Chris rode up the elevator in silence. It dawned on him as he pressed the button for the personnel level that he didn’t even know where he’d be bunking. Well, the room or dorm space anyway.
*Ding!* chimed the elevator. The doors lazily slid open at the main level. Two techs and Chief Engineer Colburn walked in with him and wasted no time. “Arms out, legs spread scab!” The woman commanded, a startled Chris responded as the techs scanned and took measurements of his body. “So, you think Hawker took a liking to you?” she asked, messing with a dataslate. Her jumpsuit had permanent grime and enough tools to disable a squad car in the back pockets.
“I don’t think he likes anyone.” Chris offered.
Colburn nodded up and down in assent, “He tolerates you. We need him out on the streets. You want to be a pilot. We all can get what we want.” she smiled then, noting that Chris is the shortest in the elevator. He might not be the shortest in Precinct 42 but.. he’d be in the bottom 5 for sure. “We’ll have a proper pilot suit modified by this evening, make sure it fits. If Hawker doesn’t reject you, then we’ll modify the rest for duty rotation.”
The doors opened on the personnel level. “Room 7c. Get reading.” she gestured, one of the techs patting Chris’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. He won’t hurt ya. We’re all together here.”
Chris sat down in the small space that was 7c. A room with a closet, a desk with a chair, and a bunk bed overtop the desk. Dorm rooms are downright spacious compared to this. He ran a hand through his short hair, woke up the computer and got to work. ‘Vanguard-class HLX, combat superiority. Basic operations. Welcome trainee Celn. Please attach the neural link and enter rest mode for data transfer.’ Chris dusted off the old-style connect, placed it on the connective plate.
He was laying on the bed, dizzy from two downloads. He held out his hands as if they were on joysticks, fingers and thumps working the controls for Hawker as he went over the basics. *KNOCK KNOCK!*
Chief Engineer Colburn had a military spec pilot suit on a hanger. The name patch had Celn. The torso, arms and legs had obvious seams where it’d been shortened and narrowed to fit him. Tough rubber joints. THe inside littered with biosensors. There was a crotch and butt hatch as well. Closed at the moment. Colburn shook her head as Chris reached for the suit. “You go in this nude. Hawker can keep you inside for over a week with onboard supplies. Longer if resupplied. Eventually you need a shave and your nails trimmed..” she shrugged. At least she turned her head as Chris got naked and slid into the form fitting outfit. “Not bad. Move your arms. Walk for me. Hmm. Have to make some adjustments. Hawker’s booked the range for 0500. I’ll be by at 0430 to give you this back.”
Chris pulled on his underwear, then most of his clothes. “Thanks Chief. Should I know anything about him?” THe woman considered for a moment, then shook her head negative. “Let him tell you. If he tells you.”
Dinner. Unpacking his things. Alarm set for 0420. He didn’t fall asleep until past midnight.
By 0450, Chris’d eaten, showered and slid into the suit again. It clung like a weighted second skin. As he walked, Colburn went beside him, testing the sensors responses. “Hmm. We’ll need to calibrate the suit for your biometrics. Some of the sensors aren’t optimally placed. But, it’ll work for now.” She stopped outside of the range’s door, and looked down at the nervous rookie. “You can do it scabber. Go on.”
0501, Chris pushed open the range’s door and headed for Hawker. The massive mech holding a rifle with a barrel Chis might fit inside.
“Late,” the giant mech grunted, raising a brow plate at the human’s entry, but otherwise not moving a servo. Just as Celn’s face began to show the fainted indignant surprise at Hawker’s verdict, he continued. “I’ll let it slide this time, but only because it looks like Colburn and the pit crew held you up.” He moved, hefting the rifle to rest against the wall behind him. A thick whirring of moving parts hidden behind black plates of armor; joints, worn down to the sheen of bare metal, exposed only where they could afford to be.
With a flexing of cybernetic muscle, the hollow of his cockpit thrummed to life and he opened up with a quick succession of hisses and clicks. His chest and midsection unfolded in four thick slabs: the biggest one upwards, the smaller three splayed open like harsh flower petals, arranged to make it easier for the pilot to board from most angles. Though Hawker didn’t breathe, he surmised that this was close to it: the stale, weeks-old air inside of him rushed out, to be replaced with new. It was invigorating.
“You should know,” the mech said, ignoring the look on the scab’s face as he stared up at that yawning metal gullet, aglow inside with rows of switches and status lights. “That I’m equipped with a 2-million-point haptic engagement system.” A brief pause. “That means I can feel everything you do, greenhorn.”
Chris scowled slightly at being told he is late. True, one of the clocks on the wall did indicate he is a minute past the scheduled starting time, but he still didn’t like hearing the fact. Already the pilot suit gave off readings, wirelessly transmitting information toward the large mech about the scab’s status. Healthy and nervous, seem to be the consenso of the data. Nervousness increases the the bot opens up.
“Yes sir. I’ll try to be on time from now on.” is that a little bit of a smirk on his face? Maybe.
The greenhorn knew from his data downloads that the robot had a pilot compartment. But unlike a car or a helicopter, that place isn’t obvious. To use anatomical terms, the pecs opened up with the hinge at the collar bone, the abs parted sideways and the stomach opened down. No windows. Lights everywhere. Hundreds of buttons and switches. Screens of information. There’s a mask with enough wires and hoses to provide life support in an ER. There pilot’s ‘chair’ looks comfortable, and Chris could see numerous restrains that would automatically hold him steady.
Hawker’s cockpit is probably the safest place on Earth. And a prison if the Mech wanted it to be.
