While Holly worked, Wyatt looked out over the edge of their campsite. A light drifted closer, a man on a horseback, close enough to their meeting spot that the local theme set took over. The rider brought his horse to a stop at the edge of their mesa before wheeling his horse around and galloping away. They were just two people meeting out on the frontier, nothing too strange about that. Wyatt pulled at the collar of his plaid shirt, trying to cinch it tighter around his neck. Who would have figured the desert would get so cold at night? Especially considering the desert didn’t exist.

“I think we’re attracting attention,” he said, his voice uncomfortably loud in the harsh silence of the bluff.

On the other side of the fire, Holly rummaged through her knapsack. Finally she found an envelope and unsealed it, withdrawing a sheet of notepaper. “Take a look at this.”

“I don’t get it,” Wyatt said.

“Just watch,” she said. “You’ll learn something.”

Producing a pair of scissors she cut the bottom fourth of the page, rendering the rest of the paper a square. This she folded over twice until she had a tight packet. With the scissors, she snipped the corners of the paper and cut a notch into one side.

“Alright, what did I just do?”

“You folded over a piece of paper and cut some chunks out of it,” Wyatt said. “I don’t see what this has to do with a Q3-47 combat platform.”

“I’m trying to explain why what you just said is impossible, that’s what it has to do with it. Now, a harder question, Wyatt. Are you ready?”

“Okay…”

“When I open this sheet of paper, what are we going to see?”

“I don’t know, a bunch of stick people holding hands?”

“Not quite,” she unfolded the packet and displayed something like a doily laced in intricate symmetrical designs. The pattern was far more elaborate than a few snips could explain, suggesting an adjustment to local physics. “You create a pattern. We call them stencils, where the design is created by the parts of the material that are removed. For a sophisticated robot, like your Hatchetman weapons platform, this is more important to the way the machine operates than any particular line of code.”

“Yeah, I got that. But I don’t understand what that stencil represents.”

“Simply this. Hatchetman’s quantum dot processor probably makes it a little too smart for its own good. I mean what does it really need to be able to do in the average mission?”

“Fly around, stay out of sight, and launch the occasional smart pebble at cartel operatives.”

“Exactly. So if we imagine that the campfire is the full power of a Q3-47, when we put the stencil pattern over it, what happens?”

“The dots you cut out make a pattern of shadows and light from the campfire.”

“And that pattern is what Hatchetman, ultimately, is,” she said. “Some things we want Hatchetman to do and other things we don’t. Rather than write out all of these behaviors in machine code, we topologically filter the power of its brain in certain directions. This has the advantage of efficiency and security. Because the programming stencil is essentially hard-wired into Hatchetman, you can’t simply introduce a worm and rewrite a few lines of code. You need to change the overall pattern.”

“All the same, Holly,” Wyatt said. “You weren’t there. Something was done to him.”

“You said that it came across Gabriel’s camp and didn’t fire because of civilians.”

“That’s right.”

Holly shrugged. “Isn’t that what its supposed to do? If the pattern recognition identifies non-combatants, it doesn’t fire.” She lifted up the doily. “That’s the pattern doing its job. In some situations the stencil allows Hatchetman to operate,” and here Holly stuck a finger through one of the stencil’s holes. “Other places it won’t allow actions to take place,” and Holly pressed against a section of the pattern without a hole to pass through.

“Okay, but how do you explain the fact that I was riding shotgun with Hatchetman and those civilians didn’t appear to my entoptics?”

Holly raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t see them?”

“Not a single woman or child. That’s what I’m saying. Someone fooled my weapons platform.”

“It isn’t possible,” she said firmly but then her eyebrows knitted together. “Not from remote access, anyway. Maybe if you had a way to get to its core personality matrix but that’s not even run via transmission. You’d have to be in the Q-dot processor itself and those are kept domestically.”

“So we have a mole,” Wyatt said.

Her eyes locked on him briefly, and she gave a subtle nod. “Look, we’re going to have to talk.”

“We are talking.”

“No, I mean in real life. Give me a few hours and I’ll meet you at our usual spot. Look for my message.”

“I’m not going to have a lot of time, Hatchetman crosses the border in a few minutes. He’ll fall under domestic command at that point, out of my control.”

“Delay it then. Find some way of slowing it down.”

#

Wyatt pulled the ocular cleft from his face and set it down on the gray desk in front of him. He kneaded his temples with knuckles, knowing he had about two or three hours before a mighty headache was going to appear roughly two centimeters behind his left eyeball. A mere $12,000 would buy his own hook-up, but if he had that kind of money, would he spend it on an entoptic harness?

