Conflict is Eternal
We have always fought. War is the furnace that forges new technologies and pushes humanity ever onward. We are the children of a battle that began with fists and sticks, and ended on the brink of atomic Armageddon. Beyond here lies another war, infinite in scope and scale.
But who will fight the wars of tomorrow? Join Elizabeth Bear, Indrapramit Das, Aliette de Bodard, Garth Nix and many, many more in an exploration of the furthest extremes of military science fiction…
Jonathan has been quietly building up an empire of anthologies – of which the Infinity series alone is a full ten titles! – but here he takes us to the future of war, with a selection of some outstanding writers in the field. – Lavie Tidhar
"Just go read the story. Then go read the anthology."– Nerds of a Feather
"Jonathan Strahan has once again managed to edit the best original SF anthology of the year."– Locus
"Deep, multi-layered tales that require a re-reread."– Shoreline of Infinity
"Strahan gets some of the best writers… They have created something rather special."– Geek Syndicate
Asante goes out screaming. Hell is an echo chamber, full of shouts and seawater and clanking metal. Monstrous shadows move along the bulkheads; meshes of green light writhe on every surface. The Sāḥilites rise from the moon pool like creatures from some bright lagoon, firing as they emerge; Rashida's middle explodes in dark mist and her top half topples onto the deck. Kito's still dragging himself toward the speargun on the drying rack—as though some antique fish-sticker could ever fend off these monsters with their guns and their pneumatics and their little cartridges that bury themselves deep in your flesh before showing you what five hundred unleashed atmospheres do to your insides.
It's more than Asante's got. All he's got is his fists.
He uses them. Launches himself at the nearest Sāḥilite as she lines up Kito in her sights, swings wildly as the deck groans and drops and cants sideways. Seawater breaches the lip of the moon pool, cascades across the plating. Asante flails at the intruder on his way down. Her shot goes wide. A spiderweb blooms across the viewport; a thin gout of water erupts from its center even as the glass tries to heal itself from the edges in.
The last thing Asante sees is the desert hammer icon on the Sāḥilite's diveskin before she blows him away.
Running water. Metal against metal. Clanks and gurgles, lowered voices, the close claustrophobic echo of machines in the middle distance.
Asante opens his eyes.
He's still in the wet room; its ceiling blurs and clicks into focus, plates and struts and Kito's stupid graffiti (All Tautologies Are Tautologies) scratched into the paint. Green light still wriggles dimly across the biosteel, but the murderous energy's been bled out of it.
He tries to turn his head, and can't. He barely feels his own body —as though it were made of ectoplasm, some merest echo of solid flesh fading into nonexistence somewhere around the waist.
An insect's head on a human body looms over him. It speaks with two voices: English, and an overlapping echo in Twi: "Easy, soldier. Relax."
A woman's voice, and a chip one.
Not Sāḥilite. But armed. Dangerous.
Not a soldier he wants to say, wants to shout. It's never a good thing to be mistaken for any sort of combatant along the west coast. But he can't even whisper. He can't feel his tongue.
Asante realizes that he isn't breathing.
The Insect woman (a diveskin, he sees now: her mandibles an electrolysis rig, her compound eyes a pair of defraction goggles) retrieves a tactical scroll from beyond his field of view and unrolls it a half-meter from his face. She mutters an incantation and it flares softly to life, renders a stacked pair of keyboards: English on top, Twi beneath.
"Don't try to talk," she says in both tongues. "Just look at the letters."
He focuses on the N: it brightens. O. T. The membrane offers up predictive spelling, speeds the transition from sacc' to script:
NOT SOLDIER FISH FARMER
"Sorry." She retires the translator; the Twi keys flicker and disappear. "Figure of speech. What's your name?"
She pushes the defractors onto her forehead, unlatches the mandibles. They fall away and dangle to one side. She's white underneath.
"I'm sorry, no. Everyone's dead."
Everyone else, he thinks, and imagines Kito mocking him one last time for insufferable pedantry.
"Got him." Man's voice, from across the compartment. "Kodjo Asante, Takoradi. Twenty-eight, bog-standard aqua—wait; combat experience. Two years with GAF."
