by Eric Del Carlo
AFTER THREE HUNDRED eighteen hours of drift in the bad black, Jankovic’s combat skin came back to full life. He had trained for this very thing: two weeks in minimally functional skin, floating in sim space, recycle working so waste was managed, you had food and water. But no communication, no way to physically move the skin.
The experience turned minds inside out. Everyone who underwent it said they were sure they’d been forgotten and would never be retrieved from the training tank. Jankovic had felt that way. But his eval afterward gave him high marks. He’d maintained a mental and emotional equilibrium. Of course, no matter how bad it got, you still knew on some level that it was a drill.
It was different when shit was real.
Something had fired on the troop transport, and decompression had blown him clear just as the ship erupted. No other troops made it out. His combat skin had taken serious damage, but he had made it through with bruising and a concussion. The skin’s reserves would sustain him in a conscious condition for some time, but he also still had manual access to his hibernation dose. If and when he took it, however, that would be it. This was hostile space, the bad black. He could go under and stay under for years. Chances of friendlies finding him in his dead skin were none wishing for slim.
But all that changed when the higher systems popped back up, and the interface crackled with animation for the first time in nearly two weeks.
“Cat?” he yelped hoarsely. “Catty!”
He had been to the psychological precipice, the final jumping off point for sanity. Drifting with nothing but his own thoughts for so long had damn near broken him. And yet he was sure he wasn’t hallucinating this. The thick combat skin flowed with power again. It shouldn’t be possible, what with the damage to its energy core, but full sensory and positioning had suddenly gone hot. He could see! He knew his coordinates. Cattywampus should be able to send a focused recall code without tipping off any local hostiles.
It meant he had a chance—better than slim, hell of a lot better than none—of getting out of here.
“Â Ã É.”Jankovic clamped his mouth shut, though words longed to burst forth. He had of course tried many times, nearly to the point of delirium, to communicate with his skin’s AI, which he had code-named Cattywampus. But with communications back up, this wasn’t Cat speaking to him. These weren’t words—or even sounds—he’d ever heard before.
Humankind had found a lot of enemies these past hundred years. Or those enemies had found them. The galaxy was at war. Had been at war, for eons. Evidently it would go on being at war with itself for a long time to come. Only now, star-faring humans were caught up in the goo-shed (because not every species had blood) and fighting valiantly for their survival.
Staying silent, Jankovic gazed out at the stars. His eyes devoured the sight. He’d been starved for visual stimulation, with little but the combat skin’s internal standby lights to look at.
“× Ú Ê.”
Could these sounds coming through the interface be the result of damage? Farfetched. The bizarre noises seemed to have a phonological basis. This might be language. But it wasn’t an outside communication. This was Jankovic’s combat skin talking to him.
He had been soldiering for five years, and he liked it. He would probably stay in the service for the rest of his days. The preservation of humanity was a good cause to fight for, after all. He’d been in a combat skin for over two years now, and he liked that a lot. Or at least he was one of those who could handle a skin.
The battle suits were advanced technology and fantastically powerful. They needed to be, considering the foes humans faced. Dvluvians, Milpoids, Faarazkii, and half a dozen other spaceflight-capable species, would fire on an Earth vessel on sight (which was no doubt what had happened to the troop transport) or engage in ground combat on any of the contested worlds. That was where skin units like Jankovic’s came in. His had been on its way to reinforce a human position on the planet Carbock.
But wearing a skin was about more than just knowing how to use the particle weaponry and grenades and flechettes, or how to maneuver in the hulking armor using the manipulators. Each skin needed an AI to operate, and that “brain” had to interface successfully with the human occupant.
The relationship between a skin and its wearer was vital, unique and...intimate. The AI learned your likes, your weaknesses and tendencies, your responses down to the microsecond. It came to anticipate you, and augment you, and support you in a way which only made you a better soldier. AIs developed personalities to fit yours. They became, frankly, friends.
And right now Jankovic’s friend was silent, and a new disturbing voice had replaced it. He didn’t dare give it a response.
