When the explosion erupted, I threw myself behind the cover and glanced over the edge. In a field intersected by hills and trees of a sparse canopy, a red blinker flickered. Clouds darkened the day, and the fog hovered around the crater downed Stratagma fighter jet made. The radar did not show the presence of people in the forest when I scanned the terrain with heat and infrared filters. Blinker glowed bright and turned dim, warning me that I might walk into a trap.
I sheltered behind the rock, checked how many ampoules I had left, and counted the ammunition. I took the spare battery out of my backpack and inserted it. The mechanism closed, the Kevlar plates hissed, and the armor switched to combat mode. The glucose level is at eighty-seven percent, enough for a week. The energy was on the hundredth section, sedatives ready for immediate use.
Pulling my hood on, I activated the camouflage system, which distorted the field of vision around me due to light refraction. I jumped out of the shelter and dashed towards the blinker. In a hurry, I occasionally turned around, looking from where the enemies might appear.
The tranquilizer’s ampoule dissolved before I stepped on the crater’s porous ground and began to maneuver, skipping bent pieces of the smoky spacecraft.
Blinker indicated that he was under a broken wing. I shifted my weapon to my back and lifted the wing from the ground. The visor turned green, so I dropped the rifle under the metal plate to hold it up until I pulled the pilot out. I stretched the cable from the side and plugged it in his chest.
“Hey! Who are you?!” a male voice called out.
“Switch to the internal channel,” I waited for the communication system to change, we both fell silent, the conversation moved to the visor. “I’m from the EC, Lieutenant Brigeda Clavian, Sigrid unit.”
“Major Nilvar Relkin, Stratagma Group,” he introduced himself. “What about my crew?” I glanced at the scattered corpses without the presence of life.
“I’m afraid they didn’t make it, Major.”
“I can’t see, are you connected to the ship …?”
“Spears … That’s how they knocked you down,” no further conversation was needed, it’s clear they were waiting for them with mobile launchers. I injected him with a standard cocktail, “Let’s get you out of here,” I removed the clamps and ties, then pulled the case out of his chest, careful not to break the cable we were connected to.
It wasn’t until we were safe that I checked on him. The shrapnel hollowed out his formwork, gray slashes of damage covered the hexagonal shape in length, the battery was exhaling, but it was operational. The diagnostics showed he had fifty percent health when a warning banner appeared on the visor. An incoming missile, ‘Spear’ type, it was fired east of here. I opened the ankles on my chest and braced him next to me. I grabbed my rifle, took two steps away, and, using the wing, climbed out of the hole. A drone detached from my back and remained to hover in place as I ran at full speed. The sensor activated flares on the device; the missile took on a new target. The bang shattered the landscape’s silence, the echo reverberated, and bits of dirt engulfed me from behind. I did not stop, the defensive regime in my armor spotted life in three directions. I turned towards the forest, ran for the bushes where I disappeared.
The leaves rustled from the first raindrops, the black clouds darkened the surroundings so much that I switched to night filter. Deeper in the woods, I made a temporary shelter, shifted my hood, and bent my head over the Nilvar’s casing. Thunder broke the silence around me, lightning lit up the trees, which appeared as if they had dozens of hands.
“Are we in the safe zone?” Nilvar seemed frightened.
“Sort of. Yes,” I replied, a bit mockingly.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” I sensed a half-smile, something human if anything like that remained after so many years of war.
“It’s my job,” my voice was cold; the case sighed.
“After ten days, I have someone to talk to. It’s quiet at the academy, but at least they don’t let you to your thoughts; otherwise, you go crazy,” He said it with the same tone; I realized that he needs a touch and attention in addition to medication, but I did not care.
“What were you doing there?” I asked although I did not want to know.
“We were supposed to fly over the reconnaissance, the third wave. The drones acquired the targets, the fighters bombed the terrain, so we had to go after and check the performance; fix what they missed. We kept in the formation and under the radar, and then we got up and chose our target. The enemy elevated their guard and alerted the air defense. We knew about their tactical routine because they were slow, so the last wave gets everything intended for the previous pilots.”
