by Michael Seidel
Morning sun briefly flashed full and blinding into Bulamaro’s eyes as a system failure horn sounded. “Number one flight control generator failure,” the computer reported, and suddenly his VASH bucked. An amber moment descended as Bulamaro recognized that his options were spent, that his ship could turn no more and no faster, when he knew that a missile had caught him. Time slipped into a lower gear. He looked around his cockpit and then out the viewscreens at the crazily spinning landscape. Reaching for the eject button, Bulamaro felt and heard the missile hit, immediately followed by another and another. So came the end, like a song, as the option to eject was erased in heartbeats.
A torrent of sensations surged through him as his seat protectively drew in around his body. Shards of metal flew in and blew out, buffeting him while warning lights blinked and emergency systems sang out in discordant harmony. Fire engulfed him, and he recognized with startling serenity that he was injured and bleeding from nose, mouth and scalp wounds.
A surfeit of pain rose. He suspected he was going to die even as his suit injected painkillers and blockers. Calmly he breathed as he’d been instructed to minimize damage and improve recovery time. Here I go, he thought, into the corpse club again as his emergency pod launched into Vonna’s brittle blue sky: visit number four….
BATTLE EVENT/INCIDENT REPORT — Classified MARKETING SECRET; “This report contains information regarding sponsor products, which, if revealed, may cause GRAVE DAMAGE to the sponsor.”
- SleepWell still death recovery time: 29:00 minutes (Confidential)
- NOTE 1: Substantial skull damage with reciprocal brain injuries and bleeding delaying recovery.
- NOTE 2: Full Recovery replaced tissue without apparent ill effects – unsolicited endorsement!
- NOTE 3: iGate 2020 biodrive restored memories without problem.
- Primary: Locate and update enemy client marketing messages with Lark Corporation client marketing messages.
- Secondary: Interdict and destroy enemy systems encountered.
- Tertiary: Locate and mark enemy marketing burrs for pattern analysis.
SYNOPSIS (Marketing Secret): Cadre of MUM Corporation Type Nine Ground Air marketing burrs detected at (see attached coordinate feed). Area swept for hostiles. Initiated standard express swap-out using MegaZone HyperUpdater Model 21. Team ambushed by MUM Corporation operatives estimated at seventeen in number. Interstellar Company Variable AirSpace Hybrid Seven sustained severe damage (see attached files). Weapon system used by MUM operatives unidentified; DID NOT alert the Kony OnGard Defender.
REMARKS (Marketing Secret): Ambush effected before MUM Corporation burr messages were replaced. Telemetry indicates entire team taken out with substantial injuries.
ENEMY PRODUCT MESSAGES DETECTED (Confidential): Multiple messages captured (see attached files). Signal was strong despite an estimated distance of fourteen hundred yards.
- StillFresh hygiene units and products, included HyperFresh Exclusive
- Varietal Compiler (NOTE: Old campaign slug: ‘No one will know the difference’).
- RealFantasy Entertainment – three trailers for newly released cybervisions (“Loaded Mind,” “The Mars Connection,” “Dangerous Messages”).
- Sharper Memories still death reconstructive pod (first time encountered during Vonna operations).
His report completed and filed, Bulamaro studied his refurbished body for imperfections, pleased with his tall and muscular lines, milk-caramel skin and stylishly longer, tousled brown hair, a product of the Modern Warrior Bold Look patented megaprocess. After adding a touch of brighter blue to his eyes and a sardonic curl to his wide lips, he closed the program and then compiled a new maroon Spartan Plasteel uniform, adding a web holster with a Bullitt hyper-pulse sidearm, useless in a marketing fight but very stylish-looking in the photo ops. Sipping some GoodFoods BestBerry flavored coffee fortified with twenty-eight essential vitamins and minerals and made with a dozen real fruit juices, he settled into his Comfort Zone Command Chair and prepared to regroup.
An incoming message chime rang, and the image of a slender dark man with a bright, energetic smile jumped onto Bulamaro’s pop-up display. “This is an Operations Update, brought to you by GoodFoods, where taste is always first, and by Brite Wite, for teeth that make a difference,” the figure said. “Warning: this update is classified Marketing Secret. This report contains information regarding sponsor products, which, if revealed, may cause GRAVE DAMAGE to the sponsor. The information contained herein may not be disclosed without specific MarCom approval. It is for internal use only.
