by Michael E. Shea

21 April 2013

Rogan loved watching suns nova. It wasn't just the trillions of lives. It wasn't the waste of resources. It was the destruction of an entire solar system and everything it contained. It was the ultimate defiance of creation. It was manifestation that, if there was a god, we just told Him to go fuck Himself.

Corporate didn't use sunkillers often. They were simply too expensive. The poisoned seed fired from a mass driver on a corporate warship was invisible going in, completely indefensible by any opponent. The seed collapsed into a black hole about the size of a fist with the intensified mass of a planet. It swallowed enough of the sun to cause the sun to collapse in on itself and nova. The sunkiller ended up being the only practical application of an ancient relic known as the Large Hadron Collider according to corporate propaganda. Now corporate used it to bust unions at a galactic scale.

Rogan sat watching the nova on an iron asteroid not quite large enough to be called a moon, twisted by a few billion years of travel through space. His drop pod sat behind him, a 97 year old blackened egg of carbon and plastic. It was nearly as old as he.

The flare of the nova began to die down and the tint of Rogan's faceplate began to recede as the radiation levels dropped. The stream of data flowing across the faceplate and in the tiny implants in his ears continued on, though all the feeds from the four terraformed planets of the dead solar system had all just gone silent as the nova burned the planets away like paper.

"Space marine." Rogan heard the call above the constant chatter of the stream generated by both conscious minds and machines. Cain's rasping voice whispered in Rogan's ear. "Drop in to VR."

Rogan ignored the order for a few more seconds, watching the solar system that had spun there for ten billion years turn into another black spot in a universe made up of black spots. He flipped a switch in his mind, a signal his brain treated much the same way as blinking his eyes, and dropped into VR.

Rogan's consciousness stood on a two-dimensional transparent surface overlooking a swirling sea of data representing the sum total of human intellect. Huge pyramids, twenty thousand feet high in his mind's eye, reflected the money and politics of the megacorps, a multi-planetary power that transcended politics and war. His own corporation, Dynastym, shone behind him, a ziggurat of gray and violet.

Cain stood on the surface staring at a dozen displays floating in front of him. Terminals of green text flew by on some. 3D models of ships, both colonial and corporate warships, twisted and turned revealing their current status on others. A 4D space-time visualization pulsed and writhed as it fed on exabytes of information and algorithms determined where to send men like Rogan to increase profits.

"How did it go?" Cain asked without turning around. Rogan laughed. Cain knew more about how it went than Rogan did and they both knew it. Cain could see the heart rate of the foreman's wife before Rogan's 11mm slugs had blown it out of her back. That wasn't the real question Cain was asking. *What are you thinking?* was the real question.

Rogan checked the sockets and streams that strung out invisible between the two of them. The communication encryption was low-grade but Rogan figured it would be more expensive to decrypt than the value of the information so Rogan took a chance and answered honestly.

"Nothing quite like murdering a building full of men, women, and children right before we nova the whole solar system."

Cain turned and smiled. Rogan had known him ninety years and still didn't know if the man's dark skin and hazel eyes accurately represented his real physical features. He didn't even know if Cain was a man at all. He could just as easily be another algorithm complicated enough to appear human.

"Corporate needed eyes-on to be sure. Making sure we cut off the lines of succession saved a lot of legal trouble with the unions." Cain paused. "You did well, Space Marine."

Rogan shook his head. The term had been outlawed nine hundred years ago over some sort of trademark dispute but Cain still loved to use it and Rogan hated hearing it. It did help Rogan verify the security of their connection and gave Rogan the hint that Cain was human after all. Why would Corporate program an algorithm to break the law?

"Three tiles are missing from my pod," said Rogan. He saw it on one of Cain's monitors but Cain didn't appear to be paying attention. "My left knee servo is also coming apart. One of the chem paths also clogged up, my back aches like a son-of-a-bitch."

"We'll be sending you to EO-6 for retrofitting." Cain had turned back to the monitors. Rogan had felt a chill go through him, verifying the chem balancers weren't working as they should.

"Retrofit?" asked Rogan.


"At 97 years."

