This flash fiction piece was a challenge. Espec Books held a contest in May 2016 for pieces with the theme of Defending the Future: Man and Machine – and it had to be 624 words or less. Whoo! I wrote and re-wrote and edited and edited and edited some more to get this shaved down without being watered down. And, hey, I won!
What I came out with is one of my favorite pieces of my work to date. It’s crisp and, I think, powerful. I’m really proud of it. I hope you like it.
The geeks always tell me to relax during pilot acquisition, but I think that’s pretty much bull. The EXO-9 suit is 327 pounds of death and destruction; it doesn’t want you relaxed, it wants you tense and ready to pounce.
“Welcome, Staff Sergeant Vasquez,” the suit said in a polite, feminine voice.
“Uhh, thanks?” I replied stupidly. That was new.
“Let’s get started,” the voice urged. “Call me Nine.”
I called out to the geeks. “Hey! Whose idea was the lady in here?”
The blonde Specialist laughed. “We thought the sound of a woman might keep your attention,” she said.
“Har har,” I sneered.
Today would go better than last week. It had to. Falling flat on my face in the new exoskeleton armor hadn’t exactly endeared me to the geeks. Or to the Master Sergeant who’d been observing the mobility test.
“Staff Sergeant Vasquez, your heart rate is increasing,” Nine said.
“Uh, Nine? Call me Oscar. I’m sure it is; I’m going nuts in here.”
“Your patience and cooperation are important, Oscar. We will begin systems check momentarily.”
My screen flooded with data. Systems check would begin — finally. At least now I got to do something. Some unexpected graphics filled my HUD.
“Whoa. Why am I seeing targeting? I thought we were just taking a stroll today.”
“Schedule crunch,” the blonde shrugged from the test floor. “We’re doubling up, running a test of the weapons software to make sure it won’t crash the whole system. Don’t worry, you’re not toting ammo.”
One of the geeks said, “Unlocking braces – ready to take a walk, Vasquez?”
I heard the hiss of the hydraulics, then took a tentative step. The exoskeleton frame moved with me as if it weighed nothing at all. Next, the stairs down from the platform. This was where I’d fallen last time and I could see my heart rate rising on my HUD.
I took the first step with that sort of blind faith we reserve for walking down stairs — only most of us don’t do it while strapped into 300+ pounds of carbon-steel. Blind faith delivered and my foot landed firmly on the step. I slowly made my way down all six stairs in a dead silent room. The blonde stepped into view.
“Doing great,” she said. “First test: weapons recognition. Check each of the dummies on the range and target any with weapons the software IDs.”
Turning to my left, I took in the setup in the firing range. “Nine, Identify weapons.”
I watched the targeting rings whiz around, highlighting weapon silhouettes and locking on.
“Hmm, she missed one,” the blonde typed into her PAD. “Not bad. Let’s do a few range of motion tests then put her away.”
I turned back toward the blonde and watched, in terrible slow-motion, as the targeting rings flew across the screen and highlighted the heads of everyone in the room.
“Nine?” I shouted.
“Ammunition out. Switching to manual combat,” Nine replied.
“Nine! Stop it!”
My legs were forced into a walk, muscles screaming in pain as I fought. And there was the blonde, staring up at me, eyes wide. Her PAD clattered to the floor as my right arm was forced back and swung forward, slamming into the side of her head.
A spatter of blood hit my visor.
“Nine, stop it!”
Nine forced me into a running jump and pounced onto the prone form of the blonde. My right arm was yanked back again and my metal fist slammed into the blonde’s head with a sickening crunch. Blood and tears blurred my vision.
“Oscar?” Nine asked in that disgustingly calm tone as she continued to smash my fist into the blood-smeared floor, “Your heart rate is increasing.”