Asante's eyes dart frantically across the keyboard: ONLY FARMER NOT
"No worries, mate." She lays down a reassuring hand; he can only assume it comes to rest somewhere on his body. "Everyone's seen combat hereabouts, right? You're sitting on the only reliable protein stock in three hundred klicks. Stands to reason you're gonna have to defend it now and again."
"Still." A shoulder patch comes into view as she turns toward the other voice: WestHem Alliance. "We could put him on the list."
"If you're gonna do it, do it fast. Surface contact about two thousand meters out, closing."
She turns back to Asante. "Here's the thing. We didn't get here in time. We're not supposed to be here at all, but our CO got wind of Sally's plans and took a little humanitarian initiative, I guess you could say. We showed up in time to scare 'em off and light 'em up, but you were all dead by then."
"Yeah, Kodjo, you too. All dead."
YOU BROUGHT ME BA
"We gave your brain a jump start, that's all. You know how you can make a leg twitch when you pass a current through it? You know what galvanic means, Kodjo?"
"He's got a Ph.D. in molecular marine ecology," says her unseen colleague. "I'm guessing yes."
"You can barely feel anything, am I right? Body like a ghost? We didn't reboot the rest of you. You're just getting residual sensations from nerves that don't know they're dead yet. You're a brain in a box, Kodjo. You're running on empty.
"But here's the thing: you don't have to be."
"Hurry it up, Cat. We got ten minutes, tops."
She glances over her shoulder, back again. "We got a rig on the Levi Morgan, patch you up and keep you on ice until we get home. And we got a rig there that'll work goddamn miracles, make you better'n new. But it ain't cheap, Kodjo. Pretty much breaks the bank every time we do it."
DON'T HAVE MONEY
"Don't want money. We want you to work for us. Five-year tour, maybe less depending on how the tech works out. Then you go on your way, nice fat bank balance, whole second chance. Easy gig, believe me. You're just a passenger in your own body for the hard stuff. Even boot camp's mostly autonomic. Real accelerated program."
"You're not Hegemon either, not any more. You're not much of anything but rotting meat hooked up to a pair of jumper cables. I'm offering you salvation, mate. You can be Born Again."
"Wrap it the fuck up, Cat. They're almost on top of us."
"'Course if you're not interested, I can just pull the plug. Leave you the way we found you."
NO PLEASE YES
"Yes what, Kodjo? Yes pull the plug? Yes leave you behind? You need to be specific about this. We're negotiating a contract here."
YES BORN AGAIN YES 5 YEAR TOUR
He wonders at this shiver of hesitation, this voice whispering maybe dead is better. Perhaps it's because he is dead; maybe all those suffocating endocrine glands just aren't up to the task of flooding his brain with the warranted elixir of fear and desperation and survival at any cost. Maybe being dead means never having to give a shit.
He does, though. He may be dead but his glands aren't, not yet. He didn't say no.
He wonders if anyone ever has.
"Glory Hallelujah!" Cat proclaims, reaching offstage for some unseen control. And just before everything goes black:
"Welcome to the Zombie Corps."
That's not what they call it, though.
"Be clear about one thing. There's no good reason why any operation should ever put boots in the battlefield."
They call it ZeroS. Strangely, the Z does not stand for Zombie.
"There's no good reason why any competent campaign should involve a battlefield in the first place. That's what economic engineering and Cloud Control are for."
The S doesn't even stand for Squad.
"If they fail, that's what drones and bots and TAI are for."
Zero Sum. Or as NCOIC Silano puts it, A pun, right? Cogito ergo. Better than The Spaz Brigade, which was Garin's suggestion.
Asante's in Tactical Orientation, listening to an artificial instructor that he'd almost accept as human but for the fact that it doesn't sound bored to death.
"There's only one reason you'll ever find yourselves called on deck, and that's if everyone has fucked up so completely at conflict resolution that there's nothing left in the zone but a raging shitstorm."
Asante's also running up the side of a mountain. It's a beautiful route, twenty klicks of rocks and pines and mossy deadfall. There might be more green growing things on this one slope than in the whole spreading desert of northern Africa. He wishes he could see it.
"Your very presence means the mission has already failed; your job is to salvage what you can from the wreckage."
He can't see it, though. He can't see much of anything. Asante's been blind since Reveille.