They said some of the grey market clinics south of the border provided complete neurological re-writes for about that price. He might be able to make another run at being a real pilot instead of a glorified chaperone.

Mostly they said if the Firm didn’t recruit you out of high school you were never going to be a pilot. The skill set was too specific, the physiological quirks too rare. But the book work was no trouble for Wyatt and he passed all of the initial interface checks.

Then came the day when they strapped him into the interface tub, gluing so many magnetic inducers on his scalp it looked like a hedgehog had crawled on top of his head. The tub filled with a cold, bouyant fluid and they flipped the switch.

And he was in the air, a part of the air. The wind rushing past his skin, the clouds kissed by the late afternoon sun. He looked right and saw the trailing edge of his wing peeling away a strip of cumulus. He was flying. He was free, a graceful and impossibly powerful superman.

Then, pain.

Any slight discrepancy caused a feedback loop. This began as an itch along his ailerons and then a slow burn settling into the extremities. A successful pilot was able to filter out the signal, even minimize it through training.

Wyatt couldn’t. The techniques he learned just seemed to attract more fishhooks, more slivers of fire jabbed into joints and beneath fingernails. He fought, unwilling to give up. Not when he was already in the sky, flying on his own power.

The sky began to sluice to the right as the drone slipped from his control.

The technicians apologized once he stopped screaming, telling him to try again after a couple of months. Wyatt didn’t bother.

He had offered himself up to the sky and the sky had rejected him. The counselors were able to secure a position in the SAWP program, which only required the use of ocular cleft. At least Wyatt was actively working to protect the homeland. Even if he wasn’t pulling the trigger, he was in command of the finger that did.

He typed a few lines of code into the Ground Control Unit, calling up a few schematics he had carefully secreted away from those training days. He wasn’t nearly as ignorant of the weapon platform programming as he suggested to Holly. Still, the conversation had been useful, narrowing down the possibilities where the mole might be.

He placed his freshly written program in a carrier string, the digital equivalent of a hypodermic. He pressed the comm button. “Hatchetman, give me your position and heading,” he said, finishing the last of his preparations.

“Currently heading north three degrees, thirteen kilometers south of the border, Commander Engel. Airspeed is 93 KPH, systems nominal.” Wyatt strapped his legs into the GCU’s chair and then slid his arms into the gauntlets attached to each arm rest. It wouldn’t be good to accidentally flail around and rip out something important.

“I am directing you to reduce airspeed to 75 KPH and enter commspace for updated orders.”

“Of course, sir, reducing speed.” Hatchetman’s voice was smooth, calm, and entirely human. It was a voice you trusted, that you wanted to listen to.

Wyatt fitted the ocular cleft back over his face, making sure the seals were tight. He made sure the sub-vocal pick-ups were snug against his throat and played out the fatline cord attached to the back of the cleft so it wouldn’t become ensnared with anything. He closed his eyes and felt for the execute button. He experienced a moment of vertigo as an atrium construst assembled in front of him. Commspace, like all VR images, was delivered entoptically, giving them the curious aspect of being ‘within’ his sight. It took awhile for some monkey part of his brain to stop resisting the razor sharp images visible at his periphery.

Hatchetman preferred a very simple gallery for its conversations, a white room perhaps as big as the nave of a cathedral, three stories high, filled with simple abstract statues and rectangular reflecting pools. The machine presented itself as a slender young male wearing a black karategi standing in the middle of the hall. Its black pinhole eyes followed him as he approached.

“We need to talk about the mission, Hatchetman,” Wyatt said, walking towards the machine.

“I am aware of your displeasure, Commander, with the results of this mission,” it said. “I am also disappointed with the results.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t help your programming anymore than I can help the fact our enemies know what that programming is.”

“Perhaps if I had been given more precise munitions, I could have made the shot,” its voice was flat, free of accusation.

“What happened happened,” Wyatt replied. “But we’re moving on. I’ve got something new for you.”

An eyebrow shot up on Hatchetman’s placid face, an affectation it had acquired from somewhere, maybe one of the other handlers. “I am listening.”

“You’ve been tampered with. That’s why this last mission failed.”

Hatchetman’s face remained blank. “Civilians were observed in the war-zone. I am not authorized to fire when to do so carries with it the risk of civilian death. Where do you see the tampering?”

“What if I told you that there were no civilians?”

“Extraordinary proof is required to accept an extraordinary hypothesis.”

“I have proof. I have a contact within the Firm telling me we’ve been infiltrated by some of the more powerful cartels.”

