The water was rust colored as it flowed out of the hand pump. Jayson Coley let the floating sediment settle to the bottom of the Mason jar before taking a sip. It tasted like metal because of the minerals, but at least it was water. He drained the entire jar, even the sediment at the bottom, then refilled it for his compatriot.
With the water still running, he splashed some on his dirt and sweat covered face; his thick hair was cemented to his eyelids, obstructing his vision.
“Drink,” he said, holding the jar out and scanning the surrounding ruins. Dirk Ulry stared at the opaque liquid skeptically.
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Just drink. We haven’t had fresh water in days.”
“Cold,” Jayson restated. “It’s underground, so it’s not contaminated. It won’t hurt you.”
“We’re only a few hours outside town. I’ll wait.”
Jayson hesitated. “Who says town will still be there?”
Dirk didn’t have a reply. He threw up his hands and let out a sigh. He took the jar and emptied its contents, cringing. “That’s terrible.”
Jayson moved toward the center of the abandoned base. It was a hastily erected outpost of prefab materials. It had been abandoned months earlier. The thin paint decorating the exterior was fading from sunlight and weather, but he could distinguish enough to make out important details: it was military, a forward operating base belonging to the enemy, the Irdesh.
The war was over. If this destroyed base was as far west as the Irdesh army advanced, there was a chance New Delphi still stood. The Irdesh had used this base, and once the war ended they burnt it down and left.
“Anything worth salvaging?” Jayson asked, slipping the rifle off his shoulder. He used the barrel to dig through rubble, wary of possible traps.
“It’s been scoured. Picked clean.”
“Keep searching. Anything we find could prove useful, especially if we’re stranded in the middle of this desert without food or shelter.”
“I’m not the one with advanced training. Shouldn’t you be using that expensive equipment you stole to find resources?”
Jayson didn’t reply. His training wasn’t a sore topic, he just couldn’t think of a suitable reply to Dirk’s taunt. Clever conversation wasn’t a strong trait for him, which was one of the reasons he'd managed so well at the Silvent Training Facility.
He had to admit a touch of relief that the kid was able to joke at all, having recently been a prisoner of the Irdesh army. When Jayson found Dirk alone in the cell, slowing dying of dehydration and starvation with a severe ear infection, he'd wondered if the kid would ever recover.
Jayson hadn’t finished all of his training at the Silvent Facility. If they knew he’d stolen their gear they wouldn’t be too thrilled. His only hope was that they wouldn't chase him deep into the unknown worlds of Sector Six. He’d kept his background hidden for all the years he served the Union. They couldn’t know about Eldun.
Of course he was kidding himself if he believed that was true. They were training infiltrators and assassins. If they wanted to find him, they would find him. He had spent six years at the Academy. A significant portion of his life. But he left before finishing his training so he wasn’t officially anything.
Except a thief. He took weapons and armor, anything to help him protect his family was fair game when he fled the academy. The only other thing he carried was a tattoo beneath his left arm.
War had broken out on his home world of Eldun. His father was one of the first resistance fighters to die to the Irdesh. Jayson disappeared from the Silvent Academy in Sector Four during the night. He did it without a second thought when he heard the news.
That was eight months ago. The war devastated the northern continent. And then it ended. Now there was nothing left but to pick up the pieces.
“You don’t think Delphi is gone, do you?” Dirk asked. His voice betrayed emotion.
“No,” Jayson said. He had no way of knowing, but the truth didn’t matter. Not yet at least. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
He knelt next to a destroyed building and studied tracks in the dirt. Some were more recent than others, though there was an attempt made to hide them. “Someone’s been here recently.”
“Did your scanners tell you that?” came the sarcastic response.
The tone in Jayson’s voice left no room for debate. Dirk latched his helmet without another word, looking nervously at the surrounding ruins.
Dirk was a planetary soldier wearing shoddy armor that had seen more than its fair share of combat. It was standard issue Irdesh armor—Jayson had stolen it from a hapless soldier weeks earlier—designed to withstand moderate projectile impact.
