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There's only one way for a man with Maseo Kaytu's secrets to join the military: by volunteering for a suicide mission as a 'cry pilot'. He cheats the system to survive, but you can't fake basic training. Assigned to a squad of misfits, Kaytu learns how to fight, how to obey, and how to trust. Yet the more he bonds with his fellow recruits, the more he risks exposure of his criminal past.
Keeping his secret is about to become the least of his problems. Kaytu discovers that his platoon is being deployed against a new kind of rogue bio-weapon. One that has torn apart every military force it's ever faced . . . .
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When the recruiter calls, I'm delivering a package to a partyclub on the 117th floor. Urgent music pounds and holographic projections strafe the dancers. I slide through the crowd, complete the delivery-and my cuff chimes.
"This is Kaytu," I say.
"Welcome, Maseo Kaytu," an artificial voice says. "Your request for a recruitment interview has been"-there's a pause during which my heart stops-"granted."
"Thank you," I tell the recorded message. "Thank you, I'll-"
The connection crashes. It doesn't matter, though: the appointment information is already on my cuff. They expect me in thirty-five minutes. That's the first test. If you're not willing to drop everything, the corporate military doesn't want you.
As I slip toward the exit, my pulse thumps along with the music. A low note creeps up my spine, and then I'm in the bustling, bright corridor. Boutiques and cafés march toward the atrium with elevators servicing the highest floors of the tower. Chattering families browse the shops and rowdy kids play wall-hockey.
Late afternoon in a Freehold tower.
I grab redbean rolls at a warung and eat in the elevator. A projection on the wall shows the streets outside the tower: maintenance bots spark, adboards flicker, and mobile homes cling to the undersides of a tangle of highways. A crowd of kids chases a sweets caravan along a curving track, and a flock of new-generation sparrows dives through freight cables.
That's all behind me now.
The corporate military is in front of me, the recruiter and the future.
On the 186th floor, pillars of skarab drones palpate the air. I cross the foyer toward them and after a fraught pause they allow me into corpo territory, where the air is fresh and the music is stale. Like embassies in the days of nation-states, different rules apply on the corporate-owned floors of Freehold towers. Different laws.
That's why I'm here.
A massive space opens between the 186th and the 190th floors of the tower. Semitranslucent bubbles slide across rails and ramps and hang from cables like gondolas. Most carry passengers, barely visible in the luxurious interiors. The bubbles split in two when their routes diverge or merge into larger bubbles to form gathering spaces or conference rooms. Light glimmers on the sheen of rounded surfaces, colorful and delicate.
I enjoy the sight until my cuff hurries me along.
With three minutes to spare, I slip inside an empty office with a scented filtration fan. There's no furniture except for a round table with a lily on it. Maybe a lily. Maybe a rose or a decorative fungus. Heirloom plants aren't my strength.
I cuff messages to my boss and neighbors, saying good-bye. I send a longer one to Ionesca, my oldest friend, my first love. I tell her that my apartment is hers now; she's welcome to take whatever she wants and sell the rest.
One way or another, I'm not coming back.
My heart thumps in my chest. I massage my middle finger, feeling the lump of the bonespur implant. I inhale slowly but I don't flow myself calm. This isn't a moment for meditative detachment. This is a moment for coiled readiness.
The door bulges and a gawky young man trots into the room. His yellow-black hair is woven through with smartwire, which sways when he walks, giving the impression of a breeze.
"Welcome to Shiyogrid!" he says. "I'll be your recruiter today."
"Nice to meet you, san."
"My pleasure." Two sitting bubbles take shape from the wall, and the recruiter lounges on one and gestures invitingly to the other. "Would you please confirm your name?"
"Maseo Kaytu," I say, standing at ease instead of taking a seat.
The lens in his right eye gleams with data. "You were assigned the surname identifier 'K2SE' in a refugee camp after the fall of Vila Vela?"
"Yes, san," I say.
"And when you reached your majority, you took 'Kaytu' instead of your original name, your family name?"
"Yes, san," I say.
"May I ask why?"
"I wanted to leave the war behind, to start fresh. To start again."
"Mm. I suppose Vila Vela is not anything you'd want to hold on to."
He's right, but that doesn't mean Vila Vela isn't still holding on to me. I bow my head and say, "No, san."
"You spent a few years in a refugee camp," he says.
"Since that time, you've been making deliveries in the Coastal Vegas Freehold, doing odd jobs for which you are painfully overqualified."
