"So." He pauses the recorder to watch the smoke bloom around the end of the cigarette in the stale filtered air. Weak gravity inside the station at least provides some orientation of up and down, which allows the thin blue trace to migrate toward the ceiling in a traditional manner. "You're saying what?"
"On or off?" The second occupant of the room is a thin woman. Deep lines etched by fatigue and stress trace around the young face, surrounding eyes showing an age two or three times that of the body holding them.
"Off, lieutenant." Stubbing the butt out he notices with some annoyance that the weak gravity caused by the rotation of the station about the central axis is still not enough to keep the ash inside the covered bowl. Small particles of gray flotsam begin to draw fresh lines of white and light blue smoke in the dim lighting above the metal table. "The examination?"
"Yes, the exam." She closes her eyes and rests her head in her hands, breathing slowly through clenched fingers. "It was digested."
"The pill you mean?"
"Yes, there were traces of narcotics."
"No." He says abruptly, stopping her mid-sentence before she can go any further. The recorded interview has covered this issue already and he was hoping to make further progress with another illicit recording device hidden beneath the table. "Not that again."
"It had at least been digested." Defeated she pulls her hands away from her sides to force them folded at her sides with a heavy sigh. The white coverall is stained brown with dried blood, rubber medical gloves peek from a pocket riding above breasts held in place by Nomex and cotton material beneath the garment. Above her heart is the traditional caduceus and red cross of the medical corps. Another, only much larger, copy of the same symbol is emblazoned on her back. "She consciously ingested the material, if that's what you're after."
"Why?" Spitting impatiently.
"I'm not a psychologist, just a physiologist." The same defiant tone that has danced through the interview room for the last three hours, the answers are not there and cannot be described.
"Look, Lieutenant McCaffey." He tries again to muster patience for the situation. "We have a routine drop."
"Oh you can't fucking do this Wally."
"We have a routine drop and all of a sudden one of the pilots flat lines." The adopted tone is more one used for discussing poor behavior with errant school children. The annoyance in the woman's voice is more than apparent.
"Wally, stop." Tired, bored, angry. "Just fucking stop."
"She flat lines and we find out that she did herself because of some mythical link with her AI." Almost without interruption he continues, ignoring the counter arguments.
"It's proven, they bond." The words come in a hushed rush betraying the rage stimulated by the halfhearted interest in the subject on the part of the investigator. "The goddamn pilots bond with the AI's, they're too close not to develop dependencies, especially with the amount of narcotics in their system to begin with."
"Like I was saying, she flat lines and we pull her out of the drop and find out that she took something that mixed with the link cocktail and it killed her." He pauses with a triumphant huff only to be met with renewed protest.
"Wally, you can't fucking do this anymore." Shaking her head she screams the last word, leaving her ears ringing in the small space.
"Can't do what Lieutenant?"
"Stop that." Exasperation with the thin man and his thinning brown hair sitting in front of her in what would constitute a good size broom closet anywhere else in the universe. "Stop insisting that the drops, or whatever it is that you're calling them these days is normal."
"Lin." Pulling the glasses from the bridge of his nose he sets them on the battered plastic scarlet tabletop and begins to rub the bridge of his nose. Deep grooves from the earpieces have worn into his head from the pressure exerted by the glasses on the side of his head in order to keep them in place. "We're, correction, I am trying to find out how one of our best pilots left the ship and then apparently committed suicide during a routine operation."
"She was over Wally. Done. Her AI was dead and she felt it go. It broke her and you know that."
"I'll take that as a sort of backhanded compliment for the training program that she was able to make such a sacrifice in the name of our mission." Laughing almost imperceptibly, the complicitous statement made for no one else's benefit save his own.
"Fuck you." Shaking her head, Lin reaches across the table to pull a cigarette from the open pack resting near a box of uneaten pizza. Par for the course compressed, recycled, and molded soy ration standard issue aboard the station. Inhaling heavily she again tries to lean into the chair and finds it impossible in the light gravity. "Fuck our mission, too."
"Now Lin." Wally points at his ear and then at the table, knowing that the signal would be recognized instantly. "That's no way to talk at all."
"I know you're taping this and I don't give a fuck anymore. Your people tuned the links to the point where these pilots can feel the hydraulic fluid leaking out of a coupling, then expected them not to show signs of stress from that. Then your people dropped them into combat zones and wondered why the wake up shattered when their pairs get shot full of holes and don't come back."
"Some mistakes may have been made, admittedly."
"Some lunacy was sanctioned officially, admittedly." Acid sarcasm eats into the air, biting back at the civil tone of the man's last statement. "Some torture has been doled out in the name of a pointless mission that could be accomplished autonomously."
"Performance of the autonomous missions isn't the issue here." Again the calm patience that is the investigator's trademark verbal habit. "An unanticipated suicide on the other hand. That I am interested in."
