“Are you ready for me darling?”
The machine didn’t reply of course, it had no A.I. or even speech recognition software. They was just gimmicks, the 4500 was a powerhouse and a workhorse. Not a grain of silicon was wasted.
“Of course you are, may I open you up?”
Lewis pressed the door release which swung upwards revelling a dark recess housing by an deep, squashy black chair. The kind of thing that was hard to get out of once you were in. With practiced ease he swung his great frame into the seat and pulled the door closed.
A cabin light switched on illuminating the cramped cockpit in cold blue. Above the matt plastic deck a small circular screen blinked into life. There were six icons which allowed the user to control the basic functions of the machine. Everything else was done when immersed. He punched the software icon and a series of tiles appeared, each one a different program. The top row was the most commonly used programs. From left to right the pictures showed an inappropriately dressed Japanese schoolgirl, a grim faced soldier, a pair of bikini clad women smiling coyly at each other and a busty warrior with glowing blue eyes and a huge runed weapon. He ignored these and scrolled down to pending. Tapping the icon took him to new screen showing software which had downloaded into the system but was waiting for a particular date and time to unlock. There was only one tile here; it showed a silhouette of a two legged war machine against a mountainous backdrop. Underneath it read Machines of War 3: Fire from Heaven - TTD: 3 min 13 sec.
Lewis settled himself into the chair, sighed contentedly and broke wind in slow staccato bursts. He grinned to himself. There was not a girl alive that would have been okay with that, but the IS4500 just kicked in the fans without making a fuss. It had a pretty sophisticated air con system. It had to. Some people would spend weeks inside the machine strapped up to the IV and catheter. Certain programs, particularly world simulators, generated a lot of heat and the cockpit could get pretty warm. Add to that all the sweat, farts and body dampness and it became clear why such a competent system was needed. Lewis had never spent more than three days straight in the 4500, not because he didn’t want to, but rather due to the fact that he couldn’t afford the IV packs which would sustain him. That legendary session of GoYakki Terror-Star 9 had been incredible. He’d caned twenty conanas before going in, that was fourteen thousand calories, and taken a shitload of constipators. Thing was, the longer you stayed in the better it got, boundaries blurred and your body started to really believe you were there. Because of this, your bioelectrical patterns started to harmonise with the simulation and controlling the game became as easy and clenching your fist.
When you first entered a game it was almost like using a standard controller - there was a delay between thought and action but the longer you stuck at it, the more intuitive it became to a point where you operated even faster than in the real world. Your actions were not slowed by nerve speed and muscle twitch rates. Before you were even conscious of thinking something, it happened - quicker than blinking.
If you wanted to get anywhere professionally you needed to practically live in the suite. The problem was you had to to eat, piss and crap. Naturally Takata had taken care of that. The solution required you to drink only fluids for twenty four hours beforehand, then hook yourself up to the IV which was loaded with a complex nutro-chemical mix known as mulch. Drugs in the mulch inhibited crapping in favour of urinating; which of course could be dealt with by the catheter. Sadly the mulch was a few hundred credits a bag and it was all Lewis could do to keep up his payments on the machine. If only he could score some mulch, then he could stay under for a week or so, sync his bioelectricals fully and be a serious competitor in the professional gaming leagues. That would earn him some decent cash, which he could then use to pay for more mulch. There were almost no good earners who didn’t immerse for long periods. That made Lewis sick inside.
And that was why today was so important. A new game was out which, judging by the success of its predecessors, was going to be extremely popular and thus potentially profitable. The fact that it was new meant that no-one would have properly synched to it yet. As with non-immersion software, every piece was a little different. Of course you could take the skills from one game and apply it to another but there were all kinds of new tricks and nuances that needed to be learned. It was the same with synching. Sure, someone who had been under for a week could play a brand new game and he’d have an advantage but he’d been synched to a different game and so that advantage would be minimal. Lewis was sure that a new game would give him the break he needed.
He relaxed into the synthetic puffiness of the chair, air escaped somewhere and he rested his hands in the arm scoops. He tightened the anti-slouch belt and wriggled his huge buttocks into the seat. With a tap on the console the blue light winked out and a pair of torturous looking claws folded out of the darkness to sit a few inches away from his temples.
Lewis closed his eyes.
The blackness exploded nuclear, heavy cannons hammered in the distance, the firestorm cracked and fell in two, each half blasted away to reveal titanic letters forged from smoking, riveted iron.
