by Michael Simon

Locked in a desperate battle for survival with a new, dominant species of machine, the surviving humans learn that to defeat these monsters they must become like them.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E




The machines were losing.

It had taken three generations but, finally, the tide was turning.

I watched the fire consume the chassis of the mobile defense tower, or what was left of it after the satchel charge had gutted the lower two floors. Our scientists said the damn machines were self-aware. I wondered if that hulk of metal, nano-circuits and turbines felt pain in its dying.

The sergeant tapped each of us on the shoulder and we dutifully followed him back into the partially collapsed subway tunnel.

Today's lesson was over.

* * *

On the best of days, it was a struggle to keep the class focused. With vibrations topside and the smell of cordite and copper seeping through the cracks, one had to master the adrenaline rush just to call roll.

"I'm still waiting for an answer," I said, leaning against the three-legged metal frame that served as my desk. The faded grey sign on the side asked for tokens, whatever they were.

"Why doesn't the Board develop its own power supply?"

After a few seconds, a hand shot up.


"Because the sensor-killers would detect the energy signature."

I nodded. "And what would happen then?"

Another hand was raised.


"The machines would come."

"Which machines?"

She hesitated. "The shooters and the spiders."

"Correct." I had their attention now, despite the faint, booming echoes that filtered into the room. "The shooters would punch a hole in our defense grid and the spiders would rush in."

Donna was waving her hand. "Teacher, what do they look like?"

I thought for a second. "The men and women on the line say there are several versions of the shooter, with various refinements on each. However, the basic unit is usually armed with several machine guns, one built into each appendage. The newer versions come with rocket launchers." I watched the young eyes dilate. They would find out soon enough since draft day for the fifteen year olds, the majority of my class, was less than a year away. "The spiders carry the warheads. Once they reach the populated areas underground, they're programmed to explode."

I walked around the desk and sat down.

"This is why the only energy we get is what our engineers can siphon off the grid."

"But the Board takes most of it," Janey grumbled. "My father says they should give more to the people."

"They take what they must," I replied. "Weapon production and soldier enhancement require huge investments of power." I didn't bother to point out the fact that she was the only one in the room with a live parent.

The clock on my desk clicked on noon.

"That's enough for today, people," I said, ignoring the disappointed looks. "The foreman will be expecting you right after your caloric injections. Remember, the penalty for being late is the loss of a school day."

I held the door as they filed out. "Tomorrow, we will prepare for the history quiz." At least that would give them something to look forward to as they spent the next eight hours laboring in the factories.

Closing the door, I glanced at the stenciled letters that had somehow survived the years of fighting.

'Capital Heights Cafeteria. Open nine to five, seven days a week.'

The words meant nothing to me.

* * *

"The P-Y grenade is a self-tracking, unidirectional machine basher," the sergeant explained as he pulled the pin and casually reinserted it before the five second delay expired. I forced myself to exhale. At some point during the lecture, I was pretty sure the recruit on my right soiled himself.

It was hard to blame him.

"Today, you will learn how to disassemble and reassemble this weapon using only the tools we have provided," the military man continued. "You have three hours. Proceed."

My comrades and I immediately set to work. There was no option. Either you succeeded in each task or you were assigned to other, less desirable, jobs in support of the war effort. The total screw-ups were left to fend for themselves as there was no room for chaff in the zone. And, with deadly machines prowling the land, if you weren't inside a zone, you didn't last long.

* * *

"Three years after the infection, the population of the world was estimated at less than fifty million," Jeremy repeated the answer verbatim before looking up. "That's a lot of people, Teacher."

I smiled. "It is, considering the number is probably about a fraction of that now. Yes, Janey?"

"Why do they call it an infection? My dad says infection only happens when you get a cold."

"That's the regular type. In this case, we refer to the fall as 'The Infection' because the switch that triggered the change was a computer virus."

I could tell by the puzzled looks they didn't understand.

"Ok, before the fall everyone had computers…"

"Like the ones the scientists have?" Randy asked. The cousin raising him was a weapons specialist.

"Similar," I nodded. "And bad people could insert programs that made them function poorly."

"By the internet?"

