ZeroS

We have always fought. War is the furnace that forges new technologies and pushes humanity ever onward. We are the children of a battle that began with fists and sticks, and ended on the brink of atomic Armageddon. Beyond here lies another war, infinite in scope and scale. But who will fight the wars of tomorrow? Infinity Wars, the latest Infinity Project anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan, asks what war might look like in the future and how we might live with the damage it brings.

Below, we’re pleased to reprint Peter Watt’s “ZeroS”. From the author:

In my last novel, a grizzled old soldier reminisces bitterly about the early days of the military zombie program, of which he was an early recruit. He wasn’t the first recruit, though. The first recruits, some of them at least, were corpses scraped off various battlefields, booted temporarily back to awareness with jumper cables to the brain, and told Hey, you’re actually dead, but we can bring you back to life so long as you’re willing to work for us for a few years. Or if you’d rather, we could just unplug these cables and leave you the way we found you. As contracts go it’s pretty take-it-or-leave-it, but given the alternative would you walk away? […] “ZeroS” is the story of one of those first recruits.

 

 


ZeroS

 

Asante goes out screaming. Hell is an echo chamber, full of shouts and seawater and clanking metal. Monstrous shadows move along the bulkheads; meshes of green light writhe on every surface. The Sāḥilites rise from the moon pool like creatures from some bright lagoon, firing as they emerge; Rashida’s middle explodes in dark mist and her top half topples onto the deck. Kito’s still dragging himself toward the speargun on the drying rack— as though some antique fish-sticker could ever fend off these monsters with their guns and their pneumatics and their little cartridges that bury themselves deep in your flesh before showing you what five hundred unleashed atmospheres do to your insides.

It’s more than Asante’s got. All he’s got is his fists.

He uses them. Launches himself at the nearest Sāḥilite as she lines up Kito in her sights, swings wildly as the deck groans and drops and cants sideways. Seawater breaches the lip of the moon pool, cascades across the plating. Asante flails at the intruder on his way down. Her shot goes wide. A spiderweb blooms across the viewport; a thin gout of water erupts from its center even as the glass tries to heal itself from the edges in.

The last thing Asante sees is the desert hammer icon on the Sāḥilite’s diveskin before she blows him away.

 * * *

Five Years

Running water. Metal against metal. Clanks and gurgles, lowered voices, the close claustrophobic echo of machines in the middle distance.

Asante opens his eyes.

He’s still in the wet room; its ceiling blurs and clicks into focus, plates and struts and Kito’s stupid graffiti (All Tautologies Are Tautologies) scratched into the paint. Green light still wriggles dimly across the biosteel, but the murderous energy’s been bled out of it.

He tries to turn his head, and can’t. He barely feels his own body— as though it were made of ectoplasm, some merest echo of solid flesh fading into nonexistence somewhere around the waist.

An insect’s head on a human body looms over him. It speaks with two voices: English, and an overlapping echo in Twi: “Easy, soldier. Relax.”

A woman’s voice, and a chip one.

Not Sāḥilite. But armed. Dangerous.

Not a soldier he wants to say, wants to shout. It’s never a good thing to be mistaken for any sort of combatant along the west coast. But he can’t even whisper. He can’t feel his tongue.

Asante realizes that he isn’t breathing.

The Insect woman (a diveskin, he sees now: her mandibles an electrolysis rig, her compound eyes a pair of defraction goggles) retrieves a tactical scroll from beyond his field of view and unrolls it a half-meter from his face. She mutters an incantation and it flares softly to life, renders a stacked pair of keyboards: English on top, Twi beneath.

“Don’t try to talk,” she says in both tongues. “Just look at the letters.”

He focuses on the N: it brightens. O. T. The membrane offers up predictive spelling, speeds the transition from sacc’ to script:

NOT SOLDIER FISH FARMER

“Sorry.” She retires the translator; the Twi keys flicker and disappear. “Figure of speech. What’s your name?”

KODJO ASANTE

She pushes the defractors onto her forehead, unlatches the mandibles. They fall away and dangle to one side. She’s white underneath.

IS KITO

“I’m sorry, no. Everyone’s dead.”

Everyone else, he thinks, and imagines Kito mocking him one last time for insufferable pedantry.

“Got him.” Man’s voice, from across the compartment. “Kodjo Asante, Takoradi. Twenty-eight, bog-standard aqua—wait; combat experience. Two years with GAF.”

Asante’s eyes dart frantically across the keyboard: only farmer not

“No worries, mate.” She lays down a reassuring hand; he can only assume it comes to rest somewhere on his body. “Everyone’s seen combat hereabouts, right? You’re sitting on the only reliable protein stock in three hundred klicks. Stands to reason you’re gonna have to defend it now and again.

“Still.” A shoulder patch comes into view as she turns toward the other voice: WestHem Alliance. “We could put him on the list.”

“If you’re gonna do it, do it fast. Surface contact about two thousand meters out, closing.”

She turns back to Asante. “Here’s the thing. We didn’t get here in time. We’re not supposed to be here at all, but our CO got wind of Sally’s plans and took a little humanitarian initiative, I guess you could say. We showed up in time to scare ’em off and light ’em up, but you were all dead by then.”

I WASN’T

“Yeah, Kodjo, you too. All dead.”

YOU BROUGHT ME BA

“No.”

BUT

“We gave your brain a jump start, that’s all. You know how you can make a leg twitch when you pass a current through it? You know what galvanic means, Kodjo?”

“He’s got a Ph.D. in molecular marine ecology,” says her unseen colleague. “I’m guessing yes.”

“You can barely feel anything, am I right? Body like a ghost? We didn’t reboot the rest of you. You’re just getting residual sensations from nerves that don’t know they’re dead yet. You’re a brain in a box, Kodjo. You’re running on empty.

“But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be.”

“Hurry it up, Cat. We got ten minutes, tops.”

She glances over her shoulder, back again. “We got a rig on the Levi Morgan, patch you up and keep you on ice until we get home. And we got a rig there that’ll work goddamn miracles, make you better’n new. But it ain’t cheap, Kodjo. Pretty much breaks the bank every time we do it.”

DON’T HAVE MONEY

“Don’t want money. We want you to work for us. Five-year tour, maybe less depending on how the tech works out. Then you go on your way, nice fat bank balance, whole second chance. Easy gig, believe me. You’re just a passenger in your own body for the hard stuff. Even boot camp’s mostly autonomic. Real accelerated program.”

NOT WESTHEM

“You’re not Hegemon either, not any more. You’re not much of anything but rotting meat hooked up to a pair of jumper cables. I’m offering you salvation, mate. You can be Born Again.”

“Wrap it the fuck up, Cat. They’re almost on top of us.”

“‘Course if you’re not interested, I can just pull the plug. Leave you the way we found you.”

NO PLEASE YES

“Yes what, Kodjo? Yes pull the plug? Yes leave you behind? You need to be specific about this. We’re negotiating a contract here.”

YES BORN AGAIN YES 5 YEAR TOUR

He wonders at this shiver of hesitation, this voice whispering maybe dead is better. Perhaps it’s because he is dead; maybe all those suffocating endocrine glands just aren’t up to the task of flooding his brain with the warranted elixir of fear and desperation and survival at any cost. Maybe being dead means never having to give a shit.

He does, though. He may be dead but his glands aren’t, not yet. He didn’t say no.

He wonders if anyone ever has.

“Glory Hallelujah!” Cat proclaims, reaching offstage for some unseen control. And just before everything goes black:

“Welcome to the Zombie Corps.”

 * * *

Savior Machine

That’s not what they call it, though.

“Be clear about one thing. There’s no good reason why any operation should ever put boots in the battlefield.”

They call it ZeroS. Strangely, the Z does not stand for Zombie.

“There’s no good reason why any competent campaign should involve a battlefield in the first place. That’s what economic engineering and Cloud Control are for.”

The S doesn’t even stand for Squad.

“If they fail, that’s what drones and bots and TAI are for.”

Zero Sum. Or as NCOIC Silano puts it, A pun, right? Cogito ergo. Better than The Spaz Brigade, which was Garin’s suggestion.

Asante’s in Tactical Orientation, listening to an artificial instructor that he’d almost accept as human but for the fact that it doesn’t sound bored to death.

“There’s only one reason you’ll ever find yourselves called on deck, and that’s if everyone has fucked up so completely at conflict resolution that there’s nothing left in the zone but a raging shitstorm.”

Asante’s also running up the side of a mountain. It’s a beautiful route, twenty klicks of rocks and pines and mossy deadfall. There might be more green growing things on this one slope than in the whole spreading desert of northern Africa. He wishes he could see it.

“Your very presence means the mission has already failed; your job is to salvage what you can from the wreckage.”

He can’t see it, though. He can’t see much of anything. Asante’s been blind since Reveille.

“Fortunately for you, economics and Cloud Control and tactical AI fail quite a lot.”

The blindness isn’t total. He still sees light, vague shapes in constant motion. It’s like watching the world through wax paper. The eyes jiggle when you’re a Passenger. Of course the eyes always jiggle, endlessly hopping from one momentary focus to the next— saccades, they’re called— but your brain usually edits out those motions, splices the clear bits together in post to serve up an illusion of continuity.

