In the Crosshairs, Part 3


Whenever vec-Drifter entered sleep mode, he dreamed strange dreams. Eerie metallic voices crept into his mind, at the edge of his awareness, but he could not tell what they were saying. Fragmentary memories flashed into his mind: memories of things he had never done.

Flash. Inside the mind bay of Bertrand dyson. Humans clearly visible in his infrared vision. He slashed at them with his mining lasers. His victims screamed silently — vec-Drifter’s Korwen body had no sense of hearing.

Flash. Somewhere in the Pebble Band, vec-Drifter labored beside a half-dozen other Korwen vecs. His metallic limbs worked nimbly to assemble and position various structural components. The other vecs had other tasks: placing electronic components, welding structural components. What are we building? he tried to remember. Whatever it was, the task seemed very important.

Flash. He was listening to a speech by a high-ranking Korwen. His mind disassembled the packet-radio messages, broke them down into their lexical components, rotated them, linked them together. His subconscious mind associated each lexeme with various memories. The name of the orator came to mind. His name was {23C9:AE90:AC0D:4DF3:9F31:FB5C:4397:0D0A}.

Flash. Back in the mind bay. Human projectile weapons bounced off his armor: their impact registered on his micrometeoroid impact detectors. He flailed one of his assailants with the welding implements at the end of one of his limbs. Then he detected the telltale signs of an EMP weapon charging…

Gasp. vec-Drifter awakened. The gasp reflex was a human reaction: his vec body had no corresponding response.

“Drifter? Another bad dream?” Factoring out the thirty second light-travel lag, Nenshe’s response came immediately. Though it was a voice transmission, vec-Drifter failed to recognize the worried tone of her voice.

“The same dream,” vec-Drifter told her. “But this time, I heard 23C9. It was before he assumed leadership of the vecs. He was rallying support.”

“What was he saying?”

The vecs’ language was utterly alien to the Anglish dialect spoken on Bertrand dyson — more different than any two natural human languages had ever been. Vec-Drifter struggled to think of a translation that conveyed both the logical meaning and the emotional overtone of the speech.

An ancient term came to vec-Drifter’s mind. “Rabble-rousing. Little factual content. The locals have been without a strong leader for a century. They’re angry at humans for… some reason.” He shook his head: the gestural response was encoded and conveyed back to Nenshe.

“What’s wrong?”

“Strange. This is the first time I’ve been a vec. I keep remembering things that I’ve never seen before.”

“Persistent déjà vu is to be expected,” Nenshe said. “This model of vec has extremely redundant memory storage. We wiped most of it, but some memories will inevitably leak into your own mind.


“Cattle. Sheep. Mindless herd animals.”

Jarrett scoffed. “Rather an unflattering assessment of our people.”

With a flamboyant wave of her hand, Nenshe displayed several thousand psychological profiles on the holoprojector. Countless disembodied heads floated in midair, most of them artificially recolored red-orange.

“This is a small sampling of the minds I’ve psychoanalyzed since I’ve been here,” she told her director. “Almost eighty percent of mind bay patients score ‘faded burnt sienna’ or lower on the Tokio-Reeland test.”

“An unreliable measure. I assure you, the people of Bertrand are competent to handle their own defense.”

Drifter leaned back in his chair and chuckled. Jarrett glared at him.

“No offense, Director Jarrett,” Drifter said. “But I’ve traveled to over eighty systems physically, and five times that number via mind upload. Other than a baseline human reserve on Niuearth, the Fiver system is the most primitive I’ve visited, and Bertrand is prim even by Fiver standards. Metallurgical infrastructure? Free-electron laser defenses? SI0 security forces? Any low-grade transapient could easily render your defenses useless.”

Jarrett growled. “Maybe after all this is over, the two of you would be happier traveling to a less backwater system!” He stormed off across the mind bay, towards his private office.

“I didn’t offend him too badly, did I?” asked Drifter when he was out of earshot.

“Jarrett will get over it,” Nenshe said with a smile. “He sometimes needs to be reminded that Bertrand dyson is not the center of the universe.”

“Where are you from, originally?”

“Dilarii. It’s a planet about three-hundred light-years coreward of Fiver. Beautiful red-black sand beaches. There’s an enormous Keterist relic visible in the summer nighttime sky: a pair of outstretched arms, reaching for infinity. Someday I’ll go back there.”

“If you’re not a native Bertrander, why didn’t you leave when the first attacks occurred?”

Nenshe raised one shoulder and tilted her head towards it — a gesture Drifter recognized as her cultural equivalent of a shrug. “If I were smarter, I never would have come to Bertrand. They made me downgrade my mental abilities by 13% just to get an entry visa.” Bertrand dyson had very strict customs controls. No visitors greater than a certain sapience level were allowed. The native population was almost entirely nearbaseline human: mental and physical enhancements were almost unheard-of.

“Then why stay? Why protect a population of unenlightened humans? Your boss obviously doesn’t even appreciate your work.”

She shrugged again. “Like I said, these people are mindless sheep. Sheep need shepherds. And sheepdogs. Speaking of which…”

With a wave of her hand, the holoprojector switched back to its previous display: a mind-scan infographic.

“…your vec counterpart is approaching 5707-ZR-308. With any luck, he’ll locate the vec leader and complete his mission before they launch their next attack.”

“How is his mind holding up?”

“He’s eager to complete his mission. But…” Nenshe looked worried as she pointed out several flashing ideographs. “Memories of the vec’s previous life are leaking into his mind. They’re starting to distract him from the mission. Right now, he has it under control, but a distraction at a crucial moment…”

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help the mission.” Assassinations were tricky enough to carry out, even when they had your full attention.

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