Authors: Mat Nastos
Tags: #cyberpunk, #Science Fiction, #action, #Adventure
A large silhouette moved into Brazier’s field of vision, cutting off the intense light pouring out of the tiny office room in the rear of the warehouse. Bracing himself, the engineer fumbled for the Beretta M9 pistol that had been forgotten in its place holstered onto his right hip. The imposing black shape slowly morphed into a form familiar to Scott Brazier. One whose presence, as intimidating as it could be was, reassured the rattled, battered man.
“Cestus?” The gun fell from Brazier’s trembling hand. He couldn’t believe he had almost opened fire on the man he’d come to save. “Thank God—!”
Bright silvered claws mounted onto titanium alloy arms flashed out of the darkness, gleaming knives made of pure moonlight, and tore through the Kevlar and ceramic polymer plates of the Improved Outer Tactical Vest strapped to Brazier’s torso. A second swipe from a blank-expressioned Cestus sliced a trio of deep gashes into the stunned civilian’s now bare abdomen, spilling its contents onto the hard, dirty floor at his feet.
“Civilian threat neutralized,” said Cestus. The words were cold and lifeless even as the warmth of Brazier’s blood coated the cyborg’s torso in a bright arterial spray.
Oh-Four-Forty-Two: Ten Kilometers North of Kabul
Staring down at the three seven-inch long gut wounds spurting blood to the tempo of his heartbeat made Scott Brazier take a moment to fully accept the perfection inherent in that word.
Fucked up beyond all recognition. That’s what Sergeant Height had defined the sentiment as.
Yup, that pretty much defined the situation for the lithe weapons engineer.
Gripping his stomach tightly in an effort to keep the contents of his belly from spilling onto the chilly ground beneath him, Brazier struggled to pull himself away from his attacker. Someone, somehow must have hacked the open link from the Abraxas Array into the computer mounted just above Cestus’s spinal column. Someone back at Project Hardwired.
The thought chilled Brazier even as his blood spilled freely to the ground.
There was a traitor in Project Hardwired. If only he could survive long enough for the communications line to reboot. Six minutes is all the it required. That’s how long it would take the system to reboot itself.
All he needed to do was stall for another minute.
“Who is doing this to you, Cestus?” Brazier asked, hoping to get some kind of answer from either the cyborg killer or whoever manipulated his strings from afar. A long trail of blood, black in the wan light filtering into the tight room, left streaks along the cracked warehouse floor behind the dying technician. The nails of his fingers cracked and broke as he pulled himself along with one hand, trying to reach the tablet computer knocked from his grasp during the cybernetic warrior’s assault. “You can resist it…you’re more than a just a machine!”
A blank stare was the only answer Cestus gave. But it was enough for Brazier’s racing mind.
Cestus wasn’t more than just a machine, was he? Not anymore.
It all made sense. Cestus was the perfect choice for an attack on Hardwired. In spite of his combat abilities, the alloy-armed soldier was the only Designate whose mind had been completed wiped and reprogrammed. Without a human personality to fight back on a non-logical level, the cyborg would have been unable to resist a few lines of codes being hacked into his command prompts by someone with a high enough security clearance to break into his system. A few more strings hidden in plain sight to control the wooden boy without anyone being the wiser.
Hands slick with quickly cooling crimson goo slid across the smooth surface of Brazier’s now-cracked computer.
“Yes!” thought Brazier. Communication should be back on line any second. He had a chance. Licking his dry, blood-caked lips, the engineer looked back over his shoulder, trying to hide his efforts to get an emergency signal out to Talborg…to Gauss…to anyone who might be listening.
“System reboot in ten…nine…” came the thin, female voice of Brazier’s electronic tablet.
Fingers forged from titanium-carbide alloy elongated with a twitch of the cyborg’s wrist. Blades nearly a foot in length slid into thin grooves along each of Cestus’s ten fingers, transforming them once more into the weapons of a butcher. A human grin half formed on the super-soldier’s face, forced out from somewhere outside of the cold, logical computer programming that formed the personality construct hard-coded into his electronic brain. The mind of Cestus had been replaced by something alien and far less human than what he had been before.
