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Short Fiction: A Dream of Blades

AeternisApr 7, 2022, 3:46:10 PM


Everything around Monika Prescott froze. Though she appreciated that this stopped the masked figure standing over her from plunging three feet of gleaming blade through her chest and into the ground, she’d long since learned to fear the sting of failure more than the pain of simulated wounds. No virtual laser, railgun, explosion, or blade hurt more than the very real disapproval of her instructor. 

“What am I supposed to do?” Monika gestured up at the frozen figure. “He’s faster than me.” 

“He is not faster than you.” Horus materialized just out of arm’s reach, sitting cross-legged on the floor. “You just aren’t using your implants correctly.” 

Monika rolled away from her frozen opponent and got to her feet, glaring at her tutor. Why the Project JUNO instructor appeared to his pupils in the dream-sims as a balding, pudgy little middle-aged man was far from clear. She'd always guessed his appearance was chosen by the project scientists purely to be as far from the standard mold of military instructor as possible. 

“You don’t believe me?” Horus smiled, arching one eyebrow. Monika hated his smug, high-pitched voice, but the dream-sims were his domain; she couldn’t be rid of him without leaving them, and she couldn’t leave the dream-sims until the med-techs were done rebuilding her shredded body to match her simulated capabilities. 

“It doesn’t matter if you gave him exactly the same settings you gave me.” Monika shook her fist at the simulated opponent. “He’s controlled by a computer. He’s always going to be faster.” 

“Hmm.” Horus’s dark eyes twinkled in that playful way that always spelled trouble. “Perhaps an adjustment is in order. I have reduced the reaction speed of your simulated augments by twenty percent to compensate. Begin again.” 

“Reduced? What-” 

Everything around Monika went dark. When the diffuse light returned, she was standing alone at the center of a circle of bare grey earth, and not even the footprints of her previous bout with the simulated enemy remained. A blade stood buried point-first in the dirt at her feet. 

“Are you kidding, Horus?” Monika snatched up her weapon and whirled in place, wondering where the masked figure would come from this time. “I’m just going to get stabbed. Again.” 

“And again, and again, until you learn what you are capable of.” Horus’s disembodied voice seemed to float down from the darkness above. “Play nice, now!” 

Snarling, Monika turned just in time to see the black-clad figure sidling along the edge of the circle of light. Not wanting to endure yet another simulated evisceration – she knew from firsthand experience that it wasn’t as painful as the real thing, but it still hurt quite a lot – she dropped into a low crouch. If she couldn’t be faster than her opponent, she knew she’d have to let him come to her. 

With a flash of light off gleaming, deadly-sharp blade, the figure leapt forward, crossing four meters of simulated dirt in a single standing jump. Monika rolled to one side as his blade hissed through the air where she had just been. Already, she felt sluggish; she avoided the cut by only a few centimeters, and when she swung her own blade at the figure’s knees, he effortlessly stepped back, blade whirling to bat hers away. 

“What in all hells-” Monika dove backwards to avoid a potentially beheading slice. She didn’t know what it would feel like to have her head cut off in the dream-sims, and didn’t want to. “What am I supposed to do?” 

Horus laughed, his high-pitched giggle setting Monika’s teeth on edge. “Stop fighting like a fencer and start fighting like a JUNO.” 

 “Helpful.”  Monika parried her assailant’s blade and pushed him back, but before she could follow up, he spun out of the way and stepped back. At least Horus hadn’t dialed down her strength along with her speed.

As the black-clad figure advanced again, Monika swung her blade in a high arc, aiming to slash his face with its tip. Though her arms reacted with what felt like ponderous slowness, the blade blurred in motion in front of her, still moving several times faster than a normal human could have swung it. Her opponent brought his blade up to deflect just in time. 

“Think of it like a game of chess. You have played this game, correct?” 

Monika cocked her head in confusion, then scrambled to avoid being cut to pieces as her opponent redoubled his assault. “What does-” 

“In a game of chess, the speed of each move does not matter. It matters only that the move made is the right one.” 

Monika leapt over her opponent’s head, her feet easily clearing the edge of his blade as he slashed up at her and landed behind him. At least, it should have been behind him. By the time her feet hit the dirt, he was several meters away, safely out of reach. 

“You do not understand the power being trusted to you, not yet. A JUNO is more than strength and speed. A JUNO plays chess when their opponents... well, they think they are fencing.” 

Monika glared at the masked figure opposing her, still not understanding what Horus was getting at. She knew from the pre-op briefings that the artificial capabilities she was being given went far further than strength and speed, but most of the rest hardly seemed relevant to swordplay. In any case, Horus had disabled simulation of most of them for the current exercise. Clearly, he wasn’t talking about the various clever technological tricks included in the JUNO package. 

This time, as the figure advanced once more, Monika parried cautiously, watching its behavior. Though absurdly fast and strong, the masked man was still being simulated as a physical being. It could only make one move at once; if it extended to the left, it was exposed on the right, and it took a fraction of a second to slow down the motion of its arm and weapon to change to another maneuver. If she had a second blade and the ability to split her attention between them seamlessly- 

As soon as the thought crossed her mind, Monika felt something coldly artificial rise from the depths of her mind. Though she didn’t command it, her right hand leapt to parry and thrust, her blade flashing through basic fencing techniques.  

“There. Do you see?” This time, Horus’s voice lacked its usual jovial tone. Hearing the grim fire that lay beneath it, Monika began to realize why he chose to appear so unthreatening to his students. 

Resisting the urge to quash the intrusion, Monika let the calved-off subprocess within her mind spar defensively with her assailant for a while before carefully directing it to bind his blade increasingly to her right, his left. Perhaps a real opponent might have noticed this, but she was after all only facing a computer. No doubt Horus had tougher challenges in store for her later. 

When the black-clad figure’s blade clashed with her own off to one side, Monika knew she had her opening. She brought her left hand up and drove it, fingertips first, into his midsection. For a normal human, such a poke in the stomach would have probably resulted only in her own broken fingers, but with JUNO strength and reinforced bones behind them, her fingertips stabbed into the simulated body and her hand vanished to the knuckles.  

“Stop.” Once again, everything froze around Monika, and once again, Horus appeared in the ring. This time, he was standing, and his smile, for some reason, was far less irritating. “Crude, but functional. What if you need to capture him alive?” 

Monika looked down at her hand, still buried in the frozen assailant’s body. She was briefly thankful that there were no simulated viscera for them to feel; in fact, it felt like pressing her fingers into wet clay. “I'm guessing he won’t feel the same about me?” 

Horus laughed, the same shrill giggle as always. “I wouldn’t count on it. Begin again.” 

- - - - - - -

This story never appeared in my short fiction series. It was written to a prompt by @Kirkpattiecake. It went over the word count requested, unfortunately, but I still liked how it came out.

Because of my focus on the "Sundiver" editing effort, I haven't written many stories in the Project JUNO thread (datasphere catalog posts here and here), but it is the premise for a future Angels' Reach novel. The first scene or two of that novel sit in a file somewhere, waiting for my next un-allocated writing sprint month.

The character here who we'll see a lot of in the novel is Horus, not Monika. Horus probably deserves his own Datasphere Catalog post; he's a former Incarnation agent who seems less to have seen the error of the Incarnation cause than to have decided to further his mysterious personal goals through switching sides. Nobody really trusts him, but there are things that nobody else in Project JUNO can do, and one of them is understand the project's implants; after all, they're reverse engineered from the "Immortal" upgrade system which he himself hosts.