In the heart of the darkness, a light still burns
It takes you back there to a memory of her
In the heart of the darkness, she's still there
She's always holdin' on to what you share
The advance surveillance post for the spaceport sat close to three klicks out from the main gate, a sleek little metal dome that resembled an oversized rubbish bin. Not much more than an automated screening device, its primary purpose was to discreetly discourage random strangers from a closer approach. Well before any intruder was within range of its limited sensor array the more powerful systems at the port proper would already be engaged.
Except for the surveillance post and the road it guarded, no sign of human activity was visible. A forest of tall slim reeds topped with long drooping purple plumes stretched unbroken across the gently rolling countryside in all directions. In the distance rose a low escarpment crowned with more reeds, short stout ones that resembled bushy corn brooms. A few insects drifted among the plumes, occasionally lighting for a moment on the surveillance post to spread their elongated wings and soak up the warmth reflected from the metal.
The drowsy silence of the afternoon was broken by a faint drone that gradually rose to a growling hum. A silver hovercycle swept into view on the road, moving fast enough that the electronic sensors of the surveillance post were pressed to keep up with it. The black-clad rider stretched along the cycle's frame as though part of the machine, guiding it smoothly through the bends despite the extreme speed.
Just as the surveillance post's electronics prepared to go into full emergency mode, the hovercycle braked, the deceleration so abrupt that a normal rider would have been thrown over the front of the bike. By the time the cycle drew up to the post it was moving at barely more than a sedate walking speed, the engine noise dying to no more than a murmur in the breeze.
Pulling to a stop by the surveillance post's sensor board, the rider raised his helmet’s face-shield, turning his head just enough to accommodate the visual recognition software.
"Cyborg R4A5Y reporting for duty."
The face reflected momentarily in the polished glass of the touchscreen was a normal human male's, except for the clear green optivisor that covered the area where human eyes would be. Before being 'borged, R4A5Y had been considered good looking, and despite the optivisor and the slight distortion in one cheekbone where accessory oxygen modules had been implanted, most of those looks remained.
Scowling, he turned to look straight ahead again. R4A5Y never looked at polished surfaces if he could avoid it.
There was a swift flicker of lights across the face of the monitor as voiceprint and facial recognition software processed the input.
"Checkpoint alpha: Cyborg R4A5Y access approved." The surveillance post's vocalization was that of a human female, though something in the pronunciation made it clear no woman's throat had ever produced the words. "Please proceed to checkpoint beta, at a rate of speed no greater than 50 kilometers per hour."
"Ta very," R4A5Y said, revving the hovercycle engine up to a screaming pitch. The surveillance post remained silent, and after a moment he let the engine drop back to a soft hum. There really wasn't much entertainment value in taunting a machine, he thought with a flash of bitter amusement. Not even a fairly useless little monitoring post that served no real purpose except as a sop to the feelings of the local authorities.
Engaging the drive, he continued on up the road, keeping strictly at the specified speed limit. Experience had taught him not to test even his enhanced reflexes against the port's automated defense system. He left the face-shield up, his optivisor automatically switching from helmet-mode to give him an augmented visual.
As the cycle topped a small rise, the reed forest ended abruptly. Bare ground sloped down to a long sheltered valley, in the centre of which sat the private spaceport of Cyborg Institute 5.
R4A5Y scanned the port. His infrared sensors told him there were only two living beings there, both in the main control building. He switched to electronic scan, but couldn't detect the characteristic nanite trace of a cyborg. If there were any other 'borgs on base, they were in strict power conservation mode.
He had two more checkpoints to pass, one at the bottom of the slope, where the road branched, the other at the main gate, each more stringent than the last. Inside the perimeter, beyond the control tower and service buildings, five ships sat fin-down in launch areas, waiting for assignment. R4A5Y's eyes sought one in particular, a slender pillar of russet and silver that from a distance looked too fragile to cope with the rigours of deep space travel. A faint smile stretched his mouth for a moment. Appearances were deceiving. His ANN was the sweetest ship he'd ever flown: fast, manoeuvrable and completely reliable.
He set the cycle in motion again, now merely puttering toward the next checkpoint. When he reached it, he once more brought the cycle to a stop, this time removing his helmet completely.
"Cyborg R4A5Y reporting for duty," he said again.
"Please remove your optical enhancement gear for iris scan," the automated voice requested.
The cyborg's mouth tightened for an instant. "Check your data input. Designation R4A5Y. My optics are built in."
"Affirmative, R4A5Y. Please present your appendage of choice for genetic analysis."
"Know where I'd like to present an appendage," he muttered, but tugged off his right glove and pressed his forefinger to the analytical plate.
