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Dot and her friend Rie ran down the dark corridor made mostly of dark ceramics joined by flexible metal coils. While typical humans often complained about the gloom, to their large eyes, it was perfectly bright. The young girls once again stopped at an unexpected T-junction, studying the glyphs on the opposite wall to orient themselves in the ancient labyrinth under the sprawling arcology taking up almost an entire continent of Proxima Centauri B.

“All right, so to get to the arrivals bay, we go... left?” mused Dot. “Yeah, left.”

“Why are we going there again?” complained Rie. “We’ve been running in circles for half an hour now. What’s in that bay anyway?”

“New Explorer candidates!” beamed Dot. “I always wanted to see the kids from the Sol system, and my guardian says there’s a bunch of them coming today!”

“Are they going to be that different from us?” frowned Rie.

“I don’t know,” shrugged Dot. “Let’s go see!”

As she shot down the corridor, Rie jogged after her. She was nowhere near as excited, but when Dot was really interested in something, trying to stop her was like trying to fight a force of nature. They reached the bay just in time to see a live feed of five triangular destroyers warping into normal space and heading towards the planet.

It seemed a little unusual to use warships for transport, but as they entered orbit right on schedule, one of them sent out a heavy dropship with a group of kids chosen for one of the most challenging tracks inside the military’s cyborg development curriculum. Provided they kept meeting the challenges thrown at them, and improved their aptitude scores, they’d proceed to Tau Ceti for more specialized training in three to five years.

The girls watched the candidates file out of the shuttle in an orderly line, wearing the traditional dark robes of advanced trainees. Their faces were borderline grim, stamped with a stuffy seriousness best befitting adult veterans, with one exception. Alex made no effort to hide his fascination with the vast, open space housing dozens of shuttles on multiple levels.

He caught the curious stare of the girls who were peeking out from behind a row of cargo cubes almost as tall as them. Dot and Rie waited for his reaction, ready to flee at any moment. Alex rubbed the back of his head and flashed them a big, warm, goofy grin while effortlessly keeping pace with the other candidates.

###

In a spacious room, Christine nervously paced in front of a large window looking out at the city while Steve fiddled with his phone in an oversized, comfortable, circular chair. Their quarters had two bedrooms with individual facilities, and a large, shared living room and kitchen. A suite like that in the city below would be considered quite upscale, and easily go for a few hundred thousand astros.

“Gotta say, for my first jail cell, this is pretty swanky,” noted Steve, his nose still buried in his screen.

“What the hell?” raged Christine. “Where do they get off just shuttling us around as they please and treating us like suspects?”

Steve harrumphed with dissatisfaction after repeatedly getting nowhere with his phone and turned to Christine.

“I mean, technically, they’re not wrong,” he mused, his hands dancing in the air as if the motion helped him think. “From their point of view, we are a bit suspicious right now.”

“How? What did we do?”

“Well, for one, their ship blew up and crashed here. There’s almost certainly footage of me pulling the crew from the pod and delivering their soldiers to be studied in a lab. Then, after an alien attack, when they were ready to leave, we slowed them down right in time for the 10th Fleet and Mai to show up. If they’re paranoid, and let’s face it, they are because they’re military, we’re looking kinda suspect.”

Christine opened her mouth to object but stopped herself.

“Shit, you’re right,” she groaned. “And I bet Mai not attacking us right away just makes us look worse. Did she plan it that way? Is that why she was asking what to do with us?”

“No, wait, now we’re starting to get paranoid. We can’t do that. Let’s check the facts. In the big picture, we’re just a statistic. Why plan some elaborate scheme involving us?”

“Right, ok, so, we’re operating on the premise that it’s all just a coincidence and this could’ve just as easily happened on any other Terra Firma outpost.”

Steve nodded.

“Now, what’s our next step?” he asked.

“I don’t know about you but I think we should go explore this place a little. Quietly hiding here just makes us look shady.”

“And?” Steve prompted, raising his brow.

