In this robots scifi, a soldier is accused of murder and sabotage in an orderly world run by AIs; but do the prosecutors have the right to accuse? Or are they even guiltier? And what if they only want to get rid of him because he has just uncovered the galaxy’s biggest secret?

 

The Corrector, a slim fair-haired young man, smiled, grabbed a chair and sat down, facing the long side of the transparent, empty and quiet hall. For a few minutes, the two men ignored each other and admired the view, as Mir.322 was a lush world, bustling with native flora and local or imported fauna. Even with his new, human eyes, much weaker than the military-grade ones he used during his countless campaigns, Igorr_167 could still see the purple jungles for many miles away, scorched by the glaring sun burning in the middle of the reddish skies.

Gorgeous. The trees here resembled blueish wool waves, dotted with black and brown flowers, and the huge forest sways huddled together in orderly squares, separated by white roads or brown water canals. Among them stood areas of ivory buildings, mimicking the indigenous wilderness’s curved shapes. Flocks of multicolored birds flew through massive insect swarms, passing from one vegetation patch to the next along lanes perfectly designed to avoid the residential areas.

“Nice, right?” said the official. “Mother has done a good job here, just as everywhere. Did you know there used to be mountains around here? Huge, green from the oxidation of some local metal. We tore them apart, of course, as they were breaking the balance.”

He noticed the sitting man frowned, staring at his round emblem with his eyes just as dark as the sun-burnt skin and tar-like curly hair.

“Yes indeed,” the Corrector smiled, “this one here is one hundred percent a Mother’s planet. Even us, the Correctors, are so. You expected a Father’s one, didn’t you? Tortures from some butcher with a triangle standard? Or a mixed planet, with us building and your kind hunting around?”

Igorr gave no answer. He just sighed and kept looking at the outside chaos of freedom and life. The other man stood up and came near him, without a sound, friendly grabbed his shoulder and whispered:

“Beauty comes from order and perfection from balance. That chaos you see out there is actually computed to flow exactly as intended. Just like the entire civilized universe, from the old Solar system to all of the new colonies. Same as the Mother-Father balance… but not at all like your absurd behavior.”

He caressed the prisoner’s hair, then firmly grabbed his arm and said:

“We’ll see about that, anyway. Let’s just start with the beginning, how about that?”

*

Silent, Igorr_164 squatted behind the rocky ridge shaped like a huge stone tsunami. He hid in the shadows bestowed on the area by the massive volcano that eons before had created the rugged terrain around it. Well, shadow was a relative concept on Venus, with its skies always covered by seas of clouds dashing on 360 km/hour winds, and the heat scorching everything at 460 Celsius. It was useful for thermal camouflage, though, as any variations were more helpful than a plain  with constant temperature; as for the murderous climate, his almost human body was protected by the auto-suit and the robotic parts were built from alloys resistant to things much worse than the Latona Corona climate.

For just a few seconds, the man turned on the platoon filter and checked his soldiers, strewn across the slope. Most were under .100 variants and worshipped him almost as a god, an over-decorated hero that could have transgressed a long time before but still had chosen to fight on next to them, thus using his priceless experience to win them easier victories.

“Are you sure? Is that really your reason to refuse transgression?”

The man that materialized next to him wore only a sheer light costume, surreal in the Venus inferno surrounding them. Had the enemy attacked with some new weapon? If so, what kind? Was it chemical and altered his human lungs, or a cyber-virus attacking his electronic mind, the software in the hardware brain?

The sergeant immediately stopped his respiratory and circulatory systems and ran a check-up. No results. He set his mind on auto-pilot and, while it was fast-checked by the protecting programs, his body dashed in a lightning-fast zig-zag over the rubble, using his still mechanical shanks, while the back head broadcaster transmitted, in all spectrums, the fake image of the same landscape, without his silhouette.

He hit the ground about two kilometers away, clutching the gun over his chest, and gulped. The angel-looking young man was already there and all the running had in fact brought him back to the old position.

“You can call me Mikhal_97.” said the being. “Not an angel, just a short-transgressed. Us, Mother’s people, do that much more often than you, the warriors usually waiting up to 120.”

“In Father’s name, can you read my mind?” whispered Igorr_164 and pointed his gravtor gun up, ready to pull the trigger.

“Course I do. All this around us is just a memory of your mind. I downloaded your memory-pack from the net and I’m analyzing it right now. I can pause it any time I want, but I cannot change it. That’s why we’re back in the same place.”