He flashes me an apologetic smile. "I'm starting to worry about your linguistic prowess."
"I'm fluent in mainland English," I tell him. "I speak Creole and Bahasa, muddle through with Yoruba and Franco-Vietnamese."
"Refugee children." He touches his flowing hair. "You often come with a flair for languages."
"I've recruited a handful of refugees for various positions over the years." His lens gleams again. "Never into the military."
I expected this but still feel a prickle of frost on my neck. "No, san."
"The military does not recruit from a warzone, Mar Kaytu. Surely you know this."
"Then what are we doing here?" He cuts off my answer with a gesture. "Your equivalency scores are high despite your . . . You live in one of the lower levels?"
Freehold towers average about two hundred stories, with hundreds of suites and studios on every floor. A quarter million people live in the more densely packed towers, which rise in thick clusters around avenues of bridges and walkways and tram tracks. The top dozen floors are called the penthouse, the middle is the belt, and the bottom floors are the gutter, a roiling mass of music and culture, art and anarchy.
"Yes, san," I say. "I'm from the gutter. Making deliveries gives me time to train for the military. To prepare for this interview."
"You were raised in a warzone, and you wish to return?"
"I want to serve."
"Because I-" I take a breath and tell a half-truth. "I want to be part of something bigger than myself."
"You want to kill remorts," he says, with a hint of amusement.
"They need killing," I tell him.
Remorts are the reactivated-the reborn-bioweapons of a previous age. And yeah, the corporate forces need to put them down. So I cuff the recruiter my enlistment information: medical records, fitness qualifications, military intake test scores.
Years ago I'd taken a wrong turn onto a one-way street and now this-joining the Shiyogrid Armed Forces-is my only exit. I need to get out of the gutter and into the military before there's nothing left to save. I'd started training. I'd read every boot camp manual and watched every embed. I'd spent every spare scrip on a low-jacked combat sim that left me with a bloody nose and a migraine. I climbed the stairways of my tower for six hours a day, carrying packages in both directions. I'd even bought an antique Ambo swing-barreled assault rifle. Despite the introduction of cutting-edge Boaz rifles, Ambos remain the baseline military firearm, so I learned that weapon inside and out.
"Mm." The recruiter's lens shines with characters. "This is impressive."
My pulse pounds in my chest. I stay perfectly still, like I don't want to break the spell.
"While the military rarely enlists from Freeholds instead of corporate enclaves," he continues, "we make exceptions for people with exactly these qualifications."
"However, you're not simply from a Freehold. There's no getting around your past. A warzone and a refugee camp? No. Corporate policy is clear. I'm sorry, Mar Kaytu. There's no way you'll ever join the military."
I swallow. "There's one way, san."
"Volunteer for the CAV corps?" His yellow-black hair recoils in surprise. "Well, yes, but nobody survives the CAVs."
"Six percent survive," I tell him. "Then they're inducted into the service."
"They're given the choice." The recruiter looks at me with sympathy-or maybe pity. "That's a one-in-twenty chance of survival, Mar Kaytu."
"Unless you let me enlist."
"I can't, I'm sorry. There's no reason to move forward with your interview."
My throat tightens. "Please. I'm begging you."
"I can't," he repeats.
"I know what I look like, I know what my file looks like. But I'm not my file. Take a chance on me. That's all I need. One chance."
He stands to leave. "I'm sorry."
"So am I," I tell him, and break his nose with the heel of my hand.
Blood sprays. He cries out and raises his arms. I'm punching him again when a bubble explodes two inches from my face and hurls me into darkness.
I'm a criminal now. Well, I'm a criminal again, for the first time since Vila Vela.
Nothing is illegal in a Freehold, but there are laws on corporate property. And there are punishments for breaking them.
If you're convicted of a crime in a corporate enclave-or on a corporate floor, for that matter-they don't imprison you with other criminals to hone your craft. They sure as gehenna don't pay for your room and board.
No, corporate prisons don't limit your environment. They limit your awareness of your environment.
They lock you in blinders. You serve a sentence in Perceptual Alteration technology, which edits your reality by removing trigger stimuli, erasing entire classes of people, objects, and interactions. Lenses and earbugs delete images and sounds from your experience in real time. Certain objects and experiences disappear from your world: weapons, substances, technologies. Entire human demographics. Maybe you'll never see a beautiful face again. Maybe you'll never see your own face.
And every time you step over the line, the walls close in even more.
For the simple assault I committed, the mediators encourage me to accept a brief sentence in blinders. I refuse, because there's another choice if you're convicted of a crime.
