Hollow Shell, Chapter 2

What is this? Hollow Shell is a rather strange SF/horror story, written from the viewpoint of a self-aware suit of power armour. In the previous chapter, we met Alex, our protagonist, who is not-entirely-enjoying an unexpected second life as an AI derived from a brain upload. We also met Onyx, an emotionally-insecure alien with whom Alex has had to establish a working relationship.

In this chapter, Alex and Onyx go to the firing range, where Centurion Kyanite is waiting to oversee the day’s training. Whilst Kyanite berates the misfortunate trainees, Alex exchanges notes with Melanie, a former banker and another post-human upload.

Faced with an onslaught of very-personal negativity from Kyanite, Onyx is showing signs of pressure. Alex needs to figure out a way to let Onyx keep his shit together long enough to be useful…

Chapter 2: A Memory of Ozone

Hi, my name’s Alex, and I’m not an alcoholic. I’d like to be, but I’m a bit short in the liver department these days.

I thought I’d say my name; I just realised I forgot to introduce myself last time, didn’t I?

I feel odd with these expository bits. You see, as I know I’ve said once or twice, if you’re reading this, you already know most of this stuff. But, I also need to organise my thoughts. And it’s possible we’re not on the same page. Things are actually that fucked up. There’s so much compartmentalisation here. I suspect they’re not telling me the whole truth, so it seems likely they haven’t told you the whole truth either. Perhaps if we share what we know, we can work out where the gaps are.

So, let’s begin. I’d ask if you were sitting comfortably, but of course with a hollow tin tail hanging off your arse, you can’t sit comfortably. You’re presumably slouched on a rest-bar instead, or propped up on a storage rack.

If I’m being optimistic then I’m a very clumsy hollow robot. Actually, that’s crap. The honest truth is I’m a suit of power armour that happens to be somewhat over-designed and thus is able to talk. Yeah, it’s fucked up.

(I’m also a failed undergraduate who wound up as a bad estate agent due to a lack of decent jobs and a crap college history, but that’s neither here nor there for our purposes. Apparently I also had a lengthy stint as a corpse on a dead planet, too, but somehow I don’t think I’ll be putting that on the CV.)

Anyway, the funny thing about us talking battlesuits is that we are actually all individual.
Or, more accurately, there’s a basic body-frame that we all share. But there are all sorts of modular units that can be plugged into said frame. The key limiting factor is the ability of the central AI (hi!) to make a sensible use of all the bits and pieces. There’s no point plugging in guns and sensors that the AI simply can’t figure out how to use. The machinery that creates the personality chips is apparently able to somehow assess our aptitudes and select a set of modules based on them.

I don’t remember being assessed; I’m rather glad of that. At the back of my mind, I have horror movie images of millions of copies of me, forced to run lethal electronic mazes for thousands of subjective simulated years, e-labrats trapped in a positronic nightmare.

(Yes, I know positronics isn’t actually a real thing, but I like the word, okay?)

(Also I don’t know if the e-dungeon’s how they actually do things – maybe the assessment is a passive-read thing. But there’s enough horror movie-type stuff going on around here that you have to wonder, don’t you?)

Anyway, apparently my brain was scanned somehow. There was enough of it left that a personality could be reconstructed from the neural wiring, and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything, so it seems to have worked. I understand that most brains, even when they’re still intact, just yield junk data. It’s why the Folk have to be tolerant of our eccentricities – basically because they insist on this overly-complex process to make their AIs, they get what they’re given.

(I was told that yes, the Folk can just cook up an AI out of raw numbers. But those sort tend to be too abstruse and alien to be useful, or they just sit there cogitating the eleven billionth digit of pi, or something. Organically-derived AIs are sufficiently-grounded in reality that we can be made to care at least a little bit about the War.)

It seems that I have the qualities they’re looking for. I suppose I can sort of see it. I am reasonably smart, albeit in an unfocused, generalist sort of way. I know my way around technology (the electronics module of my attempted physics degree was the one that went best). Also, I don’t give up easily and I seek to finish what I start – that was how I was able to function as an estate agent, despite being a failed nerd. I don’t intimidate easily and I’m not easily-scared. Think about it – my job involved going to lots of places I’d never visited before, meeting with completely random members of the public (how do you know they’re not axe murderers?) and also dealing with the alpha-type money-obsessed bullies who owned the business. Oh, sorry, by ‘bully’ I meant ‘partner’, of course. I’m sure someone with a law degree could ever be a complete shithead, no?

(I’ll be honest, you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Estate agent. Yuck.’ Sorry, guilty as charged. I can totally see where you’re coming from. If it’s any help, I wouldn’t claim to ever having been a particularly good estate agent.)

(I’ve just made it worse, haven’t I? Okay, talking tin can, time to stop digging.)

I’m also adaptable and I seem to roll well with unexpected changes. Waking up in the wrong body has to count as an unexpected change!