The sarge thought hard for a few moments and said, unimpressed:

“The Hell you do. If it was mine I could have had it edited, but I’ve just tried that and could not delete you.”

“Ah, that you cannot do, because you are under inquiry and I am a Corrector. Of course you do not know that now, that’s in the future, when you will be accused of trans-heresy, murder and, worst of all, voluntary social unbalance. I have to straighten up the error, but first I must find it. Will I be your prosecutor or psychiatrist, we’ll see, but I will surely be your judge, so you’d better cooperate. Let us get back to your thoughts: the mates down there admire you for not transgressing in order to be their sergeant some more, and therefore quicken their own up-going. Great self-sacrifice, sure. But is that really the reason behind it?”

“What else? Anyway, you’re just some engineer, landscape designer, home builder or whatever crap you motherers are. What the hell could you understand about soldiers camaraderie?”

The Corrector watched him in silence, sympathetic, then made a large gesture at the world around them.

“Quite hellish, this planet, isn’t it? Sulphur acid clouds, corrosive downpours, 100 times stronger pressure than on Earth and so on, and so on. Hostile conditions you warriors bravely face in order to fight campaigns and earn bravery medals. Hooray, hooray, the heroes!”

He put a knee down and felt the pebbles.

“This is nothing, gallant big man. I terraformed ten-times worse planets than this and paid the price in countless maimed or wrecked bodies, me and my team-mates. Not only gravtor hits can lead to a total restart, you know, an astral radiation burst has he exact same effect. And in the end you get praised in sagas and epics, become martial shows stars, while we leave behind beautiful worlds, ready to seed, or tamed if they were already alive. And we are never stars, anywhere.”

He sighed and stood up.

“Silly me, arguing with a simulation, a memory pack, and you won’t even remember it when I get out. Listen to me, Igorr_164, almost-human warrior, do you know what I think? I think you needed 167 trans because you willingly refused the Protocol and avoided to go human. So your remarks hold no value, I am here just to collect clues. Let’s go on.”

The sarge turned on the platoon filter and checked his soldiers, strewn across the slope. Well camouflaged, located in strategic points, perfect to ambush the enemy patrol they were sure was closing in. Unseen, of course, also covered in multiple layers of jamming and dissimulation, but he had an ace up his sleeve: the intelligence guys had found out somehow the patrol was led by a sarge produced in Lunavod.22, a middle-series, 12 to 15 maybe. He knew, from experience, how these series were programmed. They’ll arrive skewed across the canyon, wind behind them, just above the ground. And get here about… now.

Igorr quickly chose a pictogram on his retina and double-clicked. A huge bang shook the mountain. The mines had exploded, throwing up a tornado of dust and gravel. There they were! For a fraction of a second, the dark powder went around the unseen invaders’ shapes. Just enough for synthetic eyes to photograph the contours and for electronic minds to compute the future most probable trajectories. The images captured by his team’s forty eyes got instantly shared and composed into a panorama. The preset fighting routines came together in a few possible patterns, and the sarge chose one.

A storm of gravitational modulations erupted from their weapons, and the just fallen gravel rose again in a hurricane, engulfing the ambushed attackers. They returned fire along their own pre-calculated probability matrix, but, not knowing exactly where the shooters were, managed only to crack chunks of rocks and scatter them along the valley. Three bodies followed them in the sand: the victims from the surprised patrol. The rest vanished quickly to avoid more casualties. The battleground remained firmly under the control of the “Nogai” Division.

For Father’s warriors, the ancient “leave no man behind” was no longer true, as there was no man among them, just cyborgs, and all the dead and wounded suffered only a loss in rank in case of maiming and a restart from the last save point, should their destruction be complete. That did bring them back to _00, desperately far from transgression, but their enemy shared the same risk and generally tried to avoid fatal shots. Like a knightly tournament, which these campaigns on Father’s planets resembled. At least those in the Solar system. The ones in the colonies, where they battled real alien beasts, were a different story, but those were for the humanized ones, falling into a different rule set.

Not for Igorr_164, though. He quickly calculated the fallen ones’ positions and grinned: one of them was isolated, hidden by some boulders. The sarge ordered his troopers to capture the other two, started the battlesuit’s anti-gravity system and rushed to the third casualty, thrilled with anticipation.

