Science Fiction & Fantasy

GENOME by Sergei Lukyanenko

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Fiction

Nomad

Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams

This story first appeared in the new anthology, Armored, edited by John Joseph Adams. Now available from Baen Books.

People in modern times don’t like to acknowledge that some of us Radicals are nomad. They interpret that as rogue and dangerous. If you think it’s hard for us now, it was much worse during the turf wars—especially if you weren’t integrated. When Tommy died I became uni—unintegrated—and that usually means nomad. I belonged to no Streak, had no chief and no Fuses to protect me. It wasn’t overnight.

For a month after Tommy died, my chief tried to convince me to integrate with another human. It’s not unheard of, though for many it is not desired. But since nomad Radicals have it hard against suspicious people, the majority of us capitulate and Fuse to a second, lesser human. Any human after your first is always lesser in some way. You have not grown with them; you have not shared memories from birth to death. Many Radicals who have lost their first human don’t last the year, Fused again or not; instead they voluntarily dismantle.

I was never one for suicide, though I have come close. But I don’t think it’s in my nature to cut myself short—I have the scars and dents on my armor to prove it. I spent too many years trying to keep myself and Tommy alive against rival Streaks, and he did the same. To dismantle myself, even if it’s my right, would be an insult to the Fuse I had lost when Tommy died.

Every Streak across the world thinks they know what went down when Tommy was killed, but they don’t know because everyone involved in that fracas, besides myself, was destroyed. (Human, Radical—the term “destruction” fits for both.) This was the beginning of my Streak’s suspicion of me and I suppose I can’t blame them. It is a hard thing to explain when your human dies and you survive. Tommy’s uncle was the chief, and the chief’s Radical was the only other Radical in our Streak that was older than me. We were possibly the oldest Radicals left in the world besides some beaten-down Copperpickers in the few mines left in the North. Anyway, Tommy had been the vice-chief. It is likely that once Tommy was dead and I was uni, Radical One calculated that I would want to take the primus position with a new human. But I had no such ambitions and still do not. Leading a Streak is not a simple thing and I’ve grown tired of the raids.

Maybe I have always been a little bit nomad in my programming. My generation model, they say, has some tragic flaws.

***

The day I decided to leave the Streak, the chief made one last effort to convince me to stay and reintegrate. I stood in the wreckhouse with the other Fuses, all of them doubles. I was the only single. We made thirteen, which is small for a modern Streak, but the chief didn’t agree with the corporate mentality that dictated there had to be at least twenty Fuses in a Streak. That was too much like a government army, and we were better beneath our own flag.

The armor of every Fuse is different. Our Streak wasn’t full of rainbow, like you find in the West, especially in Heo Eremiel. Their raids look ridiculous if you see them in your rearscan, like a flock of parrots who will talk you to death. We weren’t all about our looks, but our Tora Streak had some pride. Blacks, grays, blues, reds. When we raided up, we were a storm.

Radical One was a sheen of midnight blue integrated with the chief, covering him head to toe in a sleek armor husk. If you have never seen a Fuse it might be difficult to discern where human ends and Radical begins, but that is the point. Since we weren’t raided up, though, his faceplate was open, his gunports were shut, and I saw his hooded human eyes. Radical One’s red scanning eye on his forehead bent in regular beats across each of our faceplates and did not bend to the human eyes. I bent my eye back, but then ignored it to zero on the chief. He was old by human years, well into his gray period, but battle hardened in every line and vein.

“Why won’t you give Probie a chance?” Chief gestured with a gauntlet at the lone human who stood by the door of the wreckhouse. One of him and one of me. Even a first burst of a Radical could do that math out of the yards.

“I gave him a chance,” I said. “We won’t work.”

The probie had approached me the week before and said, “They don’t make your kind anymore, do they?” knowing very well that my model was discontinued twelve years ago. He’d taken two months to pluck up to me and that was the first thing out of his wet man-mouth.

“I wish I could say the same about you,” I’d told him. He’d taken offense, which wasn’t my problem. And he wasn’t going to be my problem now.

Deacon was his born name, but because he wasn’t Fused we all called him Probie. He did scut work around the house and the garage, and he had some skill with programming and basic Radical maintenance, not that I ever let him touch me. Mostly he did anything the chief wanted him to do for the Fuses, Radical and human alike. He had to learn that a Fuse wasn’t about the human. We weren’t cars he could flip a switch on and control out of the factory. I didn’t know why the chief made him a probie in the first place, because even if Deacon respected the Fuses, I saw that self-righteous gleam in his blue eyes. He reckoned he could stare down a Radical’s scan even though we never blinked. That kind of arrogance shares circuitry with stupidity. I’d rather dismantle than Fuse with that.

