage. You don’t shut down such a vital program over a tragic accident.”

A tragic accident. Even Becker had believed that. Right up until Sabrie had slipped her a medallion with a burst of radio static in its heart, a cryptic signal snatched from the warm Pacific night by a pair of smart-specs on a dead kid walking. A signal that was somehow able to offline her for intervals ranging from twenty to sixty-three seconds.

She wondered if there was any sort of pattern to that variability.

“Safeguards should be put into place at the very least.” The moderator was going for the middle road. “Ways to monitor these, these hybrids remotely, shut them down at the first sign of trouble.”

Becker snorted. Wingman didn’t take orders in the field, couldn’t even hear them. Sure, Becker could channel some smiley little spin doctor through her temporal, but he was just a peeping Tom with no access to the motor systems. The actual metal didn’t even pack an on-board receiver; it was congenitally deaf to wireless commands until someone manually slotted the dorsal plug-in between Becker’s shoulders.

Deliberately design a combat unit that could be shut down by anyone who happened to hack the right codes? Who’d be that stupid?

And yet—

Transmit. Speed-dial.

“—are only a few on active duty—they won’t tell us exactly how many of course, say twenty or thirty. A couple dozen cyborgs who can’t be blamed if something goes wrong. And that’s just today. You wouldn’t believe how fast they’re ramping up production.”

Forty seconds. On the nose.

“Not only do I believe it, I encourage it. The world’s a tinderbox. Water wars, droughts, refugees everywhere you look. The threat of force is the only thing that’s kept a lid on things so far. Our need for a strong military is greater today than it’s ever been since the Cold War, especially with the collapse of the US eco—”

Speed-dial.

“—and what happens when every pair of boots in the field has a machine reading its mind and pulling the trigger in their name? What happens to the very concept of a war crime when every massacre can be defined as an industrial accident?”

Thirty-two.

“You’re saying this Becker deliberately—”

“I’m saying nothing of the kind. I’m concerned. I’m concerned at the speed with which outrage over the massacre of civilians has turned into an outpouring of sympathy for the person who killed them, even from quarters you’d least expect. Have you seen the profile piece Amal Sabrie posted on the Star? It was almost a love letter.”

A shutdown command, radioed to a system with no radio.

“Nobody’s forgetting the victims here. But it’s no great mystery why people also feel a certain sympathy for Corporal Becker—”

Becker kept wondering who’d be able to pull off a trick like that. She kept coming up with the same answer.

“Of course. She’s sympathetic, she’s charismatic, she’s nice. Exemplary soldier, not the slightest smudge on her service record. She volunteered at a veterinary clinic back in high school.”

Someone with an interest in controlling the narrative.

“Chief of Defense couldn’t have a better poster girl if they’d planned—”

Dial.

“—should be up on charges is for the inquiry to decide.”

Forty-two seconds.

She wondered if she should be feeling something right now. Outrage. Violation. She’d thought the procedure was only supposed to cure her PTSD. It seemed to have worked on that score, anyway.

“Then let the inquiry decide. But we can’t allow this to become the precedent that tips over the Geneva Conventions.”

The other stuff, though. The compassion, the empathy, the guilt. The moral center. That seemed to be gone too. They’d burned it out of her like a tumor.

“The Conventions are a hundred years old. You don’t think they’re due for an overhaul?”

She still had her sense of right and wrong, at least.

Brain must keep that somewhere else.

• • • •

“I thought they’d shipped you back to the WTP,” Sabrie remarked.

“This weekend.”

The journalist glanced around the grotto: low light, blue-shifted, private tables arrayed around a dance floor where partygoers writhed to bass beats that made it only faintly through the table damper. She glanced down at the Rising Tide Becker had ordered for her.

“I don’t fuck my interviews, Corporal. Especially ones who could snap my spine if they got carried away.”

Becker smiled back at her. “Not why we’re here.”

“Ohhhkay.”

“Bring your jammer?”

“Always.” Sabrie slapped the little device onto the table; welcome static fuzzed Becker’s peripherals.

“So why are we in a lekking lounge at two a.m.?”

“No drones,” Becker said.

“None in the local Milestones either. Even during business hours.”

“Yeah. I just—I wanted a crowd to get lost in.”

“At two in the morning.”

“People have other things on their mind on the middle of the night.” Becker glanced up as a trio stumbled past en route to the fuck-cubbies. “Less likely to notice someone they may have seen on the feeds.”

“Okay.”

“People don’t—congregate the way they used to, you know?” Becker sipped her scotch, set it down, stared at it. “Everyone telecommutes, everyone cocoons. Downtown’s so—thin, these days.”

Sabrie panned the room. “Not here.”

“Web don’t fuck. Not yet, anyway. Still gotta go out if you want to do anything more than whack off.”

“What’s on your mind, Nandita?”

“You got me thinking.”

“About?”

“The price of safety. The next Michael Harris. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.”

“I haven’t. I just don’t—”

“Twenty thousand gun-related deaths a year, Amal. Down there. Up here.”