“First, great news on the marketing front.” The man’s voice grew peppier. “Sentient Industries has signed an agreement with the Colonization Authority to sponsor the first ten thousand pioneers of the Vonna Primary Step Body Structures Reclamation Effort, Phase One. That means the efforts to colonize and settle Vonna is to be accelerated with Phase One members expected to begin in the second quarter of the next fiscal year. That makes the marketing efforts of our forces on Vonna even more important.”
His eyes and smile both widened. “Here’s a timely reminder. Product placement is critically important to keep our clients’ messages front and center. Remember to clean your mouth often with Brite Wite for teeth that make a difference, and keep a smile on your face that you can be proud of while you’re in combat.”
The announcer grew solemn. “Now a serious note. All personnel are reminded that only music produced, sold and distributed under the Xotica label is authorized to be played during operations. Personnel found listening to other music during marketing operations will be fined.
“In other disciplinary reminders, only Lark Corporation-approved clothing and sidearms may be used while on duty. An approved list may be obtained by pinging command. Lists are updated daily.
“Now here is a War Update, sponsored by Hyper Industries Heavy Engineering. Lark Corporation marketing forces have uncovered more than thirty thousand enemy marketing burrs during our spring sweeps offensive. Marketing Command reports that an incredible ninety-nine percent plus of these burrs have been either updated with Lark Corporation client messages, neutralized or destroyed outright. Marketing Command spokesperson Major Germeny Niven noted that the majority of these burrs belonged to the MUM Corporation.
“That’s the latest GoodFoods Operations Update, brought to you by GoodFoods, where taste is always first, and by Brite Wite, for teeth that make a difference. Warning: this update is classified Marketing Secret. This report contains information regarding sponsor products, which, if revealed, may cause GRAVE DAMAGE to the sponsor. The information contained herein may not be disclosed without specific MarCom approval. It is for internal use only. I’m Breck Beattie reporting. Our next update will be on the quarter hour. Go Lark!”
The pop-up dissipated with a brief hiss. Bulamaro pinged the time and decided his crew could accomplish another mission today, before their crew duty day expired. Fingers dancing over his Ready Able Backhand Touchscreen, he accessed his account status.
Welcome, Bulamaro Hernandez, the message on his pop-up read. Platinum Account Member. CURRENT OPERATING GRADE: O-5
CURRENT PAY GRADE: O-4
TIME IN SERVICE: Three years, seven months, nine days (NOTE: TIS does not include still death and refurbishment time).
Current balance: 4,694 Patriot Points
Marketing target: 5,000 Patriot Points
Pending debits: 117 Patriot Points *1
Pending credits: None
*1 Marketing Operations docked you 100 Patriot Points for mission failure.
*1 Marketing Logistics docked you 17 Patriot Points for equipment and body replacement and refurbishment costs.
REMEMBER: Failure to maintain a minimum account balance of 4,500 Patriot Points may result in additional penalties and forfeiture.
You are currently ranked in the top three percentile.
Bulamaro sighed. Down to four thousand, six hundred and ninety-four points. He logged off as his computer whispered, “Incoming call from Dayna.”
“I accept the call,” Bulamaro said. Dayna’s image bloomed on his pop-up, a young woman with fine black skin, rich silver hair, a predator’s white teeth and a level dark gaze weighted by thoughts and judgments, the quintessential cool young marketer.
“Have you checked your account after the last battle, Bulamaro?” she asked without preamble. “They docked me sixty-one points. Sixty-one. Fifty were for mission failure. That isn’t fair, is it? The other eleven was for replacement equipment. That isn’t right, is it?”
“Count yourself lucky that you don’t have more rank, Dayna,” Bulamaro said. “I got hit for a hundred points for mission failure and seventeen points for fixes, and I was less than two hundred points from my five grand target.”
“You a platinum member?” Dayna asked. “I didn’t realize….”
“I’ve been platinum for more than four months, almost five, but if I drop too much more, they’re going to ding me and I’ll probably get downgraded to the gold club.”
“I’m a gold club member,” Dayna said.