“So what’s your plan?” the chief said. “I hope you won’t kite off on a revenge mission.”

The payback on the bastard Fuses who had killed Tommy was not as complete as I would have liked. There had been much discussion in the Streak about the nature of this payback and the chief had his reasons for being careful about it. Keeping the peace between precarious towns; not wanting the locals to raise a paramilitary army to drive us out; not wanting more bloodshed when my murder of Tommy’s murderers could be seen as an even score. So many reasons and yet I would not have regretted more death.

But revenge wasn’t my reason for leaving.

“I’m going nomad,” I said.

All twelve Fuses made noises, human profanity and sharp Radical hums. Radical Five, who was called Steel, said that they would rather I stayed with the Streak as a uni than lose me to the grid. Steel was always dependable on my flank and its Fuse was now the vice-chief. His human Anatolia missed Tommy almost as much as I did. Once in a while they’d shared beds.

“I appreciate that,” I said, “but I think nomad is the direction for me. At least for now.”

“You will always have a place in Tora Streak,” the chief said. He wasn’t going to argue anymore. He’d given me enough outs in the past month and it was impossible to change my program once I’d set it.

Radical One’s eye bent and remained on my faceplate. Radical One didn’t have any other name, just the recognition number that every Radical possesses but none of us use in speech. It had never wanted to be more familiar to humans. Though the chief objected to my going and it was in the logs, Radical One never tried to make me stay. Without me around, its primus position would be fixed until dismantling or destruction through battle, since none of the other Fuses were close enough to take over unless for some reason the chief died independently. But Radical One was powerful, despite its age, and it did not lose in battle.

The chief said, “Radical Two is determined to be nomad. We won’t keep it here. Does everyone give their support to Radical Two?”

The consent was unanimous, if full of regret. I had some regret too, but not enough to keep me from leaving.

The chief said, “Then go with the wind, Mad.” And that was the first time he had ever called me by my chosen name.

It was the name Tommy had given me.

***

Humans don’t always name us. We name ourselves if we want such a familiar designation. But when Tommy was four he thought of Mad, not because I’m an angry Radical, he just didn’t want to call me Radical Two anymore. “That sounds so cold,” he said. “And you’re too warm inside.” When he melded to the hollow of my armor body, we created warmth.

I was also only four years out of the yards, we were four years integrated alloy and skin, and every time he shed me to be only human I felt an emptiness. I suppose that was where it all began.

***

We call it armor but the technical name is Trans-Developmental Biogenic Alloy. After the ratified Constitution that granted us rights and privileges as any sentient intelligent being, humans short-handed us to Radical Armor, and then just Radical. We are told that the name alludes to part of our chemical makeup; one of our origin scientists coined it. I have always found it a little sarcastic. Free radicals. Perhaps Dr. Gom had been a sarcastic man, as much as he had been a genius.

We grow with our humans, a second skin that can slip apart and exist away from the Fuse. The racists call us Silly Putty for our ability to morph, change constitution, and adapt. And we do adapt. We change. We integrate.

The Streaks are weapons grade Radical Armor.

First integration happens as close to birth as possible. It’s the only way you can be sure a Radical’s bioware adapts properly to a human, when the human’s mind isn’t fixed already. Once we’ve been through our first integration, we can integrate again, but it’s never as smooth as that first; when you’re new and your human’s new, slipping inside each other’s thoughts in that infant stage is like a synthesis of pure instinct or a predatory scent of blood.

I have memories of Tommy from five minutes after his first cry in this world, and before he died he had all of mine. Like the first time I opened my hand and saw my faint reflection in my perfect obsidian armor. Before the battle damage.

I remember the first time I set my hand over his and our grips locked together and became one. It took no thought to move our hand because the integration was more instinct than intellect. That is how you know that the fix is right. It is not artificial intelligence; it is intuitive intelligence.

It’s a need, those first memories. The first time he breathed the air, the first time he shut his eyes and saw instead through mine. The world is limitless when you’re Fused. It’s a hunger for experience and we spend all our lives in a hunt to fill it.

That’s what drives a Fuse. You, your human, and everything you can’t satisfy.

That is our biggest weakness too.

In our need to integrate with them, we adapted to human flaws.