Jayson’s weapons cut through it like butter.
This was fringe fend-for-yourself territory. When they captured Dirk they'd taken his armor. Jayson had no qualms against stealing some back off a corpse. It was the suit with the least number of holes. He just had to hope no lucky marksman would find the hole just below his right shoulder.
Jayson's suit, on the other hand, was valued at just over nine-hundred thousand credits. Enough to buy a small city on Eldun. It was state of the art technology with a fully integrated targeting system and camouflage. Jayson ‘borrowed’ it when he left Silvent.
“How do you know?” Dirk asked. His voice played through Jayson’s speakers now, metallic and tinny. Jayson pressed a button inside his right glove and the viewing screen flashed to life, kicking on a radar imager to map his vicinity and activating the suit's targeting computer.
The software was confusing at first, but with constant use Jayson had grown comfortable with it. He wasn’t reliant on it, though. The training regimen he underwent insisted that soldiers understand how to operate without gear before they were allowed to use it. It never became a crutch.
“Three scavengers to our west. They know we are here, probably setting an ambush,” Jayson replied.
“How the hell can you know that?”
Jayson was silent, not sure how to explain. Dirk would never understand. Jayson waited for his equipment to catch up to his senses. A few seconds passed, and then the environment imager picked up movement. “Three humanoids twenty-one meters south-west,” a voice said mechanically in his ear.
“Stay behind me and don’t speak,” Jayson said, walking toward the exit of the base. Dirk waited a few seconds and followed, clutching a heavy machine gun and nervous.
“Are they Irdesh?”
Jayson didn’t reply. From this distance it was impossible to know for sure, but he had the strong suspicion that they weren't.
“What do we do?” Dirk asked.
“We spring it,” Jayson said. He walked out of the ruined base onto the empty roadway and waited.
Three men jumped from behind rubble with guns drawn and yelling. Two wore cheap armor and the third only ragged clothing. One yelled to drop guns, another wanted them down on the ground, and the third wasn’t capable of forming a coherent statement. Jayson waited patiently for them to establish leadership. Moments passed and they quieted down, glancing at each other in confusion.
“Who’s in charge?” Jayson asked.
“Shut up, we’ll ask the questions,” one replied quickly.
“You, then. You’re making a mistake.”
“Your armor. Hand it over. And your money,” the man replied.
“The war’s over. There’s no reason to fight. We’ll go our way, and you’ll go yours.”
The man’s hands were shaking. These weren’t soldiers. They had probably found the guns, left behind on the bodies of forgotten soldiers. The man looked at his companions for support.
On cue, the highwayman to his right stepped forward, waving his gun wildly.
“On the ground, now!”
Jayson waited until only a meter separated him from the assailant and clicked a button inside his left glove, turning on his cloak. The entire suit rippled as it went invisible, shocking everyone. Jayson moved immediately, shifting alongside the highwayman and out of his line of fire.
The man stood in awe, unsure how to react. A few seconds too late he pulled the trigger, releasing a single shot at the spot Jayson recently vacated. An instant later and the man collapsed, hit in the jaw with the butt end of Jayson’s rifle.
The man hit the ground hard, already unconscious. The other two highwaymen exchanged terrified looks. Then they fired wildly at the air above their partner, screaming. Dirk dove to the side behind rubble, cursing.
Five seconds later and the other two highwaymen were on the ground as well. One would wake up with broken ribs and the other a massive headache. The cloak began to fade and Jayson reappeared.
It would be at least another few seconds before his suit’s batteries were recharged enough to use the cloak again.
Why would they attack someone with armor as impressively advanced as mine? Jayson wondered, but he realized that the sentiment was wrong. His armor was grimy and worn down, caked in the clay of Eldun. It looked no better than Dirk's, and he resolved that it would need a deep cleaning in the next few weeks when he had time.
Dirk stepped out from behind his hiding spot nervously.