"That's right, Randy. They called those programs viruses and, over the years, they became more and more powerful, until the infection they produced triggered a radical conversion within the internet."

"The computers took over." John stated the obvious, but several heads were nodding agreement.

"The internet became an entity unto itself, monitoring and controlling the flow of information. Mankind tried to manage it," I shrugged, "but we couldn't compete with the speed of those processors, computers that could make millions of decisions in nanoseconds. Within hours, the world was shut out of the decision making process and, by the second day, eliminated from banking, communications and, worst of all, the military."

"Is that when the killing spree started?" Randy asked.

"The first one," I corrected. "They wanted to teach us a lesson. It took five days for them to kill a billion people and leave vast areas of the world uninhabitable."

A stronger than usual tremor shook the room. The fighting must be close.

"What happened then?" I asked.

John raised his hand. "The survivors went underground. The machines ruled the land and the Boards controlled the zones."

"You're partially right. The survivors retreated to the only safe havens they could find, which by default was underground. The bombs couldn't penetrate and the hunting machines got confused in the unfamiliar warrens. After many years, the Boards came to rule the free zones, and began to take the fight to the machines. Can anyone tell me how many Boards exist today?"

"Twenty-three?" Janey's answer was more of a question.

I nodded. "If you count the five that still exist in the country they call Europe. Unfortunately, two were discovered and nuked last month. We're down to twenty-one."

Scouts had returned with stories of absolute devastation. Apparently the Dallas and Seattle Boards had successfully penetrated the machine's defensive matrix and were on the verge of taking control of the topside power station.

The machines would not tolerate that. The bombs fell exactly seventeen minutes after the central server went offline.

* * *

"What is it?" the sergeant asked.

I glanced at the oddly shaped gizmo the man had tossed to me. It was about the size of a walnut but surprisingly heavy, consisting of a meshwork of plastic and metal with tiny wires sticking out. It was stained and, oddly enough, sticky to the touch.

"I don't recognize it, sir."

"It's an enhancer," he said and then laughed when I grimaced. "We removed it from a soldier yesterday, after the machines had deposited a neural bomb in his frontal cortex."

A shudder passed through me. "He was a sapper?"

His eyes sparkled. "Very good, private." Then he projected his voice to the whole group. "This cybernetic implant allowed your former comrade to slip into the computer net and carry out a host of missions, including sabotaging key servers and overloading vulnerable circuits. The soldier who stored this little piece of hardware in his parietal lobe was responsible for the explosion last week at the Machines' munitions depot on the west side. He did a good job but made a fatal error extracting himself from the net." The sergeant plucked the unit from my hand. "The machines never make mistakes. We are allowed to make only one," he smirked. "And then you're dead."

* * *

I collected the history quiz as they walked out.

"Time's up, Janey," I called.

The girl got up and passed me her sheet. "My father said we're going to get a new teacher soon. Why do you have to leave?"

I smiled. "I've enjoyed teaching these last few years but it's time I took the tests." I held up my hand before she could interrupt. "The Board has already let me stay two years longer than usual. I'll be twenty-one in the fall and most people that age are into their second tour."

"But you're a good teacher," she protested. "All the kids like you. Besides, my father says we're winning."

The grin faded. "We're winning because men and women are contributing at the front." I took her hand in mine. "Janey, the machines are faster and smarter than we are. If we're going to beat them, we've got to sacrifice some of our freedom, some of our… humanity." I forced my smile to return. "And I've met your new teacher. You'll like her."

Janey hesitated at the door. "None of our former teachers laughed and joked like you do." Her eyes sought out mine. "I hope they leave your brain alone. That way you'll still be mostly human and, when we win, you can teach us again."

As the door closed, I wondered once again what a Cafeteria was.

* * *

The little redhead smiled and her eyes seemed to dance as she read and reread the paper.

"I love your poetry," she said. "It's always so… rich."

I smiled. One poem per week had been our agreement. She would go out with me as long as she received one poem each week.

Of course, we had long passed those first, tentative days, but I still came prepared every Restday.

"I'm constantly amazed how you can find joy in the simplest of things." She waved the paper in the air. "Have you even seen a sunset? God knows I haven't."