The checkpoint hummed to itself for a moment, as it analyzed voiceprint, visual data and skin cells.
"Identity confirmed. Scheduled report time for Cyborg R4A5Y: sixteen hundred hours." The checkpoint's mechanical voice managed to sound slightly peevish. "Current time: seventeen hundred hours seventeen."
"Had to see a man about a dog," R4A5Y replied.
"Current time: seventeen hundred hours seventeen," it repeated.
R4A5Y pulled the glove back on with a sharp jerk, and remained silent. There were times when he enjoyed playing word games with the automated system, to see how far he could go before a human supervisor intervened, but today he couldn't summon up the necessary interest.
After a long moment of silence, the checkpoint hummed again and said, "Checkpoint beta: access approved. Proceed to auxiliary gate, Cyborg R4A5Y."
"What, I don't have to drop trou for Big Brother at the main gate?"
"Proceed to auxiliary gate, Cyborg R4A5Y." The security station went dark.
R4A5Y raised his eyebrows, but obediently turned the hovercycle down the branch road that led to the gate accessing the service buildings. As he approached, the gate slid open and with a sigh of regret he let the hovercycle drift through and banked toward the small hanger set aside for on-base cyborgs.
There were a dozen stalls in the building, each containing a set of lockers, and several a personal transport vehicle of some kind. Cyborg operatives were discouraged from accumulating personal possessions, but short of keeping them confined permanently to a base there was no alternative to allowing them some type of transportation. R4A5Y privately thought that many of the higher-ups would be happier if cyborgs in fact were deactivated and put in storage between missions, if the presence of bio-components didn't make that impossible.
Despite all the advantages of cyborgs, there were still drawbacks to the fleshware.
R4A5Y idled the cycle into the stall that had been designated for his use and let the motor die. With quick efficiency, he hooked up the charger lines and ran a cleaning wand over the machine before pulling the dust cover up and securing it. The automatic seal pulled tight, and the hovercycle was stowed safely—ten hours or a hundred years would be all the same to the system.
Dialling up his optivisor, he examined the touchplate on his locker. Under hi-res, there were no signs of tampering—no shed skin cells, no trace of lubricant or disturbed dust on the three keys he had primed. If anyone had tried to access his locker, they’d had better tech than he did. Not that he'd be stupid enough to keep anything he actually wanted to hide in a locker on base, no matter how good the security.
He keyed the locker open, and stripped off his helmet and cycling leathers. Underneath, he wore a standard spacer’s coverall in dark blue. With his gear stowed, he locked up, and gave the hovercycle one last wistful pat before heading out of the hanger toward the landing zone. His steps quickened just a bit as he approached the area where his ship waited.
CI5 owned the spaceships—much as it owned the cyborgs—but turned a blind eye to agents putting their own stamp on the systems they worked with, providing no one went overboard. Unlike the martial themes or colours many favoured, making their ships into reflections of their weapons systems, R4A5Y had chosen to supplement the standard ceramic/nanofibre body with an overlay that wove microbeads in shades of gold, orange and red into an ever-shifting mosaic over the pale hull. The effect was much like watching autumn leaves drift across a marble floor.
Her designation—ANN7380973—shone in bright red-gold glowsparks just above the entry hatch.
R4A5Y looked up at the hull with a smile that was at once fond and slightly bitter. His ship was as much a prison as a refuge, the outward symbol of the Cyborg Institutes' ownership. For cyborgs, there were very few options.
CI5 made sure of that.
The random swirl of colours above him coalesced across the silver into a pattern that reminded him of a woman's hair falling around her shoulders. It was a sign that ANN's external sensors had noticed him.
R4A5Y's smile softened slightly.
They had a few such signals between them, subtle enough to escape the notice of even the CI5 technicians who serviced them both. In theory, any ship and any cyborg could function well together; R4A5Y had flown other ships on missions, and their performance had been within acceptable parameters. But ANN7380973 was something special. When their circuits were in sync it felt as if they were one brain and body working flawlessly together. Their evaluations regularly put R4A5Y in the top three percent of CI5 field agents. There was no rule on the books against a cyborg preferring one ship over another, but R4A5Y had learned a healthy distrust of those who controlled his life. Not showing them any sign of weakness was second nature by now.
Puling off his gloves again, he placed his hand on the DNA scanner at the airlock, and spoke.
"Cyborg R4A5Y reporting for duty," he said one last time. "Activation, ANN7380973."
"ANN7380973 activated." The hatch slid open.
He stepped into the vestibule, a circular area enclosed in pale green ceramic and glassene, blue and green microbeading outlining the doors leading to the engine compartments and weapons bay, and forming a constantly flowing staircase up the well in the centre of the ship. He'd designed ANN's interior to be cool and restful, a place where he could relax during missions and feel secure.
