The battlefield was like nothing they’d ever trained for.
They’d all had simulations. Ones in VR, and ones with smoke bombs and mazes and planned campaigns and textbook strategies. They’d rotated positions, learned how to trust one another, how to work as a team, how to accomplish a goal. They’d learned who were the leaders among them. They’d all learned to obey without question.
The burning in his lungs and legs was familiar now as he charged, the shouts of his platoon as they cleared the ashy husk of one of the structures. His vid readout displayed his vitals in the corner of his eye, but he ignored it and so it remained minimized. His gun was a familiar weight in his arms, which had stopped aching from carrying it sometime around the second or third month of basic.
But nothing could have prepared him for the spike of adrenaline that made his nerves twitch, made his head swivel a little more sharply than it ever had in training as his team checked corners. And then, the sound of the enemy’s return fire…
It spattered the wall to his right and David leapt out of the way, sucking in a sharp breath that muffled his next curse. The plasma bolts took the wall, burning holes that bled down into the steel and concrete, gnawing away at the barrier edges before finally cooling and fading to an inert, dull gray smear. Leda was the shittiest moon they’d ever seen, barely big enough for a docking station and no breathable atmo that wasn’t imported in. But it was the closest waystation to Cygnus VI. And so they had to take it.
His vid buzzed with a flashing command to press forward, and then a quick flash and readout of his fellow soldier’s positions. He raised his head, and another spatter of enemy fire-- this time coming in from above. Fuck .
There was a quick bark of someone’s weapon down the line, returning fire, and he gritted his teeth before he braced himself and leapt forward.
Crumbling plaster rained down on him, but he was already turning around, firing his own gun up, vaporizing more plaster in the artificial atmo. If the gravity hadn’t been slightly less than Earth-normal, the recoil would’ve knocked him on his ass.
And then something struck him in the side, tearing the very breath from his lungs and then knocking him on his ass into the gray dust.
His vid screamed at him, a red alert to tell him exactly how much of an idiot he was. How much of a dead idiot he was-- just because there was Earth-levels of atmo didn’t mean the air wasn’t poisonous. And then there was the plasma bolt itself, eating away at his suit, at the Kevlar undergarment beneath it, and the quick smear of heat that was going to quickly turn into bone-searing pain in a few seconds...
Something like amusement, cold and alien, darted across David’s consciousness.
The sensation traveled down to his side like rivulets of warm quicksilver. He craned his head, ventilating hollowly. He was dead. He was dead, he told himself, preparing for the pain. It didn’t come, though. The heat flared, and pulsed, as the fibers slowly laced together around the hole in his suit. Slowly, it began to ebb.
Another red flashing signal-- the toxicity in the air had broken seal. He could feel the strange film of it on his tongue.
Again, that cool amusement, and then the tendrils were travelling along his belly, like spreading roots. And the bitter taste was fading.
The red lights in his vid flickered from red, to yellow, before stabilizing into their familiar green hue.
You’re welcome, he thought.
Minimal side effects.
They’d all read the literature. Seen the fucking films. The medic, too young and baby-faced for his liking, had stuck around to demonstrate the process and answer their questions. But in the end, there hadn’t been much of a choice.
He had top scores in basic. That meant he had a shot at making Alpha Squad.
The only way to make Alpha Squad was to get a SymSect.
They couldn’t make it required , of course. SymSects were still classified as optional gear, listed by the Secretary of Security’s office as non-GI. But out here, in the ranks-- almost six hundred light years from the fucking Planetary Security office-- you wouldn’t step foot on some toxic planet with a sub-standard spacesuit just because some bureaucratic stylus-pusher had declared it “an infringement of Citizen Rights” to make the better suit required.
Every grunt knew better, though. If you want to have the same chance as the other guys, the elite guys, you read the pamphlets and then signed the fucking dotted line the first chance they shoved it under your nose.
Most of the guys-- the vets that medic had trotted in dutifully to help with the initial Q&A-- had said that they didn’t even feel it. They barely even noticed. Every Alpha soldier had seen it in action, though. Gruff little anecdotes how it had saved their lives. How that synthesized boost of adrenaline or oxytocin had given them the right edge at the right time. How one lieutenant had broken an ankle going down over some ridge and his SymSect had strengthened his boot into a makeshift-splint. How the terraformist guild had misjudged the acidity of the air on one Terra-New base, and every soldier without a Sym had died choking on bits of their own lungs the second they stepped off the transport.