The body I woke up in is what they call a Dreadnought-class suit. That sounds scary and, umm, yeah, it is a bit scary, actually. I’m effectively a walking tank. Sometimes it scares me too – the first time I looked in that mirror, an actual metal monster was staring back at me.
I have basically all of the modular units that can be plugged into this frame. There’s the shoulder-mounted rail cannon I mentioned earlier. There’s a grenade launcher on the other shoulder. There are wrist-mounted extensible blades for close combat. There are a whole raft of targeting sensors, electronic warfare systems and signal trackers and jammers. I have shoulder, ankle and tail-base rocket units – remember the Turian Ghost from Mass Effect? I can actually do the whole damn rocket jump thing.

It is just a jump; thanks to gravity, weight and the tyranny of the rocket equation, I can’t actually fly on the thrust these things put out, by the way. The thrust is fine, it’s the rate at which they eat up the propellant that’s the problem. I could probably fly for a couple of minutes, after which you get a me-sized crater. Being a crater seems like a bad career move, so I’m not planning on doing that.

I can jump impressive distances, though. Seriously, it needs to be a big wall if it’s going to keep me out. Better yet, shock absorbers in the legs mean I can land without the impact turning Onyx into lizard-jelly.

In terms of defensive abilities, if you want them, I have them. My interior has a temperature control system. You won’t freeze or get heat exhaustion if you’re inside me. I can seal up completely against vacuum, or NBC contaminants. I have a back-mounted air tank with a rebreather system, which can provide several days’ worth of safe breathing before a refill is needed. The facemask part of my helmet-head also doubles as a gas mask. I am quite literally a walking mass of armour plating – I suspect terrestrial small arms could scratch the paintwork, but I don’t think they’d do much more than that.

I also have an adaptive camouflage system. That’s right, I can pull a Predator and make myself disappear. It does tend to drain the battery, and it puts a huge load on my CPU (just think of the pixels!) but I can do it.

While I probably can’t swim – I have fuck all buoyancy! – there’s not much to stop me just walking along the bottom of a badly-placed river or lake.

I have a full power-assist system built into me; that’s how I can walk independently of Onyx. I’m capable of carrying several times my own not-inconsiderable weight. (That said, I’m not actually as heavy as you’re thinking; if I was, I’d have a vulnerability to squishy ground and weak floors. As it is, if I’m walking on soft ground, my feet-boot-things can extend a sort of snowshoe mode. It looks dumb, granted, but it works.)

You get the idea; I’m insanely over-engineered.

The biggest limiting factor is power supply. I’m run off of a set of superconducting batteries, mounted below my personality chips. The batteries are smaller than you might expect, as their energy density is crazily high. More sufficiently-advanced xenotech, I suppose. The batteries are good for several weeks of normal use, and few days of combat use, before they need recharging. Recharging is exactly what you think – I get plugged into a wall socket, iPod-style. There’s a big fat high-voltage cable, from which I slurp electricity like a junkie snorting cocaine. (I knew a few of those at the agency, though thank God I never got a monkey on my own back.)

I suppose the other issue is maintenance. But I think we covered that last time, didn’t we?
Basically, when I came off of the production line, the Folk took one look at my amazing tin body and boggled. I was far better than they were expecting. If I’d had even half the stuff I do, they’d have been in raptures. Getting a Dreadnought-class suit is damn unusual – I’ve been told the production rate is about two percent for us.

And then I went and spoiled their joy by picking Onyx.

Today is another day of target practise. Or rather, it was another day or target practise – the activities all ended hours ago. Onyx is on his sleeping shift – he’s draped all over the rest-bar, limbs just dangling. He’s not snoring, but there is a sort of faint, high-pitch squeak that happens when he breathes. As far as I know, that’s normal.

Anyway, the point is, a lot of this account is being written retrospectively. I have several hours till Onyx wakes up, and I’m just plugged into the wall socket for now. My time is my own. I’ll probably go for a wander a bit later – I don’t need to sleep, after all, and I need to talk to Melanie. I could just message her over the base’s net, of course, but I’m sure you’ve gathered I don’t entirely trust it.

So, with that understood, back to the firing range.

Let’s just forget about the chronology issue for a moment or two. For the purposes of this account, I’m stood with a clutch of other people in the big hollow rectangular box that is this particular firing range. (I understand this base has several – seriously, it’s a huge complex.)

Right at that time, I was metaphorically full of shit and literally full of Onyx – oh, wait, that sounded more creepy than witty, didn’t it? Actually this whole situation is really creepy, so I’m just going to leave that in there. Thank goodness Onyx has mostly got used to this now, so he’s stopped being all squirmy like he was for our first few days together.
(We had to have words about that. It was awkward for both of us.)