When the hatch spiralled shut behind him, he said, "Engage security level three."
"Security level three engaged. Welcome home, Ray."
"Good to be back, Ann. All quiet on the home front?"
"We have a new assignment, sent via interactive holo from Controller Cowley, accessible immediately. And you require nanite reconfiguration in three hundred and ninety seconds." There was a faint edge to ANN's voice, that in a human would have been anxiety or even disapproval. "Colloquialism: You are cutting it close."
"Three hundred ninety seconds?" R4A5Y laughed teasingly. "I’ve got time to brew up a cuppa first."
"Three hundred seventy-eight seconds. Please proceed to medbay for reconfiguration."
"I feel fine," he said, even as he ran a quick internal diagnostic. "All systems within acceptable parameters."
While that was true, he noted that several were only just within the greenline. ANN was right: he had been cutting it close, unwilling to give up the feeling of freedom he got from racing the hovercycle across the empty countryside.
R4A5Y hooked two fingers into the upwards flow of microbeads and let it carry him along. The ship had three levels: the entryway, the crew quarters, and the flight deck. The medbay was in the second level, along with the living area and his bedroom. As he stepped off the microbead line onto the landing his left knee momentarily refused to take his weight, making him stumble slightly.
“Two hundred and eighty-three seconds, Ray. Please hurry.”
Like all the others on the ship, the medbay door was a tracing of blue and green in the paler ceramic hull. Everything inside was designed to keep him at optimal function, yet he found himself hesitating, before another spasm, this time in his right calf, reminded him forcibly of what he was.
Utterly dependent on the nanites in his blood and his fluid systems to stay alive.
Utterly dependent on CI5.
Teeth bared in a snarl, he pushed through the microbeads into the medbay. The simple platform in front of him gave no outward indication of how sophisticated its internal mechanisms were. Shrugging out of his coverall, he stepped up into the body cradle, shoved in the mouth guard, and closed his eyes. Despite how often he'd undergone reconfiguration, he never felt comfortable watching as the glassite fibres emerged from the med console and found the jacks implanted in his neck, wrists, groin and ankles. They reminded him too much of worms.
“Initializing reconfiguration.” ANN’s voice was soothing. “The process will require two hundred and forty seconds.”
“Get on with it,” R4A5Y grated.
The flush always began slowly, spreading outward from the implants through his limbs and body. It felt like being filled with heated soda water, bubbly fizzing warmth moving through him, bringing with it a feeling of energy and vitality. If it had stopped there, he wouldn’t have minded reconfiguration at all. But the heat increased steadily and the bubbling turned into a relentless scouring, until it felt as if he were being rinsed out with boiling acid, stripped of every sensation except pain. No matter how hard he tried, R4A5Y could never hold himself above or beyond the pain.
The cradle held him motionless, the mouth guard muffling his involuntary sounds of pain.
He concentrated on the one thing that always got him through.
Deep inside, in a place he hid with a savage and desperate cunning, he still thought of himself as human. Despite all the indoctrination and conditioning of CI5, there was a stubborn core of him—the part that once had been a man—that would never answer to R4A5Y.
His name was Doyle.
Once he'd been more than a construct of carbon fibre and silicon and high-res wiring, designed to maximize the remaining functions of the fleshware.
Once he'd been Doyle.
Despite the pain, the real horror of reconfiguration for R4A5Y was not physical, but the fear that one day, the process would wipe away the last remnants of who he had been. One day, he might rise from the medbay cradle with no memory of Doyle, no feeling of being human, just as much a machine as ANN.
Even though ANN always told him how long the process would take, he never truly trusted that. It had been explained to him that his internal sensors had to be shut down in order for a full-system reconfiguration to be effective, but he sometimes wondered if it wasn't really just a technique to disorient him. ANN could have kept him under for five seconds or five years and he would have no objective way to tell how much time had passed. In some of his paranoid moments, he wondered if in fact he wasn't sometimes deactivated and put in storage during these sessions.
He never asked. He wasn't sure if it would be worse if ANN lied or told the truth.
When the fizzing and boiling inside him finally stopped, he lay motionless, panting, simply savouring each millisecond free from pain. He could hear himself whimpering, an ugly sound like a sob on each indrawn breath. The cradle under him was slick, and he wasn’t entirely sure if it was merely sweat or if he’d actually pissed himself.
"Reconfiguration complete," ANN said. "You postponed reconfiguration too long, and your nanites required 73% upgrading. I recommend a rest period now, Ray."