“Everything? So, if I’m getting queasy? Tired? Angry? You’d know?” he isn’t sure how far that extends but.. he reviews his information from yesterday. Once inside, there’s no secrets from Hawker. THe mech WILL know everything about it’s new prospective pilot.
Chris exhaled deeply, approaching at stopping at the Mech’s left side.
“Permission to board, sir.” At least he’s smart enough to ask, instead of just jumping at the open invitation. If the mech acknowledges, he’ll climb aboard..
“Everything? So, if I’m getting queasy? Tired? Angry? You’d know?”
Hawker said nothing, just let his bright yellow optics give the faintest knowing flash as he let it sink in that there would be no such thing as privacy for the human anymore. It was the price of being a scab. The mech, of course, had no such luxuries either, but he was rarely the least bit bothered by it. Hooked up to a network, the edges of the electronic self blurred, and what the hell was Cartesian dualism anyway? Solitude co-mingled with collectivity at any given moment. And besides, it wasn’t like his fluids were considered obscene.
While he had full sensation inside and out, pain sensors were only integrated into his dermal armor. If his cockpit were compromised, it would be more difficult to sabotage him that way.
Celn approached, looking so small beside his foot, gazing up in equal parts awe, determination, skepticism, and respect.
“Permission to board, sir.”
It was a little formal, but it would do. The kid was certainly trying. “Granted.”
With a whine of machinery, hand and footholds, previously recessed into the side of his leg and thigh, emerged. The kid looked up at him again, and Hawker could feel his little pulse now, his brainwaves, his core and surface temperatures. Knowing those inputs, on top of seeing the look on the rook’s face, was as good as being clairvoyant: You’re kidding, right? he seemed to be saying.
Yes, Hawker retorted in his own CPUs. I’m going to make you climb. Of course, he had to be careful – shielding his own thoughts once the kid was properly hooked up would be difficult. He’d have to save his admittedly salty inner commentary like this for those few moments of disengagement here soon enough, though there was nothing he’d be able to do about the general bleed-over of emotions. Not that he had anything to hide…
“I’ll pick you up when I feel you’ve earned it,” he said with a subtle smugness as Celn began to scale the mech’s leg.
Back when he’d been seriously considering becoming a scab, Chris had had some long talks with psychologists. Ones who were scabbers as well. What’d actually pushed him over the edge into accepting the implants had been a lecture in the early days. The rest had been almost a formality. <When you’re in an AI vehicle, you share mindspace. Yes, you can have private thoughts. But you have to mask them. Otherwise there are no secrets. Nothing that can compromise the trust between the new gestalt mind. You mentally fill in space for the other. One partner can dominate the interface, which is why testing is so important. As the human in the partnership, you are responsible for ethics, morality, and guidance. The AI is for the operation, the targeting, the movement. Together you choose to move. The AI chooses where to move. Your job is to make sure it doesn’t step on anything innocent.>
As he wondered how is supposed to clamber up the mech’s legs, the handholds emerged giving him a purchase. He didn’t say it, but the expression on his face is ‘Really?’
“I’ll pick you up when I feel you’ve earned it.” that voice! Chris never wanted to hear it in anger. Or at the worst, in anger directed at him.
He unclenched his tight stomach and exhaled. ‘Be good.’ he thought to himself. Hawker had already picked him, it was only natural to put on a show like this before allowing anyone to get close. ‘And you don’t get anything, no recompense for putting up with the AI?” his bruised ego echoed within. ‘I get him. This is about sharing.’ are the last private thoughts he’s about to have for a few hours.
He’d been climbing up, and when his booted foot stepped onto the lowest part of the hatch, he already felt like he is too far up to be joking around. Falling down from this height onto the concrete floor would hurt a lot. The cabin’s air felt pleasant, the humidity perfect. Chris sat down in the seat, the knowledge from his homework coming to mind. He flicked the switches and buttons to adjust it to his height and size. The Padded restraints curled his lower half, securing him to the Mech. He reached up, grasping the mask and bringing down over his face.
Tubes and wires added to the mix of sensors that transmitted data as the automatic belting clasped the mask to his face. Just beyond his lips sat a number of oral probes, each able to deliver air, food and medication. Via intubation if needed.
Over his shoulders and along his ribs, metallic padded clamps moved in and grasped him; ensuring that he would not jostle loose in the most vigorous movement. The twin-joysticks lifted up and came to rests at his hands. He took a deep breath and held it.
“Initiating Mind Machine Interface.” He pressed the large orange button, and he felt movement behind his head. The interface moved up and solidly connected to the back of his neck. On each side of his neck, on each side of his head, and on top of his head, like a large hand, the interface grasped his skull.
It uncannily felt as if Hawker had just palmed him like a NBA player palms a basketball.
Hands on him, grasping.
It was strange, being properly boarded again for the first time in so long. But it was good. Correct. Needed to be done.
Celn’s weight was nothing on him as he climbed up the eight or so feet to the cockpit and swung inside. Hands, feet, a small body – on, about, in. The kid took a seat, and Hawker could feel his sit bones through the suit. His boots on the meager decking, then on the foot controls. The mech vented hot air, holding still as the kid – now, officially, his charge – settled in. Part conscious movement, part engagement of automatic processes, the harness conformed to him as his little fingers danced along the controls, adjusting the angle of the seat to fit his body just so.
Hawker distances himself from the process, retreats further back as Celn finishes the pre-op.
