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Igms issue 29, p.3

IGMS Issue 29, page 3


IGMS Issue 29

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  I didn't cry when I found out my mother was dead. It was just black ink on paper, a small mention in the newspaper obituaries nearly three years after I left her. I was working by then, apprenticed to a surgeon with dubious research methods. He'd hired me because I did as he told, no questions asked. Or, rather, no questions asked that didn't pertain to medical science.

  That night, my master and I had made our bi-weekly trip to the graveyard. Outside the university most of the corpses that were made available to surgeons for dissection came from the damnati ad mortem, most of which were badly mauled by animals. My master wanted undamaged bodies to study. As we dug up the first fresh unmarked grave we came to - it was his policy never to disturb a marked grave as the family might take note - I wondered if my mother might be at the bottom of it. Might we dissect her, find out what had gone wrong with her? But the bloated corpse, when we uncovered it, had a penis.

  I never did find out what had gone wrong with my mother.

  Two men with a gurney dropped off Metellus' body early the next morning. It had been found by Silus' guards at the bottom of the stairs leading into the tunnel from the Ludus. They told me he must have fallen on the stairs and broken his neck, but although I could see his spinal cord was snapped, the injuries from the fall were consistent with postmortem damage. I kept my mouth shut.

  Flavus showed up as I finished filling out the death certificate. The guards were due back soon to remove Metellus' body for disposal, but for the moment we were alone. I hadn't seen Blaesus since he'd run off the night before, but I figured he'd polished off a bottle of whisky elsewhere to settle his nerves and passed out in the process.

  "You've examined the body?" Flavus asked as he came to stand by it.

  "I have."

  "Then you know?"

  I nodded, but there was a question I had to ask. "Why?"

  "On the sands, we live or die by our own skill, and by the will of the crowd. Some days we walk off the sands, victorious, but when we leave it injured, it's the skill of the surgeon that determines whether we live or die."

  I signed my name on the death certificate. "He didn't see me as a surgeon."

  "He was lost to reason," Flavus said. "He would have seen you dead, and damn the consequences. You're the best surgeon we've ever had."

  He stood there silently for awhile. I wondered if he expected me to thank him. Would he be insulted if I did? I stayed silent.

  After Flavus left, I pulled out a blank sheet and began the notification letter.

  Stolo and Pulla, I regret to inform you that your father, Metellus, succumbed to his injuries yesterday.

  It was true enough, in its own way. Since his wife's death, he'd suffered from a gangrene of the soul, a devouring desire for revenge that had, in the end, killed him.

  Never forget that he loved you, and sought to protect you to his last breath.

  It was only words on a page. They held no meaning.

  Caro Carvetii.

  I rested the nib of my pen in the ink pot as I stared down at my name, a name Stolo knew to be the Butcher's. Tears slid down my cheeks. I brushed them away before they could stain the paper. I hadn't cried since I fled from my mother the last time she spoke to me.

  At the opiate house, the day we were put out of the lodging home, after the most recent man had finished with her and stumbled off, I walked over and put my hand on my mother's shoulder. She'd looked up at me, her eyes unfocused, and said, "You want to have a go?" Then she'd named the price she was charging.

  After a minute, I scratched my name out and wrote in its place:

  The Chirugeon of the Colosseum, New Rome.

  Sometimes words matter.

  Riding the Signal

  by Gary Kloster

  Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

  * * *

  Alec Chu traveled the high road, swinging his bot through the trees. The wet branches shook with the storm's convulsions, but penetrating the kidnapper's camp perimeter was easy from up here, and the rain and wind didn't touch him. Not in the Hole. When you were riding the signal, theatre conditions were all only tactical concerns.

  "On spot." White light flared through the trees and thunder rolled, but Lucy's voice came in clear. Storms couldn't touch the signal. Before the thunder faded, the rest of the squad echoed her. "On spot . . . Ditto . . . Ready . . ." Taylor, Bodi, and Olivia. Alec landed his bot on a thick branch, dug his claws in and stared down at the miserable collection of huts mired in the mud below. His optics lit four green stars in the brush, marking where his squad-mate's bots crouched.

