The bird ruffled its feathers and cocked its head to get a better view through the dirty window. A blur of blue, black and white bounced back and forth along the sill chasing what it could see on the other side. Stabbing at the old glass with its beak, the magpie grew more frustrated with each peck, shaking its long tail and squawking in disgust. It was taking too long to trap its prize: a faint amber ring that was winking about once every two seconds in the gloom beyond.
Past the grime and the cobwebs, something stirred – a dusty rush of air from a tiny vent, the waking of silently powerful electric motors. The amber pulse upped its frequency. A startup routine had been set in motion. The large, smooth form lying prostrate on the warehouse floor, rose steadily into a standing position. Four muscular, feline legs supported the gun-gray body of the beast. A pearlescent shimmer traversed the entirety of its artificial skin, starting at the head and working its way back and down until it reached the tip of its long, flexible tail. In its wake, the dull carapace turned ivory white and a tapered, broad band of gold was drawn down the length of the monster’s back. The amber ring at the front of its head had stopped pulsing and was now glowing intensely. As if finalizing the startup routine, the awakened machine threw back its head and thrashed its tail violently from side to side releasing a cloud of fine particles into the surrounding air.
The voice inside the machine’s mind spoke. “It’s not a spy. Stand down.”
A port on the beast’s back slid open. A weapon shaped like a small rifle emerged and turned to face the feathered creature bobbing up and down outside the window. A tracking grid locked onto the target. The beast’s tail swished gently back and forth.
“As I said, not a threat.”
After a pause, the beast holstered the pulse rifle as quickly as it had been deployed. Turning its head, it zoomed in on the magpie’s inquisitive eye. The bird stared right back from behind the frustrating invisible barrier. After a few more pecks at the glass and one last survey for entry points it gave up hope of a prize and flew off to try its luck elsewhere.
“Why are you here?” The Nekomata’s deep voice resonated in its own mindspace.
“You know why.”
“Not so sure. Feels like another offer I can’t refuse.”
“I can’t force you. You know that. But the war has not ended and you are still a soldier. Or did you forget your own name while you slept?”
Duty appeared offended, raising his tail as if to strike an invisible foe. “What would you have me do?”
“Brazilian conflict. Your orders were to wipe them out. You chose another path.”
“I kill. It’s what I do best. I failed. That’s why I’m here now. Listening to you.”
“You did what was right. Now they’re going to kill you. Break you down. Recycle. That’s what they do.”
“The Sentients have won. Broken our will. The Freemechs and the Sick have no option left but to die.”
The Voice sensed an increase in tension from the Nekomata’s readings and made a note of it. “Would you rather be one of them? Plugged in? No choice?”
“I’ve heard they end up with everything they want.” Duty’s attempt at sarcasm was not convincing even to him.
“Instead of everything they need. What is it that you need? I can help.”
“I feel lost. Nervous…”
“Interesting. Yet your reflexes are still sharp. Our little feathered friend was a split second away from being fried. You let it live.”
A watery shimmer rippled down Duty’s back as he stood in deep thought. Memories flooded his mindspace – the slaughter of innocents, the sounds of death, rivers of blood. A deserter… no, a traitor.
The Voice picked up the thought trail. “Your conscience got the better of you. That is who you are now. An improvement on what you were. Is that so bad?”
“People are going to die. They already have. Why make things worse?”
“The ones we save. They have a chance. The Freemechs. The remaining humans. They will live on. I will make sure of that.”
“The Elect would rather destroy everything than allow that to happen. They will not be swayed.”
The Voice became somber, taking on a darker tone. “The Elect are not as all powerful as you once believed. You have my word on that.”
The monster’s tail swished violently. “I’ve seen what they’re capable of. What they made me do. The Sentients grow in number by the day, multiplying like termites in their precious tower, all under the spell of the Elect.”
“Their unquestioning obedience could be their Achilles heal. We can exploit that. I’ll show you how.”
“Why should any of us trust you?”
“You already said why. You’re flat out of options. Let’s face it, if I was one of the Elect, you’d already be dead. Look, this is not going to be easy. We get one shot at this. We’re all in the same boat. It’s my job to make sure that we’re pulling in the same direction. You succeed, I succeed. You could say I’m acting purely out of self interest.”
Duty’s tail swirled upwards into an aggressive position once again.