I’m stood at one end of the firing range, in a line along with several other suits and their associated aliens. All you can see is the metal. In terms of what we look like, I’m tempted to say something like the lizard version of Iron Man, but actually, War Machine’s probably closer. I mean, he’s got that external gun, you know?

Basically think War Machine-stroke-robo-dinosaur and you’re not too far off.

Out of everyone in the room, three of us are Dreadnought-class. There’s me (obviously), there’s Melanie and there’s also Centurion Kyanite. Or rather, Kyanite is the lizard – I’ve got no idea what the suit’s called. In fact I’m having this discussion with Mel right now.
We’re talking over a low-amplitude, local-area infrared transmission. It’s not encrypted or directional, but the signal’s pretty weak. It’ll carry maybe ten metres before the signal-to-noise ratio drops into down into the ambient thermal level. That’s the whole point – it’s intended for in-fireteam chatter on the battlefield, set up so that the enemy can’t intercept it unless they’re physically right next to you. If they are, you have problems other than eavesdropping, to be honest. The signal’s weak enough that Kyanite won’t be able to hear it, stood as they are all the way over there.

‘Do you know who that is?’ I ask Mel. I send her a targeting reticule dropped on Kyanite, so she knew who I meant.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘That’s the guy who runs the firing range.’

Mel is decisive, to the point and not prone to elaboration. Unfortunately, that also means she sometimes completely misses the point.

‘No,’ I say. ‘The upload. Who are they?’

She say, ‘I don’t know. They’ve never talked to me.’

‘I’ve tried pinging them directly,’ I say. ‘No response.’

‘There might not be anyone in there,’ Mel says.

‘Nonsense. Look at how the suit moves. There’s obviously an AI running the mechanism. Anyway it’s Dreadnought-class. You can’t just run that off of a pocket calculator.’

‘Fair point,’ she says. ‘Maybe they’re just not sociable.’

That was a possibility. Kyanite is delivering some sort of chewing-out to the Folk trainees. I’m not really paying attention; the drill sergeant bullshit just bores me. Kyanite does this all the time, even when they’re not on the range. The phrase “tediously unoriginal and pompous windbag” jumps to mind.

Onyx, however, has an elevated heart rate, changed skin conductivity and is breathing a little fast. (I’ve upped the flow-throughput across the rebreather mask, to keep it synchronised. I do this without any great conscious effort – thanks to the built in hardware/software set-up, it’s pretty instinctive.) Apparently he’s taking all of this to heart. The poor overly-sincere dear.

Mel and I aren’t sharing our private chatter with the lizards. This conversation is strictly tin-can only.

‘I suppose this is basically hell if you’re a hardcore introvert,’ I say.

Mel says, ‘Frankly, Alex, this is hell full stop. We’re in the middle of an alien war. You need no more.’

She has a good point. Of course Mel had to go and spoil it. ‘By the way,’ she says, ‘is that Alex as in Alexander or Alexandra?’

I say, ‘Yes.’

There’s a pause. ‘That’s not an answer.’

‘No,’ I agree. I don’t like this particular question, and I’d like it shut down nice and quickly.

There’s another pause, then Mel plays a sighing noise over the IR channel. ‘Okay, fine. I don’t suppose it matters much now, does it?’

It really doesn’t. We’re both machines now, so really, we’re both more sexless than your average bucket of yeast. Gender-policing a talking tin can is an exercise in futility. I need to answer her in some way, though, so I offer up one factoid.

‘I was an estate agent, if that helps?’

‘Honestly? It didn’t.’

It sounds like Kyanite has had their fill of insulting the trainees. The spiel is being wound up. Onyx clearly knows; I can see the slight-but-significant changes in his biomarkers. He’s getting psyched up for the shooting.

To Mel, I say, ‘You never told me what yours is called.’

‘My alien?’ she asks. ‘Jet, apparently. She’s from the same batch as Onyx. I guess minerals were in fashion when they did the names.’

‘So yours is a girl?’ I ask.

‘No more than yours is a boy,’ Mel says. It’s true – the Folk are all neuter. They’re grown in tanks. It’s not exactly cloning – there is some randomisation of parameters, to avoid everyone having the same vulnerabilities. Apparently they learned the hard way about the brittleness of monocultures. However, since they don’t breed in the conventional way, there’s no need to redirect metabolic energy to sex organs. So those were engineered out some time in the past. In this age, the Folk only have one purpose.

I took to referring to Onyx as “he” simply because “it” felt horribly, horribly rude. “It” is probably a more accurate pronoun, though. (It’s worth noting that Standard has a set of fully-genderless pronouns, and no others. The Folk have specific nomenclature for biological sexes, but those aren’t really used outside of a scientific or technical context.)

Mel says, ‘I decided I’d use “she” and “her”. It’s no more wrong than the other two words.’
It’s a valid point. This is getting a bit close to the bone, again, so I change the subject. ‘How is she for maintenance?’

‘Jet? Pretty good, actually. Fast learner.’

