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Hazardous Duty

(by Michael R. Ault)

The jangling of the alarm woke Gharna before dawn. Opening his eyes, he slowly swung his legs down to the floor from off the hard bunk. He grimaced as his bare feet touched the cold concrete.
"I hate duty nights." He said, to no one in particular.

Stumbling a bit, still sleepy, he went into the bathroom facility for a shower and shave. Feeling better, he put on his fatigues and went out for his morning run.

Returning, well after dawn, he removed his sweat stained clothing and took another shower. The hot needles of water relaxed his well worked muscles. Stepping out of the shower he dried using an issue, course textured, towel. Returning to the duty room, he donned his uniform and made his way to the missions briefing room. Entering, he nodded to several of his friends whose morning activities weren't quite as athletic as his own. All, however, looked to be in the peak of physical condition.

Gharna was just settling into the uncomfortable chair when the thick form of the missions briefing officer strode briskly into the room.

"'Ten Shun!" Shouted the adjutant who scurried behind him, trying to look important.

Gharna had almost got to attention when the officer said "As you where." and favored the adjutant with a hard glance. The adjutant looked down at his spit shined boots in embarrassment.

The eyes of the serious young men and women of the First In Scouts followed the officer. He walked to the podium at the front of the room. They eyed with hunger the briefing folders that he clutched to his side. Was there a mission for them somewhere in those packets?

"At ease, smoke if you have them." The officer said as he shuffled the briefing packets into order. No one lit up, indeed, no one in the group smoked. The adjutant stood off to one side, pushing his horn rim glasses back up his thin nose.

The officer, giving the room a stern look, began the briefing.

"It is my duty to inform you that First In Scout Rashad has missed repeated call backs and is feared dead." Complete silence greeted the announcement, all in the room had known and admired their missing comrade. "His mission was in sector twelve, system two. He was to provide a preliminary report on the only inhabitable planet in the system." He paused and glanced once more around the room. "Rashad was the third scout sent to this world. He was fully augmented."

This final report caused a stir. To lose a scout was bad enough, three was unheard of, but to lose a fully battle augmented scout was thought to be impossible.

"Quiet please." Although not said loud, the order quieted the room." The preliminary telemetry from remote drones show this world to be remarkably similar to ours. The gravity is within ten percent of normal, the air is breathable, no dangerous microbial life was detected. Although, some of the sensor data is curious." He looked up, all eyes in the room looked into his. "We want this one bad. To this end, we are requesting a single volunteer, to be sent under full augmentation. The Scout is to also be provided with additional sensor and armor packages. We have to find out what killed the previous scouts, the colonial board wants a green light. I needn't remind you of the population problems causing starvation on Siderous nine. I repeat, we want this one bad." The officer looked up from the report. "Any questions?"

Gharna stood at attention. "Yes Scout Gharna" The officer acknowledged him.

"Sir, you stated that Rashad had full augmentation, were the other scouts also augmented?"

"Yes, though only Rashad had full augmentation, the others had standard first in level." He looked thoughtful. " To remind you, full augmentation involves total body alteration to give increased strength, mobility, visual and sensual acuity. Also, it includes exo-skeletal enhancement. Even with all this, Rashad was apparently killed."

Still standing, Gharna asked "Is there anything else you can tell us sir?"

"Each scout lasted for only a short period before we lost communication. Rashad lasted half a day. Each reported a featureless, white, humid plain that stretched for several klicks in all directions. Rashad reported finding a smooth cliff at one edge of the plain. He had begun to scale the cliff when his communication abruptly ceased. We issued an immediate recall, it did no good, we were only able to retrieve a few scraps of exo-skeleton."

Gharna sat down. Lost in thought he paid scant attention to the other mission reports. He barely heard the call to attention when the officer left the briefing room. Standing, he pushed his way quickly to the door. Walking quickly to the duty officers office he knocked at the closed door.

"Enter!" A terse sounding voice, probably that of the adjutant, called out.

Gharna entered the room. The adjutant and the duty officer were examining several pictures at a polished desk that dominated the room.

"Yes Scout Gharna?" The officer looked up from the pictures.

"Sir, I wish to volunteer for the mission to sector twelve." Gharna stood at rigid attention.