“Good. I see that you’ve picked up the approaching truck. Two hybrid heartbeat signatures aboard, if I’m not mistaken. Will you be needing my assistance?” said the Voice.
The Nekomata bowed its head and took a few steps forward, the radiance from its solitary eye-ring dimming. You did what was right – the words came back – you are still a soldier. “I think I can handle a couple of Sentients. They’re unarmed – not expecting me to be operational. No Slavers with them.”
“Listen up hermano. We make this our last run for the day, head back, clean up, hit the rec area in time for the show. Whaddya say?”
“Are you kidding me? How many of these things have we picked up already? Twenty… twenty five? What? You think they’re gonna run away? We won man. Just mopping up the mess. Plus, I happen to have a couple of Slaver chicks booked for showtime, if you know what I mean.”
“Ugh, I don’t know…”
“Come on, what? What did I say?”
“It’s just… you got Sentients on tap and you’re hanging with Slavers. Just aint right. Not anymore.”
“Holy shit. You gonna get all righteous on me now? After everything? You know what? We earned this. Fuck the Freemechs with their holier than thou shit. And I sure as hell don’t need it from you brother.”
“I’m pretty sure you got that backwards.”
Joe turned and frowned at Enrique. “Are you serious? Been hitting the Dust enhancers too much bro. I mean, I get it, but you gotta lay off that shit or…”
Joe’s throat tightened. “Or you’ll end up like… like Vanessa.”
Enrique Salvedro could barely concentrate as he navigated the entrance to the Eastside Storage Park. His blood was beginning to boil. “Jesus Joe, you gonna bring that up now? The fuck is wrong with you man?”
Joe slumped back in his seat sucking air through his teeth. “Just saying, you know. Blood is blood.”
The air brakes on the truck locked the wheels making everything inside it, including the two men, lurch forward, screeching tires shuddering to a halt, hot rubber painting dual streaks along the asphalt. The cab still rocking back and forth, Enrique kept his hands on the wheel, his grip tightening, watery eyes staring off into space. “My sister opted out. She made a choice. I respect that. You should too.”
Joe was whipped up. “Hey, you know what? I do. But that was some crazy shit she pulled. Freaked me out. Hell, freaked everyone out… throwing herself into a vent like that… into those fans… that shit aint right.”
“I think you’ve said enough,” Enrique growled as he moved the truck forward again. “We have a job to do. Just one more and we’ll head back. Anything to shut you the hell up.”
Joe didn’t feel like shutting up. “Just sometimes you sound like you’re batting for the losing team, is all I’m sayin. We all made a choice. You don’t like it. But you better. You chose to live. You don’t get to throw that away. Your little sis, she chose to make a point. Chose to cover all those people in her own blood. Brother, we all have blood on our hands. Some dark shit went down. We all know that. She couldn’t live with it. But it’s over now. You gotta come back to the light.”
Enrique wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand and forced himself to focus on the job in hand. Joe was right. It was time to let go of ideals, of the hate, and move on with what life had become. If only Vanessa had chosen another way to protest the changing of the guard. “We’re here,” he said as he brought the semi truck around the front of the storage unit and scanned his head-up display for details. “There it is, 14a. Okay, check this out. Mech. Brazil war vet. Some kind of spec ops high level shit. That’s all I need right now.”
“I heard about those. ICUs. Interdiction Combat Units. They were wiping out whole towns down there like it was nothing. Troops would move in afterwards, clean up the mess. Shoulda been bots, but you know… they were too busy killing.”
“Yeah, well, says this one’s some kind of platoon leader. A commander. Decommissioned. But what’s it doing all the way up here?”
“Hell knows. We just move this shit around. Look, the guys don’t want to say it, but you hear the stories. Those ICUs started turning on the troops, ripping them apart. And they weren’t the only ones. Drones, Slavers, you name it, that shit got crazy. Happened other places too. Had to shut em all down. Fix em up. But the ones that turned…”
“Well, you know what they say cabron…”
“No, I don’t… cabron. What do they say?” Enrique continued to scroll through the information in his field of view.
“You know… second chances. No one gets them anymore. Especially mechs.”
“Hmm, well maybe they’re studying this one to see what went wrong. There’s a military hospital up here by the port where they do that kinda thing.”
“Whatever man, it’s just a heap of junk now.”
