A two year old male pitbull, white with sandy patches and missing most of one ear, lifted his leg and pissed on the wall he'd just finished sniffing. There weren't any other dogs inside the compound enclosure so it was possible that he was answering his own messages just out of habit and for lack of anyone else to talk to in his native language. The dog panted and scratched at the ground happily with all four paws before running back to the prefab shack on bricks that he called home.
Outside the shack, the pitbull barked twice and waited patiently. After a few seconds, the door swung open and a man, six-two, dark skin, bald head, pointy goatee, allowed the dog to waddle inside. The man craned his neck left, then right, beyond the door frame, then quickly closed the door and triple locked it before saying, "Ya done ya business Billy? That's a good boy. Want something from the fridge? Course ya do."
The woman showering in the next room floated her voice over the airwaves making sure she would be heard above the background noise permeating every corner of the shack; the trundling of a washing machine obediently cycling down, preparing for its rinse and spin phase, and a speaker on the kitchen table spewing the latest SCELEC propaganda.
"You spoil that dog more than you do me, Kal."
The man smiled to himself and boomed back, "I love you too, babe. You know that."
Kalen moved to the giant fridge, almost as tall as himself, lit by the warm afternoon sun drifting in through the skylight. With one hand already on the handle and Billy sitting expectantly at his feet tracking his every move, Kalen froze when he noticed something strange happening to the female avatar on the fridge's infoscreen. The image fizzed and twitched a couple of times, then the woman winked at Kalen and chuckled with the familiarity of an old friend. Startled, Kalen let go of the handle and stepped back shooting a look behind him to make sure his girl was still in the bathroom. Billy tilted his head to one side and whined.
"What the hell?" Kalen tried to keep his voice low but also loud enough to be heard over the radio babble. "You promised not to..."
"I know Mr. Rose, I agree, highly inappropriate, but I'll be brief." The woman on the infoscreen stared directly into Kalen's eyes. "Tonight is a go. Do I have your support?"
Kalen winced and said, "I thought we had another week."
"So did I Mr. Rose, but the enemy does not sleep and is pressing ahead with their next move. Hence the urgency. We need to act now before the window of opportunity closes. There won't be another one I'm afraid. If we fail to act, all will be lost. And the Sentients will have their day in the sun."
"No need to wax poetic o wise one. I get it. I just need to take care of things here and I'll be at the waypoint by dawn. Anything else I should know?" Kalen was still wincing waiting for the next bombshell to drop.
"Just a reminder. Alone. As promised." The Voice was cold, heartless.
Kalen paused, allowing the thoughts bubbling up in his mind to subside, then nodded gently in agreement, "Confirmed. Alone. As promised."
"Who were you talking to?" Maya's voice filled Kalen with dread and jolted him out of the moment he was sharing with his giant fridge. He felt like a gun was pointing at his back, but managed to keep his breath steady as he turned to face his interrogator. Maya was standing at the bathroom entrance, gently drying her hair with one towel while another was wrapped around her slender, but well honed form. "I asked you twice to bring my oil. I guess you really do love that mutt more than me."
"Oh... the noise," Kalen stuttered. The washing machine was spinning full speed now. "I was miles away in my head. You know how I get sometimes."
Maya stopped toweling her hair and her face darkened before saying, "You promised. No more lies."
Kalen felt the clock ticking in his head now. No time to handle this gently, "Yeahhh. I know. I'm working on it." He leaned towards Maya with his hands up as if that would convince her knowing full well it wouldn't. Getting away was going to be far trickier than the Voice could possibly imagine.
"Kal. Listen... I was raised to be loyal to my man, but you're pushing your luck hun." Maya came off like a mother scolding her boy for rolling around in the mud one too many times. Tired of it, but also gentle and understanding. Kal had been through a lot, the worst of times, but Maya had learned to be accommodating of his 'issues.'
Kalen straightened up, but kept his distance, no time to soften her now, "And I was told never to lie, right. And I won't lie to you now. I'm not a man. I'm something else."
Maya sighed and stared deep into Kalen's big brown eyes, "None of that makes any difference to me big guy. Not one bit." Kalen began to shake his head... but Maya wasn't having any of it, "No, don't you dare." She composed herself, "I still see the man you were. And I still love that man."
