Stay with us?
The jolt cut through the blessed nothingness of sleep. Before she had even opened her eyes, her body had snapped into a fighting stance as she hit the floor, adrenaline flooding her system.
Her breathing was coming in and out, sharp and painful.
It’s just the dark, you don’t need to be afraid of the dark.
Lumin fibers came on, crackling above her as the motion sensor registered her. She was in a hab-chamber, a standard cube, her sleep-pod behind her, the door in front and the amenity columns on her left and right.
All of it painted in consecutive shades of sterile beige.
Your favourite colour is blue, you should paint it! Maybe add some clouds?
Her hab-chamber. Right. It had been assigned to her for the duration of the tour.
This was home now.
Stay with us–
‘Shut up.’ She let her own voice out from between clenched teeth if only to silence the others whispering from within her skull. She was never used to it, “her” voice. A gravely husk of a sound from lack of use. You didn’t need a voice in her line of work, her superiors could just read information off of her brain waves if they cared. They never did. They just cared about results.
You don’t have to do this!
She dropped her stance and shook out her limbs. Her mind caught up with her senses in its sluggish way, absently probing memories, like a toe nudging silt in the shallows. She hated this, the minutes before her real self could take over, when the old one was allowed to crawl up from the mire of the past.
Images of herself and the days before. What she had eaten. The flashes of light and sound of battle. A massacre. All useless data that didn’t matter. If she wasn’t careful–
They’ll make you into a monster!
She was on Ganymede.
Beneath the dome. She’d always hated that dome. It would drip with condensation and made everyone sick.
He was there, his arms outstretched, like he could stop bullets with his hands.
She was in her pocketsteel, fully enclosed. She was looking at the wall. Blue. Clean. She noticed details in the memory, like the way the wind pulled on that little girl’s pigtails. The twenty insurgents lined up all wearing the green bandanas.
He was begging but, thankfully, the pocketsteel kept his voice muted and her identity hidden.
But now. Now she could hear his voice. He looked right at her. Like he could see through her visor.
Listen to me, please, if you do this, you won’t come back! They’ll own you–
They already owned everything. It was… had been… a stupid thing to say.
The wall turned red. Dirty.
Was she crying?
She straightened, clearing her throat and shook her head.
Back in the hab-chamber.
The noise in her mind needed to be beaten down before it became too loud and it paralyzed her. She dropped to the rough formcrete, catching herself on her fingertips then lowered her face until her nose brushed the surface of the floor. It smelled like bleach.
She started her routine.
Pushups. Arms wide, then close. Left arm, right arm. Until it hurt.
Pain was freedom.
The memories were replaced by sweat. Her mind was driven into retreat as her body prioritized, unable to fixate on her distant adolescence. Muscle pain buried the face of her mother.
Hid her father’s smile.
She didn’t care about favorite foods, how old she was or the pain of her last surgery or the intrigue of the last unfulfilled sexual expenditure.
The routine kept it all at bay.
She took out a cold pad and rubbed her neck. The electro-prod had been her design. She had made the mistake of letting the Corp algorithms preprogrammed in the hab-chamber run in her first year as a Tribute. Gentle music, a mist of vitameths to tease her in and out of seven hours of wonderful sleep. All seemingly innocuous; to make her a better soldier.
It had been a waste of finance and, more importantly, a theft of time. She should have expected it from the Corp. Every moment you slept was another minute added to your time-debt and the Corp knew that. She was sure there were thousands of Tributes who thought the extra hour of sleep was harmless, like an extra tube of sucrogel. It wasn’t, and it added up. They were fools.
She was the kind of Tribute that the Accountants hated. She cut straight to the brass. No frills, no leisure, unless it was her day off or it was on discount.
They’d warned her that it wasn’t healthy–
–Warning her that the human brain couldn’t function, not long term at least, on three and a half hours sleep and expect to maintain combat readiness. That shit was for the bootheels or the treadheads, not a pilot like her.
‘Not fucking me!’
Sweat dripped from her body.
Anything could be done with the right mix of stimms.
She finished her stretches and walked to the amenity column and selected; personal. The cylinder turned with a groan. Kitchenette, fresher tank, then her footlocker. She opened the door revealing her wardrobe and fatigues; she then pulled out a small box from the bottom. It had a name on it.
Annia Ushulu Myrtus.
Annia was your grandmother’s name. We used to work in the farms, before the Corp shipped in serviles and forced us to come to the city. Your grandmother died missing the soil. That’s why we fight, mijo! Come! Fight!
A stupid name. A lie that hung around in strange places like paperwork and timesheets. Not really her.
‘Maybe it was better then?‘
Annia turned, the empty room staring back.
His voice, out loud no less.
Was it getting worse?
‘Nothing was better then. You should know.’ Annia said back to no one.
The Corp had assigned Ganymede Tributes to show up when Dome 3 had tried to lock the doors to the Internal Revenue agents. They’d held out for six days when Annia and a few squads had flattened everything and everyone. Ganymedians sent to fix a Ganymede problem.
Stand with us!
Annia snorted, withdrawing the box and putting it in her hab-chamber’s only chair. The mind did funny things, funny pointless, stupid, fucking things. It made you see things, made her hear things. The fact that these hallucinations used the voice of her father–
She fumbled in the box, withdrawing a rubber hose, a vacuum injector and several vials of viscous, clear, liquid. She tied the hose around her arm and began dosing. Before it hit her, she took out a beaten up tin, clicked it open, and pulled out one of the cellulose stamps to place on her tongue. It burned, adding its own special kick to the morning’s sensations. She swallowed the blend of mynthin, fencycline and menthol only after it had dissolved.
