12 August 2086
> set q=AAAA
12 August 2086
> set q=AAAA
16 August 2086
Mojave Death Zone
Corporal Tara Aal-Lügnar shit her pants moments before 70 thousand kilograms of rushing metal pulped her body against a granite boulder.
16 August 2086
Mojave Death Zone
Tara's day began optimistically just a few hours before a tank splattered her body on a barren patch of the Mojave Death Zone. She was nestled securely in a Pact convoy setting out at 06:00 from Forward Observation Base Lucerne on a survey and recovery mission. It was the most exciting activity the newly minted corporal had done in weeks. Since buying her commission in July, Corporal Aal-Lügnar spent her days logging requisitions and overseeing her team's work retrofitting over three dozen civilian badgers for Pact combat service. Whereas other volunteers might find a sense of accomplishment or even honor in such a task, Tara found it arduous in its monotony, leaving her feeling like an assembly line worker. Well, assembly line management, anyway.
Nevertheless, Tara convinced herself she was excited to make the most of a day outside the motor pool and generate some viral-worthy content. Still, less than ten minutes into the trip, she was already squashing a twinge of fear that burned acidic in her stomach. The corporal settled uncomfortably into the seat of a locust cargo hauler and quickly ignored the other two members of her team riding along with her in the passenger compartment.
Just days before receiving the survey and recovery orders to retrieve an autonomous condor tank, Tara had vlogged about her grievances after joining the Pact. Her broad, overly dramatic thesis edited for delusions and tangents of victimhood simply became - she hadn't paid for her commission to waste away in a chemical-filled motor pool. It went unnoticed by Tara that hers was the only air-conditioned office overlooking the work bay. Or that she was, as requested on her donor-volunteer application, ‘close to the front lines but not close enough to get shot or something.’ Utterly ignorant of her comfortable posting, Tara instead focused on the insignificant. A petty woman with petty problems, Corporal Aal-Lügnar, was on top of the issue regarding smelly fumes making their way through the office's A/C filtration system. The good corporal had sent her volunteer liaison officer, Colonel Jairo Gil, multiple strongly-worded missives about the situation, but the man never returned her messages.
And so, Tara Aal-Lügnar, the sole benefactor of the Rewie Aal Memorial Trust and former influencer, turned life coach who dabbled as a self-help guru, before a stint as an astrologer-vlogger for Gem Goddess Limited – vented her frustrations on the quantum web. What the corporal's 84-minute video tirade failed to express succinctly was her extreme disappointment the motor-pool posting didn't offer any self-promotion opportunities for her vlog. She reiterated six times that no one on the socials cared about watching simpletons bolt armor onto ugly, 3-wheeled deathtraps. And being the supervisor of simpletons wasn't glamorous or heroic. She was careful to make that point eight times in her video ranting. Ultimately, Corporal Aal-Lügnar said without saying that she didn’t want to help the Pact’s cause; she merely wanted to be part of the adventure!™ She desired the exciting life marketed and sold on the socials – and if the tourist was honest with herself, the clout accompanying an ever-elusive viral post.
Finally, as Tara approached her Chiron Return at age 49, and with over 30 years of sheltered existence spent failing to conjure a career as a web personality, the frustrated woman mustered up the courage to buy into something others found meaningful. The Pact's brand was exploding this season. For the wannabe hoping to strike viral gold, volunteering in the Pact's war against Shangri-LA while chasing clout sounded like a reasonable way to spend a summer. Tara just wished she'd spent sufficiently to glamp in style with the senior Pact officers. But, instead, her father's estate denied her request for a more significant withdrawal, leaving her only enough to buy in as a corporal working the motor pool. She was still annoyed and a bit suspicious at the trust’s refusal. Kassandra Walters was such a bitch about withdrawals; Tara suspected the trust executor had something to do with the reduced donation.
