Sam opened his eyes, blinking them like a newborn animal against the harsh light of existence. He groaned as he struggled to push himself up from the ground. Already the sensors on the carapce were streaming data to him, figures and statistics pumped into his brain and rendered visible in the HUD that accompanied his every waking moment. There was residue of Composition C on the carapace’s exterior. An explosive had gone off near him, a big one. The carapace had protected him, of course, but the shockwave had still been enough to render him unconscious.
YOUR MISSION ISN’T COMPLETE, SOLDIER.
Sam winced. The carapace AI detected that he was awake and had begun shouting orders at him. He hated the goddamn thing. It was like having a drill instructor living in your brain, sharing your body.
GET ON YOUR FEET, SOLDIER. GET ON YOUR FEET.
“I feel like someone just hit me with a truck,” Sam muttered out loud. “Give me a minute.”
Sam gasped as a flood of epinephrine poured into his bloodstream, shocking him awake. He leaped to his feet, and as quickly as the rush had come, it mellowed, the carapace already filtering the hormone from his body. Sam shook his head and looked around him. He was on a dirt street, broken glass and splintered wood and chunks of plaster everywhere. His rifle lay a few feet away from where he’d been. He picked it up, checked it, and slung it across his back when he was satisfied it was undamaged.
He looked up to find a building with a blown out wall on the third floor. There were scorch marks at the edges of the hole. Fire still burned there.
“Jesus,” Sam thought. “I got blown right through the fucking wall.” He shook his head. “Status.”
MULTIPLE RIBS FRACTURED. RIGHT RADIUS FRACTURED. RIGHT ULNA FRACTURED. LEFT FEMUR FRACTURED. CONTUSIONS ACROSS TORSO. CONTUSIONS ACROSS RIGHT ARM. CONTUSIONS ACROSS–
“That’s enough! That’s enough!”
ENDORPHIN PRODUCTION INCREASED. FLUPIRTINE ADMINISTERED TO WOUND SITES. CARAPACE APPLYING PRESSURE TO WOUND SITES. CARAPACE SPLINTING BROKEN BONES.
“I said that’s enough.” Sam stood perfectly still, trying to decide what to do next. His memories were coming back to him. The target had set a trap and escaped, if they’d ever been there at all. Had the intel been bad, or had somebody betrayed him?
Sam shifted his weight from one foot to the other gingerly, trying not to aggravate his broken and battered body. He thought about all the blows he’d taken in training, in other missions, and the carapace had always protected him from the worst of it. Through a combination of painkillers, hormones, and tech Sam couldn’t hope to understand, he’d always been able to complete his mission.
Nothing had ever been this bad, though. Sam couldn’t stop running through the list in his mind.
That was when he realized it didn’t hurt at all.
YOUR MISSION ISN’T COMPLETE, SOLDIER.
Sam winced. “I’m aware,” he thought. “But I lost track of the target. What do I do now?”
The AI was silent for a moment. There was something unsettling about the AI going silent. IT was supposed to be so advanced, so intelligent that there was a never a need for it. When it actually went silent, it was like it wasn’t just processing data, but actually thinking.
A blinking yellow light appeared in the corner of Sam’s eyes, the carapace layering the beacon against his vision. INCREASED HOSTILE COMMUNICATIONS TRAFFIC AT THIS LOCATION. PROCEED.
Sam didn’t respond. He started walking towards the beacon. The glow dimmed once the AI was satisfied he was following orders.
* * *
Sam waited for nightfall, had counted on the hostiles not to have thermal or low-light imaging. He perched on a tower jutting from the roof of the tallest building he kind find, looking down and surveying the location the AI had marked for him. There was a two-story house with a fence just as tall as around it. People on the roof with rifles, the hot glow of their bodies standing out against the darkness of the night. They were alert, but they didn’t seem to be particularly agitated or nervous. They probably thought Sam had died in the explosion.
A reasonable assumption since they didn’t know what the carapace was, what it was capable of. No one outside of his own government did. It was too closely guarded a secret, and those who went against carapace wearers in combat didn’t survive.