"It's in some of the books… one can picture the crimson colors, the fading light…" I shrugged. "It's not so hard to imagine…"

She hugged me around the neck. "You're so lucky. Not many in the zone can still read." She giggled and poked me in the chest. "So there really is a heart buried somewhere deep inside."

I felt her softness and pulled her close.

She didn't resist.

* * *

"Tomorrow is decision day, people." The sergeant made it sound like a good thing. "Answer the questions the best you can and, for Christ's' sake, don't lie. Our experts will try and match you up, as close as possible. However, if the inserted unit is not compatible with the host brain…" He let the words trail off ominously. He need not have bothered. Everyone in the room had heard the stories. Like the one about the introvert who desperately wanted to become a front line mech-warrior, or the borderline personality who pretended to be the scientist type. The resulting cyborg-human mind conflict benefited no one, least of all the men who were sent to put the soldier out of his misery. Mental institutions no longer existed.
The test took three hours and I sweated over every question. They wanted to know my deepest feelings, my hopes and fears. 'What is the first thing you would do if mankind won the war? If mankind lost? What is your sexual orientation? Why? Do you enjoy pain? Are you capable of terminating a life?'

Of the twenty recruits in the room, the majority would become front line troops, the fearsome mech-warriors. To varying extents, depending on the need, they would have limbs augmented or even replaced with functioning cybernetic units. Hormones and steroids would hypertrophy and strengthen what human tissue was left behind. Sections of the brain that dealt with pain would be lasered or removed entirely. By the time the butchers finished, what was left was often more machine than man. However, in order to compete with the bastards, we had to fight like them.

A select few would be tasked to join the science teams. As Janey so aptly put it, they would remain mostly human. Instead, they would have special treatments of neurotransmitter-inducing agents to stimulate grey matter growth and surgery would be restricted to the insertion of a modern dual processing unit that allowed the brain to work on multiple problems at one time, not unlike the capabilities of a computer.

Any individuals found unfit for augmentation were ordered to serve the zone in other capacities, occasionally as Board members themselves when the time was right, since the law stated no augments could stand for election.

It was ironic. The remnants of mankind, in a war with machines they didn't create, refused to allow themselves to be governed by half-machines they did create.

The circuitous logic was enough to drive you crazy.

* * *

"There are some last items I want to touch on before class ends," I said, careful not to meet the eyes of my students. I didn't want them to know I was having a hard time keeping my emotions in check.

"I, er, have spoken to your new teacher and she will be expecting you tomorrow as per normal. Also, I'm sad to say, there's been another development in the war effort. Unfortunately, the Board has received reports of nuclear detonations in the Miami area. Although nothing has been officially confirmed, the rumor mill says we lost another safe zone."

John asked the obvious question. "Do we know what happened?"

"I'm told there was evidence pointing to a virus infiltrating the enclave."

"But how?"

I sat back in my chair. "It works like this. Someone in the zone makes unauthorized contact with the net, probably just to steal some power or spy on the machines. The problem is, too often, the disturbance is detected and the machines slip in a tiny virus. It's too small to be detected, just a few lines of code, and can't inflict any damage on its own. But what it can do is transmit the location of the zone to the machines and that's when the bombs begin to fall."

"But why destroy the entire area?" Janey asked. "Why not just exterminate the people?"

My gaze took in the entire class. "Because we're close. Even with our limited capabilities, we're on the verge of busting the entire defensive grid and without that, the machines would have zero protection. So when the topside machine cities go offline, they revert back into failsafe mode and remove the threat, entirely."

I could see their minds working.

"One person could precipitate the bombing?"

"That's correct, John. One person, working alone, can cause the deaths of thousands. Which is why we must continue to work together. For decades, mankind has sacrificed his or her individuality in an effort to throw off the yoke of machine oppression. Millions of years of evolution have forced mankind to be flexible. We've survived climate changes, carnivorous predators and now, killing machines. Since the infection, our predecessors have refined the ways of war. It has become common practice to surgically enhance our warriors and our scientists, turning them into… something else."

"My father says they're not human… they're monsters," Janey whispered, her eyes catching mine.

"That may be true," I admitted. "But it's those same monsters that allowed you to know that father."