‘Onyx is getting better. I was having some issues yesterday. With my leg. Turns out that one of the capacitors had popped. But, it was feeding current to one of the actuators, so my diagnostics fingered the actuator as the problem. Luckily Onyx spotted what was actually wrong, once he had my leg up on the table.’

‘Good,’ she says. ‘I know which of you is paying attention now.’

Ouch. Nice job hitting me below the belt there, Mel. Time to change the subject again.

‘So what were you?’ I ask her. ‘I mean, before all this.’ Before you were dead, and before some aliens grave-robbed your corpse from the charnel house that some other aliens had turned our planet into, and before they shoved your brain into their Forge without bothering to ask first, I mean.

‘A woman,’ she said. For a moment I wondered if she was channelling Onyx, then I realised she was probably just trying to pull my leg.

My metal, servomotor-assisted, heavily-armoured leg, which is digitigrade instead of plantigrade, and has a massive three-toed foot on the end. Actually, pulling that is a really bad idea. I can kick hard as fuck with this monster.

‘No, Mel. I know that. I meant, what was your job? You know, before waking up here?’

‘Me? Senior financial analyst. For a big City bank, in London.’

I can sort of see how Mel ended up as a Dreadnought-class. She’s blunt and has a certain force of personality. She knows what she wants and she’ll do her best to get it. It can feel a bit bull-in-a-china-shop, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. She can be pretty aggressive, too. She’s also smart, self-motivated and able to manage her own affairs. I guess those are all the things that will help you do something useful with a rail gun. And like me, she’s got one, poking up over one shoulder.

She and I were both – built? resurrected? conscripted? enslaved? – during the same manufacturing run. I was switched on a couple of days before she was.

The Centurion definitely is finishing up now. ‘All right, useless tank scum,’ they say (I don’t have a clue whether Kyanite counts as a boy or a girl, but I know I don’t like them very much), ‘get your guns from the racks over there. Then fall in to your firing-line. Don’t even think about doing anything till I tell you to start.’

Onyx shivers a little at that. Under the army’s disciplinary rules, Kyanite’s authority over the range is absolute. Irresponsible use of weapons on the range is a punishable offence. If it’s bad enough, he’s allowed to designate you as a target.

And yes, the guns here can hurt us.

Kyanite says, ‘First up today is Junior Legionary Onyx-122-Unassigned-16th.’

One hundred and twenty-two; that’s the number of Folk soldiers who’ve been given the designation Onyx as their name, since the founding of the Sixteenth Legion. Junior Legionary is the rank they give you until you pass your training. Technically it doesn’t confer the formal status of soldier, though you are under the army’s thumb. Like everything around here, it seems set up as a calculated slap in the face. And the worst thing of all is, Onyx only has this much because I made them let me pick him.

Unassigned means that Onyx hasn’t yet been put into an actual combat unit. Once they do that, you get extra numbers in your name. Apparently for the Folk, that’s a very big moment.
Also, if what I’ve been told about dates for this war are correct, that “122” in Onyx’s long-form service designation implies an average life expectancy of maybe eight years for his predecessors. The arithmetical mean can be deceptive – perhaps a couple of early Onyxes slipped in the bathroom during their first month outside the tank and cracked their heads, thus making a mess of the mean? But even then, the implications are unpleasant. (I don’t know what the actuarial tables look like for Folk soldiers. They could be interesting reading, by which I mean “interesting” as in “fucking scary” with a side order of “please for the love of God get me out of there!”.)

Onyx has been chosen to go first on the range; for a moment he has a small thrill of pride. My internal sensors show the metabolic changes quite clearly. He takes a step forward.
Kyanite adds, ‘We all know he’s useless as tank sludge, so this should be good for a laugh.’

Tank sludge is a particularly-nasty Folk obscenity. Said sludge is what happens when a breeding tank goes wrong. Instead of a viable lizardling, you get – I don’t need to finish this, do I? Yeah, it’s really not a compliment.

And yes, it hurts Onyx’s feelings. He would never admit it – he’s loyal like that – but my sensors don’t lie and I can see all the metabolic data.

Just between us, straight into Onyx’s ears, I say, ‘Don’t listen to him. Kyanite’s a fucking idiot, and I hate him too.’

If you whisper quietly inside one of these helmets, the microphone doesn’t pick it up for external broadcast. However, I will hear it. So, just to me, Onyx whispers, ‘Thank you. But you’re about the only one who doesn’t listen to the Centurion.’

‘Pick up your plasma cannon,’ I tell him, ‘and let’s set a score he can’t match.’

That’s the thing. I’m actually well up for embarrassing Centurion Kyanite. Even if it means co-operating with all this nonsense, it would be worth it to wipe the proverbial smirk off of his face. (I can’t see his face underneath that visor, so I have no idea if he actually is smirking. It seems a reasonable guess, though.)