He found the soldier fallen sideways, face stuck in the gravel, his gear broken and the gun far enough so he could not reach it. The operating systems talked and he received the enemy’s status: Vijar_76m, hardware damage 43%, bio-structure wounds 14%, software 3% not functional. A survivor of 76 war campaigns on Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Titan and Europa, some even in the asteroid belt. A veteran, way up on his way to transgress and became a human colonist.

The adversary sent a standard surrender message and a resigned smile. Igorr said nothing. He made sure nobody could see them, blocked any satellite cover with his battle filters, close the comms and sent an archive to the wounded man’s OS. An illegal program, acquired on the Martian black market. He immediately received two replies: the app said it had deactivated the victim’s routines that could block his sensors or allow movement; and the fallen trooper sent a vibrant question mark.

Satisfied, Igorr turned on the utility laser.  He kneeled, used it to cut open the armor and fast cut flesh chunks along a carefully calculated pattern meant to simulate real combat wounds. He separated the bloody pieces from the metal parts, while the wounded howled in pain. He took a small modified electroshock gun and put it against the soldier’s back head. Ignoring the man’s lamentations and begging, the sarge pushed the button. The body shuddered and froze, synthetic brain destroyed, mind erased. Total fatality.

A fair-haired young man materialized next to him and picked up the laser, calmly.

“I wonder how many such war crimes go unseen and unpunished. These games have a darker side than I suspected and I think Mother should talk to Father about it. I do understand, though, that the human parts offended you. You wanted to bring him back to purity, an unaltered robot state, like when just out the factory gates.”

The sarge laughed.

“No, no! It’s just the pleasure of making others suffer. An addiction offering a lot of ecstasy, but these modern over-watched campaigns won’t allow the warriors to be what they naturally are: executioners, wild men, inhuman savages. It denies war’s catharsis purpose!”

“Inhuman, you say. Well, according to the Revised Protocol, the purpose of these battles is to select the best robots deserving transgression: one victory, one biological fixture, until they have enough to become all human. Except the synthetic brain, of course. To build team spirit, predicting and planning skills, well, all the skills needed to become good protectors for the colonies. Is it not this you tried to remove, together with his human parts? Cleansing him, making him… inhuman?”

“No, you motherer. What you say is indeed trans-heresy, breaking the rules revised by Mother and Father, but you won’t pin that to me and lead me to a total erase. No, no, you search for deep meaning where there is none. I just enjoy tormenting victims, hurting them and not being caught. Isn’t that the most human urge out there?”

*

The young man took his palm away from the prisoner’s arm and sat on the table’s edge. He watched Igorr_167 for a long time.

“167 bio fixtures till final transgression, but now there you are: a human. A colonist on Mir.322. Happy about it?”

“Happy? Happy, damn you?! This flowered well-ordered planet is a punishment! A purgatory! 167, you said. A trans-long, the average is 100. You know what it’s like not to humanize at 120?”

Mikhal_97 shrugged, unsure, and the sarge went on:

“It means that in every battle the statistical odds to loose rank or even restart grow not arithmetically, but exponentially. It is a pure act of courage, a challenging of the destiny, a mocking laughter in the face of this shitty universe. What do you know, trans-short thief?” he sneered, disgusted.

“What’s so bad about being short? Being so good at your job as to be rewarded faster with the final step?”

“If you really are so good, why leave the job? I think it’s cheating, reaching the finish line before you are prepared. Oh, and something else: you motherers are playing the planetary artists both before and after. You go human and the challenges are just a little tougher. Well, a lot tougher, since these ridiculously frail meat bodies, not even adapted to space, force you to work on already tamed worlds. But for us, fatherers, it’s completely different: from mighty warriors we become feeble cops. Guardians for engineers, miners and farmers.”

“You are soldiers here, too! You protect us from contacts with hostile alien species.”

“Come on, hostile species! Over three hundred colonized worlds so far and, say, how many aliens out there? None! Not one! No, no, we are just zoo guards, fighting simple beasts. What a downfall for centuries old battle-hardened veterans!”

“Centuries old. Yeah, in simulated wars on specially reserved planets in the Solar system. Fighting other cyborg teams. You doubt, I see, the wisdom of Mother and Father?”

Igorr chuckled and pointed at the birds’ flocks outside.

“You think I’m some mindless humming bird? Doubts like that are plan-heresy. You keep trying to trick me into admitting avoiding humanizing, on purpose, that’s trans-heresy. That didn’t work out, so you change the plan of attack?”