“And okay, I wanna snoop,” Christine rolled her eyes. “I’m on a huge, really cool spaceship with perfect artificial gravity, and yeah, I wanna see everything I can. So shoot me.”

“There it is,” Steve smiled and took another annoyed look at his phone before turning off the screen and tossing it aside. “I’m not getting a signal on my phone but I bet the computers here have some version of the internet so I’d like to hop on and see what I can find out.”

“We got a plan?”

“We got a plan.”

###

A vast city filled with towers and spires nestled in a valley of snow-capped mountains hummed with activity. The setting sun turned the horizon of the cloudless, blue sky into a gradient of orange, red, and violet. Earth was as calm and welcoming as ever, a homeworld turned refuge for the few astronauts allowed to return after thousands of years of roaming the stars.

Those few found a world vastly different than the one their ancestors left, one according to which it was now the year 23507 and roughly six billion people lived in massive cities shaped like spiral galaxies, filled with skyscrapers and transport infrastructure, yes, but also lush greenery that bled into their surroundings of pristine expanses of nature only seldom interrupted by a high-speed rail line.

The odd chronology was an attempt to unify humanity’s clocks across the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way, as well as the beachheads in the Carinae-Saggitarius Arm. After several years of intense debate, a committee accepted a long floated proposal to enumerate the years starting from the accepted dawn of human civilization and add the resulting 10,000 years to the current calendar. After many thousands of years, almost no one recalled that time was ever recorded differently.

Councilors Andrew Newman and Howard Grey, along with a handful of aides, sat in a minimalistic conference room with expansive views of Earth’s capital city and its mountainous surroundings. A holographic, translucent, three-dimensional silhouette of a human appeared on the other side of the table. Inside it, a progress bar quickly completed, turning the silhouette into a projection of Milburn in his lab. Periodically, a small patch of pixels re-rendered to keep the hologram in sync.

“Good day Councilors,” greeted Milburn and glanced at his watch. “Beg your pardon, good evening.”

“Dr. Milburn, let’s just skip the pleasantries this time,” said Councilor Newman. “You know exactly why I called this meeting.”

“Not really, but I think I can safely assume,” nodded Milburn.

“So, tell me how you managed to fail at capturing the prototype on Sigma Draconis 691 D.”

“Simple. I wasn’t trying to capture him, just rattle his nerves and put the 13th Fleet on high alert that we were pursuing one of their principals. Mostly I wanted to assess capability and if there was any significant change in his abilities over the last six months.”

“Why? What’s the point?” Newman bristled with annoyance.

“The point, Councilor Newman, is that dealing with prototypes is a very complicated matter. You can’t just capture them, they’ll rebel. They don’t take orders blindly so they can’t be strong-armed. No, you have to eliminate their choices. You’ll only get real compliance when they truly believe that there’s no other choice but to follow your orders.”

“Have you tried just reprogramming them?”

Councilor Grey’s face sank into his palm as several aides shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. Oh Dear God, here we go again, they thought. Explaining anything to Newman was more or less impossible. Once that bufoon latched onto an idea, nothing short of surgically cutting it out of his brain could change his mind.

“Reprogram them?” Milburn shook his head in dismay. “If I had the technology, don’t you think I would’ve done it already? Do you not see the instability of the Hollow Project, the one you told me to pursue even when I warned you again and again that it would be impossible?”

“I don’t understand what’s so goddamn hard about this. They’re machines. Just update them or something.”

Milburn paused and glanced at Grey who was busy pretending to take very thorough notes.

“Councilor Newman, I say this with all due respect, you don’t understand what’s so hard because you don’t understand the subject matter at hand,” he tried again. “It’s as simple as that. We cannot strip the test subjects of their free will and personality if we want them to actually do the intended job. That free will to override the internal AI is what allows their machine parts to learn from them, take that away and we have lobotomized zombies driven by whatever the AI thinks it needs to do at the time.”

“Look David, we’ve played your weird little games long enough. We could overlook your attitude when it was producing results, but now we may just be forced to apply a firmer hand to managing your research.”