"I would prefer a more seasoned scout Gharna. Let's see.." He opened a file cabinet and pulled Gharna's folder out. "You scored quite high in adaptability. Your physical condition rating is excellent." He looked up. "Wasn't that you I saw running this morning?"

"Yes sir."

"I thought so." He mulled over the reports of Gharna's previous missions. "You've never had full augmentation have you?"

"No sir. But..."

"Go on."

"Sir, Rashad was in my training company. He and I were very close. I would like to try to complete his last mission."

"Very well." He closed Gharna's file with a snap. "Report to Haacker for further briefing." Gharna turned to leave.

"Gharna" Gharna turned back to the officer. "Good luck." With a grim expression the officer went back to his scrutiny of the pictures.

After Gharna left the office, the officer used his wrist com to report the duty assignment to central control. Gharna went in search of the missions controller, Sergeant Haacker.

Sergeant Haacker had been a First In Scout before most of the present corps had been born. He carried the reminders of his missions in the many scars that lined and creased his face and indeed, most of his body. Artificial limbs allowed him a somewhat normal existence, though he often admitted that phantom limb pain made sleep almost impossible. He had done most of his first-in missions before augmentation was available.

"Augmentation" thought Gharna, he wondered what full battle augmentation would be like. His training had consisted of being sent through the transporter/augmentor to a jungle section of his own world. He remembered the feeling of swinging through the trees and clinging to limbs with a prehensile tail. The augmentor would analyze the data about the area you were being sent into and reconfigure you to the optimal survival form. It sure hadn't helped Rashad.

Filled with curiosity, a burning need to complete his comrade's mission, and more than a little fear, Gharna entered the missions control center. Striding confidently over to Haacker, he noticed the half man / half machine was reading a set of flimsies.

"Scout Gharna, reporting for missions briefing and augmentation training." He said, perhaps a bit to loud.

"Come on boy, sit down." The grizzled ex-scout gestured to the chair across the table from him. Looking critically at the youngster he scowled: "You free of your mothers apron strings yet boy?" Haacker peered at him through his one remaining biological eye. A mechanical replacement stared vacantly ahead from the other socket, the skin around it ridged with scar tissue.

"Yes sir, I mean no sir, I mean I never was tied to them sir." More than a little flustered, Gharna sat down and tried to hide his embarrassment.

"You don't need to call me sir, boy. Shoot, in few missions you'll out rank me." He allowed a smile to peek out through the rugged exterior. The effect on the mass of scar tissue at the left side of his face was almost frightening. "So you're the new meat for the grinder. Well here," he handed the flimsies to Gharna, "you had better read these."

Reading slowly and carefully, Gharna paled beneath his tan at what the reports contained. The worst part was the photos.

"What could do that to a man who had full battle augmentation?" He handed the report back to Haacker.

"We don't know. We've never had one come back like this before. The "What" is what you're to find out."

The final recall, completed since the briefing, had succeeded in bringing Rashad back. Or better said the crushed, twisted, water soaked remains of Rashad. Even without the pictures, the report would have been explicit enough.

"On the first two, we couldn't even get back that much." Haacker paused for effect. "If you cancel, it won't reflect on your record." Gharna could detect some compassion in the good eye. The mechanical replacement looked cold.

"No, I think I can handle the job. I know I can." He tried to look as confident as he sounded.

"Well boy, it's your pension. Come on, let's start you on full augmentation orientation, takes about three days." Haacker stood smoothly on his electro-mechanical legs and walked toward the entrance to the augmentation lab.

Rushing to catch up, Gharna blurted out " Three days! Last time they just sent me, POOF!, augmentation." Gharna looked puzzled.

"What? Oh, the "training" exercise." His voice oozed contempt. "That was a stroll in the woods compared to this." He jerked his thumb at the augmentation machine. "We're talkin' full battle augmentation boy. Not just a few monkey reflexes and a cute little tail. Faster reflexes, strength, speed, new senses and instincts. More power than you've ever dreamed of boy."

The words brought Gharna up short.

"You sure you want to do this?" You could hear the concern in Haacker's voice. His mechanical eye and scarred exterior did little to show it.

With new determination brought on by Haacker's concern Gharna looked him straight in both eyes, the biological and the mechanical, and boldly walked through the door. Following behind him, Haacker still looked concerned, and, just a little envious.