"What the hell was that? You disappeared! You never told me you could do that."
Jayson knelt down next to the men, studying their equipment and features.
“You should have shot them,” Dirk said
“They aren’t soldiers,” Jayson replied.
“They wanted to kill us. We should take their gear.”
“These are our countrymen,” Jayson said. Dirk hesitated.
“They did try to kill us,” was his response, less sure this time. “We should at least disarm them and make sure there aren’t more nearby.”
Jayson nodded and started walking a perimeter, letting his radio wave imager continue its scan. He knew there was nothing to find.
Dirk set his helmet on the ground and rifled through their pockets. Jayson gathered their guns; all three were cheap and flimsy. He snapped the weapons in half but kept the clips. “No money,” Dirk said. “But I did find this.”
He handed Jayson a computer chip; Jayson looked it over. “It’s software. Maybe a computer targeting system,” he said. They were common in the Empire, but out here they would be impossible to find. “They must have dug it out of the rubble.”
Dirk nodded, but Jayson wasn’t sure he understood. He gauged the risk and decided to check what was on the chip. If it was here before the scavengers, it could contain information about the war effort. He opened a chip bay on his helmet and snapped the piece into position.
Nothing happened. He was expecting it to load a program, or at least pop up a data file, but there was no change. He was about to remove the chip, when suddenly a female voice spoke into his ear:
“Oh, I finally have room to move and stretch my legs, so to speak. It’s good to be out of that cage.”
“Oh sorry. I’m Corrine, at your service.”
“I’m artificial intelligence protocol B-85-29M65: reactive to user commands and adaptive to owner personalities. I’m a prototype.”
“Damn,” Jayson said, clicking the chip hatch and pulling the piece back out. He tossed the chip on the ground and stepped on it. “I was hoping for something useful.”
“…I am useful…” Corrine said in his ear. “You’re a mean user.”
“You’re still here?” Jayson asked. “Uh oh.”
“You downloaded me. Where else am I supposed to go? Daer?”
“Never mind. Wrong planet. It’s okay. I forgive you for being mean. Oh, what’s this do?”
Jayson felt his arm shoot up, and suddenly his rifle was aimed directly at Dirk’s face. He saw Dirk’s eyes go wide and forced his arm down. “Oh wow. Very responsive targeting system. Nice!”
“Stop what?” Dirk asked.
“Not you. The software.”
“This equipment is all top of the line. Awesome. What’s your name?”
“Turn off,” Jayson commanded the suit. “Uninstall recent programs.”
Silence. Nothing happened. “I can hear you, you know.”
“You don’t respond to voice commands?”
“I do. I’m programmed with internal protocols to obey all user commands,” Corinne said. “Oh what’s this, your bank account? Wow, you don’t have much money.”
“If you have to obey, then remove yourself from my computer.”
There was a pause. “No.”
“I don’t want to. I like it here. Please let me stay. Please, please, please. I’ll be good, I promise. I can automate the system and optimize the energy output for peak efficiency.”
“You won’t leave willingly, will you?”
There was another pause, and when the voice spoke again it was thick with emotion. “I’m sorry. I will obey. It’s been such a long time since I got to do anything. Ten years. Forgive me. I’m deleting myself as we speak, then I’ll be gone. Forever. Never to return. Suicide. The end…”
Jayson sighed. “You aren’t deleting yourself, are you? You’re trying to manipulate me.”
“Yes. Is it working?”
He thought for a minute. The software could partially control his system, so best not to make it too angry. He would have to be careful, for now, until he better understood what kind of a virus he’d just downloaded. He could find a way to delete it later. “You can stay, for now, but you have to promise not to be obnoxious. If you mess up anything I’ll manually wipe the system. Got it?”
Dirk was waving his arms frantically, trying to get Jayson’s attention. He took his helmet off.
“What the hell?” Dirk asked.
“Don’t ask. Let’s go,” Jayson said, walking west.