When I was creating the world of Dragon’s Pawn I looked to the excellent artists of DeviantArt for inspiration and found Alex Pascenko. His illustrations were exactly what I’d been envisioning for the members of MechUnit 503 assigned to patrol the border at Elko checkpoint.
To celebrate the second anniversary of Dragon’s Pawn here is a special excerpt:
He sat at the kitchen table. The lights dimmed and then she walked in with the cake. It was a small brown lump with a sparse coating of frosting. Nothing like the stacked up confections he’d seen in vids but to him it was the best thing ever.
The glow of three candles lit the woman’s face as she walked from the kitchen. She wasn’t especially pretty, handsome was what he’d heard people call her; she had straight straw colored hair that was cropped at the jaw and her face had been aged by a hard life. Her eyes though, the color of a summer sky, were beautiful and lit with happiness, she was smiling at him as she started to sing. The voices of at least two other people joined her in singing the birthday song although he could not see them beyond the glow of the candles.
She sat the cake in front of him and those around him clapped happily. His mouth was watering but he waited, wanting to save this moment. The scent of the chocolate, he could feel warmth from the flames of the candles on his face, it was all so perfect.
“Well? Make a wish, silly!”
He looked across the table to find Mia smiling at him. She was dressed, as he’d last seen her, in jeans and the olive drab utility jacket of a Tower messenger. Her brown eyes were dark in the low light. He drew in a breath and blew out the candles.
A light flashed then the scene changed.
He was in the watchtower overlooking the border at Elko Checkpoint.
“Anything buzzing up there, Bookworm?”
He targeted the fifty some people passing through the narrow checkpoint gates, his TOS searching for unusual readings. “All clear,” he reported.
“Stay alert, there’s been chatter of Rager activity in Salt Lake.”
“Copy that,” he answered.
Folks in pairs and family groups passed beneath him as the members of 503 unit cleared them. His TOS lit up as alone figure dressed in a utility jacket with the hood pulled up stepped up to the clearance point. All singles were flagged for additional security and his Captain, MECH5030195, and MECH5030150 took the guy into the secure pen and began the search. Suddenly his coms went dead. Cap. Nine-five and Five-oh were tussling with the stranger.
“Boomer! Boomer!” someone yelled.
The checkpoint was instantly thrown into chaos as people ran in every direction. The three other members of 503 were trying to rush to the pen through the surge of panicked people.
“My TOS is offline!” shouted someone through the din.
“Fucking EMP!” yelled another.
“Two-four, Two-four!” he heard Nine-five shout to him. “Brain him! Shoot! Shoot!”
His TOS acquired and his rifle went hot, he had the subject’s cerebellum in his crosshairs, a shot there would turn the guy off like a switch. He was about to pull the trigger when the subject’s hood fell back revealing his face. It was Mia.
Fire erupted; a wall of heat lifted him up, tearing the watchtower out from under him. His ears filled with screams then he was falling, he was burning…
Adam took great gulp of air breaking the surface of his nightmare. He found he was already on his feet at the side of his bed, his right arm extended, his rifle augment glowing with an ammo charge.
His TOS was screaming at him. ABORT-ABORT-ABORT!
He was about to blow a hole in the wall of his apartment, not only his but Mrs. Liu’s as well. Quickly he shut down his weapon, retracting the barrel of the rifle and swinging his hand back down to reattach to his wrist. He backed up and sat heavily on his bed, gripping his left hand over his right fist. Concentrating on his breath he tried to calm down. He shivered as his sweat soaked skin cooled.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SAVE birthday_memory/dream NEW VERSION?
“Oh God, fuck no!” he rasped.
It wasn’t like he’d be able to forget the dream anytime soon. It had been a few months since he’d had one that bad. It was a combo of his best dream and worst dream. Both were recurring but never had he experienced both at the same time, and to stick Mia in there had been just cruel. Way to go subconscious, awesome, thanks a million!
The birthday dream he’d been having for years, the first time a few months after his augmentation. Most of it stayed the same, the blue-eyed woman, the cake, and the kitchen, even the birthday song.
He’d started saving it to his TOS when he’d begun to suspect it wasn’t just a dream. The details were so specific and repeated with such clarity that he thought maybe it might be a memory.
Other MECHs had reported similar experiences. The corporate Medtechs chalked it up to synapse noise missed by the scrubbers that emptied out a soldier’s head.
“The human mind is a strange contraption,” one Med had told him, “It may be real or it could be something your brain made up, it’s hard to say for sure.”
Adam had his own theory; it was mostly based on wishful thinking, but still. It was the woman in the dream. They had the same eyes, same shape and color, same nose, same mouth. He’d done an image match and their features were so similar they had to be related. Was the dream a missed thread of memory that floated up to the surface while he was sleeping? He liked to think it was.
The other dream, the bad dream, he knew for certain was real. He’d lived it fourteen months, eight days, twenty-two hours, nine minutes, six seconds ago…and counting.
It was the reason he had been decommissioned, it was the reason why twenty-one of those innocent citizens, plus his 503 unit were dead. It was his fault.
Elko Checkpoint was one of many along the southern Cascadian border that stretched along I-80 through the southern regions of Utah and Nevada. Not really a hot spot like others closer to Reno but fairly busy with folks wanting to enter Cascadia or make their way to up the Freelands in Montana.
Occasionally though they got they got a Rager. They were a left over from the Urban Outrage. As far as they were concerned the war was far from over. They sent their fellows loaded up with boomers and suicide vests to blow things up and create general mayhem for the NTA.
That’s what had happened that day. Just like in the dream the Rager had rolled up with the rest, triggered a limited range EMP and shut down the COMS his MECH unit shared, it also disabled their weapons. Adam had been far enough away from the EMP that his rifle had still been functioning.
Cap and Five-oh had been trying to keep the guy’s hands off the detonator of his boomer vest. In the struggle his hood had fallen off and reveled his face. He was just a kid, maybe fifteen, no more. Acne spotted and the barest peach fuzz of recently sprouted facial hair, the boy looked terrified. And Adam hesitated. The boy slipped Five-oh’s grasp and hit his detonator.
He awoke in the MECHtech facility in Salt Lake. The silence in his head had been deafening. MECH squads were a collective; their TOS were networked and so Adam had essentially shared a consciousness with his team. They had been a constant presence, Cap Nine-five, Five-oh, Eight-seven, Four-three, and Six-six, all gone.
His TOS was reviewed confirming what he already knew. His .90-millisecond response delay had been the cause of failure. Had he taken the shot when his Captain ordered him to the boy would have been subdued before he’d been able to reach the detonator.
They’d scrubbed the vital info off his TOS: codes, locations, and other things of a sensitive or classified nature. After he’d passed his psych-eval they gave him some clothes and a few credits to get him up the road then shown him the door. See ya kid, thank you for your service.
He tramped from Salt Lake up to Oregon picking up work here and there. Mostly he’d avoided populated areas sticking to the old hiking trails that paralleled the rivers. Eventually he came to Red City. The anonymity of a big city and Trashtown in particular had appealed.
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