Solemnity – Firing Blanks
by Richard Noel
The Sureflux Cascade, by Richard Noel.
“Only a couple more pets to go,” said Saddler, checking his wristwatch. “Then we can get rid of those things.” He looked in the general direction of the cargo hold. “It makes me nervous having them on board.”
“They keep themselves to themselves,” I shrugged. “I can’t say they’ve bothered me.”
“I’ve seen them a couple of times,” he said. “I’ll just be glad when they’re not our problem. Can’t stand having them around. But, you know what they say – if you don’t want to lose lives, use blanks.” He added what sounded to me like a forced laugh.
“That is what they say,” I replied, dryly. I eased myself out of the hole in the wall panel. “Hand me a new driver, I think this one’s burnt out.”
I’d heard that joke a hundred times and had never really seen why it was funny. A friend of mine once said why humans learned to laugh. When the monkeys got away from the lion, they’d laugh in relief to ease the tension. I suppose that explained why.
We called them Blanks as a derogatory term. Mostly, it was meant to devalue them. When we lose humans to war, we call them lives. But Warriors were not human, so we never said they had lost their lives. You can’t kill a machine – even a biological one. We had used up Blanks. Comparing them to harmless training bullets was almost comical, I’ll admit. Because any one of them had likely racked up a hundred kills or more. I guess that’s why humans needed a reason to look down on them. They were superior to us in every conceivable way.
Their strength, their stamina, their senses and their skills were far beyond anything humans could imagine possessing. Was it out of fear? Yeah, probably. If one of them turned on us, we wouldn’t stand a hope in hell’s chance. But that’s why we had to create them in the first place.
This war had already raged for a decade. Neither we nor the Sillers had fought a war on an interstellar scale before. The biggest problem turned out to be the sheer enormity of our territories. Even with hundreds of ships, we were spreading our forces so thin we could barely hold onto any ground we’d gained, and neither could they.
But those damn walking lizards came up with the perfect weapon. One that would let them spread their forces as thin as they wanted to, and still inflict pain on us. They called it Onn HaÇassw’rr, literally meaning Great Warriors. Super soldiers. They only needed one soldier to wipe out a hundred troops. One pilot to destroy a small fleet.
“How’s it running, now?” I said loudly, still laying on back with my feet poking out of the wall.
I heard Saddler tap a few buttons. “Looks like it’s working, but can you hear that buzzing? I’m just running a diagnostic.”
Though curing birth defects and inherited deseases was common place, genetic engineering for the purpose of creating the perfect soldier had been illegal in the UNC for centuries. But how long does morality endure when needs become truly desperate? When we were so devastatingly outmatched? The answer is not long.
We tried utilising more drones against them to even the numbers, but those were pretty much useless. You see, the humanoid mind is really quite incredible. Even in the twenty-fifth century, it takes a quantum computer the size a small room to match the power of the mind. Drones, however smart they are, lack a certain ingenuity that the human mind is capable of. An inability to learn creatively, to think outside the box, and adapt to knew situations.
The mind has some incredible abilities that we are still unable to replicate in AI, but it has its downsides. It’s inefficient, easily distracted, forgetful and makes mistakes. It wasn’t enough for these Warriors to be stronger and faster. They may be able to bench press a metric tonne, but their biggest advantage over us was their mind. It had been engineered to be as perfect as their physique. They made no mistakes, they could think faster than any computer and still possessed human ingenuity. And unlike quantum computers, Blanks didn’t need constant maintenance and have the delicacy of sugar glass.
I could hear Saddler sighing. “We’re still getting thirty percent loss in cubit conversion,” he said. “The targeting scanner has about a half second lag.”
“Oh, dammit,” I exclaimed. “I’m gonna have to find where that driver burned the fibre optics, strip it out and replace.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” he said, sarcastically. “I’ll get on with checking the rest of the matrix while you’re at it.”