***

The Fuses gathered around to bid me goodbye from the wreckhouse. Steel and Anatolia, Sol and Markie, Wyrm and Jasper, Giniro and Imori, Kikenna and Selene. The chief and Radical One only touched my shoulder and left first through the door. I scanned both human and Radical faces and it was a hard thing to know that I might never see them again.

They asked me where I was going but I didn’t tell them. I had plans to follow the road that would lead me away from the turf wars. I didn’t want to say out loud that I didn’t want to see any Radicals that I knew, or any Radicals at all. They would have considered this insane, because we all knew that in places where Radicals weren’t welcome, no law would protect me. Some humans did not acknowledge the Constitution, our rights, our sentience, our ability to choose not to kill them. Their fears were not completely unfounded, of course. But there are more murderous humans than there are murderous Radicals, and that will likely never change.

After Tommy’s death, I just wanted to be away. Vengeance could wait. Vengeance was bone without the marrow. Something else unknown and even dangerous matched the open spaces that were expanding through my inner wires and biogenic gyroscopes. I was being gutted the longer I remained in Tora Streak, racked to Tora thoughts.

The wreckhouse was where we all congregated when we weren’t launching raids. It catered to both humans and Radicals, with thick seats, docking spikes, and areas of play integration outlined by lights and nebular controls. Right now as I passed my eye over it in a wide beam, it looked and sounded skeletal beyond repair. The walls of the house reflected nothing and loomed empty and unlit, a dead alloy that could not change as its occupants did in their desires. The movements of the Fuses as they clasped my arms or bumped their heads to mine seemed to echo in hollow bass notes.

I said goodbye, made no promises to return, and stepped out the door into daylight.

The probie stood against the outer wall of the wreckhouse, smoking a cigarette.

“You’ll regret leaving,” he said, with my back to him.

“I won’t regret leaving you.” I had a blip of a thought to educate him about his attitude and why that would hinder his graduation from probie to full Fuse. But he wasn’t worth even that, so I kept walking toward the gate that surrounded Tora’s compound.

“Tommy wouldn’t want you to go,” he said to my back.

I turned my head around without moving the rest of my body, so my eye bent direct on his narrow little face. “You are determined to live a short human life.”

He flicked his cigarette away onto the pavement. “I think you should give me a second chance.”

“I have given you more chances than you realize.”

I watched as he approached, hands in his jacket pockets. He stopped right below my eye. He was shorter than Tommy, enough so that I had to tilt down my face to scan his features. The overlay showed me where all of his biodots were, a scatter of constellations in his brain. This might’ve been what made him such a sharp programmer. I did not know much about his past, only that he had come to the Streak from the town by recommendation of a human ally in the police department, and he had no living parents. The chief had done a thorough check on him and deemed him worthy of probie status. I didn’t ordinarily disagree with the chief, but if I could’ve taken back our vote before Tommy had died, seeing what I saw now, I would have—and jammed a bullet in this probie’s smirk while I was at it.

“I want to really talk with you,” he said. “But not here. If afterwards you still don’t think me worthy, then I’ll never bother you again.”

“You’ll never bother me again as soon as I walk through the gate.” I turned my head around and set myself in that direction.

“It’s about his death,” the probie said.

I circled back and snatched him up by the scruff of his neck. The gate opened at my signal and I walked on, holding the probie off the ground. He kicked and struggled but it is impossible for a human to break a Radical’s grip. He had a gun but he wouldn’t dare use it.

So I walked with him just like that down the road, away from Tora compound. I walked a full hour and then walked another, until the cars and other Radicals from Freemantown no longer passed us. None of them questioned me because they saw the orange and black Tora mark on my chest. I walked us out to the roads between towns, where yellow land stretched long and empty on either side. It was a cool day and I didn’t falter. I was well-maintained and topped up with energy, and could’ve moved faster if I adapted into road mode, but that would’ve required setting him on my back somehow. He fell limp in my grip eventually, weary from fighting and cursing at me.

But he woke up when I dumped him onto the side of the road.

“You bloody robot piece of shit!”

They continue to think “robot” is an insult.

I bent my blue eye to him and sent up the beam so it hit him on the forehead like a target. “Is this what you want to say to me?”

He was covered in dirt. He hauled himself to his feet and struggled to climb up the gravel embankment to face me toe to toe. I watched his gun hand. He was not generally that stupid, but he was angry, and humans have a tendency to be stupid in their anger.

“You think you know what happened to Tommy.” The probie spat at my feet. “But you don’t.”

“You think you know what happened to Tommy?” I too had guns. They were in-built.

