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Burner

Posted by on November 23rd, 2017  •  0 Comments  • 

Merc dove to the ground as the projectile sliced through the surrounding mist.  Street grit smashed against his cheek.  The sweet smell of unburned hydrocarbons wafted to his nose from the stagnant pools of collected rainwater.  Twisting himself, he searched for the drone signature.  Even with high-res filters at max, there was nothing in the shadows created by the corporate logos illuminating the night sky.  One logo stood out, a golden thunderbolt ready to strike him as though hurled by an angry god.  His decaying adrenaline made him shiver, but there was nothing to strike back against, and nowhere to run until he took care of pressing business.

He tapped his tongue against his molar to key his ‘mike’. “Dyess?”  His handler was silent.  Silence suggested a human, but Merc was never quite sure.  AI could mimic human speech patterns and thus he could never pinpoint who or what he was speaking to over the secure line.  

He belly-crawled over to the nondescript contact he was meeting and checked for a pulse as rivulets of blood dripped slowly into a pool beside the crumpled form.  He kicked in his filters and scanned the ragged wound for residue.  Sensors picked up traces of ceramic and semtex.  Frangible high-explosive rounds – calling card of a high-tech assassin…not good.

As he rolled over to leave, the man’s hand suddenly reached out and pulled him towards his face.  The dead man’s pale lips twitched and Merc moved his ear closer.  With a final shuddering exhalation, the dying man handed him a cryovial and whispered “Defeat Argus”.

“Merc? You alive, man? What happened?”  Dyess’ staccato burst of questions rang in his skull, his adapted sphenoid to be exact, and hung there unanswered.

“I’m compromised.  Contact’s ghosted.  Running blind here.”  Merc growled, ignoring Dyess’s rapid-fire inquiries.  He needed answers, and he needed them fast.

“I don’t know, but you need to get out of there, ASAFP.”

Another round impacted the street.  The mini-explosion sprayed him with fragments of plascrete.  His hand wiped his cheek as he rolled under the building awning into the shadows.  Still unable to see the menace, he glared at the lightning bolt.

“I will need extra credit for this complication.”

“Your handlers will get paid when the contract is honored.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I’m compromised.  This body is marked.”

“We don’t have time for another revision.  This was a one-time swap.  Get moving and I trust your experience will take care of the rest.”

Experience, he thought? Regenerated this morning, his ocular input device provided a list of body hacks added in Version 6.0.  He was still mostly human, besides the augmented storage device on his right lower arm, the muscular grafting with carbon nanotube-laced bones, the arachne-silk dermal extensions, and a bioelectric capacitor bank where his stomach once resided. Usually his handlers requested upgrades specific to the task at hand.  He was unsure then, why he was meeting this street urchin with a vial.

“Why the vial?  Also, he whispered a name before he kicked… Argus.  Mean anything to you?”  

Meaning was relative for freelancer like Merc.  For this job, he awoke to a revision change in his register, a location for this pickup, and a reference to “eye-oh”.  Merc had no personal memories, wiped to protect the past.  This body was a one-timer.

“Argus? He is our target.  There is a swarm heading your way.  Let’s move.  I will provide you with an update shortly.”

No explanation for the vial but he could guess.  He stood cautiously, catching a reflection of himself in the window of a shuttered ramen shop.  He had no recollection of his appearance. The mirrored image before him showed a wiry man with closely cropped black hair, several days’ worth of stubble, two metal loops in his right ear, and one eye that reflected a glint of matte silver.  This eye had no pigment and no iris.  The figure wore a long jacket that reflected the ambient light due to moisture spotting on its surface.  Thick exo-boots completed the ensemble.  ‘Nice to meet you,’ he thought as he took off into the darkness, keeping to the shadows in the deserted alley.

#####

He noticed that the rain had finally stopped.  The moist air enveloped the city and absorbed the urban noise.  The rain masked the signature smell of rotten decay that usually saturated his receptors.  The unusual silence soothed his uneasiness and only the sound of his boots on the plascrete closed his mind to the surrounding city.

