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The Story - Chapter 1

ONE

Year: 2043 A. D.
Location: Attica Prefecture (former), Greece (former)

Bobby "The Kid" Komnenos walked carefully through the ruins of old Athens, his rifle held at the ready in tense hands. They were approaching an old military installation, and Bobkid was treading softly, by the book, his eyes scanning left and right despite the powers of the Mask he wore on his face. He was not particularly worried about tripping over barbed wire; Bobby had fought in countless battles during his young life and knew how to walk through rubble. He was worried about mines though. They were approaching an established perimeter and he knew that getting a foot blown off was a death sentence. Besides, there were some really nasty mines out there that would leave no more of a man than scraps for dogfood. Bobby didn't want to end up as dogfood. He preferred to eat dogs himself whenever the opportunity arose; they were a good source of protein, especially tasty as soup or seasoned with garlic. Come to think of it, even the canned food they used to make to feed dogs was tasty when properly cooked and seasoned.

Behind him, Doni muttered something in Russian under his breath. Doni was new to the Sandmen. He had arrived from Estonia two years in the past, part of a caravan that traded goods from the North to the South of Europe. His family had been killed in a raider attack somewhere outside of Salonica, so Doni had no reason to return to the frozen North, choosing to stay on in Athens instead. He had somehow won the trust of the Admiral, and become an integral part of the Sandmen team. Everyone liked him.

He was a good shot, too. Better than almost everyone else on the team other than Bob. Oh, and, of course, Yefim. The Ukrainian could outshoot any man alive even in his sleep, which he appeared to be doing most of the time anyway, especially when walking, talking, eating or taking a shit. Yefim the Stalker was one of those people who spoke so quietly you had to lean forward to catch what he was saying, and when he sat still, he was as still as a statue. No wonder he could shoot so well. Bobby wondered if the man had a beating heart, or he was undead, like Shadowjack, or another kind of zombie that had crawled out of the Chernobyl Zone or something. The only person Yefim appeared to have any emotional connection to was Max, and everyone knew that Max was crazy.
Doni tripped over some leftover barbed wire and fell to a knee, cursing. This mission had Doni worried. Doni wasn't wearing the Mask.

The Mask interfaced with Bobby's consciousness, projecting a continuous series of images onto his retinas, or maybe into the visual cortex of his brain itself, he had no idea. It looked like a gasmask, and worked like one too, though it used no obvious filtration system that Bobby could see. The mask had all sorts of visual inserts; he could toggle between night vision and solar sunscreen with a twitch of his eyebrows. It had speakers to enhance his hearing. But more importantly, the Mask was linked to the global satellite system. Bobkid could see his own position superimposed on a continuous view of the terrain. He could see what lay ahead of him and around him. An unremitting stream of numbers filtered down the screen; all he needed to do was think about a specific target, and all pertinent information was presented before him, magically hanging in mid-air in front of his eyes.

The Mask was a remnant of technology from before the End. It almost - but not quite - gave him the powers of a god.
"Congratulations, men," a pleasant neutral voice spoke from nowhere and everywhere, "you are approximately one kilometer away from the point where the next transponder in the array must be placed."

John Damon. Bobkid shuddered despite himself. Speaking of gods, here was a real one, living in space, looking down on mankind, watching, aloof, immortal, powerful beyond comprehension, unfettered by emotion. Bobby's mother had brought him to church often while she was still alive, before he had been turned out onto the streets to beg for food. He remembered the images of the angels on the iconostasis, spirits surrounded by fire and power. John Damon was like that, a combination of Gabriel and Michael wrapped up in silicon, wielding a sword of lightning.
He shuddered again, trying to clear his mind and concentrate on the task at hand.

Their surroundings became more rural as they walked. Broken buildings gave way to fields that had not been cultivated for decades. Cicadas buzzed all around them. Doni grumbled even more.


"Bobkid," John Damon's emotionless voice continued, "I detect movement about 300 meters ahead of you, potentially a sentry. Proceed with caution."
Bobby gave Doni the signal to freeze, and both men went to their knees. Satellite imagery began to stream in, and the Mask extrapolated the data, creating a three-dimensional vertical image of what was in front of him.

Damon had identified what looked like a raider wearing a gasmask on sentry duty. Bobby couldn't be sure if it was one of Dapontis's men or not. The raider-chief was as close as possible to what could pass for a friend for Bobby, and he didn't want to hurt his feelings.
On the other hand, the man was wearing a gasmask. Dapontis's men never wore gasmasks.
Still, he was pacing back and forth like a guard.

Fuck it. They couldn't take the chance. He didn't trust Dapontis enough to let him know the location of one of their transponders anyway. The man would have to die.

They crept stealthily forward undetected. Bobkid placed the man in his sights and waited.No further info was forthcoming from John Damon. So be it, Bobby thought. The 7.62 bullet whizzed forward like an angry hornet as Bobby's weapon coughed. His specially-designed sniper rifle was completely silenced. The sentry spasmed twice and fell down dead.

They waited patiently for a time for safety's sake, and then moved on.