“That ambush from the Gear Heart Streak.” He stared up at me with a blaze in his eyes. “When they raided up on you in Nuvo Nuriel. In the hotel. The chief sent you there to pat a deal with the Gears, but then they ended up turning on you? There was no deal, Mad, except to fuck you over. You and Tommy, ‘cause of what you were to each other.”

My scan overlay went red. I grabbed him up again by the collar and shook him hard.

His feet kicked. “Let go of me!”

I pitched him ten meters into the field. He fell with a dull thud and a cry. I bounded over to him in one leap from the road. My right foot almost nailed his chest, but he rolled away at the last second. I wanted to crush him. It would not have been difficult.

“I know you loved him!” the probie gasped, nearly winded. A true fear spread across his face. “I know it’s taboo. I don’t care about that; it’s wrong what they did. The chief set you up!” He began to cough.

I tangled my fingers in the front of his jacket and lifted him up so we were eye to eye. He kicked for a second out of reflex then stopped, just staring back. His arms hung long, all the arrogance slammed out of him. I calculated the option of killing him. Here in between towns it would take some time to find him. But then, many people from Freemantown had seen me walking with him.

“How do you know the chief set me up?” It was the most pertinent question. After I got my questions answered, maybe then I would send him back to town just so people could see him alive. Then I could circle back, hunt him down, and kill him.

“I read the chief of the Gear Heart Streak,” the probie said. “I read his Fuse.”

I scanned this probie’s biodots again. “With that in your head? There is nothing exceptional. You cannot scan a Radical with your limp brain.” Radical minds were fortresses.

He said, “I’m a wetthief. And the Gear Hearts are a bunch of second string Fuses and you know it.”

I did know it. Their ambush that had killed Tommy had only focused my hatred, but we had never liked them and their marauding spirits. They were not well-maintained, except in their wanton raids. Yet the chief had been bent on patting a deal “to cut down on the killings between the territories” where Tora and Gear tracks bisected the land. What could we have done? The votes went against us. Peace seemed a good avenue, but it was always more of a dark alley. Nobody had listened to Tommy on that score.

When they’d killed him, the chief had refused immediate payback. He’d said revenge had to come from thought, not impulse. The Streak had bowed to his level head.

I had burned. But he was my chief and my human was dead. I could not go up against the Gear Heart Streak alone. My actions were Tora’s actions.

Or would have been. Not anymore, as a nomad. And my need for vengeance had diminished in the days of loss. It was supposed to be simple, this leavetaking.

Now this probie claimed to know the mind of a Gear Heart Fuse? The chief and his Radical no less?

“I can prove it,” the probie said against my silence. “If you Fuse with me, I can show you.”

Wetthieves are notoriously reckless individuals. The government tries to deal with them, but to no real consequence. It is difficult to smash a thing that isn’t tangible, just as it is difficult to define an emotion. All the wily activity is through the mind. Yet I had never heard of a wetthief able to raid up on a Radical.

“Fuse with you?” That had been his intention all along, his eyes on my nexus. “I think you are a liar who wants to divide the Streak. How could a probie get close enough to the Gear Hearts to read their chief? Answer me.”

“The chief and Rad One sent me and Anatolia’s Fuse to Nuvo Nuriel two weeks ago for a parts run. You remember this. We saw the Gears on the corner. Before we split, I read them. I thought I could get intel for Tora and it’d help my case with you.” His jaw moved, stubborn overt confession that he wanted me for his Radical. “So I got intel.”

“And now you think it will help your case with me.” I would not address his other claim, what he thought he knew about me and Tommy. That would be a confirmation he had no right to nudge. Though I wondered how he did know, and if his mischievous man-mind had thieved in my nexus. Surely I would have felt it? I am deeply paranoid about my ware, as we all are.

The probie stared at me. I still held him above the ground. “If I had long enough, I could read you too. How do you think I know about you and Tommy? It was in the Gear Radical’s brain. It was in that chief’s. And they knew because your chief told them. You Radicals think you’re impenetrable, but you’re still a machine. And all machines have weaknesses.”

“You created us,” I said, and threw him very far.

He sailed through the air for more than ten meters. He hollered as he went. When he landed he stopped. I walked through the yellow grass and looked down at him. He seemed to be dead, lying in a heap, and it was a little bit of a concern that I might have killed him before I had all the answers. But only a little. It had felt good to toss him.