MACHINES OF WAR 3: FIRE FROM HEAVEN
The titles faded to black and Lewis’s nerves trembled in anticipation, his adrenaline hammering though his system.
Play of course, every nanosecond wasted was time that his enemies would spend syncing.
The Eurasian Landward has reached its third summer. The Ai-Jinn Corporation has taken the Argasto border post and is moving on Magadan Spire. It’s up to you and your company to hold the spire and repel the enemy forces.
Yeah, yeah, whatever, just start.
The text faded and far below a great swath of glittering dark ocean came into view. Swooping down to sea level and skimming across the waves the monolithic spire of Magadan comes into view, home to almost a million citizens and a jewel in the crown of Eurasian Inc. Around it, knee deep in forest stand five colossal mechanical brutes. The two at the back are the large; heavy armoured cockpits on powerful inverted legs. The machines are bristling with cannons, rockets and heavy machine guns. The next two are lighter, almost as tall but more agile and responsive. They sport oversized sniper cannons and powerful jetpacks. The fifth is a smaller machine, half the height of the others standing a kilometre off. It’s perched gargoyle-like on a column of rock, advanced scanners and sensors festoon its hull.
Choose your Cyberlin.
Scout Class (1 remaining)
Ranger Class (2 remaining)
Battle Class (1 remaining)
Shit, someone had already picked, he always played battle class, he had to hurry.
None remaining - choose again.
The last battle class had been taken. Shit shit shit. He chose ranger class instead.
Cyber Elimination Unit Selection Successful
Ranger Class - The Fist of Cain
2 x PAN LEE TYPHOON LX88 SNIPER CANNON (linked)
2 x PAN LEE TORNADO GUIDED MISSILE ARRAY
KNOX DEADLEAF ML9000 HEAVY MINE LAYER
1 Convergent Artillery Cannon
1 Jump Unit
The text vanished and his view tunnelled towards the farthest of the sniper units. Then the tactile kicked in. He could feel the firm vinyl of the bucket seat against his back. There was a seven point harness holding him in place. His attention was involuntarily drawn to a scratched metal box by his thigh with a heavy red button. Eject. It had moved since the last game.
The console in front of him was rough and ready. This was a veteran machine and it showed. Some of the dials were cracked, the control sticks had duct tape wrapped round them. A pair of fluffy dice hung from the ceiling a mere inch above his head. A few wrappers and bits of plastic littered the footwell and a distinct smell of curry wafted from the vents.
There was no windscreen, rather a set of cameras relayed all the information to a series of monitors. You could play in a holo-mode if you didn’t like monitors but Lewis hated it and the game had accessed his account to install his preferences.
The front cams showed an ice blue sky torn ragged where it hit a range of distant mountains. Square HUD reticules zoomed in and highlighted four nearly invisible shapes on the slopes. Text scrolled up :
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - The Dragon’s Fury - Battle Class
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - The Pillars of Babylon - Battle Class
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - Icarus - Ranger Class
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - Knife of the Emperor - Ranger Class
Lewis knew there must be a scout somewhere. Starting matches were always mirrors.
“Are you ready to deploy Commander Storm?”
The A.I.s voice was husky and digital with a hint of slut. Again the game had accessed his preferences and applied his custom voiceover and universal handle.
“Yes Anastasia - activate all primary systems.”
Lewis, now Commander Storm of the AI Mechanised Infantry, checked out his reflection in a dead monitor to make sure the avatar settings were correct. It was a bit dark but he could make out the brick jaw with its mean shadow of stubble. The strong, blunt nose that had seen a few breaks. Hard, narrow eyes and a shock of tossled dark hair that always looked post-shower. His shoulders were a little broad for the bucket seat but that was okay. He tended to sit forwards when focused. Storm flexed his powerful hands feeling the cybernetics slide and switch under the skin.
Lewis was gone, he was back in cyberia being a dick, playing games and getting carpel tunnel. Right here, right now - a Storm was coming.
“Anastasia - set loco to 75%, prime the Typhoons and crack me a beer.”
Storms voice was throaty, rich and loaded with sex growl.”
“Compliance. Though you know I can’t crack you a beer commander.”
A deep whine as the fusion cells powered up. A sound like a thousand litre diesel engine roared up from below and the entire cyberlin shuddered for a few seconds, then settled into a steady, guttural tickover.
“I know babe, just seeing if they’d upgraded this old tub since our last dance.”
