Saturday, March 1, 2008

1.2 Keep Out

An hour later the area was secured. The Congolese had taken sixteen casualties, mostly dead, at a price of twelve RAGVIs down, eleven of them for good. A quarter of the platoon's strength. Steve’s was damaged - a close flinch from a mine had left it without forelimbs - but the motor algorithms were designed to compensate all the way to a bipedal gait, so it was still considered functional. Replacements were being flown over from the DSSS John Hawkewood, while Lieutenant Marcos was having a go at repairing anything salvageable, cutting what parts he could from the field fab. The rest of the platoon was on sentry at strategic positions; there was still a high probability of counterattack.

The media was already out in force, a dense swarm of chipped dragonflies buzzing around the battlefield, relaying all they saw to the world’s hundreds of millions of hungry eyes. Doctrine was not to bother fighting them; media swarms could prove troublesome from an operational secrecy standpoint, but the military could devise no better way of gathering information. Before long the swarm would exhaust the site of all immediate interest, and disperse, some fanning out across the jungle in search of whatever they might find, others departing for nearby battles (of which there were several ongoing at any given moment, at this stage in the campaign.) Only a few stragglers, the platoon’s fan-base and self-appointed civilian scout force, would remain.

Steve’s stomach won out over his sense of duty, and he put out an open request on the battlenet for temporary relief. Given the number of botriders temporarily without mounts, it wasn’t long before one of them responded with an affirmative. He submitted the request to Marcos – a formality – and got a cursory approval, followed by a terse, “Good hunting, Tango Nine.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Keep an eye on the action through the fan club. ETA on the replacements is twenty-two minutes. I want you in that thing’s shiny new metal skin in twenty.”


Riding a bot for an hour in combat was hard work, but he’d been doing it in sims for a while. Steve wasn’t particularly big for his age, but he was lean, possessed of a nervously athletic physique, the twitch-muscles all over his body obsessively cultivated through years of gaming. He bounced down the stairs, barely having broken a sweat. Tara had made a bacon and cheese stir-fry, with a spicy peanut sauce. He grabbed a bowl, added some noodles, and threw it into the microwave while distractedly catching up on any correspondence that he might have missed.

“Hi, hon,” came Tara’s voice, calling from the fab room. “How’s the game going?”

“Good,” he answered.

He removed the stir-fry from the microwave, sitting down as his mother came out from the fab room. “So,” she said, walking to the fridge, “How has your day been?”


She poured herself a glass of juice, added a shot of vodka when she thought he wasn’t looking, and leaned against the counter. “And school?”


She sipped from the glass. “Well?”


“Are you going to talk to me at all? I haven’t seen you all day.”

He shrugged. “What’s to tell? I woke up, I went to school, I came back home, now I’m eating.” He paused to chew a giant mouthful of greasy vegetables, and added sarcastically, “I’m sure you checked in from time to time.”

“Don’t chew with your mouth open,” she said reflexively, then sighed and sipped her drink. She had checked in, of course. What parent wouldn’t, with the transparency right there, for everyone to use? She knew all the important events of his day and, for that matter, his life. She knew about a few things he didn’t know she knew about – like his occasional experiments with sheening – though she generally didn’t mention those.

It was one of the things that tortured the collective conscience of her generation. There were those that railed against the way modern children had been stripped of their privacy, the way some had railed against drugging them with Ritalin and Prozac when she was a child. Perhaps in compensation, she – like most parents – let her son have a range of freedoms (like sheening) that made his grandparents go pale when they found out.

Well. If he'd had grandparents....

Obviously, if there were to be any help of salvaging a conversation with her son, a more specific question was called for. “I noticed you haven’t been attending the biology lectures, lately.”


“Well? Why haven’t you been attending?”

His leans shoulders stabbed the air in a kind of spasmodic shrug. “They’re boring.”

“You used to like biology,” she pointed out.

“Used to like Mandelbrot Mandy, too,” he said, tone veering into casual contempt for the cartoon character he’d been entranced with as a four year old.

It was a tone calculated to stand Tara’s hair on end, and Steve watched her calm herself with an internal reminder that this was, after all, normal adolescent behavior. “Your interest in biology was somewhat more recent than that,” she commented dryly, “So what gives? You've got a real talent in the field.”

“Whatever. The lecturer bugs me, all right? She’s boring, so I’ll wait until the school gets someone better and I’ll go then. My practicals are still good,” he pointed out. Which was true. Last week he’d programmed a bioluminescent bacterial colony to display a Keep Out sign whose glowing letters were formed, if you looked close enough, out of little swastikas. He’d promptly smeared the slimy mess all over the outside of his door, to her intense displeasure.

“I’ve talked to her, you know. Ms. Rowen? We had an exchange yesterday.” Another sip. “She seemed nice," his mother added brightly.

Steve continued chewing, choosing to momentarily ignore the implied question. It was obvious to her that he was thinking about telling her why he didn’t like Ms. Rowen, but after a silence that stretched out an additional three mouthfuls (not, admittedly, that considerable of a stretch), he said only, “I don’t like her.”