I scanned his vitals. His heart was beating and his brain showed activity—enough to be alive, though he was unconscious. Which was what I’d wanted. Unconscious, he couldn’t thieve.

***

I folded myself down beside him and waited. I didn’t care if it took hours for him to wake up. The field was quiet, except for random birds and the squeak of critters low to the ground. Mice. I watched a cricket bound across the black armor of my foot, pause there, and then disappear into the grass.

Tommy came to mind. It was inevitable. He was never long out of my thoughts, but now I played the images of him across my faceplate. He was tricky there and alive. It was true, I loved my human. It was also true that it was forbidden. You would think that if any clan of humans would understand an emotion forged in a Fuse, between human and Radical, it would be among the Streaks. But fundamentally there are still laws that surpass even science. There are deviations that go too far even for the Fuses in a Streak. Some things are universally wrong and some part of my programming understands that. I am, as the probie said, a machine. I can mold to human skin, to cover it and protect it and create a strength no human can reach on their own, but it is still only armor. I am still only armor, despite our integration with their minds.

Until my heart grew involved. Until my heart evolved. We call it a heart, but it is more like a central nervous system of programming. I believe it is the seat of our sentience but there is nothing to prove that. Humans think awareness comes from the brain.

I didn’t ask for this sentience. Unlike humans, my self-awareness was not born, but made. I was not the first Radical to achieve it (that one is long dismantled), but the template became in-built. Is it so difficult for people to believe that the next step in the evolution of sentience is love?

Tommy believed it the second I told him. We were Fused and sat in a field much like this one, at night, and I felt his fragile human body nested inside the spaces I had made for him since birth. The hollow of my chest, the tubes of my legs and arms. There he resided and every subtle thought sparked a response in mine, until we thought the same. We powered each other’s limbs in quiet movement. He ran his hand over the top of the grass blades and we both felt the tickle. My armor reflected the stars overhead, or as he liked to say, captured them. He was a killer—we both were—but he had a heart for the heavens.

I didn’t have to say the words. I only said, “We should go back to the wreckhouse, the chief will wonder.” Because we had been incommunicado for hours, and Tommy refused to reply to messages and I would not send signals on the sly. More often Tommy grew tired of the raids on the rival gangs, going from town to town, defending territory, controlling commerce. But I didn’t want him to get into trouble with the chief, so I said, “It’s very late.”

And he said, “Not yet, Mad.” And, “Just not yet.”

***

By and by, the probie awoke. Dusk sat new on the edges of the sky, dragging black overhead like a covering blanket. When I saw the probie’s eyes blink and focus, I said, “We are going to the Gear Heart Streak and we will discover if what you say is true.” My vengeance lay in wait. Now it could prowl again and my emptiness did not matter. It would be there regardless. I would wage war and did not care what humans got in my way.

The probie said, “What’s the point of going to the Gears? Right into enemy territory? You should go back to Tora and confront the chief.”

“I won’t accuse the chief and Radical One just because you say so. You say you thieved it from a Gear Heart mind, so we will go to the Gear Hearts. I will use you as a shield if you try my patience.”

“I did read them.” Even in the dim light of just stars and moon, I saw the steel insistence in his eyes. I needed no night scope for it.

“They are a bullshit Streak, those Gears,” I said. “So one way or another, we’ll get it out of them.”

***

He walked slowly, still dizzy-brained from the toss. I didn’t help him and I was in no hurry. I had to think of how to approach the Gears. Their territory was another few hours walk, even at a Radical stride. We would be there by dawn. Once, the probie suggested I let him ride me in road mode. I knocked him back to the gravel. He got up, swearing at me, but he didn’t ask again. At least he didn’t try to run. That would have been tedious to chase after him, to recapture him and shake him and put him under my arm so he couldn’t run again.

He must have truly wanted to Fuse with me to put up with my abuse. But I supposed that was natural. He was a probie; there was nothing more important to a probie than a Fuse.

So he said nothing else for the rest of the night. That was a single saving grace. The wetthief finally knew when to shut his damn mouth.

***

Across the street from the enemy compound I calculated the Gear Heart wreckhouse, the tracks I saw in the dirt, and informed the probie of my intent. We were going to hail them and speak with them. Once we were close enough, the probie would thieve from their nexus and load it to me. It was cumbersome to do so, not Fused, and might eat up precious time, but it was my strategy. I did not expect the Gear Hearts to tell me the truth. So I would put this wetthief to the test and if he wasn’t lying, I would destroy the Gear Hearts, every last one of them, and then I would go back to Tora Streak and kill the chief and Radical One for their betrayal.