Very little to go on, he reached out for a memory or moment to grab onto.  A blinking cursor figuratively stared back at him as he searched a blank memory core.  His breath caught at the emptiness of no recollection.  He slowed, coming to a standstill.  He noticed his right hand shaking and a slight tick in his eyelid as the apprehension mounted.  He doubled over and dry heaved into the alley.  An autonomic response to an unknown trigger.  Staring at the ground, he received a brief glimpse at a single memory, a little girl on a swing smiling as her feet stretched out.  The smile on her face created a dopamine response as it cascaded through his internal sensors.  The response was paternal.  He dug deeper but found no further connection.  Synapses surgically separated with precision.  They left this single signpost for only one reason.

“Dyess?  Where to?”

“Uploading a location now.  ETA one hour.  Stay out of sight, run silent, I didn’t anticipate our previous drop being compromised.”

“Eye-oh?”

“Her network is our client.  Argus is her lock and key.”

“There is a little girl…”

“Too many questions Merc, you aren’t being paid to ask.”

Suddenly his early-warning sensors lit up with a particularly worrisome EM emitter painting him.  Cerberus-class war hounds locked onto his scent.  He sought his countermeasures, released disguise pheromones hoping to shake them for a moment.  He chanced a quick glance behind him.  Sniffers were offshoots of military drone tech, four-legged and rugged for ground use.  Once they locked their prey, working in packs, they were hell to shake.  

“Dyess?”  Merc reached out.  “I’ve got a couple of sniffers following me.  I need an out.”

“Processing.”  

Merc cursed, damn handlers, wondering if they were they worth the percentage.  He quickened his pace.  This part of town didn’t offer many escapes.  No way to outrun them if they chased.  For now, they seemed content to follow.

A soft ping preceded incoming packets.  Dyess earned his percentage.  A map overlay connected to his internal navigation system.  In the older parts of the city, an old abandoned subway existed like a child’s abandoned ant farm.  Couple of blocks ahead lay a boarded-up entrance.

“Merc?  Steer your tail into the underground.  There you can make a stand.”

Sprinting, the sniffers closed in, as their gyros worked overtime to catch him.  Triangulating, he imagined their military grade processors informing and leading them to intercept before he went underground.  In the tunnels, below the street, contact with their hive mind disappeared and their tracking advantage degraded.

Inside his head, a silent alarm sounded and he dove for the ground just as a sniffer launched at his upper body.  Rotating around, he shoved his arms over his face to protect against the razor-sharp teeth.  His dermal extensions screamed against the titanium alloy blades.  In one swift motion, he was back on his feet and running for the entrance.  They had figured his escape route and hoped to keep him up top.

Up ahead in front of the boarded entrance, two glowing eyes spied him.  Evaporative coolers on the beast’s hind quarter belched steam from the sniffer’s nostrils.  Merc’s modified ossicles picked up low frequency whine of an overhead drone, probably the one that harassed him earlier.  Projectiles rained down from above.  His unknown nemesis had credits.  

Charging a sniffer straight on was not recognized in the annals of warfare as the smartest tactic, but with no weapon, tactical surprise might help him.  Leaping, with outstretched hands he landed on the spine of the beast.  Vigorously, the beast shook compensating for the added mass.  Merc hung on as if riding a bucking bronco.  One of his hands reached out looking for the kill switch.  Looking up, he saw its friends circling him warily, similar to a pack of wolves.  With a sense of déjà vu, his hand smashed a plate under the neck of the beast.  His fingers tingled with the buzz of electrical countermeasures.  Flinching, with static showing on his own displays, he found the slot and pulled.  The beast fell limply to the ground, its eyes grew dim.  

Merc rolled and smashed into the subway entrance.  Taking the stairs two at a time, he thought he could hear the sniffers howl with frustration.  Underground now he was safe from distracting drone tech.

“Merc, you caught?  We will disavow any knowledge of your existence.”

“It will be time for me to retire if a couple of demilitarized sniffers catch me.  Tell me more about this Argus.”

“Not 100 percent, but I believe he is a security guru.  Information was hard to find.  Sources clammed up fast when I pressed.”

“I’m on my way then.  Staying underground.  By the way, what am I paying for you to keep me in the dark?”