“Yes, but you were only drafted two years ago, and you have more education.” Bulamaro raised his voice. “Enough of that. We need to move on. We have time, so I want to get back out there, try to get back some of those lost points.” He tapped on his backhand. It showed all of team members were again alive and green. “Round up the troops and have them online at half past while I find us a mission. Make sure everyone gets their battle reports in. I don’t want to get docked points for some stupid administrative oversight. Okay?”
“Yes, sir.” Dayna’s eyes were bright with excitement. “See you online. Go, Lark.”
“Go, Lark.” Bulamaro disconnected and brought up the mission listings on his pop-up, first eliminating any that would reward him with anything less than one hundred points, which cut the list by almost two thirds. He then weeded out those missions that he deemed too far away, as the transit time would eat into his crew day. That left only twenty-two missions available. Filtering for a seven-man team reduced the available mission offerings to fourteen. A blinking note caught his attention at the bottom of the screen: MARKETING TOP SECRET: FOR PLATINUM MEMBER COMMANDERS ONLY.
Selecting the link, he drilled in, glancing into the retina scanner as he identified himself and gave his passphrase, “Hertz puts you in the driver seat.”
“Stand by,” the assignment computer said, startling him. “This assignment is sponsored by…”
“Stellar Insurance,” a deep male voice boomed, startling Bulamaro yet again. A soft female voice repeated, “Stellar Insurance. We insure everything under the stars.” Stellar Insurance’s logo blazed across the pop-up and then disappeared.
General Kao’s face replaced it on the pop-up. She was tawny-skinned with classic Terran AmerAsian features, and her thick flowing hair rippled with changing hues of black, purple, navy blue and cranberry while her wide eyes shimmered with iridescent shades of green, nicely complimenting her scarlet lips. “Bulamaro.”
“Sir,” Bulamaro said, smartly saluting.
Kao returned the salute with a shaded smile. “Looking for some action?”
“At ease, Bul. Let’s keep this informal. This is a highly classified and sensitive mission.” Tapping her backhand, she glanced away and studied something off-vision. “Looks like you had a bad day today.”
As Bulamaro blushed and grappled with a response, she went on, “But it’s definitely an anomaly for you. You have an outstanding record. Top three percentile. In fact, it doesn’t appear you’ve been docked for mission failure since you were commissioned.”
“Yes, sir, that’s correct,” he said.
Kao beamed at him. “How long has your team been together under your command, Bul?”
“About five months,” he answered.
“You know them well?”
Kao studied something off-vision again and then looked back at him. “They all seem very experienced marketers.”
“Yes, sir, they are. All of them have several campaigns under their belt. Mahk has the least experience, and he’s been through three campaigns, I believe.”
“You can sign for them in proxy?”
Kao leaned toward him. “Do you trust them?” she asked.
The question outraged Bulamaro. “Of course.”
“Xiana has never given me any reason to doubt her. She’s currently my defensive coordinator, and she does a great job,” Bulamaro answered.
“But wasn’t she a disciplinary transfer? Didn’t you accept her to pick up more points?”
Bulamaro drew himself up. “She was a disciplinary transfer, yes, and I received a signing bonus for accepting her, yes, but I accepted her because she’s highly capable. I believe that she can be an outstanding asset to the company with the right leadership.”
“And you think you’re that leadership.”
“Yes, I do.”
Kao studied him a second and then smiled. “Did I offend you?” she asked.
“No, sir, but the questions surprised me,” he answered. “I feel very protective about my team.”
Kao nodded. “It’s good that you’re loyal to your team. That’s important for this mission. This is a very special mission that you’re inquiring about, very special. It came on the market less than two hours ago. It’s premium, the best. It pays five hundred Patriot Points.”
His fingers curling into fists, Bulamaro sat back in unabashed excitement. “Are you serious?”
“Yes. That would put you well over your market quota, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. What’s the mission?”
“First, I need to notify you that the Universal Fair Trade Practices and Standards Agreement calls for a partial memory erase of the details of this mission. You must agree to this arrangement before I can continue with the mission brief. Once I brief you on the mission profile, you will have the option to accept or decline. Declining will not bring any retribution to you. Your memory will be erased, and a suitable memory will be applied to fill the gap. Do you understand?”
Bulamaro nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Should you accept the mission, once it is completed, your memory will be erased, and a suitable memory will be applied to fill the gap. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” he repeated.
“Do you accept this condition?”
“Yes, I do.”