The probie said, “You’re fucking insane.”

That was the true meaning of my name. No anger, just crazy. I said, “You will back me up.”

He had a gun and he was a good shot. I would defend him so long as I needed him. He knew it too.

He said, “You first.”

***

Since they’d killed Tommy, the Gear Hearts had not crossed into Tora territory. In fact they gave us a lot of room to do our deals and transport our goods: guns, drugs, medical supplies to outlying paramilitaries. And we did not cross into theirs. It was an uneasy truce and now this probie made me wonder if it was one born from the blood of my Fuse.

The probie lurked behind me as I stood in front of the Gear Heart gate. I wanted to open my gunports, but such hostility would only provoke them to launch a few grenades our way. So I remained straight, sealed up, my eye ranging only so far as the south end of their rundown wreckhouse wall.

“This is Radical Two of the Tora Streak,” I sent loud toward them. Technically, I was nomad but they didn’t need to know that. My voice cut through the early morning quiet. A graying hound loped in my peripheral vision, nosed at the dirt near old Radical footprints. I could not determine how old. “I will speak to your chief.”

The chief had not been in the ambush, so I had not killed him. Instead I had killed his vice-chief’s Fuse and I had no doubt he held it against me. The truce could end right now if he was dumb enough to take offense at my presence. I itched to bloom open my epaulet gunports.

But the main door of the wreckhouse creaked open and a short dusty human poked his head out. He was not the chief, so some other member of the Streak. He had tattoos around his eyes like a red badger.

“The chief ain’t here,” he croaked.

“Then I will wait for him. When do you expect him back?”

“I dunno.”

“You may get him on signal or you can watch me sit in front of your gate with my Tora mark for the remainder of the day.”

“Or we can blow you off our stoop with a missile.”

“I know you Gear Hearts aren’t that accurate. You can recall I killed four of your Streak. I didn’t come here to fight, but my arsenal can take out your entire compound. Do you wish to gamble on your aim and my reflexes?”

The door shut with a blam. Behind me, the probie laughed, but I shoved him quiet. I scanned the compound with all of my senses. The wreckhouse was proofed against every kind of amplification, but I listened and looked for movement by the animals, the trees on the outer edges, the air between the buildings. All lay quiet, as if the Streak were still abed. But I knew they were awake and the chief was indeed behind this gate.

In two minutes, he emerged from the wreckhouse, Fused. His Radical was blood red, its eye a scathing white. Its gaze slammed on me like a spotlight so I had to adjust my intake view. The Fuse met me on the other side of the gate.

“What do you want?” said the Gear Heart chief.

I had only to make him talk long enough for the probie to thieve his nexus and shunt the intel to me. I wanted it live, not from memory where memory could be manufactured. I would not put trickery past the probie, so this was my strategy. This would tell the truth of all.

Then the probie shot the Gear Heart chief right in the face.

The large caliber, double impact heavy round went straight through the faceplate. Such weaponry is made to kill Fuses. Blood and bits of plate glass, bone, and brains smattered against my armor.

I had no time to shout at the probie. The chief was dead but his Radical wasn’t. With a shudder the Gear Heart Radical slipped from its human, a sound I knew only too well shattering the morning air. I had made such a noise when Tommy was killed. The dead human chief slumped over into the dirt and gravel, like a snail without a shell, and the Radical launched itself into the air with a cry, right over the gate.

Before it landed, its gunports spooled open and rained artillery down upon us.

***

There is much debate from scientists about whether a Radical is faster and stronger Fused with a human than alone without. These scientists will spend much time on tests and data collection, interviews and psychological exams. But it is no debate for any Radical who has been Fused. We are at optimum with our humans. A Fuse is stronger together than alone. It’s not about human reflexes and Radical synapses. When we are Fused, there is no separation. We become the best of our individual capabilities.

And for my model, our primary capability is killing.

The Gear Heart Radical, without its human, stood no chance. As I’ve said, the Gear Hearts are a bullshit Streak. They swagger, but without the skill. They defend their territory by spraying wide, like a machine gun in the hands of an untrained child. They are not snipers or assassins. They waste energy and movement.

In a snap, my heavier shields unfurled above my shoulders to take the artillery fire. I didn’t mark where the probie went. Beneath my shield I flung up a hand. It held my forearm weapon. Two shots blasted on the enemy Radical’s chest. The impact sent it back a step and stopped its flow of fire. I dropped my right shield and barraged the Radical with my epaulet guns and two rocket grenades from my hip. The Gear Heart went down spraying bullets, but down it went regardless. The rounds peppered my armor as I flung up my shield again. They made no lasting damage.