With helmet on, though, and neural probe inserted into the kid’s warm, lipidic brainstem, Hawker engages the final sequence: like an inhale his chest closes, and his interface stabilizers – there to prevent the tiniest whiplash from turning his pilot into a vegetable – tightened its grip, and —– – – –
The fullness of Celn’s mind came barreling at him like the light at the end of a dark tunnel, and suddenly the two were bathed in neurospace light. Hawker expected nausea as the human inside of him was bombarded with the feed from his own optics, the distant sensation of the mech’s limbs being his own, and about two-dozen different HUDS. Hawker, on the other hand, was suddenly acutely aware of the kid’s every conscious thought, his every tiny movement, his every discomfort, and yep, there it was – the nausea.
“If you vomit in there, I’ll make you wish you were never born,” he said, voice sounding inside the helmet. It was, in fact, an act of mercy; he could have just as well said it directly into Celn’s mind. But he’d give him a moment to get his wits about him first.
Chris innately knew what he should expect. He wasn’t a complete novice, and in his mind is the digitally download information on Hawker’s model. But knowing so much different than experiencing. His small organic body is forgotten. Walking, standing, moving. For his whole life he’d felt sure of using the body he’d been born into. Now he is Hawker.
15 of destruction. Tons of perfect death. Lifetimes of combat data, always analyzing the moment to ensure victory. Superiority by design. Hawker’s begrudging acceptance of the rookie? Chris now understood that the AI had every right to be dismissive of the young human.
He really wasn’t ready for something like Hawker. His skills are suited for tank duty. Maybe a 8 foot tall exo suit. Even an experienced combat pilot would be daunted. The overwhelming nature of being Hawker filled him like a gallon of beer into a shotglass.
What is a Chris Celn? Human. A survivor. Quick. Observant. Always looking for details, valuable and dangerous things. He seeks motives. He would make a good detective. He is small. He looks for ways around, not though. He exists in a world where everything exists for bigger beings. He experienced a life nearly the opposite of the AI.
At least he didn’t scream a second time. The only cry of terror barely escaped as the hatch sealed him in. A howl lost in hydraulics.
“If you vomit in there, I’ll make you wish you were never born.”
Swallow. SWALLOW! There. Deep breaths. There is no closing his eyes to blot out information, no covering his ears to stop sounds. The full complement of Hawker’s sensor data took the place of his own eyes and ears. He didn’t see where his hands and feet were. He just knew now. He knew where they mech stood. Where we stood. Oh yes, it is very much ‘we’ now. Chris’s identity is rough, needing cutting and polishing before it would fit ideally into the space the robot had allocated.
Thirty seconds is a long time for an AI. Not enough time for a human. He forces himself to steady, pushing his will back, fighting for his place inside of Hawker. In the mindspace, he’d like a single piece of cereal in a bowl of milk. Both the milk and the bowl are hawker, and he’s saturated and broken apart. He wills himself together, forcibly arranging the HUDs in a useful grid. His jaw clenches tight as he swallows back more bile.
It’s like riding a roller coaster while doing calculus; while the operator mocks and judges you.
“What is our first task?” he thinks outwardly, trying to show that he isn’t completely overwhelmed. Heart rate is peaked, he’s taking deep breaths mixed with shallow gasps, and sweat’s soaking the rubber pilot suit.
At least he didn’t faint.
Well what have we here… the giant mech caught glimpses of the film reels in Celn’s head – memories, sensations, emotions. His time working for the gangs: getting the shit beat out of him here and there, the pain of a heel to the ribs; a gun – normally such an insignificant piece of gadgetry to the multi-million dollar war machine – shoved up in his face, the blood beating in his ears as time slows; the thrill of a successful delivery. Then, the war: the sharp ache of hunger; biting cold; the shivering, shivering, shivering; the endless dim haze of a blacked out sun; the equally dim hope that he’ll be lucky to have a life beyond this. The rest, less traumatizing, less acute, was scattered out before him in an ever-shifting, ever-undulating mass of heat and pulse and thought. Ah, wetware.
But Celn was in him, too. The little human’s consciousness crept up through his wiring, made its uneasy, forcibly unhinged way through his processing centers, his memory cores. It was a distinct feeling, having a human swimming through your proverbial veins. Briefly, he wondered what it must be like for the small, fragile thing. And then he didn’t.
“What is our first task?”
If Hawker’s voice was gravel under the treads of an Abrams MK-VIII, then Celn’s, even here, was like dry leaves on pavement.
<Your first task,> he corrected, pointing ahead of them, <is pick up that rifle and fire on that target. I’ve been incapacitated, and you’ve taken manual control.>
He will take this opportunity to monitor Celn’s thoughts and movements from a “distance”.
<I want to see how well you can dance before we tango.>
Chris had three ‘artificial’ fingers and two ‘artificial’ toes. Extremities tend to be disposable in extreme duress. Not technically artificial of course, cloned from source material and surgically attached. That’d been what he’d spent his sign on bonus on. His left knee still didn’t fully bend after that fall off an overpass. Details. The way his skin felt against the rubber of the pilot suit. He is so focused on the machine around him, he’s ignoring his own body. Perhaps it’s because Hawker had spent so long with the first pilot, Lee, that a new mind is something to explore. And Chris didn’t guard himself the way Lee had. The mech could endend awareness.. perhaps control? Nothing seemed to prevent reaching through the interface and making the human inside move.
Or, if those barriers are there, Chris wasn’t advertising them. Lee had set borders right away.
<I want to see how well you can dance before we tango.>
Tango. Briefly, the human’s mind is distracted. A vision of him holding a rose between his teeth, dancing, music all around, his partner? Hawker’s left hand, leading on a wooden dance floor.