A prim, young, and eager employee of Lodestone Law LLC, Kassandra Walters replaced Tara as executor of her father’s trust after a disastrous 24-months of financial mismanagement. Tara didn’t have a head for numbers and found the monthly obligations associated with handling finances a bore. Still, the loss of her executorship stung her pride. As a contracted employee with Lodestone, Ms. Walters’ low-born status never sat well with Tara. The corporal viewed limited liability corporations and their staff as a necessary evil – something endured as a means to an end. Tiny fish scuttling for the scraps of krakens, an LLC could never compete with a fully credentialed corporation in terms of capital or market presence. Corporal Aal-Lügnar frivolously decided to fire Kassandra Walters when she returned to Lucerne. Perhaps some time sweating it out as a jobless repudiator would show the woman her place. Silently scheming on ways to blow up Kassandra’s life, the corporal checked her socials while the locust she rode in bounced roughly along the pitted highway.
That morning in the Death Zone, the sunrise was quite beautiful. Yet, Corporal Aal-Lügnar ignored it to scrutinize her ValiDateMe account metrics in artificial reality. Tara’s sophisticated Belsarus 9 Panoptical implants granted her superb vision. Along with ultra-high-resolution recording and AR suite capabilities, the ocular implants also had access to designer colors, making them a must-have for the corporal. But, House Lux branded eyes or not, Tara couldn’t get a view to save her life. Mired in disappointment that her last three videos reached less than 400 views each, the corporal brooded as her team's convoy of locusts and badgers trundled through the dawn desert landscape. While the natural world outside the locust exploded in hues of fiery gold that transitioned to pinks of amaranth, fuchsia, and thulian before settling into bright, clean blues of cyan, cerulean, and turquoise, Tara was oblivious to the majesty around her. Slowly, the self-absorbed socialite turned her frustration outward and began focusing her attention away from the socials and to her immediate surroundings, starting with the smell of the locust’s interior.
The vehicle reeked. Tara had spent the journey so far breathing through her mouth to avoid the smell of stale air and sour feet that somehow tickled her throat with peppery agitation. Like inhaling skink but without the fun high. Tara gloomily rubbed her nose and half-listened as Laron and Mikala excitedly chatted about condor tanks. Unbeknownst to the tourist corporal, Laron and Mikala were the only people on Tara's team willing to ride with her. If she had known, perhaps she wouldn't have focused her ire on their conversation topic.
Mind, Tara knew nothing of condor tanks, but her assistant Laron did, and he wouldn't shut up about how unusual condors were and how lucky the team was to retrieve one. For what seemed like the last 48 hours back at Lucerne, he was non-stop spitting condor facts. Apparently, condors represented the pinnacle of salvage for grease-slingers like Laron – over 70 kgs of sophisticated weapons and technology that could move and fight without human operators inside. But, blah, blah, it was all so uninteresting. Tara wanted to scream at Laron yesterday to shut up about condors, and the urge was quickly coming back. Though she wouldn’t consciously acknowledge it, the corporal didn't want to see a condor up close.
When Tara tried reading the mission dossier in bed the night before, she found it too technical, so she looked up vids about the tanks on InstaStar, instead. After an hour of watching condor reels, Corporal Aal-Lügnar decided she found the tanks obnoxious and emotionally draining. Because they weren't true AI and still required human liaisons to navigate a complex battlefield, Tara deemed them needy. She hated anything that demanded effort on her part. The corporal had no idea how she pulled this mission, but she was already over it.
In the corporal's ill-formed opinion, recovering the Limited-AI used by condors was a waste of her valuable time. Tara knew nothing of artificial intelligence on a technical level. Like most, she engaged with technologies daily, all of which were beyond her comprehension. And, like most, she had an opinion on matters regardless of her understanding of the subject. For Limited-AI, the tourist corporal simply knew it was not the best in class, meaning it wasn't worth learning. Shangri-LA, the Pact’s enemy, at least used real AI in their weapons, and the results spoke for themselves. Casualty reports from the front flooded her inbox daily. Why the Pact wanted Tara to retrieve an outdated piece of scrap was beyond her. If self-awareness were her thing instead of shit posting on social media, Tara would have realized she was actually just terrified.