Stalking forward with the ease of a panther hunting its prey, Cestus towered over the engineer’s fallen form and raised its clawed right hand.
“This is the way the world ends…” he repeated to his quarry’s horror.
“Help me…” Those were the last words to escape from the blood-caked lips of Engineer First Grade Scott Brazier. The words fell even as his head dropped to the hard packed dirt floor of the tiny room. Freed from its position atop his thin shoulders, Brazier’s skull fell onto its side, eyes still blinking up wildly at the man responsible for his death.
“System reboot initiating…”
Grace Talborg slid her hand up and rubbed her newest companion: the thin line that formed in the middle of her forehead, between her eyes and just over the bridge of her pert nose. The wrinkle had begun to make itself known four hours earlier when the eight surviving members of the covert team sent out into the deserts surrounding Kabul had returned to the safety of Camp Eggers. It started to threaten to split her face open three hours earlier when Talborg and her bosses back at Project Hardwired headquarters in Los Angeles had watched the POV footage taken from the on-board computer located deep within the brain of Designate Cestus.
That was thirty-two viewings ago and it was beginning to look like there would be another thirty-two before they were done.
Computer technicians, cybernetic engineers, military analysts, and even the heads of the Project had all been brought into the spacious boardroom eight-thousand miles away from where Talborg had confined herself and her computer to review the footage and to assess exactly what had gone wrong. Or, to be more accurate, to review the footage and assess exactly who was to blame for what had gone wrong.
Somehow, approximately three minutes into the mission, all communications to and from the team in the area—all satellites, all land-lines, all radio waves—had been disrupted. The group had been cut off. Even more disturbing was a loss of contact with the cyborg soldier, Designate Cestus, who had been sent into an active insurgent base to recover stolen chemical weapons. Never before had anything like that happened. There were back-ups and redundancies built into every system, and it was statistically impossible for them all to go down at once.
And, in regards to what precisely happened to him during that time—or what happened to the engineer monitoring the cyborg—Designate Cestus was being absolutely no help.
All the cybernetically enhanced super-soldier would say was that he went off-line for six minutes and that Agent Brazier had been killed by an enemy ambush during that time. Not that Talborg really cared one way or the other for the loss of Brazier. The man had been an idiot and it was only a matter of time before he made a mistake that was going to cost the project in some way. All Talborg really cared about was the black mark she was sure was being left on her otherwise spotless record.
“Was there any trace of the sarin gas containers or the rocket launch vehicles, Agent Talborg?” The face leaning in to ask the question was one very familiar to the woman: the head of the weapons division at Project Hardwired, Jason May. “Did any of the terrorists make it out of the compound alive?”
“All the chemical weapons were recovered by the clean-up crew, along with the BM-21s and approximately seven tons of small arms and explosives. Twenty-nine corpses belonging to known members of the
were recovered on scene.”
“And Agent Brazier?”
“According to Designate Cestus, Brazier was killed in crossfire with the enemy,” signed Talborg. She’d already gone over this bit of information at least six times with six different people. “Although Brazier’s blood was confirmed on the scene, we were unable to locate a body.”
She knew what was coming next.
“Can you bring up that footage, Agent Talborg?”
“You damn well know I can’t, Jason,” snapped the mentally frayed woman. “Cestus claimed it happened while he was incommunicado.”
“I don’t trust him…something happened during the blackout and it’s affected his systems.”
“Come on, Grace. The techs here are saying Designate Cestus is still operating at over ninety-five percent efficiency. That’s well over the level of any of the other cyborgs…even your unit, Gauss,” chided May.
Defeat wasn’t an easy thing for Talborg to accept.
“So what now?”
“Bring him back to the barn,” came Jason May’s voice over the satellite communications array connecting the woman in Camp Eggers with Project Hardwired operations back in Los Angeles. “Word from upstairs is that our boy is going to get upgraded with Doctor Ryan’s new nanotech. Director Kiesling and the Hardwired executive board are thrilled with Designate Cestus’s performance.”