The vision fades as he recalls the necessary controls. Thankfully, somethings are automatic. He thinks about moving his legs, the muscles gently twitch in the restraints. His hands fall onto the joysticks.
6 Tons of mechanical force takes a half-step. Then, a full step. Each one lacks grace, but by the time Chris halts at the rifle there’s no danger of falling over.
He doesn’t do the wall any favors as he leans down, accidently putting a divot and a web of cracks where he gently knocks our head into it. “Ow.” He felt that! Thankfully, he barely scuffed the paint. The slow movements are comical, like he’s moving through molasses. Rifle up. Rifle in hands and straighten. Turn. Turn more. Advance to position. Step. Step. Step. Halt. Safety off.
One of the fantastic things about being a machine is having such excellent vision. All around, thermal and ultraviolet, radar and lidar. The rifle has two HUDs that become prominent, allowing Chris to simultaneously see down the rifle as well as in all directions. Both sniper and spotter. Butt to shoulder. Set feet in position. Elbows up. Finger on the trigger, first digit centered on the trigger. <Just like any other time on the range. Act natural.> He inhales and holds his breath.
If there’s recoil, he doesn’t notice. 6 Tons and 15 of Titanium and exotic polymers barely rock from the 8 foot rifle. With the scope’s maginfication, it’s like shooting something just a few feet away.
Off center right. Off center left. Dead Center. Off center down. Off center up. Dead Center. Click. Click. All six on target.
Feet together, finger off trigger, safety on. He can feel a dull ache in the back of his head, where his overtaxed vision center is trying to make sense of having 14 eyes. He focuses on the smouldering target.
<What is my next task?>
They took a shaky step, immense weight threatening to topple; Hawker was there, though. He wasn’t going to let them fall. He can feel Celn’s legs twitch, nerves and brain hemispheres light up as though he himself were walking. Good. Hawker felt, for a brief moment, that he had flimsy and elastic human legs.
Then, as Celn guided their hands to the rifle, he suddenly had human arms too, and muscle. But only a little.
The rest came easy. As soon as Celn not just understood, but was able to take for granted, that Hawker’s hulking metal body was his, it seemed to click. The rest was a matter of marksmanship, panoptic sensors or no.
$4200-worth of ammunition later, Hawker looked over the remains of their 100-yard target.
<78% accuracy,> he announced. <You’ve got two weeks to raise that by fifteen points, otherwise you’ll have both Kole and I to answer to, greenhorn.>
<What is my next task?>
The mech, his stream of running layers of quantum software now laid bare for Celn to explore at his will (because one could be at once both in the rushing river and observant of it), send a wireless command to the range’s computer system. At Hawker’s discretion they stepped around the wall and into the range itself, in the midst of the targets as they now arranged themselves in a circle around them. Thick, clear panels fell into place to block off the viewing end of the range.
Hawker wordlessly prompted Celn to reload the weapon. Together, they accessed the mech’s ammunition hold in his right shoulder, which produced another cartridge with a hiss and ka-klack.
<We’ll test your reaction time next.> Hawker gestured to the targets around them, which were color-coded red or green. Every once in a while, the computer would swap one’s color without warning. <I will pick targets at random, and you will have exactly 0.5 seconds to decide if it is a friend,> he said, conjuring the color green, <or foe.> He conjured red.
The mech lifted the rifle to his shoulder without the human’s cooperation, leveling it at a target that was currently green, and disengaging the safety.
<On my mark.>
He let three of Celn’s heartbeats serve as countdown before he turned on his massive heel at great speed, obfuscating most of his own sensors in order to confuse his pilot, then stopped on a dime to center on a random target.
Chris felt relief that he didn’t outright miss. There’s a surety that comes into their motions as Hawker steps in and begins filtering experience into them. <I’ll work on that. Perhaps you can aid me on the normal range,> citing the cost of the Mech’s ammo, <and improve my skill with your preferred weaponry.> Of course. Slipping through his skill set, Chris would be drawn to handguns. At his size, rifles are unwieldy without mounts or a sandbag.
The rookie stopped thinking again, and he saw outward in a new way. The wireless layers of data surrounding them. He knew it is there, but the Mech now helpfully displayed the coverage and the saturation of Precinct 42. It looked like a lazer rock concert. How Hawker could pick out useful information, the right network and manipulate it? Chris barely followed the mech’s commands as they flew out and altered the range. He sighs in frustration, breath tickling the filters inside the mask. He really did want to be a properly pilot, but every minute he kept realising how much more he was going to have to learn!
That spin though. Hawker got the unpleasant sensation of Chris’s nasua bubbling up. It’s a good thing he doesn’t have to talk, as he’s keeping his lips tight together.
It’s beautiful. If such a thing can be called lovely. Chris mind forgetting about the small body within and concentrating at the task at hind. Almost like deep slumber, he enters the zone as his stops thinking and starts dowing. He’s aprt of the machine. Subservient to the AI in command. Guiding, authorizing.
..Then it stops. But for a few moments, he’d been right where he should be.
<We need to reload.> The human thought, wishing the contents of his stomach would stay down where they belonged.
Hawker sensed Celn’s innate preference for handguns, so when they were through, he gave the rook a moment calm his stomach as he silently strode back through to where they started and set the rifle back up in the rack.
He reached up – ambidextrous, but now favored his right hand because Celn did – and out of a compartment on his back shot up a 30mm handgun: perfectly positioned to be grasped, ready to fire, in urgency. It was a handgun to Hawker; still, it ran almost three feet long and weighed in at 90 pounds. A faint recess in his forearm opened, revealing another small compartment out of which was fed the ammo-belt; he had an on-board capacity of about 200 such shells. The mech deftly demonstrated loading it into the receiving slot in the side of the gun, even though Celn had the information downloaded into his own mind. Sometimes it helped to perform the action in the “flesh” before needing to do a cold-recall under more stressful circumstances. In his time around humans, Hawker learned not to underestimate the power of “muscle memory”.