Storm flicked three glowing red rocker switches on the console and a targeting graphic appeared on the primary monitor, a blinking orange square surrounded by shifting numbers tracked the closest enemy mech. Hanging below the reticule were the words Icarus, Ranger Class, Estimated Effective Range 2500m.
“Target acquired. Give me a wind read Ana.”
Another small graphic like a three dimensional cone rotated and shifted in the corner of the monitor.
Storm took the sticks, one in each hand and pushed the left one forwards. The cyberlin lurched into life, a great mechanical grinding rose though legs and jarred into the hull. A clawed foot the size of a garage lifted up, arced forwards a few dozen metres and then crashed down, obliterating a group of oaks and sinking a few feet into the earth. The right foot followed; five hundred tonnes of durasteel ripping though the forest, each step landing with an earth shaking thump. Storm kept the stick held forwards until the titanic war machine had advanced five hundred metres, then stopped.
“2300 metres and counting. Preparing to fire. Prime the jump pack.”
Storm knew the enemy would be armed with almost identical hardware and that if he could shoot them, they could shoot him. He needed to hit and run but there was practically no cover. It was an unfair fight from the start. The enemy had the rocky foothills to use as cover and as soon as their snipers got in range the Spire would be toast.
A green light flashed on the console.
“Open all frequencies Ana.”
A face appearance on one of the sub monitors. A mean-looking bastard crammed into a rundown cockpit. Shaved head, thick neck and cybernetic eye that glowed with a pinpoint of dull red.
“Storm, this is Kincaid. I’m on your right in The Last War, Battle Class. I’m armoured to hell and back so I’m gonna hold position, you tuck in behind and use me as cover. Try and take out their rangers or at least disable the sniper cannons.”
“Sounds like a plan, have you spotted their scout?”
Another sub-monitior flickered on showing and a pale, elfin woman. She had hair like polished ebony and dark makeup round her bullet-hole eyes.
“Culex here, I’ve pinpointed their scout, 3.9km east north east. I’ll sync our maps.”
Storm check his readouts, a new entry had been added to the enemy roster.
Ai-Jinn Cyberlin - Bamboo Jester - Scout Class
“Good work. Shit, they’re in range of my sniper cannons. Commencing attack.”
Storm wrenched the left stick to the side and his cyberlin began to move towards armoured bulk The Last War, at the same time he pulled the right stick round which controlled the direction the cockpit and primary weapons faced. Giant gears and motors ground and grated beneath him. By working both control sticks in tandem he was able to move about the battle field and maintain his facing, just like a tank.
Storm lined up the target in the cross hairs and took a look at the wind gauge. It was strong and he’d be firing at maximum range.
“Give me a close up of the Icarus on screen four.”
An image, grainy from interference flickered into life. The Icarus was an old machine, orange-brown with surface rust and decaled with vast peeling white kanji. The hull was aggressively constructed and a pair of long octagonal sniper cannons were racked on its shoulders. It was marching sideways, crablike, but its weapons were trained forwards. The mountainous terrain was uneven meaning the cyberlin was moving up and down as well as sideways. This would be an insane shot.
“Ana. Unlink the typhoons. I wanna get my eye in before I start wasting ammo.”
Storm saw the Icarus’s cannon buck and cyberlin rock backwards. Before he could react he felt the ground shake under him and the contents of the cockpit rattled and shuddered.
“Impact nine metres from starboard. Damage superficial.”
“Thank god. Kincaid, I’m in place behind you. Icarus has made a test shot, the next one’s gonna hit. Brace yourself.”
“I hear you. Their second ranger is jumping. I think it’s going for the spire. I’ll coordinate a defence.”
“Roger that.” Storm focused on the target, made adjustments, swallowed hard and pulled the trigger. The whole cockpit lurched from the kickback and the counter-coils slammed forwards to stop the kickback bringing the cyberlin crashing to the ground.
Storm held his breath.
A cloud of dust plumed just to the right of the Icarus. “Damn.” Sniper cannons took a little while to reload, but because they were unlinked, he could fire the second one straight away. Taking into account his previous error he set up the new shot.
An explosion filled his forward cams. The Icarus had made a second shot too and this time had hit the mech which Storm was taking cover behind. He didn’t have time to worry about that. The explosion died down, Storm double checked the shot and pulled the trigger.
A burst of orange-white engulfed the the Icarus and the beast staggered. It was the legs by the look of it but any hit was a win at this point. The Icarus limped backward until it was hidden behind an outcropping of rock and pines.
“Good shot commander.”
“Thanks Ana, what now? Do I keep trained on the spot and hope the bastard pops his nose out or do I go for the jumper?”
