Adam propped himself up, his hands on the back of a chair, and proceeded with his early morning coughing routine. Painful and exhausting, when done, he sprayed the contents of a small canister into the back of his throat, inhaled, and let the canister drop into a waiting bin where more empty canisters welcomed the new arrival.
With both hands back on the chair, his grip tightening, Adam took long, deep, breaths, eventually allowing his eyes to close. He relished the smooth, unrestricted flow of air filling his lungs. Enjoy it while it lasts, he thought. Epispray supplies were running low and just like that they could be gone for good. What was certain for now was that by nightfall the fire in his chest and throat would come roaring back along with the sensation that his windpipe was being crushed and delicate membranes were tearing with every rasping cough.
He could only take two Dust control treatments a day, one usually before strenuous activity and the other one at night to help get some uninterrupted sleep. Taking more than the recommended dose could set off a chain reaction, a storm of symptoms that permanently turned users into vacant husks. Many early Dust intolerants had found this out the hard way, ending up in the Freemech camps looking for treatment. At least there they would be well looked after.
Knowing these truths helped Adam develop a respect for his treatment routine which had become a ritual. A ritual that helped keep his thoughts on an even keel. Steer a little off course and a voluntary lobotomy suddenly seemed like an option worth considering. Steer the other way and it would be over, death’s embrace a welcome gift.
He wasn’t entirely sure which of the two options was the worst, but he wasn’t about to let his curiosity get the better of him or let his exhausted mind entertain the thought further. That would endanger his newfound sense of altruism, which although weak and distant, was enough to keep the final decision at bay. At least for a while. If there was something he could do to change the fate of the SCELEC dwellers, then he’d be damned if his own lack of hope was to get in the way.
A low rumble shook the windows of Adam's 3rd floor apartment. He took a swig of his Vitpack, gargled and made his way to the generous balcony overlooking Independence Avenue, Washington D.C.
Icy air wrapped itself around his naked torso as he stepped out through the sliding door. He rubbed his arms like a junkie and watched his thick breath drift away in the breeze. The rumble grew louder, was approaching from the west, about to break the corner of the street. Not far from his balcony, in the other direction, a situation was brewing.
Adam's sleep-deprived eyes prepared to soak up the scene on the street below. He glimpsed the first robot silhouettes milling about under maple trees at the edge of the park. A group of Cherub class humanoids were loitering on the street corner, shifty, like a huddle of teenagers with nothing better to do. One of them, a female, had human clothes on, a one piece coverall, white with a single blue stripe down one side. The others, closing in on the female, like peacocks, proudly displayed their smooth, rubberized skins in all their colorful, synthetic glory. The slick, fluidic designs were mesmerizing, visual complexity balanced by sumptuous, organic elegance. The first rays of sunlight pouring through the urban landscape danced playfully on polished alloy rings surrounding decorative spinal ports.
Adam blinked and squinted as he tried to scrutinize the detail on the robot closest to him – a real Big Fella. Within a few heartbeats, it was clear to his trained eyes that the oversized humanoid, now fully lit under the rising sun, had not been engineered by human minds.
The source of the rumble finally made an appearance, a caravan of Rollers with their entourage of little helpers. These robo-behemoths moved through the SCELEC enclosure like giant lumbering insects foraging on the city's leftovers. The smaller units dashed around them, moving bins back and forth, eager to eat up any scraps that made their way to the ground.
But something was off. And Adam's heart skipped a beat.
The Rollers were slowing down, pulling up alongside the gathering of Freemechs. The little helpers, as if suddenly shy, retreated from their constant flurry to the rear of the caravan. To Adam's amazement, panels opened up on the sides of the Rollers and three squads of fully armed Slavers poured out onto the street. They quickly surrounded the Freemechs with military precision while an emergency signal blared from loudspeakers.
"STAND DOWN. DO NOT TRY TO ESCAPE..."
Immediately, one of the Freemechs tried to do just that. It didn't get far before an EMP blast hit it squarely in the back knocking it unceremoniously to the ground. The others stood like statues, not daring to move until the Slavers bound their wrists behind their backs and began loading them up into the Rollers.
The Big Fella shot an accusatory look up at Adam as the Slavers shoved him towards the second truck. The android had no face, no eyes, no mouth, just a smooth rubberized surface with a vertical line of tiny white lights. All the same, it felt to Adam as if the Big Fella was somehow blaming him for what was going down. Little did Big Fella know that Adam was indeed solely responsible for the way the world had turned out.
As the street cleared and the Rollers rumbled on their way, a flamboyant Skycheetah roared overhead, correcting its course as it transported VIPs to their VIP activities elsewhere in the city.
Skimming the rooftops, a silent flock of Hoppers obediently followed their preplanned routes picking up and transporting their cargo – a mix of trainee Sentients, Slavers, technical equipment, and food. Upon reaching the intercity hubs Skywhales would load up and deliver the supplies to their final destination – the Blade Complex of Nova York, formerly known as Central Park, and now the militarized headquarters of the Sentient cyborg elite.
Adam took a moment to contemplate the world outside his window; a familiar, yet incomprehensible world, a world that he’d grown weary of, tired to the bones of its hypocrisy and empty promises.
As he stood half naked on his balcony, shivering uncontrollably, Adam wondered if he was up to the task set before him by the Voice. The Sentients and their Slavers had won the day, but today, of all days, Adam would have to summon more courage and wits than he'd ever believed he was capable of. He took one last breath of the nanite-filled air and slipped back into the warmth of his dimly-lit apartment.