Kalen ground his teeth, but accepted his defeat so he could move on, "OK, you win. Satisfied?"
"Only if you take me for a luxurious night out at the Mess Hall. It's been a while since we had some fun." Maya had softened anyway, thank God, but Kalen's mind was racing now. He would have to go along with all of this to keep Maya in the sweet spot while he planned his exit strategy on the fly. A bait and switch, a diverge maneuver, he wasn't sure yet how it would go. For now, he would have to play it by ear, keeping his options open, looking for the best moment to break away.
In Kalen's private time, he had always known it would end this way for him and Maya. The way he saw things, it was best for Maya to move on with her life. There was no future for them as a couple. She'd be safe here at the base and some of the more respectable guys had already shown an interest in her. They would protect her from the rest.
"Are you OK hun? You seem a little tense." Maya brought Kalen to full attention.
Kalen forced himself to lighten up, "Yeah. It's just... you know... it's been a while since I've... mingled."
Maya let out a giggle of tension release and continued with a dollop of honey in her voice, "You stupid big hunk of a man. It's about time you let your hair down. You go on ahead and make friends. I'll catch up with you when I'm finished here. Oh, and Kal, now would be a good time to change into something decent, don't you think?"
Kalen looked down at the oversized prison-orange one piece covering his body from his neck down to his ankles and shrugged, "A little worse for wear, but it's mine. Anyone has a problem with that will have to take it up with my other suit."
"Hey!" Maya shot back with a frown. "Promise me right now you won't get in any trouble or I'm calling it off."
Kalen's hearty laugh released the tension even further, "Don't worry your little head sweet pea. I'll stay covered up. Wouldn't want to scare the local critters on our first night out."
"Good. I'll see you there. Billy can come too. The poor guy needs to mingle just as much as us." Billy pricked his ears up and gave full attention to Maya just as Kalen tensed up again.
"Uhhh. OK. Just put the lead on him for now... you know... to be safe," he said carefully.
"Wow! You ARE cagey today. Get outta here. It'll be fine." Maya turned and disappeared back into the bathroom through clouds of steam. Kalen looked on, his face dropping as he wondered if he would ever see her again.
It was starting to get dark as Kalen approached the Mess Hall, an old, dilapidated aircraft hanger, its sliding doors half open. A sign hung over the entrance – BETTER TO SERVE AND EAT THAN BE FREE AND STARVE. Soft yellow light and smokey air wafted from its interior. Music too. Some old track he couldn't recognize and didn't much care either. It reminded him of old times, before the Brazil wars, before the Change, times when regular folk still listened to music, watched a ball game, gathered around a barbecue and it still meant something. Now it was just a gesture, a nostalgic longing, a feeble attempt to capture a glimpse of how things used to be. Those times were gone. Whatever came next meant people would have to choose between adaptation or death. There was no other option.
A couple of tables sat outside the entrance bathing under the yellow glow of yet more lamps. The bulbs had been changed from the usual glaring white to create ambience, anything to emulate the old environments where people used to drink and be merry. A makeshift military hospital down by the old eastside airstrip wasn't exactly the most accommodating of venues, but the stragglers that ended up here were damned if they weren't going to enjoy a pig roast and get drunk as if it was their last night on earth.
Kalen scrutinized the scene and made a mental note of all potential threats. He would have to pass by pretty close to get to the armory on the other side of the compound. Fences locked him in and he didn't want to get caught doing anything out of the ordinary, anything that would jeopardize the mission given to him by the Voice. He made his way across the beaten up old runway trying his best to keep a low profile.
Suddenly, voices from behind him cracked open the air like a grenade going off. He stiffened up, but ignored them. No time for nonsense. The voices were loud, drunk, laughing, obnoxious, and the last thing he needed right now. The leader of the group called for him to wait up, "Hey, Freaky Boy! Slow down! Why the rush?"
Kalen acknowledged him without slowing down and continued to walk briskly towards the corner of the Mess Hall. The people sitting at the outdoor tables tracked the hoodlums coming their way. They were all too familiar with their antics. Couldn't they have one peaceful night without these miscreant Sentient wannabe jerk offs ruining it for everyone else. No wonder families with kids were not allowed into places like this.
"Hey! Big guy. We're talking to you." The alpha leader continued his harassment in a mocking sing-song voice.