Kao smiled. “Very good.” She sat back and glanced away for an instant. “Your acceptance has been recorded and can be used in criminal and civil proceedings against you, should the need arise.”
She lowered her voice. “Now let’s proceed with the mission brief.” With a few swift keystrokes, she projected a new pop-up to Bulamaro’s VASH.
It was a picture of a dull silver cylinder with rounded ends. Dimensions showed the object to be less than two inches long, with a diameter of half an inch. The picture changed after a second, showing the same cylinder with black wings and legs, and then changed again, showing the cylinder first burrowing into a tree trunk and then into the ground. The picture returned to its original image, then exploded, displaying a small transceiver unit and power unit sandwiched by heat and motion sensors.
“Recognize this?” Kao asked.
Bulamaro nodded. “It’s a Lark Corporation Stellar Model marketing burr.”
Kao broadly smiled. “Exactly.”
Aware of her watching him, Bulamaro thought for several moments and then frowned. “I don’t understand, sir. Why are you showing me a Lark burr?”
Still smiling, Kao said, “That’s your target, Bul.”
Bulamaro was late joining the others online, but with three quick steps he was in his cockpit. Two flicks of power switches later, his VASH was powered up and his team’s pop-ups surrounded him. Mahk was reading a book, which he put aside when he saw Bulamaro.
“There he is,” Dayna said.
“You’re late,” Ripley said with affected annoyance. He seemed tired, and Bulamaro wondered if he had violated his crew rest. “Did you at least get us something good to replace the points we lost today? I was dinged for forty points,” Ripley said.
Camron had a finger in his mouth up to his knuckles and tried to talk around it. Dayna looked appalled. “That’s disgusting. Can you at least take your finger out of your mouth when you’re speaking? Honestly, that’s disgusting.” She looked around. “Can we have that edited out?”
“No, the briefing has started,” Bulamaro said.
Camron took his finger out of his mouth. “I’m sorry, but I have food stuck between my teeth, and I can’t get it out. It’s driving me nuts,” he said.
“Use your Brite Wite,” Ripley said. “Idiot.” The others laughed.
Holding up his glistening finger, Camron glared at Ripley. “You’re the idiot. I tried the Brite Wite, genius, and it didn’t work.”
A shocked hush fell over the group and then Ripley groaned. “Way to go, Camron. You’re such an idiot.”
“Nice,” Dayna said, “real nice.” Bulamaro held up a hand as others started talking. “All right, people, let’s stay focused.” When silence fell, he said, “Brite Wite can do the job, Camron. It works. I know. I’ve used it. You just need to keep it in your mouth longer. I believe the instructions recommend ten minutes.”
“I tried that, but my mouth got really hot,” Camron said. “Felt like it was burning up.”
Bulamaro smiled. “That burning means it’s working. Just keep it in a little longer and your mouth will go numb and the food particles will dissolve. Try it now. I guarantee you that by the time we post for the mission, it will be gone, and your mouth will feel clean and refreshed. In fact, I’ll give you a hundred Patriot Points if it’s not.”
Dayna waved her hand. “Excuse me — can we get on with the mission brief, sir? What did you get us?”
Bulamaro grinned slyly. “How would you like to earn five hundred points today?”
Everyone gasped, and excited babble followed. “You’re kidding,” Ripley said. “Don’t toy with us, sir. Are you kidding? Please don’t tell me you’re kidding.”
Quiet but alert, Saravaughn said, “I’d really like that, sir. I could really use five hundred points.”
“I thought you could,” Bulamaro said. “And it’s an easy job on Vonna in the Boljean sector.” He projected a colorful area map that depicted the planned settlements, confirmed marketing burrs and current Lark Marketing Operations outpost, then zoomed in on a five thousand square mile parcel and brought it up.
“That’s in our territory,” Ripley said. “I don’t understand.”
Bulamaro nodded. “Yes, it is behind the lines, back in Lark territory. We are going to go in configured and marked as MUM Corporation VASHes and run a swap-out on the burrs there, replacing the Lark client messages with MUM client messages.”
Silence followed. Camron frowned. “But we work for Lark,” he mumbled, words garbled by the Brite Wite in his mouth.
“Why would we do that?” Dayna scanned the map. “If we try to do that, won’t the other Lark VASHes try to shoot us down?”
“They will shoot us down,” Ripley said.
