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Never Again

© 1999-2003 Draconus and Stratadrake of TWZ


Chapter One: Thresholds

(Fifth revision)

Personal Log: "James Z. Sinclair", Cmdr., 102nd Remote Division
Recorded: 2m02-02-03-16-00 [1600 Local Time, Sunday, Feb. 03]

CC: "Zachary Sinclair", 16 NW Mesa Terra Ave, Scatterfield
STATUS: CMINDA APPROVED AND SENT


After shutting down the video console, James left Ops and walked down the corridors that formed the shortest route from there to the practice/training room. With Ops being attended to by the rest of the command staff, he had some free time while he made his daily rounds. Watching the infantry soldiers maintain combat readiness with practice maneuvers and dummy weapons was one way that he could relieve stress, so he made a habit of stopping by the training room for a few minutes each day.

Two soldiers were sparring with dummy swords when James arrived in the training room and sat down at one of the benches. They were in the midst of an intense bout of close-combat training. Swing. Dodge. Counter. Evade. Thrust, parry. One of the soldiers rolled to the side as his opponent swung downwards with his blade. Then, with a low sweep kick as he rolled, he knocked his opponent over. The opponent didn't remain down for long, though, as he rolled aside to avoid a similar blow from the other soldier and quickly stood back up on his feet. They clashed blades again; right side, left side, overhead, thrust, deflect, parry, and swing. One of the men backed off for a bit, and let the other one draw near. As he did, the soldier tripped him with a low swing. He fell and rolled across the mat a few times, then found his opponent on top of him. "Nice duel, but I win."

James spoke up. "Not bad, Mark."

Infantry and Lieutenant Commander, Mark Anthur -- the victor of this bout -- removed his safety helmet, put aside the dummy blade, and walked over. "Commander! What brings you here?"

"As you were," James said. Mark then took a seat on the bench next to James to catch his breath.

Mark looked back at James and said, "You know..., we have tanks, cannons, rockets, lasers, mortars, artillery, aircraft, and bombs. So who ordered us to practice old-fashioned combat with toy swords anyway?"

"I did," interrupted a familiar voice from the other side of the room. General Adrius, the famous Silver Phoenix himself, entered the room.

Now Adrius was a rather quiet man with a stout frame, standing about six feet tall and born to a family of Sharii emigrants many years before the war. His age of fifty would make other officers think him to be soft in combat, but with his reputation and veteran status earned during the war, 'soft' is anything but a true word. A good strategist as well as master of close-range combat, Adrius could expertly size up a situation in mere seconds, devise a plan of attack, and carry it out. In some ways, he was almost a machine -- raised with a military background and given a synaptic link at a fairly early age of seventeen. His synaptic link had to be re-adjusted a few times in his life as he grew older, but as a result of this, he had more experience controlling cyborg armor and Suits than any other soldier in all history. His perseverance and resilience in combat earned him his callsign of "Silver Phoenix", and he repeatedly earned the nickname during the Sharii War. Many times an opponent would leave him on the battlefield as though dead, only to have Adrius slice them in two with a plasma cutter as they turned away.

"General Adrius, sir!" Shouted Mark in surprise as he stood up with a quick salute. Commander James stood up, saluted, and shook hands with Adrius.

"At ease, commanders," Adrius responded. "Dr. Alexander is making the final adjustments for the project, and he'll call when he's ready. In the meantime, it seems you have some certain questions about the nature of close-range combat. Correct?"

Mark nodded, a bit of embarrassment noticeable in his smile. "Yes, I--"

"I already heard your question," Adrius said as he began explaining. "You are living proof that you weren't around during the Sharii War. You may prefer guns, rockets, and missiles for combat, but if you ever run into one of the Sharii's Shadow Elites, those will not save you."

"With all due respect, Adrius," Mark intoned, "the Shadow Elite are just a myth."

"I don't believe that," Adrius replied. "And neither should you. If you ever run into a Shadow Elite, the only thing that can save you is a plasma cutter, and the knowledge to use it. The Sharii mastered the art of close combat, and so should you."

Adrius stood back up. "Would you care for a duel, lieutenant?

Mark looked at Adrius. "Would I...? Give me a minute to catch my breath, and I'll take you on!"