Cain turned slowly and looked at Rogan. It was hard to know how well the VR system actually represented emotion. It had been nearly a century since most people actually saw one another, at least those who worked in the megacorps. Still, Roland saw something passing for sympathy in Cain's eyes.

"Bullshit," said Rogan.

"This is life," said Cain. Rogan had a flashback of his pulse rifle ripping through a board room full of union delegates screaming and trying to escape. That was life too.

"At least fix the chem balancer before I go," said Rogan.

"The cost is too high to do it out here." Cain had once again turned back to his monitors. His face reflected the streams of green data streaming by.

"The cost is too high to do it on a 97 year old unit on its way to decommission you mean."

"I'm sorry Rogan." The VR went blank. *

Rogan should have lost track of time in cryo but it never seemed to happen. The roar of information flowing through him dulled down to the murmur when his mind would drift into a fugue state. Rogan felt cold and his back still ached. He called for painkillers but got none.

Dreams filled his dull mind most of the trip. He saw huge mechanical claws ripping the bolts and plates off of his suit. Rust from a century scraped off of the rivets that screamed as they twisted out of their joints. The uncaring machines tore away the metal and carbon skin that had protected him for over six hundred missions. A nine-fingered steel hand pulled away the steel breastplate and he saw the pale emaciated form in the center. He saw the sagging wrinkled skin and protruding bones. He saw the weakness of humanity. He saw himself.

His pod shook and he awoke. Something wasn't right. The stream continued to flow but he heard another signal underneath. The signal twisted and wove into the pathway of communications. It burrowed through his maintenance diagnostics, through bio-feedback, through weapons and life support. Rogan tried to shut it down, to alert the security subsystems that would rip out this rogue stream like a black rotten weed but security didn't respond. The rogue stream continued to burrowed deeper until it found his navigation sub-systems.

His pod launched.

The rumble stopped as his pod found deep space. A surge of panic gripped him; the chems were definitely not working. He could feel the pod floating in the vacuum. He called up a visual and saw video footage and wireframe models of his pod sitting in its bay next to a dozen others just like it. The vids were a lie.

The thrusters kicked in and spun the pod. This wasn't a malfunction, this was deliberate. He tapped into the stream, sending off a distress call in the sea of noise. No response. The chatter of the cruiser's comms continued as though nothing had happened. Rogan debugged it, listening to his own feed. The pod's mechanics feed pulsed like normal. His own biofeed read nominal for cryo sleep while his own heart beat hammered in his chest.

A rumble began to fill the pod, one Rogan had felt many times before. Atmospheric entry. Rogan listened to two contradictory streams of data. One spoke of his continued sleep among the corporate troubleshooters, the other fired retros to keep the heat shield of his pod aimed the right way.

The rumble had his teeth smashing together. The pod's interior heated up. Rogan shouldn't have felt it, but he did. Rogan heard a crack. The stream that wasn't complete bullshit complained of a fracture in the outer shield. Life support still seemed to work. The rumble changed as he entered the atmosphere, whatever atmosphere this was.

The retros kicked in again. He felt the dampeners extend and deploy. One of them ripped off and the pod began to spin. Rogan vomited bile into his helm. Two vacuums sucked it up and fed it to the reconstitutor inside the suit near his hip. The retros blasted, sputtered, and stopped. The other dampeners broke free and he went into free-fall. He lost consciousness. *

Rogan woke with orange light streaming through a crack in the pod's shell. Wires and hoses spilled onto him like the entrails of an eviscerated beast. He could see the layers of carbon and steel alloy that made up the shell of the pod through the crack. The stream from the pod was silent. Rogan tried to wake it but got nothing. His suit's stream still fed data. The air of the pod was compromised but the atmosphere read 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen; quite breathable and very likely the air of a terraformed planet.

Rogan called out again to the pod's systems and got nothing. He reached over his shoulder, fought through a spasm in his back, and pulled down a yellow and black striped bar. He felt the thuds of the explosive bolts blowing away the hatches. Two went off but the third hatch had fused in place. Twisting his head, Rogan could see where the heat of entry had melted it in place. Rogan punched it twice before it broke free. Rogan hit his release brackets and fell out onto the ground of an alien world.

