While the sun rose over the desert, Captain Wilkes spent the early hours reading the after-action reports from the latest skirmishes against the plague. The results were grim, and so far were only getting worse.
Around the rally point, the surviving soldiers guarded the perimeter with haunted looks in their eyes. Morale was plummeting, and the worst blow came last week when she detonated the nuclear bomb.
"There is no signal," the Admiral had said. "Maybe we lost her..."
"Not yet," she'd insisted. "We're not leaving her out there."
She had hand-picked the search party from the soldiers fending off the plague in the desert, removing most of the Admiral's veterans from the front lines to spearhead the search.
She now looked out from her bunker as the search party returned. The Ravens coasted through the sunrise and came to rest on the landing pads. A detail of tech crew drove their heavy lift equipment to the first Raven.
The veterans piled out from the second transport and formed a defensive perimeter around the landing pads. The tech crew moved a single large cryopod from the troop bay and set it on the ground.
Captain Wilkes left her bunker to inspect it. The spare cryopod gleamed in the sunrise. She touched the surface and found it unusually cold, and wondered how the occupant inside felt.
Captain Wilkes hadn't been chosen to supervise Unit 03's operation because she was overly sympathetic. On the contrary, she was truth and reconciliation to the core, and yet even she fought a twinge of emotion.
Their only salvation had to be bound, drugged into unconsciousness and be frozen within an armored casket. Wilkes couldn't help but feel appalled at the lengths humans went to ensure their own survival.
"Sergeant Major, report."
"Found her washed up on the shore," the man approached her from behind, took off his duty cap. "The restraints were damaged, but still strong enough to suppress her self-preservation measure."
"And the rest of the squad?"
The Sergeant Major handed her a single helmet fused with granite.
Twelve good soldiers for a thousand Acolyte deaths and access to an orbital defense platform. It could have been much worse, but it was a good start. She promised herself to add meaning to their sacrifice.
"Get your men some well-deserved rest. We've got work tomorrow."
The next day, Captain Wilkes strode into her temporary command post at sunrise. Two curved desks, each fit with a powerful computer terminal, sat on either side of a padded command seat.
Captain Wilkes picked her way past a tangle of cables and eased into the command seat. The cables linked to the rally point's power grid, microwave antennae, and powerful communication arrays. The Navigation and Weapons Officers she requested entered and settled into their consoles.
There was Lieutenant Hastings. Captain Wilkes thought he was a bit short for her personal tastes, his gait slightly arched after too much time spent in zero gravity, but he was the best senior navigation officer she ever served with.
Ein Roskva was already calibrating his monitors on the Senior Weapons Officer console. She had first served with him seven years ago during The Intifada rebellion. The man was quiet and professional, and Captain Wilkes appreciated that.
The bridge officers, and the powerful computer suite arrayed before her, were usually reserved for operating a starship through a space borne firefight. Today, however, these officers had to work a different weapon.
"Crew," she said. "Confirm you're ready."
"Aye," both officers replied.
Ten kilometers outside the rally point, a dozen soldiers stood guard around the cryopod. Three main battle tanks, each fit with heavy machine gun turrets, provided overlapping fields of fire around the activation site.
The cryopod hissed open. Mist spilled forth, and Unit 03 emerged from it crucified like an entombed messiah, each limb bound to the cross by one hundred loops of diamond wire.
She wasn't born of the plague. She wasn't a machine or a cyborg. She was a living being, as real as the flesh and blood of the men and women surrounding her. She was wrought by the humans who themselves were wrought by the powers that be. Her existence was the sum of humanity's aspiration to become a god, and their forbidden knowledge of creating life.
"Thaw complete," the navigation officer reported, responsible for the physiological aspects of Unit 03. "Brain oxygen saturation levels nominal. All major muscle groups are still waking from lockdown."
The weapons officer read the data on his screen. He was responsible for the joint armor and weapon restraints. "JAW-1221 internal temperature is negative fifty-seven Fahrenheit. Primary computer systems are coming online. I'm injecting the muscle stimulants now."
Captain Wilkes leaned forward. "Is the therapeutic subsystem active?"
"Not yet. That can't operate below negative fifty."
"Scale metabolism to two-point-eight against the normal," she told the navigation officer. "I want all injuries monitored until they've healed." A glance at the weapons officer, "how are the new restraints coming along?"
"Temperature is now negative forty-eight. All systems are active." He toggled to another display on his console. "Absolute perfusion of the stimulants will occur in three ...two ...one. Confirmed."
"Good. Release the system."
Captain Wilkes fixed her attention at the simple holographic bar ever present at her side. This bar was the single most important reading of all. It represented the percent value of Unit 03's total activation, and showed what fraction of the weapon platform's capabilities was currently in use.
Currently, the total activation was zero, but as Unit 03 awoke from cryo storage, the number rose to lock at thirty percent. This was a perfect output of functional capability that the JAW-1221 suit could completely restrain with a reasonable margin for error.
Next to that reading were a pair of lines arrayed side by side across a timeline chart. The blue line, marked CORE (ACTIVE), lingered a healthy hand's breadth above the red line, marked AUXILIARY (STANDBY). These were the two control systems available to use Unit 03 at any time.
The core was the conscious, thinking human mind. This was the young woman Captain Wilkes had to guide through missions. Below the conscious human was the self-preservation measure.
This artificially intelligent system was a separate collective "mind" formed by nanobots living throughout the body. Its purpose was to protect Unit 03 in case the conscious human became unable or unwilling to fight.
While Captain Wilkes could use the self-preservation measure to accomplish her goals, she still preferred the conscious human. Unlike the measure, the human inside could be bargained and reasoned with.
She spoke into the microphone. "Can you hear me? Are you okay?"
A flat voice, polite despite her weariness: "I have a headache."
Captain Wilkes wondered what to say. Unit 03 always had headaches. The physiological readings always showed that she was perfectly fine, and yet these headaches had persisted for seven years.
Could it be possible that there was "contamination" in her mind? Were there things, she wondered, about Unit 03 that their telemetry screens simply could not read?
"You've just been revived from cryo," she told her. "The stimulants are still working their way through your body. Let's give the headache a few minutes, see if it clears up."
"Admiral Ng'ambi wants to accelerate his plan to its second phase. He will fly with the Raven drop ships to the defense platform. There he will destroy the Locrix in space and call the home fleet to retake Earth."
"We'll hold out here to reclaim land and build an infrastructure. I've got four rovers driving in with some soldiers. The Sergeant Major will remove the wires before he leaves. You are going to the city of Agra and help restore Earth as a military stronghold in this system--"
"I don't want to hear them."
Captain Wilkes paused. She remembered that she was speaking to a human being, with a full range of emotions and fears. The last thing Wilkes wanted was to make Unit 03 feel like she was just a weapon.
"You don't want to hear who?"
"The voices," Unit 03 said. "I don't want to hear the voices."
Captain Wilkes considered the request. She couldn't outright shut down her ability to hear, but technically, Unit 03 didn't need her hearing to perceive the battlefield either.
"Alright. What kind of music do you like?"