<We’ll do it again,> he said, distancing himself from his pilot in order to get a more calculating bead on his vitals. Everything checked out. His brainwaves were steady; this was promising. <Except this time, we’ll use colors that you have little instinctual response toward.>
They stepped back into the range – the ring, almost – and the colors on the refreshed targets were now white and yellow. It would be much more difficult to tell them apart under haste and duress.
The mech positioned himself – themselves – similar to before.
<On my mark… begin!>
The mech let a faint smile tug at the corner of his mouth.
It was an absurd thing, to have a mouth at all, but Hawker was designed to have a face and he’d be damned if he didn’t use it. Because it was as much part of him as his hands, or his armaments, or his compact thorium core.
But Celn was grapsing the method. A firm demonstration that, even with shared neurospace, something could be obvious to one end of the link and not the other.
That, at the end of the day, Hawker could still be in charge.
It was, if he let go of himself for a while, a thrilling sensation. There were fingers in his fingers; tendons in his servos; boots in his feet. The human had donned him like an oversized costume, in a way, and still done his job. Hawker had insinuated that the human would be trying him ‘on for size’: wearing him like a second suit on top of his pilot’s suit.
Hawker felt worn. Hollow. Malleable. At once both receptive and resilient to his pilot’s whims… at once both fifteen feet of metal and less than six feet of flesh. However, even if he’d wanted to, there was no mechanism by which he could force Celn’s movements the way Celn could force his own.
This was the way of things.
When man and machine were mis-aligned, it hurt. Hurt like un-lubricated bearings, or a sore back. But when they did… woe be to those who got in their way. Hawker wasn’t being dramatic when he compared it to a dance, really. Though his feet were bigger and his gait heavier, it was still a partnered choreography nonetheless. And it seemed to him, whether he wanted it or not, that Chris was more than capable of delivering on his proverbial footwork.
Hawker’s programming ran cleanly. He felt the components of his cockpit seemed… close to its occupant. The vital, thrumming little smear of heat. Chris Celn was a spot of wetness inside of him, powerful in his abilities – likely more powerful than either the mech or the human was prepared to give him credit for – but small and fragile nonetheless.
<How.. how did we do?>
Hawker was at rest now, tendrils of smoke curling up into the air from the heat rising from his exhausted service pistol. The air around it shimmered with the temperature differential. Somewhere, a sensor read the weapon’s surface temperature as well above 200F. It was no matter to the either of them – just another blip of numerical data.
Even across a linkup like this, the mech was careful to establish boundaries. Remind Celn where he began and ended, and where his legal responsibilities did too. The kid would be well aware that the HLX-9 Vanguard Hawker unit, equipped as it was with Deep Field 2 AI, was legally prohibited from discharging a firearm on the street without a certified on-board human. There were many instances of him struggling against such a directive, readily available for review in his memory banks, but it was important to him that Celn grasp, in his meager, calcium-formed bones, that this was the way of things.
<We performed… sufficient enough for a rookie. We’ll break for 10 minutes and regroup.>
It was an unreasonable command, he knew, but he partly wanted to see how Celn would react to such rapid disconnection and reconneciton, as well as… giving himself room to think on this entire thing in private. To think on the probability that he had, in fact, stumbled into a true replacement pilot after all.
Even before terminating their link, Hawker’s chest splayed itself open almost of its own accord and surely almost disrupting Celn’s sense of place and persona. Infinite Mirror Phenomenon was at a much higher risk when either party did things like this, but Hawker was suddenly feeling the need to be alone for a few minutes. If Celn could avoid the psychosis-inducing feedback loop of IMP so far, then breaking such a “fourth wall” should have been no problem.
“You’re hungry,” Hawker lied. “Grab a snack and meet me back here.”
<We performed… sufficient enough for a rookie.>
We. We. Not I. Not you. Not his name or rookie or scab. We. Somehoe his trained had taken root. Somehow he’d done it. Briefly, he’d managed to share his consciousness with Hawker. They’d done the slowest Waltz and he’d made a number of mistakes as they’d shuffled along. But had happened! He wanted to dance and cheer! <Good!> And his youthful joy bubbled up like a fountain inside.
<We’ll break for 10 minutes and regroup.>
Chris felt relief flow through him. He wasn’t ready for any more combat right now. If Hawker had just sat and meditated, then things would have been sufficient. He’d dumped at least a quart of sweat out in these minutes and needed to drink. He’d also had his heart racing and it’d felt like he’d been inside for hours now. Taking in that kind of information, what Hawker routinely experiences, made him want to lay down for a few hours. Then the mech’s chest plates opened.
When they’d picked up the rifle, Chris had simply gotten more HUDs on the main display that piped into his brainstem. The Infinite Mirror Phenomenon is aptly named. Chris could see out the hatch. He could see beyond the cockpit, a dark place that he should only be vaguely aware of. For several agonizing seconds, his vision bounced between ocular input and simulated input; before his eyelids shut. Thankfully the connection was already starting to sever, as he’d lost his focus and would have tried to drunkenly yaw to the left.