* * *

We had spent the last hour sitting quietly on the rusted subway rails, both of us afraid to break the silence. A blind man could sense the tension in her being. I stared at the blank face even as her eyes followed the words of my latest poem… and took nothing in. I couldn't help it; it was a sad, romantic piece about a lost love. It was all I had in me.

I placed a consoling hand on her shoulder… that she abruptly shrugged off.


She threw up her hands and turned away. "I don't want to hear it! You don't know how hard I prayed for this day to never come. The war was supposed to be over. They said we'd be living topside by now, free of the machines. They said…" She sniffed and finally turned to look at me. "They said it would be over…"

I felt another bolus of fear rise in my throat. A part of my mind realized I should hold her, comfort her but, damn it, I was scared too. Scared of what might happen.

I got up and started to pace.

"We've been over this before. My personality traits are not compatible with the mech-warriors. I'm too passive, too much the introvert..."

"But even scientists have neural surgery…"

I shook my head. "I'm a teacher, Lynne, and a good one at that. Members of the Board have told me they need teachers like me. Christ, even my replacement can barely understand the elementary texts. I had to go through the testing like everyone else but, when the results come in, they've got to put me where I can help the war effort the most, and that's back in the classroom."

Her eyes began welling up again. "I pray you're right, my love. I pray every night."

My gaze fell upon the rusted remains of an ancient subway car. "So do I," I whispered. "So do I."

* * *

The sergeant gestured to the back of the room and I dutifully took the offered seat.

"Pay attention," he said. "You'll need to know this."

Along with five others, I waited quietly until a man stepped into the room. At least I think it was a man. With wires and tubes snaking out of his head and one side grotesquely swollen, I wasn't sure what to make of the abomination.

"My name is Justin," he spoke in a southern drawl and for some reason I felt better. At least, it seemed, he was human at one point. "I am the longest serving sapper in this zone. To date, I have been involved in fifty-seven incursions into enemy cyberspace, had twelve revisions after my initial conversion and survived two failed neurobombs. All in a space of two years."

I felt my stomach heave. Dear God! What have we become?

Justin seemed to look at me. "Do not judge me by my appearance. Long ago, I made my peace with what was necessary." He smiled coldly. "Now the machines pay for my pain. You see," his gaze swept across the men and women, lingering on no one, "I am but a simple cog in our military system, the only system that gives man a chance to once again become the dominant species on this planet. I am no different than the soldier who, in ancient times, fell on a grenade to save his comrades. In this age, my comrades are the human survivors, and this," he gestured roughly at his deformed face, "enhancement is just a slower form of falling on that same grenade, of dying. We sacrifice ourselves so that others may live. So that future generations may live."

He pointed towards the door. "On leaving this room, you will be prepped for surgery by the doctors and technicians. Once the implants are in place and functioning, you will receive the proper training from sappers like me. You will learn how to insert yourself into the system, probe for weaknesses in their defenses and wreak havoc within their networks. You will become cold, efficient and, in some ways, inhuman. In your own way, you will become emotionless, killing machines."

I felt beads of cold sweat running down my back and I had to wonder, who was more inhuman, the constructed machines bent on total genocide or the cyborg abominations that were trying to save us.

* * *

Leaving the briefing, I felt numb. I thought briefly of Lynne and how she was going to react but, basically, my brain had shifted into an apathetic neutrality solely to protect itself. Something painful and unnatural waited for me down the sterile hallway.

At that moment, I heard my name mentioned. I looked up, puzzled, as the sergeant waved me over.

"Come with me, Private." He led me down a narrow corridor to a double set of wooden doors. A mech-warrior, standing silent against the wall, watched the sergeant rap on the iron knocker and step back. I, in turn, shuddered under the scrutiny of the seven-foot-tall cyborg. Watching them in combat from a distance was not the same as standing in their presence. Under the fatigues, its chest was incredibly thick but that was nothing compared to the surgically repaired face. The entire left side was metal, including an artificial eye that hummed ever so softly when its gaze shifted.

On some unknown signal, the mech-warrior reached down and opened one of the doors. He handled the heavy wooden frame like it was a flimsy piece of paper.

The sergeant motioned for me to enter before quietly retreating up the corridor.