Nobody had said anything about voices. Or laughter. Or the sensation of creeping threads spreading over their skin.
They’d taken their objective, hours later, the battle bloody and fierce. He’d managed to keep his mind off what had happened until relief had come and they’d rotated back to Base One and bunked down. Medical had reviewed his logs, inspected his suit, asked the cursory questions and then sent him back to barracks.
He’d done his own inspection when he was alone, procrastinating as much as he could, until curiosity finally had driven him to explore the seams of the suit with his fingertips, and then his abdomen. His skin was unbroken, the same shade as the rest of him. Only the hole in the Kevlar undershirt remained, a jagged hole about the size of his palm.
That was what the SymSect was supposed to do. Protect him. He tried not to think about the silvery ridged band that was permanently nestled between the C2 and C4 vertebrae of his spine. He tried not to think of the long filaments that were hidden from his view, buried into his muscle tissue, into his nerves, threading through him.
He tipped his head back, and willed himself to close his eyes. Let his breathing even.
Let his hand slowly drift up, to the back of his neck, and trace over the pulsing body of the SymSect. It was warmer than his skin, but just barely. The shell that protected it against the elements was smooth, faint segments rippling under his hand.
It pulsed to the touch, and David snatched his fingers away. Phantom laughter trickled down his spine, a shimmer that was half pleasure, half shudder.
He’d seen diagrams, images of SymSects prior to grafting. They looked like Earth arthropods, silver-gray backs curved like a hard shell. The threads that would connect to his nervous system were curled inside, too delicate to be seen with the naked eye.
Biorobotic organisms created on Earth. Created to meld with their already-implanted VR readouts. A more advanced bio-suit, one built directly into his body with looping feedback to his brain.
You weren’t conscious when they grafted the SymSect. It was too disorienting for the mind to be active. He’d taken a shot in his arm and woken up hours later, disorientated from the sedative but mostly feeling like himself. No other thoughts in his head but his own.
Not that the SymSect had a consciousness-- no, it wasn’t self-aware. It was simply reacting to his own biochemical readouts, his organic chemistry. It didn’t feel on its own, and it certainly didn’t think.
And it never was amused.
He closed his eyes. Forced his breathing to slow. Before the grafting, he’d had difficulty getting to sleep after the rush of a sim battle or a particularly grueling training exercise. But the SymSect helped with that too-- it could alter his hormones, release more melatonin to help combat the leftover adrenaline in his system. The thought didn’t bring him comfort, however. He thought about the shivering pulse it had made when he’d touched it before and resisted the urge to trace his fingertips over it again, like running a tongue over the empty hole of a missing tooth.
The faintest ripple went through his veins in response, like a warm drug entering his bloodstream, releasing the tension in his muscles. David exhaled, and then his eyes flew open.
“ Don’t,” he cut, the word loud in the still quiet of the barracks. Someone shifted in the racks above him, metal creaking softly. Immediately, he felt foolish, going more tense with the idea that someone had heard that, and even more foolish that his impulse had been to talk to it, as if he could any more than talking to some other body part, like an ear or a toe.
The room was blessedly silent for a moment.
Then creeping sensation turned nearly ticklish, and he tensed again, stiffening as he squeezed his eyes shut. It was something he was imagining. Like an itch that you tried not to think about, but couldn’t avoid. Psychosomatic. It wasn’t real.
It traveled over his chest, sinking into his arteries like heat, into the finer blood vessels like a teasing flush. The shirt he wore suddenly felt too warm, too stimulating, brushing against his nipples and the fine hair of his chest. And then the sensation swept lower, into his abdomen, like a gentle caress that made his skin twitch and his muscles tighten.
He hissed a curse, shaking his head sharply, jerking his wrists free-- free? They weren’t bound-- and ran his hands over his chest, scrubbing that touch away before he twisted onto his stomach, burying his face into the mattress.
That laughter again. In his head, in the very core of him.
Have it your way.
A phrase that had his stomach twisting, churning this time. He shut his eyes tightly. I’m imagining this.
