Everything was different, and yet everything was the same.
Yegor couldn’t describe it any other way. He had never hot-dropped into a drone before. He was seeing his garage with a hundred times the clarity of his reclining troll body. That was surreal, too – looking across the garage and seeing himself stretched out in the shop chair, looking for all the world like he was sound asleep. He could hear sounds outside if he focused his sensors toward the garage’s closed doors. He could read the fine print on his Foursquare poster from the other side of the room.
Fucking wild. And he hadn’t even done more than turn this thing’s head yet.
Time to see what it could really do.
In an instant, the Doberman sprang to its feet and raced towards the closed garage doors. It stopped and pirouetted on a dime, and then raced back towards the stairs leading to the loft above the garage. In less than three seconds, it had sprinted up the stairs, raced across the upper walkway, and sprang over the railing back down to the shop floor below.
Holy shit. What a rush. He could see his meat body breathing more heavily, as his brain interpreted the exertions of the drone. He knew that would improve with practice, but for now, he figured he should take it a bit easier.
With a thought, the Mossberg shotgun on the back of the drone swiftly rotated three hundred and sixty degrees, spinning easily in a circle. With another, he locked onto targets throughout the garage – a gas can, a toolbox, the lift controls, the upstairs bedroom doorknob. Damn, this thing was blindingly quick while he was jacked into it. He could do all these things through AR as well, but it would probably take him three times as long.
He really wanted to open up with the shotgun, but he wasn’t about to shoot up his own shop. Besides, he could see all of the smartgun diagnostics along the left-hand side of his vision. It had recognized both clips properly, was showing an accurate ammo count, and he was able to toggle the safety on and off with a thought. He was a good mechanic and a good armorer – he was sure it was functional.
With a shudder, he disconnected from the drone and dropped back into his meat body. The relocation of his psyche was jarring, as he was now looking back from the chair at the drone. Whoa. He also abruptly realized that his body was firing on all cylinders. He had heard that hot-sim was literally addicting, and now he understood why. His heart was pounding, he felt the beginning of a sweat, and he had half a hard-on.
Time to take a break! he thought. <Aria! Fire up Red Girl #4, let’s say, eleven minutes in, if you please!>
<Of course, Yegor,> Aria responded with a twinkle in her eye, as one of Yegor’s favorite porn vids popped into an AR window, queued up to a sexy redheaded human woman starting a sensual striptease.
* * * * *
Yegor had saved the best for last. He turned to the largest crate in the garage and went to work at it with his crowbar, breaking the planks off far more easily than any human could have. In moments, the crate was apart and his last toy was revealed.
The Steel Lynx looked menacing, even in its dormant state. It didn’t really look much like a cat, although there was subtle styling of the articulated wheel-arms that gave it a slightly feline appearance. But anyone looking at it would be more inclined to call it a tank than a cat. Each of the four articulated arms ended in a heavy wheel. Matte black armor plating covered every inch of the drone, and a weapon mount peeked out of the top, surrounded by another ring of armor plating. You could make the case that the Doberman was a “personal use” drone, but there was no mistaking this drone’s purpose.
Without prompting, Aria appeared off to the right of his vision and spoke. <The Ares Steel Lynx. Colloquially known as the “big cat” among rigging enthusiasts. The Steel Lynx comes pre-installed with the Small Arms Targeting, Automatics Targeting, and Longarms Targeting software suites. As a quadripedal wheeled combat drone, the Lynx is also pre-installed with Defense and Ares 2072 Combat Pilot software. A standard weapons mount is integrated into the top of the Steel Lynx. This drone has a four star rating for assault, defense, and all-purpose tactical combat use according to the 2071 UCAS Marines Tactical Force and Recon Guidebook.>
Aria paused, and with a twinkle in her eye, added, <Of course, when you’re done with it, the UCAS Marines would rate it a lot higher than that.> With a wink, she disappeared.
Yegor blinked, and then blinked again. Was she listening in when I thought that about the Doberman? Can she even do that? I thought that she was just a VI? Ah, whatever. If she did, that’s kinda cool. Yegor rolled the drone out of the remains of the crate and opened up his toolbox. Time to get to work.
* * * * *
Yegor grunted, yanking hard on the ratchet. With a loud crack, the nut freed itself from the rusty bolt. Fucking Nomads, he thought to himself. God damn rust buckets. He cranked the ratchet a few dozen times, then slowed as it neared the end of the thread. That was the eighth and final bolt, and the junction between the engine block and the transmission was growing wider. Yegor braced an arm under the transmission, and held its hundred-plus-pound weight easily as the bolt popped off. He tossed the rusted bolt off to the side and slowly lowered that end of the transmission until it touched the ground.
The Gaz-Willies Nomad was an old line of truck, and this one was owned by a cantankerous old Irishman named Miles. Fortunately for Miles, his creds were good even if his truck was a piece of shit. Yegor had worked on it four times in the past four months. He needed to keep the creds coming in if he was going to keep spending them the way he was, and rusted-on nuts were part of the gig.
As he pawed through his junk drawer of bolts looking for replacement bolts, Aria’s voice crooned the news of the day. He had set his Browse filters to push stories with certain keywords to the front.