  "Alec?" Hastings, the mission conductor, back in the Hole. Alec could hear a lighter snapping behind his words. That old bastard always waited until their bodies were strapped into their rigs and their minds were halfway around the world before he lit up. So much for a healthy work place. "Gimme status."

  Safe in Albuquerque, in the Hole with his squad, wrapped, wired, and tubed into this teleprescence rig. Sucking your smoke. Thinking like that could ruin a mission. Alec drank in the data pouring into his nerves and became his bot again.

  "I'm good."

  "Right. Five on spot. Squad Leader Taylor, confrontation command is yours."

  "Command accepted, Conductor Hastings." Taylor's voice snapped crisp across the signal. "You know your assignments. Time's everything. Olivia, start the clock."

  "Absolutely." Olivia's normally laconic voice was tight with adrenalin. Before her word finished, the night vanished.

  Two bars of light pulsed through the jungle. They paused for nanoseconds to burn through the thin obstacles of corrugated steel and wooden beam, steel drum and gasoline. Then the camp's fuel supply and generator whirled themselves apart in shrapnel and flame.

  Time, and Alec dropped. Steel claws flicked out, catching branches and bark in a controlled fall that slammed him into the mud in the middle of the panicked mob of men who were stumbling blind from their bunks. They weren't his job though, so he left them for the guns of his squad while he knuckle-ran toward the cinderblock building that squatted before him.

  Gathering momentum, he charged its door just as it swung open, spilling figures into the night. Convenient, he thought, and spit.

  The darts leapt from his mouth and bit into their targets, spilling fast-acting tranquilizer. One fighter howled as he tumbled to the ground and Alec spit at him again, not wanting any chance of interference. Leaping the bodies, he lunged for the closing door.

  Vaulting up, his claws sank into the wall and he swung his short legs forward, smashing the door back open. Then he let go, crashing down to land on the man who had been trying to lock him out. His victim howled and Alec spat down once, then raised his optics to search the interior.

  On a rusted bed frame, a man lay tied, a cloth wrapped tight around his eyes. Another blood-spotted rag on his forearm covered where the kidnappers had torn out the trace-chip.

  "Gordon Ashway?" Alec's bot voice growled, probably terrifying, but the man was sharp enough to guess what was happening.

  "Yes. Company send you?"

  "Yep." Alec sliced the ropes and stepped back, calling over the signal to the team. "Client found. Transport to me."

  "Roger," Taylor said. "Lucy, forward to load. Alec, warn the client, I'd like Olivia to give us some cover."

  "Hold on a sec, Mr. Ashway." Alec reached up with his claws and pressed the blindfold back over the prisoner's eyes even as the man tried to strip it away.

  "What?" The room lit up, light avalanching through the barred window and marking every tiny gap in the wall and roof. Outside, screams greeted the brightness. "What's going on?" The man was doing well, considering, but hysteria edged his voice.

  Alec pulled back his claws and let the client remove the blindfold. The man's eyes widened, seeing the dark ape-thing crouched before him, a monster wrought of steel, carbon and silicon.

  "Your rescue. Follow me please, and we'll tuck you safe inside a transport bot." Alec drew himself up and sketched a bow, wishing again that
the company wasn't so uptight about appearances. A little bow tie and a bowler perched just right on his bot's head might make a world of difference to their clients.

  Not likely though, he thought, leading the ashen faced man out toward the pregnant-centaur shape of Lucy's transport bot. Syracuse Securities was, unfortunately, run by the traditional assortment of humorless corporate prigs.

  "Eyes on me, people. I'm talking money." Hastings stumped into the Hole's plush briefing room like a bald bulldog in khakis, and waited for them to settle while he chewed the end of an unlit cigar. The mission conductor managed to be the perfect image of a hard-bitten old soldier, even though he'd spent his entire life ensconced in the military-industrial complex's civilian side, a middle-manager in Syracuse all the way back to the good old oil days.

  "Whose money?" asked Olivia as she put down the pick she'd been running through her damp hair.

  "Your money. You've got a mission."

  "We just finished a mission," Bodi said, a chunky Apollo resplendent in a crimson silk robe.