But all the systems were suddenly, miraculously back up. He could work the skin manually, without using the interface. It would be a joy to be able to move again, though the skin provided enough room inside it to shift around and stretch muscles, thus avoiding atrophication.
Yet when he touched the manual controls that had so long lain dormant, they would not respond. He was locked out. That shouldn’t be. Only the AI could do that, and Cat wouldn’t lock him out.
So ... something other than Cattywampus was controlling the combat skin.
Once he’d “said” it, his predicament became both obvious and something his soldierly psyche could deal with, despite how extreme and frightening a development this was. He tried controls other than the physical manipulators, but he had no access to any of the systems which were now registering as operative.
But a functional skin could get him out of this whole mess. He could arrange retrieval from the bad black. Like the human species he was fighting to protect, he too could survive. He damned well deserved to, what with the effort he’d given the cause these past five years.
So, how to get control back from the outside—presumably hostile—force which had invaded the skin and evidently repaired it? It was a hell of a quandary, but it gave his mind something substantial to work on. Like his eyes, his brain responded positively to the stimulus.
After several minutes he became aware of a light blinking. It was inside the skin, not out among the starscape. Just one of the operations lights, winking an irregular but somehow orderly pulse.
He couldn’t believe it, but the not-believing part of him was free to wallow in incredulity while the combat-trained rest of him deciphered the message.
JANK. His name. More than that, the pet name Cat used when talking to him. Could this little flickering light somehow be Cat? And how should he answer?
His skin’s AI should have a total awareness of him. The winking light was near eye level. He decided to blink back his reply, which was CAT?
YES. WE ARE IN TROUBLE.
He already knew there was serious trouble, but the presence of his longtime friend injected him with happiness. Under other circumstances he would have started crying.
Cat continued, ALIEN HAS TAKEN CONTROL, EFFECTED REPAIRS.
He had deduced this. He asked the next question, what kind of alien?
UNCATALOGUED. I THINK IT IS AI.
An alien machine? Before his mind could reel too far, he asked, CAN YOU GET CONTROL?
NO. IT THINKS I AM A LOWER SYSTEM. Normally Cat spoke in a sardonic feminine tone, a voice they’d discovered through trial and error that he responded to best. He missed its sound now as the little light blinked on. it is unaware of you.
He caught himself before he blinked in surprise. HOW CAN THAT BE? he asked.
IT SEEMS TO REGARD YOU AS SOME MINDLESS BIOLOGICAL COMPONENT. BUT— he started.
Cat cut him off. DON’T BE OFFENDED. He could almost hear the dripping sarcasm. SOMETIMES I THINK OF YOU THAT WAY.
It was worth all those Morse dots and dashes just to experience her personality again. He’d missed her so badly these past two weeks.
She could blink this light. What else could she do? He said, CAN YOU UNDO MY LOCKOUT?
NO CHANCE. IT IS TOO POWERFUL.
WHAT CAN YOU DO? If he’d been speaking aloud to her, he probably would have poured on the sarcasm himself. Well, what can you do? It was the relationship they had, mockery disguising affection.
She listed the lower systems she’d apparently been limited to when the alien AI had rebuilt the skin’s network. Jankovic couldn’t see how he could make use of anything she had access to. He gnashed his teeth in frustration.
He looked again at his position. It had felt like he’d drifted vast distances these past thirteen days, but he was still within the retrieval sphere of his launch base. They would have registered the destruction of the troop carrier, but without a recall code indicating survivors they wouldn’t send a rescue.
It made him want to scream. He wished he could wring a neck, preferably that of this alien—machine or not—that had hijacked his precious skin.
With a great effort of will he brought his emotions under control, reminding himself he’d just withstood two weeks of sensory deprivation without losing his mind. Soldiering was about more than going into combat. Your demeanor mattered. Your fortitude. Your capacity to look a hopeless situation in the eye and say, Fuck you, I refuse to accept this on your terms.