(The Folk do have a sort-of smirk expression. It involves exposed teeth and narrowed eyes and it is not nice to see.)

The gun racks are behind us. Onyx and I walk over, both of us moving in perfect, unnatural synchrony. It really is easy. With the feedback from Onyx’s body, I’m not even slightly clumsy. It even feels right, somehow. Put us together and you get a result that’s far more powerful than either of us separated.

We’re at the rack. The plasma cannons are basically the Folk answer to a squad support weapon. They do seem to like their guns big and nasty. The plasma cannon fires what is essentially ball lightning, as far as I understand it. Its destructive capacity is impressive. I could probably soak up one, possibly two, hits from one of these things, but anything beyond that and Onyx will be reptile fricassee.

(If you took a plasma hit without armour, well, you won’t even be charcoal. All that would be left would be a lot of vapour, and maybe some of your extremities. Perhaps a couple of badly-burnt teeth too, if you were really lucky. The firing range actually has a health and safety rule such that no-one is allowed in here without a battlesuit, under any circumstances. That’s right, even just to do the cleaning. And from what I’ve seen of the beastly guns they use in here, I don’t think the rule is an over-reaction. You only need one accident with this tech to get you into a world of hurt.)

The plasma cannon looks pretty monstrous. It’s got a relatively-standard grip and the back end of it is counterweighted for stabilisation. The front end is the maw containing the magnetic accelerator coils. The ravening, star-hot, electrically-active plasma balls shoot out of there. They might be many things, but they aren’t subtle. You get a pretty nice strobelight effect when one of these is firing.

Oh, and Onyx has told me that the gunfire smells of ozone.

There’s a set of extra power cells that have to be mounted on my belt. The draw on the cannon is just too much to run it off of my own power supply. Fire the gun, move, avoid falling over – pick any two, because you won’t get all three if you plug this into me!

Don’t get me wrong, I like the plasma cannon. It’s an actual alien energy weapon, for heaven’s sake! And it’s good at what it does – that is, set things on fire, kill enemy troops in a really convincing way and generally smash stuff up. But, I can’t help but wonder. Like my new body, it is just a bit over-engineered. Is this really the best solution to the Folk’s military problems?

Surely it’d be cheaper to pursue battlefield superiority through things like machine guns, rifles and old-school bullets? I mean, you could make many more of them for the same resource-bill that’s needed to make one of these plasma-vomiting beasts, and probably faster, too. Unless of course this actually is the minimum force that’s needed, and the burners are basically immune to machine guns.

That’s a worrying thought.

Rather than worry myself any further, I try to focus my attention on what we’re both doing.
The power cells clip onto the mountings on the belt, smoothly and without fuss. The high-amperage cable is linked in between the cells and the back of the gun. Onyx gets a secure grasp on the weapon, one hand on the grip and the other under the special bracing-point below the main body. It’s actually got a metal shield in front of it, to block any backwash from the weapon itself. The main body of the gun is a fat, bulbous, vaguely organic shape. It’s a matt shade of black in colour.

Given the size of it, I’m not convinced my human body would even have been able to pick it up, let alone do anything with it. And heavens forbid that you drop one of these on a toe.
Under Kyanite’s contemptuous glare, we take our place at the firing line. It’s pretty simple, just a black charcoal line drawn along the concrete floor. There’s no point setting up permanent markings in this chamber. The weapons we practise with are quite capable of obliterating anything short of solid concrete, or composite plating. So instead the chamber is a big, hollow space. The firing lanes and the targets are drawn in charcoal, and re-drawn after every session. (If you mess up your practise session, or have the lowest score, guess what you get delegated to do?)

The walls are dull, unadorned concrete. It’s all boring grey, with maybe a bit of beige for variety. The Folk don’t seem to go in much for display or ostentation. Everything I’ve seen so far in here is tediously functional. The room is lit by a set of plain striplights. Their design is surprisingly familiar – although I suppose, how many practical designs are there for a fluorescent tube? I note also that all the lights are at the back of the chamber, either behind us or directly above. Probably putting any electrics near the targets isn’t such a great idea.

Kyanite is stood over the pair of us. As per the regulations, we have one foot right up against the firing line, and everything else behind. Only the mouth of the cannon peeks over the line. In theory, it’s far enough away from Onyx’s torso that we don’t need to worry too much about plasma backwash.

In theory – doesn’t that phrase fill you with such a warm sense of confidence? No, me neither.
Kyanite has managed to cross their arms. (Yes, that’s possible in a Dreadnought suit. The base frame is designed deliberately to be as unrestrictive as is possible.) Their whole stance radiates belligerent hostility, for all that neither of us can see his face.

They say, ‘Well, that was slow. You’re clearly a burden on your suit, Onyx. Never seen anyone take that long just to fetch a gun.’