While researching via InstaStar, the corporal also learned condors were dangerous if approached by the wrong person. Limited-AI minds were challenging to interface with and, in some cases, required a skilled technician to intervene before the machine shut down, or worse, went erratic and attacked. Tara was certain condors had no chill after seeing a vid where a condor engaged its anti-boarding defenses, electrocuting an amateur salvage crew. But that throbbing pit of fear in her stomach went undiagnosed by her higher consciousness and instead coalesced into pettiness. Tara naturally did what she did best, turning on anyone near her. The corporal’s hatred surged at their excitement over meeting a condor today as she listened to Laron and Mikala.
"You two really need to shut up about the condor already," Tara belched out suddenly. Her words cut through the ambient whine of the locust's powerplant.
"Those things are junk. Shangri-LA's centaurs are super-advanced in comparison. So it is no contest, really," Corporal Aal-Lugnar said arrogantly, interrupting the two technicians' conversation.
"Uh, with respect, corporal, condors have repeatedly beat centaurs in long and short-range engagements," Laron retorted quickly. "They might not be as advanced as a centaur, but they can obliterate one in seconds."
"So what? They are old,” Tara said while rolling her eyes. “I shouldn't be out here digging in the desert looking for one." The corporal's tone had morphed into that of a toddler on a tantrum.
“Yeah, why are you here, ma’am,” Mikala interjected. The younger woman gestured to the passenger bay of the locust before shrugging.
“I dunno, It seems Pact life isn’t a good fit, yeah?”
Caught off guard by such a blunt question, Tara blinked widely at Mikala before responding.
“I like Pact life just fine, thank you. I like it so much I paid for the privilege of being here, so…“Tara trailed off with a haughty smirk.
“Finish your thought, corporal,” Mikalia’s eyes locked on Tara’s with a furious glare.
“Are you suggesting something about either my or Laron’s commitment, ma’am?”
“So...” the wannabe corporal stalled, breaking her gaze with Mikala.
“…it seems to me if you cared more, you’d give more to the cause, you know?”
Before Mikala could respond, Laron interjected, “ma’am, I’ve had enough of your shit - with respect.” The slight man with sun-scarred skin and purple eyes leaned forward to address Corporal Aal-Lügnar.
“For weeks, we’ve been swallowing the trash spewing from your mouth, and we did it with a smile. Why? Because we had a charity case on our hands, and Colonel Gil ordered us to babysit a tourist while she makes videos playing soldier. And we went along because your donation was pretty big. But back at Lucerne, you aren’t jeopardizing our lives while you sit on your ass sucking up climate-controlled air. Out here, it’s different. You do or say the wrong thing around that condor, and you could ruin this entire mission and get us killed.”
Tara pompously interrupted, “See? They are worthless and dangerous; I was right all along!”
Mikala had enough.
"Perfect, ma'am. You should stay in the locust and monitor our communications while we’re out there digging. I understand completely your reluctance to engage with anything old." Mikala's words dripped with sarcastic contempt.
Corporal Aal-Lügnar caught Mikala's tone. The trust fund brat adopted a mask of open-eyed shock before trying to match her subordinate's tone, though lacking its genuine edge.
"Suits me. You two can play in the dirt all you want. Enjoy picking up garbage from last decade."
Tara seethed inside. They were attacking her because of her age! The young, dumb, poor pieces of shit! How stupid are they? Too broke to join up as anything but enlisted volunteers? Idiots! Tara would get them. Idiots!
Assuming a stone-faced, rigid posture, Corporal Aal-Lügnar internally raged as her companions resumed their previous discussion at a louder volume. About to shriek with anger, Tara fell back on the nonsense she peddled at Gem Goddess as a commercial astrologer. Closing her eyes, the corporal tried manifesting her goddess avatar, hoping the spiritual guide would unblock Tara’s chakras and provide her peace - but her mind kept circling back to visions of rank feet. Finally, left gagging and frustrated, Tara retreated into her seat and pulled her undershirt up over her nose.
Time passed slowly on the rugged ride. Augmented reality projections of the terrain around the speeding locust glowed faintly near a panel by Tara’s resting arm. Out of boredom, she stared at what seemed like endless, empty kilometers of rocks and dead vegetation hurrying by. Then, after a few minutes, the cabin lights flashed yellow, and a repeating klaxon sounded. The klaxon shut up Mikala and Laron’s discussion to Tara's delight.