“Excuse me, sir?” Talborg was stunned at the announcement from her superior. Had the man not heard what happened? A six minute loss of communication and the death of his handler. As good as the cyborg’s performance rating had been, there was no way Kiesling and the others could ignore what had happened.
The disembodied voice of the head of weapons development for Project Hardwired snapped back, annoyed. “You heard me, Engineer Talborg. Clean ‘em up and get the entire team—Cestus, Gauss and your pretty little ass—packed up and ready to head home. Wheels up within the hour. No arguments.”
May’s voice went cold and hard in the technician’s ear. She couldn’t believe he was cutting her off like that…especially after the recent physical turn their relationship had taken. The late nights in the office after the rest of the staff had gone home. The weekend in Lake Tahoe last month. Still, she knew enough about the man not to push things too hard. No matter how much Talborg thought Gauss deserved the coveted system upgrades from Doctor Ryan, she knew May would never be bullied into changing his mind. The best she could hope for was to…influence it.
The temperature dropped a few more degrees with May’s response. “What is it now?”
“Might I suggest a full mem-wipe to go along with Designate Cestus’s upgrade?”
“Damn it, Grace, you know that’ll take a full rotation from the tech boys. We’re under the gun with our overtime and budget as it is.”
An idea formed somewhere just beneath the line in Talborg’s brow.
“It’s a matter of the unit’s active memory. The nanotech is going to require at least fifty percent of the Designate Cestus’s core system memory to load in and initiate…right now, he’s operating way under that.” The grunt from May nearly eight-thousand miles away told Talborg she was on the right track. Working the tech was the way to get to him. “A clean system will give us the best integration with Ryan’s nanobots. Otherwise, we’ll risk systemic rejection and have a crashed Prime on our hands…or worse. Remember what happened with Designate Siege in Japan? None of us needs another mess like that, do we?”
Ten seconds of dead air had Grace Talborg worried that she’d lost her boss. That she’d pushed too hard.
“You do it,” answered May finally, allowing the blood to rush out of Talborg’s ears where it had been pounding harder than a college drum-line. “Any overtime is on your head.”
“Of course, sir,” grinned the tiny beauty to herself. “And maybe we can finish that…project we started in Tahoe—”
“Hardwired out,” said May an instant before the line went dead.
She had him and when she got back to the states she’d make sure to do whatever it took to bring him all the way around to her side again. She and Designate Gauss would get the recognition they deserved, Cestus and his incompetent handler be damned. They were owed the top spot.
“Gauss, Cestus…pull the gear and get yourselves into the stasis pods. We’re heading stateside in sixty.” To Cestus, the engineer added, “And don’t forget Brazier’s pack. The lab rats are going to want to go over his data with a fine toothed comb and see where you two botched up.”
Nodding, the blood-covered cyborg responded, “Yes, Engineer Talborg. I have Engineer Brazier’s files ready at your convenience.”
As the tall cybernetic soldier turned away to leave the darkened confines of the tent, Talborg caught something in his eyes. Something predatory and alien. Something that seemed to be watching and waiting. For what, the young engineer had no idea. Whatever it was, she couldn’t wait to get the bastard back to headquarters and get him erased. Even if she had to go in on her own time to get it done she’d make sure there was nothing left of the monster when Doctor Ryan’s staff took over. Hopefully whatever personality construct they built for him next wouldn’t be such a creep.
“Yes,” thought Grace Talborg as she finished packing her own gear. Everything would be better once they got home.
Follow the adventures of
The Cestus Concern
) Containerized Housing Unit. These small, climate-controlled trailers usually sleep between two and eight soldiers and is the primary unit of housing on larger bases. A CHU Farm is a large number of CHUs together. A Wet CHU is a CHU that has its own bathroom, usually reserved for generals and other high-ranking individuals. CHUs are unarmored and very vulnerable to rocket attacks.
) Dining Facility. AKA Chow Hall. Where soldiers eat.