Onyx, well-behaved soul that he is, just says, ‘We’re ready for duty, Centurion.’
Kyanite says, ‘Ready? You call that ready? You were so burning slow I thought you were asleep. I can’t imagine why that Dreadnought keeps a useless parasite like you, Junior Legionary.’

Oh God, I want to lamp the Centurion. Onyx and I have been training together for four months now, and in that time, I’ve come to loathe Kyanite. I gather I’m not supposed to like them, but I suspect I’m not also supposed to actively-hate them as much as I do. Now if they could just stop treating Onyx so much worse than all the other trainees, maybe I could stop hating Kyanite.

Onyx is trying not to cringe. I can see the abortive shifts in his shoulder and torso muscles as he consciously-squelches the instinctive shame-reaction.

To Onyx only, I say, ‘I was timing us. We did that in below eighty percent of the unit’s median time. So actually, we’re way ahead of the curve. And if that fucker was paying attention, he’d know it.’ I actually use the English word, fucker, because Kyanite deserves to be sworn at. I pause, and add, ‘I should tell him exactly what I think of him, shouldn’t I?’

To me, Onyx says, ‘Please don’t swear at the Centurion to his face. Please. I’ll get in trouble.’

Onyx is a little bit scared of Kyanite. I can’t blame him; he and Kyanite have some history. Kyanite’s last job was crèche superintendent. He was the one the one who started assigning Onyx failing grades on every assignment.

I reluctantly subside, because I don’t have a good answer to that. Onyx doesn’t entirely understand all of our swearwords, but he’s heard enough of them to recognise the sounds. Look at me, teaching an alien naughty words. Yes, I’m a bad influence. I know, all right?

Kyanite says, ‘Since I’m sure Onyx wasn’t paying attention, tell me again how the test works?’

Sometimes, being a machine has its advantages. I wasn’t paying attention earlier, but I was recording everything that hit my audio sensors. With a processing speed as high as it is, it literally takes me milliseconds to review all the data. I spool quickly through the Centurion’s drill sergeant bullshit, and pull out the relevant bits.

I say just to Onyx, ‘Repeat after me…’ and I give him the answers.

He says, ‘The assignment is a dual test. It tests accuracy, firing rate and three-sixty defence skills. Both the trainee and the AI are graded. The trainee operates the main weapon. The AI handles recoil and watches out for threats to the rear and the flanks. The instructor will provide appropriate hazards at intervals during the test. The other trainees cannot lend any aid, but friendly fire docks the test subject points. Points are also docked if any hazards strike other team-mates. Every time a point is docked, the hazard rate is incremented by one percent. The test continues until either all hazards are disabled, or until a kill-shot is registered on any trainee in the range.’

From the way Kyanite rocks back on their feet, I know they’re annoyed. I allow myself a momentary burst of smugness. Onyx has just quoted exactly the army manual’s description of this test, and he’s done it flawlessly. There’s nothing Kyanite can downgrade him on there.
Kyanite makes that shudder-shrug gesture. ‘Fine,’ they say. ‘Since you think you know it all, perhaps you’d like to get on and do it? Sometime in this geological era, perhaps?’

Without further ado, a cloud of attack drones are launched into the air. They’re the same model as the sort that are used in actual combat, and they’re armed. The strength of their weapons is throttled to sub-lethal levels, but the chamber’s sensors track everything. Every hit that the drones land is counted. The test carries on until either we win or the monitoring software decides that someone in the room’s now dead.

Realistically, it’s Onyx that would go first. You have to knock a lot of my parts out before I stop working. And really, the only way to be sure of a kill against a Dreadnought-class is to land a hit on the personality chips. I have no intention of letting that happen. And the chips are positioned in a highly-inaccessible place inside my tin body, for exactly that reason.

I say to Kyanite through my external speakers, ‘I need my railgun. Please?’

The guns can be remotely-locked while we’re on base, ostensibly to prevent accidents. Kyanite is supposed to unlock them when we go on the range. He hasn’t done that for me. (Yes, the fact that part of my body can be remotely shut down annoys me. No, I don’t know enough about alien programming to figure out a way to crack it. The lock-out process is orders of magnitude more complex than that stupid bug in Onyx’s room.)

Kyanite makes an annoyed gesture. Perhaps he thought I’d forget to ask? My sensors register a quick burst of infrared chatter. The packets are a location- and time-specific set of permissions, which allow me to use my built-in weapons while I’m in this room.
I get a system message informing me that my built-in railgun is online now. It’s fully loaded and all the diagnostics are in the green. Yay!

‘Diagnostics are clear,’ I tell Onyx. ‘Statuses are green across the board.’

Onyx raises the plasma cannon into the firing position. There’s a whir of little fan-engines as Kyanite sends the drones their activation signal. The air is filled with a cloud of buzzing, angry little shapes.

‘Test start,’ Kyanite says, and then retreats backwards.