Making his way back through the lounge, Adam allowed his hand to drag across the surface of a slowly rotating hologram. The exploded view of a military-grade robotic arm glitched and readjusted as if annoyed by the interruption from an organic competitor. Detailed labels and notes hovered over internal components explaining their functions, suggesting improvements. Changes were being executed in real time. Ornately engraved insignias along the full length of the external casings materialized as if drawn by an invisible hand.
Adam was not the author of these designs. He was merely a spectator, an admirer even, the way a parent admires the achievements of a child. Many years had passed since he and others like him had been made obsolete, superseded by a machine intelligence capable of creations no human mind could fathom. Before obsolescence, before the Sickness, Adam's design team had built the machines that would go on to learn by themselves without human input. Ironically, the greatest human achievement of all time would also be their last and after thousands of years of invention, humanity having diligently served its purpose, a novel species was now at the helm of destiny and the future of intelligent life in the known universe.
Adam reached his bathroom, took a long piss, then stood in front of the glass basin watching as it filled with piping hot water. Something caught his eye making him glance up at the large gold framed mirror. The man in the mirror looked back at him and smiled knowingly.
"Jesus!" Adam blurted out.
"Not quite. But I'll take that as a compliment," the man in the mirror shot back and chuckled.
The sink began to overflow spilling boiling water onto Adam's bare feet. "Fuck. Fuck. Shit." He hopped to one side and turned off the tap while massaging one foot with the other.
The man in the mirror laughed out loud. "I was right about you Adam. You do have purpose. You never fail to entertain me."
"Well I'm glad one of us is having fun." Adam positioned himself in front of the mirror again. "What the hell do you want now?"
The man in the mirror with Adam's face softened. "I wanted to ask you something. Do you know the meaning of the word Akrasia?"
"No. Should I?" Adam replied, still abrasive.
"It means acting against one's better judgment."
"Um... OK. And..."
The Mirror Man continued, "Your judgment may be telling you one thing. But that doesn't make it right. Sometimes you have to go in the opposite direction of your better judgment. That requires trust and a little bit of faith. I know you have faith Adam. All I'm asking is that you trust me."
"And I would say that you haven't exactly been straight with me up to now, so why should I? In fact... you've been so NOT straight with me that I still have no fucking clue what your plan actually involves." Adam tested the water with his finger tips confirming that it was safe to use now and splashed his face with it relishing the warmth after the cold spell on the balcony. "This whole damned thing stinks precisely because of your inability to spill the gory details." He lathered some soap and washed his armpits while adding, "To be honest... you haven't given me a single fucking reason to trust you, and after the shit you pulled, my faith is starting to nosedive too. What if you're just using me, setting me up? What if you're dragging me through a ginormous pile of horseshit just so you can get what you want?" Adam rinsed and reached for a towel, his body temperature now back in the comfort zone.
The man in the mirror looked disappointed. He chose his next words carefully. “You already know more than I feel comfortable divulging. More will come but it's enough for now, enough for you to trust me and... I’m truly sorry that I used your daughter as a means of achieving that. Believe me Adam, I had no other way.”
The light went out of Adam’s blue-grey eyes as quickly as it did every time he was hit with the memory of his beautiful Chloe; a fleeting sorrow not to be entertained lest he fall into darkness.
Having achieved its goal, the Voice brought Adam back from the precipice. “We really should go. Time is of the essence.”
Adam locked eyes with the man in the fogged up mirror and mumbled, "So this is it?”
“Yes, yes it is Adam. Listen carefully, I’ve arranged for you to have special access to a Skycheetah at your local landing station. You should be there for 3.30pm. Do NOT forget your dNeedles. They will be of utmost importance once you reach your destination.”
"Alright, I get it. They'd be plugged in already if you hadn't kept me talking to myself in a mirror."
Adam moved to his bedroom, unpacked the brand new Climagear suit laying on his bed and put it on, zipping up the front all the way to his chin. It was a snug fit but already adapting to his athletic form, like a second skin. He put on some socks and boots and made his way to the kitchen table where a small, rectangular black box sat waiting. He picked it up and ran his fingers over the smooth surface, opened it and extracted the first dNeedle, a thin, silver data storage device that he proceeded to insert into the knuckle slot of his index finger. Instantly the dNeedle fused with Adam's DNA and pinged the Filter for VIP access which was immediately granted. One down, two more to go and the process would be complete. When finished he flexed his hand just to make sure everything was correctly installed and asked the Voice, "What about the pass?"
"I've already taken care of it. Angelic class travel permit. All you have to do is turn up, keep your mouth shut, and they'll let you through."
"Royal treatment, huh. I guess I should be grateful." Adam was back in the lounge finishing up and preparing to exit his apartment knowing full well that he would probably never return. "I mean, it could be worse. At least you're not making me walk all the way to the Arctic."
"If I could teleport you without destroying the original copy then I would, but until I solve the relevant equations and run some more tests, a transport will have to do," said the Voice without the slightest hint of irony.
Adam stared wide eyed into empty space. "You're totally not kidding about that are you?"
"Nope. But, for now... 3.30. Landing station. Mouth shut. Can you confirm?"
Adam sighed. “Yeah, why not, I wouldn’t miss it for the end of the world.”
“Your humor serves you well Adam. I wish you the best of luck.”
With a backpack full of Epispray inhalers slung over his shoulder, Adam left his apartment and made his way down the hall. The hologram still floating in the middle of the lounge buzzed a couple of times and switched to a perfectly rendered animation of a little girl, about three years old, sitting on freshly cut grass, playing with a toy robot. A woman's cheerful voice rang out as if from a nearby kitchen, "Chloe! Time for your medicine!"