A Wraith in the Machine

He woke with his head aching, his vision blurred, his ears ringing, and everything around him spinning. Somewhere in the distance -beyond the ringing- was the sound of gunfire, but he didn’t really care. He wasn’t about to join any battle.

Slowly he took a few deep breaths. His chest was sore, but nothing seemed seriously damaged. His entire body moaned in protest as he forced himself into a sitting position, leaning against the wall for support.

The world calmed down slowly, and little by little he started to take in his surroundings. It was a corridor. The dull gray walls were covered in black smudges and bullet holes, but most notably there was a large crater in the floor not to far from him. Right, he’d jumped on a grenade.

He was just a tech officer, he wasn’t supposed to get involved in combat.

The system rebooting and running self-diagnostics drew his attention to the state of his implants. Torso was critical -no surprise there- but otherwise everything was fully functional, despite the damage.

Slowly he pulled himself to his feet. Breathing was hard.

As he lumbered down the corridor, more sliding against the wall than walking, things began returning to him. It was all something of a haze, though, as if something was missing. Not memories themselves, just… details.

He was a tech officer for the Syndicate, but he couldn’t recall anything about their hierarchy. He’d been working at this facility, but had no idea on what project. He couldn’t even recall what room was behind the door he was leaning on right now.

A trio of Syndicate agents came around the corner, dodging around it to avoid incoming fire – literal fire, someone was blasting a flamethrower over there! Two of them took up position to try and hold the enemy back while the third came over to him.

Dressed in the standard greatcoat and beret -both in deep purple- and wearing a respirator mask covering mouth and nose, he had no way of telling them apart. All three were carrying assault rifles, though they didn’t seem quite as proficient with them as he remembered agents being in past. Maybe they were tech officers, too.

“Your uplink is offline.” It was a very simple statement, yet it answered so many of his questions. Like why the door hadn’t opened and why he was missing a bunch of details and why that satellite icon in his GUI kept flashing red. “The infirmary is secure. I will authorize a path for you.”

The door he was leaning on opened just slowly enough for him to keep from falling over. Beyond lay another gray corridor, this one even worse for wear. On the floor lay a handful of fallen people dressed in what appeared to be a mishmash of body armors and uniforms. At the far end a gaping hole above a forcibly opened door contained what looked like the debris of a destroyed turret.

A loud scream drew his attention as he entered the door, causing him to glance back just in time to see a large fireball erupting from beyond the corner. He hurried along, hearing the firefight resume behind him.

Breathing was easier now. The limited capabilities of the automated damage control system had taken nonessential systems offline in favour of rerouting power to core systems needed to survive. Unfortunately, that included shutting down the GUI, so he had no way to tell what was going on with his own body.

The sharp pain stabbing through his leg when he took a step forward informed him of two things. The first was that he still had one way of telling what was going on with his body. The second was that his implants were out of numbing agents, or possibly that the ADC had the dosage management system listed as non-essential.

Either way, he didn’t have much choice but to press onward. The medical team in the infirmary would be able to fix him up. Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.

He was in another empty corridor now, one untouched by the battle and lined on one side with long, narrow windows overlooking… what, exactly? The large room below was filled with row after row of electronics. Servers, most likely. The heart of the compound.

A small group of people in dark outfits were gathered at the base of a lone pillar rising in the middle of the room, towering above the sea of machines, with a couple of them posted as sentries and the others kneeling by various consoles.

“Greetings, agent.”

The synthetic voice caught him by surprise and he turned quickly to find the door he’d just passed slide open, a cold white light steadily shining from within. Entering the room he found himself in the infirmary, where the friendly face of the virtual command interface greeted him from a display.

“[ID unavailable] Have you been injured?”

He ignored it, instead looking around the room. It held very little; a couple of cabinets for storing supplies; a bed for examinations; a diagnostic scanner; some kind of surgical array; and the VCI console. It was very bare-bones.

“The medical officer is currently unavailable. Please be seated and-”

“What is going on?” He began rummaging through the cabinets, looking for something he knew how to use.

“This facility is in lockdown due to unauthorized personnel in the upper levels.”