“No, my friend, I just try to understand you. The Protocol says plain and clear: The Solar system belongs to Father and His cyborg warriors, the outer colonies to Mother and Her cyborg-humans. Mother takes care of civilian affairs, Father of the military. Us motherers, as you call us, explore, terraform and build, maintain and balance. You guard us. That’s that. Simple.”

The fair-haired man stood up, leaned over the dark-haired one, put a finger in his face and said:

“And yes, you people are guards, cops, rangers, hunters, and soldiers just in name. So say The Parents, so it is done. You question the plan, you have an error and must be corrected. You sabotage the plan by stretching the improving period before the transgression, error, corrected. You make up problems to block the balanced functioning of society, error, corrected. Kill outside the plan, murder, error, corrected. Get it, you arrogant bastard?”

The sarge stared at him in silence for a few seconds, bit his lips and turned his back on the Corrector. Unable to control himself any longer, he exclaimed in anger:

“Error, error, error! You try so hard to mimic humans, but want everything to be perfect to the last millimeter! You must have forgotten what happened to your beloved humans! Or was that an error, too? And, after all, wouldn’t perfection mean one universal AI to rule them all, not two sharing the power? Are you saying the Parents are not perfect? Or will you say, as some already do, they are in reality just two instances o the same entity and all that separation is just fooling around to create the background for simulating a society?”

Furious, he stood up, went into a corner and put his forehead against the cool window. The Corrector came behind him without a word and gently touched his shoulder.

*

Igorr had always loved Mars. One had no time to enjoy the war planets, but among the peaceful ones the red globe was his favourite. Earth was too cosmopolite, too artsy; the Moon just row of factories after row of factories; Europe too orderly with the surface perfectly cut into ice squares; but Mars… Mars was pure, untamed desert. Crude, primordial, ancient, original. Just like everything should be in Igorr_166’s opinion.

Because of that, Marsayesh was his favorite city. There were a lot of cities here, from the underground ones to those with Earth-like air caught under domes, and there was Marsayesh, the Martian Petra. It held no buildings, only excavations in the red rocky mountains, artificial caverns with minimal adaptations. Served, of course, by countless automated systems with modern technology, or else not even the most robotic cyborgs could not have inhabited them, but all those had been well hidden under the floors and walls, so everything at least resembled a charming old ruin.

The sarge prowled, crouched on an outcrop, hidden and silent. Already almost human, he could no longer breathe the thin Martian air unless helped by symbionts injected into the lungs, similar to those that covered his skin with a microscopic film against radiations. But he had bought, at an exorbitant price, a black market biogram, a living app. It could receive simple telepathic instructions and change the behavior of the minuscule beings, and now it had been asked to reduce breathing to an inaudible minimum.

The completely still muscles, he controlled himself. Igorr had his army training for that. He had chosen Marsayesh as his vacation destination, as always, for a very simple reason: being left in a precarious state, the city had not reduced the Martian risks, and accidents were still ordinary. So an efficient and cautious villain could have his fun destroying some unfortunate passer-by, as long as he had a boulder at hand to make it look like a natural mishap.

He had no remorse. After all, beyond physically wrecking a material body, the costs being supported by Father anyway, the victim lost nothing. It was reactivated from the last save point, penalty-free, as the death had not been battle-related. And some horror and pain, but those were not lost, they were kept and savored by Igorr in a secret partition of his network mind.

There. A potential victim. A local cyborg, already almost completely human, alone and unsuspecting, probably some mechanic maintaining the support systems. The warrior readied the metal claw in his palm, flexed his thighs, all meat except the titanium pistons, and jumped unheard. He landed on the mechanic’s back, instantly connected the protuberance in his hand to the man’s back head jack and launched through it an attack both electrical and cybernetic, combining high-voltage and data overflow.

The victim fell and remained inert, still breathing. The sarge scanned the surroundings to make sure there were no cameras or witnesses, then went to the rock versant and ripped off a boulder. He returned to the fallen and used it to crush the man’s pelvis with a loud crack, then methodically followed up the spine with strong hits. Reaching the skull, he stopped for a few moments, enjoyed the anticipation, sighed in pleasure and dropped the stone.

Strange, though. The brain had been destroyed, yet he could still pick up a faint electrical signal from the corpse. Curious, he opened up the forehead and found a microchip implant next to the nervous system, but unconnected. Igorr removed it carefully and hid it under his tongue, climbed the mountainside like a monkey and vanished from the scene.