Two suns hung in the sky above. One, a deep red giant sat motionless in the sky while a smaller one one of pure white hung just in front of it. Rogan stared at it and saw the small white dwarf move slightly. Given the visibility of its movement, it must have been traveling incredibly fast. The decaying orbit told Rogan that these suns didn't have a lot of time before they collided. A stream of red stardust followed the white dwarf as it slowly ate away the mass of the red giant.

Red rock pierced out of the cracked brown surface of the planet. Rogan saw a mountain range in the near distance. The highest peak towered about ten thousand feet high.

Rogan tapped into the stream of his suit. His knee servo still needed work and his right shoulder joint lost 40 percent of its range. He had enough protein to last six days and his water accumulator was at 86 percent. He'd have enough water to last 14 days. He didn't see any water on the planet but if it was terraformed, there would be water somewhere.

Rogan tried to reach out to the corporate stream but the cruiser's transmission had faded. Rogan turned on the quark-stream receiver and a flood of noise fell into his mind. News, profit margins, corporate takeover reports, pop songs, and endless comments and responses wrapped him like a warm blanket.

Rogan tried to send out his own stream. He tapped into the planetoid database but didn't see any sign of this place. He'd have to wait until the stars appeared to know where he was at all.

Rogan started walking. He was about two hours closer to the mountains when the robed man appeared.

The man stood as still as a statue. He might have been standing there for a thousand years, looking at Rogan with unblinking eyes. It was quite a feat considering he hadn't been there a few seconds ago. In his hand, the man held a four-foot long stick of dark wood. Rogan's monitors didn't pick him up at all. The man didn't have a single ounce of metal on him. He was like a ghost.

Rogan shot him.

It was close range, maybe ten meters, so Rogan used the magnum. The large pistol was in his hand and firing almost as fast as Rogan could think.

It wasn't fast enough.

The man sidestepped the first shot. Rogan fired again, the mag hammering in his hand. The man ducked low, feet underneath him and knees wide. The bullet traced harmlessly over the man's head. Rogan fired again and the man went into a handless cartwheel. His hands were in the small of his back, the stick along his spine and behind his head. He landed and spun, swinging the stick with the momentum of his movements. The stick hit Rogan's wrist hard and the fingers of his glove opened. The mag fell to the ground.

Rogan dove backwards and slid on his feet. He pulled his SMG-11 from his left thigh and felt it arm as he released it from its mount. He turned and sprayed over thirty 11mm caseless slugs through the air. He saw the slugs rip through the man's robes and dust filled the air. The tattered robe fell to the ground. The man wasn't in it.

The edge of the stick smashed into Rogan's flank and a kick from the man's sandaled foot bent Rogan's knee. Pain, a very unfamiliar feeling to him, raced through Rogan's body.

Rogan swung the butt of the SMG-11 towards the man's head. The man twisted away just before the carbon grip would have shattered his jaw into five pieces. The man's hand darted out, touched the SMG-11 and pulled away like the delicate strike of a snake. Rogan saw the glint of light on the small metal pin held in the tips of the man's fingers just as the SMG-11 fell into sixty two pieces.

Rogan made a fist and an 18 inch double-edged carbon blade shot out of his forearm and locked into position on the top of his right wrist. He spun and swung mid-level hoping to eviscerate the man. The man slid just beyond the blade's point. Rogan lunged and stabbed at him. The man sidestepped and parried, the stick hitting Rogan's forearm.

Rogan swung with a backhand, the blade swinging towards the man's throat. The man hit the flat of the blade with the edge of his hand and the carbon-steel blade exploded like it was made of glass.

Rogan stared at the stub of indestructible composite while the man's stick swung in at the base of Rogan's neck just above the shoulder. The world went black. *

Rogan's visor had dimmed under the shine of the red sun. For a moment he watched the tiny white star orbit around it training the red streamer of hydrogen atoms. He sat up. The diagnostic stream of his suit wasn't responding. He felt for his water reconstitutor and looked at the indicator on the side. It looked nearly empty and, drawing his protein tube, he saw his food was likewise empty.