“Yes, they will shoot at us and try to bring us down,” Bulamaro said. “That’s their job. And if necessary, we will return fire. We have accepted this mission, and we will do whatever is necessary to succeed.” His crew’s expressions revealed their confusion.
“The thing is,” he explained carefully, “the war is going so well for the Lark Corporation that we control or have destroyed all the MUM marketing burrs. Since we’re paid by the burrs, without burrs, we don’t have any mission, and we don’t earn revenue.” He shrugged. “No revenue, no work, so some of us would be released without getting any points. Additionally, this sort of daring mission shows how desperate the MUM Corporation is.”
“But it’s going to be us doing it,” Ripley said.
The light outside was fading fast. Bulamaro nodded. “Yes, that’s right, it’s us.”
Several seconds of silence passed, and then Ripley said, “So we’re going to fight our own company?”
“Yes.” Bulamaro said patiently. He pinged the time, concerned that their crew duty window was going to close soon. “But it’ll be all right. All of them are equipped with SleepWell. They’ll just go through still death.”
“Dead is dead,” Xiana said. She was a dark-featured woman with dark, glittering eyes and ears that had been modified to look and move like a cat’s. “Calling it still death doesn’t change anything. That’s just marketing crap. In the end, we’re going to be killing our friends and co-workers, and they’ll be coming after us.”
“But they’ll come back to life,” Camron said. “They’ll be refurbished, just like us.”
“Can the attitude, Xiana,” Bulamaro said. “All of us have died, and there aren’t any ill effects.”
Xiana laughed. “Sure, it’s just another death, right? What difference does it make?”
Bulamaro glared at her. “I’m this close to taking points from you.”
Xiana gasped. “Oh, no, not points. Please, not that,” she said sarcastically.
“That’s ten,” Bulamaro said. A warning tone announced the availability of the MUM markings.
“So?” Xiana said.
“Twenty,” Bulamaro said.
Xiana smiled. “I have twenty-five hundred points, Bul. I can sit here and do this all day.”
Bulamaro was furious with Xiana, but he couldn’t do anything now. He pointed a finger at her. “I’ll deal with you later. Right now, we need to get ready to launch. The MUM markings are in. You all should have received them.”
“Then we’re doing this,” Xiana said.
“Yes, we’re doing this,” Bulamaro said. His team members exchanged looks. “I took the mission on, and we’re doing it, and we’ll all get five hundred points if we succeed. And if we fail, we’ll be docked points. Just keep that in mind, Xiana.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll do my part. I want my points.”
“Good.” Bulamaro nodded. He mostly liked her, but sometimes she disturbed him, and he wasn’t certain he trusted her now. “Good.” Looking over his status screen, he confirmed that everyone had received the MUM markings file.
“Hey, Bulamaro, sir, another question for you, if I may, sir,” Xiana said.
Lips tight, Bulamaro looked at her. “Yes?”
“If the MUM Corporation is so completely vanquished that we’re doing this mission, then who kicked the crap out of us this morning?”
“What?” Bulamaro said after a moment.
“You know, who was it that killed us on our first mission today, when we failed and lost points?”
Ripley laughed. “It was the MUM Corp, idiot.”
“Then where are they now that Lark’s sending us on this mission?” Xiana said.
“We destroyed them.” Ripley guffawed. “Wiped them out. Isn’t that right, Bul?”
“Yes, it was on the news. I watched it,” Bulamaro answered.
Xiana smiled. “I must have missed that.”
“Back to the briefing.” Bulamaro took another moment to glare at her. She smiled back and then licked her lips. Bulamaro looked away. “First we’ll launch, SOP. We’ll adopt MUM’s markings once we clear the airspace.” Xiana’s insubordination had cut into their time, and now he was forced to rush through the rest of the mission briefing to get airborne before their duty window closed, which pissed him off more. “Stand by for assignments. I have flight control. Mahk, you’re my back-up. Saravaughn, navigator. Xiana, you’re defensive coordinator.” He started to add a remark and then checked it. “Dayna, you have offensive responsibilities.”
“Ripley, you’re the oversee. Saravaughn, lay in our launch plan. We’ll head out to the Samarra desert, SOP.”
