Short Story: Big M

[Project begun circa 1992, lost for years, now being rewritten from partial, early printed manuscript found with coffee spilled all over it.]

The rifle wakes at dusk, just after me. Reddish light is oozing off the horizon and turning the trees black, which means it's time to get going. My back is hurting, from having rolled over onto an ammo pouch in my sleep, and I am thirsty. Quietly, I undo the top of a canteen and drink some of the indigenous water that always tastes like blood. There are iron deposits around here, and the mineral leaks into the aquifers. Nobody cares about the iron, though, because of the oil.
Big M yawns and makes lip-smacking sounds. He's starting to invent human behaviors for himself -- sleeping, waking, making small talk. He farts and belches. And the voices... Christ, he's better than Dana Carvey used to be. If I can think it, Big M can speak it, just like he's reading my mind.
Which he is.
You've probably seen the ads. Get expert training on the most advanced equipment! Learn leadership skills! Be part of a winning team!
Here I am, working with the latest equipment. I am unable to tell if I'm on the winning team.
He is lying on my ruck under a bush, propped out of the dirt. He makes me stand him up on his stock, like a sentry, when I sleep. In the dim light, I see that his cartridge-eject is open, gaping at me like a mouth. He yawns. In a way, he is beautiful, like a metal sculpture angling out of the weeds.
"You're going to get full of dirt again, with your eject open like that," I say.
Big M laughs. He giggles. "You will clean me."
"Maybe I won't."
"And maybe the naughty little soldier's rifle will jam or double-feed. Then where will he be?"
"Same place I always was, but without you to lug around. I don't need much incentive to throw you away."
"I think not."
"Thinking," I say, "is not your job."
"Ah, but it is now, Paulie. Since you seem to be a little turned around. A little... defective."
"Will you please shut your goddam mouth?"
"Poor, confused Paulie... you know I don't have a..."
"You know what I'm talking about!" I jump him, my back grinding, and jam the cartridge-eject shut. The contact is short, but it's enough for him to deliver me a couple of amps. Not much, luckily -- just enough to let me know he's there. We both fall to the ground. I look at him, and his cartridge-eject pops open with a metallic click.
"What are you trying to prove?" I say.
"What are you trying to prove?" he mimics, in my voice.
"You're going to get full of dirt again."
"What do you care? You're the peaceful type. Why don't you stick a flower in my barrel?"
I ignore him and start strapping on my ruck.
"Can I pick you up," I say, "or are you going to play games with me?"
"Games? Oh, no. You've got the wrong M-2.2."
"I sure as hell do."
He affects a cowboy voice. "Aw, now, don't get sore. C'mon, let's saddle up. We got a fair piece of ridin' ahead."

I touch him in the reddish light and wait for the tasp. Big M does nothing, leaning silently in the scrub.
"What are you waiting for?" I whisper.
"I might ask you the same question."
"You know why I'm waiting," I say. "You know what I need."
"Pick me up first," he says. I hesitate.
"I told you last time that I didn't want to do it that way anymore."
"You'll do it the way I want it. Or would you rather not have it at all? I'm in kind of a bad mood. I think I have a headache. Why should you feel so good?"
"We've been through this before. For God's sake, quit hazing me and fix me up. You'll save both of us a headache."
"Poor widdle Paulie," he mocks. "He need his fixy-wixy."
"Fuck you," I say.
"No, fuck you," he says, in a woman's voice, and sends a finger-jolt of electricity up my arm, down my chest, and into my nuts. It doesn't hurt much, but it's irritating.
"Deliver, cocksucker." I say.
"Pick me up."
"You just want an excuse to hook me again."
"Maybe I like it," he says, still in a woman's voice.
"I hate it."
"Oh, but you'll like the tasp. I'll make it worth your while. If you've got the money, honey, I've got the time."
Slowly, warily, I pick him up and hold him at port-arms.
The wait while he charges up is a little longer than usual, and for a second I think he's going to punish me with another high-amp jolt. But then I feel that warm, blurry pleasure starting to melt up my arms and leak into my stomach. It spreads through my chest and into my head and legs, trickling through me like liquid God. The hair stands up on the back of my neck, it is so choice. The only thing interrupting the perfection is the ironclad grip that Big M makes sure that I have on him.
It's a minor hook, but I still don't like it. He knows that under tasp I might drop him, so he commandeers my frame for a moment. I'm so blissed out, I don't really give a crap, but through the fuzzy pleasure I can feel my stiff hands, numb and hard as though they've been frozen around the weapon. The feeling intensifies as the tasp fades. I flutter into my body's pleasure-ghost, haunting around my stone hands.
"You can let go," I say, dreamily.
He lets me have my hands again. They flicker back into being like fluorescent lights turning on. For a moment, neither of us says anything.
"Was it good for you?" murmurs Big M.

These days, basic training for a soldier is also basic training for his weapon. Some of the more specialized soldiers get custom weapons that have already had some Q-training, but if you're Infantry, you banging through Basic attached to a Q-mind who's just as green as you are. The idea is to establish the man-machine bond early and have it grow into a unique, working relationship.
Before you're ever handed a weapon, there's a whole phase of Basic that attempts to prepare you to work with Q-minds. I remember they brought in an antitank squad and their tracked weapon and had them talk about what it's like to work together with the machine. The antitank gun had this deep, commanding voice, and I wondered if they had told it to talk like that so that we'd be impressed.
The big gun had a big library of hooks; when you deal with specialized equipment, you have to do more of that stuff. The squad said it didn't bother them, that it made them work better as a team. At one point, they had the Q-mind hook the squad leader a little and it made him goose-step around. Everybody laughed like hell.
Still, nothing can prepare you for HookDay. It happens about a month into the training. They get you up early, even earlier than usual. There's no PT, and they don't let you eat anything, since some people react violently after the Hook, throwing up and so on.
They march you down to the armory, and everybody is issued a shiny new M-2.2. I remember how mine felt as the sergeant shoved it into my gut and my hands closed around it. It was unexpectedly heavy, and slick with fresh oil.
We kneeled in formation outside the barracks, our rifle butts between our legs in the dust. Nobody said anything. I was shaking with a bad case of nerves, trying not to look at the barrel bisecting my field of vision. Then the drill instructor came to each man with his key. It looked like a coke-machine key, and he came down the ranks with it, turning on the Q-minds one-by-one with quick little twists of his key in the indentations on the front rifle grips. And one by one, the soldiers went stiff as statues, and they didn't seem to be alive anymore. Then he was in front of me, roughly inserting his key. There was a click.
I don't know for sure what the rationale is for introducing soldier and weapon by doing a BigHook. Maybe it's just an extension of the immersion philosophy that pervades Basic. But every Q-mind is instructed at the farm to fully hook the person it's touching when it wakes. It's a greeting, in a way. And an evaluation. The machine gets inside and says Let's see what we've got here.
After the keyclick, I couldn't move, and the rifle was inside me. All my nerves were switched over to instructions by the weapon. I panicked, but it seemed like someone else's fear, and I couldn't do anything about it anyway. During the greeting, even autonomic nervous functions like breathing and heartbeat are commandeered. I felt the rifle's neural window scaling around in my body, feeling me, my muscles, probing the little charges in my nerves. It lasts thirty seconds, but time means nothing when you don't own yourself.
Around me, I could hear the men who had been keyed before me coming out of their hooks, groaning or weeping or retching. But I still couldn't move, and I was waiting for the voice that I knew would come.
Big M said Good morning, Sunshine in my head, released the hook, and I passed out cold in the dust.