Rogan looked around. He was sitting at the bottom of a large pit twenty meters in diameter and twenty meters deep. He tried to stand and fell back down. His suit felt heavy and his body ached. What he heard, however, frightened him most of all.

He heard nothing.

No quark-cast transmission came through, no stream of data and communication, nothing from the diagnostics of the suit. He called for a full systems report and got only silence. Clearly parts of his suit still worked. He was hydrated and fed. The lubricants in the suit still flowed over his skin. He felt for the fourteen different weapon systems and found none. Even the holdouts were missing. The fusion power core of the suit was still working but it felt about 10 percent efficient.

A plastic bin sat nearby. It was the only other object besides himself in the pit. He stared at it, feeling the silence swell around him.

A hook on a rope came over the lip of the pit and slid down. Two plastic bladders of water and a tube filled with a white substance hung on the end. Fifteen feet up, the hook released and the three containers landed on the ground. Rogan feared they might burst but they did not.

"The protein is for you," spoke a voice over the pit. The speakers in the suit still transmitted sound apparently. The voice made Rogan jump and another unfamiliar surge of adrenaline flowed through him. The voice continued. "One of the containers of water is for you. The other is for the bricks."

Rogan looked at the plastic box near by. It was about a foot wide, a foot deep, and a foot and a half long. He looked back up to the man at the pit.

"Fuck you," said Rogan.

The man smiled.

"I look forward to seeing you face to face. For now, make bricks." The man disappeared.

Roland tried once again to stand. After some stumbling he got to his feet. He got closer to the wall. It was cracked red clay, like the floor of the pit. He could sink his fingers of his hand into it. It would never hold his weight. His suit, even at full power, couldn't leap the distance.

Roland looked at the white substance in the smaller container. It didn't look like his regular protein mixture. He dropped it and stomped it in defiance. He examined the thin bladders of water. It looked clean enough. The bladder was some sort of rapid photodegrading plastic. It would disintegrate in just a few hours. He drew his connection hose and pierced it into the bladder. The water flushed through his system.

Roland sat back down and stared at the remaining bladder of water and the plastic box.

Rage and panic set in at mid-day. He had already succumbed to telling his captors to go fuck themselves. He'd rot down in this pit before he'd do as they say. He paced the perimeter of the pit like a wild beast. The silence drove him mad. The lack of the streams was like going blind and deaf at the same time. All his life he had heard the streams of exabytes of data flowing through him. Now every breath echoed through the suit's silent helmet like thunder.

He smashed the second bladder of water and regretted it soon afterwards. It was a stupid waste of the limited resources he had.

Night fell over the planet. Roland reclined and looked at the sky, his mind twisting and turning, attempting to restore the stream he so dearly missed. He lay there for a time that stretched as far as the sky above. He wasn't sure what chemical the suit normally produced to put him to sleep but he missed it desperately now. A violet hue rose as the red giant sun crested the horizon above the pit. He saw the slim beam of the sun touch the opposite edge of the top of his prison. He wouldn't see the sun itself for a few hours.

A short time later, the rope and the hook dropped three more containers over the side, two water and one protein. The thin plastic bladders of yesterday's delivery had already photodegraded. His captors didn't want him to have anything else in the pit, it appeared. Roland desperately wanted to take off his helmet. It was the first time he ever felt that way, but the suit didn't allow for a manual release. Only the mechanics could remove it.

He didn't stomp the protein pack this time. This time he filled the reservoir on his hip and replenished his water. He stared at the second bladder and thought about bricks.

The first one came out of the bin in a pile of mud. It had taken Rogan perhaps two hours to dig into the floor of the pit with his fingers and put the mud into the bin. The top had dried but he rest had still been wet. He used less water on the next and it fell into dust when he dumped it. His arms and back failed him when he tried his third. He lay staring at the stars, watching three moons orbit and hearing the echo of the streams that no longer existed in his mind. Rage and hopelessness filled his being, all emotions he had never felt before.

Rogan spent much of the next day vomiting into the mask of his suit. The valves and pumps washed it out but the smell didn't leave for hours. His muscles spasmed as he lay still. He would have killed himself but all the possible ways would mean more pain than he felt now.