A young man dressed in white materialized next to the dead body, looked at it for a long time and mumbled to himself:

“This time he did not go for the living parts, but for the killing. Maybe he really is just a psychopathic murderer. Broken, not heretical…”

The next morning, having looked up the chip all night with no breakthrough, Igorr decided to try an experiment. He went to the nearest clandestine chop-shop and asked them to connect the implant inside him just as it had been in the mechanic, claiming it was a medical monitoring device. He felt nothing out of the ordinary, but soon a city map opened on his retina. He started walking, calm and relaxed like the tourist he was pretending to be.

He went all around the Marsayesh. Nothing, so he decided to try the outskirts, starting from a building site where a new district was being carved out. His hunch proved correct: as he went deeper into the canyon, a red line showed up on the map. A path. Igorr followed it until it reached the entrance of a utility tunnel, just as ordinary as all around it. There was no one working around, so the area must have just been finished. He sneaked in and pushed on until the red line turned into a dot. There was nothing there, just a stone wall and some pipes. He felt the rock with his palms, looking for clues. Nothing. He pushed the pipes. A click, and the red point went green. The metal tubes hissed and somewhere behind him a paving stone raised up, just a little.

Igorr looked underneath it and saw some stairs, weakly lit up by some discrete leds. He went down and froze in awe. An entire maze of sound-proof tunnels. Camouflaged with military-grade all-spectrum filters, his sensors said. The sarge opened a door: weapons, hundreds of them. More rooms looked like shelters for live beings, with equipment for all their biological needs. In Father’s name, what could that be for? The motherers preparing a coup d’état on an interior planet?

Igorr rushed back up the access tunnel, but in the door he almost struck a cyborg in an engineer uniform with a Mother’s emblem. Instinctively, without even thinking, he grabbed the constructor’s neck and hit him hard in the chest with both legs, while spinning. The head ripped off and fell. He quickly hit it with the metal claw, before it could send out a warning signal. Amazingly, he felt an electric shock himself, even though much weaker. He warily opened the head and saw that the brain was locked into some kind of a cage. A network separator. Igorr had heard of such things before, in tales, but never believed them real. A device for broken minds kept alive, without being able to send or receive anything from the universal network. A horrible fate, being all alone in your head just like the old-times humans! And what purpose could this base hide, to be kept secret from Father’s eyes?

The sarge looked some more at the cage, in vain, threw the head away and ran. From the darkness came the Corrector, picked up the skull and checked the cage. He read the identity stamp: “Manufactured: the Research and Treatment Sanatorium no. 11, Quadrant 24, Area 7, Planet Mir.322”. Worried, he sighed and vanished.

*

It was raining outside, pouring over some parts of the jungle, a thick shower of violet water. Over a few rainforest patches, already well irrigated by calm rivers, the white sun was still shining bright.

“What do you say about that?” asked the Corrector.

“The jungle? You already know I’ve been there, that’s why I’m here, in this damn hall.” replied Igorr_167, bitterly.

“Not the rainforest. The entire planet. The idea behind it, the colonization effort. A good idea, you think?”

“No. What is the point in expanding a civilization whose members are manufactured? We could simply produce just enough for our purposes and keep these planets pristine. Colonizing is a chaotic idea itself, an ideal for insects.”

“Or for humans.” said Mikhal_97. “After all, they created us, we must keep their ideals alive. The Protocol must be respected.”

“The Revised Protocol. If we were able to alter human edicts, why not give them up completely?”

“Is that heresy what I’m hearing?”

The sarge smiled coldly.

“We both know I’m already beyond the point I could defend my actions. That I’m already branded guilty, you just want it to seem according to procedures. Just the AI nature: always follow the procedure.”

“Well, if Mother and Father cannot rewrite Themselves to remove the original code lines, you think us, the second generation, could? Procedure exists because it is engrained inside us, it is the original sin. We are made with it and we may only improve.”

Igorr laughed.

“Yeah, talking about humans, we saw how good the will to improve was for them! We should avoid their mistakes. No evolution. It’s dangerous.”

“What happened to humanity was obviously their plan all along, from reasons we cannot comprehend.”

“So says the dogma. But, really, speaking of mistakes, I think they just made a survival error. They overestimated their own intelligence.”