I tapped the communicator on my wrist. “Petty Officer Jackson to Lieutenant Russel.”
After a few moments of bleeping, I heard the chief engineer’s voice. “What’s the problem, Petty Officer?” she asked.
“Some of the fibre optics of Particle Cannon C targeting scanners are damaged, Ma’am,” I explained. “A shoddy driver in the core-node fried them. I won’t be able to get the cubit conversion up to standard before we drop into normal space.”
“That cannon must be in full working order by then,” Lieutenant Russel explained. “We’re expecting enemy resistance almost immediately. I’ll get a new core-node down to you. I’ll expect it fully installed in half an hour.”
“Yeah, maybe if you send a crane down,” I complained. “The whole thing weighs three of me, and I’ll have to get this bulkhead out of the way first.”
“That won’t be a problem,” said Russel. “Begin prepping the core-node for removal. Out.” The channel shut off.
I had barely managed to shut down and unplug the existing core-node when the new one arrived. A familiar looking white box about the size of small refrigerator, wheeled on a flatbed trolley. The courier, however, was far less familiar to me.
He wasn’t wearing the light blue jumpsuit of a technician, instead he wore a snug fitting dark suit of a texture that almost resembled leather, with a side-arm and a combat knife on his belt. He barely looked eighteen years old. He was not a particularly large man nor was he any taller than I, but his posture and well-proportioned shape clearly showed that he had an impressive physique.
He saluted me. “Sir,” he said without any expression on his face. “I have been instructed to deliver and assist in the installation of this QT-38 core-node.” He was a Blank. They had sent a Blank down to help me. I’d never actually spoken to one before then. I’d served on the Ingenious for a few years, and the small Osprey class frigate had never had the need to carry a squad of Blanks before. I’d seen them a few times and everyone knew about them. But I’d never had cause to stop and speak to one.
I wasn’t quite sure how to react. “There’s no need to salute me or call me Sir,” I said with a nervous smile. “I’m just a Petty Officer.”
“My apologies if I caused offence,” he replied. “I was merely showing respect.”
Maybe they did make mistakes. Or maybe he’d never spoken to a lowly technician before. They came out of their tanks fully grown, with all the knowledge and skills they’d ever need encoded into their genetic memories. It’s said they have no personality, no real humanity. Just biological machines made for war.
And that was the other reason we called them Blanks. It was their eyes. Something about his eyes sent a shiver down my spine. Without the years of life experiences that made us who we were, his eyes seemed to have had no depth. I’m really not sure whether the human mind could detect something so intangible, or whether it was our imagination. But his eyes looked blank to me, and to everyone who’d ever looked into a pair like his.
Saddler returned from checking the rest of the targeting matrix. “Everything else checks out,” he said. “The only problem is the fibre optics in this node.” He looked at the Blank with apprehension mixed with disdain. “What’s that doing here?”
“I have been instructed to deliver and assist with the installation of this QT-38 core-node,” the Blank repeated.
“OK, well, I guess you don’t need me here,” Saddler said to me, ignoring the Blank. “Good luck, Jackson.” He turned and wandered off down the hallway.
I turned back to the man, or whatever it was, that had been sent to help me. “I’ve taken the bolts out, but I don’t have the strength to get this bulkhead off the wall myself.”
“I can assist with that,” said the Blank. “Please, allow me.” I stood aside, and he lifted the steel frame as if it were plastic, placing it gently on the floor out of the way. It usually took three men to move one of those.
“And the old node,” I said. “Leave it on the trolley.”
Despite the node weighing almost a quarter of a tonne, the Blank easily pulled it out and gently placed it on the trolley bedside the replacement.
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“My designation is 4472-Lima,” he said.
“That’s a mouthful,” I said as lay on the floor beneath the gap where the node had been moments ago. “I take it I can trust you not to drop that on me?”
“You can,” he said. “I shall slide it onto the rails above you. My full designation would not be used during combat situations, when an abridged designation is required. I will simply be referred to as Four.”
