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Never Again

© 1999-2003 Draconus and Stratadrake of TWZ

Chapter One: Thresholds

(first revision)

MESSAGE TO: "James Z. Sinclair", Cmdr., 102nd Remote Division
FROM: "Zachary Sinclair", 16 NW Mesa Terra Ave, Scatterfield
SENT: 1330 Local Time, MONDAY, Feb. 11

Greetings Jimmy. Your old man speaking here.

It's great to hear from you out there, but you've got to schedule some time to open a live communications channel, or at least make an honest letter. Personal logs may be easier to get by CMINDA -- heck, they're second only to last words for loved ones, which are sent unconditionally -- but they just don't cut it. I've got to see you talking to me, not just about me. And make sure that you save a backup copy of each recording before you try to send it, so you don't lose any work if it gets blocked.

The primaries are in another week, but don't get your hopes up yet: General votes are only half the battle. Once the winner from each party is determined, it's the 'Slate who determines the new senator, not the people. Most people think it's a flawed system, but the rules say that only reps can be voted in directly, and nobody's had enough support to be able to change that. Who knows: Maybe next month you'll be phoning a Senator, or maybe you'll still be phoning a Vet. Either way I'm not worried; if the elections don't work out, the Brass would be happy to have me back in the Services. I'd probably train in the new synaptics.

What is the weather like out there? Weathermen over here are predicting a snowfront crossing into our country from Northeastern Sharii territory. Perhaps it'll fall over your area. Weathermen back home are still studying the climate changes, and it's firestorm country every time someone tries to explain why it's happening. Official opinion is that it's happening gradually -- glacier rather than avalanche -- and it may even reverse itself in the future.

Say hi to Sarah and Adrius for me. I have to go, but I'll send you another call when I get the chance.

~~ "Red Blade"

P.S: Better yet, you call me.

You don't know, James thought to himself after closing and saving the v-mail. One week after the accident, his dad's bright attitude and closing line could only mean one thing: the CMINDA censors must have deleted James's last attempt to call home regarding Adrius's death. James double-checked the Reject folder. Sure enough, there was the message, a personal log addenda, with "Request Denied" displayed across the header.

James checked the rest of his v-mail. The daily weather report (predicting heavy clouds and some snow), a set of orders from HQ (give another update about Reed's project), and another set of orders regarding possible Sharii raiders in the area. Nothing new since yesterday, and not much new since last week, either.

Reed walked into Ops at about the same time James switched off the console to get up and take a walk. "Commander."

"Reed?" James noticed him. "What do you want this time?"

"Two things," Reed answered as he walked closer, taking hold of and leaning against one of the chairs while remaining standing. "One, we have completed the second frame, and with your authorization, can conduct the re-trial later today"

"Sure," James responded in a whatever-the-heck fashion. "Are you sure Xander knows the risks?"

Reed chuckled. "Of course. Everyone knows by now what happened last week. But this time will be different."

Reed continued. "I have some theories about what happened last time. The system was scanning at a slightly higher frequency than most synaptic interfaces. Hypothetically, that could have caused interface or feedback problems in Adrius's link. The system will scan at a slower frequency this time, just to be safe.

"Also, the system was scanning its data to memory, but because there was so much data, it had to interrupt the scanning process to set up caching operations. The interrupt could -- hypothetically -- have caused a transient spike in the link interface."

James smirked at the mental image of a synaptic soldier being struck by lightning -- a high-energy analogy for what Reed was theorizing.

"This time, I will set the system to use disk caching from the start. This will keep it scanning at a continuous rate.

"But of course," Reed added, "there is no way to tell for sure what happened to Adrius; there were no recorded abnormalities in the instruments or the system. This means we can't say exactly what will happen with Xander. But, with the extra safeguards in place, the odds are good."

"Xander knows this, correct?" James inquired.

Reed nodded. "Yes."