In the days that followed Gharna learned new skills, reactions, and some fighting skills that he could honestly not see a purpose for. At least no purpose with his current frail body. In the nights, with his sleep haunted by odd dreams, the hypno-learner taught his sub-conscience new instincts. By the third day Gharna felt as though his brain would burst if another lesson thrust its way into it.

On the morning of the mission day, as he entered the lab, Haacker said gruffly, "Well, strip boy, we haven't got all day."

"Strip? The last...."

"You going to argue with me? Strip, for a trip of this distance we limit the mass to just you."

With a slightly embarrassed look, Gharna stripped off his uniform.

"That's better. Here, I'll put these away for you." He gathered up the discarded clothes and put them into a labeled locker. "There, tucked away all nice and cozy." Haacker smiled. "Nurse!" He yelled.

Gharna's embarrassment reached a peak when a pretty young nurse entered the lab area. She was holding two small syringes full of a glittering amber fluid that sparkled in the bright lab lights.

"What's that?" Asked Gharna, looking at the syringes.

Haacker looked up at the ceiling as if asking "Why me?" and then answered, "Don't you remember your first lesson? Those are the tracer and communication injections. They allow us to retrieve you, and to keep in touch. It provides pseudo-telepathic contact between the subject, you, and his control."

"Oh, right. I thought it was an electronic device." He looked curiously at the syringe.

"It is. It also is a hormone stimulant and a cortical energizer. The fluid contains micro-miniaturized components that temporarily bond to the communication centers in the brain. Shoot boy, until we retrieve and do a cortical flush, you'll be the most powerful one way telepath in the universe."

"Who's to be my control?"

"Me. Give him the injection." Haacker watched the process leaning against the lab counter with his arms crossed, one fully mechanical, one still half biological. The nurse stepped up and smiled. "It will only hurt a little bit."
"That's what they said the last time." Gharna reddened as she stepped closer and frankly appraised his well built body.

"The last time?"

"Yes, the last time I had a pretty nurse around me."

"What was the problem?" She probed his stomach for the proper muscle juncture.
"I was in a field unit, they were setting a broken arm."

"Oh." She jabbed the needle into his gut. There was a sharp prick, and then a severe burning sensation spread up Gharna's body. In the short, intense agony he forgot his embarrassment. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he straightened back up.

"Smooth." He managed to say between clenched teeth.

With a loud laugh Haacker punched him on the back, nearly knocking him over. "You just might do boy. You just might do."

Haacker energized the augmentor. As it hummed to a ready condition Haacker reiterated "Don't forget the emergency recall sequence." Haacker turned to the nurse. "I'm ready."

The nurse opened a small port on Haacker's mechanical arm and screwed on the other syringe. As she slowly squeezed the plunger hacker gritted his teeth, although his eyes stayed open. Through clenched teeth he said; "You can get used to anything after a while boy."

In a short time, Haacker signaled that the augmentor was ready.

"IS IT READY?" Gharna thought intensely. Haacker put his hands to his ears. "Damn boy, tone
"What?" Gharna said out loud.
"Think quietly, I'm linking in with you now." He tapped his head. "It's the only way to communicate over stellar distances, instantaneous." He snapped his fingers. "To bad it's only one way."

"Sorry, have to get used to it." Gharna thought lightly.
"That's much better." Haacker attached a cerebral monitor harness to his shaved skull. "This allows us to record the communication." He plugged the device into the control panel.

"Mr. Haacker, we have established the portal link." A disembodied voice said over the intercom. Haacker pushed the energizer control, a circular port opened in the augmentor, it reminded Gharna of a gaping mouth.

"Gharna." Haacker called out.

"What?" Thought Gharna back at him.

"Don't get killed. It gives me a headache." He pointed to the harness.

"I'll try to remember that." Gharna said out loud.

"Smart ass" he thought.

"I heard that." Haacker said with a smile.

"I know." Thought Gharna and smiled. He entered the maw of the machine, and, with a twist of one of Haacker's controls, it swallowed him.