Around Chris, the restraints and clamps of the pilot’s chair retracted and released. Calling it a chair is a misnomer. IT’s more of a human-sized cage, a suit within the armor, a means to express movement if necessary. To anyone watching, they’d seen just how tightly the small rookie had been held. Bondage fetishists would have boners over the way the greenhorn was released from layers of metallic, padded restraints. It’s only after the helmet armature releases the connection does the kid slump. It was over. The first real link in months. The only other human to fire a weapon with the Deep Field 2 AI. The little rookie in a second-hand pilot suit.
He’s there for fifteen seconds before the mask’s straps automatically loosen and it retracts upward. No blood from his nose. No arcs of electricity on his skin. He shakily slides out of position, turning and judging where the first handhold was to put his boot on. THump. THump. THump. Warm hands leave their heated, sweaty mark on the rungs. No more human inside. Nothing within to protect. All around him is the smell of ammunition propellent, cordite, sulphur smells. Brass cartridges bigger than his thumb scattered all around. Some flattened into wafer-thin smears by the robot’s feet as they’d switched targets.
He was so small! He had to take each step carefully. One hand on his stomach, the other out for balance. He could feel the warmth coming off Hawker’s reactor behind him. What was he doing? What was going on? Why wasn’t he inside?Hungry. Oh. Yes. He kept his slow and plodding pace toward the red door marked ‘EXIT.’ He’d come in through this.. he realises as his hand rested on the handle. But how? He should be much too big.. to fit? He pushed the door open and walked into storage area..
And into Chief Engineer Colburn ‘s smiling face. She pointed at a scarred and grubby table with cheap plastic chairs. Chris fell into one, staring vacantly toward a wall.
“How do you feel rookie? I saw you and HLX-9 operating.” she inquired, noting his vital signs and other activities the pilot suit transmitted on her datapad.
Chris answered instantly in his head. There was no response back, no powerful command and instruction for the AI. Seconds pass. Then a minute. Colburn coughs, helpfully. Chris remembers his voice. “Hungry. Small.” He blinks, turning his head to look at her. “Tired.”
“You just ate twenty-five minutes ago. How can you be hungry? There’s a water cooler over in the corner, get a drink.” SHe frowns and notes the reaction, looking down at the messages she is passing back and forth with other staff.
Chris wondered he he could make the drink come over with his mind. It didn’t work. Begrudgingly, he pushed himself up and got it, drinking down two cups standing there before he came back down to sit. “Weird.”
“Weird?” her gravelly tone poked toward the scabber.
“Yeah. It felt good, right before he told me to take a break. It’d felt like hours in there.” He takes a sip. “I know it’s only been minutes.. coming back to me now. It was like I was in a trance.” he waves his free hand in front of his face. “We moved. The targets, the sight of the sidearm. We just slid from second to second. At first Hawker was doing everything, I just helped. I wasn’t good enough. I will be better.” He finishes the water, pushing the paper cup around in his fingers as he rests.
“I want to feel that way again.”
For a few brief, disorienting moments, Hawker could see his hand, the open hatches of the cockpit, from both his own perspective and Celn’s. His own CPUs could handle the sudden load of mathematically reconciling being in two places at once, but the kid was forced to shut his eyes; an easy sidestep that got Hawker’s approval.
Soon they were two again, and the little human, practically steaming in his suit, uneasily clambered out. He could feel the grease that the fingers left along his leg, the trembling, the swaying. His brain had just done the equivalent of run a three-minute mile – Celn’s reaction wasn’t unwarranted.
Hawker listened to the small door open with the creak of worn metal, and shut with a quiet and satisfying ka-click.
He cleared the spent casings away with a sweep of his massive foot. They made dull pinging sounds as they rolled into each other, and by the time he was done, the first door opened. It was Kole.
“What can I do for you, sir,” the mech asked, studying the bullet-holes they put in the twenty targets.
Police Sergeant Kole walked into the range, casually side-stepping the 50mm brass shells. He folded his big arms and glanced around at the targets along with the giant mech. “Thought I’d come in here to tell you that they’re all taking bets.” A smile crept across his face.
Hawker ran a finger along his chin as he continued his survey. “On?”
“How fast you’re gonna break your new toy.”
The machine actually scoffed before breaking out into a low, rolling chuckle. The irreverence of such banter was par for the course around here, but there was something about it the mech appreciated. Or maybe it was the fact that Kole and Davidson had been close, and the rare quiet moment the two had together like this made it seem like Lee had just popped out of the room and would be back in a moment.
An easy few moments passed, but the mech sobered up, feeling the weight of this entire thing. Remnants of images and information from his old life, garbled and truncated beyond all recognition, ghosted just beyond memory. No words, no faces, no sounds, no emotions could he recall, but there was still just enough there for him to know that this piloting business was deathly serious.
“How many pilots did I have in Siberia, again?” Hawker knew the number, but it always came out as a question anyways.
“Four, I believe.”
“Any of them still alive?”
“Not a goddamn one.”
Hawker nodded, optics like chips of golden ice. “I think you know how this will turn out then.” An uncomfortable pause. “Celn has the raw potential,” he said at length. “It’s just a question of his endurance.”
“You sure that’s the only question?”
The mech folded his arms too, stepping past Kole to go replenish his ammo. His feet passed dangerously close to the man, but Kole didn’t even blink twice.
“That’s the only question I’m asking, Sergeant.”
Colburn quietly tapped on her datapad while Officer Celn spoke. The kid had come out of the academy 5 months ago, went straight in for surgery. He’d only been cleared for duty for two weeks before he’d rolled the dice on Hawker.
Where that would be snake-eyes remained to be seen. Still, she couldn’t help but update the betting pool.