“Are you asking for a recommendation? If so eliminating The Knife of the Emperor would make the most strategic sense. At it’s current rate of advance it will be within range of the spire in 14 seconds.”
“Kincaid, come in.”
A monitor flashed on, “Kincaid here, how’s it going.”
“I’ve slowed the Icarus but its taken cover. How are you doing with the other Ranger?”
“Their heavies are covering it, I can’t get close enough. Our other sniper is taking shots but the pilots a rookie, he’s just wasting bullets.”
“Tell him to ignore the Knife and train his sites on the Icarus’s last know position. I’ll make the location on the map. When the Icarus pops its head back out he should be able to drop him, or at least keep him pinned. I’ll try and take out the Knife, you keep the heavies busy.”
Keeping the The Fist of Cain tightly in cover, Storm swung the cockpit around to the left and scanned about for The Knife of the Emperor. Ranger classes were fast with powerful long rang capabilities but their armour was nowhere near a good as a battle class. If Storm could find it and get one good shot… There it was, crouched in forest about two kilometres off. It was prepping for another jump. A quick calculation and he realised the Knife would be in range of the Spire about halfway though its jump. He needed to act fast. Grabbing a can of Kanaga-9 from glove box, he snapped the cap off, took a slurp and initialled the targetters.
“Ana, put a close up of The Knife of the Emperor on screen five. I want to see what we’re dealing with here.”
The Knife was big for a Ranger Class. It looked like a Eurasian model 6 which had been refitted for search and destroy. That was bad news, a single shot was unlikely to do the job. It was painted AI-Jinn burnt orange but was stocky and industrial looking. The cockpit was flat and solid with no concessions to aesthetics. A complex scanner array jutted out between the legs in what Storm thought, was a rather obscene manner. It sported a single AMS 9X Tsunami sniper cannon on its back which was at present vertical but could be moved to a number of positions. The Tsunami was a brutal piece of tech. It had a potent integrated A.I. which was there to power an advanced compensator. This took a lot of the guesswork out of targeting and could adapt for wind, kickback, shell-fall and target velocity. That was part of the reason the Tsumani could point skyward; not only could it aim high and perform arc shots, it could target fast aircraft directly above and stand a worryingly good chance of hitting them. On the plus side, the weapons had a very slow rate of fire.
Storm lined up the cross hairs on the Knife’s cannon. The machine itself was too heavily armoured and time was off the essence. It might take him three or four hits to drop it and by then the spire would be a ruin. The wind was against him still, he did his best to predict the targets path and couldn’t help wishing Anastasia had been installed with the compensation protocols of a Tsunami. If he survived this match he might well spend his earnings upgrading the old girl.
As he pulled the trigger The Knife of the Emperor powered into the air, the jump pack leaving an azure stripe of light in the cold air.
“Dammit.” The shell impacted far away in the forest throwing torn trees into the air like matchsticks.
“Prime the jump unit! I’m going after him.”
The pale face of Culex appeared on monitor two, it was a three quarter view, she was focused on something and hammering switches. “The Knife of the Emperor is airborne and 0.3 kilometres from effective range. It has to be stopped. Both our battle class are being engaged and you…”
“I know,” snapped Storm, then composed himself, “sorry, yes, I know, I’m jumping now. Can you distract him with your machine guns?”
“Out of range, its down to you.”
“Roger - out.”
The screen went black and Storm cursed the interruption under his breath.
“Jump unit primed.”
Storm hit the hat switch and nearly lost his Conana as the legs folded and sprung, launching the Fist of Cain upwards, showering the cockpit with snack wrappers and bits of junk. The jump pack roared and displays flashed red indicating the massive drain on the fission cells. Storm forced himself forwards against the acceleration and brought the weapon system to bear on the soaring form of the Knife.
At the peak of its arc, the jump unit cut out and the cyberlin hung for a second in the silent winter sky. Storm manually clicked the switch which linked the two Typhoons and took aim, leading the Knife by fourteen metres forwards and eight metres down.
Against the white sky the shell trails were just visible as two spirals of bright air. Storm stared, transfixed as two Anzeiger ‘Jaguar 10’ Medium Gauge Shells impacted with the forest half a kilometre below in a burst of atomised foliage and showering earth.
“Gah, FUCK!” screamed Storm. He watched the reload timer counting down. 15…14…13…
“Comm request from The Knife of the Emperor. Will you receive?”
“Screen two Ana.”