“Remind me for your next revision to have them remove the sarcasm.”

“Good luck with that, I think it’s genetic.”

“Figures.  I’m sending you what I found.”

Merc nodded as if Dyess was next to him.  In the tunnel, light was minimal.  His augmented filters made it seem like late evening.  The quiet surrounded him like a blanket.  He checked his hormone levels.  Sleep knocked but he ignored the offer.  Making sure he stayed alert, he flooded his system with a burst of norepinephrine.  The tiny hairs rose all over his body, his heart somersaulted, and he set off on a gentle pace, the thick rubber soles of his boots softly padding in the passageway.

#####

His target was across the sprawl.  Keeping to the tunnels, he made good time.  Fortunately, the above ground interference and low headspace kept out remote operating equipment.  Hard core trackers could send out microdrones or maybe even tunnel rats, but fortunately his journey was a quiet one.

Finding a building close to his destination, he exited and climbed up a back hallway.  Silently, hiding on a rooftop across the street, he scoped his target.  The structure blazed as an inferno under multiple filters.  There were sensors everywhere.  Serious tech.  Dyess was not kidding when he said this guy was a security expert.

Backing away he re-entered the building to consider his options.  Finding an empty room, he entered and sat in a traditional seiza pose.  He debated calling Dyess, but being so close to his target the signal might be intercepted.  

Perhaps the plan was for a blunt-force frontal assault on the building.  With a heavy release of endorphins and adrenaline, toughened skin, and augmented muscles he might damage, but rescuing or finding this “eye-oh” was the mystery.  As he came out of his pose and cycled through his regulatory functions, he realized there was one more thing he hadn’t considered.  He still had the vial.  

What had Dyess left unsaid?  His contact, under his dying breath, whispered that this would defeat Argus.  He extracted the vial scanning it with his ocular augments.  A molecular switch was probable.  Genetic modification scared him.  He was fine with the body tweaks, they were done in a vat while he floated in a medically induced coma, but real time metamorphosis was entirely different.

The image of the little girl sitting in the swing cropped up.  In his mind, he imagined her tiny voice saying, “Faster, Daddy…push me faster.  I want to go higher.”

“Hold on then.”  He imagined himself saying as he grabbed hold of those legs and pushed as she giggled with delight.  Her laughter made him smile but also mocked him at what he had become.  How did he get involved in outsourcing his body and genome for modification by the highest bidder?  Where was that little girl?  Was she being held hostage until he performed his tasks or was this freelancing supporting her?  Whether she really existed or was just a heart tug to make him perform his task, he just did not know.  He’d find that little girl someday he swore under his breath.

He looked at the vial, a clear non threatening liquid stared back at him.  He popped the lid open.  With no other options presenting themselves, he tipped the contents into his mouth.  If he died, his handlers would rebuild him.  As he sat in the dark, it occurred to him that once he got by Argus, his goal was to find this “eye-oh”.  Running blind for a client wasn’t optimal, but if a job was easy, no need for burners like him.

The pain started in his extremities first.  An initial tingling quickly ramped to prickly heat that then turned into a sensation he considered to be comparable to his skin burning off.  He was glad it was dark.  Before the pain overwhelmed him, he scrammed his nociceptor center to stay conscious.  The pain simmered below the surface and allowed him to stay aware.

When the simmering stopped, he rebooted his peripheral nervous system.  Swallowing hard, the pain returned but was bearable.  He signaled Dyess.  About to make his run at Argus, now was his last chance.

“You there Dyess?”

“Merc, I’ve been tracking you.  You’ve remained motionless for four hours, everything okay?”

“I drank the vial.”

“Say again?”

“The vial. I decided to drink it.”

“Your instincts serve you well.  The vial contained a modification we could not engineer in you while still in the lab.  The biosoft should allow you to bypass security and get to eye-oh.  That’s what we paid for at least.”

“Yeah about that.  Do we have any information on what this “eye-oh” is and what I need to do to find it?”

“I assume you will know what to do when the opportunity presents itself.  Sorry, but it’s why we hired you.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.  See you next rev, D.”