Sam shifted on his haunches. He should have been tired, but he wasn’t. He hadn’t slept in days, but the carapace was keeping a cocktail of drugs and hormones in veins to keep him awake. He was supposed to be combat ready for a week on the cocktail, but he didn’t believe it. Sure, it would keep him on his feet, but he could feel his mind slowing down even if his reactions didn’t. He shook his head. It wasn’t worth thinking about. Instead, he thought, “Radar.” A blurry image of what lay beyond the walls of the house appeared before his eyes. More figures armed with rifles. Shorter ones, too. Tiny ones, even.
Women and children. They had their families with them.
Sam frowned. He hated when there were women and children involved. But there was nothing to be done. The mission had to be completed no matter what.
Sam dropped down from his perch, catching window ledges and poles to slow his descent, swinging to the ground like some great ape. He landed with a soft thud, the carapace cushioning his fall, not even a grunt escaping from his lips. He thought his broken leg might have hurt him, but couldn’t decide if it was his imagination or not. Even as he leaped up and over the fence, even as he quietly climbed the side of the house and stalked the roof like a cat, snapping the necks of the men who patrolled it, Sam couldn’t decide if he felt anything or not.
It didn’t matter, he supposed.
Sam took a moment to affix the silencer to his rifle. Things would likely be too crowded inside for him to sneak about silently dispatching whoever he encountered, but there wasn’t any sense in alerting any guards who were lurking in nearby buildings. Sam pulled his rifle in close and set a hand on the doorknob that separated him from the home’s interior. He took a deep breath, opened it, and stepped through. There was a stairway behind it, another door at the bottom. Sam took care to step as lightly as possible. He opened the door at the bottom when reached it.
TARGET ACQUIRED flashed across his vision before his brain could interpret what he was seeing. He was inside a bedroom. The target stood with his back to Sam, facing a mirror. Two women, barely in their twenties by the look of them, sat naked on the bed. One of them turned at the sound of the door creaking open, and when she saw Sam standing there, the carapace black-grey, the sleek optical array on its mask making him look like some kind of man-sized insect, she screamed. Sam raised his rifle, shouted for the women to get down, but they jumped to their feet and screamed in terror, spoiling his shout. He kept the rifle raised and trained on the target, and gestured for the women to get down.
The target grabbed one of them, pulled her in close, and put her between himself and Sam. With his free hand, he fumbled around on the desk for a pistol, some garishly huge thing that fired rounds as big as a man’s thumb. When he found it, he jammed the barrel against the woman’s head. The other woman at least had the sense to drop to the ground, but now there was an innocent in the way.
“He’s got a hostage,” Sam thought.
“He’s got a fucking hostage!” Sam screamed out loud.
Sam watched helplessly as the target slowly backed towards the door, a sneer on his face. The AI was silent.
“No!” Sam screamed as his finger tightened on the trigger. A stream of bullets poured out of the gun, tearing through the hostage and into the target. The woman didn’t even have time to scream. She just fell to the ground. The man, though, gasped for air as the life left his body.
Sam strode forward, compelled by the biomemtic weave of the carapace, the carbonfibers pulling his body along like a second set of muscles. He kicked the pistol to the side, raised his rifle, and put a bullet through the target’s head.
“You son of a bitch,” Sam muttered. “You son of a bitch.”
HESITATION IS UNACCEPTABLE. THE MISSION COMES FIRST.
Sam was just about to reply when he heard a noise behind him. He spun around, raising the rifle as he did so, only to find the second woman aiming the pistol square at his chest. That ridiculous oversized pistol and its ridiculous oversized rounds, point blank to the chest. He pulled the trigger of his rifle even as she pulled the one on pistol. “Of course,” was Sam’s last thought as the world faded into black. “At least I get to rest.”
* * *
Lightning surged across Sam’s chest. He wanted to scream, but there was no air in his lungs. His body contorted, every muscle contracting at once and then releasing.
Inky darkness started to creep in at the sides of Sam’s vision.
Sam’s body hitched again. He gasped for air.
GET ON YOUR FEET, SOLDIER. YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DIE.
THE MISSION COMES FIRST.