You can volunteer for the CAVs.
Initially conceived of as uncrewed drones, Combatant Activated Vehicles were intended to serve as the first wave of assaults. To trigger mines, to soak smart-swarm damage. To swallow missile barrages like the sinkholes that swallowed Bavaria.
When the AIs developed CAVs, they enabled remote controls as requested. Yet they also required a human occupant for operation. Nobody understands why, not exactly.
The most common theory is that CAVs piggyback on the processing capacity of the human brain. Another is that the AIs wanted to force humans to grapple with the true cost of war. My favorite theory, though, is that AIs are fundamentally unknowable; we can't even understand the motivations of mushrooms, and we share two thirds of our DNA with them. The AIs don't have DNA-as far as I know-so we might as well try to plumb the inner life of a musical note.
All we know for certain is that CAVs don't function without passengers.
CAVs can absorb a tremendous amount of punishment and still recover. The passengers, though? Well, I heard an old-time phrase that describes what happens to them. Most legacy amphibians died centuries before I was born, but the terrafixing reanimated a few species, including frogs. And one phrase always stuck with me: a passenger in a CAV is like "a frog in a blender."
CAVs withdraw from combat after the occupant fails to respond. They're hosed clean of jellied flesh and splintered bone, then return to battle with new passengers, new sacrifices.
Because those people save the world.
Nothing beats a cataphract-class remort except a CAV, at least not without laying waste to huge swathes of the fragile ecosystem. The regular corporate military keeps less-formidable remorts in check, but without volunteers willing to die in CAVs, the cataphracts would overrun the cities.
So I have nothing but gratitude for volunteers; there's no higher calling if you've only got a few months to live. Hell, there's no higher calling if you're simply tired of living. Still, it's not an easy way to die. That's why we don't call the CAV volunteers passengers or activators or even martyrs.
We call them cry pilots.
The first two days after my arrest, nothing happens except processing. The initial scans miss my bonespur implant; a simple charge of nonconsensual contact doesn't require high-level scans. The third day I refuse blinders and insist on placement in the CAVs. The fourth day, I waive a legal hearing and repeat my request.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh days I spend establishing that I'm psychologically competent. I also develop a nervous tic of stroking the lower joints of my middle finger.
The eighth day, a remort attack delays my departure.
Remorts aren't simply regenerated bioweapons from a bygone war; they're regenerated autonomous bioweapons, self-directed by combat-optimized neural tissue and genetically engineered instincts.
And one is currently targeting a perimeter wall sixteen miles from the processing center. A gentle chime alerts the populace that the enclave is under threat, but everyone stays calm. There's no reason to panic unless a cataphract hits, in which case the alarm sounds like a strident whistle.
The army handles ordinary remorts with fierce professionalism and few casualties. No reason to interrupt your day worrying about them. Still, I always watch the battles. The army's first priority is defending cities against remort assaults, so if I survive the CAVs-when I survive the CAVs-that will be my life.
I trot into the lounge and follow the action on a projection. I'm hoping the attacking remorts are knuckletanks or moths, but no luck. Instead, a swarm of umires-a teeming mass of tiny assault drones-burns a swathe through the wilderness.
On the video, I watch troop transports swoop from the sky. A cloud of moskito drones swirls from their belly-vents, followed by battlesuited soldiers deploying on filaments and inside pulse-hardened rovers.
Sparks explode across the mile-long swathe of umires as the moskitos make contact. With rippling bulges and crests, the tiny drones combine into wavelike fighting units. Combat engineers throw defensive ramparts across the battlefield; infantry squads drop into position. Liquammo sizzles. Gunships fire surgical strikes-careful not to damage the terrafixing-and the umire waves crash and burn.
In eighty minutes, it's all over except the cleanup. Twelve casualties. The umire didn't even touch the outermost perimeter of the enclave, and I feel a spark of pride. Pride and eagerness. One day that will be me: strapped into a weapons harness, the only barrier between a killing remort and a human city. One day soon.
Except not the next day, because on the ninth day following the arrest, my scheduled departure is delayed to the tenth day.
Today is the tenth day, and in the dim glow of the transport bay, I catch flashes of the other CAV volunteers. Rows of heads extend into the darkness in front of me. The vibration of the transport shuttle makes a soothing hum.
I'm sitting between a middle-aged man with a pelt of black hair and a heavily narcotized woman. The man trembles nonstop. His hairy shoulder is a quivering animal.