  "Exactly. And since you geeks did it so well, the customer wants another." Hastings fingers tapped across the touch-screen inset in the table and an image bloomed into life on the wall behind him. A map of the same verdant failed-state they had just visited over the signal.

  "That camp was right where the informant told us it would be, so his reliability rating just upgraded. So the customer paid his price for the location of this ransom racket's leaders." A red dot appeared on the map, in the middle of what had once been a walled resort community. "Customer's decided these pricks should go away. So we're going to ask them to leave. Firmly."

  "What's our turn around?" asked Taylor. It was the first thing the squad leader had said since they'd all pulled out of their rigs and headed for the showers.

  "Twelve hours. Theatre techs have to juice and maintain the bots, and we need to hang a stealth eye over the target."

  "That soon?" Alec said, the now familiar nervous excitement gripping his belly at the thought of combat.

  "We have to act before the target realizes it's been compromised," said Taylor.

  "Whoa, wait. Twelve hours?" Bodi shook his head. "I have plans tonight. A hot piece of tail named Emilio has an appointment with my -"

  "Sorry, Bodi," Hastings interrupted. "Your boy Emilio wants to saddle up tonight, he'll have to find himself another cowboy. Syracuse doesn't want to take any chances on this, so you're all staying here and getting some quiet, non-intoxicating R&R. I'm sure you remember the pertinent clauses in your contract, right?"

  Bodi swore, but before he could protest again Olivia spoke. "Bonus?"

  "Double bonus," said Hastings.

  Olivia gave the company man a smile. "What's for dinner?"

  "I can throw something together." Areva, the med tech, leaned against the back wall with Sam and Kamil, the signal techs. "There's plenty in the kitchen." Her bright brown eyes rested on Alec's. She'd asked him out once, not long after he started with Syracuse. He'd begged off, uncertain about the company's opinion on interoffice romances, but he'd been reconsidering. He smiled back, but the tech looked away when groans echoed around the table.

  "Yes, it'll be vegetarian," Areva snapped. "You think you can do better, the freezer's full."

  "I'd recommend trying whatever it is she makes and pretending you like it," Hastings cautioned. "Remember who straps your junk into those rigs."

  The mission conductor chewed his cigar and eyed them all. "Tactics team in the home office is pulling in the data. Preliminary plan should be ready by six hundred. So I want to see you all stuff your faces and hit your bunks. It's going to be an early day."

  Bodi grumbled, but everyone else seemed cheerful, the prospect of a night trapped at work and an early morning no problem with the promise of double bonus. Alec stood and began to turn toward the kitchen when Taylor spoke.

  "Good work out there today."

  "Thanks." Alec felt a surge of pride at the compliment. An old school soldier, unlike Hastings, Taylor was quiet. He'd been special forces though, back when that meant putting your flesh-and-blood on the line. Meeting Taylor had done more to attract Alec to Syracuse then their benefits package, and he valued the old soldier's approval.

  Taylor added, "Dropping through their perimeter like that saved time, and maybe the hostage's life. Not many people could have done it. Your ability to ride a brachiator's impressive."

  Lucy moved over to them, smoothing her damp hair. "Impressive? It's insane. Our old guy, Jackson, he thought he was a monkey-man, but you make him look like a sick sloth. I have trouble with the transport sometimes and it's just a quadruped."

  "Damn, Lucy," Bodi said. "You need all those extra legs just to walk straight."

  Lucy spun to face Bodi's smirk. "I swear I'm going to -"

  "Going to what, you scrawny -"

  "Stop." Taylor's cold voice snapped through the squabble. "This is done. Understand?" They nodded, Lucy sullenly, Bodi amused. "Go."

  Alec watched them leave, wondering. Six months on the squad, over a dozen missions, and Alec still didn't understand how these people fit together. He looked back to Taylor, about to ask the old man, but the look of disgust in the soldier's eyes checked his tongue.

  He headed for the kitchen instead, and left Taylor alone with his tablet and the images of the battle they had fought just forty-five minutes ago, a world away.