<The Evo Corporation announced today that one of their top research scientists, one William McCain, has made a major breakthrough in mapping the genome mutations caused by goblinization. He is confident that this will eventually lead to treatments that might lessen the pain of those undergoing the process of goblinization, and perhaps one day reverse the process entirely. The Evo Corporation went on to stress that this in no way should be viewed as an anti-orc nor anti-troll research program. At the press conference announcing the breakthrough, CEO John Stonecastle stated, “We only wish for this line of research to offer relief to our orc and troll brothers and sisters. For those that hope to return to their original human form, we may one day be able to offer that possibility. But we continue to encourage all humans and meta-humans to find comfort and confidence in their race.”>
An image of the scientist was displayed next to the scrolling text of the story. Yegor paused to take a look at the man as he picked out another bolt from the drawer. He remembered a time when he wanted nothing more than for the pain of goblinization to stop. It was a wonder that more orcs and trolls didn’t go mad from the process, both from the physical pain of the transition and from the mockery, derision, and beatings suffered from the many racists of the world.
Yegor sighed. His adolescence had felt like death by a thousand cuts. He was so grateful for his parents and his brother – if it hadn’t been for them, he was certain he wouldn’t be alive today. His father was a rock of stability, his mother was the most gentle soul he knew, and his brother had such a great sense of humor that he was the only person that could get Yegor to laugh through the pain. Even so, he would have killed to have had some sort of relief from that agony. And his brother had just gone through the same a few years ago.
Shaking his head, he sighed and plucked another bolt from the drawer that looked like it would fit. He blinked as he realized that Aria had stopped reciting the news. He looked over at her AR image. She was watching him.
As soon as he looked her way, she spoke. <Does this news trouble you, Yegor?>
Yegor blinked. He honestly didn’t know what to say, for more reasons than one. First of all, his “virtual personality assistant” was now observing his reactions to the news and asking him personal questions. Secondly, he honestly wasn’t sure how he felt about this sort of research. <Not really>, he answered uncertainly. He didn’t really know what else to say.
<Perhaps you might prefer some music while you work?> Aria asked.
She sounded concerned. She was either an amazingly well-written virtual personality, or… or what? An AI? He had no idea. Yegor looked at her image for a long moment. She waited patiently for his response, a benign expression on her beautiful holographic face.
<Yeah… yeah, good idea, let’s get some music going.>
Aria gave a dazzling smile and nodded. The heavy double bass drums of Thump, his favorite dwarven drum band, began to resonate through the garage. Yegor grinned and looked back down at the drawer. An AR overlay appeared, helpfully identifying four other bolts on top of the pile that would fit the Nomad. His smile widened as he plucked them out.
* * * * *
“These are shit. You gotta have better than this,” Yegor growled.
The dwarf made a fist, as though to punch the troll in the mouth, then grinned and relaxed it. Two-Tone was one of the more mellow dwarves that Yegor knew, and a pretty good forger. “Yeah, of course I do. Thought you were just looking for something to wave in a Star’s face if he’s giving you shit. You looking to go more hardcore?”
Yegor snorted. “I ain’t a dwarf, Tone. If I wave a license in a Star’s face, he’s gonna run it.”
The dwarf nodded at Yegor’s logic. “Yeah, suppose that’s true. You guys do have it a bit rougher than we do.” Yegor snorted again at the understatement. “Alright, how about these then?”
Two-Tone pulled another small binder out of his bag, opened it up, and handed it to Yegor for his perusal. Within were another array of forged licenses. He had obviously put a fair amount of effort into these. They wouldn’t hold up against a military-grade scanner, but if Yegor got stopped by some beat cops, they would pass.
“You can sync these to my SIN?” Yegor asked.
“You got a SIN?” Two-Tone asked, surprised. When he saw the droll grimace on the troll’s face, he said, “Oh, you mean the fake one you bought before. C’mon chummer, what the hell do you take me for? Of course. All part of the service.”
Yegor nodded. “I need eight.” He began plucking licenses from the binder.
“Eight!” Two-Tone looked surprised again. “That’s gonna run you over three grand, you know. Since when are you packing so much restricted shit?”
“Since none-of-your-fucking-business, jackplug.”
“All right, Crowbar, ice it down. One for the Moss, obviously, one more for the ammo, and I’m assuming one for those bad mother drones you’ve got crouched over there. What else?”
“Grenades, radio scanner, smartlink, grey apps, and vehicles.”
The dwarf whistled through his teeth. “Damn, brother. Decided to do some running, eh?”
Yegor supposed there was no point in denying it. “I’ve been giving it some thought, yeah. I’m not gonna fuck with it if I can’t do it right.”
“Good philosophy. Get sloppy and you’ll get dead quick.”
Yegor handed the small stack of chips back to Two-Tone. “These will work. Sync ‘em up.”
Two-Tone took the stack of chips and plugged the first of them into the sim port in the side of his skull. After a few seconds, he ejected it and inserted the next. It took barely more than a minute for him to sync each of the licenses to Yegor’s fake SIM. “You’re all set, chummer.” He handed a slip of paper with an account number scrawled on it to Yegor. “Thirty-two hundred,” he said.
<Send it over,> Yegor thought to Aria.
<Transferring funds now,> Aria replied.
* * * * *