Kalen stopped and turned to face the gang of six men that morphed into a crescent formation around him. He remained silent, poised, ready for anything.
The beta followers felt empowered and started their usual routine, taking verbal jabs, wearing down their prey, "What's the matter Captain, cat got your tongue?"
Another chimed in, "You think you're better than us? Is that what it is?"
The leader continued, "What do you think Vasquez? This thing is practically a machine, right? From the neck down, I heard. Rumor has it, he don't have no peepee! Is that right Freaky Boy?"
Raucous laughter filled the air. People were now gathering at the hanger entrance to see what all the fuss was about.
"Which side are you on freak? Are you with us or with those loser mechs? Seems to me you're one of them now. We're gonna be Sentients. Pure. You're nothing but Skreever bait." The skinniest gang member also happened to be the loudest.
Finally, Kalen spoke, "Guys, I don't want any trouble. And neither do the good people here. Maybe you should take your fun somewhere else."
The gang paused for a moment, wide-eyed, then filled the air with belly laughs once again.
Kalen payed close attention to each of the gang members' body language, their hand and foot movements, specifically tracking the two men at the edge of his peripheral vision. The exosuit hidden by his orange coverall started to heat up preparing his nano-enhanced musculature for explosive close-quarters combat. The silver Glovetech splines running down the back of his hands and knuckles hardened ready to deliver devastating blows that could break bones. Sheathed titanium blades hovered above his wrist mounts awaiting a neural command to bring forth their crimson destruction. Electrochemical charge expanded up his spinal chord to increase his speed and focus. A neck brace and full head protection was ready to emerge from the backplate on his exosuit if his biosensors detected the risk of head injuries.
The Voice invaded Kalen's mindspace. "The clock is ticking Mr. Rose. This is not your fight. There is nothing you can do for these people now. Your girlfriend will be safe once security arrives. Please stay on mission."
Kalen maintained his heightened awareness, thoughts of Maya racing through his brain, but the breakaway was now, otherwise he'd miss the boat, and all would be lost.
Just as the tension was reaching breaking point, a middle-aged man who had been sitting at one of the nearby tables reluctantly put down his chicken drumstick, wiped his mouth, and directed his speech at the alpha gang leader, "Alright. That's enough. Show a little respect. The guy's a vet, just like you. Ain't no fault of his he got torn up like that. Coulda happened to any one of us. Shit, I'da put on the suit too if I came back looking like that. And all o you pricks woulda done the same. Now, you let the soldier go on his way and he might remember that the next time you wanna bust his balls."
"Hey. Who the fuck are you old man? And who asked you for your opinion?" Alpha Leader didn't appreciate bystanders butting in on his fun.
"I'm head of security at this base and I'll have your sorry ass arrested for disturbing the peace if you don't leave. The punishment is exile and not of a one of you will be allowed anywhere near this safezone again. Out there, you can beg the Slaver squads to take you to central command for processing or end up as food for the Skreevers. The choice is yours."
The mini-crowd at the hanger entrance cheered in agreement and stood their ground, waving to people inside to join them, buffer their numbers. They were no pushovers. They'd all been through the toughest of times and they weren't going to be intimidated by yet another snot-nosed bunch of low-life punks. The head of security had an assistant nearby who radioed for backup. A truck with armed guards would arrive soon enough, but these idiots were spoiling for a fight, that much was clear.
Kalen stepped aside as the gang homed in on their new target. The skinny one bumped him just to let him know he meant business, that he wasn't afraid of the big bad cyborg, at least not while he was cushioned by his buddies. Kalen let it go. This is it, he thought, time to exit stage left. He could hear a truck engine in the distance so this little performance was about to be wrapped up. Hopefully Maya was taking extra time to get ready so she'd miss the whole thing. It's not like she couldn't handle herself, and she had Billy, but knowing that he couldn't stick around to play the hero was tough.
The Voice insisted, "The armory, Mr. Rose. Waypoint must be reached by dawn."
Kalen clenched his teeth, waited a few seconds for the sparks to fly between Alpha Leader, his pets, and the sizable crowd guarding the makeshift Mess Hall fronted by the security chief and his deputy, then darted around the corner into the shadows, running towards the armory as fast as he could. The last words he could make out above the din were... "That freak has to sleep sometime!"