The probie crouched behind my left side, shooting toward the compound. The rest of the Streak—all ten of them—had come out battling. But they faltered when they saw the bodies on the ground.

“Your chief Fuse is destroyed!” I sent. They would not know for certain if the rest of Tora Streak was near. To them I wasn’t nomad. I saw the calculations in their hesitation. They were an impulsive Streak, but grounded in survival.

I thought that would be the end of it, that I could gather this probie and shake the reason for his shooting right out of him, before I stomped him under my heel.

But my rear sensors picked up the whine of movement behind me. My eye gauged the shift in beams on the Radical faces across the gate as something took their attention.

My torso swiveled just as Radical One’s rocket grenades exploded against my chest.

***

I learned later that before I went down, I launched the rest of my epaulet artillery. Reflex. The hail slammed into Radical One and my chief, but did not kill them. Down on my back, my body began to blow out. The fire from the Gear Heart Radical had weakened me, but not infringed on major systems. The storm from Radical One was another matter; its titanium-class artillery cut through me like a scythe. I do not remember this, there is only a gap in my files when nothing recorded.

Between the blackness and repowering, there was Tommy. From birth to death, his form returned to me, a ghost whispering through my circuits, my biocells, every part of me that was the Fuse of both.

His black hair, his amber brown eyes tilted toward the sky.

When he killed, he never took joy in the loss of life.

We separated and he nestled in my chest cavity on his side, just to lie there as in a womb. I touched him with a different freedom, one that held no feedback sensation. It was just my touches that I remembered, not how he felt them. Humans are so easy to injure, but he trusted my strength. He let my armored hand cover over his chest, and his heartbeat remained a steady calm rhythm. All of my nearly impenetrable angular edges seemed to fit to his soft human muscle and delicate human bones. Somehow this forged a stronger bond. We were Fused, but he was an individual and so was I. He loved that about us, and I did too.

Scientists say we cannot grieve. But we do.

This was the feeling that flowed through my darkness, until the probie took its place.

The probie climbed into my chest cavity and fit his legs into the hollows of mine, and his arms into the columns of mine. In my darkness, I thought of Tommy and my struggling armor wrapped around this probie, like a flower petal at the touch of a finger. My injuries opened out to him, seeking healant.

The probie set his head to my heart and so began the Fuse.

With his wetthief brain and biodots, he reached out to my nexus and tangled himself in it. We coiled and stretched, memory flow and actions past.

They say Radical Armor can feel no pain. Especially an old model like me, a previous generation no longer on the line.

But they are wrong.

***

Deacon had no living parents because his mother had shot his father and then shot herself. He was six and witnessed it.

He grew up in town, in the alleys and beneath the sidewalks, in the hands of a system that looked very much like a Radical assembly line. They plugged parts in and removed others, injected cells and livened proteins. All to make a boy work the best he could. He found a human gang. He stole the biodots and ran drugs long enough to make enough money to get them implanted. Then his world opened wide, with teeth. Suddenly there were no barriers he could not break down.

Tommy and I were the first Fuse he ever saw. He wanted that connection. He wanted an armor no one could break, a second skin to hide him from the sharper parts of the world, a second mind to push his own to broader expanses.

His forays into the brain, any brain, freed him from his own—where memories suctioned tight and strived to suffocate him.

So much blood. It had splattered onto his mouth, blood from his parents. It mingled with the memory of Tommy’s on my armor, my faceplate. Deacon’s cries were the same as my human’s, then overrode them in a wave as Tommy’s died out.

Tommy slipped from my body cavity because not even my armor could hold him anymore. My system rang with shock. Our hotel room was destruction, the smell of fire, smoke, and cinder.

Through Deacon I saw the chief and Radical One. They stood on a road halfway between Freemantown and Nuvo Nuriel. My chief said to the Gear Heart chief, Tommy’s heart isn’t in it anymore. He and his Radical protest us every step of the way. If you take care of Tommy it will force Radical Two to Fuse again. We don’t want to lose the Two, but Tommy’s heart has infected it. They take their bond too far. So take him out and we’ll ceasefire on your turf. We will leave you alone. Make it look good.

What about payback? Your Streak will demand it. Radical Two will seek it.

Leave it to me, the chief said.

All of this clipped in Radical One’s memory. All of it stolen by Deacon and kept in his.