"Fortunately for you, economics and Cloud Control and tactical AI fail quite a lot."
The blindness isn't total. He still sees light, vague shapes in constant motion. It's like watching the world through wax paper. The eyes jiggle when you're a Passenger. Of course the eyes always jiggle, endlessly hopping from one momentary focus to the next —saccades, they're called—but your brain usually edits out those motions, splices the clear bits together in post to serve up an illusion of continuity.
Not up here, though. Up here the sacc rate goes through the roof and nothing gets lost. Total data acquisition. To Asante it's all blizzard and blur, but that's okay. There's something in here with him that can see just fine: his arms and legs are moving, after all, and Kodjo Asante isn't moving them.
His other senses work fine; he feels the roughness of the rope against his palms as he climbs the wall, smells the earth and pine needles bedding the trail. Still tastes a faint hint of copper from that bite on the inside of his cheek a couple klicks back. He hears with utmost clarity the voice on his audio link. His inner zombie sucks all that back too, but eardrums don't saccade. Tactile nerves don't hop around under the flesh. Just the eyes: that's how you tell. That and the fact that your whole body's been possessed by Alien Hand Syndrome.
He calls it his Evil Twin. It's a name first bestowed by his Dad, after catching eight-year-old Kodjo sleepwalking for the third time in a week. Asante made the mistake of mentioning that once to the squad over breakfast. He's still trying to live it down.
Now he tries for the hell of it, wills himself to stop for just an instant. ET runs and leaps and crawls as it has for the past two hours, unnervingly autonomous. That's the retrosplenial bypass they burned into his neocortex a month ago, a little dropgate to decouple mind from self. Just one of the mods they've etched into him with neural lace and nanotube mesh and good old-fashioned zap'n'tap. Midbrain tweaks to customize ancient prey-stalking routines. An orbitofrontal damper to ensure behavioral compliance (can't have your better half deciding to keep the keys when you want them back, as Maddox puts it).
His scalp itches with fresh scars. His head moves with a disquieting inertia, as if weighed down by a kilogram of lead and not a few bits of arsenide and carbon. He doesn't understand a tenth of it. Hasn't quite come to grips with life after death. But dear God, how wonderful it is to be so strong. He feels like this body could take on a whole platoon single-handed.
Sometimes he can feel this way for five or ten whole minutes before remembering the names of other corpses who never got in on the deal.
Without warning ET dances to one side, brings its arms up and suddenly Asante can see.
Just for a millisecond, a small clear break in a sea of fog: a Lockheed Pit Bull cresting the granite outcropping to his left, legs spread, muzzle spinning to bear. In the next instant Asante's blind again, recoil vibrating along his arm like a small earthquake. His body hasn't even broken stride.
"Ah. Target acquisition," the instructor remarks. "Enjoy the view." It takes this opportunity to summarize the basics—target lock's the only time when the eyes focus on a single point long enough for passengers to look out—before segueing into a spiel on line-of-sight networking.
Asante isn't sure what the others are hearing. Tiwana, the only other raw recruit, is probably enduring the same 101 monologue. Kalmus might have moved up to field trauma by now. Garin's on an engineering track. Maddox has told Asante that he'll probably end up in bioweapons, given his background.
It takes nineteen months to train a field-ready specialist. ZeroS do it in seven.
Asante's legs have stopped moving. On all sides he hears the sound of heavy breathing. Lieutenant Metzinger's voice tickles the space between his ears: "Passengers, you may enter the cockpit."
The switch is buried in the visual cortex and tied to the power of imagination. They call it a mandala. Each recruit chooses their own and keeps it secret; no chance of a master key for some wily foe to drop onto a billboard in the heat of battle. Not even the techs know the patterns, the implants were conditioned on double-blind trial-and-error. Something personal, they said. Something unique, easy to visualize.
Asante's mandala is a sequence of four words in sans serif font. He summons it now—
—and the world clicks back into sudden, jarring focus. He stumbles, though he wasn't moving.
Right on cue, his left hand starts twitching.
They're halfway up the mountain, in a sloping sunny meadow. There are flowers here. Insects. Everything smells alive. Silano raises trembling arms to the sky. Kalmus flumps on the grass, recovering from exertions barely felt when better halves were in control, exertions that have left them weak and wasted despite twice-normal mito counts and AMPK agonists and a dozen other tweaks to put them in the upper tail of the upper tail. Acosta drops beside her, grinning at the sunshine. Garin kicks at a punky log and an actual goddamn snake slithers into the grass, a ribbon of yellow and black with a flickering tongue.
Tiwana's at Asante's shoulder, as scarred and bald as he is. "Beautiful, eh?" Her right eye's a little off-kilter; Asante resists the impulse to stare by focusing on the bridge of her nose.
"Not beautiful enough to make up for two hours with a hood over my head." That's Saks, indulging in some pointless bitching. "Would it kill them to give us a video feed?"
"Or even just put us to sleep," Kalmus grumbles. They both know it's not that simple. The brain's a tangle of wires looping from basement to attic and back again; turn off the lights in the living room and your furnace might stop working. Even pay-per-view's a nonstarter. In theory, there's no reason why they couldn't bypass those jiggling eyes entirely—pipe a camera feed directly to the cortex —but their brains are already so stuffed with implants that there isn't enough real estate left over for nonessentials.
That's what Maddox says, anyway.
"I don't really give a shit," Acosta's saying. The tic at the corner of his mouth makes his grin a twitchy, disconcerting thing. "I'd put up with twice the offline time if there was always a view like this at the end of it." Acosta lives for any scrap of nature he can find; his native Guatemala lost most of its canopy to firestorm carousels back in '42.
"So what's in it for you?" Tiwana asks.
It takes a moment for Asante to realize the question's for him. "Excuse me?"
"Acosta's nature-boy. Kalmus thinks she's gonna strike it rich when they declassify the tech." This is news to Asante. "Why'd you sign up?"
He doesn't quite know how to answer. Judging by his own experience, ZeroS is not something you sign up for. ZeroS is something that finds you. It's an odd question, a private question. It brings up things he'd rather not dwell upon.
It brings up things he already dwells on too much.
Thankfully, Maddox chooses that moment to radio up from Côté: "Okay, everybody. Symptom check. Silano."
The Corporal looks at his forearms. "Pretty good. Less jumpy than normal."
"I've got, ah, ah…" She stammers, struggles, finally spits in frustration. "Fuck."
"I'll just put down the usual aphasia," Maddox says. "Garin."
"Vision flickers every five, ten minutes."
"That's an improvement."
"Gets better when I exercise. Better blood flow, maybe."
"Interesting," Maddox says. "Tiwan—"
"I see you God I see you!"
Saks is on the ground, writhing. His eyes roll in their sockets. His fingers claw handfuls of earth. "I see!" he cries, and lapses into gibberish. His head thrashes. Spittle flies from his mouth. Tiwana and Silano move in but the audio link crackles with the voice of God, "Stand away! Everyone stand back now!" and everyone obeys because God speaks with the voice of Lieutenant David Metzinger and you do not want to fuck with him. God's breath is blowing down from Heaven, from the rotors of a medical chopper beating the air with impossible silence even though they all see it now, they all see it, there's no need for stealth mode there never was it's always there, just out of sight, just in case.
Saks has stopped gibbering. His face is a rictus, his spine a drawn bow. The chopper lands, its whup whup whup barely audible even ten meters away. It vomits medics and a stretcher and glossy black easter-egg drones with jointed insect legs folded to their bellies. The ZeroS step back; the medics close in and block the view.
Metzinger again: "Okay, meat sacks. Everyone into the back seat. Return to Côté."
Silano turns away, eyes already jiggling in their sockets. Tiwana and Kalmus go over a moment later. Garin slaps Asante's back on the way out—"Gotta go, man. Happens, you know?"—and vanishes into his own head.
The chopper lifts Saks into the heavens.
"Private Asante! Now!"
He stands alone in the clearing, summons his mandala, falls into blindness. His body turns. His legs move. Something begins to run him downhill. The artificial instructor, always sensitive to context, begins a lecture about dealing with loss on the battlefield.
It's all for the best, he knows. It safest to be a passenger at times like this. All these glitches, these—side-effects: they never manifest in zombie mode.
Which makes perfect sense. That being where they put all the money.