"Attention! Something is actively scanning us," Leslie Clyde, whom Tara knew only as 'purple hair' these last few weeks, called over the squad frequency from the driver's compartment.
"It looks like a basic surveillance drone – wait, scanner ID is coming back. Yep, it belongs to Rebar Plains. Computer IDs them as a nearby repudiator community friendly to the Pact. Wait - it also says to proceed with caution unless authorized. Huh, what’s up with that?”
As Tara sat trying to recall Leslie Clydes’ name, Mikala activated her throat mic and responded.
“Leslie, our orders don’t permit us to enter Rebar Plains. Announce our friendly intentions, then skirt around the settlement by taking the remnants of I-40 south. We will swing around and hit the condor’s signal location without pissing anyone off. It only adds 20 minutes to the trip, so no harm, yeah?”
Suddenly the driver’s name didn’t matter to Tara. Twenty extra minutes in this sweaty foot box? The tourist corporal activated her throat mic.
“Purp – I mean, Leslie, disregard Mikala’s orders. I shouldn’t have to remind you that she is not in command of this mission! Proceed through Rebar Plains. Tell them the Pact has ultimate jurisdiction here and clear the road for our convoy. Fuck ‘em; they’re just repudiators.”
“Roger, corporal,” Clyde responded irritatedly.
Corporal Aal-Lügnar flashed Mikala an icy look while toggling her throat mic closed. Then, presenting her sweetest smile, Tara said patronizingly, “We are taking the quicker route.”
“I was hoping you’d do something like that,” Mikala said with a vicious grin.
Mikala unlatched her seat harness and lunged across the compartment at Tara, using the vehicle’s forward momentum to propel her charge and slam her shoulder into Tara’s solar plexus. Corporal Aal-Lügnar gasped for air as Mikala righted herself before crashing a polymer elbow down against Tara’s head – connecting just below the corporal’s left cheek and causing her to snap down and bite a healthy chunk from her tongue. Dazed, Corporal Aal-Lügnar sputtered incoherent words along with bloody froth.
Mikala leaned over Tara in triumphant fury.
“Are you fucking delusional? You’d risk starting a turf war with a friendly settlement simply for a shortcut? Or is it because ‘they’re just repudiators’ and beneath your stuck-up ass? So, as if we don’t have enough fucking enemies out here, you want to make more?” Mikala’s nostrils flared in rage.
Reaching back, Mikala smashed her augmented fist hard against Tara’s temple. Tara’s eyes rolled back, and she felt a hand roughly pull at something around her neck. Mikala’s agitated voice muttering, “bigoted piece of shit,” was the last thing the tourist corporal heard before finally losing consciousness.
16 August 2086
Mojave Death Zone
Tara awoke to a repeating throb of pain pulsating through her being. Her jaw felt broken, and her tongue swoll beyond use, making it difficult to breathe with her mouth - what little spit remained activated a bitter, coppery taste. And she felt suffocatingly fixed in place. Locked in a rigid standing position, Tara tried but couldn’t move any of her limbs other than her neck. She was terrified to open her eyes because that would make her fate real. She tried meditating, but the searing heat of the morning sun trapped her in the corporeal. Finally, she threw her eyelids open. The trust fund warrior’s spirit further sank. Her eyes didn’t work right.
Tara found it challenging to focus on her vision and became overwhelmed with the brightness of her surroundings. Eyes shut tight once again, Tara made three quick attempts to restart her ocular AR-suite, and all instantly failed. The application simply didn’t load, leaving her to rely on standard optics through her bionic eyes. Inflamed tissue and dizziness distorted her sight, but she knew she was somewhere in the Death Zone. Her skin was already blistering, and the air felt like open flame against her mutilated tongue. Shaking from frustration and agony, the corporal hung her head, and it was then that Tara realized she was bound to a large object that felt rough like a boulder or a chunk of weathered cement.