It was his standard line-up. He didn’t want to do anything that would hinder them from getting in and out and collecting their points. “Okay, let’s start our pre-launch checklists. Call out exceptions.” He touched screens and flicked switches as he spoke. Green bars lit up for all seven ships. “Flight engineer, how do we look?”
“I show all systems green. We are fully mission capable.”
“Good.” Bulamaro changed screens. “Overseer, biometrics?”
“All clean and in range.”
It took a moment for Ripley to respond as he waited for the answer to come back from Marketing Ops. “We are cleared to proceed.”
Bulamaro changed screens. “Good. Our call sign is Brillo Five One, flight of seven VASH, standard sequencing. Weapons?” He changed screens again as Dayna answered.
“Offensive units are fully charged.”
“Defensive units are fully charged,” Xiana said.
Bulamaro checked the XPU; it showed that his updater was loaded with the latest client messages from MUM. “All right. Activate control interface.” Within seconds a new control interface compiled against his head and its leads snaked their way into the micro-outlets on his neck. Another pop-up showed that all seven of the crew were successfully interfaced.
“The flight plan has been accepted,” Saravaughn said.
“Check,” Bulamaro said. “Activate flight power.” Green bars sprang up on his status screens. “Prepare to release.”
Selecting a channel, he listened briefly to traffic chatter and spoke into the next break. “Launch ops, this is Brillo Flight Five One, flight of seven VASH requesting clearance.”
“Roger, Brillo Flight, this is launch ops, you are cleared for release.”
Bulamaro nodded. “Roger. We’ll contact you when ready for launch. Releasing cords.” Pressing a button, he watched his VASH break free of its docking station and saw that the others were also clear. “Brillo Flight, this is Brillo Five One. Transfer flight control to me for launch.”
A web of green lines connecting the seven ships followed several seconds later. “How do we look, Flight Engineer?”
“We are green and able.”
“Copy.” Bulamaro flicked through more screens until the area navigation maps rose. “Break, break, Brillo Flight, this is Brillo Five One. I have launch control, break, break, launch ops, this is Brillo Five One with launch control for Brillo Flight. We are ready to launch.”
“Roger, Brillo Flight, launch on my mark, three, two, one, mark.”
The best part of being a commander was that he could choose when he was the pilot, a chore that Bulamaro loved. As he applied power in his VASH, the flight lifted as one, steadily rising to forty feet up in the late afternoon sky. Once there, he leveled them off, then synchronized their flight surface generators to emulate one large flying wing, noting several flights of patrol ships moving along the airbase perimeters and friendly traffic doing slow and controlled approaches from different vectors as they were gradually channeled into one pattern.
Requesting and receiving Launch Ops clearance, he initiated forward thrust and they rapidly accelerated to four hundred knots per hour, following the vector guidance away from the approach traffic and the patrols, then leaving the airbase-controlled airspace. Once beyond the air defense emplacements, he contacted the flight management satellite system and transmitted the warning that they were a marketing flight on a classified combat mission. Freed of further constraints by flight management’s acknowledgement, he activated the cloaking system and then set up short- and medium-range scans.
Distant friendlies were quickly identified and acknowledged; no hostiles were identified, but just to be prudent, he downloaded the latest INTREP and verified nothing was in the area. Satisfied, Bulamaro accelerated the Brillo Flight to one thousand knots and climbed to fifteen thousand feet in accordance with the flight plan, grunting as his flight suit adjusted against the increased g-forces. “Navigator, resolve optimal target acquisition course.”
“Yes, sir,” Saravaughn said.
The Khanar Lands came into view beneath them, magenta, sage and coppery with failing sunlight, mysterious with shadows and rills. Bulamaro gazed out his viewscreens at the passing land and sky for a few moments and then checked in on his team members, cycling through their biometrics and pop-ups. He checked on the flight systems and weapons. “How we looking, Flight Engineer?”
“Alpha one, sir.”
“Excellent. Defensive coordinator, status report.”
“All systems green and armed.”
“Roger.” Bulamaro’s navigation module pinged.
“Target path has been loaded and accepted,” Dayna said.
“Roger.” Bulamaro scanned the area again and then began a long one hundred and forty-degree bank. Leveling out, he said, “Overseer, download and install MUM markings.”
“Roger.” A half dozen heartbeats passed. “Markings installed.”
“Stand by to activate.”
“Roger, standing by.”