‘That’s it.’ She muttered as the colliding chemical wonderfulness made her whole. Most of all she was grateful for the stimm’s invisible hand as it yanked her awareness from random thoughts and drowned the echoes of that old, terrible, man.
A physician that serviced the Tributary slurbs had threatened to write her up if she didn’t get the prescribed sleep amounts. She’d ignored him. An AMU Pilot with her success rate was immune to bureaucracy, so long as she could get on her rig; no one was going to care what some Corp doctor thought was right or wrong.
Results were more important. Her employer knew that.
She got dressed, peeling off her nightclothes and throwing them into the sink on the other side of the room. She’d wash them tonight if she survived. Taking sanitising wipes to herself she saved her water allotment for trade.
She dialed up the kitchenette from the column. When it cycled she took a flimsyplas wrapped roll out of the frigerator then tossed it in the hot-box, twisting the timer for two minutes. That would be enough time.
Tick tick tick
She pulled on her bodysuit, a single form fitting piece that regulated her temperature and would whisk the moisture off her body when the bullets started to fly. It was better than the standard issue, which cut off at the elbows and knees. This one had a hood and had paper thin coverings for her fingers so it was like she wore nothing when her hands were on the controls.
Tick tick tick tick
Thick carapace armour came on next, clipping together perfectly and turning her into something that looked like an insect. With it, she could be shot with any light or medium rated caliber and suffer through it. A few strength multipliers were at the joints which could be turned off and on. She couldn’t punch through a wall, but she could turn some bastard’s face to pulp with ease.
And she had, of course.
She made sure the input ports were clear of grime and the granulated smog that got everywhere in the slurb.
Tick tick tick tick tick
Her sidearm, a double-barrelled scattergun, primed and loaded. She fixed it to an anchor on a thigh plate. It was often enough intimidation to keep curious menials or a cocky bootheel away. Certain universal truths persisted in spite of interstellar nation’s gender-equality clauses in contracts to keep predatory males in check. A spray of ‘shot from the scattergun had a permanent consequence where a violation fine did not.
She grabbed the tube and unwrapped it while it was hot, heading out of the hatchway and into the hallway. The beige of the hab-chamber gave way to cheap thermal-tile.
She ate. The roll was an explosion of flavour distantly regarded by her tongue as the stimms hit. She had to remember to chew lest she choke but not fast enough that she might bite through her cheek.
She reached a bare formcrete staircase that led down towards street level. No one was up this early, something else she liked about her routine. Bumping and jostling as the muster calls screamed out from Base started a workday off; bad.
At the ground landing there was a punch-clock next to a door seal. She unclipped her ident-chit from the slot in her chest armour and slid it into the reader. There was the chatter of gears, like teeth breaking, as the analytic engine noted her start-time. She wouldn’t gain anything by being early, but it would look good when her review came up with Human Resources.
‘The Hegemony thanks you for your service!’ The androgynous, eternally chipper voice of Sigrid, the voice of Corp, chortled out of a speaker grill above the door. ‘Trust the system, be the system!’
Become the system.
‘Remember, Muskov Corporation Interplanetary cares.’
Time for work.
The door slid open revealing the dawn, and the warzone, outside.
The stimm got her through the next part without registering the environment and for good reason. The slurbs were new, made from formcrete two weeks before the Tributaries even got on site. Corp contract builders were… notoriously quick at picking where they’d lay down new foundations and didn’t care what they paved over.
She stepped over the shattered remains of what must have been an aesthetically modeled neighborhood, probably where the aristos or mercantile types had lived before they’d paid the Corp for security to stop the… whoever it was she had been paid to fight and kill for the past month.
Annia would have wondered if the upper class had felt betrayed or felt wronged by suddenly being turned into homeless refugees watching their ‘liberators’ from behind pre-fab huts. Proud rulers reduced to glares and spitting curses.
She did not care.
She crossed a bridge made from intestine-looking sewage pipes that connected to another section of the city. Only here, where an artillery strike had knocked down several buildings, could she make out the horizon as it curved upward into the sky.
She didn’t care about the war that had split this orbital colony into two factions. She didn’t care about any of it. The only thing that trickled past the chemical focusers flooding her bloodstream was the distance left between her physical body and her real body as it sat in a hangar two blocks ahead in the Base.
She would have run, pell mell, if she could.
The AMU was a towering construct of bundled muscle fibers and heavy slabs of nusteel that would swallow her and make her into a mechanical god of war. Her arms would become weapons that would have been more appropriately fixed onto a battle-crawler or a gunship. Its thrusters would gift her flight on wings of fire.
But most of all, she wanted the cogit hood.
Annia wanted the cables of the neuro-vein interlink that would drive the lie that was consciousness away. To obliterate the noise of the ‘self’ that her stimms could only slow down. To make her, that thing her paperwork, her register tags and her fucking father had called Annia Ushulu Myrtus, and turn her into what she was.
An Armored Mobility Unit, a giant of metal and unflinching violence, to smash, shoot, burn and explode whoever it was the Corp needed dead.
Until that day her time-debt was clear and she would be allowed to convert her hours into finance. When that finance would buy her a plot, or even a spread, somewhere on a rock so far out of the way that no one would know what a Tributary was or how to spell w-a-r. She’d plant something green.
Annia might get a chance to forget the things done to her and the many things she’d done to them.
But until that day… She would do the rest.
About the Author
The records of this author have been expunged by His Emperor’s Holy Order for reasons of [Redacted] and [Redacted][Redacted].