"Right, then." Adrius walked over to one of the lockers and suited up with a safety vest. He withdrew his favorite type of weapon -- a black staff of about four feet length with painted edges on each end to represent its cutting edges. The real versions of these weapons are called "plasma cutters" because they emit plasma energy from their cutting edge(s). The plasma blade of the real plasma cutters enables them to slice through steel and titanium armor in mere seconds, and they were the only weapons to prove themselves truly reliable against the Sharii. Obviously, the dummy versions of the plasma cutters are just mockups made from high-tensile polymers, but they serve as effective training tools and some were impressive facsimiles of the real thing.

Mark looked at James. "This'll be interesting...."

James smiled. "You'd better be careful. Adrius is one tough bird."

Mark walked over, put his safety helmet back on, and then picked up his dummy blade. He thought it over for a moment, then put it back in one of the lockers in favor of another, larger and double-edged dummy sword. Considering that these were practice weapons, the difference was cosmetic, but if they were preparing for real battle, the difference between a single-edged and double-edged plasma cutter could mean the difference between life and death.

Adrius walked over to the other side of the mat and reset the training console for a new round. Then, he warmed up with a few practice swings before assuming a ready position. Mark assumed a ready position too with knees slightly bent and blade in hand. Soon after, an electronic bell sounded, and the match was on.

Adrius waited for Mark's approach and then, almost without warning, soared into action. Adrius attacked Mark with one end of the staff; Mark blocked this, but Adrius reacted so quickly that it seemed as if Adrius's staff bounced off of Mark's parry like a rubber ball. Mark blocked the rebound with his blade and tried to counter, but Adrius beat him to it and knocked his swing aside, countering with the other end of the staff. Mark tried to evade it, but Adrius's swing came in like a falcon and knocked Mark down onto the mat. Mark rolled over and then spun around, knocking Adrius over with a kick. But Adrius didn't stay down for long, somersaulting and flipping backwards a few feet, landing on his feet and ready to strike again.

Now, Adrius lunged at Mark. Adrius feigned a few swings, catching Mark off guard when he tried to block. With a hole in Mark's defense, Adrius struck low and knocked Mark down to the mat again. Mark rolled over, away from Adrius, to get back on his feet. Adrius waited for him, waving one hand in a "come here" sort of gesture.

Mark lunged forward next. Adrius blocked the attack and countered from the other side, missing Mark by a small margin. Mark saw an opportunity to strike and took it -- but Adrius knew it was coming and jumped clear over Mark as the attack was made. Adrius whirlwinded around and caught Mark by surprise, hitting him in the back and knocking Mark over for a third time. The training console buzzed, indicating a logical winner. Mark tossed his blade aside and stood up unarmed. The duel was finished.

Adrius smiled as he put the staff down as the console displayed statistics from the match such as its length, the number of strikes, blocks, and hits, as well as the logical victor. "Three points versus one, the duel is mine as well. If this were real combat, you'd be dead three times already. You have to work on your defense."

Mark nodded, breathing deeply. "Yeah.... I get the picture. Sword versus sword is one thing, but sword versus staff...."

"...is quite another realm of battle entirely," Adrius finished. "If an opponent lands the first blow in real combat, you may not even get the chance to counterattack." Adrius picked up his staff again from the mat. "Feel like another go?"

"There is not the time for it," said Dr. Reed Alexander, who was watching from the side. Everyone called him either 'Reed', or 'Dr. Alexander' -- the title of "Dr." came not from any medical knowledge but instead from Reed's doctorates in robotics, AI, and synaptic interfacing. Apparently, he had walked in just moments before the practice duel had finished. "Adrius, we're ready."

"Very well," Adrius responded. He put the dummy staff and safety vest away in one of the lockers. Mark did put his dummy weapon and safety gear away as well, then proceeded to the dressing room to clean up and change back into his proper uniform.

James stood up. "I'll attend, as well." Reed nodded. "Yes, Commander; your presence would be greatly appreciated. It's not everyday that one gets to witness history in the making, after all...."

"What?"

"Nothing," Reed said with a smile. Reed's statement was intended as a bit of a joke. "Just get to the lab as soon as you can."