“Well, you’ll need to talk to Councilor Grey about that, won’t you?” smirked Milburn.

Newman shot a dirty look and a scowl at Grey, who was still pretending to take notes.

“Someone has to answer why so many of your prototypes ended up either lost or going out of control,” seethed Newman. “How am I going to explain to the people of Earth that we spent billions on weapons we’re still trying to get reliably working?”

“Well, there’s a reason Prometheus is a classified project,” laughed Grey.

“We don’t run a factory where all the items off the assembly line have to be in perfect working order,” said Milburn with a hint of anger. “We are a scientific project. We have to be free to experiment, fail, and try again before we achieve our end goal and build that factory you want.”

“Do any of you know what the fuck he’s talking about? Because I’m lost,” asked Newman, turning to his aides who refused to make a sound. He switched his attention back to the scientist. “Well, I can see this was a total waste of time for both of us. You can go play with your little robot toys for now, but this conversation isn’t over.”

He demonstratively got up and left, his aides trotting in tow behind him like concerned baby ducks after their parent.

“Huh, that actually went better than I expected,” shrugged Grey.

“Yes,” agreed Milburn. “The angry buffoon at least knows he wasted valuable time. That’s progress already.”

“He’s right about one thing. You lost your filter out there in space,” Grey shook his head excoriatingly. “So I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, but going forward, watch it. For both our sakes.”

He turned to his aides.

“Meeting adjourned,” he announced, powering down his tablet.

###

Christine walked down an empty hallway of mostly blank walls lined with ceramics. It was dark, empty and only an occasional marker in Pigpen glyphs gave her any hint of direction. This part of the base seemed downright eerie compared to the bright mess hall and recreational areas at the core of the orbiting complex.

As she tried to walk through a ringed entrance, the coil wrapping around it flashed red and an electromagnetic shied pushed her back before quickly fading. Taken aback, she reached out with her hand to once again be rejected by the field, the entrance lighting up with a red honeycomb.

“Fob not working?” asked a human lab tech who accidentally snuck up on her.

Christine jumped, startled, barely surpassing a squeal.

“Uh... yeah,” she laughed nervously. “Just having some issues today.”

“Eh, no worries. Stupid thing has been acting up all day.”

He reached out with his hand. The ringed gate turned green, and he motioned for Christine to step through, walking behind her once she was clear.

“You should be ok from here,” he winked.

“Right, thank you,” Christine slightly bowed, imitating how the cyborgs and humans on the base seemed to greet each other.

She walked forward, guessing her way as the confident lab tech hung a sudden left to her great relief. Eventually, she found herself peering through an open entrance into a large, gloomy lab. After carefully scanning around, she stepped in.

In the middle of the space was a pedestal with glowing lights, with models for what looked like a robotic Walker mated with the body of a giant Berserker in cutaways from numerous angles displayed on top. Every part of each model was marked with dense boxes of glyphs. Fascinated by the projections, she didn’t notice the faint light of a large, wide, curved screen, or the cyborg’s eyes and identifying face markings behind her.

The sudden sound of typing almost made her jump out of her skin as she quickly turned on her tiptoes to see a fishbowl-style office with an open sliding door straight ahead. Inside, Alex typed on a keyboard while looking at the monitor attached to his elongated minimalistic desk on its right side.

He was dressed in civilian clothing, a simple v-neck t-shirt with long sleeves, pants, and comfortable tennis shoes. A large pair of wireless headphones casually hung around his neck.

“Can’t sleep Ms. Hayes?” he asked, eyes never leaving the screen.

“Um... no. Not really. And just Christine is fine. What about you?”

“Just doing my job. I’m an inventor. I build things. More specifically things designed to integrate with minds and bodies, although that is technically redundant unless you believe in mind-body dualism, which, as a doctor, I don’t.”

“You’re... a doctor?”

“Yes. Not a human doctor though. I mean, if you were having a heart attack or a stroke, I could probably keep you alive until one is available, depending on the severity of your condition, of course, but I’m mostly a research scientist. I don’t see patients unless they’re volunteer test subjects.”