Not up here, though. Up here the sacc rate goes through the roof and nothing gets lost. Total data acquisition. To Asante it’s all blizzard and blur, but that’s okay. There’s something in here with him that can see just fine: his arms and legs are moving, after all, and Kodjo Asante isn’t moving them.

His other senses work fine; he feels the roughness of the rope against his palms as he climbs the wall, smells the earth and pine needles bedding the trail. Still tastes a faint hint of copper from that bite on the inside of his cheek a couple klicks back. He hears with utmost clarity the voice on his audio link. His inner zombie sucks all that back too, but eardrums don’t saccade. Tactile nerves don’t hop around under the flesh. Just the eyes: that’s how you tell. That and the fact that your whole body’s been possessed by Alien Hand Syndrome.

He calls it his Evil Twin. It’s a name first bestowed by his Dad, after catching eight-year-old Kodjo sleepwalking for the third time in a week. Asante made the mistake of mentioning that once to the squad over breakfast. He’s still trying to live it down.

Now he tries for the hell of it, wills himself to stop for just an instant. ET runs and leaps and crawls as it has for the past two hours, unnervingly autonomous. That’s the retrosplenial bypass they burned into his neocortex a month ago, a little dropgate to decouple mind from self. Just one of the mods they’ve etched into him with neural lace and nanotube mesh and good old-fashioned zap’n’tap. Midbrain tweaks to customize ancient prey-stalking routines. An orbitofrontal damper to ensure behavioral compliance (can’t have your better half deciding to keep the keys when you want them back, as Maddox puts it).

His scalp itches with fresh scars. His head moves with a disquieting inertia, as if weighed down by a kilogram of lead and not a few bits of arsenide and carbon. He doesn’t understand a tenth of it. Hasn’t quite come to grips with life after death. But dear God, how wonderful it is to be so strong. He feels like this body could take on a whole platoon single-handed.

Sometimes he can feel this way for five or ten whole minutes before remembering the names of other corpses who never got in on the deal.

Without warning ET dances to one side, brings its arms up and suddenly Asante can see.

Just for a millisecond, a small clear break in a sea of fog: a Lockheed Pit Bull cresting the granite outcropping to his left, legs spread, muzzle spinning to bear. In the next instant Asante’s blind again, recoil vibrating along his arm like a small earthquake. His body hasn’t even broken stride.

“Ah. Target acquisition,” the instructor remarks. “Enjoy the view.” It takes this opportunity to summarize the basics— target lock’s the only time when the eyes focus on a single point long enough for passengers to look out— before segueing into a spiel on line-of-sight networking.

Asante isn’t sure what the others are hearing. Tiwana, the only other raw recruit, is probably enduring the same 101 monologue. Kalmus might have moved up to field trauma by now. Garin’s on an engineering track. Maddox has told Asante that he’ll probably end up in bioweapons, given his background.

It takes nineteen months to train a field-ready specialist. ZeroS do it in seven.

Asante’s legs have stopped moving. On all sides he hears the sound of heavy breathing. Lieutenant Metzinger’s voice tickles the space between his ears: “Passengers, you may enter the cockpit.”

The switch is buried in the visual cortex and tied to the power of imagination. They call it a mandala. Each recruit chooses their own and keeps it secret; no chance of a master key for some wily foe to drop onto a billboard in the heat of battle. Not even the techs know the patterns, the implants were conditioned on double-blind trial-and-error. Something personal, they said. Something unique, easy to visualize.

Asante’s mandala is a sequence of four words in sans serif font. He summons it now—

ALL TAUTOLOGIES

ARE TAUTOLOGIES

—and the world clicks back into sudden, jarring focus. He stumbles, though he wasn’t moving.

Right on cue, his left hand starts twitching.

They’re halfway up the mountain, in a sloping sunny meadow. There are flowers here. Insects. Everything smells alive. Silano raises trembling arms to the sky. Kalmus flumps on the grass, recovering from exertions barely felt when better halves were in control, exertions that have left them weak and wasted despite twice-normal mito counts and AMPK agonists and a dozen other tweaks to put them in the upper tail of the upper tail. Acosta drops beside her, grinning at the sunshine. Garin kicks at a punky log and an actual goddamn snake slithers into the grass, a ribbon of yellow and black with a flickering tongue.

Tiwana’s at Asante’s shoulder, as scarred and bald as he is. “Beautiful, eh?” Her right eye’s a little off-kilter; Asante resists the impulse to stare by focusing on the bridge of her nose.

“Not beautiful enough to make up for two hours with a hood over my head.” That’s Saks, indulging in some pointless bitching. “Would it kill them to give us a video feed?”

“Or even just put us to sleep,” Kalmus grumbles. They both know it’s not that simple. The brain’s a tangle of wires looping from basement to attic and back again; turn off the lights in the living room and your furnace might stop working. Even pay-per-view’s a nonstarter. In theory, there’s no reason why they couldn’t bypass those jiggling eyes entirely— pipe a camera feed directly to the cortex— but their brains are already so stuffed with implants that there isn’t enough real estate left over for nonessentials.

That’s what Maddox says, anyway.

“I don’t really give a shit,” Acosta’s saying. The tic at the corner of his mouth makes his grin a twitchy, disconcerting thing. “I’d put up with twice the offline time if there was always a view like this at the end of it.” Acosta lives for any scrap of nature he can find; his native Guatemala lost most of its canopy to firestorm carousels back in ’42.

“So what’s in it for you?” Tiwana asks.

It takes a moment for Asante to realize the question’s for him. “Excuse me?”

“Acosta’s nature-boy. Kalmus thinks she’s gonna strike it rich when they declassify the tech.” This is news to Asante. “Why’d you sign up?”

He doesn’t quite know how to answer. Judging by his own experience, ZeroS is not something you sign up for. ZeroS is something that finds you. It’s an odd question, a private question. It brings up things he’d rather not dwell upon.

It brings up things he already dwells on too much.

“Ah—”

Thankfully, Maddox chooses that moment to radio up from Côté: “Okay, everybody. Symptom check. Silano.”

The Corporal looks at his forearms. “Pretty good. Less jumpy than normal.”

“Kalmus.”

“I’ve got, ah, ah…” She stammers, struggles, finally spits in frustration. “Fuck.”

“I’ll just put down the usual aphasia,” Maddox says. “Garin.”

“Vision flickers every five, ten minutes.”

“That’s an improvement.”

“Gets better when I exercise. Better blood flow, maybe.”

“Interesting,” Maddox says. “Tiwan—”

I see you God I see you!

Saks is on the ground, writhing. His eyes roll in their sockets. His fingers claw handfuls of earth. “I see!” he cries, and lapses into gibberish. His head thrashes. Spittle flies from his mouth. Tiwana and Silano move in but the audio link crackles with the voice of God, “Stand away! Everyone stand back now!” and everyone obeys because God speaks with the voice of Lieutenant David Metzinger and you do not want to fuck with him. God’s breath is blowing down from Heaven, from the rotors of a medical chopper beating the air with impossible silence even though they all see it now, they all see it, there’s no need for stealth mode there never was it’s always there, just out of sight, just in case.

Saks has stopped gibbering. His face is a rictus, his spine a drawn bow. The chopper lands, its whup whup whup barely audible even ten meters away. It vomits medics and a stretcher and glossy black easter-egg drones with jointed insect legs folded to their bellies. The ZeroS step back; the medics close in and block the view.

Metzinger again: “Okay, meat sacks. Everyone into the back seat. Return to Côté.”

Silano turns away, eyes already jiggling in their sockets. Tiwana and Kalmus go over a moment later. Garin slaps Asante’s back on the way out— “Gotta go, man. Happens, you know?”— and vanishes into his own head.

The chopper lifts Saks into the heavens.

“Private Asante! Now!

He stands alone in the clearing, summons his mandala, falls into blindness. His body turns. His legs move. Something begins to run him downhill. The artificial instructor, always sensitive to context, begins a lecture about dealing with loss on the battlefield.

It’s all for the best, he knows. It safest to be a passenger at times like this. All these glitches, these— side-effects: they never manifest in zombie mode.

Which makes perfect sense. That being where they put all the money.

 * * *

Station To Station

Sometimes he still wakes in the middle of the night, shocked back to consciousness by the renewed knowledge that he still exists— as if his death was some near-miss that didn’t really sink in until days or weeks afterward, leaving him weak in the knees and gasping for breath. He catches himself calling his mandala, a fight/flight reaction to threat stimuli long-since expired. He stares at the ceiling, forces calm onto panic, takes comfort from the breathing of his fellow recruits. Tries not think about Kito and Rashida. Tries not to think at all.

Sometimes he finds himself in the Commons, alone but for the inevitable drone hovering just around the corner, ready to raise alarms and inject drugs should he suffer some delayed and violent reaction to any of a hundred recent mods. He watches the world through one of CFB Côté’s crippled terminals (they can surf, but never send). He slips through wires and fiberop, bounces off geosynchronous relays all the way back to Ghana: satcams down on the dizzying Escher arcology of the Cape Universitas hubs, piggybacks on drones wending through Makola’s East, marvels anew at the giant gengineered snails— big as a centrifuge, some of them—that first ignited his passion for biology when he was six. He haunts familiar streets where the kenkey and fish always tasted better when the Chinese printed them, even though the recipes must have been copied from the locals. The glorious chaos of the street drummers during Adai.