“Mainly down there, thank God.” Sabrie said. “But yes.”

“And you got me thinking about how Harris had to be crazy to shoot up a daycare, for chrissakes, how everyone said the death of his sister must have tipped him over the edge. Only . . .”

“Only?” Sabrie echoed after the pause had stretched a bit too far.

“What if he wasn’t crazy?” Becker finished.

“How could he not be?”

“He lost his sister. Classic act of senseless violence. The whole gun culture, you know, the NRA has everyone by the balls and anyone so much as whispers about gun control gets shot down. So to speak.” Becker grunted. “Words haven’t worked. Advocacy hasn’t worked. The only thing that might possibly work would be something so unthinkable, so horrific and obscene and unspeakably evil, that not even the most strident gun nut could possibly object to—countermeasures.”

“Wait, you’re saying that someone in favor of gun control—someone who’d lost his sister to gun violence—would deliberately shoot up a daycare?”

Becker spread her hands.

“You’re saying he turned himself into a monster. Killed forty people. For what, a piece of legislation?”

“Weighed against thousands of deaths a year. Even if legislation only cut that by a few percent, you’d make back your investment in a week or two.”

“Your investment?”

“Sacrifice, then.” Becker shrugged.

“Do you know how insane that sounds?”

“How do you know that’s not the way it went down?”

“Because nothing changed! No new laws got passed! They just wrote him off as another psycho.”

“He couldn’t know that up front. All he knew was, there was a chance. His life, a few others, for thousands. There was a chance.”

“I can’t believe that you, of all people, would—after what happened, after what you did—”

“Wasn’t me, remember? It was Wingman. That’s what everyone’s saying.” Wingman was awake now, straining at the leash with phantom limbs.

“But you were still part of it. You know that, Deet, you feel it. Even if it wasn’t your fault, it still tears you up inside. I saw that the first time we spoke. You’re a good person, you’re a moral person, and—”

“Do you know what morality is, really?” Becker looked coolly into the other woman’s eyes. “It’s letting two strangers’ kids die so you can save one of your own. It’s thinking it makes some kind of difference if you look into someone’s eyes when you kill them. It’s squeamishness and cowardice and won’t someone think of the children. It’s not rational, Amal. It’s not even ethical.”

Sabrie had gone very quiet.

“Corporal,” she said when Becker had fallen silent, “what have they done to you?”

Becker took a breath. “Whatever they’re doing—”

. . . couldn’t have a better poster girl if they’d planned it . . .

“—it ends here.”

Sabrie’s eyes went wide. Becker could see pieces behind them, fitting together at last. No drones. Dense crowd. No real security, just a few bouncers built of pitiful meat and bone . . .

“I’m sorry, Amal,” Becker said gently.

Sabrie lunged for the jammer. Becker snatched it up before the journalist’s hand had made it halfway.

“I can’t have people in my head right now.”

“Nandita.” Sabrie was almost whispering. “Don’t do this.”

“I like you, Amal. You’re good people. I’d leave you right out of it if I could, but you’re—smart. And you know me, a little. Maybe well enough to put it together, afterward . . .”

Sabrie leapt up. Becker didn’t even rise from her chair. She seized the other woman’s wrist quick as a striking snake, effortlessly forced it back onto the table. Sabrie cried out. Dim blue dancers moved on the other side of the damper field, other things on their minds.

“You won’t get away with it. You can’t blame the machines for—” Soft pleading words, urgent, rapid-fire. The false-color heatprint of the contusion spread out across Sabrie’s forearm like a dim rainbow, like a bright iridescent oil slick. “Please there’s no way they’ll be able to sell this as a malfunction no matter how—”

“That’s the whole point,” Becker said, and hoped there was a least a little sadness left in her smile. “You know that.”

Amal Sabrie. Number one of seventy-four.

It would have been so much faster to just spread her wings and raise arms. But her wings had been torn out by the roots, and lay twitching in the garage back at Trenton. The only arms she could raise were of flesh and blood and graphene.

It was enough, though. It was messy, but she got the job done. Because Corporal Nandita Becker was more than just a superhuman killing machine.

She was the most ethical person on the planet.

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Peter Watts

Peter Watts by Minna Jerrman

Peter Watts (www.rifters.com) is a reformed marine biologist/convicted felon who feels better about his career since winning the Hugo for his novelette “The Island” in 2010. (His previous novel, Blindsight, was nominated for a shitload of major awards but only won the overseas ones, suggesting that he’s most popular with people who don’t actually know him.) Watts’ work is available in twenty languages, and his technique of backloading novels with technical bibliographies— originally intended as a defense against nitpickers—has fooled academics into using his work as textbooks not only in science fiction courses, but in those on Philosophy and Neuroscience as well. He has also been cited as an inspiration for video games such as Bioshock 2 and SOMA, although he cannot afford to purchase either game to confirm this. Both he and his cat have appeared multiple times in the prestigious journal Nature.