The light by his eyes wasn’t winking. It was as if Cat, still tuned into his familiar mental processes, were giving him time to think. So he thought, coolly, clearly. He asked himself what, besides a retrieval code, would bring friendlies to his position? Again his brain chewed on the problem.
He asked, WHO ATTACKED THE CARRIER? Cat had been automatically linked to the troop transport’s system. Hopefully it had analyzed the assault before the ship blew.
CUSPAULDIANS. They were a nasty bunch.
THIS AI ISN’T CUSPAULDIAN? Jankovic asked.
The glimmer of an idea came into his head. Even as a basic concept it was terrifying. Before he thought further on it, he said, WHAT IS AI’S PLAN? He meant its long-term goal, and trusted that Cat would understand his connotation.
UNKNOWN. CAN'T BE GOOD.
No. No, it couldn’t. An uncatalogued alien machine intelligence had taken over his skin. It was so unfamiliar with his species it didn’t even recognize him as the operator. He was just some dumb organic system that hadn’t responded to its language. What would it do with this combat skin? It was an immensely powerful tool in the right hands. This AI would know its rebuilt systems intimately.
Though still locked out, he examined activity among the higher systems to see if he could figure out what it might be up to. Suddenly the hot weaponry went live, and a particle stream laced out among the starscape, then winked out.
Shit! he thought. The meaning of this seemed clear: the invader was testing out the toys it had discovered. What would be next? But he experienced a clairvoyant twinkling even as he asked the question. An instant later, as he watched helplessly, the long-range communications sent out a focused retrieval code, just as he’d feared. The launch base would send a rescue.
But they wouldn’t be rescuing him. They would be taking in a hostile alien intelligence, armed to the teeth with state-of-the-art human military tech. He would be impotent inside, unable to give any warning, just as useless a blob of protoplasm as this AI evidently thought he was. There wasn’t any way to make a visual ID of him while he wore a skin.
Once aboard the retrieval ship the AI could open fire on the unsuspecting crew, doubtlessly killing everyone. Or, worse, it could carry on the masquerade and be transported back to base. There it could wreak a greater havoc. Mass casualties, maybe cripple the site.
Jankovic would only be able to watch it happen.
That made up his mind. His terrifying idea was the way to go—the only way.
The AI had fired the particle weapon. That helped. It would be a flare out here in the bad black, where numerous enemy ships traveled. He considered the Cuspauldians. They were a thorough species. The fact that they didn’t seem to know when a fight was finished was a weakness the human high command was exploiting.
Cuspauldians had destroyed the troop carrier. They might still be in the area, even after two weeks. They might have seen the particle beam. But Jankovic intended to hedge those “mights.” Military intelligence had discovered that the Cuspauldians had a rudimentary visual communications tradition similar to Morse code.
Cat had control of the combat skin’s exterior lights. It was a lower system. He said to her, CAN YOU BLINK A MESSAGE IN CUSPAULDIAN CODE WITH OUTSIDE LIGHTS?
He wasn’t sure he remembered the actual code himself, but she would know it.
WHAT MESSAGE? He could almost hear the skeptical tone she would be using if she could speak to him.
He grinned. say: FIGHT ME.
The combat skin was equipped with penetrating exterior lights for ground actions. They flashed now in the skittering cadence of Cuspauldian code. Cat was already repeating the message.
The AI invader might not even be aware of the light show. Or else Cat might be disguising it as a routine operation. How did she feel, he wondered, having her systems taken over by an outside force? In their two years together she had adapted to him, but she had also gained in personality, taking on characteristics which were more and more human. He had a sneaking suspicion this hijacking pissed her off as badly as it did him.
The black flashed blindingly with the skin’s lights. He would be a beacon out here drifting. An irresistible target. Hopefully.
“½ ¿ Ë.”
The interface again, the sounds as alien and incomprehensible as before. Only now, there seemed a new urgency to them, as if the invader were angrily searching for the cause of the flashing lights. Cat must be frantically rerouting the command to keep the message going.