“What? Anastasia Rowen has quite a name for herself. Something like fifty thousand students attend every lecture she gives through the transparency … you should be taking every advantage of the fact that she happens to teach at your school, and that you can attend her lectures in person.” She shook her head. “I just can’t understand why you’d let such an opportunity pass you by.”


“Are you watching something?” His mother asked.



He hesitated, then shrugged a little upon deciding that the truth (carefully edited) couldn’t hurt, and said, “Just following feeds from the war.”

“Oh, god,” she made a face. “Please, I don’t want to think about that.” She shook her head, took a long sip and placed her drink back on the counter.

Her son favored her with another shrug, and continued munching away at the stir-fry, hunched forward, eyes darting around as his point of view skipped through the media flies buzzing around the battlespace.

She didn't want to think about it, but - with a triumphant inevitability Steve had grown to expect after long aquaintance - she continued. After a while. As though she'd paused to give it some thought. “I can’t believe this is happening again. After everything ... it’s wrong, just walking into someone else’s country and killing them. They’ve done nothing to us!”

If you don't want to think about it, then don't, he thought. “Forty five thousand people died last month from the latest Romero.”

“I take it you mean HIAP,” Tara corrected him, pronouncing every letter.

“Hey, Highly Infectious Acquired Psychopathy, ZPFH, REBAEH , whatever you want to call it,” spat Steve, “It killed a lot of people.”

He gave her some time to google those acryonyms - Zombie Plague From Hell, and Rapid Easter Bunny's Alien-Egg Hunt - which, without-it as she was, he'd known would be alien to her. She snorted as she read them, then shook her head, and set her drink down with a thump. "We don’t know that HIAP was unleashed by the Congolese. No one knows for sure where it came from. We don’t even know for sure that it’s a war plague.”

He rolled his shoulders, body language that Tara had come to recognize was an exaggerated - and to her eyes, blatantly disrespectful - adaptation of eye-rolling (the use of sensetaps generally discouraged eye-rolling, of course; Tara was aware of this and thus generally exerted herself to overlook it, grating though it might be.) “Of course it wasn’t the Congolese. They’re mostly just ignorant gappers. But it’s a good bet the corpsefuckers who did unleash the virus…”

“Watch your language,” Tara snapped, reconsidering for a second her decision to overlook the shoulder-rolling.

“… are sheltering in the jungle,” he went on, ignoring the interruption. “We know there’s a lot of sympathy for cex there.”

“Even if HAIP did come from the Congo, we can’t hold the entire population responsible. We can’t just … take their country away from them. More violence isn’t the answer.”

There were several arguments Steve could have made at this point, but he opted for the most direct (and not incidentally, most likely to piss his mother off.) “Sure we can. We are. Right now.” He said it matter-of-factly, and was rewarded with a flash of angered shock in his mother’s eyes. He smiled. “If they can’t run their country properly, we’ll just have to run it for them.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” she finally said. “There are better ways.” And paused again, picking up her glass again and draining most of it. “At least I don’t have blood on my hands. I voted against it.”

Steve snickered.

“What?” Her voice was low, suddenly. Dangerous.

Steve decided to press further.

“I guess you’re just a good person, then, huh Tara?”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just that you’re obviously occupying the moral high ground here, like you always do. You’re so virtuous, you know? Like Ghandi. Why fight for survival when it’s so much easier to just sit there and die righteously?”

The sarcasm was spread nice and thick. Tara cut him off just as he was about to continue with a sharp, “Don’t! Just don’t.” So instead he just stuffed another too-large mouthful of noodles into his mouth, smirking as he chewed it. Tara shook her head. “You sound just like your uncle,” she said softly.

Uncle Sunil had a tendency to come up whenever the subject touched anything related to the military; he'd died in Venezuela ten years ago, a career soldier helping to liberate the brutalized country from Chavez. He'd left a warblog behind him, though, and Steve had read the whole thing, all five hundred thousand words of it. It had been like plowing through the writings of Julius Caeser, only with pictures and (for the later stuff) some video.

Tara - who'd of course been aware he was reading it - was impressed that Steve had gotten all the way through it (especially given how little time he spent reading). She was also glad her dead brother had made such an impression on her son; still, she was more than a little concerned about it's influence. It was no accident that his name came to her lips

Steve figured he'd seen through a transparent tactic - use Uncle Sunil's sad fate as a red mist to try and scare him off from the army - and he didn't appreciate it. He rolled his shoulders again and got up, quite obviously with the intention of departing to his room.

“Steven,” Tara said.

“Yes, Mom?”

“Dishes, hon. Recycler.”

“I was gonna,” he said. Meaning, oops, I forgot.

“Would you like some ice cream?”

“No thanks … maybe later.”

And he was running back up the stairs.

“And don’t be playing games all night!” She called up after him. “Get some work done on your school projects!”

The only response was the slamming of a door smeared with glowing patches of Nazi Keep Out signs that had - of course - proved resistant against every legal disinfectant she'd scrubbed it with.

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