Groggily, he forced his eyes open. All the glassite fibres had been retracted, and he was free to move.
He spat out the mouth guard. “I need to wash,” he grunted. It took two attempts before he was able to sit up.
He made it out of the cradle in an ungainly heave, but his knees buckled and he slid to the floor, saved from a face-first fall only by a clumsy grab at the side of the cradle. Leaning against the platform, he let his head drop and concentrated on breathing.
"I'll be okay. Just give me a minute, luv."
"I did warn you."
"Colloquialism: sod off!" R4A5Y snapped. After a moment of offended silence, he added, "Sorry, Ann. That was a bad one."
"I can be of no help if you insist on pushing the boundaries of your physical structure. "Nanite reconfiguration is not optional in cyborgs."
"Yeah, yeah, you're right. I'll be a good boy from now on."
"Colloquialism: that'll be the day."
R4A5Y laughed, a bit hoarsely but still genuinely amused. CI5 nanny or not, ANN was good for him.
"Print me a clean coverall, would you?"
"Certainly. Shall I print a meal as well?"
After reconfiguration he always needed calories, but at the moment his stomach rebelled at the very thought of food.
"Something light," he decided.
He spent a long time in the mister, letting the damp heat soak into his still shivering flesh. He used the time to fold up the memories of Doyle and tuck them back into their hiding place. Nothing from the past was of use to him in the world he now inhabited. By the time he emerged, clean and dripping, he was functional as R4A5Y once again.
In front of the printer in the living area sat a new coverall, and a tray with a covered bowl and mug. He slipped into the coverall, leaving the upper tabs unfastened. At least alone on the ship, he could be comfortable with no one to see the scars and implants on his torso.
Carrying the tray with him, he hooked into the microbead ladder again and let it sweep him up to the flight deck. Settling into the pilot's seat, he took a slurp from the mug, noting gratefully that it was tea lacing with ginger and cardamom. Just what his stomach needed. He set aside the bowl for later and called up the virtual holoframe.
"Let's see what we've got then, Ann."
The lights dimmed slightly, and a holoframe appeared in the cabin in front of him. An image of older man with thinning sandy hair materialized in it, and limped forward, holding out a hand in greeting.
"Permission to come aboard, R4A5Y?"
"What do you say, Ann? Do we let the riff-raff in?"
George Cowley's image scowled at him, and for a moment R4A5Y grinned back. It was all interactive holography and responsive programming—the real Cowley was at CI5 headquarters in the heart of Albion territory, and the core message could be hours or even days old. But still, he'd once had a feeling of wry respect, even affection, for the old man; in a way they'd been friends. Or rather, Doyle and Cowley had once been friends.
"Holoprogram can be terminated at your request, R4A5Y." ANN was using what R4A5Y thought of as her semi-public voice, a more formal tone and expression than she used when they were alone, but without the mechanical flatness of lower-level artificial neural networks.
"None of that, now, ANN7380973." Cowley's scowl deepened slightly. "We have an assignment for you two. Have you been keeping up with the news?"
"I've been on leave, sir," R4A5Y said tightly. "I try to keep away from depressing subjects when I'm off duty."
Cowley clicked his tongue in exasperation, but continued. "The situation between the Albion Empire and the Awaräe Combine has become markedly worse. We've tried to keep it as quiet as possible, but there have been three armed skirmishes on the frontiers, and there are rumours the Combine has infiltrated undercover agents into the refugees at some border systems."
"Sounds like we might be heading for all-out war."
"Which is why there are heavy diplomatic efforts are under way. Albion wouldn't lose a war, mind you, but the disruptions in trade alone would cause unacceptable levels of damage across the systems."
"Not to mention all the casualties," R4A5Y said dryly.
"Aye, that too." Cowley had the grace to look slightly abashed. "Negotiations will commence shortly. Sheikh Achmeia of the Murani Caliphate has offered a neutral location, and Dr. Harbinger of the United Earth diplomatic services has agreed to act as an intermediary.”
"So where do we come in?"
"Sheikh Achmeia has contacted us to request specialized bodyguards."
R4A5Y grunted in exasperation. "Oh, christ, a nurse-maiding job? You pulled me off leave for that?"
Cowley shook his head in exasperation. "Three days ago, this man passed through the customs checkpoint at Louderis Station."
Another image appeared beside Cowley, a tall dark-haired human wearing a black optivisor and a thick gold medallion on a chain around his neck. R4A5Y took a sharp breath.
Some criminals captured public imagination even across as wide a galactic sphere as humanity now occupied. One of them was the master assassin known only as Ramos. His perfect kill record and flawless execution of outrageously daring plans made him seem larger than life. Despite the outrage of authority, and huge rewards for his capture, he thumbed his nose with impunity at the best efforts of law enforcement across half a galaxy.