Adrius put his hand on James's shoulder. "Dr. Alexander thinks he may have finally figured it out this time. Come on...." Adrius led the way to the development room, where Reed's project was waiting. Reed left second, and James third.

James met his sister, Sarah, en route to the room. "Sis!"

"Commander...!" Sarah replied. "I was just going to drop by Dr. Alexander's lab and see if--"

"Well, you're just in time," James interrupted. "Reed wants me there for the final phase of his project. You should be there too, just in case anything goes awry."

"Awry?" Sarah laughed. "Jim, don't forget that I can take care of myself. As long as Dr. Alexander is planning a routine synaptic operation, there'll be no problems, so don't go worrying about a thing. Besides, I'll be keeping a trauma team standing right outside the lab in case we need them. Nothing will go wrong."

"I hope you're right, but I don't think he--"

Sarah repeated herself. "Jim? Don't. Adrius is my patient as much as he is your war hero and Reed's volunteer. Everything will be fine."

By now they had reached the entrance to the development room. A curious construct, integrated with the development systems control panel, filled the central area of the room. A flatbed lay on one side of this construct, tilted upwards to an almost vertical angle. There were a few belts on it, presumably for securing something or someone. It was completely padded except for the obligatory port used to interface with synaptic link implants. The other side had a similar flatbed, only this one lay flat as a table. A robotic frame lay on this other flatbed. This was the prototype robot that Reed was developing; a few of its control systems were hooked in to the development room's systems. According to the status monitors on the control platform, all of its systems were functional but currently in a 'standby' mode, waiting for programming.

Reed took the opportunity to describe the robotic frame laying on the horizontal flatbed. It was somewhat larger than the size of a human, about seven feet high. Its mass and weight were somewhere in the neighborhood of five or six hundred pounds, about fifty of which were due to the Kevlar-titanium armor plating. Most of the plates were a light blue color, but others bore silver and white stripes and markings. The overall appearance of the torso armor resembled the type of platemail armor that the Sharii were famous for wearing -- poetically fitting considering that Adrius was after all part Sharii, and Adrius had in fact proposed the particular design himself. Two silver-and-white color aerodynamic binders -- the military euphemism for "wings" -- were folded tightly against the backside of the frame to provide additional rear armor. Whether or not these "wings" would enable the frame to actually fly or not was anyone's guess. The thruster pack mounted on the back of the frame could produce enough energy to provide an acceleration of about 30 meters/sec, so technically it could fly -- however, the frame was not yet subjected to actual wind tunnel conditions, so there would likely be issues of balance, stability, and fuel capacity to work out. A strange framework was clipped around the frame's left arm. According to Reed, they were capacitor cells for a particle laser system. A portable mini-rocket launcher lay nearby the table. It was empty, obviously, but had a capacity for about twelve standard mini-rockets, or twenty-four hyperspeed microrockets. These systems would provide the robotic frame with an offensive capability and basic combat value. Reed also identified the two shoulder compartments which would house one plasma cutter apiece.

The internal structure of this robotic frame, as Reed would phrase it, is best compared to that of a living being. The sensor systems were equally distributed throughout the frame, from limb to limb, with central busses back to the core. The power generator for the entire frame was installed in the center of its torso and heavily shielded. The majority of the frame's processing systems were also located in the upper torso. The headpiece of this frame had a mask-like appearance to it -- two shielded optical sensors to serve as eyes, a particle sensor for a 'nose', and another piece of decoration resembling a mouthguard. The external armor plating of the frame's "face" came in several segments and was actually articulated to emulate a wide number of actual expressions. A T-shaped crest on its "brow" functioned as a thermal imager enhancer to augment the main optical sensors. In addition to the sensory equipment was also a radiation sensor, and all the processing systems necessary to convert the sensory data to a universal, internal format.

The armor compound was unique in the sense that it used a crude form of nanotechnology, something that military science still had not acc. Stored in the internal structure of this frame was a vast supply of "microbits", microscopic robots capable of performing gradual repairs. The microbits are powered by the very heat otherwise given off by the frame's reactor. The intention of the microbits is that, if the frame becomes damaged by combat, that damaged systems can be repaired back to a workable level, and eventually "heal" back to full strength.