"Okay Wally, the artificial intelligence feedback routines that you use. There's your neat little cause." The words are tired, well worn and understated. "I have told you three times now, three times that we have problems with the feedback. Three times I have sat here and told you the same story that the drop pilots are feeling far too much, being allowed to bond too closely with the combat units."
"And each time I have told you that this is simply not possible. The routines were structured so that precisely this sort of thing doesn't happen."
"Wally you insensitive asshole." Force of convention drives Lin to flip the ash from the cigarette into open air instead of into the tray. A gray mound of powder drifts to the floor in a lazy arc, trailing behind it a thin marker of darker particles. Watching the motes of ash and debris swirl exquisitely in the semi-stagnant air, Lin tries to find the marker of a thought she had planned on using to begin her next sentence. She ponders the blankness for a second only to realize that fatigue has consumed the entire train of thought like so much desert carrion. "Look."
"Lin, Miranda was." Taking a moment to reach beneath the table to stop the second recorder, Wally begins again after clearing his throat. "Was more to me than I can say."
"She was to both of us."
"I know that."
"The death of that machine, her pair, it was a sort of souvenir that she carried with her until it finally ate her from the inside out." The tear really has nowhere to go until Lin bats at it roughly with the back of her hand. The spotty gravity seems to have dissipated significantly in the last ten minutes. "You know she told me about it the last time we were together."
"Together?" Wally says, desperate and searching.
"Yes Wally, we went at it like a cheap porno and then talked about your penis." Lin's embittered and cynical tone forces the brief traces of a frown across Wally's face. "Wally, I'm kidding. We never talked about you, mainly because I don't care."
"I know Lin, it's just hard."
"Hard because you knew her or hard because?"
"Hard because I know."
"About what?" There is a second of palpable hesitation, the answer finally brutalizing her with vicious truth. "About the feedback systems?"
"Yes." The silence hangs heavy in the air in the wake of the admission.
"It is true isn't it? The pilots, they die with the machines, don't they?" Lin asks quietly after a minute of silence. "You adjusted the system without authority, faked the authorization message eight months ago and then sent them out to feel themselves die only to be jerked back to life again."
"Yes." Almost inaudibly, Wally hunches over to stare wild-eyed at the floor. "I needed the results, I needed the mission successes. I needed it to make the board so I can get."
"Get what Wally?"
"Get off this goddamn station." His voice choked by a sob, Wally rears back in the chair to stare at Lin with blood tinged eyes. "Get away from all this shit and go home. I never wanted to be here, it's where they sent me. I never wanted the job, they just gave it to me and I prayed every day to just get wounded or die to get out of here. Then I figured I could do well enough to get noticed."
"Wally." Lin says cautiously. "You don't need to tell me all of this."
"Yes I do, yes. I need to tell someone, Miranda was the only other one that knew." Shaking hands grasp desperately for another cigarette, the lighter slips and almost drifts to the floor in the now waxing gravity. "I killed them all."
"You did worse."
"No. I did them a favor, I got them out of this fucking hell."
"You raped their minds and then killed them. Used them up and then asked me to answer questions you thought I would figure out on my own." The red light on the wall behind Wally's head is back again. They knew when to start recording. "Especially when they all came as they did."
"I never meant to hurt anybody." The plaintive wailing tones of an innocent child caught torturing animals, the sick glee still hanging behind his eyes like a predator. Waiting to save the soul from the actions of base fear. "Especially not Miranda, she was so beautiful."
"You're going to burn for this Wally." Slashing at him with anger, Lin jerks the irresponsible babe away from the actions committed by a guilty adult. "I ought to put you in one of those couches and let you get shot to pieces."
"Please." His face suddenly turns to a mask wild desperation and terror. She cringes at the sudden folding of the carefully maintained façade. "Try to understand, it wasn't just for me, it was for the mission."
"Oh, Wally. But I've got one better than that for you." She smiles gently after tracing a hand down one side of the shattered face and gestures to the camera installation in the wall behind them. "I told you they'd burn you."
"What is this?" Disbelief, almost amazement replaces the emotional turmoil still visible on his face. "You recorded this session?"
"Full, including biomedical telemetry. Analog audio isn't admissible without it you know." Lin leers at him while rising to smooth the front of the stained beige coverall. "Internal security's in the monitor room watching this."
"You know, you'll be eligible for draft again in six months. With your experience they'll put you in the couches."
"No." Hissing through a clenched jaw his arms flail out from his sides to throw the contents of the table into the opposite wall. "I won't."
"Well then, Wally." Thumbing a remote in her pocket, Lin fishes momentarily to produce a maroon oval inside of a plastic vial. Gently pressing the vial to the table so that it will stay in the weak gravity, her voice a zealous whisper she leans into the man's ear. "There's always the alternative."