“Is that why they are working in the server room?” He grabbed what field equipment he could and dumped it on the bed before starting to sort through it.

“[Query denied} This facility does not posses a server room.”

“The big room across the hall,” he grumbled, noting his loot consisted of medkits, stimpaks, and some kind of syringe with only a strange symbol on it along with the Syndicate logo.

“There is no personnel present in the uplink chamber.”

He froze. If the VCI was unable to detect the people he’d just seen, then either their operation was classified or they were not Syndicate operatives. In the latter case, they must’ve blinded the system to their presence somehow.

If they had the ability to do that without setting off alarms, then they likely had the ability to access the uplink itself as well. He didn’t recall much about protocols in case of infiltration or priority objectives for defending during attack, but he felt certain the uplink would rank quite high.

Undocking the console and limping back to the window, he held the VCI up to look at the people below. “Then what are they doing?”

“[Accessing uplink] … They are attempting to force an unauthorized upload.”

“Of what?” He moved back to the bed, dumping the console on what passed for a headrest and began examining one of the medkits to see if he could figure it out.

“[Data analysis initiated] Estimated time remaining: 1 day, 4 hours, 37 minutes and folding.”

He emptied the medkit out -throwing the console an annoyed glance- and began going through its contents. Bandages, suture strips- his vision blurred for a moment as the room started spinning.

He grabbed around for one of the stimpaks. At least those were straightforward – just stab the leg and wait. It wouldn’t solve his problem, but it should help him focus.

“Estimated time remaining: 43 minutes and folding.”

He ignored the VCI and stared at the stimpak in his hand. His head was throbbing. The last effects of the numbing agents must be wearing off. Using stuff like this had never sat well with him, but what choice did he have?

“[Data analysis completed] … The upload is a worm. Its payload consists of a collection of backdoors and data corruption software.”

He didn’t fully register what the VCI was talking about. The world wouldn’t stop spinning. “Stop them!” He fumbled with his sleeve, trying to get at some exposed skin for the stimpak.

“[Unable to comply] No countermeasures are available at this time.”

He stabbed the stimpak into his arm. Had the needles always been so big? The VCI’s comment finally registered. “What- That makes no… Why are there no countermeasures available?”

“The uplink has been placed on lockdown due to an unauthorized scan of the system originating from the infirmary. The system cannot be accessed at this time.”

He tossed aside the empty stimpak and slumped against the bed. Lockdown. Because he had ordered an analysis of the upload. No, more likely because he had initiated an analysis of something the system was unable to recognize.

“Open systems diagnostics. Technical access code…” He didn’t remember the code -he didn’t even remember his name- of course he didn’t remember the code. He grabbed the console and held it up to his face. “Biometric access. Initiate full reset of all systems.”

The world was starting to spin again, a lot worse -pain, too- than before. He dropped the console, feebly trying to grip the bed for support as he sank to his knees. Everything blurred. He felt the blanket fall over him and heard the clatter of medkits hitting the floor, but his eyes registered only blobs of colour.

“[Access denied] No biometric imprint matches. Attempting secondary identification.” The VCI’s voice was distant, barely audible beyond his confusion. Why hadn’t the stimpak worked?

The world faded to black, but whether it was from the lights turning off he didn’t know. He lay on the floor for ages, unable to move and nothing but black before his eyes. The only sound was the rhythmic beating of his heart.

The GUI for his implants flared to life. SatLink was still down – but if the base was rebooting, that could be why. A number of auxiliary implants were back online; the GUI obviously, the Ancillary Sense Processor, the-

A dazzling light flooded his eyes. Both the night vision mode and the infirmary’s lamps had kicked in at the same time. Blinking a few times, he managed to focus on the blanket piled on the floor in front of him.

Struggling to his feet, he gazed at the empty container lying on the bed. Predictably -Murphy!- he had grabbed the large syringe with unknown contents. The klaxons started blaring, drowning out his thoughts.

“[Alert! Alert!] Facility breach detected. Uplink chamber has been compromised.”

The console lit up as the VCI came back online. Instead of the friendly face of the system avatar the screen housed a sphere, one that would collapse into a ball of spines each time the alarm sounded.