  Alec lay in his bed, considering the volume of earth above him. The Hole was fifty feet underground, hidden beneath an office building in the Albuquerque suburbs. A secure data site for a bank that had fallen in the Big Crunch thirty years before, Syracuse Securities had snapped it up on the sly. A hidden bunker from which to run its missions was a valuable asset. Syracuse didn't have many friends besides its shareholders, and remote control mercenaries weren't popular either. The Hole kept them secret and protected the source of the signal that connected them to their bots.

  Alec hated the place. It was, in fact, exactly the opposite of his dreams.

  With a sigh, Alec reached for the tablet he'd left on the nightstand. Tiny pictures danced across it until he found the one he wanted. Their official group photo. One hundred and ten of NASA's best and brightest, all dressed up in their uniforms. Alec still had his at home, wrapped in plastic. He looked at it sometimes, mostly when he was drunk.

  With an angry snap, Alec flicked off the computer. The Little Crunch had hit right before Aries Five should have left orbit and taken them all farther than any human had gone before. One year, that close to the payoff of a lifetime spent in school, in gymnastics, in wu shu classes, training his mind and body to run exploration bots across the rust-red Martian dust. Then the Western economies had hiccupped again and sent the politicians into a panic. Too much money, too many resources, and the mission got shelved before it began. Someday, NASA told them as they mothballed the ship. Then they were reassigned. Or, like Alec, cut loose to find some new use for their hard won skills.

  So he had.

  An RC merc. The metal muscle of the old economies. Riding the signal into whatever hot-zone failed state that had decided to be difficult. A job he'd never wanted, and in the almost year since he'd signed on with Syracuse he hadn't told anyone, friends or family, what he did. He didn't want to talk about it.

  Especially once he realized how much he liked it.

  Sleep wasn't coming, and lying here wouldn't do him any good. Maybe Areva was still up, and they could share some cocoa in the kitchen. Alec pulled on jeans and t-shirt, opened the door and stepped blinking into the hall's unwavering brilliance just as the screaming began.

  The blood stench filled the conference room, strong enough that Alec could taste its coppery flavor.

  "Damn," he whispered, staring at the body sprawled across the table.

  In the hall, the pounding of feet buried Lucy's panicked curses and he flicked a quick look over his shoulder to see Taylor outside the door.

  "Status, Chu?" Taylor asked, voice steady. Th
e question eased the terrified tension in Alec's throat.

  "Hastings is dead. Something carved him up."

  "Something?" Taylor stepped into the room, eyes searching the corners, the space beneath the table, coming to rest on a missing ceiling panel.

  "Lucy thought she saw a bot," Alec said, nodding toward the hole. "Going in there."

  "I did see one, dammit," Lucy snapped.

  "What the hell? I thought we were stuck in this hole to get some sleep." Bodi stopped next to Lucy, hair tousled. Olivia slipped past him and stopped, whispering one almost-silent syllable when she saw Hastings' corpse.

  "Squad, shut up. We have a situation." Taylor's hands twitched, as if hunting for something to hold. "The Hole's been breached. Did you hit the com, Alec?"

  "Yeah." Right after he'd seen the slaughterhouse in their conference room. "Nothing. Probably cut the com cables first."

  Beside him, Olivia lifted herself up on her toes, giving her scant height another inch. Probably so she could read the name, Santa Maria, carved into Hastings' chest.

  "We should go."

  "Yes." Taylor laid out the orders. "Form up. I'm in front, Alec in back. We'll swing through the quarters, cut through command and get to the lift."

  "Lift's just down the hall," Bodi said. "Why go back -"

  Taylor cut him off. "Because we haven't seen the techs yet."

  "Then they're dead. We need to -"

  "Cut it, Bodi. We stick together and we stay tight. No one gets left behind. Stay silent, and sensors sharp."

  Not sensors, not now, thought Alec as they began to move down the hall. This was the real deal, and his body quivered with adrenaline. He watched their six, trying to emulate Taylor's predatory calm. Trying not to think of the horror that had flashed in the eyes of the men he'd hunted with his own bot hours before.

  They found Kamil in his bunk, motionless. Taylor sent in Olivia with a flick of his hand.

  "Gone," she whispered. "Dart in his back."

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