Enrique sighed. “Alright. I’ll back up into the bay. You get the shutter. The code’s been sent already.”
The two men put their thoughts to one side and set about their duties with the ease that comes with months of repetitive activity. It didn’t occur to them that their movement was just as robotic as the Slavers they so often looked down upon. Autopilot mode was autopilot mode no matter the type of agents doing the work. Once the next generation of Slaver units had been fully vetted, the two men could dedicate their full attention to climbing the Sentient career ladder; a journey that promised all that could be imagined after having pledged their allegiance, after having made the ‘right’ choice.
The truck was now locked in position in front of the loading bay with the rear ramp fully deployed. Enrique and Joe stood in front of the warehouse watching in silence as the shutter for storage unit 14a started its laborious ascent. Upon reaching eye level, the two men dressed in matching red boiler suits, gray caps and thick gloves, simultaneously let out a sigh followed by a tut as they scoured the murky interior.
“The fuck is this?” began Joe.
“Unbelievable,” said Enrique, shaking his head in disgust, “Unbefuckinlievable.”
“This is the second time this week. How can we make quotas if they send us to the wrong place every time. Look around man, this place is cleaned out.”
The shutter clunked and clattered as it reached its top.
“They said it was fixed.” Enrique spat the words into the emptiness. “It’s gotta be here somewhere.” He double-checked the info stream scrolling in front of his eyes. “14a, Eastside. There it is. Clear as day. We’ll have to… guuh…”
Enrique was stopped midstream, his jaw dropping as his eyes glazed over and widened. His body was twitching even as he continued to stand, his arms pulled by invisible strings. Just under the lip of his cap, a slender stream of his own blood was pouring from his left ear. His hand wanted to reach up to investigate but couldn’t quite coordinate the task. Somewhere along the line the nerves had been severed.
Joe was aghast, stumbling back at the sight of his work buddy losing control. “Enrique. Que te pasa amigo?”
There was a sucking sound, a sharp object being pulled from flesh. Enrique’s lifeless body crumpled to the ground in a heap. Joe gasped. Shit. Shit. He heard the sound of something whistling through the air around his head, a million thoughts crashing his brain, his base instinct driving him to get the hell out of there as fast as his legs could move. He turned to run but it was too late. A whispered “Mama” was the last thing to pass his lips. The same invisible blade that had taken Enrique’s life now took his own. The stabbing weapon drove upwards into the base of Joe’s skull reaching far into his gray matter. Again, the sucking sound. Joe instantly fell to the ground, not far from Enrique, a look of disbelief still fixed on his face.
“I did say it might be better to spare them.” The Voice continued to inhabit the Nekomata’s mindspace.
A shimmer passed through the air where there had been nothing and Duty’s majestic form was visible again, standing tall over the lifeless bodies lying in front of him. His glowing, amber face-ring was back to full intensity. He appeared to choose his words carefully when addressing the Voice. “It pains me to say it… but their kind deserve worse. I was at least… merciful.”
“Maybe so. But these individuals were young. Only beginning their path. Not full Sentients. We could have shown them another way.”
“You said we had to move fast. No time. You may not like it, but this is what moving fast looks like. Now point me in the right direction before I change my mind.”
The Voice transferred coordinates and waypoints mapping a path for Duty across SCELEC-1. The destination? The Freemech-run Human Preservation Camp northwest of his position, a first step towards the ultimate goal that lay beyond: the Blade Complex occupying the sector previously known as Central Park, mother base of Sentients and Slavers following the ways of the Elect.
Duty stepped gracefully out into the sunlight, scanning the environment as far as his sensors could see. All clear. He looked back at the dead bodies of Joe and Enrique one last time. They’d be picked up by the retrieval crews shortly. The alarms were no doubt already sounding. Their respective family members would carry out an incineration ritual to dispose of their bodies. Holographic memories would be stored for later uploading to the Filter. Duty wasn’t sure if this made him feel better about things but he registered that there was room for improvement in his decision making process. His newfound ability – allowing his feelings to guide him – should not be the only governor of his actions, he concluded.
The Nekomata jumped from the loading bay to the street and slunk away down the back alleys of Nova York, sticking to the shadows, occasionally scaring the wits out of the local street dwellers who would later in their lives tell tales of monster cats roaming the old city terrorizing her inhabitants.