Outside the armory, Kalen composed himself, wiped the sweat from his forehead, then confidently walked through the open doorway to the front office. Diffuse light filled every corner of the small building leaking out of the windows on each side. A coffee machine was percolating and the smell of toasted bread and melted cheese hit Kalen's nostrils awaking childhood memories.
He recognized the guard, feet up on the desk, crumb-filled plate resting on his swollen belly, almost sleep-staring at the screen to his side, an old TV-show playing with the volume turned way down.
Kalen broke the guard's trance. "Hey! Henry. Anything new?"
Henry jumped to attention, nearly dropping his plate. "Jesus! What are you wearing? Slippers? How about knocking next time. You scared the crap outta me."
Kalen laughed to put Henry at ease and began to soften him up. "Keeping busy I see, huh?"
"Hell yeah I am. Some of us have a job to do. Not like some. Can't all be at the pig roast having fun and shit. I take it you didn't go?" Henry swiveled in his chair, brushing crumbs off his trousers.
"I stopped by. Looked good. But, you know... it's not really my thing. Thought I'd pop by and get the latest gossip from my good buddy. You got anything juicy for me?"
"Nah, the usual couple dimwits skipping checks. Some gal selling permits to you know who. And a freak with a deathwish snoopin' around where he shouldn't be." Henry chuckled. "I mean... no offense, but you are pretty freaky, if you know what I mean."
"No offense taken, Henry. I got very thick skin, if you know what I mean." Kalen continued with the softening routine.
"Ha! Good one sir. Hey, Cap, wasn't you last night was it? Up to your old tricks?"
"Well shit corporal. Ya got me. Take me to the brig." Kalen offered up his wrists to be cuffed.
Henry chuckled and got up to pour coffee from the machine. "You're alright Kalen. I mean sir." He said mockingly. "Not like the brass around here. Permanent stick up their ass, if you ask me, but don't tell 'em I said that."
"Relax Henry. You're secret is safe with me." Kalen responded preparing himself to execute.
Henry had his back turned when he offered Kalen a cup of fresh-brewed coffee. Kalen replied, "Yeah, sure. Why not. I wasn't gonna sleep tonight anyway." And with that he reached up, placed his hand on the side of Henry's neck, and delivered a high voltage shock that put Henry to sleep instantly, Kalen catching him in his arms as he slumped, lifeless, like a ragdoll.
Kalen dragged Henry's limp body behind the desk, removed the pulse pistol from the holster on his hip, and immediately stood up aiming the gun at the front door. In the doorway stood a short, portly man in uniform, with neatly parted hair, his mouth wide open, holding a platter full of chicken wings in one hand while his other hand was fishing for the big red emergency button just inside the doorway.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you." The barrel of the pulse pistol in Kalen's hand was trained directly at Santiago Romero's forehead. "I won't miss."
Santiago raised his right hand defensively."Easy cowboy. Let's work this out."
"Nothing to work out Santi. No one needs to get hurt. I'm just going to secure you and then leave. That's how this is going down. Now, get on your knees, hands behind your head. No funny stuff with that chicken either."
Santi stuttered, "W...w... wait. I..."
"I won't ask again Santi." Kalen interrupted, his patience wearing thin. He growled, "You stepped on a mine here, but it doesn't have to go off."
Santiago was shaking so much the chicken wings were falling off the platter. He threw it towards Kalen and lunged for the emergency button, but before he could reach it, the dull thud of a metal bar whipping across the back of his head rendered Santi unconscious, his body falling forward, flat on his face.
Kalen and Maya stared at each other in complete silence. Then she began, "Kal... I... I don't understand."
Kalen lowered the pistol and hissed, "Oh shit, hun. Shit. What did you do?"
Maya was still in shock. "I... I just... what are YOU doing Kal? I knew I couldn't trust you."
The Voice boomed loud and clear in Kalen's mindspace, "She must NOT come. She will jeopardize the mission."
Kalen ignored the annoying internal prompt and aggressively continued with Maya, "Look... I don't have time to explain. I have to leave. You'll be safe if you stay here."
"What do you mean? Where are you going?" Maya said, shaking her head. She moved closer, the metal bar still gripped tightly in her hands. She still wasn't sure she could trust anything Kalen was saying. Had he finally gone completely insane?