This time, it wasn’t a shiver along his skin. It was a sharp stab, in three parallel points along his lower back. Each one pressed deliberately, like someone standing over him with a surgical needle.
The third was keen enough that it was impossible to endure in silence. He hissed, twisting over onto his back again.
The pain ceased immediately. He let out a sharp exhale, his pulse fluttering, the tension slackening, but with it came a sudden sweep of terror. But then, again, that influx of warmth and soothing heat, something sinking into his veins that made his breath catch. Before it could swallow him, he jerked his hand to the back of his neck, pressing--
A white-hot pain, this time at the base of his skull. He groaned, arching his back as his arms tensed and locked.
It was holding him. Real fear this time started to beat like a tattoo in his chest, the bitter taste of terror freezing his tongue as well. And despite it, despite everything, he could feel...the strain of it now. The presence in his head, like a second heartbeat, and the strange alien taste of someone’s... something’s... curiosity.
A SymSect could affect biochemistry. They’d learned that in training, gone over it once they’d signed the consent. It could modify hormones and other neurotransmitters in the event of an injury in the field. It could stimulate the brain to release quantities of dopamine.
He could feel the sweeping sensation of it now. Those quicksilver tendrils sliding over his skin, under his skin, wrapping around every muscle as it explored. He opened his mouth to shout, working his jaw tightly, but only managed a dry swallow as he spasmed.
The caress wasn’t like anything he had felt before. It was a phantom hand, the equivalent of a shiver as he was forced to react to stimuli that didn’t exist. It sunk lower, trailing down to his half-hard cock. This time, David could barely manage a curse as it began to stroke along his skin, the still air of the barracks barely stirring the sweat that had broken out on his skin.
Stop, he thought, madly. He had to be in control of this, somehow. This wasn’t happening.
Whatever was touching him, forcing his body to react, laughed again. With me?
A fragment of a thought. But he recognized the invitation for what it was.
The SymSect is a tool . The ultimate partner on the battlefield. The old line from the promos flickered through his mind and then was gone. A tool. A partner. Contradictory terms, now that he considered it. It was there for his benefit, when he needed it. He was the host. He was in control.
He was in control.
He repeated that to himself, shuddering with it as the muscles in his tensed arm were relaxed. He bit down hard on his bottom lip, keeping his voice strangled in his throat as the rest of his squad slept deeply, courtesy of the melatonin supplied by their SymSects. Slowly, he let his hand sink down to wrap around the base of his cock.
Immediately, he felt the answering flux of heat, and his breath caught as he arched back into the mattress. Every brush of his hand had an answering flinch through the rest of him, like every nerve ending was lighting up, flicking on and off like a switch. It hadn’t taken much to bring his half-hard dick to a full erection, and he only released it to spit into his palm, forcing away the furtive embarrassment of doing this now, like some school kid in a dorm. He couldn’t hear anything else in the room but the even breathing of his squad, and the faint creaks of the bunks, as he set up to a familiar rhythm. For a moment, he was in control of it-- but it didn’t last.
He twisted his head to moan into the thin pillow, trying to control the rhythm of it. But instead, something tightened around the heavy weight of his balls, too tight. It released almost immediately-- and then did it again, compressing slowly this time, taking it right to the edge from where he started to gasp, and then releasing again.
It was testing him. Playing with him. Playing with his responses. Fucking with him.
He was delirious. Dreaming. Maybe his injury…
The shudder worked its way up his skin again, through every follicle of his hair, and he nearly choked. His hand tugged at his cock faster, harder, wanting it over, wanting... needing ….more.
This time, it complied. A wave of heat rolled through him, like a drug, and he forgot to muffle himself as he groaned. It burned through him, sinking claws into the base of his spine as he thrust hopelessly into his hand.
Whatever it was-- his own fucked up imagination, or the horrible press of that other-- quivered with him. A pulse of heat up the shaft of his cock and he was shuddering, spilling hot against his belly with a muffled curse.
Satisfaction licked up his veins again, that irrepressible tremble settling once more under his skin. Satisfied, too, but in a different way. Pleasure was secondary to the flicker of ownership, of need...
“Together,” he whispered, his heart sinking in his chest before he finally, finally, allowed unconsciousness to take him.