Sheets soaked: sweat ... hopefully. Kicked to the side and bundled around one leg. Jered ran a hand through his hair, pushing back the longish black tufts stuck to his forehead and cheeks. Eyes focus slowly, fixing on the wire springs of the bunk above him. For a moment his sleep-stained mind wondered how many thousands of years we had been producing these same, small twisted pieces of metal.
Wasn't there a better way?
Not worth the investment to improve, he mused.
Slides off the bunk. Cold feet on colder floor, metal. The raised treads were worn almost flush, shinier and smoother than the gritty spaces between them. How many bare feet, how much flesh had been ground away to smooth a quarter-inch of steel? Jered shook his head, clearing it. A good gamer needed focus, needed to mind "no mind" - questions like these could churn in the back of one's head, playing with your aim and your flexes for days. Worse, it could land you with a bad seal.
Eyes flit to the top bunk. Zairah Q wasn't up yet. The sexes of the names had stayed, but it didn't mean too much anymore. Not much mattered up here, the real was down there. Time to get to it, he could already feel the need to downlink itching at his fingers. Shower tomorrow.
The standard issue jumpsuit slipped on easy, a bit too big. He didn't bother spending REQ on fancier clothes - he had his eye on his own personal Downgate; Sebel said he'd seen a full 3 point increase on his downlink speeds since he bought his own. That and the ability to mod it for better recollection, smoother transitions and deeper embodiment - a shiver tickled down Jered's spine just thinking about the possibilities while he went through the motions of emptying his bladder in the shared bunkhab head.
"Stage two. ExoDrone Squads Seven through Nineteen, duty in ten. Stage two, duty in ten," spoke a disembodied slightly female voice from every metallic surface in the hab.
Shuffling and some groans echoed through the open door. The rest were stirring. He slid his finger up the front seam of his suit, the split healing back together under the pressure and warmth of his touch. Time to ex out. Jered nodded to Zairah as she slid past him in the doorway, he carefully avoided her eyes and she carefully watched her feet. It was never comfortable "meat-wise" ... no one wanted to be up here.
Jered made his way down the crash-hall on auto pilot, forcing his mind through the loops and mantras that helped him detach. It wasn't coming easy today, which worried him; the worry made it harder. Feedback loops, for and against - he had to spin them out.
The soft flexsteel of the hallways gave against his shoulder, a cushion with the tensile strength of ferrocrete. Coming off the down wasn't easy and the padded walls were a safety precaution - lots of them still couldn't walk right on the long twenty meter walk back to the bunkhab. His breath heavier, almost labored, he leaned against the door frame and glanced around.
"Stage two. ExoDrone Squads seven through nineteen, duty in seven minutes. Stage two, Downlink and Drop in seven."
Sebel was already resting on his Downgate, in pre-down virtual prep. Jered wished he had arrived sooner himself, the prep exercises were the best way to mind "no mind," but they also cost REQ. Probably a worthwhile investment, judging from how well Seb was doing.
Jered paced passed Seb's chrome and black-leather Downgate harness. The hammock style would feel almost like floating on air (though not truly like it, as with the a-grav chairs none of them had ever seen) - the less you were aware of your body before the downlink began, the better. Jered's assigned community Downgate was a few meters down the line. He sat down on the patched soft-cover seat.
A crack on the left side was peeling back up: he tried to position his leg so it wouldn't rub. As long as he could de-sense through the downlink process, he'd be fine. After that his mind would rest in his ExoDrone until a transfer or re-up was necessary. It was during those crucial seconds of downlink that the mind had to be free of thought and sensation to make the best seal to the drone.
"Stage two. ExoDrone Squads seven through nineteen, final duty call. Stage two, final duty call. Initiate Downlink procedure to mark, three minutes. Mark."
Jered noted the marked count-down floating on his retina like a living display above the world shining into his eyes. He closed them and it remained, a quiet reminder in the darkness. The Downgate began its prep cycle. The connections in the base of his skull and the bottom of his spine locked against the chair, the smooth metal cylinders spinning as they wove and healed together. The Downlink lobby took over his vision, the flesh orbs of his meat-wise body receding to memory.
Members of his crew, Squad Seven, sporadically winked onto the growing list. His chassis selection, a pre-set group of ExoDrones sub-tailored to his likings were listed off to the left. He glanced through each profile, ensuring their configurations met his expectations for today's down. Everything was in order. The team line-up completed, all squad-mates had signed in today. Their relative experience, abstracted as a sort of calculated number through the MilTac system, was displayed beside their name along with a few other public stats - confirmed kills, drone deaths, accuracy ... the kind of things that helped everyone know where they stood and how well their squad-mates were doing their jobs.
Vision to black. Jered made a last push to blank his mind. The mind that sleeps, the mind that does not stop. The moving mind moves over nothing. Mind no Mind. -DOWNLINK INITIATED- Meat-wise, he gasped, but his mind never knew ... he slipped through and in; all was black; a pin-prick of light; blinding white overwhelming: he was down.
ExoDrone Marine JX7-23 "Jax" shifted its eyes, taking in the surroundings. Ferrocrete walls, an over-look window. Smoke drifted through the air, it should have stung his eyes, but didn’t: this body didn't blink, it didn't need to. He flexed his arms: the body felt right, like it was his own - it was a good seal. The beginning euphoria of battle-high came on; his ego reveling anew at the incredible size and strength of this body. Hefting his Heavy Flamer, he looked over at Squad Commander "Zeq" ZQ7-55.
Her immense frame was wrapped in Execution Class Siege Armor, her face was the blank staring skull-mask of that line. Blue light tinged the chromed plates of her shoulders, a large two-handed Fusion Blade resting there precariously … casually. The neon-blue twists of mostly-contained plasma licked up the edges of the blade, swirling and dancing across its silvered surface. The Fusion Blade was powered directly from her body's Energy Core, and could cut through almost any substance - he’d seen her hew clean through an enemy exodrone and a meter of ferrocrete in the heat of battle.
Their gaze met for a moment. A booming crash echoed through the air as metal tore through the window, ripping the sky apart behind it.
The slug blasted through his right arm, passing through armor, flesh, augments and internal structure as easily as the air before them; it smoked quietly from its final resting place a decimeter into the wall behind him. There was no pain, only awareness: damage to upper right bicep, damage to upper right bicep the nerves were telling this body, he could hear them or turn them off at will.
"I guess it's going to be that kind of party," Jax said non-nonchalantly in the metallic, deep monotone voice of the ExoDrone's vocal register. A couple squaddies chuckled nearby. Embedded nano-tech, always cycling through his blood stream, was already stitching the wound back together.
"Get in line, Marine," Zeq replied, her voice like steel grating across rough-hewn granite.