<Bad news, those of you who said 10 minutes or less. He’s going back in for round two. And yes Peterson, I do have money on him making it! So don’t think I’m going to have him tap out just for your paycheck.>
She looked at the clock. 7 minutes. She’d best him back on his feet. “Well, your vital signs are well within tolerances.” she lied. He was way over and should take a nap with an IV drip. But Lee hadn’t ever been normal either when he’d gotten out of Hawker. The mech got deep into it’s pilots, it needed to. Either they figured out a way to survive having an AI in their brains or they burned out. At nine minutes she gestured for him to stand. “I’ll be observing Rookie. You’ve got plenty of day left.”
Chris let out a long sigh. He wished he could stay in the chair. He wanted to be back in Hawker. He wanted to prove himself. He put both hands on the table, boots on the floor and pushed himself up. “Yes ma’am. Returning to training.” He took the cup with him crumpling it into a ball and dropping it into the recycling as he stepped back out onto the range.
Money changed hands, officers and sergeants shared looks. New bets are placed. The security feed from the range experienced the highest request in it’s existence, moving it to position 1 on the camera streams. The private server Colburn had running was busy moving bets as she updated the odds. Option 46 came available: Successful Integration. 100,000 to 1. And she is the only bet on that dark horse.
Kole had a smile turning up the left side of his mouth; and the edges of his eyes had those crinkles he’d get right before laughing. “And here I was worried you might have dropped your standards, just to get out on the field.” he chuckled. The man looked happy, “Glad I’m wrong.” The man looked nonplussed as the mech strode past him. “Get that scabber into shape. If he makes it a week, I’ll see about getting both of you out of the station.” Now there’s a tasty morsel of motivation! A chance to get out of the motor pool, to feel the looks of civilians.. the fear of the gangs. Knowing The Long, Metal Arm of the Law is back. “Even if it’s just patrolling around the station.”
Click. Creek. THe door to the prep room opened and Chris stepped out. Celn made sure he stood up straight and had his shoulders back as he approached. It was a little strange to see how expressive Hawker’s face is. He wanted to touch it, feel over as the mouth worked. And yeah, he did want the mech to smile at him. Right now, all the looks he can remember getting were disinterest or probing skepticism. “Sergeant, Captain.” He respectfully nodded to the man and the machine. Chris looked better then when he’d left. “I’m ready to continue when you are.”
“Get that scabber into shape. If he makes it a week, I’ll see about getting both of you out of the station.”
Hawker paused in the middle of reloading the ammo box in his arm, the plug-n-play “cartridge” of fifty-cal rounds light in his hand. He plunged it in, servos whirring to fix it into place and prime the feed.
“I’ve placed my bet,” the mech rumbled. “Those must be the winnings.”
Kole had followed lazily behind him. He gave the side of Hawker’s heel a little kick with his boot and smiled again. “That’s the spirit, Big Nine.”
“…and an expanded arms budget.”
“Now don’t get cocky.”
A creaking to their right, and Celn stood in the doorway to the prep room. 10 minutes ago he looked like he’d been hit by a train – now just a bus.
“I’m ready to continue when you are.”
Kole shot the mech a look as he showed himself out, but Hawker didn’t return it. He simply vented air; long and low. The mech turned his optics toward the kid, pondering, for a moment, what it might actually take to break him. What that might look like, and if he could pull himself through. Celn had been through a lot already – Hawker saw it for himself, felt it, when they were linked. Hm.
He opened up his cockpit again, beckoning curtly with two thick fingers. “Get in, greenhorn. I’m going to see how long you can go before we call it a day. No more breaks.”
It was four grueling, sweaty hours of reaction-honing before Celn could go no further.
Their shared neurospace was becoming laced with both static and the wetware-equivalent. The kid, Hawker was beginning to realize, had determination in spades; he was willing to put himself through hell to get where he wanted to be. It was a kind of ruthless that the mech could see himself enabling just for the sake of doing so – and this was where Hawker was also beginning to realize that he was truly going to have to take care of his charge.
<No neurospace tomorrow,> he said, feeling Celn panting and trembling. The restraints, it felt like, were the only things keeping him upright. <We’ll alternate time in the cockpit with time in the gym.> He lightened the neural load and began to talk through the speakers in the kid’s helmet. “R&R for tonight. Your mind needs a break.”
Chris looked over as Sergeant Kole walked out of the room with that purposeful gait. The calm authority of a seasoned cop. Behind and above him, Hawker emitted built up air pressure like a sigh. The machine is far more realistic then most of it’s kin. Kole had been talking to it with ease. Did they share beers and watch football? What kind of relationships were here? Past AIs he’d known were usually chatty to the point of getting migranes! Hawker didn’t bother with that kind of communication. Hawker is.. masculine. A classic man, like the hero of a war movie.
Those fast thoughts run though his mind as he watches Kole leave. <God. I’ve got so much to learn! And not stepping on toes is gonna be hard, they love the big bot.> A chill ran down Chris’s spine and he swallowed as an ugly truth popped up in his addled mind; and the hairs around the neck implant stood on end. <They are friendly, because Hawker hasn’t rejected me. Yet.>
“Get in, greenhorn. I’m going to see how long you can go before we call it a day. No more breaks.”
No need to ask when he was being called. The look on the machine’s face, the way it gestured, it looked hungry. Like the way his instructors at the academy looked when he’d arrived. Like how they smiled when he’d puked his guts out after running to exhaustion. What had Kole said? Hawker was curious before, now the AI is motivated. It wasn’t making a joke, it is going to push him.
He clambered up easier this time, grasping the handles around the hatch and hauling himself up into the cockpit.