I saw it all as if I were there. This is the power of a Fuse. It takes only a split second.

Memory is more than just a series of biochemical firing pins, a cascade of molecular events that result in specific encoding. Memory shapes us, both human and Radical.

And memory, we know, is the foundation of revenge.

***

It was Deacon that made me stand again. The power of his mind and the Fuse, not even fixed yet, precarious in connection but determined to rise. He willed my battered limbs to move, my form to sit, then pushed to stand. Pieces of me flapped free and clanked. Before I had the cognitive function to flick down my arm blade or move my heavy foot, he did it for me, alive and alert. His thoughts were jagged as they melded with mine, felt foreign like stitches on a wound, like one of Tommy’s flesh injuries.

He knew where I wanted to go. The chief and Radical One lay struggling in their own brokenness. Their shoulder armor shuddered open and back, like the twisted wing of a bird. Their chest spread with perforations and new scars.

We moved, Deacon and I, to stand over my chief. I barely discerned the Tora mark through the bullet holes. We slammed my heel onto the chief’s wrist, breaking it through the armor, and held there to block any flick of weapon.

He cursed at me. He reached for Deacon’s throat with his free hand, bolstered by Radical One’s remaining strength, but I grasped that too. We held there, a tableau of murder at an impasse, until Deacon brought up my right foot and slammed it into the joint where shoulder met neck. The chief’s arm went limp. It freed my own grip.

My artillery packs sat empty. My gun was cracked and useless. It took no thought, only will. As Radical One’s red eye swept over my severed faceplate I plunged my arm blade into the chief’s throat and twisted it. So fast it took his head halfway off his neck.

I inflicted the same on Radical One, with bare hands. Its injuries and momentary shock at the death of its human gave me and Deacon the advantage. I dismantled it right there on the road, a piece at a time. I bashed its circuits, gutted it of cables, twisted its desperate, reaching armor until the shapes made nothing, only hunched there like forgotten shards of frozen metal, the dregs of a factory assembly line.

What I did to it was a mercy. It did not have to mourn, as I did, for my Fuse.

***

The Gear Heart Streak, what was left of it, never interfered. Frightened of Tora retaliation, or too mindful of their own survival. Through Deacon’s mind I knew. My chief and Radical One had followed me from Tora’s wreckhouse, with every intention of dismantling me—and their chief and Radical had known. When they saw my destination at the Gear gate, furious signals flew between chiefs: dismantle me and kill Deacon, since we could not be controlled. I had disappointed my chief by not fusing again, going nomad. Deacon had disappointed the chief by coming to me first.

Now they were disappointed and destroyed, and that was all there was to that.

***

We lost the taste for blood, Deacon and I, and left the Gear Heart Streak to its decimation. I didn’t want to return to Tora and answer any questions, face any possible retaliation. I wasn’t Tora anymore; the destruction on my chest armor had wiped the Tora mark, one good result of that damage. Without a word of outloud consultation, Deacon and I set ourselves on the road out of Nuvo Nuriel. The direction was straight, but my steps fumbled and creaked. We would need to find a resting place, between towns, to heal ourselves. And to fix.

Where we were headed, it didn’t matter. We were nomad.

***

I didn’t pick this Fuse. Later Deacon would say, I picked you. Sometimes, I suppose, it works that way. It is not all about the human. But it isn’t all about the Radical either.

We sat in a field by an abandoned warehouse, letting the tendrils of the Fuse find one another until it was complete. We belonged to no Streak, but he cared less than I did. I hadn’t forgotten what it was like to hold a human inside my armor, but it was different with him. While Tommy had dreamed of the stars and peace, Deacon was a restless runner. Sometimes I would have to pull him back, but other times he would drive me on.

In this way we were Fused and in this way we would live.

In this way, through all the spaces between populations, both Radical and human, we are alive.

© 2012 Karin Lowachee.
Originally published in Armored,
edited by John Joseph Adams.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Karin Lowachee

Karin LowacheeKarin Lowachee was born in South America, grew up in Canada, and worked in the Arctic. Her first novel, Warchild, won the 2001 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. Both Warchild (2002) and her third novel, Cagebird (2005), were finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award. Cagebird won the Prix Aurora Award in 2006 for Best Long-Form Work in English, and the Spectrum Award, also in 2006. Her second novel, Burndive, debuted at #7 on the Locus Bestseller List. Her books have been translated into French, Hebrew, and Japanese. Her recent fantasy novel, The Gaslight Dogs, was published through Orbit Books USA.