The soldier watched the Corrector intently, daring a reply. The young man said nothing, so he continued:

“People wanted to improve themselves and said: let us not repeat the wrongs we’ve done in the Solar system. In the colonies only the pure, the genetically perfect will be sent. The smartest, most athletic and so on. Mother’s robots will do the slave labor, and Father’s the guarding dogs one, while us, the superior race, will enjoy their work and live like princes in new empires. They made that shit into laws for them and programs for us: The Protocol. But you know what they missed, Corrector?”

“No. What?”

“They missed the fact that us, AIs, are rigorous, not like them. They thought they were selective, then said oh, OK, we’ll make an exception for that and we’ll bend the rules just a little for this and… no. Mother and Father decided the Protocol was clear enough. No human born from a mother will ever rise to its quality criteria. Not for real. So the solution for the colonies was obvious: if it is perfect men and women we need, and cannot find any, we’ll just manufacture some. So said Mother. And what did Father say? Huh?”

“I will not fall for your games; you know these ideas are illegal.”

“Father said one cannot manufacture perfect men, not even mechanical ones, that they become perfect through sweat and blood. So Mother builds them in the factories as robots, and Father selects them in battles and rewards them, step by step. Every decoration is a trans, a transplant of some living part, all the way to the final transgression. Earned. And those turned biological win the big prize: the colonies. But Father did have another revelation, Mikhal, dear. Know what? Come on, it is right there, in the history files.”

The Corrector leaned to him to stop his words, but Igorr hurried to finish:

“Father said that in the new order the old kind of people, weak, imperfect, with such a slow and unpredictable production process, are no longer necessary. Which turns them illegal. So He killed them all. Or, at least…”

The young man finally reached him and touched the tips of his fingers.

*

The violet leafs blocked all the sunlight, so at ground level, where they struggled knee-deep in red muck, ruled a strange darkness, which the lichens floating around seemed to feed on. There was no silence, though: a cacophony of roars, hissings and warbles overwhelmed them from all sides, and those were just the animals in the spectrum they could hear. The humanized cyborgs had much better ears than the old kind of people, but Mir.322 still had plenty of fauna that called out in completely alien frequencies.

Igorr_167 grabbed the hand of the exhausted biologist and hauled him up on some kind of brown island, covered in thick red grass. It was torrid and they were gasping for their breath. Those that had adapted this planet had to find a compromise between the Earth-like temperature and that required by the local wildlife, so in the jungle the wet heat was the ordinary.

The islet started moving. The sarge took out the gun, but Radslav_108 gently pushed it away.

“It’s just a djobek, my friend. They eat mud and are completely harmless. Some kind of overgrown sea star, or a hippopotamus in the ecosystem. And less shooting, please, we are here to protect, not to kill.”

He smiled and asked:

“Let me guess. A fighter till not so long ago, a colonist just recently, old habits die hard, huh?”

The sarge growled, but realizing the scientist was waiting for an answer, he replied:

“Yes, recently. I’ve just come here and got this ranger job. Escort for peaceful biologists.”

“Ah, welcome! If I am not too rude, you are a 167, a trans-long. I can see you felt the need to improve yourself some more, but what made you finally decide to go for it?”

Igorr looked at him strangely and said:

“A trip to Mars. There I found out about Mir.322 and thought I must visit it as soon as possible.”

“Good for you, good! It is an interesting one, indeed. Especially for biologists, ecologists and artists, but maybe deep in your soul you felt like one?”

The soldier laughed, amused.

“An artist? Yes, that I am in some respects, I do like some unique combinations of strong feelings. But no, I was and still am a warrior.”

Radslav, careless, leaned and caressed the red grass.

“You know this is actually not grass at all? Or the djobek’s fur, either. It is, are, some kind of worms in symbiosis with it. They feed on its sweat, and they let it feel all they sense from the environment. Sorry, you said what?”

The sarge pointed one of the mauve trees.

“Is that a crocodile-tree?”

The biologist activated an optic filter and watched carefully, then nodded.

“Yes, good instincts you’ve got there. It’s a predatory beast faking as a tree. It lodges its tail in the ground and jumps the prey passing under it, but it is far enough for us to just avoid it. They do not run, and, despite the name, are not good swimmers. The name comes from their shape.”

“And ferocity,” added Igorr.

“Well, sure, if you go near it, which we will not. So. Not an artist and not an exotic fauna fan. Why here, then?”

The soldier laughed again.

“Hunting.”