Reed continued to describe the frame. With the development of semi-organic superconductors, the electrical systems that powered this frame would be unprecedentedly efficient; the only cost for maintaining the superconductive state being small heat losses and air conditioning. This also gives the frame a significantly higher resistance to electromagnetic fields and pulses than normal robotics. Even at its current status -- inoperative -- several tests had already been performed to verify its EMP- and EMF- resistant properties.

Reed finished with a nod, and motioned Adrius to step onto the empty flatbed. Adrius nodded and did so, and Reed then strapped him in place. The flatbed rotated from its near-vertical position to a flat position, leaving Adrius on his back, looking at the ceiling. Reed prepared to engage Adrius's synaptic link. "This'll feel weird, so hang on tight."

Adrius knew exactly what Reed meant, but Adrius was a veteran for this type of process, so he was virtually numb to the "weird" type of sensation that accompanies activating a pilot's synaptic link.

The plan was straightforward enough: Reed was going to use the synaptic-link systems to create a "pattern" from Adrius's neural makeup, and apply that pattern to the robotic frame as intelligence routines. If his theories were correct, and if everything worked according to plan, the result would be a robotic frame with Adrius's intelligence and skills imprinted on its electroneural makeup.

Sarah hooked up the bio-energy monitoring systems to measure Adrius's vital signs. Obviously, they all read within normal parameters, combining to form a total readout hovering at 97. Sarah remained near Adrius to monitor the readouts and give warning should any problems occur.

Reed asked around. "Is everyone ready?"

"Why do you always ask that?" James smirked.

Reed laughed. "Hah; your religious-caste upbringing is showing through your military service yet again."

Sarah laughed as well. "He's right, Jim."

"What?" James looked back at Sarah with a quizzical expression.

"Anyway, Commander, you're ready whether you appreciate it or not," Reed responded. "Are you ready, Adrius?"

Adrius nodded tentatively. "How long will this take?"

"Not long, hopefully. No one has ever tried to scan the entire neural makeup of a person, only parts of it. Anyway, beginning the experiment... now!"

Slightly worried, James held his breath as Reed flipped the switch. Adrius closed his eyes to help relax, a step proven to quicken most synaptic processes. Things were quiet, but the information being displayed on the monitor indicated that the synaptic process was everything but idle.

Everyone remained silent as the process continued and the number of samples climbed higher, into the millions range. From this, a complicated recursion program began crunching through the samples to try finding patterns for neural adaptive intelligence (NAI) programming.

More silence. About sixty seconds had now passed, and James was growing tired of the wait.

Dr. Alexander kept eyeing his console with amazement as the number of samples climbed into the range of 40 million, and the number of derived patterns were growing at a logarithmic rate.

The number of samples kept increasing still, and the recursion program gave an alert saying that, due to the excessively high number of samples (over 100 million), it would cache them on its system disks to free up its usable memory for more. This caused the process to halt for a moment, but after saving the information it began scanning again from where it left off.

And yet another minute passed, the counter on the program passing 300 and, a little while later, 400 million samples. By now, even Dr. Alexander was growing anxious; the number of samples was now exceeding even his wildest estimates.

An alarm sounded at Sarah's console. "What? Oh, hell -- trauma team, get in here!!!" came her first order even before she looked at it. She didn't need to -- Adrius's vital signs were beginning to drop -- fast -- and his Life Energy readout had already alerted them to this trend. There wasn't time to figure out what was causing it, for they had perhaps ten, twenty seconds at most to act.

Reed protested the order. "What? You might damage --"

"NOW!!" Sarah shouted over Reed's protest.

Reed's objection was based on an assumption that their use of the zapper would disrupt the scanning or NAI patterning process on the system, possibly scrapping his entire project. Reed's worries were allayed, fortunately enough, when his computer console indicated that the scan was complete with approximately 500 million samples; no sooner had Reed noticed the status message than he had disengaged Adrius's synaptic link and stood aside to let Sarah's team do their best.

The two members of the trauma team rushed into the room with a zapper, and as the one member set it up the other ran back out to get the other portable resuscitation equipment. Sarah barked out orders as she helped her team turned the machine on and powered it up. "Get the zapper on-line, clear the bed! And get the MTB!" They removed one of the straps from Adrius's flatbed, and placed the two terminals of the zapper across his chest.