Confused, I stepped into the Spartan interior of a small room. From behind an odd looking desk in the far corner, an old man waved me forward.

"Join me, Teacher." He pointed at the only other chair in the room. "Have a seat."

He raised a pipe to his mouth and threw me a smile. "I realize, at this moment, you're probably wondering what the hell is going on." His voice contained an accent I couldn't place.

"I thought we were being prepared as sappers," I said.

"They are." He gestured vaguely towards the door. "However, the Board has something different in mind for you."

That answered one of my questions. "Then you are a member of the Board?"

"Son, I am the Board."

I was taken aback. "I was led to believe the Board was composed of many people, each one dutifully elected by the people."

The old man leaned back in his chair and studied me. "What would you say if I told you a lot of what you were led to believe is not, in fact, true? Those individuals elected, do advise me after a fashion, since I won't live forever…" His voice trailed off and I was left wondering if anything I had taught my students was, in fact, the truth.

Suddenly, he was back. "My name is Gabriel and I would have another task for you, Teacher, if you would agree. You've learned what it is sappers do and, from your classes, you understand the role of the mech-warriors."

I nodded.

"We've purposefully been watching you these past four years, watching you grow... Seeing your talents mature. Rare is the person who can not only read but actually understand those archaic words."

"Can't others…"

He cut me off with a wave of his hand. "Everyone else has simply copied what their fathers and instructors have taught them. Rote memory without true insight. There are precious few left within the zone, Teacher. It may surprise you, since it doesn't conform to the propaganda we've been spreading, but there are less than 50,000 left alive under what was formally called Washington."

I exhaled. "I thought we were winning."

"We are, sort of. We are also draining our resources, both men and material, far faster than we can replace them. Losses have been great, but our fighting units, the warriors, sappers, infiltrators and the rest; have severely damaged the machines as well. However, the timeline grows short. We must make the final breakthrough before the momentum swings… for the final time."

"What about the other zones? Are they in the same position?"

"More or less." He took a deep drag on his pipe. "All seven that still exist."

I felt my chest constrict. "Is that all?"

He nodded without taking his eyes off mine. "Including the last holdout in England." The pipe oozed blue smoke. "Son, both sides are losing the war. The winner will be the one still standing in a few months' time. If we bust through, we regain control. If the machines manage to hang on, mankind is lost."

The matter-of-fact way he said it made me shudder.

"My students… the people think we are winning," I repeated.

"It's a belief the Board has actively fostered. How else do we recruit new men and women, to surgically alter their bodies… their brains. They have to believe." He took another puff. "Besides, if we lose, the survivors won't suffer long. The end will come quickly." His lips twisted in a cold smile as he took a different tack. "You're staring at the butcher of humanity, Son. If we win, I will be mentioned in the same breath as Hitler, Stalin and Ming." The laugh that followed was totally devoid of humor. "In some ways, I do hope we lose."

* * *

"What do you want of me?" I asked finally. In a few short minutes, the old man had stripped me of all emotion, of all preconceptions. I now realized he was setting me up for some type of decision. But if he had indeed been watching me these last four years, he already knew I wouldn't turn my back on my people.

"We've lost five zones within the past year. You've only heard about Dallas and Seattle but, to date, nothing has leaked about Boston or Mexico City... or Paris. In each case, the machines had been driven back into the vast military complex that houses their production facilities. Inside that sprawling industrial center lies their primary energy station as well as the main power regulator. Turn that switch off and the whole process comes to a grinding halt."

He inhaled deeply on the pipe.

"In a final desperate gamble, the zones sacrificed thousands, used them like fodder, to get inside the defenses."

Somehow, I understood what happened next.

"They managed to shut down the power plant," I said. "That's what precipitated the nukes."

"They said you were smart…" His eyes sparkled and he gently placed the pipe on the desk.
"They thought they had won," he whispered. "Not until someone from Dallas got out, did we suspect the real reason they were annihilated."

I leaned forward. "The books say Washington was the seat of power, the hub that controlled a vast country." I paused to form my next statement. "It's all controlled from here, the machines, I mean. When the power was shut off in the… satellites, it triggered a response from the mainframe." The conclusion was obvious. "We need to stop the machines from this end and to do that the central server must be turned off."