"Dismissed," James said, waving Reed off, who nodded and then left. James shook his head. He couldn't decide who frightened him more -- Reed for the potentially lethal experiment he would soon retry, or Xander for volunteering to guinea-pig the potentially lethal experiment.

"Oh, and one more thing..." came Reed's voice as he re-entered the room.

"What is it now?" James asked.

"No, Doctors," Reed asked, emphasizing each word individually.

"Excuse me?" James questioned. "Medical personnel are a standard part of any synap--"

"Unacceptable," Reed interrupted, with a wave of his hand. "Since we don't know for sure what happened to kill Adrius, we can't rule out doctors as a potential threat to the experiment. If we're going to try again, there will not be any doctors in or near the lab. Understand?"

James reluctantly agreed to circumvent medical standards for the experiment. But he warned Reed, that if anything happened to Xander, the blood would be on Reed's hands, and Reed's alone.

Reed nodded in response. "Good. I'll call when we're ready."

James shook his head again after Reed left Ops. Sarah would probably go ballistic if she found out that Reed was trying the risky experiment again. Nor did Reed's use of the pronoun "we" help James feel any better.

But James did come up with an idea.

About one hour later, James walked into the training arena, where Mark and Xander were having another practice duel. Unlike last time, where each was fighting with only one weapon, this time the two combatants were equipped with a full arsenal of practice weapons and armor. Xander fought with his personal close-combat favorites: a dummy sword in his left hand and a dummy electrostat whip in his right. Mark, meanwhile, had a double-bladed dummy sword in one hand, a round dummy shield on his left arm, and a dummy rifle slung over his back. These arsenals were representative of their true fighting styles in real cyborg armor: Xander being lightly armored but very quick and maneuverable, striking with a plasma cutter and a disabling electrostat whip; and Mark with heavy armor, a magnetically-charged defense shield, assault rifle, and double-edged plasma cutter. The training console was recording actual hits and simulated kills, and so far Mark was in the lead.

Reed was sitting down on one of the spectator benches. James walked over. "Everything is set up, but Mark asked to have one more duel with Xander before we begin," Reed explained. "The console is set for ten frags. Mark leads eight to seven."

After being knocked to the ground by Xander's whip, Mark armed the practice rifle and "fired" a few rounds towards Xander. No actual projectiles flew across the arena (as it was only a practice rifle), but the console calculated virtual shots anyway, registering them as several hits and misses, followed by a short ring, indicating a virtual kill -- or "frag", as they often called it.

Xander stepped aside as Mark stood back up. This time Xander started the bout, using his whip effectively to knock the rifle out of Mark's grasp. Xander soon whipped the rifle to the other side of the arena, letting go of the whip as well as both whip and rifle whapped against the blue-matted wall. Mark anticipated Xander's next move, and he was right: Xander attacked with his sword, only to land several blows against Mark's readied shield. After a blunt of four hits, Xander stepped back. Mark sought out an opportunity to attack and used it, but Xander's lighter-weight armor enabled him more than evasive maneuvers, as he soon landed a frag against Mark, from the right side.

Xander backed off for a moment. Mark ran to the edge of the mat and picked up his rifle. He fired a fair number of shots in Xander's direction, but Xander saw it coming and evaded. Only one of Mark's shots scored a hit as Xander closed the distance between them. Xander in turn grabbed his whip and then slung it low, coiling around one of Mark's legs and yanking Mark to the mat. It was a rough, but safe landing. Xander quickly followed up with a thrust from his blade. Though the practice blade simply buffeted against Mark's armor, the computer registered what would, in real combat, have been a critical blow and an instant kill.

