“You’re lucky,” Hugh said, taking in the lights of Baghdad nearly a mile beneath him.
“That you have the ethics of an NSA agent at the end of a night of binge drinking?” Ian’s voice came over his comms.
“Says the kettle. No, you’re lucky that Iraqi cell phone carriers aren’t terribly particular about how they license user data, so this falls under an agreement my company made studying citizen’s aggregate movement through GPS. Otherwise it would have taken me several more hours to assemble all the data, and possibly breaking several international laws.”
“What were you doing with cell phone data?”
“It started during the occupation, a next level terrorism study, testing whether or not terror attacks during an insurgency were truly stochastic, or whether, given enough data, they were individually and not just statistically predictable.”
“Find anything useful?”
“Nope. Funding for the study cut off abruptly, and since there was a high likelihood of the study being used for the purposes of profiling, we were happy to plow the data into other areas. Like some interesting insights for 21st century city planning, some useful improvements to our GPS tech, even information we’re going to use to give our self-driving cars an edge. And since those carriers weren’t interested in locking down how the data was used or how long we had access, we’re still getting the data for a song. Even if we weren’t using it currently, we’d probably keep paying, just to keep amassing potentially useful data.”
“You sound an awful lot like Big Brother in training. I’ve never felt closer to you,” Ian said.
“Praise from Caesar,” Hugh said, “of the kind that makes me worry we’ve got a similar flaw.”
“Nah,” Ian said, “your flaws are much stranger than mine. But at least you’ve got the excuse of having legitimate mental and physical health challenges. I’m just an emotionally closed off mass-murdering narcissist with no sexual scruples and a damaged moral compass.”
“I take it things haven’t been going well reconnecting with Angela.”
“I don’t know,” Ian admitted. “In a lot of painful ways she’s just like me. Closed off. Insightful. Resourceful. I got a daughter out of it… but I missed a lot, too. And she isn’t wrong about me; there’s nothing she’s said about me I haven’t worried about myself. She might as well be my conscience.”
“I feel like I should get her a Jiminy Cricket costume for next Halloween,” Hugh said.
“She’s angry at me, for not figuring it out sooner; I am, too. I… wouldn’t have been ready to be a father for her when she was young. I’m only just mature enough now to have an adult relationship with her. But I think there’s some small element in either of us that’s… it’s difficult to accept.”
“Give it time,” Hugh said.
“All the time I have remaining, if that’s what it takes.” Ian said. “But what about you and Laney? You told her, right?”
“I’m going to ignore the uncomfortable connotation of you transitioning from your daughter to my love life.”
“They’re both the most significant relationships with women in our lives,” Ian said.
“Only because you continue to sidestep the most significant relationship with a woman in yours.”
“I tried,” Ian said, his voice hollow, “but your mother stopped returning my calls.”
“Could be because she’s dead, though that’s just a theory.”
“She’s been dead almost as long as you’ve been alive. And yes, I told her.”
“You’ll have to tell me how it went.”
“Well and terribly at the same time.”
“Not ‘terribly well?’”
“No, I-” Hugh paused. “You have incoming.”
“I didn’t know you’d take a mother joke so seriously.”
“Not from me,” Hugh said. “Though on the bright side, I can intervene.”
“What happened to your noninterference pact?”
“That’s complicated. I asked the Iraqi government for permission to operate in their borders. Unlike you and Jack, I can’t quietly intervene. They thought having bleeding edge US tech used in an interdiction would undermine the progress their security forces have made. They did, however, give me the go ahead in certain circumstances. Like intercepting rockets.”
Hugh’s vision stopped focusing, instead taking in the entirety of his radar range, his consciousness blending with the computers controlling the suit, until they both selected thirteen projectiles, and selected the best impact angle to stop the missiles. Every ancillary weapon system compartment in Hugh’s suit opened at once, as he unleashed a storm of projectiles.
Twelve exploded on impact, but the thirteenth was sheered in half, the front half falling in a predictable parabola, while the back end arced upwards in lopsided spirals. Hugh turned his body and thrust his engines.
The front of the rocket’s momentum with acceleration due to gravity wasn’t going to be a problem; Hugh and his suit both crunched his own acceleration and saw he’d intercept the front one hundred feet above the city.
The problem was the rear of the rocket. It was continuing to gain distance and momentum, even as it lost altitude. Hugh calculated that he wasn’t going to be able to catch the rear, that he couldn’t change directions fast enough to make up the difference- fifteen Gs of force would be enough to knock him out.
“Suit, autonomous mode. Record instructions.” Hugh thought through the next few steps, catching the front of the rocket while he turned, then pouring on speed to catch up to the rear of the rocket and striking it at the right angle to knock it onto a course to land outside of the city.
He had just finished setting autonomous instructions mentally when the suit began to pitch upwards. He could feel the inertial resistance of his bodily fluids, that strange pull as his body separated based on its density, overcoming regular gravity exponentially, and even the beating of his heart. His vision went black at the corners, before darkening. The suit had landing protocols, that theoretically would set the suit down if he lost consciousness, but he had never successfully tested them, which wasn’t the most pleasant thought to have as he lost consciousness.
He came to to the sound of an engine roar. He was still gripping the front of the rocket, but he couldn’t see the source of the sound. Were his own engines malfunctioning? He checked a sonic map, but the sound was coming from above him, vibrating through the suit. During autonomous mode, the suit had landed the spiraling rocket on his back, and was holding it in place as he guided it outside of the city. Hugh did a quick calculation, and found that the rate of success for the maneuver was a good 50% better than trying to knock it onto a different course; the suit had made a better decision than he had.
The heat sensors on the back of the suit went into alarm. The engine built into one of his legs was overheating- it must have come too close to the rocket. There was a chance it would blow if he didn’t shut it off, and he could land with only one.
His remaining engine burst into flame, before shorting out. The suit played back external video, of fuel leaking from the rocket, pouring all over his leg before the engine ignited it.
Hugh was losing altitude, fast. A quick sim showed he and the rocket would land just outside the city limits, if he could hold on. He forced his fingers to clamp into the rocket’s casing, then zoomed his lenses. He was going to come in hot, and couldn’t afford to be holding the warhead in the tip when he and the rocket landed. He found an empty patch of land, devoid of life or structure, and hurled the warhead away. “This is going to,” he struck the ground, and was torn away from the rocket’s engine. He and it cartwheeled across the sand. The suit compensated, cushioning each roll and absorbing as much impact as possible, but it was still like being in a car accident, his entire body stopping too quick against a seatbelt that covered his entire body.
He was still breathing when he finally came to a stop, even if that breath hurt. He checked the sensor data on his engines. The one looked like it would be good to go once it cooled, the other could likely function, if he could bypass the burnt-out circuits. Failing that, his jet was parked in Baghdad, and he could have the suit towed to it. Either way, he was going to be out of commission for several hours.