He never seeks out friends or family. He doesn’t know if it’s because he’s not ready, or because he has already moved past them. He only knows not to awaken things that have barely gone to sleep.

Zero Sum. A new life. Also a kind of game used, more often than not, to justify armed conflict.

Also Null Existence. If your tastes run to the Latin.

 * * *

They loom over a drowning subdivision long-abandoned to the rising waters of Galveston Bay: cathedral-sized storage tanks streaked with rust and ruin, twelve-story filtration towers, masses of twisting pipe big enough to walk through.

Garin sidles up beside him. “Looks like a crab raped an octopus.”

“Your boys seem twitchy,” the Sheriff says. (Asante clenches his fist to control the tremor.) “They hopped on something?”

Metzinger ignores the question. “Have they made any demands?”

“Usual. Stop the rationing or they blow it up.” The Sheriff shakes his head, moves to mop his brow, nearly punches himself in the face when his decrepit Bombardier exoskeleton fratzes and overcompensates. “Everything’s gone to shit since the Edwards dried up.”

“They respond to a water shortage by blowing up a desalination facility?”

The Sheriff snorts. “Folks always make sense where you come from, Lieutenant?”

They reviewed the plant specs down to the rivets on the way here. Or at least their zombies did, utterly silent, borrowed eyes flickering across video feeds and backgrounders that Asante probably wouldn’t have grasped even if he had been able to see them. All Asante knows— by way of the impoverished briefings Metzinger doles out to those back in Tourist Class— is that the facility was bought from Qatar back when paint still peeled and metal still rusted, when digging viscous fossils from the ground left you rich enough to buy the planet. And that it’s falling into disrepair, now that none of those things are true anymore.

Pretty much a microcosm of the whole TExit experience, he reflects.

“They planned it out,” the Sheriff admits. “Packed a shitload of capacitors in there with ’em, hooked ’em to jennies, banked ’em in all the right places. We send in quads, EMP just drops ’em.” He glances back over his shoulder, to where— if you squint hard enough— a heat-shimmer rising from the asphalt might almost assume the outline of a resting Chinook transport. “Probably risky using exos, unless they’re hardened.”

“We won’t be using exos.”

“Far as we can tell some of ’em are dug in by the condensers, others right next to the heat exchangers. We try to microwave ’em out, all the pipes explode. Might as well blow the place ourselves.”

“Firepower?”

“You name it. Sig Saurs, Heckler-Kochs, Maesushis. I think one of ’em has a Skorp. All kinetic, far as we know. Nothing you could fry.”

“Got anything on legs?”

“They’ve got a Wolfhound in there. 46-G.”

“I meant you,” Metzinger says.

The Sheriff winces. “Nearest’s three hours away. Gimped leg.” And at Metzinger’s look: “BoDyn pulled out a few years back. We’ve been having trouble getting replacement parts.”

“What about local law enforcement? You can’t be the only—”

“Half of them are law enforcement. How’d you think they got the Wolfhound?” The Sheriff lowers his voice, although there aren’t any other patriots within earshot. “Son, you don’t think we’d have invited you in if we’d had any other choice? I mean Jayzuz, we’ve got enough trouble maintaining lawnorder as it is. If word ever got out we had to bring in outside help over a goddamn domestic dispute…”

“Don’t sweat it. We don’t wear name tags.” Metzinger turns to Silano. “Take it away, Sergeant-Major.”

Silano addresses the troops as Metzinger disappears into the cloaked Chinook: “Say your goodbyes, everybody. Autopilots in thirty.”

Asante sighs to himself. Those poor bastards don’t stand a chance. He can’t even bring himself to blame them: driven by desperation, hunger, the lack of any other options. Like the Sāḥilites who murdered him, back at the end of another life: damned, ultimately, by the sin of being born into a wasteland that could no longer feed them.

Silano raises one hand. “Mark.”

Asante calls forth his mandala. The world goes to gray. His bad hand calms and steadies on the forestalk of his weapon.

This is going to be ugly.

He’s glad he won’t be around to see it.

 * * *

Heroes

He does afterward, of course. They all do, as soon as they get back to Côté. They’re still learning. The world is their classroom.

“Back in the Cenozoic all anybody cared about was reflexes.” Second-Lieutenant Oliver Maddox— sorcerer’s apprentice to the rarely-seen Major Emma Rossiter, of the Holy Order of Neuroengineering— speaks with the excitement of a nine-year-old at his own birthday party. “Double-tap, dash, down, crawl, observe fire— all that stuff your body learns to do without thinking when someone yells Contact. The whole program was originally just about speeding up those macros. They never really appreciated that the subconscious mind thinks as well as reacts. It analyzes. I was telling them that years ago but they never really got it until now.”

Asante has never met Them. They never write, They never call. They certainly never visit. Presumably They sign a lot of checks.

“Here, though, we have a perfect example of the tactical genius of the zombie mind.”

Their BUDs recorded everything. Maddox has put it all together post-mortem, a greatest-hits mix with remote thermal and PEA and a smattering of extraporential algorithms to fill in the gaps. Now he sets up the game board— walls, floors, industrial viscera all magically translucent— and initializes the people inside.

“So you’ve got eighteen heavily-armed hostiles dug in at all the right choke points.” Homunculi glow red at critical junctures. “You’ve got a jamming field in effect, so you can’t share telemetry unless you’re line-of-sight. You’ve got an EMP-hardened robot programmed to attack anything so much as squeaks, deafened along the whole spectrum so even if we had the backdoor codes it wouldn’t hear them.” The Wolfhound icon is especially glossy: probably lifted from BoDyn’s promotional archive. “And you’ve got some crazy fucker with a deadman switch that’ll send the whole place sky-high the moment his heart stops— or even if he just thinks you’re getting too close to the flag. You don’t even know about that going in.

“And yet.”

Maddox starts the clock. Inside the labyrinth, icons begin to dance in fast-forward.

“Garin’s first up, and he completely blows it. Not only does he barely graze the target— probably doesn’t even draw blood— but he leaves his silencer disengaged. Way to go, Garin. You failed to neutralize your target, and now the whole building knows where you are.”

Asante remembers that gunshot echoing through the facility. He remembers his stomach dropping away.

“Now here comes one of Bubba’s buddies around the corner and— Garin misses again! Nick to the shoulder this time. And here comes the real bad-ass of the bunch, that Wolfhound’s been homing in on Garin’s shots and that motherfucker is armed and hot and…”

The 46-G rounds the corner. It does not target Garin; it lights up the insurgents. Bubba and his buddy collapse into little red piles of pixel dust.

“They did not see that coming!” Maddox exults. “Fragged by their own robot! How do you suppose that happened?”

Asante frowns.

“So two baddies down, Garin’s already up the ladder and onto this catwalk before the robot gets a bead on him but Tiwana’s at the other end, way across the building, and they go LOS for about half a second” —a bright thread flickers between their respective icons— “before Tiwana drops back down to ground level and starts picking off Bubbas over by the countercurrent assembly. And she turns out to be just as shitty a shot as Garin, and just as sloppy with her silencer.”

Gunfire everywhere, from everyone. Asante remembers being blind and shitting bricks, wondering what kind of aboa would make such an idiot mistake until the Rann-Seti came up in his own hands, until he felt the recoil and heard the sound of his own shot echoing like a 130-decibel bullseye on his back. He wondered, at the time, how and why someone had sabotaged everyone’s silencers like that.

Maddox is still deep in the play. “The bad guys have heard the commotion and are starting to reposition. By now Asante and Silano have picked up the shitty-shot bug and the BoDyn’s still running around tearing up the guys on its own side. All this opens a hole that Kalmus breezes through— anyone want to guess the odds she’d just happen to be so perfectly positioned?— which buys her a clean shot at the guy with the deadman switch. Who she drops with a perfect cervical shot. Completely paralyzes the poor bastard but leaves his heart beating strong and steady. Here we see Kalmus checking him over and disabling his now-useless doomsday machine.

“This all took less than five minutes, people. I mean, it was eighteen from In to Out but you’re basically mopping up after five. And just before the credits roll, Kalmus strolls up to the wolfhound calm as you please and pets the fucker. Puts him right to sleep. Galveston PD gets their robot back without a scratch. Five minutes. Fucking magic.”

“So, um.” Garin looks around. “How’d we do it?”

“Show ’em, Kally.”

Kalmus holds up a cuff-link. “Apparently I took this off deadman guy.”

“Dog whistles, Ars and Kays.” Maddox grins. “50KHz, inaudible to pilot or passenger. You don’t put your robot into rabid mode without some way of telling friend from foe, right? Wear one of these pins, Wolfie doesn’t look at you twice. Lose that pin and it rips your throat out in a fucking instant.

“Your better halves could’ve gone for clean, quiet kills that would’ve left the remaining forces still dug-in, still fortified, and not going anywhere. But one of the things that fortified them was BoDyn’s baddest battlebot. So your better halves didn’t go for clean quiet kills. They went for noise and panic. They shot the dog whistles, drew in the dog, let it attack its own masters. Other side changes position in response. You herded the robot, and the robot herded the insurgents right into your crosshairs. It was precision out of chaos, and it’s even more impressive because you had no comms except for the occasional optical sync when you happened to be LOS. Gotta be the messiest, spottiest network you could imagine, and if I hadn’t seen it myself I’d say it was impossible. But somehow you zombies kept updated on each other’s sitreps. Each one knew what it had to do to achieve an optimal outcome assuming all the others did likewise, and the group strategy just kind of— emerged. Nobody giving orders. Nobody saying a goddamn word.”

Asante sees it now, as the replay loops and restarts. There’s a kind of beauty to it; the movement of nodes, the intermittent web of laser light flickering between them, the smooth coalescence of signal from noise. It’s more than a dance, more than teamwork. It’s more like a— a distributed organism. Like the digits of a hand, moving together.

“Mind you, this is not what we say if anyone asks,” Maddox adds. “What we say is that every scenario in which the Galveston plant went down predicted a tipping point across the whole Post-TExit landscape. We point to 95% odds of wide-spread rioting and social unrest on WestHem’s very doorstep— a fate which ZeroS has, nice and quietly, prevented. Not bad for your first field deployment.”

Tiwana raises a hand. “Who would ask, exactly?”

It’s a good question. In the thirteen months since Asante joined Zero Sum, no outsider has ever appeared on the grounds of CFB Côté. Which isn’t especially surprising, given that— according to the public records search he did a few weeks back, anyway— CFB Côté has been closed for over twenty years.

Maddox smiles faintly. “Anyone with a vested interest in the traditional chain of command.”

 * * *

Where Are We Now

Asante awakens in the Infirmary, standing at the foot of Carlos Acosta’s bed. To his right a half-open door spills dim light into the darkness beyond: a wedge of worn linoleum fading out from the doorway, a tiny red EXIT sign glowing in the void above a stairwell. To his left, a glass wall looks into Neurosurgery. Jointed teleops hang from the ceiling in there, like mantis limbs with impossibly fragile fingers. Lasers. Needles and nanotubes. Atomic-force manipulators delicate enough to coax individual atoms apart. ZeroS have gone under those knives more times than any of them can count. Surgery by software, mostly. Occasionally by human doctors phoning it in from undisclosed locations, old-school cutters who never visit in the flesh for all the times they’ve cut into Asante’s.

Acosta’s on his back, eyes closed. He looks almost at peace. Even his facial tic has quieted. He’s been here three days now, ever since losing his right arm to a swarm of smart flechettes over in Heraklion. It’s no big deal. He’s growing it back with a little help from some imported salamander DNA and a steroid-infused aminoglucose drip. He’ll be good as new in three weeks— as good as he’s ever been since ZeroS got him, anyway— back in his rack in half that time. Meanwhile it’s a tricky balance: his metabolism may be boosted into the jet stream but it’s all for tissue growth. There’s barely enough left over to power a trip to the bathroom.

Kodjo Asante wonders why he’s standing here at 0300.

Maddox says the occasional bit of sleepwalking isn’t anything to get too worried about, especially if you’re already prone to it. Nobody’s suffered a major episode in months, not since well before Galveston; these days the tweaks seem mainly about fine-tuning. Rossiter’s long since called off the just-in-case bots that once dogged their every unscripted step. Even lets them leave the base now and then, when they’ve been good.

You still have to expect the occasional lingering side-effect, though. Asante glances down at the telltale tremor in his own hand, seizes it gently with the other and holds firm until the nerves quiet. Looks back at his friend.

Acosta’s eyes are open.

They don’t look at him. They don’t settle long enough to look at anything, as far as Asante can tell. They jump and twitch in Acosta’s face, back forth back forth up down up.

“Carl,” Asante says softly. “How’s it going, man?”

The rest of that body doesn’t even twitch. Acosta’s breathing remains unchanged. He doesn’t speak.

Zombies aren’t big on talking. They’re smart but nonverbal, like those split-brain patients who understand words but can’t utter them. Something about the integration of speech with consciousness. Written language is easier. The zombie brain doesn’t take well to conventional grammar and syntax but they’ve developed a kind of visual pidgin that Maddox claims is more efficient than English. Apparently they use it at all the briefings.

Maddox also claims they’re working on a kind of time-sharing arrangement, some way to divvy up custody of Broca’s Area between the fronto-parietal and the retrosplenial. Someday soon, maybe, you’ll literally be able to talk to yourself, he says. But they haven’t got there yet.

A tacpad on the bedside table glows with a dim matrix of Zidgin symbols. Asante places it under Acosta’s right hand.

“Carl?”

Nothing.

“Just thought I’d— see how you were. You take care.”

He tiptoes to the door, sets trembling fingers on the knob. Steps into the darkness of the hallway, navigates back to his rack by touch and memory.

Those eyes.

It’s not like he hasn’t seen it a million times before. But all those other times his squadmates’ eyes blurred and danced in upright bodies, powerful autonomous things that moved. Seeing that motion embedded in such stillness— watching eyes struggle as if trapped in muscle and bone, as if looking up from some shallow grave where they haven’t quite been buried alive—

Terrified. That’s how they looked. Terrified.

 * * *

We Are the Dead

Specialist Tarra Kalmus has disappeared. Rossiter was seen breaking the news to Maddox just this morning, a conversation during which Maddox morphed miraculously from He of the Perpetually Goofy Smile into Lieutenant Stoneface. He refuses to talk about it with any of the grunts. Silano managed to buttonhole Rossiter on her way back to the helipad, but could only extract the admission that Kalmus has been “reassigned”.

Metzinger tells them to stop asking questions. He makes it an order.

But as Tiwana points out— when Asante finds her that evening, sitting with her back propped against a pallet of machine parts in the loading bay— you can run all sorts of online queries without ever using a question mark.

“Fellow corpse.”

“Fellow corpse.”

It’s been their own private salutation since learning how much they have in common. (Tiwana died during a Realist attack in Havana. Worst vacation ever, she says.) They’re the only ZeroS, so far at least, to return from the dead. The others hold them a little in awe because of it.

The others also keep a certain distance.

“Garin was last to see her, over at the Memory Hole.” Tiwana’s wearing a pair of smart specs tuned to the public net. It won’t stop any higher-ups who decide to look over her shoulder, but at least her activity won’t be logged by default. “Chatting up some redhead with a Hanson Geothermal logo on her jacket.”

Two nights ago. Metzinger let everyone off the leash as a reward for squashing a Realist attack on the G8G Constellation. They went down to Banff for some meatspace R&R. “So?”

Speclight paints Tiwana’s cheeks with small flickering auroras. “So a BPD drone found a woman matching that description dead outside a public fuckcubby two blocks south of there. Same night.”

“Eiiii.” Asante squats down beside her as Tiwana pushes the specs onto her forehead. Her wonky eye jiggles at him.

“Yeah.” She takes a breath, lets it out. “Nicci Steckman, according to the DNA.”

“So how—”

“They don’t say. Just asking witnesses to come forward.”

“Have any?”

“They left together. Deked into an alley. No further surveillance record, which is odd.”

“Is it really,” Asante murmurs.

“No. I guess not.”

They sit in silence for a moment.

“What do you think?” she asks at last.

“Maybe Steckman didn’t like it rough and things got out of hand. You know Kally, she— doesn’t always take no for an answer.”

“No to what? We’re all on antilibidinals. Why would she even be—”

“She’d never kill someone over—”

“Maybe she didn’t,” Tiwana says.

He blinks. “You think she flipped?”

“Maybe it wasn’t her fault. Maybe the augs kicked in on their own somehow, like a, a— reflex. Kally saw an imminent threat, or something her better half interpreted that way. Grabbed the keys, took care of it.”

“It’s not supposed to work like that.”

“It wasn’t supposed to fry Saks’ central nervous system either.”

“Come on, Sofe. That’s ancient history. They wouldn’t deploy us if they hadn’t fixed those problems.”

“Really.” Her bad eye looks pointedly at his bad hand.

“Legacy glitches don’t count.” Nerves nicked during surgery, a stray milliamp leaking into the fusiform gyrus. Everyone’s got at least one. “Maddox says—”

“Oh sure, Maddox is always gonna tidy up. Next week, next month. Once the latest tweaks have settled, or there isn’t some brush fire to put out over in Kamfuckingchatka. Meanwhile the glitches don’t even manifest in zombie mode so why should he care?”

“If they thought the implants were defective they wouldn’t keep sending us out on missions.”

“Eh.” Tiwana spreads her hands. “You say mission, I say field test. I mean, sure, camaraderie’s great— we’re the cutting edge, we can be ZeroS! But look at us, Jo. Silano was a Rio insurgent. Kalmus was up on insubordination charges. They scraped you and me off the ground like road kill. None of us are what you’d call summa cum laude.”

“Isn’t that the point? That anybody can be a super soldier?” Or at least, any body.

“We’re lab rats, Jo. They don’t want to risk frying their West Point grads with a beta release so they’re working out the bugs on us first. If the program was ready to go wide we wouldn’t still be here. Which means—” She heaves a sigh. “It’s the augs. At least, I hope it’s the augs.”

“You hope?”

“You’d rather believe Kally just went berserk and killed a civilian for no reason?”

He tries to ignore a probably-psychosomatic tingle at the back of his head. “Rossiter wouldn’t be talking reassignment if she had,” he admits. “She’d be talking court-martial.”

“She’ll never talk court-martial. Not where we’re concerned.”

“Really.”

“Think about it. You ever see any politician come by to make sure the taxpayer’s money’s being well-spent? You ever see a commissioned officer walking the halls who wasn’t Metzinger or Maddox or Rossiter?”

“So we’re off the books.” It’s hardly a revelation.

“We’re so far off the books we might as well be cave paintings. We don’t even know our own tooth-to-tail ratio. Ninety percent of our support infrastructure’s offsite, it’s all robots and teleops. We don’t even know who’s cutting into our own heads.” She leans close in the deepening gloom, fixes him with her good eye. “This is voodoo, Jo. Maybe the program started small with that kneejerk stuff, but now? You and I, we’re literal fucking zombies. We’re reanimated corpses dancing on strings, and if you think Persephone Q. Public is gonna be fine with that you have a lot more faith in her than I do. I don’t think Congress knows about us, I don’t think Parliament knows about us, I bet SOCOM doesn’t even know about us past some line in a budget that says psychological research. I don’t think they want to know. And when something’s that dark, are they really going to let anything as trivial as a judicial process drag it into the light?”

Asante shakes his head. “Still has to be accountability. Some kind of internal process.”

“There is. You disappear, and they tell everyone you’ve been reassigned.”

He thinks for a bit. “So what do we do?”

“First we riot in the mess hall. Then we march on Ottawa demanding equal rights for corpses.” She rolls her eyes. “We don’t do anything. Maybe you forgot: we died. We don’t legally exist anymore, and unless you got a way better deal than me the only way for either of us to change that is keep our heads down until we get our honorable discharges. I do not like being dead. I would very much like to go back to being officially alive some day. Until then…”

She takes the specs off her head. Powers them down.

“We watch our fucking step.”

 * * *

Ricochet

 Sgt. Kodjo Asante watches his fucking step. He watches it when he goes up against AIRheads and Realists. He watches it when pitted against well-funded private armies running on profit and ideology, against ragged makeshift ones driven by thirst and desperation, against rogue Darwin Banks and the inevitable religious extremists who— almost a quarter-century after the end of the Dark Decade—still haven’t stopped maiming and killing in the name of their Invisible Friends. His steps don’t really falter until twenty-one months into his tour, when he kills three unarmed children off the coast of Honduras.

ZeroS has risen from the depths of the Atlantic to storm one of the countless gylands that ride the major currents of the world’s oceans. Some are refugee camps with thousands of inhabitants; others serve as havens for hustlers and tax dodgers eager to avoid the constraints of more stationary jurisdictions. Some are military, sheathed in chromatophores and radar-damping nanotubes: bigger than airports, invisible to man or machine.

The Caçador de Recompensa is a fish farm, a family business registered out of Brazil: two modest hectares of low-slung superstructure on a donut hull with a cluster of net pens at its center. It is currently occupied by forces loyal to the latest incarnation of Shining Path. The Path thrives on supply lines with no fixed address— and as Metzinger reminded them on the way down, it’s always better to prevent a fight than win one. If the Path can’t feed their troops, maybe they won’t deploy them.

This is almost a mission of mercy.

Asante eavesdrops on the sounds of battle, takes in a mingled reek of oil and salt air and rotten fish, lets Evil Twin’s worldview wash across his eyes in a blur of light and the incomprehensible flicker of readouts with millisecond lifespans. Except during target acquisition, of course. Except for those brief stroboscopic instants when ET locks on, and faces freeze and blur in turn: a couple of coveralled SAsian men wielding Heckler-Kochs. A wounded antique ZhanLu staggering on two-and-a half-legs, the beam from its MAD gun wobbling wide of any conceivable target. Children in life jackets, two boys, one girl; Asante guesses their ages at between seven and ten. Each time the weapon kicks in his hands and an instant later ET is veering toward the next kill.

Emotions are sluggish things in Passenger mode. He feels nothing in the moment, shock in the aftermath. Horror’s still halfway to the horizon when a random ricochet slaps him back into the driver’s seat.

The bullet doesn’t penetrate— not much punches through the Chrysomalon armor wrapped tight around his skin— but vectors interact. Momentum passes from a small fast object to a large slow one. Asante’s brain lurches in its cavity; meat slaps bone and bounces back. Deep in all that stressed gray matter, some vital circuit shorts out.

There’s pain of course, blooming across the side of his head like napalm in those few seconds before his endocrine pumps damp it down. There’s fire in the BUD, a blaze of static and a crimson icon warning of zmode failure. But there’s a little miracle too:

Kodjo Asante can see again: a high sun in a hard blue sky. A flat far horizon. Columns of oily smoke rising from wrecked machinery.

Bodies.

The air cracks a few centimeters to his right. He drops instinctively to a deck slippery with blood and silver scales, gags at the sudden stench wafting from a slurry of bloated carcasses crowding the surface of the holding pen just in front of him. (Coho-Atlantic hybrids, he notes despite himself. Might even have those new Showell genes.) A turret on treads sparks and sizzles on the other side, a hole blown in its carapace.

A shadow blurs across Asante’s forearm. Tiwana leaps across the sky, defractors high on her forehead, eyeballs dancing madly in their sockets. She clears the enclosure, alights graceful as a dragonfly on one foot, kicks the spastic turret with the other. It sparks one last time and topples into the pen. Tiwana vanishes down the nearest companionway.

Asante gets to his feet, pans for threats, sees nothing but enemies laid waste: the smoking stumps of perimeter autoturrets, the fallen bodies of a man with his arm blown off and a woman groping for a speargun just beyond reach. And a small brittle figure almost fused to the deck: blackened sticks for arms and legs, white teeth grinning in a charred skull, a bright half-melted puddle of orange fabric and PVC holding it all together. Asante sees it all. Not just snapshots glimpsed through the fog: ZeroS handiwork, served up for the first time in three-sixty wraparound immersion.

We’re killing children…

Even the adult bodies don’t look like combatants. Refugees, maybe, driven to take by force what they couldn’t get any other way. Maybe all they wanted was to get somewhere safe. To feed their kids.

At his feet, a reeking carpet of dead salmon converge listlessly in the wake of the fallen turret. They aren’t feeding anything but hagfish and maggots.

I have become Sāḥilite, Asante reflects numbly. He calls up BUD, ignores the unreadable auras flickering around the edges of vision, selects GPS.

Not off Honduras. They’re in the Gulf of Mexico.

No one in their right mind would run a fish farm here. The best parts of the Gulf are anoxic; the worst are downright flammable. Caçador must have drifted up through the Yucatan Channel, got caught in an eddy loop. All these fish would have suffocated as soon as they hit the dead zone.

But gylands aren’t entirely at the mercy of the currents. They carry rudimentary propulsion systems for docking and launching, switching streams and changing course. Caçador‘s presence so deep in the Gulf implies either catastrophic equipment failure or catastrophic ignorance.

Asante can check out the first possibility, anyway. He stumbles toward the nearest companionway—

—as Tiwana and Acosta burst onto deck from below. Acosta seizes his right arm, Tiwana his left. Neither slows. Asante’s feet bounce and drag. The lurching acceleration reawakens the pain in his temple.

He cries out: “The engines…

New pain, other side, sharp and recurrent: an ancient weight belt swinging back and forth across Acosta’s torso, a frayed strip of nylon threaded through an assortment of lead slugs. It’s like being hammered by a tiny wrecking ball. One part of Asante wonders where Acosta found it; another watches Garin race into view with a small bloody body slung across his shoulder. Garin passes one of the dismembered turrets, grabs a piece with his free hand and keeps running.

Everyone’s charging for the rails.

Tiwana’s mouthpiece is in, her defractors down. She empties a clip into the deck ahead, right at the water’s edge: gunfire shreds plastic and whitewashed fiberglass, loosens an old iron docking cleat. She dips and grabs in passing, draws it to her chest, never loosening her grip on Asante. He hears the soft pop of a bone leaving its socket in the instant before they all go over the side.

They plummet head-first, dragged down by a hundred kilograms of improvised ballast. Asante chokes, jams his mouthpiece into place; coughs seawater through the exhaust and sucks in a hot lungful of fresh-sparked hydrox. Pressure builds against his eardrums. He swallows, swallows again, manages to keep a few millibars ahead of outright rupture. He has just enough freedom of movement to claw at his face and slide the defractors over his eyes. The ocean clicks into focus, clear as acid, empty as green glass.

Green turns white.

Seen in that flash-blinded instant: four thin streams of bubbles, rising to a surface gone suddenly incandescent. Four dark bodies, falling from the light. A thunderclap rolls through the water, deep, downshifted, as much felt as heard. It comes from nowhere and everywhere.

The roof of the ocean is on fire. Some invisible force shreds their contrails from the top down, tears those bubbles into swirling silver confetti. The wave-front races implacably after them. The ocean bulges, recoils. It squeezes Asante like a fist, stretches him like rubber; Tiwana and Acosta tumble away in the backwash. He flails, stabilizes himself as the first jagged shapes resolve overhead: dismembered chunks of the booby-trapped gyland, tumbling with slow majesty into the depths. A broken wedge of deck and stairwell passes by a few meters away, tangled in monofilament. A thousand glassy eyes stare back from the netting as the wreckage fades to black.

Asante scans the ocean for that fifth bubble trail, that last dark figure to balance Those Who Left against Those Who Returned. No one overhead. Below, a dim shape that has to be Garin shares its mouthpiece with the small limp thing in his arms. Beyond that, the hint of a deeper dark against the abyss: a shark-like silhouette keeping station amid a slow rain of debris. Waiting to take its prodigal children home again.

They’re too close to shore. There might be witnesses. So much for stealth ops. So much for low profiles and no-questions-asked. Metzinger’s going to be pissed.

Then again, they are in the Gulf of Mexico.

Any witnesses will probably just think it caught fire again.

 * * *

Lady Grinning Soul

“In your own words, Sergeant. Take your time.”

We killed children. We killed children, and we lost Silano, and I don’t know why. And I don’t know if you do either.

But of course, that would involve taking Major Emma Rossiter at her word.

“Did the child…?” Metzinger had already tubed Garin’s prize by the time Asante had reboarded the sub. Garin, of course, had no idea what his body had been doing. Metzinger had not encouraged discussion.

That was okay. Nobody was really in the mood anyhow.

“I’m sorry. She didn’t make it.” Rossiter waits for what she probably regards as a respectful moment. “If we could focus on the subject at hand…”

“It was a shitstorm,” Asante says. “Sir.”

“We gathered that.” The Major musters a sympathetic smile. “We were hoping you could provide more in the way of details.”

“You must have the logs.”

“Those are numbers, Sergeant. Pixels. You are uniquely— if accidentally— in a position to give us more than that.”

“I never even got below decks.”

Rossiter seems to relax a little. “Still. This is the first time one of you has been debooted in mid-game, and it’s obviously not the kind of thing we want to risk repeating. Maddox is already working on ways to make the toggle more robust. In the meantime, your perspective could be useful in helping to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

“My perspective, sir, is that those forces did not warrant our particular skill set.”

“We’re more interested in your experiences regarding the deboot, Sergeant. Was there a sense of disorientation, for example? Any visual artifacts in BUD?”

Asante stands with his hands behind his back— good gripping bad— and says nothing.

“Very well.” Rossiter’s smile turns grim. “Let’s talk about your perspective, then. Do you think regular forces would have been sufficient? Do you have a sense of the potential losses incurred if we’d sent, say, WestHem marines?”

“They appeared to be refugees, sir. They didn’t pose—”

“One hundred percent, Sergeant. We would have lost everyone.”

Asante says nothing.

“Unaugged soldiers wouldn’t even have made it off the gyland before it went up. Even if they had, the p-wave would’ve been fatal if you hadn’t greatly increased your rate of descent. Do you think regular forces would have made that call? Seen what was coming, run the numbers, improvised a strategy to get below the kill zone in less time than it would take to shout a command?”

“We killed children.” It’s barely more than a whisper.

“Collateral damage is an unfortunate but inevitable—”

“We targeted children.”

“Ah.”

Rossiter plays with her tacpad: tap tap tap, swipe.

“These children,” she says at last. “Were they armed?”

“I do not believe so, sir.”

“Were they naked?”

“Sir?”

“Could you be certain they weren’t carrying concealed weapons? Maybe even a remote trigger for a thousand kilograms of CL-20?”

“They were— sir, they couldn’t have been more than seven or eight.”

“I shouldn’t have to tell you about child soldiers, Sergeant. They’ve been a fact of life for centuries, especially in your particular—at any rate. Just out of interest, how young would someone have to be before you’d rule them out as a potential threat?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Yes you do. You did. That’s why you targeted them.”

That wasn’t me.”

“Of course. It was your— evil twin. That’s what you call it, right?” Rossiter leans forward. “Listen to me very carefully, Sergeant Asante, because I think you’re laboring under some serious misapprehensions about what we do here. Your twin is not evil, and it is not gratuitous. It is you: a much bigger part of you than the whiny bitch standing in front of me right now.”

Asante clenches his teeth and keeps his mouth shut.

“This gut feeling giving you so much trouble. This sense of Right and Wrong. Where do you think it comes from, Sergeant?”

“Experience. Sir.”

“It’s the result of a calculation. A whole series of calculations, far too complex to fit into the conscious workspace. So the subconscious sends you— an executive summary, you might call it. Your evil twin knows all about your sense of moral outrage; it’s the source of it. It has more information than you do. Processes it more effectively. Maybe you should trust it to know what it’s doing.”

He doesn’t. He doesn’t trust her, either.

But suddenly, surprisingly, he understands her.

She’s not just making a point. This isn’t just rhetoric. The insight appears fully formed in his mind, a bright shard of unexpected clarity. She thought it would be easy. She really doesn’t know what happened.

He watches her fingers move on the ‘pad as she speaks. Notes the nervous flicker of her tongue at the corner of her mouth. She glances up to meet his eye, glances away again.

She’s scared.

 * * *

Look Back in Anger

Asante awakens standing in the meadow up the mountain. The sky is cloudless and full of stars. His fatigues are damp with sweat or dew. There is no moon. Black conifers loom on all sides. To the east, a hint of pre-dawn orange seeps through the branches.

He has read that this was once the time of the dawn chorus, when songbirds would call out in ragged symphony to start the day. He has never heard it. He doesn’t hear it now. There’s no sound in this forest but his own breathing—

— and the snap of a twig under someone’s foot.

He turns. A gray shape detaches itself from the darkness.

“Fellow corpse,” Tiwana says.

“Fellow corpse,” he responds.

“You wandered off. Thought I’d tag along. Make sure you didn’t go AWOL.”

“I think ET’s acting up again.”

“Maybe you’re just sleepwalking. People sleepwalk sometimes.” She shrugs. “Probably the same wiring anyway.”

“Sleepwalkers don’t kill people.”

“Actually, that’s been known to happen.”

He clears his throat. “Did, um…”

“No one else knows you’re up here.”

“Did ET disable the pickups?”

“I did.”

“Thanks.”

“Any time.”

Asante looks around. “I remember the first time I saw this place. It was— magical.”

“I was thinking more ironic.” Adding, at Asante’s look: “You know. That one of the last pristine spots in this whole shit-show owes its existence to the fact that WestHem needs someplace private to teach us how to blow shit up.”

“Count on you,” Asante says.

The stars are fading. Venus is hanging in there, though.

“You’ve been weird,” she observes. “Ever since the thing with Caçador.”

“It was a weird thing.”

“So I hear.” Shrug. “I guess you had to be there.”

He musters a smile. “So you don’t remember…”

“Legs running down. Legs running back up. My zombie never targeted anything so I don’t know what she saw.”

“Metzinger does. Rossiter does.” He leans his ass against a convenient boulder. “Does it ever bother you? That you don’t know what your own eyes are seeing, and they do?”

“Not really. Just the way it works.”

“We don’t know what we’re doing out there. When was the last time Maddox even showed us a highlight reel?” He feels the muscles clenching in his jaw. “We could be war criminals.”

“There is no we. Not when it matters.” She sits beside him. “Besides. Our zombies may be nonconscious but they’re not stupid; they know we’re obligated to disobey unlawful commands.”

“Maybe they know. Not sure Maddox’s compliance circuit would let them do anything about it.”

Somewhere nearby a songbird clears its throat.

Tiwana takes a breath. “Suppose you’re right— not saying you are, but suppose they sent us out to gun down a gyland full of harmless refugees. Forget that Caçador was packing enough explosives to blow up a hamlet, forget that it killed Silano— hell, nearly killed us all. If Metzinger decides to bash in someone’s innocent skull, you still don’t blame the hammer he used.”

“And yet. Someone’s skull is still bashed in.”

Across the clearing, another bird answers. The dawn duet.

“There must be reasons,” she says, as if trying it on for size.

He remembers reasons from another life, on another continent: retribution. The making of examples. Poor impulse control. Just— fun, sometimes.

“Such as.”

“I don’t know, okay? Big Picture’s way above our pay grade. But that doesn’t mean you toss out the chain of command every time someone gives you an order without a twenty-gig backgrounder to go with it. If you want me to believe we’re in thrall to a bunch of fascist baby killers, you’re gonna need more than a few glimpses of something you may have seen on a gyland.”

“How about, I don’t know. All of human history?”

Venus is gone at last. The rising sun streaks the clearing with gold.

“It’s the deal we made. Sure, it’s a shitty one. Only shittier one is being dead. But would you choose differently, even now? Go back to being fish food?”

He honestly doesn’t know.

“We should be dead, Jo. Every one of these moments is a gift.”

He regards her with a kind of wonder. “I never know how you do it.”

“Do what?”

“Channel Schopenhauer and Pollyanna at the same time without your head exploding.”

She takes his hand for a moment, squeezes briefly. Rises. “We’re gonna make it. Just so long as we don’t rock the boat. All the way to that honorable fucking discharge.” She turns to the light; sunrise glows across her face. “Until then, in case you were wondering, I’ve got your back.”

“There is no you,” he reminds her. “Not when it matters.”

“I’ve got your back,” she says.

 * * *

Watch That Man

They’ve outsourced Silano’s position, brought in someone none of them have ever seen before. Technically he’s one of them, though the scars that tag him ZeroS have barely had time to heal. Something about him is wrong. Something about the way he moves; his insignia. Not Specialist or Corporal or Sergeant.

“I want you to meet Lieutenant Jim Moore,” Rossiter tells them.

ZeroS finally have a commissioned secco. He’s easily the youngest person in the room.

He gets right to it. “This is the Nanisivik mine.” The satcam wall zooms down onto the roof of the world. “Baffin Island, seven hundred fifty klicks north of the Arctic Circle, heart of the Slush Belt.” A barren fractured landscape of red and ocher. Drumlins and hillocks and bifurcating stream beds.

“Tapped out at the turn of the century.” A brown road, undulating along some scoured valley floor. A cluster of buildings. A gaping mouth in the Earth. “These days people generally stay away, on account of its remote location. Also on account of the eight thousand metric tons of high-level nuclear waste the Canadian government brought over from India for deep-time storage. Part of an initiative to diversify the northern economy, apparently.” Tactical schematics, now: Processing and Intake. Train tracks corkscrewing into the Canadian Shield. Storage tunnels branching like the streets of an underground subdivision. “Project was abandoned after the Greens lost power in ’38.

“You could poison a lot of cities with this stuff. Which may be why someone’s messing around there now.”

Garin’s hand is up. “Someone, sir?”

“So far all we have are signs of unauthorized activity and a JTFN quad that went in and never came out. Our first priority is to identify the actors. Depending on what we find, we might take care of it ourselves. Or we might call in the bombers. Won’t know until we get there.”

And we won’t know even then, Asante muses— and realizes, in that moment, what it is about Moore that strikes him as so strange.

“We’ll be prepping your better halves with the operational details en route.”

It’s not what is, it’s what isn’t: no tic at the corner of the eye, no tremor in the hand. His speech is smooth and perfect, his eyes make contact with steady calm. Lieutenant Moore doesn’t glitch.

“For now, we anticipate a boots-down window of no more than seven hours—”

Asante looks at Tiwana. Tiwana looks back.

ZeroS are out of beta.

 * * *

Subterraneans

The Lockheed drops them at the foot of a crumbling pier. Derelict shops and listing trailers, long abandoned, huddle against the sleeting rain. This used to be a seaport; then a WestHem refueling station back before WestHem was even a word, before the apocalyptic Arctic weather made it easier to just stick everything underwater. It lived its short life as a company town, an appendage of the mine, in the days before Nanisivik was emptied of its valuables and filled up again.

BUD says 1505: less than an hour if they want to be on target by sundown. Moore leads them overland across weathered stone and alluvial washouts and glistening acned Martian terrain. They’re fifteen hundred meters from the mouth of the repository when he orders them all into the back seat.

Asante’s legs, under new management, pick up the pace. His vision blurs. At least up here, in the wind and blinding sleet, it doesn’t make much difference.

A sound drifts past: the roar of some distant animal, perhaps. Nearer, the unmistakable discharge of an ε-40. Not ET’s. Asante’s eyes remain virtuously clouded.

The wind dies in the space of a dozen steps. Half as many again and the torrent of icy needles on his face slows to a patter, a drizzle. Asante hears great bolts unlatching, a soft screech of heavy metal. They pass through some portal and the bright overcast in his eyes dims by half. Buckles and bootsteps echo faintly against rock walls.

Downhill. A gentle curve to the left. Gravel, patches of broken asphalt. His feet step over unseen obstacles.

And stop.

The whole squad must have frozen; he can’t hear so much as a breath. The supersaccadic tickertape flickering across the fog seems faster. Could be his imagination. Off in some subterranean distance, water drip-drip-drips onto a still surface.

Quiet movement as ZeroS spreads out. Asante’s just a passenger but he reads the footsteps, feels his legs taking him sideways, kneeling. The padding on his elbows doesn’t leave much room for fine-grained tactile feedback but the surface he’s bracing against is flat and rough, like a table sheathed in sandpaper.

There’s a musky animal smell in the air. From somewhere in the middle distance, a soft whuffle. The stirring of something huge in slow, sleepy motion.

Maybe someone left the door open, and something got in…

Pizzly bears are the only animals that come to mind: monstrous hybrids, birthed along the boundaries of stressed ecosystems crashing into each other. He’s never seen one in the flesh.

A grunt. A low growl.

The sound of building speed.

Gunshots. A roar, deafeningly close, and a crash of metal against metal. The flickering tactical halo dims abruptly: network traffic just dropped by a node.

Now the whole network crashes: pawn exchange, ZeroS sacrificing their own LAN as the price of jamming the enemy’s. Moore’s MAD gun snaps to the right. An instant of scorching heat as the beam sweeps across Asante’s arm; Moore shooting wide, Moore missing. ET breaks cover, leaps and locks. For one crystalline millisecond Asante sees a wall of coarse ivory-brown fur close enough to touch, every follicle in perfect focus.

The clouds close in. ET pulls the trigger.

A bellow. The scrape of great claws against stone. The reek is overpowering but ET’s already pirouetting after fresh game and click the freeze-frame glimpse of monstrous ursine jaws in a face wide as a doorway and click small brown hands raised against an onrushing foe and click a young boy with freckles and strawberry blond hair and Asante’s blind again but he feels ET pulling on the trigger, pop pop pop

Whatthefuck children whatthefuck whatthefuck

— and ET’s changed course again and Click: a small back a fur coat black hair flying in the light of the muzzle flash.

Not again. Not again.

Child soldiers. Suicide bombers. For centuries.

But no one’s shooting back.

He knows the sound of every weapon the squad might use, down to the smallest pop and click: the sizzle of the MAD gun, the bark of the Epsilon, Acosta’s favorite Olympic. He hears them now; those, and no others. Whatever they’re shooting at isn’t returning fire.

Whatever we’re shooting at. You blind murderous twaaaaase. You’re shooting eight-year-olds.

Again.

More gunfire. Still no voices but for a final animal roar that gives way to a wet gurgle and the heavy slap of meat on stone.

It’s a nuclear waste repository at the north pole. What are children even doing here?

What am I?

What am I?

And suddenly he sees the words, All tautologies are tautologies and ET’s back downstairs and the basement door locks and Kodjo Asante grabs frantically for the reins, and takes back his life, and opens his eyes:

In time to see the little freckled boy, dressed in ragged furs, sitting on Riley Garin’s shoulders and dragging a jagged piece of glass across his throat. In time to see him leap free of the body and snatch Garin’s gun, toss it effortlessly across this dimly-lit cave to an Asian girl clad only in a filthy loincloth, who’s sailing through the air toward a bloodied Jim Moore. In time to see that girl reach behind her and catch the gun in midair without so much as a backward glance.

More than a dance, more than teamwork. Like digits on the same hand, moving together.

The pizzly’s piled up against a derelict forklift, a giant tawny thing raking the air with massive claws even as it bleeds out through the hole in its flank. A SAsian child with his left hand blown off at the wrist (maybe that was me) dips and weaves around the fallen behemoth. He’s— using it, exploiting the sweep of its claws and teeth as a kind of exclusion zone guaranteed to maul anyone within three meters. Somehow those teeth and claws never seem to connect with him.

They’ve connected with Acosta, though. Carlos Acosta, lover of sunlight and the great outdoors lies there broken at the middle, staring at nothing.

Garin finally crashes to the ground, blood gushing from his throat.

They’re just children. In rags. Unarmed.

The girl rebounds between rough-hewn tunnel walls and calcified machinery, lines up the shot with Garin’s weapon. Her bare feet never seem to touch the ground.

They’re children they’re just—

Tiwana slams him out of the way as the beam sizzles past. The air shimmers and steams. Asante’s head cracks against gears and conduits and ribbed metal, bounces off steel onto rock. Tiwana lands on top of him, eyes twitching in frantic little arcs.

And stopping.

It’s a moment of pure panic, seeing those eyes freeze and focus— she doesn’t know me she’s locking on she’s locking on— but something shines through from behind and Asante can see that her eyes aren’t target-locked at all. They’re just looking.

“…Sofiyko?”

Whatever happens, I’ve got your back.

But Sofiyko’s gone, if she was ever even there.

 * * *

Blackout

Moore hands him off to Metzinger. Metzinger regards him without a word, with a look that speaks volumes: flips a switch and drops him into Passenger mode. He doesn’t tell Asante to stay there. He doesn’t have to.

Asante feels the glassy pane of a tacpad under ET’s hand. That hand rests deathly still for seconds at a time; erupts into a flurry of inhumanly-fast taps and swipes; pauses again. Out past the bright blur in Asante’s eyes, the occasional cough or murmur is all that punctuates the muted roar of the Lockheed’s engines.

ET is under interrogation. A part of Asante wonders what it’s saying about him, but he can’t really bring himself to care.

He can’t believe they’re gone.

 * * *

No Control

“Sergeant Asante.” Major Rossiter shakes her head. “We had such hopes for you.”

Acosta. Garin. Tiwana.

“Nothing to say?”

So very much. But all that comes out is the same old lie: “They were just…children…”

“Perhaps we can carve that on the gravestones of your squadmates.”

“But who—”

“We don’t know. We’d suspect Realists, if the tech itself wasn’t completely antithetical to everything they stand for. If it wasn’t way past their abilities.”

“They were barely even clothed. It was like a nest…

“More like a hive, Sergeant.”

Digits on the same hand…

“Not like you,” she says, as if reading his mind. “ZeroS networking is quite— inefficient, when you think about it. Multiple minds in multiple heads, independently acting on the same information and coming to the same conclusion. Needless duplication of effort.”

“And these…”

“Multiple heads. One mind.”

“We jammed the freqs. Even if they were networked—”

“We don’t think they work like that. Best guess is— bioradio, you could call it. Like a quantum-entangled corpus callosum.” She snorts. “Of course, at this point they could say it was elves and I’d have to take their word for it.”

Caçador, Asante remembers. They’ve learned a lot from one small stolen corpse.

“Why use children?” he whispers.

“Oh, Kodjo.” Asante blinks at the lapse; Rossiter doesn’t seem to notice. “Using children is the last thing they want to do. Why do you think they’ve been stashed in the middle of the ocean, or down some Arctic mineshaft? We’re not talking about implants. This is genetic, they were born. They have to be protected, hidden away until they grow up and… ripen.”

“Protected? By abandoning them in a nuclear waste site?”

“Abandoning them, yes. Completely defenseless. As you saw.” When he says nothing, she continues: “It’s actually a perfect spot. No neighbors. Lots of waste heat to keep you warm, run your greenhouses, mask your heatprint. No supply lines for some nosy satellite to notice. No telltale EM. From what we can tell there weren’t even any adults on the premises, they just — lived off the land, so to speak. Not even any weapons of their own, or at least they didn’t use any. Used bears, of all things. Used your own guns against you. Maybe they’re minimalists, value improvisation.” She sacc’s something onto her pad. “Maybe they just want to keep us guessing.”

“Children.” He can’t seem to stop saying it.

“For now. Wait ’til they hit puberty.” Rossiter sighs. “We bombed the site, of course. Slagged the entrance. If any of ours were trapped down there, they wouldn’t be getting out. Then again we’re not talking about us, are we? We’re talking about a single distributed organism with God-know-how-many times the computational mass of a normal human brain. I’d be very surprised if it couldn’t anticipate and counter anything we planned. Still. We do what we can.”

Neither speaks for a few moments.

“And I’m sorry, Sergeant,” she says finally. “I’m so sorry it’s come to this. We do what we’ve always done. Feed you stories so you won’t be compromised, so you won’t compromise us when someone catches you and starts poking your amygdala. But the switch was for your protection. We don’t know who we’re up against. We don’t know how many hives are out there, what stage of gestation any of them have reached, how many may have already— matured. All we know is that a handful of unarmed children can slaughter our most elite forces at will, and we are so very unready for the world to know that.

“But you know, Sergeant. You dropped out of the game— which may well have cost us the mission— and now you know things that are way above your clearance.

“Tell me. If our positions were reversed, what would you do?”

Asante closes his eyes. We should be dead. Every one of these moments is a gift. When he opens them again Rossiter’s watching, impassive as ever.

“I should’ve died up there. I should have died off Takoradi two years ago.”

The Major snorts. “Don’t be melodramatic, Sergeant. We’re not going to execute you.”

“I— what?”

“We’re not even going to court-martial you.”

“Why the hell not?” And at her raised eyebrow: “Sir. You said it yourself: unauthorized drop-out. Middle of a combat situation.”

“We’re not entirely certain that was your decision.”

“It felt like my decision.”

“It always does though, doesn’t it?” Rossiter pushes back in her chair. “We didn’t create your evil twin, Sergeant. We didn’t even put it in control. We just got you out of the way, so it could do what it always does without interference.

“Only now, it apparently— wants you back.”

This takes a moment to sink in. “What?”

“Frontoparietal logs suggest your zombie took a certain— initiative. Decided to quit.”

“In combat? That would be suicide!”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?”

He looks away.

“No? Don’t like that hypothesis? Well, here’s another: it surrendered. Moore got you out, after all, which was statistically unlikely the way things were going. Maybe dropping out was a white flag, and the hive took pity and let you go so you could— I don’t know, spread the word: don’t fuck with us.

“Or maybe it decided the hive deserved to win, and switched sides. Maybe it was— conscientiously objecting. Maybe it decided it never enlisted in the first place.”

Asante decides he doesn’t like the sound of the Major’s laugh.

“You must have asked it,” he says.

“A dozen different ways. Zombies might be analytically brilliant but they’re terrible at self-reflection. They can tell you exactly what they did but not necessarily why.”

“When did you ever care about motive?” His tone verges on insubordination; he’s too empty to care. “Just— tell it to stay in control. It has to obey you, right? That orbitofrontal thing. The compliance mod.”

“Absolutely. But it wasn’t your twin who dropped out. It was you, when it unleashed the mandala.”

“So order it not to show me the mandala.”

“We’d love to. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell us what it looks like?”

It’s Asante’s turn to laugh. He sucks at it.

“I didn’t think so. Not that it matters. At this point we can’t trust you either— again, not entirely your fault. Given the degree to which conscious and unconscious processes are interconnected, it may have been premature to try and separate them so completely, right off the bat.” She winces, as if in sympathy. “I can’t imagine it’s much fun for you either, being cooped up in that skull with nothing to do.”

“Maddox said there was no way around it.”

“That was true. When he said it.” Eyes downcast now, saccing the omnipresent ‘pad. “We weren’t planning on field-testing the new mod just yet, but with Kalmus and now you— I don’t see much choice but to advance implementation by a couple of months.”

He’s never felt more dead inside. Even when he was.

“Haven’t you stuck enough pins in us?” By which he means me, of course. By process of elimination.

For a moment, the Major almost seems sympathetic.

“Yes, Kodjo. Just one last modification. I don’t think you’ll even mind this one— because next time you wake up, you’ll be a free man. Your tour will be over.”

“Really.”

“Really.”

Asante looks down. Frowns.

“What is it, Sergeant?”

“Nothing,” he says. And regards his steady, unwavering left hand with distant wonder.

 * * *

Lazarus

Renata Baermann comes back screaming. She’s staring at the ceiling, pinned under something— the freezer, that’s it. Big industrial thing. She was in the kitchen when the bombs hit. It must have fallen.

She thinks it’s crushed her legs.

The fighting seems to be over. She hears no small-arms fire, no whistle of incoming ordnance. The air’s still filled with screams but they’re just gulls, come to feast in the aftermath. She’s lucky she was inside; those vicious little air rats would have pecked her eyes out by now if she’d been—

—Blackness—

¡Joder! Where am I? Oh, right. Bleeding out at the bottom of the Americas, after…

She doesn’t know. Maybe this was payback for the annexation of Tierra del Fuego. Or maybe it’s the Lifeguards, wreaking vengeance on all those who’d skip town after trampling the world to mud and shit. This is a staging area, after all: a place where human refuse congregates until the pressure builds once again, and another bolus gets shat across the Drake Passage to the land of milk and honey and melting glaciers. The sphincter of the Americas.

She wonders when she got so cynical. Not very seemly for a humanitarian.

She coughs. Tastes blood.

Footsteps crunch on the gravel outside, quick, confident, not the shell-shocked stumble you’d expect from anyone who’s just experienced apocalypse. She fumbles for her gun: a cheap microwave thing, barely boils water but it helps level the field when a fifty kg woman has to lay down the law to a man with twice the mass and ten times the entitlement issues. Better than nothing.

Or it would be, if it was still in its holster. If it hadn’t somehow skidded up against a table leg a meter and a half to her left. She stretches for it, screams again; feels like she’s just torn herself in half as the kitchen door slams open and she—

—blacks out—

—and comes back with the gun miraculously in her hand, her finger pumping madly against the stud, mosquito buzz-snap filling her ears and—

—she’s wracked, coughing blood, too weak keep firing even if the man in the WestHem uniform hadn’t just taken her gun away.

He looks down at her from a great height. His voice echoes from the bottom of a well. He doesn’t seem to be speaking to her: “Behind the mess hall—”

—English—

“—fatal injuries, maybe fifteen minutes left in her and she’s still fighting—”

When she wakes up again the pain’s gone and her vision’s blurry. The man has changed from white to black. Or maybe it’s a different man. Hard to tell through all these floaters.

“Renata Baermann.” His voice sounds strangely— unused, somehow. As if he were trying it out for the first time.

There’s something else about him. She squints, forces her eyes to focus. The lines of his uniform resolve in small painful increments. No insignia. She moves her gaze to his face.

“Coño,” she manages at last. Her voice is barely a whisper. She sounds like a ghost. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”

“Renata Baermann,” he says again. “Have I got a deal for you.”

 

(Profound thanks to Jordan Blanch, Jason Knowlton, Leona Ludderodt, and Steve Perry for their patience and expertise—PW.)

“ZeroS” by Peter Watts, reprinted from Infinity Wars, copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Strahan.

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