Kalen gritted his teeth. He would have to deal with this quickly. Security would be on its way in no time. "I can't tell you that. I just have to leave. Shit. I knew this would get messy."
"Messy? Kal, what are you not telling me? I'm here now, so tell me."
"It's complicated. I'm needed somewhere else for something important. I didn't want you to get involved. And anyway... who would look after billy?" He felt stupid bringing Billy into it, but he was starting to question whether the compound was even safe enough for Maya after the events of that evening.
Maya paused, took a deep breath, and said, "I'm coming with you."
"Oh hell no. That's a negative. What I'm doing could be dangerous. It WILL be dangerous. You and Billy will be just fine here until I get back." Kalen said with zero conviction. He was already changing his mind, defying the Voice, carving his own path.
Maya dropped the metal bar and insisted, "Billy can stay. But I'm coming with you."
"WHOOOP!" The sound of a guard truck siren in the distance made them both turn their heads. Kalen rushed to get a better look through the side window. No sign of flashing lights yet, but he had to make a decision.
He stepped briskly towards Maya, his eyes burning imaginary holes in hers. Grabbing her by the upper arm, he pointed her in the direction of the main gates. "You see that? That's a shitstorm waiting to happen. You step out there, there's no coming back. You understand?"
Maya tugged her arm away and shot a dirty look at Kalen. "I get it. Jeez. No need to be such a dick about it asshole."
Kalen backed off. "I'm just making sure you know what you're getting into. This place may be a shithole, but it can be a whole lot worse out there. So no bitching about it later, right?"
Maya let out a gasp. "You're up to your neck in some real deep shit, amIright?"
Kalen was desperate now. "You could say that, yeah."
"Look Kal, I'll take my chances with the assholes running around out there over being locked up with the ones in here, any day. Besides, I've got you."
Kalen softened and gently held Maya's upper arms. "But honey, that's just it. Being around me IS dangerous. That's why I wanted you to stay here."
"You can't get rid of me that easily, Kal. You're gonna to have to try harder."
"Well, I guess I don't have a choice now. Listen up, do exactly as I say. We need to get out of here NOW. So help me load up this gear on the truck outside."
Maya, pleased with the outcome, immediately snapped to, exhaled and asked, "OK, what is this stuff? Where are we going?"
"Honey. NO questions. This is NOT a vacation. Where I'M going... where WE'RE going... there'll be stuff there you can use. Where'd you leave Billy?"
"He was just running around. I left everything on in the shack. Didn't think we'd be gone for long."
"That's the least of our worries now. Billy'll be fine."
Kalen stuffed black holdalls with all manner of pulse weapons, pistols, assault rifles, EMP grenades, and other assorted military-grade equipment. Maya helped him, still wondering what the hell was going on, and what she was getting into, but remained silent the whole time. Once the truck was loaded, Kalen hit the button on the control panel to open the front gates, jumped in the drivers seat, kept the headlights off, and allowed the electric motors to roll the truck silently out into the darkness of the world beyond.
About a hundred yards from the base, the truck slammed on the breaks and opened the side door. A few seconds later, a white pitbull caught up and jumped in, furiously licking the faces of the occupants.
The Voice inside Kalen's head said solemnly, "This is not going according to plan Mr. Rose. We shall have to have a talk in the morning."
Maya, barely able to contain Billy's excitement, turned to Kalen as the truck pulled away again and gave him a big smile. "One big happy family, huh?"
She didn't want to push her luck too much so immediately returned her gaze to the grizzly panorama outside the confines of the safezone. It started to rain, but she could just about make out the shambling figures of a couple of Dust junkies up ahead. They were pissing against the wall of an old building, all boarded up, the cracked sign swinging from a hinge in the cool night. It read: THE LIGHTHOUSE CINEMA. Under the sign were various labels: NOW SHOWING. COMING SOON. CULTURE NIGHT. Below the labels someone had spray painted: WE ARE THE FUTURE, THE FUTURE IS OURS.
The Dust junkies, commonly referred to as PLUGS, were laughing in unison now as they shuffled off on autopilot, their minds totally enslaved by the entertainment beamed directly into their Dust-addled brains. They appeared to be sharing their experience feed. At least, there was that.