Bulamaro ran through his systems sequence again, confirming that all were still green. “Engaging navigation control. Initiating target path.”
His suit squeezed him hard as the flight leaped forward. The nav control unit took over, pushing them up to twenty-three hundred knots as they dove at a terrifying angle. Finally flattening out forty feet off the ground, the flight rose and fell, twisting, rising, turning and dropping like a tortured snake, jumping over copses of trees, dodging cliffs and boulders and diving into valleys.
“Yee haa,” Ripley yelled. “Let’s ride it.”
“Activate MUM markings, overseer,” Bulamaro said.
“Roger, activated,” Ripley answered. “We are now the enemy.” He snickered.
“Always have been,” Xiana said. “We are being acquired. They’re seeing through our cloak; surprise, surprise. Get ready to go hot.” Warning systems blared alerts. Each marketer shut down the warnings in his or her own cockpit. “Killer bots deployed,” Xiana said. “Scrambling decoys.”
“Air defense has called a hotbox against us,” Ripley said.
Bulamaro checked his scans as the board lit up with threats. The nav control reacted by increasing both speed and movement. “Take out those ground units, Xiana.”
“Roger, maybe I’ll take them to dinner. Weapons launched,” she answered wryly.
“Five minutes until target area,” Dayna said as her system pinged its notification. “We have company coming up.”
“I have them,” Xiana said as the flight’s speed halved.
The abrupt pressure change surprise Bulamaro. “Nav control disengaged. I have flight control again. Decelerating.” He tapped a screen. This was when they were most vulnerable. “Stand by to assume individual control on my mark.” He checked their systems. “Three, two, one, mark.” He watched the screen as they changed from one unit into seven. Mild buffeting followed. “Reconfigure flight controls into individual fighter mode.” Selecting the appropriate mode, he watched his flight controls schematic dissolve and re-emerge. “Flight Engineer, how do we look?”
“Separation complete,” Camron said. “We have a good break, sir. Fighter mode achieved.”
“Roger, let’s kick it,” Bulamaro said. “Dayna, take us in. Xiana, you have trail.”
“Roger, roger, I have lead,” Dayna said.
“I have trail,” Xiana said.
“Bringing up target parameters, target online, I have target acquisition.” A new screen came up, full of burr markings. Dayna led them down into the valley as they again accelerated, slipping into a pearl necklace flight configuration. “Target is two minutes away.”
“Bogeys on our six,” Xiana said. “Coming in fast.”
Warnings rang out. “Weapons lock on,” the computer said.
“Arm weapons,” Dayna said.
“Looks like they’re expecting us,” Ripley said.
Xiana laughed. “Really?”
“Roosters up ahead,” Mahk said. “Incoming.”
The sky outside lit up like an exploding sun. Dayna jerked them left and then right.
“Repositioning shields, ninety percent forward line,” Bulamaro said. “Give us a cap, Xiana.”
“Roger, roger, I’m taking cap. Camron, you’re with me.”
Bulamaro watched his schematic as Xiana and Camron broke away, climbing and accelerating into position over the rest of the flight. Flares and chaff lit his screens as the computer said, “Incoming missiles.”
“Evasive action,” Bulamaro said. He broke right as Dayna broke left ahead of them. Both fell back on the centerline, and then Lark client marketing messages sounded over the communications unit.
“Brite Wite, for teeth that make a difference.” A beautiful brunette woman with gleaming white teeth appeared on Bulamaro’s pop-up. “Brite Wite is guaranteed to protect your gums and teeth against tartar, plaque and gingivitis. Now available in root beer and apple cinnamon daiquiri flavors.”
The woman departed, to be replaced by square bottles of GoodFoods BestBerry flavored coffee screaming by. “Energy is a state of mind,” a man solemnly said. “Ensure your mind is in its best state with BestBerry flavored coffee. Now available in zesty lemon.”
“There it is,” Ripley said. “We have contacted the burrs.”
“Roger,” Bulamaro said. His ship rocked back and forth. Violently he steered the ship right and then left again. “Launch updaters.”
“Shields failing,” the computer said. “Damage registered to starboard energy propulsion system. Damage registered to rear energy propulsion system.”
“Launching updaters,” Dayna said.
“I am hit,” Saravaughn said. “I am hit. Breaking off attack.”
“System status,” Bulamaro barked to his computer.