The drones swarm above us. Little rattles of gunfire start up. The air fills with hissing projectiles. The other trainees aren’t allowed to fire their own guns at this point, but we lose points if the drones hit them. The exercise is demanding. I have to cover them as well as us. Multiple attackers, multiple targets, multiple problems.

Gunfire rattles around us. I’m tracking multiple drones. Onyx has to look forward, through the helmet’s eyelenses; I have sensors everywhere. I line up a drone and tap it with the railgun. It literally is just a tap – I’m using low-mass, dead slugs for this test. But the range computer accepts it all the same. One drone down.

(It lowers itself to the floor and stills its fans, where it will remain for the rest of the test.)

The range computer is sending me targeting data. There are lots of charcoal circles on the back wall. They’re in many different sizes. There are also some charcoal circles on the floor and the ceiling. All of these can be targets for Onyx. The targeting reticule can drop over anyone of them. Many of them are nowhere near each other. Onyx has only seconds to get each one. For every one he misses, the drones’ rate of fire goes up.

Another circle is indicated; I drop an icon into Onyx’s vision. He shoots. Another target, another shot. Two drones try to flank us. I tap them down and send Onyx his next target. More drones, more shots. Wash, rinse, repeat. The plasma cannon roars. Bluish light strobes. Ball lightning hisses and growls. Vibrations rumble through the concrete floor. More targets, more shots, more drones.

The plasma gun needs reloading.

Every twelfth shot, Onyx has to yank out a dead neon canister and shove in a fresh one. (The gun’s array ionises the gas, ripping away its electrons. It then squirts the plasma through a twisted superconducting coil, which bends the plasma’s own self-induced magnetic field. That bubble of warped magnetism is what holds the plasma-ball together once it leaves the gun. When the field inevitably collapses, the plasma ball explodes. They do that at distances between four of my bodylengths and two hundred, depending on air pressure, wind speed, humidity and God only knows what else. They also explode if they hit an obstacle. Plasma is not your friend. In fact, frankly, it’s a bit of a dick.)

Needless to say, Onyx doesn’t get extra time for reloading. The targets keep coming, faster and faster.

The plasma cannon is rumbling. It kicks back against our arms. I have to anticipate the kicks. I sense the way Onyx’s finger tightens on the trigger. As he’s pulling that, I’m bringing in my stabilisers. Synthetic muscles tense and strut-assemblies lock in place. When the plasma cannon roars, it jerks. Otherwise, Newtonian reaction would hurl it backward through the air. Probably decapitating us in the process.

That would count as an automatic fail for exercise purposes.

A drone gets too close to one of the other trainees. I tap it out of action. While I’m distracted, two more move in. I pivot my railgun and barely manage to get both. Another drone gets too close to Mel – I just barely whack it in time.

Remember those seaside fair grounds? You know, the slightly naff ones with the salt-eroded bollards, hungry seagulls and catering vans serving produce of questionable food safety? Yes? Then you’ll remember those amusement games where the foam heads pop up from holes and you have to whack them with a rubber mallet.

This is like that, except faster, harder and with guns.

And to tell the truth, I’m having a wonderful time. I’m blasting drones like there’s no tomorrow. Seriously, this is actually fun! I keep Onyx from dropping his cannon. We’re keeping the drone-fire focused on us and off of the others. Onyx is meeting his targets. Aim, shoot, hit, aim, shoot, hit, reload. He cycles through his movements with a focused precision. You see, that’s the thing. While the other Folk don’t seem to want to recognise it, Onyx is good at this stuff. He’s missing hardly anything. He knows his way around guns.
He’s also (by their standards) good at asking difficult questions and good at annoying the authorities. That’s why the army seems to have it in for him. I think it’s also why Kyanite hates him so much – in his innocence, Onyx must have asked Kyanite a lot of questions that the latter couldn’t answer. And that must have undermined Kyanite’s sense of personal status.
The firing range chamber is a cacophony. Flashes of plasma-light strobe off of the concrete. The floor shakes with each firing. Drones’ motors whirr and buzz. Their small guns hiss and crack. There are pips and crunches as tiny projectiles crash into the floor.

We’re doing good work. We’re a good few minutes in. The drone-swarm’s rate of fire is only up twenty percent. Onyx’s miss rate is well below the fail-threshold. A few more minutes of this and I could almost think we’re good enough to do this on the battlefield –
Something pings against my head.

Red icons flash in Onyx’s field of vision. My railgun tells me it’s offline again. Onyx’s plasma cannon drops into standby mode. A vent pops open on one side, releasing a hissing plume of superheated coolant fluid.

‘Damn,’ I say.

Kyanite’s voice sounds quite satisfied. ‘Headshot from Drone-Nine-Six-B,’ they say. ‘Simulated armour-piercing rounds. Well Onyx, we’re counting that one as a kill. If this were real, your useless head would be smeared over the floor like meat sauce. Either your AI was napping or it secretly hates you.’ They look directly down the targeting scope mounted on the side of my railgun. I’m meant to see that gesture. To me, they say, ‘Ever think about dumping this sack of tank-sludge?’