Adrius's vital signs dropped to sixty percent, and the EKG readout was fading. "He's going to arrest -- Stage one burst -- clear!!" Shouted Sarah as the trauma team discharged a stage one zap. Adrius's body jumped like a car hitting a speedbump too fast. Two spikes appeared on the EKG graph on Sarah's terminal, but they faded away in but a moment. Neither spike had any effect on stabilizing Adrius's Life Energy readout -- it was still dropping just as quickly as before.

"Again!"

They discharged another zap. Another spike on the EKG readout but little more. "Where's that MTB?"

The other member of the trauma team ran back in, a portable rebreather strapped on one shoulder and a metabolic stabilizer (MTB) on the other. He turned them on and set them up as quickly as he could; within moments, they were in place to buy some more time.

"Stage two -- clear!" A stage two zap helped the EKG readout, but only for a second. At least the rest of their equipment was helping to stabilize Adrius's vital signs, buying them some extra time.

"Again!!" Sarah shouted.

Another zap, another transient set of spikes on Adrius's readout. A second alarm sounded on Sarah's terminal as the Life Energy readout dropped to twenty percent, nearing the danger zone.

Sarah repeated her muttering, slightly quieter this time but with a bit more panic mixed into it. "Stage three -- ready, now!!!"

They discharged a stage three zap -- the most powerful electrical discharge that they can use without actively killing the person they try to save. A set of spikes appeared on the EKG readout again and the Life Energy readout climbed to twenty-five percent as Sarah looked back towards her console. "Good... good... oh no, NO, don't do this to me--!" The spikes were fading.

Sarah took the terminals of the zapper herself. "Clear--?" Sarah discharged a stage three zap. The response was shorter-lived and smaller than that of the previous zap. Sarah watched the console as the zapper recharged, then discharged another zap without warning. "Come on...!"

Still no response. The alarm on Sarah's terminal changed to a a different, red tone as Adrius's Life Energy readout dropped to a single-digit level.

"No -- !!!" Sarah froze when she heard that. She had never lost a single patient before.

The trauma team looked back to Sarah for another order. Sarah threw the two zapper terminals back to their discharge plate and sprang back to her terminal. "No ..." Sarah banged her head against the monitor on the terminal as the displayed Life Energy readout dropped to zero. Tears of either sorrow or anger, or perhaps both, were falling from Sarah's face onto the console and sliding from it to the floor. She waved her arm to dismiss her team. Reed knew that it would be most convenient for him to be elsewhere, so he left the room too.


personal Log SUPPLEMENTAL: "James Z. Sinclair", Cmdr., 102nd Remote Division
Recorded: 2m02-02-03-16-00 [1705 Local Time, Sunday, Feb. 03]

CC: "Zachary Sinclair", 16 NW Mesa Terra Ave, Scatterfield
STATUS: PENDING

Supplemental log, Commander Sinclair.

Fate can be a cruel thing. Adrius is... dead? He should have died honorably in combat, rather than from a freak synaptic incident. Our nation has spent nearly one hundred years and billions of dollars trying to eliminate the synaptic failures that cause such deaths, and yet the darkest side of synaptic technology continues to haunt us, and has taken one of our most valuable lives.

Sarah has taken Adrius's death harder than anyone else on this base, so I've relieved her of duty for the rest of today and tomorrow; she needs a chance to grieve. Word of Adrius's death is already spreading across base, and I don't want to know what it'll do to our morale.

Reed conferred with me a few minutes ago, and he is not happy with the results either. HQ has been demanding results from Reed's experiment for weeks now, and once they get wind of this, they'll cut off Reed's funding and have him shipped back home faster than you can say 'cyborg'.

Reed still retains some optimism, though, and he wants to try the experiment again with a different volunteer and a second robotic frame. Infantry Lieutenant 'Xander' Kassidy has already agreed to be the subject, even knowing what happened to Adrius and could possibly happen to him.

Against my better judgement as it may be, I've authorized Reed for one more attempt. If it works, then Adrius's death will not have come to naught. And if it doesn't work, at least we'll be able to figure out what went wrong, even as Reed's career goes down the tubes.

And..., perhaps I'm dreaming again, but there is some part of me believing, hoping that Adrius could still be alive. Only time may tell.