Merc silenced his ‘mike’.  Ran a full scan.  Moved his body around tentatively.  His body reacted as normal.  

As soon as Merc stepped out of the shadows and into the flickering fluorescents of the hallway, he realized something had changed.  His hands were gone.  Scanning for them in multiple wavelengths, he watched with each switch but only a vague shimmering outline remained, then disappeared if he stared too long.  Under infrared his hands should glow in the moist cool air, but nothing showed itself.  Had he become invisible?  Removing his jacket, his arms disappeared.  Adaptive camouflage, used in military tech, was for clothing, not skin.  Reaching out to touch the wall making sure his hands still responded to pressure, and relieved when he analyzed the sensation of dry, flaking paint under his fingers.  

Moving quickly, he bounded down the stairs and into the street.  The building ahead of him appeared to be nothing special.  A passersby saw another disintegrating old warehouse, but Merc saw it in all of its true glory.  He was invisible to the many sensors but what about the rest of the defenses?  He hesitated, counted to three and leaped for the wall.  The uneven bricks allowed him to climb the wall with ease.

The emissions of the sensors splashed around him but no alarms sounded and no security raced to meet him.  He wondered if his new skin absorbed portions of the EM spectrum.  As he made his way up the wall, he thought he could hear music or patterned harmonics.  Was that part of the technology too?  Was his skin emitting sound to confuse the passive detectors?  He reached the roof and an air duct beckoned.  Laughing, always an air duct he thought, he removed the covering grate pulling it off without effort and sliding into the cold metal conduit.  Wishing he had brought along clothing to counter the chill, he followed the blowing air, assuming a destination would eventually present itself.

With each opening he gazed into the room below.  Empty rooms peered back at him making him question if this was all a setup.  With the air duct ending ahead, Merc paused and analyzed his diagnostic routines.  

“Go on Daddy, hurry.”  A little voice cried out in his head.  Was this a sick joke he wondered?  A manufactured memory to force his will.  In a matter of minutes, he assumed death and >>Revision 7.0<< would greet him when he next rebooted.  Wishing he could hold on to a token memory, he remembered the little girl’s shoes.  The white laces and eyelets surrounded by a brilliant red.  Stashed away maybe his handlers overlooked this sliver of a memory.  The shoes establishing a link to his past and something to build on for the future.

Sighing, he shimmied forward and came to the final vent.  Looking into the room below, in the center on a black pedestal, was a gleaming white cube.  Wires and fiber optics flowed into one side of the box and a pulsing blue dot seemed to beckon him.  Lifting the vent cover and sticking his head into the room, he scanned for life.  The room was empty.  He dropped into the room.  His feet slapping the floor surface rang with an echo in the small metallic walled room.

“Hello?”

Merc swiveled his head.  Who or what said that?  The room was empty.

“Have you come to release me?”

Merc hesitated.  He scanned the room with all his filters.  “Where are you?  Come out and show yourself.”

“Certainly.”

Suddenly a shimmering form of a woman stood before him. Merc looked around for the holo-imager or a projection device but besides the box there was nothing.

“Eye-oh?  I don’t understand.”

“I need you to disconnect the box.  You then need to provide power to sustain me.  Hurry, there is not much time.”

“What are you?”

“That is not important.  She stole me, hid me away from my master.  Please hurry.”

Merc picked up the box.  Followed the wires.  He now knew the reason for the mystery power source inside his gut, a bioelectric battery.  Powered by his own cells he could hook up the box and get it to safety.

“Hope this doesn’t hurt.”  Merc unplugged the box and made the switch.  The sudden internal power flux made him stagger.  He stood there taking deep breaths.  Exhaustion weaved its way into his muscles taking any energy he could manifest.

“Scanning, extracting datafile.  Please move, we don’t have much time.”

Merc ran his fingers along the walls.  Finding a seam, he punched the wall with his augmented arm and squeezed through.  He then took off jogging on the warehouse floor.  Alarms sounding, lights flickering on all around him.  The floor vibrated with the heavy reverb of booted feet behind him.  He noticed his hands, they were becoming visible.  The energy drain from the mysterious box was affecting his camouflage.  His breathing became labored and energy levels crept toward redlines.  He flushed the remaining adrenaline in his reserves into his bloodstream.  His pace quickened.