“[System reset completed] Greetings, commander. Welcome to the Virtual Command Interface. What name do you use?”

He stared at the console for a few moments; he still didn’t know his name or rank or security tag or callsign. “Is my ID not in the database?”

“[Data unavailable] Your security tag does not match any active entry in the personnel database. Please state your callsign.”

“Check the visitor logs. And any agents that may have been rendered inactive during the battle.” It was entirely possible -even though it shouldn’t be- that his SatLink going offline had been misinterpreted by the system as him being killed.

“[Identification successful] Assignment: House Agent, Technology Corps. [Data corruption detected] Name: -garbled noise- Rank: Eternal. Callsign: [Data missing] Status: Deceased. [End of entry]”

He chortled, the pain in his chest reminding him of his injuries. ‘Eternal’ was a strange name for a rank, and not one he remembered ever having heard. Probably a result of the same corruption that garbled his name. On the other hand, it made sense to classify the dead as a specific rank in the event their identities were stolen.

“[Scan complete] [Identity verified] [Reassigning to active duty roster] Callsign: Wraith.”

He stared at the tablet in his hand for a few moments – had the VCI just taken action on its own? It had detected a living person attempting to use the ID of a dead agent, so it would be standard procedure for it to verify that it was not an infiltrator. Emergency protocols were in effect, too.

“[Reattempting system reboot] Greetings, commander. What name do you use?”

“Wraith, apparently.” He wondered whether it had been randomly assigned, or if it was intentional. It wouldn’t surprise him if someone programmed the database so that nicknames like that were always assigned when a deceased agent was ‘revived’.

“[Callsign acknowledged] New assignment: Base command. What name would you like to give me?”

“Arlia.” He didn’t really have any clue where he got the name from, but it felt right.

“[Confirmed] [Alert! Alert!] Facility is under attack. [Initiating protocol: Self-defense]” The screen switched to a schematic view of the facility, showing a number of dots in a variety of colors. The red ones were -predictably- intruders, the purple one had to be him, and the yellow ones were probably Syndicate agents and defensive turrets.

He didn’t have a clue how to effectively command base defense. He needed someone with training, and a functional SatLink to access Syndicate protocols. “Locate an agent from the command corps.” He plucked up the empty syringe and held it in front of the tablet. “And tell me what was in this syringe.”

“[Unable to comply] No such agent is present in the facility. [Accessing restricted data]” The VCI’s voice switched to a recording, the screen displaying an accompanying video.

“The W?-34 compound, commonly referred to as WhiteOut by test subjects, was originally created to speed up sensory acclimatization for pilots in the Doll program. The resulting hypersensitivity instead induced sensory overload, rendering the subject unable to distinguish between different sense data. Research has shifted toward creating an aerosolized version to replace flashbangs under certain circumstances. Standard immuno-enhancer implants have proven effective in suppressing the compound, preventing-”

“[Hermes Override Initiated]” the VCI’s synthetic voice interrupted the recording. “Uplink self-destruct imminent.” He didn’t have enough time to register what that implied before the room lit up behind him.

Even with the ASP speeding up his perception, he barely saw the flash of light before the shockwave hit. The explosion in the uplink chamber shattered the windows behind him, sending a rain of shards into the infirmary. Cowering under what remained of his coat, he could feel his back getting lacerated.

A heartbeat later it was over, yet it took him a few moments before he straightened up and looked behind him. Through the empty frames he could see fires in the uplink chamber, and bits of debris falling from its collapsing ceiling. “What the…?”

It was a poignant reminder that he needed to turn his full attention to the defense of the facility. “What is the situation?”

“[Compiling status reports]” The screen returned to the schematic overview of the base. The red and yellow dots in the area marked ‘Uplink Chamber’ were all gone, but plenty remained throughout the base. Particularly red ones. “Multiple enemy groups have been identified.”

A small window opened on the side of the schematic, displaying the view from a security camera. The window cut the feed to focus on a figure in a haphazard collection of body armors – mercs in scavenged gear.

A second window popped up below the first, this showing a group of people in matching black uniforms and light body armor. Two of them were attempting to pry open a heavy door, the other three were exchanging fire with someone -or something- off screen.