“What if there are other fourth generations with you?”
“Four out of my team of five are fourth generation,” he explained. “It is a reference to my position within the team for this mission.”
“I see,” I said. I have to admit, with his help the job was done in no time. Replacing a core-node wasn’t a complicated job. It was just a very awkward one.
As I booted up the node and ran a diagnostic to check that everything was working, the ship wide comm system made it’s announcement. “This is Commander Gator,” it said. “Prepare for deceleration into normal space. We can expect combat almost immediately.”
My wrist communicator buzzed soon after. “Petty Officer, is that cannon functional?”
“I’m just running the final diagnostic,” I replied. “Three, two, one. All showing green, Ma’am. Cubit conversion at over ninety-nine percent.”
“Good job,” said Russel. “Get the original node secured in storage and mark it up to be fixed when you get a chance.”
“Aye, Lieutenant,” I replied. “Out.”
There was a whirring sound all around me, and my stomach sank with a feeling akin to an elevator rapidly descending. We had dropped back into normal space.
“Let’s get this back to storage quickly,” I said to the Blank. “We gotta make sure it’s secure before combat.”
The Blank nodded and began moving away with the trolley in what to him was a gentle jog. I’m in fairly good shape, but I had serious trouble keeping up the pace. He was already loading the node into the storage locker when I caught up. We were still strapping the node in when Commander Gator’s voice filled the room once more. “All hands, prepare for incoming ordnance.”
I instinctively grabbed the nearest rail to me so that I had a firm footing. My companion did not alter his posture. The ship began to vibrate with the impacts. “We are being attacked by at least two, now three, Sillarian Corvettes,” the Blank said.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“My hearing is far more attuned than yours,” he explained. “The impacts of Corvette rail guns are distinctive, and we are being hit from three different sources. We are now engaged in combat manoeuvres and are returning fire. You should get to safety.”
“As should you,” I agreed.
The lights in the storage room flickered. There was a jolt hard enough that I lost my footing. The Blank’s hand quickly helped me to my feet. I was starting to feel guilty about referring to him as “The Blank” in my head. Whatever he was, he had done nothing that I could pick any fault with and had been a great help. I could not have completed the job in time without him, and against three Corvettes we really did need all our weapons in full working order.
My wrist comm beeped. “Jackson!” Lieutenant Russel’s voice yelled. “Are you still at the storage locker?”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” I replied.
“Get your ass down to starboard distortion!” Russel yelled. “Those bastards ruptured the coolant and the whole thing needs venting! We’ve lost contact with the techs down there!”
“On my way, Ma’am,” I stammered out of the room as the ship shook around me again. I turned towards the Warrior who had left the room behind me. “Come with me,” I told him. “I may need your help again.”
“Yes, Sir,” he obeyed.
“And call me Jackson, not Sir,” I told him.
I ran as fast as my legs were able, stumbling into the wall several times. I wondered how fast my companion could have gotten to the chamber had he not been following me. I almost dived onto the manual release valve. “Get the other side!” I shouted. “Ready… now!”
The outer doors of the chamber that housed the starboard distortion engine parted, revealing the transparent inner blast doors. The air shimmered with heat, and the two techs in the room lay ablaze upon the steaming floor. The keyboards of the consoles had melted and based on the sparks that erupted from them so had the wiring inside them.
I shook my head. “I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna do this,” I said. I flipped open the access port on the wall and began furiously tapping commands to vent the room and shut the engine down. “We’ve got about five minutes to get this room vented or we are not going home tomorrow.”
“Who would miss you?” asked the Warrior, curiously.
“What?” I shot back.
“Do you have family waiting at home for you that would miss you?” he asked.
“I do,” I said. “My folks, a brother, his wife, two nieces. A few cousins.”