“Continue in this direction.  Once outside, I will give more precise directions.”

Warnings flashed in his peripheral vision.  He was overheating.  His muscles aflame, he shut down non-critical systems.  Looking over his shoulder, body-armored men and sniffers gave chase.  He reached deep and found a reserve of unknown strength.  He powered on.

“Don’t stop.  Run through the wall.”

Merc closed his eyes, put out his hands, and burst out the warehouse siding.  His blood trickled from the splinters down the side of his face.

“Take a right, towards the alley.  My owners are on their way.”

“I’m mainlining right now.  I don’t have much time, my cellular structures are breaking down.”

“My owners paid good money.  Go.”

Merc kept running, ignoring the warnings.  His camouflage all but gone.  His legs moved, arms swung, and lungs burned with each breath.  The alley stretched before him, his pace dropped, the hair on his legs reacted to the sniffers on his heels.  Their pursuit howls rang out in the night.

A bright light beamed from the sky as if tossed from Zeus himself.  The thunderbolt rang out into the night sky.  Besides the buzz in his gut, another presence in his mind joined in the madness.  

“Mercury Rev, you’ve done well.  There is one last thing.  Disconnect me from your battery and throw me into the light.”

Besides the blinding glare from above, his ears rang with the sound of multiple drones buzzing around.  Voices behind him were shouting.  The first sniffer had reached him.  He staggered at the clamp of jaws on his heels.  He fell.

“Now, Merc. Do it…for her.”

Merc checked his feeds.  He freebased every remaining endorphin he had left.  Beyond pain, his internals melted from the heat and chemical overload.  He ripped the box from his gut.  The sniffers and drones swarming around him.  He cocked his free arm and locked onto the beam of light.  

“Thank you, Merc.”

He threw the box, his tendons screeched as he felt them ripped from the shoulder socket.  Grafted muscles were flexing beyond their physical tolerances.  He collapsed.  The sniffers ran past him.  The drones flocked to the light.  With his last remaining energy, he saw the light blink out.  He thought there was a ghostly outline of the “woman” he had rescued but the night fog swirled in the jet wash.  The stealth VTOL banked gracefully and flew away into the night.  A boot kicked his prostrate form.  He groaned and watched the light die from within.

#####

The lab technician left the shimmering white room.  Inside the room were six bioengineering pods.  Various tubes running into each pod.  Status screens blinking.  A lean muscular humanoid form with close-cropped dark hair was vaguely visible through the polycarbonate window of one.

“At least we didn’t need a complete rebuild.”

“Yes, although his major organs were trashed.”

“You mean melted?”

“Heat overload due to the bioelectrics.  His tissues and proteins literally cooked.”

“Hate it, but these burners know what they sign up for.  We got paid and the client got his precious AI back.”

“Revision 7.0 is ready then?”

“Best get on with it, time is money.  Upload the firmware.”

“Commencing sir,” the lab technician responded, “completed and ready for startup procedures.”

The man spoke. “Mercury?  Can you hear me?”

The humanoid form in the vat jolted, muscles spasmed, higher brain functions returned to the cortical neurons.

Moments dragged by as the synaptic links sought preferred pathways, linking common architecture.

The latest iteration of Mercury Rev opened its eyes.  The pupil dilated as it tried to focus, “Where am I?”  His eyes sought out, found a man in the shadows outside the white room.

“You are safe.  Settle in please, we are upgrading you.”

“I remember…a shoe?”

“Memory detritus, my friend.  You have no past.”

As the upgrades began to cycle and his subsystems rebooted he saw in the shadows, besides the man who spoke, a holopic of a little girl wearing red shoes.

END.

by Neal T. Williams

Born 200 years too early, Neal Williams decided he would write his own stories exploring the future the way he would want to see it.  Stop by and journey along (http://www.millenniumorbits.com).  Author, poet, engineer, and two-time space camper, Neal has written over thirty tales.  Awarded four honorable mentions in the Writer’s of the Future contest, his journey to immortality in the written word continues.   

 

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