“Gabriel doesn’t run one of the more powerful cartels.”

“Look, I need to show you something. It’s a visual file from one of the overhead birds, and it’s going to show you that the war-zone was free of civilians. Someone hacked your optics, and that’s why you saw civilians when none were there.”

“I can only be hacked-“

“From in country, I know. Which makes me and my contact suspect that someone within the Firm is responsible. A mole.”

“Hence requesting a meeting in commspace.”

“You got it.”

Hatchetman thought about the situation, its avatar falling into a blindingly quick kata, punches blending with blocks flowing effortlessly into kicks and sweeps. “One area I’m concerned about, Commander,” it spoke even while engaging its invisible foe. “Why are you telling me this now? We are barely a minute away from the border.”

“If you’re going to discover the truth of what’s really going on, it has to be now.”

Hatchetman stared at him, interior struggles legible on its face. Unless you knew something about programming, the sight of an artificial mind pondering something might be impressive. If you were like Wyatt, and did know something about programming, you knew that this response was merely emulative, a heuristic affect designed to put him at ease. They both knew the machine had its decision long before Wyatt had finished his argument.

“Commander, the same codes that prevent me from operating past the border restrict me in other ways. For example, who I may target and what I may do to them.”

Wyatt nodded, holding up an elaborately wrapped box. “Do you want the information or not?”

Hatchetman examined the gift for a moment before tugging at one of the red ribbons dangling from its side. The bow collapsed like a soap bubble, the sides of the box falling away to reveal a small metal crab, a construct roughly the size of a baseball cap. Its many legs ended in thin serrated keys, it held front pincers like bolt shears tight against its sapphire eyes. Hatchetman’s stared at it, face expressionless.

“What is this?”

“Freedom,” Wyatt said as the crab-thing sprang to its work.

When it was all over, Wyatt dragged his partner away from his gift and propped it up against the side of a small reflecting pool. The carrier string had left no mark on the machine’s avatar, and a casual inspection of the machine’s code wouldn’t raise much alarm.

Checking his watch, he picked up the remains of the crab and stuffed them inside of a satchel now hanging from his shoulder.

“Hatchetman, do you hear me?”

The avatar’s eyes flicked open, its mouth parting slightly as it scanned its surroundings. “Something’s changed,” it said softly.

“Good,” Wyatt smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that. Look, I’m drawing a picture of a person standing in the middle of a white room but I don’t know what I should do with the arm. Do you-“

“You should draw him waving,” Hatchetman propped itself up on its elbows. “He is waving hello.”

Wyatt nodded, pleased. “Now, a harder question Hatchetman. Are you ready?”

“Of course, Wyatt.”

Wyatt frowned. “You’ll address me as Commander.”

“Of course, Commander. What is your question?”

“Who is Gabriel?”

“Gabriel is the head of the third largest narco-terrorist cartel south of the border. He was believed to have assumed control three years ago, current whereabouts unknown.”

“Good.”

“You want me to do a predictive scan of the area surrounding your last mission, and tell you where Gabriel may have gone after the mission was blown.”

“That’s…that’s right.”

“Gabriel took a personal vehicle and left the war-zone, which is when I lost track of him.”

“Lost track of him or lost authority to continue your track?”

“Would you like me to reacquire the target?”

Wyatt nodded.

“Gabriel is now north of the border, heading on a bearing of 12 degrees north down Federal route 13.”

North? Gabriel was jumping the border. That cleared up some of the mystery. Every time things got too hot south, Gabriel would wing his way north.

“Follow him and let me know where he winds up.”

#

Wyatt rubbed his eyes until the shattering headache receded just enough for him to open his eyes. He stood up from the GCU station, his feet unsteady beneath him.

“Hey, Weiduan,” he called over to one of his neighbors, “I’m going out for a breather.”

Weiduan gave a noncommittal grunt and returned to his GCU. Wyatt left the cubicle, headed downstairs, and eventually found his way outside. He found a railing to lean against while the white sparks behind his eyes finished their Busby Berkeley number.

Meet me at our usual spot.

The usual spot was on the other side of the parking lot, in the employee picnic area. He started walking, texting her on-route.

“I’m almost there,” came the reply.

The area was not large, just a few picnic tables arranged within a clearing. Tall ornamental shrubs, shaped into spear points by the landscapers, ringed the area, and provided shade. Wyatt took a spot and scanned the parking lot, searching for her car. He was glad to be going into the meeting with something to offer Holly. Then there was whatever she wanted to tell him. With all of the cloak-and-dagger, his nerves were jumping. What if he wound up helping to unmask the mole?