The score tied nine to nine, Xander waited for Mark to unwrap the whip from his leg and stand back up. Xander tried another whip attack, but Mark anticipated this and caught the whip on his blade. Xander failed to react quickly enough, as Mark quickly yanked his blade aside, ripping the whip out of Xander's grasp. Mark tossed both weapons aside. Xander came forward with his own blade to attack. Mark blocked one blow against his shield, then another. Then in a surprise tactic, Mark lunged forward into Xander, shield first. Xander fell off-balance, to the mat, and then quickly rolled twice to the side for room to stand. In this span of time, Mark had drawn his rifle and emptied the last of his "ammunition" in Xander's direction. Several virtual hits in one locale were recorded, but not enough for a frag. Xander closed the distance and attacked. Mark blocked it with his shield then, with no other weapons to use, tripped Xander across the leg with the rifle, knocking him down. Mark's strategy worked: by firing several hits to the leg, that area would be weakened, and in real combat, a subsequent blow to that same area would have dismembered it. This was still practice though; no real injuries were sustained by either. The training console announced Mark as the winner of a ten-frag match.

Mark put the shield aside and helped Xander back up to his feet. "Good move," Xander responded.

"You really should pack some projectile weapons," Mark recommended to Xander.

"Projectile weapons are what I have you for," Xander responded matter-of-factly, as both of them were in the same infantry unit and often ran real exercises together anyway.

"Or at least a shield. You can't block everything with just a blade."

Xander chuckled. "Maybe. But I can't take being loaded down."

"Finished, then," Reed commented aloud. "Are you ready, lieutenant?"

"Oh," Xander remarked. "Right. Give me a minute." Xander removed the two layers of practice armor, collected his weapons, and put them away in the lockers. "Ready when you are, Dr. Alex."

Reed nodded, then the two of them left the training room.

Mark collected his practice weapons and put them away. He turned to James. "You know, Jim, I still wonder -- how in the world did Reed talk Xander into the experiment?"

"He never said," James responded.

"It's one thing to put your life on the line in battle," Mark laughed. "But to do the same for a mere experiment? Xander's either brave, or insane."

James chuckled at the remark, as Mark removed his practice armor and set it away. A moment later Reed re-entered the room. "Commanders?"

James and Mark both looked back at Reed. "Yes?" Came a simultaneous reply from both.

"We want you two to attend, as well."

"Right," James said, and left the room to head down to the lab. Mark followed.

Despite that it was across the hall from the first lab where Adrius and the blue robotic frame still lay, Reed had set up this lab in a similar fashion. Everything from the consoles, the installed recursion software, and the dual flatbed was set up in almost a perfect mirror image of the other lab. Reed sat Xander down on one of the flatbeds but decided not to strap him in this time. On the other flatbed lay a second robotic frame that Reed had constructed during the past week.

This second frame, while sharing a similar internal construction as the previous, had an outer frame drastically different -- and in some respects mutually opposite -- from the previous. While the previous frame was predominantly blue, white, and silver in color, this one was red, yellow, and black. Of the three, red was obviously its predominant color, being used on the arms, legs, and shoulders, with the feet, hands, torso, and joints being black and the yellow being used for aesthetic highlights. One highlight in particular was the symbol of their military -- a small, feathery "swoosh" mark -- which was plainly visible on the right shoulder. A large streak of yellow plate shot across the chestplate in a "V" shape, and in contrast to the black torso it seemed to glow flourescently in the lights. The headpiece was less articulated than that of the previous frame, mostly gray in color but with orange "eyes" and a golden-colored brow sensor. A small grill design over what would be its "mouth" gave it a passing resemblance to a hockey mask. Not currently visible was a set of dual thrusters on its back, theoretically enabling it to fly. Unlike the previous frame, though, these were just thrusters; this frame had no visible wings. Built into its right arm was a concealed grappling hook, the range of which Reed described as being up to fifty meters. On the right side of its flank was a compartment for one plasma cutter, presumably to fit in its left hand. Combined with the flares on its shoulderplating that swooped back gracefully, the overall appearance of this frame was as if it had been born out of a live volcano.

Reed motioned to James that he should stand outside. James knew it to be a prudent decision, and did so. Mark stayed inside, and on Reed's direction shut the door as Reed activated the equipment to begin the procedure.

James checked his watch and waited, leaning against the wall by the door. It would be a longer wait than last time, due to the extra safety precautions Reed was using. About a minute later Sarah walked by. "Jim?"

James nodded in response, but remained silent. A rather foolish gesture, however; Sarah could read the situation from his face. "What is Reed doing this time?"

"Walk with me," James requested, hoping to avoid the encore of a familiar argument. Sarah agreed and followed Jim as he began walking down the corridor. His strategy, so far, was working.

"Where are you going this time?" Sarah asked. She had caught up with James's pace, and by now they were walking side by side down the hall.

"Where else? Hangar C."

The two siblings went through another doorway into the main corridor. After walking about 100 feet down, James turned to one of the outside doors and opened it. He led Sarah outside the main building, onto one of the outer perimeter catwalks. It was a shortcut to the vehicle hangars, across the base.

"You still haven't answered my first question," Sarah noted as James led the way across the catwalk.

"I know," James admitted, though he gave no other answer.

Sarah scoffed quietly at the response. James always had a tendency to evade questions he didn't like answering, so apparently, hers was one of them.

They reached the upper door to Hangar C, and James was the first one inside. After activating the lights (to the surprise of a few residing bats, which quickly scattered out of sight) and locating the nearest access stair, they descended to ground level.

There it was, resting in the middle of the floor, all 8,000 pounds of it. The Leogryph. Once James's personal command and combat vehicle, it had been sitting there for many months, ever since James was transferred to this base from a larger command along the northern border of their country. James walked up to its left side. Dents and scars ripped from front to back across its armor. One hole was a puncture wound from a rail gun; it had blown completely through the left propulsion's primary control systems, the secondary drive shaft, and had caused damage to the right propulsion system as well. Enemy sniper! Take him out! echoed from the wound.

James walked over to the handholds forming a ladder up to the turret. Part of this section of armor had been partially melted by plasma-based weapons fire. Watch your aim!, demanded the armor. You should have cleared my line of fire, came an echo in response.

Taking ahold of the paint-stripped handholds, James began climbing up the side of the tank to its turret. Cyborgs? Since when are raiders using such well-crafted cyborgs?, echoed memories from a few missing handholds in the ladder. James then sat down on top of the dusty turret, leaning up against a long-emptied missile pod. Look at them -- they're fast!, echoed the pod.

A rocket pod on the other side of the turret answered the call. They're closing the distance. Scatter!

The main cannon of the Leogryph, unlike its other portions, was completely intact despite all the battle damage. It had used an interchangeable ammunition system, allowing the pilot to choose from a wide array of projectile types to use. Shrapnel, armor-piercing, incendiaries, and even plasma rounds could all be fired from the same cannon. Got one! Everyone arm your plasma rounds, we're taking 'em out!

There are too many of them -- we must fall back! cried a complaint from the turret's communications antenna. Despite having taken splash damage from artillery attacks, it was still usable, if only it had power.

Yes. If only it had power. It had been a long time since the Brass decommissioned the tank and removed its power core. Without an operating power core, the Leogryph would never see any more combat. Unfortunately, its type of the power core was no longer in production, so it could not be replaced. That was the primary reason for its decommissioning in the first place. Cyborg mecha were proving themselves in battle at the time, and as they became cheaper and easier to build, the decision was made to remove all tanks from the military. Now, the only soldiers seen on the battlefield were infantry wearing linked armor, pilots of cyborg mecha, and various manned and unmanned aircraft for air support capability.

"So, now can you answer my question?" Sarah asked, interrupting James's train of thought.

"Oh-- sorry. What was it again?"

"What is Reed doing? I hope he's not --" Just then, the comlink on James's left wrist beeped. 'Commander', called a voice across the link. But rather than answering the call, James switched his comlink off.

"Yes, he is," James said to Sarah. She didn't like that answer, but no doubt she had been expecting it. She shook her head in disappointment. "Jim, why? We know what happened last time. Why did you authorize Reed to try again?"