“So, fighting alien monsters and other cyborgs is a fringe benefit or something?”

“You could say that if you’d like,” Alex shrugged. “Someone has to test out the gizmos and gadgets, might as well be the person in charge of making them.”

He tapped his fingers in deep thought for a few moments.

“Looks like this model is tomorrow me’s problem,” he groaned, got up from his chair, and grabbed a messenger bag. “And fuck that guy.”

He walked towards the exit barely glancing at Christine.

“Want a nightcap at the observation deck? My treat,” he offered in that strange way all high-ranking cyborgs seemed to be able to disguise pretty obvious commands as polite suggestions.

“Sure. May as well,” she nodded nervously in reply.

She silently followed him through a vast maze of corridors and shortcuts to the core of the base, where they proceeded to what was officially designated as the mess hall. It was bigger than the shuttle and aircraft hangars of Terra Firma bases, easily accommodating thousands of patrons across numerous levels, and featured a dozen floor-to-ceiling windows with beautiful views of the planet below.

Alex and Christine sat on high stools at a bar in the light, cavernous, observation deck at the very top of the mess hall complex. The cyborg took their drinks off a small tray held by a little robot hovering on the bar top and handed one to Christine.

“Thank you, thank you...” he politely dismissed the robot, which happily beeped as its little projected eyes displayed minimalistic symbols for blinking, and quickly scooted out of the way.

“Would you mind if I gave you a little piece of advice?” asked Alex.

“No, I suppose,” carefully replied Christine.

“Usually, it’s not a good idea to sneak around a large military installation while you’re having your background checked.”

“Look Alex, trust has to work both ways. Your soldiers already had a chance to snoop around our city, not to mention all the hacking and, oh yeah, using our nukes to take down an alien scouting party in orbit right over our heads!”

“You dragged our soldiers out of their bridge pod, then tried to reverse engineer them in one of your labs. You brought the pod into your hangers and hooked it up to your computers. These actions have consequences, simple as that.”

“I know because we got hit with a virus that hijacked every system we operate, an alien invasion, and then we had to fight another Earth fleet while you blew up our city gate roof. Twice, I should add. I mean, what were you guys even doing in this system?”

Alex took a deep breath, shaking his head.

“All right, fine,” he sighed. “Here’s what I can tell you. Over the last few years, some Terra Firma bases have been attacked by the alien species you encountered today. We call them the Rexx because the first world on which we rant into them was designated with the suffix ‘RX.’ Others have been going offline and supply and transfer missions to find that some outposts are abandoned with no trace of life, or were destroyed and left to decay. We don’t know if these events are connected and there’s no obvious pattern.”

Christine took a long pull of her drink. It seemed that things were about to get a lot more complicated.

“We were surveying current bases and looking for any we missed or that were spun off from existing ones,” continued Alex. “The ship doing this survey was attacked nearby by a Rexx squad and limped here because our nav systems marked Sigma Draconis 691 D as a safe destination. And because we’re supposed to respect the territory of other fleets, we wanted to leave for our own territory as soon as possible, and report our status after the incident, following the accepted protocols for such things.”

“So, do you...?”

Alex cut her off mid-thought.

“Sorry, but I said everything I can say until we’re done with your and Mr. Robbins’ background check.”

He downed the rest of his drink, stood up, and grabbed his bag.

“Enjoy the rest of your night and try to get some sleep if you can,” he said on his way out. “Sleep is critically important for proper brain function and cognition.”

“Is that your medical opinion?”

“As a matter of fact, it is,” something like an actual smile briefly shimmered across his face.

Christine watched him walk out of the observation deck and turned back to look at the busy floating city and the planet below while sipping her drink. Her night of snooping appeared to be a bust. Not only did she fail to find any answers, but she ended up with even more questions than when she started.

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About the author

neutronfish

Bio: Slightly irradiated ex-Soviet computer lobotomist who makes new technology by day and writes about weird science at night.

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