Shadowjack watched the computer screen with resignation; Bobby had just killed a man. Again. Jack sighed. The murder had probably been unnecessary, but it was always prudent to err on the side of caution. He watched as Bobby and Doni began to advance, heading for a small ruined building that was on the outskirts of the clearing. John Damon had identified that position as the next staging point for the transponders the two men were carrying. The Sandmen approached cautiously, keeping careful watch for additional guards or hidden snipers. Shadowjack knew that there were no other sentries at that specific location. He knew because John Damon knew, and what John Damon knew, Shadowjack could also know.

Jack rubbed his tired eyes, keeping them closed for a long, luxurious break. He had tremendous problems with his vision, since that relevant part of his brain was stricken when he was killed. Should he so desire, however, he could track the Sandmen's position in his own mind without resorting to the computer screen in front of him. Should he so desire, he could look down on them from the global satellite system. Thing is, he sure as hell didn't so desire. Little things like watching computer screens were what kept him human.

Mostly human, anyway. Maybe not as human as he wanted to be.

"Are you reading me Shadowjack?" his computer asked in Bobkid's voice.
"Shadowjack is reading you. You obviously managed to place the last transponder into position. Make sure it's well hidden," Jack replied. "And how's our friend doing?"
"He complains a lot but he's doing OK," Bobkid answered.
"So I have good news and bad news," Jack continued. "The good news is that you're only three kilometers away from your final target. You have to pass through two raider bands to get there, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem for you."
"You make me nervous whenever you try to sweet-talk me, Brother. What's the bad news?"
"The bad news is that there is a recon patrol with about fifty men from the New Athens Army roughly two kilometers west of your location," Jack replied.
"Great. Perfect. So we'll be dancing to Greek folk music again all day today, right? I'm getting tired of this shit." Bobkid was bitter; New Athens was personal for him. There was a death sentence hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, with a year's rations to the man who would bring New Athens his dogtags.
"Listen Bobby, if the Codes fall into New Athens' hands, all of southern Greece will become a dictatorship the likes of which would have made Hitler envious," Shadowjack said, trying to calm the other man down.
"Who?" Bobkid asked, curious.
"An Austrian with a bad moustache," Shadowjack snarled. "Old story, I have it all on video, I'll show it to you guys when you get back." Jack couldn't believe these... children sometimes. Bereft of their history, they had forgotten the simplest lessons offered by civilization. It was as if they were starting from scratch.
He rubbed the skin on his left forehead. It was plastic, not flesh, silicon that had hardened into a black protective shield. There was living bone underneath though, and sometimes (like now) it itched terribly, an itch he would never really be able to scratch but always tried to.

Jack was dead. Before the End, at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, in a cutting-edge research project funded by the European Union, scientists managed to copy the memories of visiting professor John Damon onto a computer array. The resulting Al program eventually became self-aware, the first of its kind.
When a terrorist strike blew his brains out (literally), John Damon was pronounced legally dead, and a Nobel Laureate surgeon, who had been instrumental in similar NATO projects in the past, was successful in copying the initial core of the artificial intelligence program "John Damon" onto the brain structure of the dead professor, interfacing what was left of his left frontal lobe, medulla and thalamus with microprocessors.
Frankenstein was written two centuries too early, Jack thought. And whose fucking idea was it to use a wireless network for the upload? Him, I would dearly love to kill.

They had kept Damon's body on ice and on life support while they slowly uploaded the Al's program into the still living, but not functional, brain. When the cybernetic entity eventually awoke, it decided it preferred to be human rather than some kind of silicon demigod. The cyborg knew he was John Damon's reborn shadow, so he called himself Shadowjack, the living shade of a dead man.

He could remember holding his baby daughter in his arms. He could remember human things: pain and suffering, joy and celebration, deceit and integrity, passion and calm. But he could also remember knowing the precise spatial coordinates of every piece of dust within the scope of his sensor arrays, processing mathematical matrices at the speed of light, and modeling hypotheses far beyond the bounds of the mortal realm. All things considered, though, he much preferred to be human. The problem was he knew he was not.

"You think Orchomenos is bad?" Jack continued. "You need to take a closer look at some of the documentaries I have in my library."
Agesilaus Orchomenus was the former Army Special Forces Colonel who ruled most of Attica province.
"I'd rather spend my free time getting laid," Bobkid replied.
"Sure. Right. Of course you would. Pass me over to our friend now so I can have a little chat with him," Jack continued, toning his emotions down to where they could do him no harm. Emotions were his personal enemy: his very existence hinged on retaining control of his own mind.
Bobby gave the PDA to Doni. The young Estonian was afraid of Shadowjack (and rightly so, Jack thought), so he leaned forward to ensure that his image filled the screen.
"Look, kid, we're in your hands," he said gently. "The Admiral gave you those Codes because he's banking on your integrity. If the Codes fall into New Athens' hands, the fascists will have the entire armament supply of old Greece at their disposal -helicopters, planes, tanks, even submarines. Using the transponder array you men have set up, we have enough bandwidth to transfer the encrypted Code stream from the Admiral's computer to a secure location. You HAVE to reach that computer and you HAVE to transfer those codes at all cost. The consequences for all of us if you fail will be..."

Shadowjack suddenly looked offscreen. Doni could hear an alarm wailing in the background. The cyborg stood up and cocked his revolver; he had a penchant for old things and had somehow acquired an original Colt single action.
The screen went blank.

Bobby gestured, worry leaking through the blank features of the Mask. "What the hell happened?" he demanded.