"I donít know, exactly...," James began. "...There's the old saying: Give a man enough rope, he may hang himself with it. I told Reed that if anything happens this time, he will be the only one taking blame for it. I'm not going to be involved this time. And, for that matter, neither are you.

"Reed instituted some safety precautions this time, to better the odds. He also said -- specifically -- that he 'can't rule out doctors as a potential threat'. And so, that includes you."

"Which person is his test subject this time?" Sarah asked.

"Lieutenant Xander, of our infantry division. And this scares me. Xander is a good fighter, but a bit brash. I doubt he even knows what's being asked of him."

"Commander!" Shouted a voice from the second floor. It was Mark.

Both Sarah and James looked up as Mark found the stairs and quickly descended to ground level. "Bad news: he's dead, Jim."

"Reed?" Interrupted Sarah.

"Lt. Xander," Mark restated. "I tried calling, but someone turned off his comlink. So I came to find and tell you myself."

A good move on Mark's part. "How did Reed take it?" James asked.

"Not well, I'm afraid. He's lost the project for sure, and he'll probably lose his career as well. Right now he's not speaking to anyone; he took a walk outside to clear the air."

Sarah sighed. "I'll get an autopsy team, then." Sarah walked away, towards the stairs, then up and outside.

"I told Xander he should've written a last message home. But he didn't want to."

Right, James thought to himself as he wiped some dust from the hatch of the Leogryph's turret.

"Still thinking about old times, I see...," Mark noted, walking closer to the tank. He mused over the Leogryph's battle damage. "You hear them, don't you?"

"Hear what?" James asked.

"The voices."

James looked at the tank for a moment.

"That battle was hell alive," Mark continued. "It's amazing we were picked up in one piece."

James nodded. "Those weren't standard cyborgs they had. They must have had their own production facilities to make the mecha. As pirates go, they were incredibly well-armed. Too well-armed to have stolen the mecha from other factories."

"Indeed. You know?" Mark began.

"Don't start," James cautioned, but to no effect.

"You really should get back onto the battlefield again. You were a good pilot, and a good fighter. Too good to simply sit back doing desk jobs while other people do the fighting."

James knew what was coming next, for he had been through the argument several times before. After the Leogryph was de-commissioned by HQ, James was offered two choices at combat alternatives. One, he could have had a synaptic link implanted and become a cyborg pilot, or two, he could have trained for piloting aircraft. However, James never cared much for aircraft, and he would never allow himself to have a synaptic link. The mere thought of the surgery required to implant the mechanical link was enough to give James nightmares. HQ could have ordered James to get a synaptic link, in which case James would have given them his resignation. However, there had been a third alternative: HQ transferred James to noncombat duties at a research outpost a few miles east from the middle of nowhere. Still, a desk job sounded better than either the link or his resignation, so James had taken that option, and now here he was.

Mark, on the other hand, chose to become a cyborg pilot after his tank had been similarly decommissioned. Being a close friend, Mark requested to transfer along with James, and HQ agreed. Mark's battle experience helped him earn a commanding position for their new base's infantry squads.

Though Mark's decommissioned tank had long been disassembled and recycled for use in cyborg weaponry, James's tank, the Leogryph, had been shipped to the base instead. Being decommissioned, HQ had removed and destroyed its power core, but as James refused the offer of a synaptic link, they felt he should keep the old tank as a memento. A large memento, one suitable for display in a historical museum rather than a dusty hangar.

"So, why not?" Mark asked. "If you had a link, you could get back onto the field. It would be nice to have you alongside for combat again. Like old times."

"It's not right," James said, trying to close the argument. "If the good Lord had intended for us to commune with machines, he would have invented the computer himself."

"Not that again," Mark complained (albeit with a smirk).

"Then don't ask," James stated matter-of-factly.

Mark gave a short sigh. They had been through this sort of argument many times before, so he figured he should change the subject to avoid disturbing any tempers. "What if there were another way?"

"Right now, I really don't care. I still have to file a report about Reed, Adrius, and now Xander. Ask me that later."