Eyes squinting, Tara whipped her head around, trying to catch a glimpse of what restrained her. Thinking more clearly than moments before, Tara triggered the polarization lenses on her optical implants and immediately dampened the sun’s effects. She could see! Corporal Aal-Lügnar tried initiating her AR suite again, but it was still unresponsive. Finally, looking down, Tara audibly gasped as she saw the heavy plastic sheeting binding her. Her lithe fingers hurriedly dug into plastic wrapped tightly around her body. The tourist corporal didn’t know it, but the sheeting came from a nearby shipping depot just a few hundred meters away, where a group assembled and watched her labored attempt at escape. Her panicked digits pushed and stretched against the polypropylene sheet but never came close to piercing the synthetic membrane or the three other layers over it. She struggled for unknown minutes before the sounds of approaching footfalls crunched loudly behind her.
“Heyo! Don’t bother trying; you won’t get through!” The voice sounded deep and had a smokey husk to it.
“Aw, the corporal won’t listen to you, Chiman. This fancy lady is a stubborn one,” Mikala’s familiar voice cockily retorted.
Tara strained her neck to bring Mikala and her companion into view.
The corporal’s speech was all raspy vowels and gagging coughs. Nothing coherent came out. Exasperated, Corporal Aal-Lügnar jabbed her fingers harder into the plastic.
“See?” Mikala stood in front of Tara with a look of pure pleasure painted across her young face.
The corporal threw her head awkwardly forward, lamely attempting to connect with Mikala, who barely acknowledged the tragic attack.
“Thirsty? That cough of yours sounds pretty dry. Here, take some water.”
Mikala jostled an open canteen near Tara’s mouth. The sloshing water echoing against the aluminum receptacle's walls sounded deliciously serene. Corporal Aal-Lügnar tilted her head back against the rock as Mikala roughly jammed the canteen against Tara’s blistered lips. The pain didn’t even register as the liquid washed down her parched throat. In such relief for the gift of water, Tara savored the gut-churning jolt elicited from liquid washing over her ripped tongue. Then, and just as suddenly and forcefully, Mikala withdrew the canteen.
“We don’t want you puking right before your big finale, yeah?”
Tara glared at Mikala, who in turn simply shrugged with casual indifference at the angry, bound woman before her. Mikala’s companion, Chiman, finally came into the corporal’s view, but he stood farther off and swung something in his hand. The swaying object eventually broke Tara’s focus on Mikala. It was then, with abject horror, the corporal realized the thing Chiman flourished was her personal Ahtman-SIM device. She’d never been without it her entire life! Tara shrieked, eliciting a laugh from Mikala.
Corporal Aal-Lügnar’s Ahtman-SIM device, the same neural activity recorder issued to every human being in the world, could save and replicate the consciousness of a deceased person. But only if it remained in proximity to the cerebral cortex. And now this cretin held Tara’s? She had never felt so violated and scared in all her pampered life.
“Figuring it out?” Mikala got back in Tara’s face, completely blocking Chiman from view. The corporal noticed Mikala’s green eyes and freckled complexion for the first time.
“Without your Ahtman, you’re living dangerously, aren’t you? No neural recordings mean no backups, yeah? And, you, me, and the rocks here all know that there is no Transference without a certified death. And poor baby boo, you can’t get a certified death without a final Ahtman transmission. Oof, does it suck to be you!”
Corporal Aal-Lügnar turned her head away from Mikala in disgust.
“What’s wrong, corporal? Is your trendy vacation taking a turn?”
The tourist tried again to speak, but her inflamed tongue produced only babbling sounds.
“How do you even function? Gods above and below, use your fucking throat mic!”
Ashamed, Corporal Aal-Lügnar toggled her mic but avoided Mikala’s gaze.
“Name your price.”
“Oh, sweety, it is so far beyond that,” Mikala’s voice dripped with acidic malice. “Your, or rather, your father’s credit, can’t buy your ass out of this. You’re done, dear.”
Chiman’s smokey voice gently interrupted Mikala’s gloating.
“Thank you, Mikala. I think we will take it from here. Would you please extend our thanks to Colonel Gil?”
Mikala’s smile nearly consumed her face as she backed away from the bound corporal.
Tara looked up to see Chiman still standing a half dozen meters away. His face matched his raspy voice, wrinkled and weathered, but he had a kind, almost patient countenance. Tara almost sensed compassion in his expression, or perhaps pity. Still, Chiman’s optical implants looked obsolete. His eyes, an artificial blue that had faded from sun exposure, seemed as old as his wrinkled body. Corporal Aal-Lügnar wondered why anyone would walk around with such old tech.