“And? You ran into the Spear?”
“I managed to avoid the first two, but the bastards launch three at a time.” The thunder struck a little closer.
“Hey, I’m shutting down. Lightning is going to fry us.” I turned off everything except life support and sensors.
I added serum for him to sleep, and a cocktail to myself to stay half-awake. In a chemical-induced haze, memories come, Hippocratic Oath, a girl’s face, a stranger, and a vague emotion that binds us. The hands are not mine, the fingers too artificial; there is an emptiness at my fingers’ top. No pain, no touch of cold or heat. Darkness and loneliness. A prisoner in her own mind, I wither in a dungeon without windows. I longed for another day.
The storm went further south to sow rain. I climbed the hill and noticed that I was pulling my leg. With a quick check, I found that my knee was dislocated. I hit the joint twice to make get it into place.
“You need a new limb; I guess you can set up a frame with double reinforcement. You are a doctor, you know better “, he commented, I didn’t pay attention, “I see, new rubber bands on your wrists wouldn’t hurt you either. These are worn out. Rust will eat you, woman!” I smiled and shook my head.
“So, you’re a cybernaut now, aren’t you?”
“A pilot must know his machine. Every member of Stratagma is aware of limitations of the aircraft he is piloting,” he recited, “if you only knew what it’s like when you see a fighter jet for the first time, and his pointed beak with curls that branch towards the air buffers, the roughly edged fuselage… spooky and thrilling. Then you approach the aircraft like to a feral beast, feel his form, and hear double whistling turbines…”, he bit his tongue, the meter showed an elevated level of adrenaline.
“Hey, Major, would you like some morphine?” I said, finally climbing the hill.
“No need, Brigeda. You keep that safe. I just remembered the training. I am left with the memory of the man I used to be. I almost don’t remember the facial features, but the empty canvas waiting for the mouth, eyes, nose to be drawn. I don’t even remember those canisters in which they drown our brains while learning to control new bodies. I still remember the cries in the lab… sometimes I get a fog from the sedatives scientists put in the solution, carry you in nirvana through space, distorting images of long-loved ones. It bothers me… how we came to this”, his recollection of the implementation made me recall my experience.
“We signed up for it ourselves,” I ran my fingers over the case, and he heard a gentle scraping. “We’ll be arriving home soon,” I announced.
I hid the ship near the cliff, a good position for defense, and difficult for reconnaissance. I walked past the sensors that everyone else would activate, opened the door with voice recognition, and entered the neon-lit room. I swooped the parts and tools to the floor, released the hooks, and laid the case on the desk. I fetched the best canister from the pile. After removing the first shields of the Nilvar’s carrier, I could see a synthetic membrane full of silicone. I ripped it open and gently removed the gelatinous mass until I came to a brain cocoon. I carefully lifted his brain and spotter the serial number across the frontal lobe containing his name ‘Nilvar Relkin.’ Although my face could not show it, I smiled, connected his brain stem to the bottom of the canister, and gently lowered the brain into the solution. I stepped back to see him in full, see him swimming in a turquoise liquid. I injected him with an ampoule of glucose and sedatives through one of the tubes.
“Uh, well, a fine vessel you have here,” a voice came over the loudspeaker; the comment referred to the ship’s interior, which he could not see.
I almost burst out laughing.
“Careful there, Major. I can make a mistake and turn you into a plant, and two flower pots have already withered,” I added, walking around the table to leave my backpack and rifle.
“My life is in your hands… Is there anyone else here?” He asked; my visor automatically steered towards a pile of pieces, broken heads, wires mixed with hardened and dried sickly colored silicone.
“They’re on patrol, Major,” I hoped he wouldn’t ask too many questions. “I have no news of reinforcements. The relay is damaged, and the connection to the mother ship is cut off.” I looked back at the table; the speaker was crackling.
His silence was killing me.
“Uh… So, nothing from a new body, huh?”
“If you would’ve wanted it, I can build a unit for you from the spare parts,” he sighed and agreed.
I almost dislocated myself, wandering the transport department in search of suitable parts. Nilvar sang a melody out of tonality, patiently waiting for me to come back. His positive spirit briefly cheered me up. I unscrewed the piece from a trooper, picked up a liaison engineer torso, and chose a head without visible injuries and replaced the visor. I had to pull instructions from the maintenance files, at least those I had permission to access. The repair lasted for two days, and in the meantime, he kept me company by recounting his apparently inflated achievements.
I was preparing to install him in a new body when the major asked:
“Sorry to interrupt, Brigeda… how come you’re not on assignment, and your friends aren’t coming back from the patrol?” He surprised me; I dropped the screwdriver.
“I wouldn’t like to interfere in your business, yet I know that many airmen are lying on the battlefield, waiting for someone to rescue them. I avoid asking you, but… you left me no choice.”
“What is the date, Major?” When I asked him, he refused to answer, he fell silent listening to the sounds I was making while preparing the unit. “Try to move your arm,” the metal skeleton responded to the command, “and the legs.”
“At least let me see.” I sighed, hesitated to connect the power source, and give him full control. One command, a code string, would give him free will, and I dread over his reaction when he realizes what happened. “Lieutenant Brigeda Klevian, allow me to see … Please,” he demanded it, impatiently holding for a response.
“Would you like some morphine to calm you down? …” I change the topic and ignored the request.
“Brigeda… Please. I have to get up. I know that the situation has drastically worsened compared to the one I remember. I’m ready.” A moment of silence, I picked him up, let him drain for a second, and put him in silicone, which I then packed in a new hard case and closed everything.
In front of me, a helpless cyborg laid on the table. I stored the system with a code, and Nilvar Relkin rose up from the counter. The indicator on his visor lit up, he could see now. He could see half of me pierced by bullets, distorted framework, rags I was wearing. He could also see the fabrics I ensured that parts from spilling out of my stomach. He could see the ship’s interior, monitors out of sockets, two missile holes, and the floor filled with useless pieces of cyborgs. If I had a heart, I know it would break. Instead, the hiss of an empty sedative ampoule woke me from self-pity.
He got up, checked the limits of his mobility, and sized me up and down. He moved like a beaten man; held for the ship’s walls, glanced outside, and assessed what had befallen us. He came back, grabbed me by the shoulders, and looked me in the eyes. I hoped for soothing words, I expected tears and sorrow, but Nilvar… he stretched his arms and hugged me. The whistling of the wind through the corroded wreck and our electronic joints spoiled the moment.
“Why me, Brigeda?” He mustered the courage to ask.
“I am Brigeda Clevian, Evacuation Corps, Sigrid unit. I’m not a pilot,” I stared at his visor, barely restraining myself from bursting into tears; he nodded.
“Then let’s get to work,” he began to collect the pieces from the floor. I soon joined him.
After we cleaned the command bridge, we scoured the transportation compartment. We recycled the bodies of our comrades – at least what was usable. We either melted the rest or simply threw it out on the rocks. We stored functional brains, still in original housings, in the luggage compartment intended for batteries. They will be comfortable there until we reach our destination. The major managed to connect to the ship and determine what needs fixing for space travel. As much as possible, we collected parts from other wrecks, patched the wings, restored the turbines, and replaced the propulsion cells.
Relkin’s singing improved, and he finally managed to hit the key and stick to it. In addition to repairing the ship, we also patched our own frames, justifying it with better performance. When the ship was ready, he climbed to the platform designated for pilot and extended a mechanical tentacle. He waved, heading into the mechanism, and his whole body dismantled, with the ship accepting its brain into the assembly. All the systems came to life, reminding me of the picture when we first came here. I am alone again, but I would like to think that Nilvar has become one with the ship, and I with him, that we are connected much more than by mere cables, but with the same aspiration to fly home.
The war stayed behind us, getting further and further up as the turbines gained momentum. I know it will fade through memories, just like that memory of us when we were human. Behind us are slopes, cliffs, glades, and rivers. Behind us are metal soldiers; those without a face and whose face is the same, friendly or not.
Behind us is Earth.
Author: Nenad Jevtić
(story published in “Marsonic 17”, Croatia 2020)