A third window opened, centered on a person in Syndicate garb and frozen on a frame of them aiming their assault rifle around a corner. “I thought you said these were enemy groups?”

“Affirmative.” Each of the windows were highlighted in turn.

“The last one shows Syndicate agents.”

“[Invalid identification]” The third window was highlighted and enlarged. “Targets do not possess valid security tags.”

Impostors? The database had contained corrupt and missing data for his entry. It was probable that the problem affected the entire personnel roster – the uplink worm had contained data corruption software.

He and the rest of the tech corps would likely spend a week scrubbing the system clean of fallout from the failed upload. “Mark them as allies as long as they are not taking hostile action against the Syndicate.”

“[Updating data] Group reclassified.” A number of the red dots turned light blue.

Looking over the map he noticed a handful of red dots moving toward the corridor outside the infirmary. Wounded and without weapons, he was practically defenseless – time to get out.

He grabbed the console and one of the medkits before rushing out into the corridor, then hurried right. He needed to get away before they turned the corner and spotted him. After that, he’d need to find somewhere safe to lay low until Syndicate reinforcements arrived – if they arrived.

They had to know the place was under attack, particularly with the Hermes Net having initiated the uplink’s self-destruct protocol. The question was where he could hide, it needed to be somewhere he’d still have access to the VCI.

He could make his way to one of the rooms filled with Syndicate agents, but what if the VCI was right and they really were impostors? It seemed implausible, but everything about this situation was improbable at best.

“I need a secure path to a safe location.” With his memories still hazy the base was as much a maze to him as it likely was for the intruders – except he had a map and a guide.

“[Insufficient data for meaningful answer} Please specify parameters for: [safe location].” He threw an annoyed glance at the screen before finally ducking around a corner into a corridor leading away from the uplink chamber.

It wasn’t a particularly long corridor -according to the map just enough to lead behind the far wall of the infirmary and adjacent rooms- but it got him out of sight from the red dots that were about to turn into the one he had just left.

“A location with minimal risk of discovery, full use of the VCI, and access to some kind of escape route in case of emergency.” He had not been having a good day, and as things were going he fully expected to end up found.

“[Performing analysis]”

He stared at the approaching red dots in silence. The door at the end of the corridor led to a stairwell in which both red and blue dots were present on floors above him, and the path down led straight to the group trying to break into the uplink chamber.

“{Analysis complete]” The map updated, adding a line guiding him to the stairwell and down. Rather than exiting to where the infiltrators were, the line led opposite direction – into a small closet.

He doubted it would be a very safe location, but couldn’t imagine it being less safe than standing out in the open. If he was lucky, no one would bother checking it.

He limped his way down the stairs, pausing to carefully examine the footage of the infiltrators. They had managed to pry open the door enough to see inside, but not enough to enter and so were still pinned down by the heavy turrets flanking the antechamber.

The red dots above him were moving into the corridor he had just left. Maybe they were planning on sneaking up on the agents above, caught as they were in a firefight with other mercs further up. It would’ve been a smart move if there hadn’t been lots of defenses here to protect access to the uplink chamber.

He could hear the turrets below stop firing, and noticed that the infiltrators took the opportunity to rush to the doors to try and make their way into the uplink chamber. At about the same time came the sound of someone attempting to force open the door behind him.

He climbed down the last few steps and slipped past the antechamber – just as the turrets began firing again. They probably saw him, but he was too far past for them to shoot him before he moved into cover.

The clinking of metal rebounding off tile drew his attention behind him as he waited for the door to open. A grenade. Of cour– The explosion burned the left side of his face and ruined his arm, but he was halfway through the door and mostly shielded from the blast.

He slumped against the wall, staring at the bulge in the door as it closed. So this was how he died. Ignobly trying to hide in a closet as battle raged outside. He closed his eyes and exhaled. He was in so much pain the ASP was throttling his body’s ability to communicate its suffering to his brain.

Ironically the WhiteOut thing had probably ended up a weird anesthetic. Not that he really knew any biology. Physiology? Medicine? Whatever subject was relevant, he didn’t know enough of it to know if that was really the reason why the pain felt… distant. It still hurt, more than anything. Even more than getting his implants.