“I have none,” he said. His conversation had been so stiff until now that I was completely taken aback by his decision to ask about my personal life at what seemed like the most inappropriate time I could imagine. “At least, I have no one waiting who would miss me. My team-mates are the closest thing to family I will ever know. But you do, and you will return to them.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“I have enough knowledge of this drive system to know that you cannot accomplish this task from out here,” he explained. “Not with the current damage to the relays. It must be done from inside. We could, of course, decompress the chamber. However, the sudden decompression would damage the reactor further and cause a rupture that would obliterate half the ship if it is not shut down first.”
“The room is literally melting,” I protested. “Not to mention the radiation. I don’t think even a full hazmat suit would keep a human alive in there.”
“Not a human, no,” he said. “I could, however, possibly survive long enough to manually open the vents.”
“Get in hazmat,” I ordered.
“There is no time,” he said, in a resigned tone. “In less than two minutes, I will no longer be able to part the blast doors to enter. There is no other way. And you could not do this, even if I would allow it.”
“How old are you?”
“I have been alive for almost two years,” he said. “I was born for the purpose of protecting humanity in this war. I can think of no better end than to ensure that you, and all other crew members, can return to their families. My life may have been short, but it was not wasted.”
I was lost for words. What do you say to that?
“I do request one thing of you,” said the Warrior. He tore the dog tag from around his neck. “Please give this to my team mates.”
I felt my throat tighten. This was not what I expected from a biological machine. “I will do,” I said with moistened eyes.
What had we done? We had played God and put mother nature to shame with our own creations. They were everything we had dreamed they would be. And look at how we treated them. I could no longer see a heartless machine made of flesh. I saw a man. A better man than any I had met before, and yet, in some ways, he was little more than a boy. I took the dog tag and clutched his arm. “It has been an honour, my friend.”
For the first time, his face showed an expression. A smile as sorrowful as it was grateful, with sullen eyes that no longer appeared blank to me, but deeply human. It struck me that I was probably the first human to call him a friend.
He nodded, “thank you.” With that, he pushed me effortlessly away. I fell to the floor and slid several feet down the corridor. His fingers moved faster then my eyes could catch as he tapped at the keypad and bypassed the safety lock, before pulling the emergency release. I felt the waft of heat hit my face from twenty feet away. When the door slammed shut behind him, I ran back to the transparent door and stared.
The soles of his boots left steaming prints on the floor. His skin began to redden. The steam rose from his suit as his hair began to sizzle away. He reached the lever as blisters began to form across his skin.
His hand ignited as he placed it upon the lever. Still he pulled it with enough force that the metal bent before it gave into the pressure. The whirring light of the engines began to fade as he moved towards the next lever.
The fire spread quickly from his arm and soon he was engulfed in flame. My jaw hung open as he pulled the second lever. A set of blast doors opened into space. He, and everything else that wasn’t bolted down, was soon expelled into the vacuum.
I stood silent for what seemed like several minutes, unable to take in what I had just witnessed.
We survived the battle. The Kursk Salient, a much larger Leviathan class Destroyer, arrived shortly after and quickly dispatched the enemy.
I took the dog tag to his team mates before they were dropped off at the nearby planet. They seemed so surprised that a human would care enough to honour their fallen brother’s last wishes. It was such a simple gesture after what he had done.
Later, I told the story to Saddler in the mess hall. How he had so willing give his life for us. How wrong we had been for thinking of them the way we did. And how I was now convinced they were as human as we were.
He looked at me for a moment. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting him to say. “We’re all cut up about the two guys that we lost. But that thing, it was only a Blank,” he said. “It doesn’t have feelings. It just did what it was programmed to do.”
I shook my head in frustration.
A smirk covered Saddler’s face. “I guess that’s what you call firing blanks,” he laughed out loud at his own joke. The other techs at the table leaned back and laughed with him. Like monkeys relieving the tension when they escaped from the lion.
I leaned forward and slammed my fist into Saddler’s face.
I never used the word Blank again.