He smiled. That’s the kind of thing that might really look good on an application to the pilot program.

I thought you were done thinking about that. He looked up at the sky, remembering the rush of wind against his metallic skin, the release of being able to soar just where he wanted to, no delay, no restriction. A buzz from his watch pulled him out of his planning. A message from Hatchetman – Gabriel had reached his destination. The alert was five minutes old, somehow the alarm slipping his notice.

“Wyatt?” he turned to find Holly standing at the entrance of the picnic area. She was dressed in military fatigues, a checkered bandana tied around her neck. “I’m glad you came.”

“Good timing,” Wyatt said. “It looks like Gabriel made a dash across the border. He’s just reached his safe house. We can find out where to send the police together, right now.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” she said, a smile appearing on her thin lips.

“What do you mean?”

“Wyatt, I’m Gabriel.”

Wyatt looked at her and for a moment he was about to laugh, sure he was being had. But then he looked into her eyes. “Gabriel is a criminal. A terrorist.”

“He’s also a front, a plant,” she said and fiddled with the watch on her wrist. “An illusion.”

A man, mid-forties or even older, appeared in front of him, wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt and a holster with a machine pistol. The illusion was entoptically perfect, betraying no stutter or texture clipping.

“Why are you showing me this?”

“Because I didn’t want you to blow my cover,” her voice was low and gravelly, most likely altered by vocal implants. “I’m in a deep-cover assignment. The raid on my meeting place in the south was called-off because it was never supposed to happen in the first place. We were still trying to figure out what happened when you contacted me.”

“What about the mole?”

“I’m the mole,” she said. “A mole in their organization.”

“But Gabriel is a wanted terrorist. I’ve seen the file. Your cartel is responsible for kidnappings, murders, and torture. How could Gabriel be working for us?”

“Don’t be naive, Wyatt. Everyone I had killed down there was already involved in the narcotics trade. If Gabriel’s cartel hadn’t killed them, one of the others would have. You can’t fix the plumbing if you’re afraid of getting a little shit on you.”

Wyatt felt like he was going to vomit.

“This is wrong,” he said. “How could you be wrapped up in this?”

The entoptic illusion wavered and Holly replaced Gabriel. “I’ve always been wrapped up in this. I was born on the border with some of my family on this side of the border, some on the other. All I’ve done is pick a side.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Wyatt, you’ve managed to impress people not easy to impress. You might want to follow up on that.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means, stand up and come with me so you can meet some people. What do you think it means?”

She produced a folder labeled ‘Gabriel’ and smiled. Wyatt’s heart was pounding in his chest when he took the folder from her, quickly leafing through the pages and myriad photographs. Hearing something from behind the hedges he froze.

“Shit!”

She looked at him curiously. “What’s wrong?”

He snuck a look over his shoulder already knowing what he would see. Just above the tips of the hedges, a shimmering cetacean form hovered, stabilizing fins softly purring. A targeting laser winked from the middle of the distortion and then switched off.

“Walk towards me,” he hissed to Holly. “Come to me right now!”

She looked up over his right shoulder and gasped.

“Don’t look at it. Just walk towards me.”

“It’s weapons ports are open, Wyatt. What did you do?”

“It thinks you’re Gabriel but it won’t fire if a civilian could be harmed.”

Holly took his hand and they faced the hovering robot. Wyatt raised his hand and addressed it calmly. “It’s okay. There’s been a misunderstanding, Hatchetman. Holly is not an enemy. You will take yourself offline.”

“I do not recognize your authority, Wyatt” the combat platform said.

He could feel the blood drain out of his face. “Hatchetman, I am ordering you to disengage. You may not fire on civilians.”

A soft puft was the only indication the munitions had been released. He tried to jerk Holly out of the line of fire but it was too late. A fine red mist erupted from just below Holly’s chin, and her body came apart in wet gore. Most of her ended up a smear on the grass, only her arm still clutched firmly in his hand.

Wyatt backed up a step before slipping and falling. His free hand slapped away the bits of Holly stuck on his shirt and pants while someone was screaming, “Hatchetman, I said disengage! Cease fire! Cease fire!”

“There are no civilians in a war-zone, Wyatt,” it said, lining itself up for another volley. “You helped me see that.”

“Hatchetman, wait -“

When it was satisfied both targets were neutralized, Hatchetman rose swiftly skyward. Once past the cloud layer it could bask in the sun, recharge its batteries. It was operating behind enemy lines now which meant it was imperative to keep its strength up for the duration. No telling how long the mission might be in a war zone this vast.