“Welcome to Rebar Plains, corporal. You weren’t supposed to come here.” Chiman sounded disappointed, and for a moment, embarrassment lurched through Tara.
“Why are you doing this to me? Please, let me go. Mikala doesn’t understand at all. I can pay!”
“Didn’t you wish to be here, corporal? We all saw and heard the altercation between you and Mikala.”
Chiman’s eyes flashed red, and though his mouth remained shut, Tara heard a perfect recording of her argument with Mikala echoing through her head.
Proceed through Rebar Plains. Tell them the Pact has ultimate jurisdiction here and to clear the road for our convoy. Fuck ‘em; they’re just repudiators.
As the words faded, Chiman’s eyes returned to blue.
“We… I have jurisdiction—the Pact has jurisdiction.”
“Please! I am sorry!“
“Why? Why are you doing this? You won’t get away with it, my father –“
“Can’t help you. Your connections are irrelevant here. Your name, your resources, all worthless. Rebar Plains is not for your kind. We abhor your kind, just as you despise us.”
“I don’t despise your kind! Repudiators are assets to be guarded and shepherded back into the fold. But, please, let me go. I have always advocated for repudiator rights!”
The lies Tara had used so glibly in the past when referring to repudiators sprang forth without a second thought. She realized how empty and conspicuously shallow the sentiments were only after transmitting them.
Chiman gave a curt shake of his head before simply uttering, “no.” The man then turned on his heel and walked away from Corporal Aal-Lügnar. The finality of his exit shattered any hope Tara had of negotiating her freedom. In a panic, she screamed and once more tried clawing her way through the restrictive plastic bindings. The middle-aged woman struggled to the point of exhaustion.
Time slowly passed as the sun grew brighter and the heat trapped inside the plastic membrane intensified. Then, a sharp, jarring pain penetrated her mind and caused her optical implants to fail without any warning. Tara was enveloped in a haze of excruciating darkness and felt a more vital consciousness taking control. She tried fighting against the inevitable, but it was like trying to shout down an approaching wave. As if sensing her resistance, the alien consciousness flayed her mind, excising her will and forcing submission.
“What is happening?”
“I don’t want to die.”
As the thought manifested, so too did awareness of others. They were nearby, all around, inside as if one. They were present and screaming for release.
“What is this?”
The consciousness retracted slightly, and a pinprick of light illuminated the dark aether without answer. Tara reached for the light, which brought her back to Rebar Plains. Compounded images materialized, patching together a quilt of varying perspectives, and at once, the corporal was intimately familiar with the repudiator settlement. She felt everything, saw everything transpiring in the town. No longer confined to her mortal body, Tara Aal-Lügnar ceased to be a single being. Instead, she merged with the dominant consciousness and its chorus of pain.
“I see you.”
Tara’s thoughts became echoes as she gazed upon a massive Erin green frame bristling with activity. Human forms, like shadows, swarmed and gyrated around the construct in a symbiotic dance. The figures adorned the form with trophies and talismans. Voices sang praise and offered thanks. The sensations of movement, crawling, skittering limbs across the body felt as if they were on her.
“I feel you.”
I own you.
And with that, Tara understood her fate. Her Ahtman-SIM had merged with the AI cortex of a sentient condor. She was now part of the tank’s logic matrix, trapped as a helpless witness within the machine. She was not the first, nor the last. The chorus of pain erupted in despondent laughter. She watched through the compound lenses of dozens of drones circling overhead as the tank was paraded out of a maintenance hangar by denizens of Rebar Plains. The joyful voices of the populace sounded sweet and endearing, yet there was malevolence lurking in the haze. The machine’s consciousness drank in the human adulation but remained insatiable.
The green condor’s hover fans roared to life as it entered the settlement’s main thoroughfare. The crowd around the war machine cheered as power flowed from the micro-fusion powerplant, accelerating the condor towards Tara’s prone form.
Salvation denied; your sacrifice is eternal.