The pain was intense. Then, it dulled and disappeared. For a short time, almost, but not quite, to short to be noticed, Gharna felt absolutely nothing. Then, intense white light flooded his eyes, he was acutely aware of this for he now had seven of them. The images almost overlapped, giving him a heightened sense of the dust motes which flitted about, disturbed by his arrival. He gingerly lifted each of
his armored appendages and tested their range of motion.

As the implanted instincts took control, he knew what to do to move his new body. "Arrived safely, beginning patrol." He thought. He concentrated on the images around him. He knew when he got back they would scan his memory for each detail.

Not that there was a lot to scan for. He was standing on a flat, featureless, white plane. The surface was cold, and if it had a texture, he couldn't detect it. "The landscape is the same as reported by the previous scouts. I am proceeding in the direction that Rashad reported the cliff located in."

The surface was slightly slippery, his appendages secreted a sticky substance to help him with traction. "I have reached the cliff. It is completely vertical, there is a slight curve at it's base. I have had to increase the traction gel, the surface is highly slick and smooth, it may be manufactured. It could be the result of an atomic detonation and subsequent glazing."

In the lab, light years away, Haacker mumbled, "Keep to the facts boy." Even though he knew the communication was only one way.

"I have reached the top of the cliff and am switching to long range visual imagers." Gharna didn't know how it was done, but the view gradually expanded to give him sight superior to any other. "HOLY SHIT! I APPEAR TO BE..."

Haacker leapt up from the lab chair where he had been reclining as the loud reverberating clang filled his mental ears. "BOY TALK TO ME, TALK TO ME BOY!" He began hitting the automatic recall sequence as he began to sweat, those parts of him that could...

"Haacker..." The mental voice was weak. "Haacker.. I'm hurt bad, can't remember the sequence... Haacker.." And as Haacker closed the last switch it faded all together.

Haacker was over to the maw of the augmentor in two long strides. Impatiently, he waited for the signal of a completed transfer, the small red light at the top of the augmentor hatch. Finally, it lit, he slapped the open button so hard that his mechanical palm smashed the sensor control. As Gharna's naked form tumbled out of the augmentor chamber, Haacker prayed that it wasn't to late.

Lowering Gharna to the cold floor, Haacker listened to the still, cold chest and tested the pulse. He sat back with a humorless smile as the emergency team rushed into the lab. "He's in shock, but he'll make it." He said, brushing at some moisture that had gathered at the corner of his biological eye.

"Haacker...?" The thought was almost to low to sense. Gharna's mouth started to work.

"Don't try to talk boy, just think." Haacker said with a catch in his voice.

"Too small...." The voice faded again as Gharna passed out.

Light years away a hairless, pot bellied entity looked perturbed. In a guttural, harsh sounding language it called: "Honey!"

It's mate rushed into the small room in which it sat. "Yes dear, what's the matter?"

"It was right there, now it's gone!"

"What's gone dear?"

"Just like the others! The biggest d*mn one I ever saw!"

"Well, I don't see it now. You must have missed it."

"Naw, I never miss."

In the lab infirmary Gharna looked up at Haacker's ravaged face.

"You look like sh*t." Haacker said.

"Thanks, I needed that." Gharna slowly sat up. "What happened?"

"We hoped you could tell us. You said, "Too small" and then passed out."

"I don't remember." He looked up at Haacker. "I don't remember!" Alarmed, he sat straight up.

Haacker pushed Gharna back down into the soft bed. "Take it easy. Whatever happened, you lost a lot of fluid. The augmentor can rebuild you, if you're still alive, but it can't add lost mass. Here." He handed Gharna a large glass of water. . .

"I tell you I squashed that sucker." It looked closely at the side of a large white tank, obviously used to hold water. "See!" It said triumphantly pointing to a gooey mess of fluid on the edge. "I told you I got him!"

"So where is he hot shot?"

Haacker looked at his charge. "Don't worry, the scanner will get the details. Now you know why it's called hazardous duty."

"Right." Gharna answered with a yawn and promptly fell asleep, overcome by exhaustion. With a smile that was almost paternal, Haacker left the room closing the door behind him. . .

"Well, clean it up killer." His mate left the room.

"Clean it up she says. Next time I hope the bastard bites her." It dropped the Kleenex into the toilet and flushed First-In Scout Gharna's lost fluids into the sewers of St. Petersburg Florida. "I hate those d*mn spiders." It mumbled.
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