By Christopher T. Shields


Mathews stood beside the heavy work bench, rubbed his eyes and stared at the data flowing across the bank of multiple CRTs in front of him.  He adjusted the resolution, used his finger to move windows around the GUI and reapplied one of the diagnostic probes to a different diagnostic port.  Sgt. Jacobi stood behind him, smoking a cigar, his recent wounds cleaned, treated and bandaged.  It had been Jacobi's job to take his recon team out into the field and find out what had happened to Smith's recon team and it had been Smith's job to take his recon team out into the field and find out what had happened to Andrew's recon team.  When both Smith and Andrews failed to report in after their regular patrols, Jacobi and his team had gone out packing some serious firepower and that was probably what had made the difference in the end.  Recon teams weren't equipped for the heavy stuff, they were more scoot than shoot, tag it and let the slow boys slag it, do some eyeball work and slip back into the shadows.  Jacobi had found what was left of both Smith's and Andrew's teams ... they had been eliminated, in short order by the look of things and even though both teams had put up a good fight, especially given the light armament that they carried, the end result had never been in question.

"Whatever that Machine is, it's worth about twenty-five people ... twenty-five good people." Jacobi stated more to himself than anyone else.

Mathews ignored him and stared at the Machine on the work bench. 

It was new.

Damn, it was new!

Nobody knew anything about it.  Nobody had seen an example of this kind of Machine before five hours ago when this particular Machine had risen from the ruins of Sector Two Zero One and ambushed Sgt. Jacobi and his heavily armed recon team.  The end result was a damaged and off-line Machine, a third of Jacobi's team KIA and the rest (including Jacobi) were wounded; two of Jacobi's team, Rogers and Santini, were wounded so severely that their prognosis wasn't good.  The medics had told him that much when reinforcements had arrived to clean up the ambush site, take care of Jacobi and his team and to, more importantly, get the new Machine back to Mathews and his teams as quickly as possible for reverse engineering and study.

"What are we looking at, Doc?" Jacobi asked, exhaling and leaning back against the wall.  He grimaced and touched the heavy bandage over his left shoulder.  The locals had been limited to start with and what the meds had applied were starting to wear off.  Yeah, it was about time for his body to pay the bill that had been postponed this long.

"Something ... new." Mathews said, adjusting some of the test leads that he had attached to several of the Machine's diagnostic test ports.

"Tell me what I don't know, Mathews." Jacobi said.

"Give me some time and I will." Mathews replied.  "I always do."

"Yeah, you always do." Jacobi said softly.  "I've got no gripe with that.  None at all."

There came the muted sound of Jacobi's comm unit and he tapped his ear piece to acknowledge.  A few seconds later, he hung his head and sighed, exhaling cigar smoke from his nose.

"Rogers just died on the operating table.  They say that Santini didn't even make it past triage.  I guess that makes that damn thing laying there worth twenty-seven good people."

Mathews switched feeds and dug deeper into the software that had been used to control the Machine.  This was a genuinely new design.  New control systems, new control hardware, new control software.

"You remember Rogers, don't you, Doc?  Kid with the freckles.  Smart kid.  Good eye in the field.  She had been with me better part of two years now..." Jacobi said, trailing off into what sounded to Mathews like light nasal congestion.

Mathews reached up to his own throat mike and keyed it for transmit.

"Douglas?  This is Mathews.  Get your wrecking crew down here on the double and bring your good stuff.  We've got something new ... it's lethal and its armored so you're going to have to pry it out of its shell before you start to find out what makes it tick.  I want this Machine disassembled, cataloged and loaded into the system and I want it ready for Robert's team in two hours.  We've got to get a jump on this before SKYNET starts cranking out more of these things."

Mathews didn't even wait on an acknowledgement because one of the data feeds from his diagnostic probes had just found something.  His diagnostic array beeped for attention and several sections of the configurable GUI morphed into new windows showing details of what his probes had discovered.

"I've got something." he told Jacobi who pushed himself away from the cold cinder block wall to stand behind Mathews, staring at the CRTs over the scientist's shoulder.

"What have you got?" Jacobi asked.

"Something you're not going to like.  Hell, Connor isn't going to like it."

"Connor doesn't like anything.  Ever.  You know, I've talked to Connor before ..." Jacobi said flatly.  "There isn't any news you can give him that the man doesn't already seem to know.  It's creepy sometimes, his face ... always dead pan.  It's like he's always one step ahead of us, almost at the same step that SKYNET is.  If I didn't know better, I'd say that ..."

" ... he knows what is going to happen even before it happens."

"Yeah.  Yeah!  But that's insane!  I mean, that's crazy!  Right?  That's just ... crazy ...."

Mathews shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.  He had noticed Connor's odd behavior before as well, on several occasions when it fell to Mathews to give a report on some new Machine to Connor, directly.  Jacobi stared at the display again, took his cigar out of his mouth and pointed a crooked, scarred finger at the display.

"Damn, Doc!  Is that the UIL tag embedded in the OpSys?"

Mathews nodded.  Mathews was ex-Tech Com and had done his time in the field, he'd worn the same kind of boots that Jacobi now wore and he had worn them for three years learning what he could as fast as he could.  Jacobi was on the track to Sci Com but it was a slower track than Mathews had taken ... still the man knew his stuff.  Sometimes Mathews wondered if Jacobi was intentionally taking the slow track to Sci Com ... if Jacobi didn't enjoy taking Machines apart on the battle field rather than on a work bench.

"Yeah, the UIL was embedded in the hardware abstraction layer of the software, I thought I could get to it faster than we could if we had to take this Machine apart and look for a production plate.  This software ... it's new as well, more streamlined and while it's still based off of the old System Seven series platform it's new enough that I'm having trouble reading it.  The HAL is still System Seven though ... odd."

"Give me what you've got, Doc." Jacobi said flatly, staring at the bank of monitors and then down at the inert Machine on the work bench.

"It's a new design of Machine ... no, it's a whole new class of Machine.  If I read this data tag right, this Machine is designated as an ... Infiltrator ... and I think your team bagged a prototype."