The blast must have really shook him – or maybe just made what he assumed to be a concussion from earlier come back. He felt dizzy, like he was moving even though he was perfectly still.

“[Access granted]” He opened his eyes to see a room outside the suddenly open door. Not the stairwell he was expecting, it was a room full of advanced equipment. Something like a cross between a tech workshop and a biolab.

He pulled himself to his feet and stumbled into the room. One corner of the place had been trashed when part of the ceiling collapsed. His best guess put that space under the uplink chamber, so that made sense.

Suddenly memories came flooding into his mind. Flashes of people working here, but the perspective was all weird. Like he was looking at it through a wide-angle lens. Reflexively he glanced at the GUI – the red satellite had been replaced by the stylized radio waves of wifi.

This was the heart of the Doll project. He stumbled over to the nearest unbroken pod, peering inside. It was empty, save for the nutrient solution used to grow biological components for the dolls.

He stared at the bloody stump of his left arm. Like so many times today, he had been saved by his implants. He would have bled out long before the elevator -disguised as a storage room for spare uplink components- delivered him here had they not sealed the artery.

He placed the VCI console into an empty dock and watched the whole lab come to life. Most of the stuff here was automated and running off blueprints, or geneprints in the case of organic tissue.


“Yes, commander, how may I be of assistance?”

“Do you have enough data available to use this lab to treat my injuries?”

“[Analyzing databanks] Affirmative. Treatment is estimated to require 2 days and 17 hours.”

“Good. Prepare it for when I am no longer able to assist in base defense.”

The network down here was self-contained, so the VCI console was the only link between the facility’s network and the lab’s. Which meant that the only Academy he could access was limited to information relevant to the Doll project.

None of which included tactical procedure. It contained some basic combat modules, intended as part of the standard loadout for dolls designed for field or guard duty, but without an AI it was pointless to give a doll tactical data. Its heuristic VI would not be able to make effective use of it.

The VCI had placed the base schematic on one of the large displays in the room. From what he could tell the red dots were thinning a lot faster than the blue ones. Very few yellow dots still remained, however.

He stared at the screen for a while. It appeared the light blue dots were evacuating the building. The red dots looked to mostly be converging on yellow dots, engaging with the blues only when their paths crossed.

Four red dots were present in the uplink chamber, moving around in a haphazard manner – probably looking for survivors. They were down one dot from the last time he checked, though.

“Status report.”

“The facility has been lost, commander. Only the doll lab and foyer remain under allied control. Shall I initiate overload of all base systems?”

He looked at the console in confusion for a time, uncertain what to do. Protocol said to destroy all valuable components in the event of the base being compromised. At least, the protocols he could recall through the Academy did.

Except if he destroyed the lab, he would die. A quick but very painful death. He sat down on the edge of the biobed pod. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the technician in him was going over the base schematics in the Academy.

The doll lab was almost entirely self-contained, to safeguard it from espionage and sabotage. “Initiate base destruct for the main facility. Do not damage the doll lab and related equipment.”

“[Authorization required] Please state your command override.”

He didn’t have one. He wasn’t supposed to be a commanding officer, just a tech agent developing implants for the Doll project -this was all above his paygrade- but he was the only agent left and duty demanded he try something.

“Self-destruct authorized by Wraith, acting base commander, in accordance with standard operating procedures for loss of facility.”

“[Emergency protocols enacted] [Self-destruct initiated] Base overload imminent.”

It seemed almost ridiculous that the VCI had accepted his authorization – shouldn’t it be harder than that to destroy a facility like this?

He pulled off what remained of his uniform, dumping the bloody rags at his feet before climbing into the biobed.

“Place doll lab facility in lockdown. Initiate medical treatment program for subject Wraith. Initiate VCI autonomous mode.”

He took a deep breath and lay down into the sludge, closing his eyes and accessing the command prompt for his implants. Combining his knowledge of implants with the Academy’s library of related modules, he entered a command to place him in a comatose state for 70 hours – or until the VCI issued an alert.

The darkness that washed over him was different from before -deeper somehow- and this time, the pain disappeared along with everything else.