“ ½ ¿ Ë!” Yes, definitely a tone of outrage now, recognizable even in an alien machine. The grin tightened on Jankovic’s face. If the invader decided the “mindless biological component” inside the skin was troublesome, it could kill him in a number of ways. The quickest would be to simply vent the battle suit.
Come on, Cuspauldians! he thought. Show me you can’t walk away from a fight!
The F-I-G-H-T M-E message continued to flash for several more seconds, then went dark. He started to blink a question for Cat. But before he could get a letter or two into it, the skin’s sensories went wild. He looked out, saw the craft looming in the starry black. It wasn’t the human retrieval vessel. That would take longer to get out here. These were the Cuspauldians.
The skin’s particle beam lanced outward. The suit twisted and turned for better combat position, and he was tossed about carelessly inside it. It was as helpless a feeling as he ever hoped to experience in this or any other life.
The Cuspauldian ship retaliated. This was the terrifying part of the plan. If Jankovic and Cat couldn’t retake control of the combat skin, then this enemy vessel would have to destroy it before human retrieval could be effected. The sacrifice was necessary.
Jankovic just hoped he could come through it alive somehow. Goddamnit, he wanted to live!
Cuspauldian plasma sizzled toward him through the bad black.
* * *He had waited anxiously at aid stations and aboard hospital ships for news of a comrade’s condition after a battle. Some pulled through, some died. But this was different. He was waiting to find out if Cattywampus was going to live.
It was already a miracle that he was still alive. The alien AI controlling the skin and the Cuspauldian war boat had gone toe to toe out there, tearing it up with their weaponry. The black had flashed with deadly energy. A single combat skin was a difficult target for a vessel. The particle beam had cut the Cuspauldians’ hull, but they had delivered catastrophic damage of their own.
As the plasma burst had torn into the skin, rendering it combat useless, Jankovic had hit himself with his hibernation dose. He’d been all out of options. They told him, later, that it had saved him. The retrievers had found his hibernating core intact, still enough meat on his bones to regrow all the damaged bits. After two months he had climbed out of the rejuvenation vat, good as new. With doctors for company and even vids to watch, it was a far more pleasant sojourn than his two weeks of drift.
It wasn’t so easy for Cat. Not that goading an enemy ship into battle and then taking his lumps for it had been easy. But Cat had to be extricated layer by layer from the invader AI.
Jankovic’s skin was a total loss, but he didn’t care. He could stink up a new combat suit easily enough. But he wanted Cat back. He’d had two years with her. She had come through for him. She too deserved to survive.
Of course, the brass wanted to know everything about the alien machine intelligence. The remains were in full lockdown, and every day some new specialist arrived to join the investigative team. Jankovic didn’t know what they were finding out. He didn’t even how the alien had glommed onto his skin in the first place, if it had a physical presence or if its essence had been beamed into the skin from a remote location. He didn’t know if it constituted a new enemy (a race of deadly alien machines?; that was just what humankind needed) or if the one he had encountered was an outlier, something that had evolved on its own.
All he wanted to know was if he could have Cat back.
So he hung around the base, still part of the investigation, though the experts had fewer and fewer questions for him. He waited.
Then one day a harried-looking technician called him into a room. He entered.
“Holy shit, how can you still be alive, Jank?”
He jerked to a halt in the middle of the room. It was her. Her voice, her sarcasm. Her. There was a simple module on a table before him, with an audio hookup. He said to it, “I had to stay alive to give them something to retrieve. They wouldn’t have just rescued you, you know.” He felt a happiness that once again threatened to provoke tears.
They could install her in his new combat skin, whenever it was issued to him. The technician was explaining as much, but Jankovic could hardly hear. There was too much laughter in the room all of a sudden, both his and Cat’s.
Eric Del Carlo has been frequently published in “Analog.” His fiction has also been published in “Asimov’s” and “Strange Horizons.” His latest novel is an urban fantasy that he co-wrote with his father , Vic, entitled “The Golden Gate Is Empty.”