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A short story by

Alex Irvine

Both of us, Drenthe thought. "Is that so?" he said.

"The Warhounds aren't going to look good, is all I'm saying," Eli said. "I tell you this not just for your personal safety, but so you know it when you're doing your director thing. Put the holocapture stuff in the right place to catch a lot of Warhounds going up in smoke, you know?" He finished his drink and stood. "Nice to see you. Big day tomorrow."

He headed back toward the passenger compartment, and Drenthe was left to consider his options.

* * *

Dario wanted to make sure of the schedule, so Drenthe met him early the next morning in the executive complex next to the main AxO factory works. They ran over Drenthe's requirements, which included places to mount at least ten remote holocams on the proving ground itself and a purpose-built director's platform with feeds from all the cams and a chair Drenthe had shipped from Korhal. He was never without it on a set. "Once this is built and the holocams are in place, we will be ready to proceed," he said.

"No problem," Dario said. "I'll get people pounding nails right now." He left Drenthe in his office for a minute. Drenthe took the opportunity to record everything about the office and the view from its window, from which he could see across one corner of the factory to the workers' town. The factory itself was magnificent in the way of factories: an immense expanse of gantries and smokestacks, cranes carrying tons of raw materials to the burning mouths of blast furnaces, the scream of lathes and the machine-gun rattle of rivet guns. It almost never rained on this part of Bukari V, and so, much of the work took place in the open. Drenthe marveled.

In a walled-off yard at the edge of the complex stood finished prototype Warhounds; Drenthe counted forty-seven. They were seven meters tall and bipedal, with legs articulated to move fast over rough terrain. Missile racks were mounted on what would have been their shoulders had they been human, and their arms terminated in multiple cannon barrels. Drenthe was put in mind of Eli's comment about SCVs. It was true: the Warhound's chassis bore a family resemblance to that ubiquitous service unit. The Warhound, however, was much more massive. The operator of an SCV extended his arms and legs into the unit exoskeleton; a Warhound's operator was fully contained within its torso, with massively parallel neural interfaces controlling the limbs and armament systems. Drenthe found himself looking forward to seeing the Warhounds in action.

There was also a view of the proving ground, which Drenthe took in. He liked this angle, absorbing everything from behind the tinted glass of the executive offices. It would contrast nicely with the raw footage from the test itself.

Dario returned. "Your platform will be built by the end of the day," he said. "Monitors and all. I took the liberty of having someone bring your chair from your room."

Drenthe bristled inwardly at the assumption that his privacy could be so cavalierly breached, but he said nothing. Arrogance was quite a spice on camera.

"From the window I was looking down on the prototypes," he said. "They resemble SCVs, do they not?"

Dario laughed. "They do, as a matter of fact. There's a story there. The very first ancestor of what is about to be the production-model Warhound was an SCV. It belonged to an engineer named Yakov Iliev, who was working for a small mining company on some backward, nowhere planet. I've forgotten which one, but I could look it up for you."

"No, please go on," Drenthe said.

"Are you recording this?" Dario said.

"You would see a holocam, would you not?" Drenthe asked. "When Drenthe shoots holo, the world knows."

"Right," Dario said. "Well, Iliev was working a mine that had some trouble with local bandits. He retooled a couple of SCVs with different armaments, and the next time the bandits came around, they got a big surprise. Company management didn't like it because they had subcontracted security out, and this made them look bad. So they were about to fire Iliev, if you can believe that—but right about then, Axiom bought the company. This was before my time here, but from what I understand, Iliev's plans and designs were included in the buy."

Drenthe decided he would like to meet this Yakov Iliev. "Where is the engineer now?" he asked.

"No idea," Dario said. "I think he retired someplace quiet. He was gifted; there's no question about it. But not the kind of personality suited to working in a large corporate environment. A tinker. Bit of a loner. Antisocial, really."

Reading between the lines, Drenthe guessed that Iliev had been forced out and his designs stolen under the pretext of some fine print in the acquisitions agreement. An old story. One could find versions of it throughout human history. It did not interest him.

The character of Iliev did, however. Drenthe would find him. So much was going on behind the public face Dario put on Axiom, much more than Drenthe would have anticipated. Interesting. In his hands it would become a film greater than Axiom deserved.

His only misgivings at that point had to do with what Eli had told him the night before. Approaching the topic from an angle, he said, "I would prefer to be able to direct the actions of individual Warhounds."

"I'm afraid that's not possible," Dario said. "We're going to have live operators in them. That's one of the things we still have to use people for. They're handpicked from our assembly techs."

Drenthe got a chill. Those operators, if the AI was corrupted... they would die. For the first time, Drenthe understood the full scope of what he had involved himself in. And immediately he resolved that he could not take part, knowing that he would allow innocent workers to be blown apart by tanks and vikings. No, he was no ethicist, but neither was he the kind of man who could stand by and witness atrocity.

What he was, above all else, was an artist. A storyteller. And in the midst of his initial reaction to the revelation that Eli planned to engineer the slaughter of two dozen Warhound operators, Drenthe was already starting to make his situation into a story. It began with the usurpation of Yakov Iliev, and it would end... how? That, he did not yet know. But he was no war correspondent, to dispassionately watch humans die while he did nothing.

Eli, realized Drenthe, was playing him exactly as Axiom had played Iliev. He was being made a patsy, his skills and art stolen and put to a purpose he found disgusting. Drenthe had enemies here on Bukari V.

He would fight them with the weapons natural to him: his director's eye and his holocams. Drenthe's blood quickened at the thought.

"You can brief the operators if you'd like," Dario said. "I can gather them for you in the morning. They have certain maneuvers we need them to perform for potential clients, but within that framework Axiom is happy to make your job as easy as possible."

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