The protein and water came each morning on its hook. The rope never came close enough for him to grab it, though he was certainly in no condition to climb those first days.

On the fourth day the vomiting stopped and he could move again. His muscles, still sore, managed to fill the bin with dirt and water. He let it sit a full day and night. The next morning, after that day's protein and water came down the hook, he dragged the bin to the side of the wall and with great effort, flipped it. When he pulled the bin free, the brick stood in place. Looking at his creation, he filled the bin again and let it sit.

He shook at night, the silence screaming around him. When he dreamed he dreamed of VR. He saw the flow of information soaring through him and around him, connecting him to the system-wide sea of consciousness.

When he awoke, he was alone.

He set his second brick and stood on the first. It held until he shifted his weight and it crumbled. The core was still wet. He screamed and punched the wall of the pit. He crushed the broken brick under his foot and lifted the new one over his head before smashing it on the ground. Something popped in his shoulder and the pain was excruciating. He sat and stared at the smashed bricks. Water flowed from his eyes. They had never watered like this before. His body spasmed in sobs he had never felt. After some time, they stopped and he stared at the plastic bin.

Then he made another brick.

It took three days for a brick to fully harden. He could make one each day in the bin. For a week the water came down, the protein came down, and his bricks didn't break. On the tenth day he looked at the nine bricks forming a pyramid on the wall of the pit. He looked at the bin, the mud hardening for the tenth, a brick that would start a new base block the next morning. He stared up at the edge of the pit and then to the sky above, a crescent moon hanging overhead.

He sat in silence and looked to the sky. The silence didn't scare him that night. *

Steel and carbon fingers caked with mud tore into the side of the second pit. The fingers scooped up red clay into the stained bin. With one hand, Rogan hefted the bin over his shoulder and climbed up the ramp he had fashioned on the wall of his digging hole, now nearly as deep as the original pit was to the surface. He set the bin into position, pushing it with his foot into the area of the pit where the sunlight would hit it first. Walking along the path of the sun's beam he found yesterday's brick still hardening in the sun. He lifted it gently, the core still damp, and began his second climb. He set it next to its partner at the top of the pyramid. Underneath him he stood upon two hundred and sixty eight bricks. Tomorrow would be number two sixty nine, the one that would bring him within three meters of the lip of the pit.

He stepped back down and lay back near his last drying brick, looking up at the ziggurat that climbed up the wall of the pit. Above him, the largest moon beamed down and silence filled his mind. *

A gloved and armored hand gripped the lip by its fingertips. They slid but held, carving grooves in the red mud. A second hand gripped next to the first, strong and steady. They sunk deep and a leg, armored in carbon and caked with months of red mud swung over.

Rogan rolled, planted his hands, and stood in a single motion. He stood his full seven feet, towering over the brown-robed man who stood there waiting for him. Rogan could see the patches where the man had fixed his robe from the bullets Rogan had sprayed at him.

For months Rogan had dreamed of vengeance. He had hated this man. He had feared him. Now he looked at him and felt nothing.

The man smiled. He stepped forward and raised his hand to Rogan's helmet. His fingers danced over the suit, pressing invisible pressure points and pulling out microscopic fibers. The suit peeled away. Hoses hissed as they fell. Tubes of liquid tipped with needles pulled away from Roland's skin. Armored plates nearly a century old fell hard to the ground. The man lifted the helmet off of the suit and dropped it to the red earth.

Rogan raised a pale hand to his eyes, eyes that had only ever seen the galaxy through the visor of the helmet. The colors all around him had a vibrance he had never known. He looked at his naked body, likewise pale, but strong. The muscles in his legs were powerful, built from climbing the ramps and the steps in a failing suit of metal and carbon nearly too heavy for him to lift.

Rogan breathed in unfiltered air into his unconstrained lungs. His eyes met the robed man's. Rogan saw the pink scar tissue on the man's throat. Rogan's fingers brushed over the identical wound on his own where the suit’s chemicals engineered at the atomic level had fueled his body for 100 years.

The man lifted a bundle of brown cloth and a four foot stick.

"Welcome, brother."