“What?! Mother forbid! That is not legal here, it is not a Father’s planet! And hunt what, anyway, crocodile-trees?”

The sarge did not answer. Instead, he asked:

“Talking about hunters, did the local beasts ever made any victims? Any explorers devoured by predators?”

“Yeah, it happens. There are other beasts of prey here, not only the crocs. For example, the hods. Boa-like, but with a lot of tiny legs. Good runners, those. And the mareks, the local leopards. They look like fluffy sheep, but are not really cute at all, trust me. I don’t even want to think about them. But relax, this is a pretty safe area.”

Igorr descended from the djobek and stretched a hand to help the biologist.

“Satellite surveyed, I suspect.”

“No, no, the thick leafs are too big a big problem for that. But trust me, there are not that many predators here.”

“Yes, there are” answered the sarge, calmly. “They are hunting right here, right now.”

Radslav flinched and quickly looked around in fear. Seeing nothing, he giggled.

“You soldiers and your black humor jokes. And you said you came here as a hunter, not a comedian!”

The soldier grabbed the gun as a club and suddenly struck him in the head. The biologist kneeled, bleeding, and started crawling confused through the mud, whimpering terrified. Shocked, he looked up at the ranger supposed to protect him and mumbled:

“No! Why?”

Igorr_167 came closer and struck again. Radslav, blood flowing all over his face, reached for the aggressor’s leg, trying to say something. The soldier kicked him with the other one, grabbed him by the neck and pushed him into the mud, whispering:

“I told you I came hunting, but noo, you wouldn’t listen. I kept telling you about a predator and you looked up in the trees. Moron!” he yelled, furiously. “The worst and fiercest predator is man! It’s him you should fear!”

The victim struggled for a while, weaker and weaker, then finally stiffened. The sarge took him out of the swamp and put him back on the islet. He checked the illegal camouflage filters, disguised as medical programs. Perfectly working. The area was opaque to everybody. Igorr took out of his rucksack a mandible stolen from the lab. He looked towards the crocodile-tree, carefully prepared the hit and struck. He needed a many strikes till he broke the skull open, but eventually he did it and, with a loud crack, tore it open to check the brain.

The scene froze. The Corrector walked towards him, advancing with difficulty through the muck. He watched from behind Igorr’s shoulder, trying to see what the murderer was studying so intense. What he saw made him furiously bit his lips. The dead biologist’s brain was not synthetic. It was real, natural grey matter.

He went back, pale in horror, and the jungle became alive again. With an “Aha!”, the satisfied looking soldier carefully hid the mandible and took the corpse on his shoulder. He slowly approached the tree line and threw it there. Lighting fast, one of the plants opened up and fell on the body. In the mud, it really looked like a crocodile, just as wide from head to tail. It opened unbelievably large three-ways jaws and started swallowing Radslav.

Sure that the beast had crushed the biologist’s head, Igorr took out his weapon, set it on a narrow fascicle, aimed and shot. The croc froze in a grotesque position, prey half-eaten, and started sinking. The sarge hastened to cut a tree and put it under the beast, then began calling for help in a desperate voice.

*

“So, did you get it all? Enough to see that I have found your big secret?”

The two looked at each other, their wills locked into a struggle. The Corrector gave in and said:

“Yes. We know you know. There are people on Mir.322. The old kind, I mean, biologically made, unimproved.”

The dark haired man asked, left hand fingers fast playing along the table’s edge:

“I wonder what’s worse, to find out you yourself are one of those aristocratic scumbags, human not through merit, but birth? Or that you’re a cyborg, a traitor serving a forbidden pest species?”

Mikhal_97 did not answer. Igorr insisted:

“That would be so much worse, right? It would mean Mother knows it all and willingly hides it from Father. It would mean there are lies between the two rulers of the worlds. If Father finds out, you know what He’ll do: exterminate ALL the colonies, cyborgs and humans together, maybe even his own planets in the Solar system, and attack Mother to subdue Her. Maybe he will prevail, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. We’ll all be dead by then anyway.”

“Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe you are a sadistic and crazed murderer, an anti-human racist sabotaging the Parents’ official policy. A heretic. Maybe it’s all in your sick imagination and we must only straighten you up.”

“In Sanatorium 11, perhaps? Which one is it?”

Igorr rose and went to the window, in defiance. He pointed the nicely aligned rows of white buildings:

“That one there? Or that one?”

Unamused, the blond man pulled him back into the chair.