Boots dug into the foot pads, head pressed back as the restraints clamped down and the mask sealed around his mouth and nose. Not that different from a fighter pilot. <Try to break me. Try. I dare you. THIS rookie isn’t gonna fail.> He promised himself, his last personal thought before the interface initiated. Colors, lights, the way the hatch sealed and the feeling of a contained environment again. Then his awareness expanded outward as he slid his mind up into Hawker’s.
He felt fresh. As invigorated as before. Adrenaline is up. He is pumped, ready. The next two rounds went without error.
Two hours in, before the rook made a really bad call. Yes, using the butt of the rifle to sweep a grenade away is better then kicking it away. However, that’s no excuse to doing a swing that knocks it toward friendly targets! He should have returned it to the point of origin. At least he rifle is unharmed. And the grenade ejected it’s orange paint all over the representation of a squad car. <FUCK!> He didn’t stop though, he kept on with the exercise. At least he knew that a firefight wouldn’t end with an error.
No human could last forever. Lee had been a marine, a specialist. With lowered sensory inputs and stimulants the man had lasted for days before crashing. Celn had five months in an academy that the Coast Guard made fun of.
Three hours and he’d crossed every line for exhaustion. At three hours and thirty he’d become noticeably sloppy, relying more and more on the AI’s prediction and movements, assenting to firing and pulling the trigger when needed. Hawker might as well not have him inside, the human was barely registering when a new target had appeared. Upwards of 1.8 seconds before a decision was reached! They’d be taking incoming constantly fire at that slow reaction time. They needed to be better then that, they should be taking out targets before they presented a credible threat.
Three hours and forty minutes, Colburn pinged in. Amusingly, she’d only sent the signal to Hawker. -Vitals are a mess, but not lethal. Yet. He’s been doing deep theta wave generation for over an hour. Either you’ve brought him to spiritual enlightenment or his brain’s trying to shut off. I bet he won’t make it 5 more minutes.- She would step in if the scab was in mortal danger but, well, she also had money going on it too.
Chris made it 25 minutes more before he’d absolutely made it to the end. He tried to take a step. His organic foot moved, but the mechanical body stayed still. His left hand and the machine’s shook with an annoying tremor that threw shots completely off the targets. He tried to lift the gun again, but utterly accepted the cessation without a hint of resistance.
The world got quiet as the AI cut down the neural load. The armature that held the neural interface to his head allowed for minimal movement. He wanted to shake his head no, to refuse to do anything more for a week at least. But he couldn’t. His assent came after a few seconds of self-pity. <Yes. Gym tomorrow. Exercise good. No neurospace tomorrow.>
He’d had his eyes closed in anticipation of another Infinite Mirror Phenomenon, not opening them until after the interface had shut down. No, not because he’s exhausted and felt like he’s been through the wringer. Speaking of being wrung out, he’d lost about four pounds due to the sweat that’d come out of him. He was going to need hydration for longer sessions. Perhaps the on-board provisions could be restocked in anticipation for full-day workouts. Even after the smokey devastation of the range had come into view and the thick smell hit his nose he stayed put. It took the threat of having to police brass and clean guns to get him moving.
The suit dripped his sweat out, squishing on the edges of the hatch as he went down slow, only moving one limb at a time. Once he’d made it to the ground, he straighten and rubbed his hands over his face. Over his implant.
“Yes… sir.” Talking is strange. His tongue had to move in his dry mouth. He swallowed. “Gonna get grub.” With that, he exited in the range at a slow walk.
Annoyingly, Colbrun wasn’t alone. Two techs were with her, an Officer is hurriedly going out into the hall, and Chris noticed at least five down the hall further past the doorway. But, there was a freakin’ medical droid.
There is nothing worse then a sanctimonious doctor who doesn’t understand why organics don’t each a diet of lentils and rice.
Of course it came up to him. Of course it made him stand. And it gave him a big bottle of warm water mixed with electrolytes. Ugh. Like seawater. Why couldn’t it be gatorade? As it kept checking him over, telling him he needed to drink in that quiet all-knowing tone; Colbrun had a smile on her face. The techs re-checked his measurements with the suit, the medical android assisting them with pinpointing what needed further alteration. And it wouldn’t leave him alone until he finished the whole salty drink. THen it game him another one. Worse, he was still thirsty so he kept pulling on it like shitty beer.
“Well rookie, it looks like we’re going to have to get those other pilot suits adjusted. But for now, get that off, take a shower and eat. I’ll see if we can get you a room bigger then a Vanguard’s cockpit.”
Chris is too exhausted and annoyed to be modest. He strips and hands the expensive pilot suit over. Sweat’s pooled in the built-in boots. At least he’s given a pair of shorts before they head off and he stumbles down to the elevator. The shower feels amazing, and he spends half the time rubbing over the interface plate. It aches. His mind aches. He heads into the mess and goes double on the protein. Wearing a grey t-shirt that says ‘Police Academy’ in faded letters, a pair of grey sweats, and scuffed running shoes. He spoons the food into his mouth, back to the room, staring at a wall, oblivious to the world around him.
The wall is off-white. THere’s the remains of a stain. Coffee probably. It’s so nice to just look forward. To hear just murmurs instead of gunshots. The soft clatter of the kitchen instead of shells hitting concrete. Even after he finished, he’s still spooning, scraping absently the tray. Then a thought comes.
“Fuck.” He pulls out his phone. Hawker’s number came to him. And the bot’s email. Typing it in, he sends a text. ‘It’s Chris Celn.’ Of course the AI probably knew his contact info. ‘What time do I report for training tomorrow?’
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