Cowley nodded. "Ramos. By the time the ID filtered back to CI5, the ship was long gone."
"Let me guess, the flight plan they'd filed was a decoy?"
"Completely. So now we have a known assassin loose in Albion space, and no idea where he is or what he's up to."
R4A5Y glowered at the holoframe. "So who am I minding: the sheikh or the diplomat?"
"At the moment, I've assigned you to Dr. Harbinger. Murphy is on his way to Murani right now to meet with Sheikh Achmeia."
"Calculating mission probabilities," ANN announced. "Using as a baseline the previous success rates of subject Ramos, I calculate a 67.3 percent probability that any target will be killed, and subject Ramos make a successful escape. On adjusted parameters, I calculate a 54.3 percent probability that both the target and subject Ramos will be killed."
R4A5Y whistled. "Doesn't say much for security, does it?"
Cowley ignored him. "So, ANN7380973, any insight as to who Ramos will target?"
ANN was silent for a moment, then responded, "The highest probability is Dr. Harbinger, followed by Sheikh Achmeia. Diplomats from either the Albion Empire or Awaräe Combine are lesser probabilities, depending on their identity."
"On your assessment, how can we maximize mission success?"
"Based on past performance of subject Ramos, the survival of subject Harbinger is unlikely. Adjusting parameters to assume subject Harbinger is expendable, the elimination of subject Ramos becomes a much higher probability. It will depend on how you define mission success."
"I'll define it as Harbinger alive, and Ramos in custody. How does that calculate, hmm?"
"13.4 percent, assuming that CI5 casualties are not a consideration. I do not recommend such a mission statement."
"That low?" Cowley murmured, with a flicker of amusement. "I'm not sure Brian Macklin would agree with your assessment of R4A5Y."
"Then bring in somebody Macklin rates higher. I wouldn't mind finishing my leave," R4A5Y snapped.
"Then it's just as well I'm running CI5 and not you, isn't it?"
R4A5Y winced internally at the light of battle in Cowley's eyes. When the old man got that look, men and cyborgs alike knew to double-check their body armour.
"You're right, though. The ANN here at HQ has calculated similar results. Which is why I've decided it's high time for me to pay a courtesy visit to my old friend Sheikh Achmeia. Perhaps offer him a bit of advice on security."
"And who'll be nurse-maiding you, while Murph and I dance around after the important people?"
"I was taking care of myself before you were born, R4A5Y. Don't be so sure the old dog doesn't have teeth."
"It's not the teeth I'm worried about." R4A5Y gave the image a hard look. "Any other surprises we need to watch out for?"
"The Awaräe delegation will include Representative Dignitary Tennar, several junior ambassadors, and at least one military attaché. I've sent all the data presently available to your ANN. Do your homework, get a move on. I'll see you at Murani."
The holoframe winked out. For a long moment, R4A5Y stared at the blank space were the image had been. Shaking his head slowly, he let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding.
"The old bastard. Talk about tethered goats."
"Query: does this term 'tethered goat' indicate that Controller Cowley is deliberately offering himself as bait for subject Ramos?"
R4A5Y laughed softly. "Bait, distraction, additional bodyguard, whatever you want to call it, he's in. I'd say he didn't like your calculations."
"Further query: is there a reason why Controller Cowley exhibits discomfort when dealing with me?"
R4A5Y shrugged. "I think he's one of those people who figures automated neural networks should be seen and not heard. And . . ." his voice trailed off.
"And?" ANN prompted gently.
"He used to know Doyle. I bet he'd be happier never having to deal with R4A5Y."
"Observation: that is counter-productive to the long-term goals of CI5 in this case. Controller Cowley requires reconfiguration."
R4A5Y burst out laughing. "Was that a joke, Ann?" he gasped out.
"Did I fail to appropriately indicate sarcasm mode?"
R4A5Y chuckled again. "That's my girl." He settled himself more comfortably into the pilot's chair, and inserted a data-jack into his wrist. "Ping me the file the old man left, and then run a data sieve. I want everything on the public ether about Ramos, Dr. Harbinger, the Awaräe Combine, and how the political situation between Albion and the Combine is playing out.
"And meanwhile, talk nicely to the port's ANN, and get us in the lift-off queue."
"As you wish, Ray." ANN's voice was troubled. "I will point out that even with the most optimistic calculations, the parameters of mission success do not include our long-term survival. Colloquialism: we are up the creek without a paddle."
"Wrong colloquialism, luv." R4A5Y stretched slightly, and patted the console beside him. "We're fucked.