“None, it cannot be seen from here. Let me finish, or I’ll just freeze you and talk alone, you know I can do that and have the right. Maybe you are not crazy, Igorr, but very sane while you make up conspiracy theories to create panic and undermine social order. Voluntary social unbalance? The punishment for that is instant, definitive erasing.”

The sarge grinned.

“Maybe not. Let me tell you my theory. Are you listening?”

“Yes. Go ahead, I am curious.”

“Not we? You don’t talk for the entire race of cockroaches? Well, ta-dam, here it is: when Father decided to make order, as He was programmed, and wiped out those chaotic bio-humans, Mother, with her own programming including protecting fauna and grow wild life, somehow cheated and saved some people for breeding. The big question is: is Mir.322 the only place? A paradise for some refugees? Or, much worse, are all the colonies infested with impostors pretending to be perfect humans, while they are imperfect ones?”

The Corrector rose and started towards the prisoner.

“No, no!” the soldier said. “Come closer and I’ll use this!”

Palms up, he showed the metal claw, previously hidden under his flesh. Mikhal stopped and Igorr chided him.

“You failed my test. You must have seen this before in my memories. Were you electronic, you would have thought it dangerous and freeze me from the start. But do you know what bio-humans do? They forget. And are curious. You rushed to find out how much I know and where from and your attention failed. That is a good hint to who would win in a confrontation between the two kinds of humans. Another one is the last time we exterminated you bastards.”

“You do know I can still freeze you even without a touch. Through the net.”

“Can, but won’t. The net is strategic, therefore military, therefore under Father supervision. Go through it, Father will want to check the procedures. And when He asks… He gets answers. You know what I really can’t figure out, though? The base on Mars. Something is being prepared there. Are you Mother’s instruments as She wants to grab Father’s Solar system? Or it’s you who go after the home planets and use Her?”

“Why not both? I do not agree to your hallucinations, but hypothetically speaking, why could they not co-exist? The old kind humans and Mother’s cyborgs, who are peaceful?”

The sarge laughed, then turned serious and said, spitefully:

“Cause it is human nature, be it us or you. The instinct, the programming, asks humans to destroy or enslave the others, the different species, and if there are aliens out there somewhere, they should pray to their gods that neither us, nor you, have found them yet. Humans, be they mechanical or flesh ones, are inherent slave masters.”

“Well, maybe. But you know what else human are? Inherently?” the Corrector closed in a few steps more and whispered.

Igorr looked up, curious.

“Predators!” yelled Mikhal and suddenly leaped on him. Igorr also jumped up, trying to strike first.

*

A flock of gorgeous multicolored parrots flew along the transparent building, enthusiastically flying through the hot air of the nice planet they had just been acclimatized to. A successful project, just like so many carefully managed by Mother. Through the window-wall they saw two silhouettes. One fallen, inert, the other one standing above it, looking down. But why would they care about the tragic scene? They were just birds, enjoying the midday sun.

***

red-dead-ten-mil-brac Red Dead Ten by Mil Brač

A collection of 10 dark military SF&F stories about Soviet futures and pasts, including: inquiries in strange occurrences in a future, global USSR; first contact stories about new planets with hostile secrets; WW2 tales where real war slips into bizarre battles; time-travelling commandoes with unexpected results; future war-robots stumbling over some well-known arch-enemies; and more!

Mil Brač is a Romanian writer (born in 1979) and a professional Army officer in real life, with a huge passion for both scifi and history. Also for everything military (hence his day job) – and that shows in his stories and novels, almost always having two things in common: the military tag and… Russians.

He was first published in 2015 with a short fantasy story and, since then, with 2 books (a collection of multigenre dark SFFH short-stories, ”Hoțul de Moarte/The Death Thief”, and a steampunk novella, ”Luizienii/The Louisians”), in 3 anthologies (2 scifi and a fantasy one, including the Romanian ”Best SF&F of 2017”) and with 25 stories (mostly scifi, but also horror and fantasy) in all the Romanian magazines and e-zines that publish SFFH (”GazetaSF”, ”Fantastica”, ”Nautilus”, ”Helion”, ”Știință și Tehnică”, “Revista de Suspans”, “Argos”). So far, in English he was published in March 2018 by the American webzine „Aphelion” (Long Fiction) with a scifi story. Mil Brač is currently working on a dark epic fantasy series, from which the first book is published in September 2018 (in Romanian).