“Overall system status is out fifty-four percent and falling,” the computer said. “Thirty percent. Twenty percent.”
Wildly Bulamaro flicked through the systems, desperately searching for the leak source.
“Shutting down energy propulsion system,” the computer said. “Arming evacuation pod. Recommend ejection.” Bulamaro nodded, resigned now. “Roger.” A piercing pain in his back surprised him, overwhelming his nerves as it bloomed and spread. He arched his back in a silent scream, choking on his own blood and vomit, gurgling and coughing as he tried to catch a breath. Darkness blossomed in his eyes and head as his hands flexed, his fingers endlessly stretching to grasp something just beyond their reach.
Opening his eyes brought a flood of tears. “Dim lights,” Bulamaro croaked. Carefully he sat up. The headache was more intense and took longer to subside than the last time he was refurbished; he would need to put that into his report. Sensations like fire burned his fingertips, although there was nothing visible there; another remark to add to his report. Abruptly Bulamaro felt spent and exhausted, too lethargic to care.
Make your report, the soldier within him said. Take care of your report and then you can request some down time. You must take care of your report. Nodding agreement with himself, Bulamaro struggled to rise.
An incoming message chime rang, and General Kao’s image jumped onto Bulamaro’s pop-up display. Jerking to attention, Bulamaro saluted.
She laughed. “At ease, Bul. I know you haven’t filed your report yet, but I know you’re probably just about to do it.”
“But I just saw the rushes, and I must say congratulations. That was one of the most epic battles that I’ve been privileged to witness. The whole marketing industry is talking about it. The results are so impressive that the board is going to award each of your team an additional one hundred points. PR also tells me that interview requests are pouring in for you. You looked great as you took down those enemy burrs — real hero material.”
Bulamaro nodded, trying not to wince at the throb in his head. “Thank you, sir.”
“The interviews will have to be vetted, of course, but we do want to get your face and story out there. So, each interview that you do will net you an additional fifty bonus points. Isn’t that great?”
Bulamaro licked his lips. “I don’t know what to say,” he answered honestly.
Kao laughed. “It is overwhelming, isn’t it? Given the points that you earned for your highly successful mission, you’ll reach six thousand points in no time,, and your commitment will be over. Isn’t that great?” she repeated.
“Yes, sir.” Bulamaro bobbed his head. “Yes, sir, that’s great. Fantastic.”
“I do have one sad note.” Kao’s expression grew somber. “One of your members didn’t make it, I’m afraid.”
“Oh?” Bulamaro blinked. “Who? How?”
“I’m afraid Xiana Fairchild didn’t recover. We don’t yet know quite what happened, but she failed to come out of still death.”
“The SleepWell failed to refurbish her?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it that way,” Kao said. “We’re still investigating the incident. I just wanted to let you know.”
“Yes, of course, thank you.” Bulamaro stared at Kao and then ran a hand over his head. “Thank you. I can’t believe it. Xiana was a great marketer. She would have been an excellent commander someday.”
Kao nodded. “Yes, it’s tragic. Fortunately, death is something we rarely have to experience in marketing, thanks to SleepWell, but it’s part of the business and we need to accept it.” She paused. “There will be a memorial cybercast service with full honors broadcast tonight, so you can plan to attend that.”
“Yes, sir. Is there a recording of how it happened?”
“A recording?” Kao rapidly blinked for several seconds. “Yes, I believe a recording can be found. I’ll get one to you. Well, that’s all, Bulamaro. Let’s get that report in.”
Kao’s image winked out. Bulamaro stared at the vacated space for several seconds. Xiana gone … hard to believe. Turning, he touched his screen and brought up her biometrics, confirming the news.
Xiana was gone. Bulamaro had never lost a crew member in combat. It was hard to define how he felt. Still sitting, he examined himself for the right response and then shook his head in frustration. Clearing his throat, he said, “Battle event slash incident report.”
A pop-up display emerged and began taking his dictation. “Classified marketing secret.” Pausing, he wiped his eyes and stared at his hands. Xiana dead. Who would have predicted it? “This report contains information regarding sponsor products, which, if revealed, may cause GRAVE DAMAGE to the sponsor…”
Michael Seidel lives in Half Moon Bay, California, with his wife and cats, and works in the remnants of Silicon Valley. “Marketing War” is his first sale.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish