If You Love Him, Hide the Grave
by Vera Brook
The blue-gray dirt on Ross-82D was dry as bone and heavy as regret. The rough handle of the shovel was already blistering Chiara’s thumb on her meat hand. Strange lights danced around her like ghosts as she dug.
She had stripped out of her pressure suit in respect, to give what she was doing at least a semblance of a proper burial. If her blister got infected and she had to get another prosthetic arm, so be it. She was trespassing here and didn’t have time to test for pathogens or tweak her immune system. Or maybe she no longer cared, as long as her brain was still meat and reliably perishable.
Anyway, the risk of infection was low, Ross-82D being a miserable chunk of cratered rock that had resisted terraforming with a vengeance, never advancing past the deadly-desert stage. And haunted by apparitions to boot. What passed for air here was hot and thin like the army recruiters’ lies, though nothing her ex-military super-lungs couldn’t handle.
Ironic, Chiara thought bitterly, how the same thing could be killing you and keeping you alive.
She thrust the blade of her shovel into the lifeless dirt with renewed resolve.
Thankfully, she was almost done digging, the hole she needed barely two feet deep and one foot across. Painfully small and shallow for a grave, and nowhere near big enough to hold all her grief.
But all she had left of her baby brother was a crystal hard drive the size of her palm—a backup she’d stolen. It sat on the ground, wrapped in black cloth. No need for a coffin. Arik had shed the last parts of his biological body three lifetimes ago.
The hard drive contained his mind—contained him—but irreversibly fused with layers of tactical bundles, military integrations, and extra processors. All the augments turned invasive over time, choking her brother’s will and crushing whole parts of his identity. Until the stubborn, hot-tempered, rebellious brother she’d grown up with, quick to love and quick to fight, became cold and obedient like a machine.
All to make him a better soldier. The best.
It made Chiara sick with helpless fury, in part because she had narrowly avoided the same fate—and only thanks to her brother’s warning.
With his mind-drive hooked up to the right peripherals, Arik could hack any computer, pilot any ship, control any weapon. A miracle of military technology that made him too valuable and too dangerous to ever discharge from the army—not even after death.
After all, what was death, when every failing part of you could be rebooted or replaced with a new one?
A temporary downtime. A maintenance issue. Nothing more.
The heat beat down on her, the air like sandpaper in her nose and throat. With or without her augments, this vicious, haunted planet would eventually kill her if she lingered too long.
Chiara’s skin prickled, her pre-tech instinct warning of a more immediate danger.
She spun around to scan the perimeter, squinting through the shifting auras, the infrared sensor in her artificial eye switching on.
And there it was—a lone figure moving toward her, the short stature and graceful gait instantly familiar despite the standard helmet and pressure suit.
Talulah. Her sister-in-law.
The woman stopped a few feet away. She took off her helmet and set it on the ground.
Dark eyes in a heart-shaped face framed by white hair. No sensory augments, all natural organs and limbs, everything about her unnervingly fragile, even now, decades later. She winced in pain as she drew her first breath, but quickly composed herself.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Chiara said coldly.
Talulah was a civilian, a music teacher and the gentlest soul Chiara had ever met. But she had been an engineer once, when the corporate wars for territory and resources were just taking hold—at first isolated incidents across the swaths of warp-highway galaxies, then ongoing campaigns thinly disguised as sector security.
“I just . . . want to talk . . .” Talulah took sharp gasps of air, her normally musical voice splintered by pain.
“There’s nothing to talk about.” The hole was ready. A few more inches would make no difference. Chiara dropped the shovel and snatched the cloth-swaddled mind-drive from the ground.
Talulah shuddered, her eyes widening. “Is that . . . him?”
“No,” Chiara snapped. “He’s gone. Reprogrammed, edited out. And then killed. Blasted to atoms, several times. You know that.”
“But a part of him is still there—” Talulah insisted.
“So what? You want to bring him back?” Chiara growled. “So they can stick him into a new body and deploy him again? With more and better guarded backups? Get him killed again? Rinse and repeat forever? Is that what you want? Because you can’t keep him and you can’t hide him. The moment you link up a comm to talk to him, they’ll see it and they’ll warp-punch here to take him away.”
“No . . . no . . .” Talulah was shaking her head.
“Then what do you want?” Chiara snapped. “You want to stop me? I know he’s your husband. But he’s also my brother, and I’m going to bury him right here.” She swung her arm to drop the mind-drive into the hole.
But Talulah rushed forward and grabbed her wrist. “Wait!”
Rage stirred in Chiara, a bitter fire licking the parts of her that could still feel it. “You think I want this? You think this is easy for me? I loved him too.”
“We can’t . . . just bury it.” Talulah’s breathing was ragged, her skin turning the ghostly blue-gray of this punishing, unforgiving planet. But her eyes were hard. “We have to . . . destroy it.”
Chiara stared at her in shock. Destroy the mind-drive? They couldn’t do that.
Bury it, yes. Hide it until the war was over, in a powered-down stasis as lifeless as death.
Terror and confusion slashed through Chiara. If they destroyed Arik’s mind-drive, how could she ever ask her brother’s forgiveness? How could she explain that she hadn’t meant it, hadn’t known what would happen when she’d tricked him into seeing a recruiter that awful summer? At seventeen, Arik was restless and hot-headed, always getting in trouble. And the army had treated Chiara well enough; she didn’t care for combat simulations, but she was learning cybersecurity, and she was good at it. How could she have known that her slacker brother would ace all the tests and get fast-tracked for special missions? And that damn recruiting bonus she’d pocketed. It made her feel like she had sold his soul and doomed him to hell . . .
And now Talulah wanted to destroy Arik’s mind-drive?
Chiara opened her mouth to argue, but no words came.
Because Talulah was right. Who knew what new tech the army had cooked up to sniff out the deserters, even those buried two feet underground on a haunted planet? They wouldn’t hesitate to rob a grave.
Teeth clenched, Chiara peeled away the black cloth.
The haunted lights swirled faster, the crystal drive flashing and blinking in her palm.
She thought of her brother’s laughter, the way his eyes shone and his shoulders shook.
She sank to her knees, the crystal sliding from her fingers. “I . . . I can’t . . .”
A small, gloved hand reached for it. “I’ll do it.”
Talulah pressed her husband’s mind-drive over her heart. Then set it down on a flat, gray rock. She gripped the handle of the shovel with both hands and raised it high.
“Goodbye, my love.”
The sharp blade struck down with surprising force—once, twice, three times—smashing the crystal to dust.
Chiara closed her eyes, relief and awe slamming into her.
It was done. Arik was free.
Rest in peace, baby brother.
Vera Brook is a neuroscientist turned science fiction and fantasy writer. She is the author of the Sand Runner series and her short fiction has appeared in Cast of Wonders, The Colored Lens, and Hyphen Punk, among other places, and is forthcoming in Analog SF. Learn more about her writing at verabrook.com and connect with her on Twitter: @VeraBrook1.