Sergeant Adriene Valero wants to die.
Sergeant Adriene Valero wants to die.
After enduring a traumatic resurrection for the ninety-sixth time, Valero is reassigned to a special forces unit and outfitted with a cutting-edge virtual intelligence aid. They could turn the tide in the war against intelligent machines dedicated to the assimilation, or destruction, of humanity.
When her VI suddenly achieves sentience, Valero is drawn into the machinations of an enigmatic major who’s hell-bent on ending the war—by any means necessary.
Adriene took her first breath for the ninety-seventh time, and she was already screaming.
A lance of pain fired through her legs as her knees hit cold metal. Her elbows dropped, then the rest followed as she crumpled, a mess of tangled limbs she couldn’t control. Her bare skin slid across the floor, covered in a thick membrane of mucus. She reached out, though she didn’t know what for.
A weight rose in her throat. Her body convulsed as she choked out a wad of gray sludge.
She groaned and tried to rise, but her muscles wouldn’t listen.
Muffled through a layer of viscous fluid came the sounds of a computerized voice. Nonsense words, random syllables strung together; she couldn’t make sense of it.
Clawing at the tiered metal ridges beside her, she pulled herself to standing, propped against the sloping wall. She wiped the mucus from her eyes and looked around.
A long, narrow corridor stretched in both directions, lined on either side with segmented cases of metal and dark glass—hundreds of sealed pods like the one she’d just fallen out of.
A stench of sterile, bitter antiseptic flooded in. Her stomach heaved. She turned aside and retched onto the floor—more shapeless gray sludge. Icy chills racked her body, and sharp waves of goose bumps ripped across her bare skin.
The computerized voice spouted more unintelligible nonsense, “Please proceed to Quality Assurance Station.”
Adriene blinked at the screen recessed in the wall in front of her. It flashed a series of symbols. Words, maybe. She knew she should recognize them, but she couldn’t assign meaning to any of it.
To her left, pulsating green arrows illuminated at the end of the corridor. She spat out another glob of mucus and clenched her teeth. Someone wanted her to go that way.
So she turned and bolted the opposite direction.
Her mucus-covered feet slid across the dark metal floor. A sharp tone blared—a warning or alarm—but she ignored it and pressed on, running as fast as she could force her ungainly limbs to move. Blood pumped hot through her veins, strengthening and invigorating her muscles.
Dozens of meters down, she came to an intersection. As she slowed, her eyes darted, searching for some indication of an exit. But there was nothing. Just row upon row of segmented metal-and-glass capsules that seemed to go on forever in all four directions.
She kept running.
At the next intersection, a man rounded the corner.
She hesitated and almost slipped, but managed to keep her footing as she glided to a stop. The man wore a plain black uniform, pant legs tucked into heavy combat boots. He had a single pistol in a holster on his thigh, but he didn’t go for the weapon. He simply hovered cautiously, holding his hands toward her, palms out.
Adriene darted forward and thrust the heel of her palm into his throat.
He fell to his knees, clutching his neck and gasping for breath. She shoved him aside and rounded the corner—right into the path of two more men.
One called out, “Code nine!”
Adriene’s feet slid as she halted, and she struggled to stay upright while spinning to face the other way.
One of the men reached for her, his hands slipping down her slick skin. “Specialist, stop!” he shouted—more gibberish.
Despite the layer of mucus, he managed to clasp her wrist, then twisted her arm behind her back. He kicked the back of her knee and forced her face-first onto the ground.
Pain shot through her shoulder, but she growled and struggled anyway, hot fury flooding her neck and face.
The man pressed her wrist into her back and pinned her head to the floor with his other hand.
They were trained, at least. Guards of some sort, for whatever horrible kind of prison this was.
“Specialist Adriene Valero,” he said, tone still hard, but he was no longer shouting. “803rd Ground Assault. Your CO’s Miller Champlan…”
He continued spouting nonsense, and Adriene flinched as something flared in her mind’s eye. A trickle of images and sounds, laden with meaning and emotion she couldn’t make sense of. Fear, worry, dread, discontent, irritation. But only fragments, nothing but echoes: flashes of violet light, fibrous black rock teeming down from a void of darkness, sibilant mechanical whispers.
And a handless man, crawling, reaching, begging for help.
That abandoned planet. The basalt cave. Scrappers.
She’d zeroed out her squad, then herself.
Memories flooded her mind, and she could feel it again—the pain of death: a lancing headache that split her skull, the sickening stench of charred skin burned from the muzzle held flush against her forehead.
Blood heated her cheeks, and hot tears filled her eyes. She turned her face into the ground and let out a grating roar.
A weight pummeled her chest, suddenly heavy, too heavy. She struggled to breathe, choking for air as an inferno ripped through her rib cage. Her muscles seized, and her free hand clenched, nails scraping across the metal floor.
Was she going to have a heart attack right there on the floor of Telematics? She’d only need to be dead for thirty seconds before Adriene-97 would slide out of a bin to replace her. She wondered if that’d be the record for shortest rezone ever.
The errant, pointless thought allowed her to find breath again. Her muscles slackened. She took a deep inhale and blinked the wetness from her eyes.
Despite how much her seizing chest hurt, she knew it wasn’t due to anything so clinical as cardiac arrest. It was because she’d died, again. And again, there’d been nothing.
Like waking up after sleep with the feeling that no time had passed. It was a blink, an instant, a temporal lapse as information shot invisibly through the stardust and the code that quantified her existence was downloaded to some fucking server and shoved into a new shell.
But the mechanics weren’t the worst of it, not by far. It was the reminder that came with it—the crushing sense of existential abandonment. Because no matter how many times she died, there was never any moment of clarity, no sense of peace, no in-between, no “white light.” If there was something that came after, she would have seen a glimpse of it, one of the ninety-six times she’d died.
Still pinned to the ground, Adriene opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I… I remember,” a mucus-laden voice rasped, one she could hardly recognize as her own.
The guard loosened his grip, then hooked an arm under her waist and hauled her to her feet. He started muttering apologies while he draped a thin robe over her shoulders, but she ignored him, staring at her sludge-caked bare feet and his worn boots. She took a few deep breaths to steady her thudding heart.
She’d said she remembered but did she, really? How could she know they were real memories? Not implants—things they wanted her to believe? This could all be some Mechan trap…
Adriene elbowed him in the throat. He stumbled back, and she took off, scrambling as her wet feet slid across the floor.
Another guard was on her in a second, locking his arms around her, pulling her back into his chest. She roared and thrashed against him, but he tightened down. Another joined him.
Together they held her still, and with a single sharp prick, warmth bloomed in her neck. Her muscles relaxed and her eyelids drooped. She wallowed in the half second of peace before she was buried in darkness.
Adriene’s eyes cracked open.
All around, nothing but white and gray, misshapen and blurry. She tried to blink away the haze, but couldn’t see more than vague outlines of a surface in front of her and the legs of a stiff metal chair beneath her. She went to wipe the crust from her eyes, but a pair of thick cuffs kept her wrists magnetized to the top of a metal table.
With sinking dread, she recalled how she’d woken up: a screaming mess of panicked rage and survival instincts. But it already felt distant. Just another nightmare. The more she focused on it, the less real it seemed.
An “aggressive take,” they’d call it in the report. Not her first, and certainly not her last.
A melody floated down from overhead speakers, all soft winds and harps and wood chimes—the kind of Zen bullshit they’d pump through the speakers at a spa. Or an asylum. Meant to foster a sense of tranquility, like there could be anything tranquil about being shoved into a new body and dumped out on the floor like a newborn foal.
At least she was no longer naked; they’d dressed her in a basic tan flight suit.
Adriene glanced around the room. It contained a rude amount of white. White walls, white ceiling, white porcelain-tiled floor. The panels of clustered diodes lining the ceiling bathed the white in white light.
Her eyes adjusted to the brightness, and she looked down at her hands to confirm they were hers. Ruddy, light brown skin smattered with a familiar pattern of dark freckles. Though her nails were too clean, trimmed too neatly. No hangnails, no bruises, no scars. That wouldn’t last long.
The hard inner curves of the metal cuffs strained against her wristbone, but she managed to twist her right arm over, palm up. She eyed the too-smooth creases on her palm as she stretched her hand open and closed, open and closed, open and closed. Closed tighter until the nails bit into the skin. The ritual allayed her, if only somewhat.
She released her fist and breathed a sigh. Her body, same as always. Yet it never felt right, never fit quite the same. Everything had to be stretched, worn in like new boots.
Adriene flinched as a sharp voice cut through the stale air and pressed against her unstretched eardrums. A lab-coated mass eclipsed her view, a nova’s worth of light firing down into her new eyes. For a brief, terrifying moment, the metal casing of the flashlight seemed to twist, morphing into the curving halo of a crucible device. Adriene recoiled, spine slamming hard against her seat back.
“Steady, now,” the lab coat droned, though to Adriene’s fresh ears it sounded like the woman was screaming. “Look right.”
Adriene opened her mouth to complain, but her vocal cords ignored her request. She flexed her jaw and looked right.
Adriene swung her eyes left. She took a deep breath to calm her fraying nerves, inhaling the soft but distinct scent of lavender.
Though she could see nothing except dancing trails of light left by the vicious nova beam, that scent told her exactly who this lab coat was.
“Huan,” Adriene’s raw voice crackled out, barely a whisper. She cleared her throat and tried again, forcing more strength into her voice. “Doc, can we tone down the sensory stimulus a little?”
Still lingering close to Adriene’s face, Huan’s thin lips pressed together. She lowered her voice considerably and said, “Open.”
Adriene complied, opening her mouth wide to let Huan peer down her throat. The doctor clicked off the light and slid the instrument into her coat pocket. She released the lock on Adriene’s handcuffs, then picked up a tablet and started tapping.
Adriene slouched against her seat back, rubbing at either wrist in turn.
“Vitals are green.” Huan exhaled a rough sigh and leaned on the edge of the table. “Not the cleanest take I’ve ever seen.”
“No kidding,” Adriene agreed. “What’s the plan for handling these aggressive takes? I practically broke Rutherford’s neck trying to get out of there.”
“So I heard. Please do your best to remain calm in the future.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Adriene muttered. “There’s gotta be a better way, Doc.”
Huan nodded. “We have considered adding an upload delay so we can be notified before a husk is activated, but there’s a high degree of risk involved in keeping a consciousness cached for any longer than absolutely necessary. I fear aggressive takes would increase tenfold. And there would likely be many misfires.”
Adriene glowered. “You mean deaths?”
Huan remained unfazed. “Yes.”
“So for now, we just keep getting dumped out of bins unceremoniously?”
“For the foreseeable future, yes.” Huan looked back down at her tablet. “Now, how do you feel otherwise?”
Adriene cleared her throat. “Bit phlegmy.”
“We installed new substructure modules week before last. They generate stronger respiratory systems, but there’s an initial overproduction of phlegm.”
“It will subside with time. How do your lungs feel? Stronger? Can you tell a difference?”
Adriene eyed Huan levelly for a few long seconds. “Not fucking really, no.”
“All right…” Huan said, tone careful—and a little concerned.
Adriene wiped her hands down her face and sucked in a breath through her nose. She had to get it together. Last thing she needed was to get tossed into an observation cube for “antagonistic” behavior. “Mira’s ashes… Sorry, Doc. Really. I’m just sick of this shit.”
“I’m sure. It’s only been three weeks since I saw you last.”
Adriene shuddered with the grisly memory. It had, in fact, only been three weeks since she’d last been face-to-face with a Mechan. And it’d gone just about as well as it had this time.
Adriene cleared away more phlegm. “Do you think that’s why this take went so poorly?”
“No…” Huan began, her tone already packed with judgment, and Adriene was instantly sorry she’d asked. “It’s because you, somehow—after only three weeks—have dependencies.” She flicked through screens on her tablet. “Seriously, Valero?”
Adriene gave a weak shrug.
Huan sighed. “Just know, substance abuse has a drastic effect on your neurotransmitters, making it far more difficult to get a clean take. Lay off the booze, and it’ll go easier the next time.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not exactly that easy.”
“In fact, it is that easy,” Huan said, finally looking up from the tablet, her dark brown eyes sharpening. “You’ve literally got a fresh start—a brand-new body. You don’t have any of the addictions you think you do.”
Adriene ran a hand through the half centimeter of thick hair on her head and let out a sigh. “Try explaining that to my brain.”
“The brain is new too.”
“You know what I mean, Doc. It’s been four years. You’d think they’d have this shit better figured out by now.”
“In actuality, that is quite a short time frame for technology of this magnitude. It is still very much in its infancy. Any perceived delay only appears such due to the 803rd’s disproportionately above-average rezone rate.” Huan’s calculated look narrowed. “And a propensity for substance abuse, as I mentioned.”
Adriene scoffed. “You say that like it’s our fault.”
“Just something to keep in mind. You all should consider not treating these bodies like they’re expendable.”
“We’re not the ones who think they’re expendable.”
Huan raised an eyebrow. “Meaning?”
Adriene leaned forward, lowering her voice. “We just went on what was supposed to be a level-two, low-risk COB that lasted an hour and a half before we got ambushed and I had to zero out my entire squad. And that’s not even a record.”
“The cheaper and easier rezoning gets, the further Command lowers risk-assessment thresholds. They’re sending us into more and more uncertain situations, because they know we’ll simply show up back here, shiny and new, once it goes to shit.”
“Well, that may not be ideal,” Huan said, “but it is your job.”
“I know,” Adriene said, trying to keep the anger from her voice. “But lower thresholds mean fewer resources toward recon. We’re getting sent in with less thorough, less accurate intel. They’re setting us up for failure.”
“You think Command is using rezoning as a crutch to do less work?”
“I know they are.”
“You’re paranoid.” Huan redocked her tablet. “Laying off the booze will help with that too. You ready?”
Adriene sighed and sat back. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
Across the table, Huan pulled out a chair and sat down. She took a thinner, smaller-screened device from her lab coat. “Please state the current year.”
“Repeat and remember the following words: apple, oxygen, comet.”
“Apple, oxygen, comet.”
“Count backward from ten to one.” Adriene complied, then Huan turned the device around to show her the screen. “What is this?”
“It’s the reproductive means of conifers, commonly found in boreal ecosystems on type-3 planets, or grown in colonial biodomes as part of the Concord Nations Interplanetary Sustainability Initiative.”
Huan blinked, unamused. “In layman’s terms, please.”
“It’s a pine cone.”
“Which branch do you currently serve?”
“Proper name, please.”
Adriene sighed. “Concord Nations Extrasolar Fleet.”
“What’s your service number?”
“803rd Exoplanet Reconnaissance Division.”
“List five words that start with the letter H.”
“Hazard, hostage, hub.” Adriene rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands and took a deep breath. “Heaven. Hell.”
“Repeat the words I asked you to remember.”
“Apple, oxygen, comet.”
“Please state your full name.”
“Adriene Isella Valero.”
“Confirm husk ID.”
Adriene lifted her left arm and slid up the sleeve of the loose-fitting flight suit. On the inside of her elbow, a small black barcode with the label “233–424:096” confirmed her SKU.
Huan reached out with the device and scanned the barcode. “Ninety-six confirmed,” she said, tapping the screen one last time. “Cognitive assessment complete.” She pocketed the device, then stood up and pulled the larger tablet off the dock again. “Cubicle A4 for counseling. Then you still need to visit physiotherapy to get cleared for service, but Major Champlan wants to see you first.”
Adriene stood up slowly, her legs wobbling beneath her. “Debrief before physio?”
“I don’t think it’s a debrief,” Huan replied, her tone flat.
Adriene rubbed the back of her neck and waited, but Huan didn’t elaborate.
“All right. Thanks.” Adriene headed for the exit, pausing in the door frame after it slid open. “Sorry about the shitty attitude.”
“Don’t worry on it,” Huan replied, already engrossed in her next task. “See you soon, Specialist.”
Adriene sighed and stepped out into the hall. “I hope not, Doc.”
Excerpted from Rubicon, copyright © 2022 by J.S. Dewes.