I’m insulted by that suggestion. Still, even I have to acknowledge that being rude to the Centurion could be a poor idea, however tempting. So I just say, as definitively as I can, ‘No, Centurion.’

He makes an irritated growling noise, but waves us both back from the firing line. As we go, he says to everyone else, ‘The Dreadnought did all the work. Anyone want to bet that useless sack of sludge is asleep inside there?’

Onyx is deflated. If it were outside of the confines of the helmet, his headcrest would be sagging. As we walk to the rack, I say only to him, ‘Umm, sorry about that. I somehow completely missed that drone.’

He says to me, ‘Seriously, you should think about what Centurion Kyanite said.’
‘What?’ I couldn’t be more surprised. We’re at the rack. The safety-lock is back on the plasma cannon – it might be shut down by central instruction, but you don’t take chances with something like this. We unclip its power cable and put the gun into its designated cradle on the rack. The cable is rolled up and put in with it, then we take the power cells from our belt and put them into their charging slots.

Then Onyx has to sign everything off on the little screen to the side of the cradle. While there isn’t any actual paper, the army has a lot of paperwork.

Of to one side of us, Mel is collecting a separate plasma cannon. As Onyx fills in his form, she walks back to the firing line.

Onyx says to me, ‘He is right. I am just a burden. I appreciate what you’ve done for me – really, I do! And I’m grateful that you’ve been kind to me. But I don’t deserve it.’
‘Onyx, that’s crap. And he wants you dead!’ If I reject Onyx, he gets sent to the Peace Vault. They wouldn’t give him another chance to get a battlesuit.

Onyx shudders gently. ‘Yes but the War demands sacrifices.’ His biomarkers can best be read as sad and depressed at the same time, with a side-order of reluctant self-resignation. He thinks he’s toast, and he also seems to think he deserves it.

‘Fuck the War,’ I say.

That really does get Onyx’s attention. ‘What?’

‘Onyx,’ I say, ‘please listen. I made my choice, and I did it for good reasons. I haven’t changed my mind. I’m not going to change my mind. Kyanite can go fuck himself.’ (I’m using Standard pronouns, so obviously I didn’t actually just call Kyanite a he. But I have to render that as something in English, so although it’s wrong, it’ll have to do.) I continue, ‘There is no chance in hell that I’m going to abandon you. And particularly not if Kyanite wants me to.’

I can tell from Onyx’s biomarkers that he’s delighted, and surprised. This is better than he’d expected. He’d clearly thought I was going to follow Kyanite’s advice.

‘Anyway,’ I add, ‘we’re not actually doing badly. Later, access our actual stats on the range database. We’re consistently outperforming the median score for this unit. It’s just that Kyanite seems to hate you and wants you to fail.’

Onyx makes a series of movements that I think would convey uncertainty to another Folk. He says, ‘I do okay here, on the range. But it’s not real combat, you know?’
Once more, my unblinking state frustrates me. ‘You almost sounds like you want to get into a firefight.’

Onyx says, ‘I’d just like to know. For a fact. Whether I am just a burden. Or whether I could do something useful. For the Legion and the Folk.’

I’m developing a suspicion. It seems there’s one thing that could break through Onyx’s internalised self-loathing. This is a weird thing to say, and I recognise it’s weird, but what I think Onyx might genuinely need is to be in an actual battle. If we fought, and won, he wouldn’t be able to just assume that Kyanite and the other commanders are actually right. He’d have the proof that they weren’t.

I am, quite literally, a walking weapon. I also have grave misgivings about every aspect of this war. (Incidentally, this shows why running your machinery with organic-derived AIs is dumb – what if the AI decides it’s actually a pacifist?) In my previous life I never went anywhere near guns, and the only violence was a few stupid fistfights at school.

But, I actually think that I might be willing to shoot at stuff. Not for this stupid war. Not for any idea about vengeance – vengeance is fool’s game, particularly when the deed in question is centuries old. And certainly not for the benefit of Kyanite or their ghastly career.

No, not for any of them. But I think I would be willing to do it for Onyx. Because I can’t see other way to help him, and God knows I need his help.

I suppose the question is though, how long am I willing to do that for? How many bullets am I prepared to accept for the sake of someone else’s war? I have to say, I can’t see myself staying here forever. I suppose that also has a corollary question – how do I convince Onyx to leave too? Because a tin can lumbering around on its own is going last about as long as it takes another capacitor to pop. I might not get sick anymore, I might not get old, but I sure as hell need my oil changing.

As we walk back to the group and take up our station to watch Mel and Jet’s practise, I have one thought running through my personality chips. And that is, what a fucking mess this all is.

What an absolute fucking mess.

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