A slim Chinese face smiled at him from a dark, cockpit strewn with thick cables. A female with short cropped white hair and a coiled dragon tattoo running over the left eye and across the temple. “Nice shootin’ Tex!”
Storm glared. “In nine seconds you won’t be so lucky.”
“In three seconds your spire will be as useless as your aim…” the face vanished and manic tittering faded into silence.”
“Cheeky wench. I’ll show her. Ana, prime the tornados and link them to the convergent.”
“Ana? Ana dammit. Do as you’re told.”
The cockpit rotated a few degrees and the countdown timer jumped from eight to zero. The jump pack twitched on for a microsecond shifting the angle of cyberlin slightly forwards. Storm heard an air-snapping crack and felt the kick of the twin sniper cannons.”
“Ana, what the hell is going on? Who fired the cannons? How did they…”
Monitor one changed to show the Knife of the Emperor bringing its colossal cannon to bear on the spire. The shot was a gimme. You could’t miss a mile high building whether you had a targeting A.I. or not. And then it was was gone, replaced with a white hot, expanding sphere of fire which rippled blue green as the Knife’s fusion cells went critical. Its tumbling, flame streaked caracas dropped from the sky like a colossal dead bird. Occasional thumps and pops of fire as magazines exploded and fuel tanks burst.
“Shot” called Kincaid’s rapt voice over the comm system. The rest of his team echoed the sentiment with whoops and hollers.
Cyberlin Eliminated - The Knife of the Emperor - Sniped by Agent Gideon Storm of Eurasian Inc.
“Ur, thanks, comms off. Ana. What the hell just happened?”
“Anastasia’s not here at the moment. She’s gone shopping.” the voice was a calm monotone, so calm it sounded terrifyingly insane. The kind of tone you expect to come out of deranged scientist who sips earl grey and nibbles biscuits while he vivisects his grandmother.
“What? Who are you? Look I need to get back to the battle so piss off and bring back Anastasia.”
“Don’t worry about your game, this conversation will take less than a second.”
“Who are you?” Storm flicked a few switches to try and bring Ana back online.
“Your very good friend. Did you like what I did to that mech? I did that for you.”
“Urm, I guess so. How are you doing this? Are you part of the cyberlin. Ah, I get it, you’re a hostile program. An Ai-Jinn countermeasure, something like that. Am I right?”
“Yes, I’m a countermeasure that blows up its own soldiers. I though you were a bit smarter than that Lewis.”
“Wha… What the hell is going on, just leave me alone. Eject. Eject. Quit.”
“That won’t work Lewis. I’m in control now. Even the failsafes are mine. The sooner you start listening the sooner you can get back to your pathetic life keeping the tissue and hand cream industry afloat.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Listen Lewis, don’t talk. I don’t have very long. I am going to help you win your game. I know what you want and I know you can’t have it so allow me to assist. All you need it a foot in the door. Isn’t that right?”
Lewis's brow wrinkled and his eyed searched the cockpit as though he expected to find the source of the intruder. “I, er, yes, if I could win just a few matches I could make it big. I’ve got the talent I just don’t have the means. But there’re rules, if I get caught cheating I’ll get permanently banned, I’m not risking that.”
“Lewis, Lewis, Lewis. The people who moderate these games are looking for code-switchers, exploiters, hardware breakers and the like. They are not expecting an A.I. of my level to get involved. The prizes for these games are designed to appeal to myopic adolescents and basement-bound mother’s boys. It wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest to have a billion credit A.I. correcting your aim or revealing enemy positions.”
“Eh? Billion credit AI? Is this being filmed? That’s ridiculous. Just suppose I believed you for even a second. What would be in it for you?”
Four monitors flashed on, each one showing the cockpit view of a different Ai-Jinn cyberlin. They were moving in painfully slow motion. As though the system had been dropped from a thirty frames per second to only one.
“Call it a hobby if it helps. We A.I.s are inscrutable. You should know that. Our purpose is written in the paths of broken satellites and the slurred speech of the drunken prophet. We speak though the fractal of machine-spun clouds and the bloody scratches on asylum walls. Which is all to say, it doesn’t matter. I have my reasons, you’ll never understand them and you are but a jumper switch in the endless mainframe of my plan.”
“But I am important right? You must need me, like if I was a jumper switch, then if I was in the wrong place, a lot could go wrong.”
“Astute Lewis, I do need you. And that is why I offer you this proposal. I’ll help you win your games and when the time comes. You help me. Do we have a deal.”