The old man's gaze intensified suddenly. "Shut down deader then the damn machines that surround it. And that is exactly why you, my young friend, have been chosen. Once we get inside, if we get inside, you will find that power switch and shut it down. Someone must be able to do it without triggering a catastrophic response. You are the best we have left. You have the knowledge, the talent and, God willing, the internal fortitude to overcome any challenge. The remnants of mankind have placed within you their final hope. What say you?"

* * *

The surgery was not without side effects. The medical books I perused said the brain didn't feel pain.

They lied.

For two weeks I lay bedridden, screaming in absolute agony. The techs appeared at regular intervals to deliver medication, but thoughts of suicide regularly crept into my consciousness.

The surgeons said they only inserted a single unit. The engineers said it was a revolutionary type of sapper AI that had the capacity to interface with my mind and any server on the planet. Secondary memory chips expanded my data cache and parallel processors allowed my mind to work on a dozen problems simultaneously.

The overall effect was, literally, mind blowing, and I waged a battle in my head for control over my thought process. The AI seemed determined to take me in one direction, flashing numbers and graphs across my mind's eye. I understood it all and yet, at the same time, was determined to remain my own person. And, as the war raged in my skull, some part of my subconscious wondered what happened to my emotions.

After six weeks, the AI and I declared a truce of sorts. I controlled the minute to minute decisions and it 'advised' me when it considered another path more appropriate. I agreed to let it take over in critical situations, like when I was training with my elite unit of mech-warriors.

Paired with thirty of the cyborg behemoths, I was the odd man out. The seven-foot tall, augmented humans towered over me and yet, to the man, they reacted to my orders (or rather the AI's) the second they received them over our neuroacoustic transmitter. I was content to sit back, like a fan in the front row of a sporting event, and watch the drama unfold.

The group trained as a unit for six weeks. We ate, slept and hunted together. Devoid of emotion, we became little more than killing machines.

* * *

She was waiting for me as I stood in line for my caloric injection. Her hair was drawn up into a tight bun and her normally clean jumpsuit was rumpled and dirty, like it had been slept in for a solid week.

My AI identified the changes the moment she recognized me. Pupils dilated, mouth open, facial muscles twitching…

"Please," she whispered in a voice so low only I could hear. "Please…"

I stepped forward slowly and extended my arm. The technician behind the desk dutifully inserted the syringe and injected. Stepping back, I inclined my head slightly in her direction and turned to go. My augmented visual cortex noticed the tear forming in the corner of her eye. The AI performed an instant analysis of the air in the room, searching for possible eye irritants. I, on the other hand, felt something… fear? Sadness? Then, just as quickly, the sensation was gone.

I hesitated briefly, studying her expectant expression. In my mind, strange and yet all too familiar thoughts clamored for my attention… just before the AI signaled my legs to move. There was a weapons drill in fifteen minutes and my team needed me. The sound of a table collapsing followed me down the hall.

* * *

The call came on the morning of the sixty-fifth day and it was my old sergeant who hand delivered the order. He saluted me stiffly and I couldn't help but notice the strange look in his eye. He seemed… regretful. That night I glanced into a mirror for the first time since the operation and noticed the extensive steel patch across the top of my head. I shrugged. It seemed a funny color.

* * *

The first wave went in through the tunnels and totally surprised the machines. Five warrens had been painstakingly dug over the past two years and each branched off an ancient subway line. The possibility of such an assault didn't appear on their probability screen. I knew that because I was the one who slithered into the net to verify their defensive capabilities.

The perimeter was breached in three places before the machines could shift their assets. By then, targeted defense points had been taken out by specialized squads and central control of the defense matrix was all but futile. Still, wave after wave of mech-warriors threw themselves into the hail of flying bullets, exploding warheads and all manner of flesh-ripping projectiles.

Carefully flanked by thirty of the most advanced humanoids ever constructed, I hurried through the outer wall and began moving along a circumspect route that would eventually lead to the core.

Around me, the final battle for domination of the planet raged. My AI received data and issued commands on a scale exponentially above the capabilities of mortal man. At times, it seemed I was inside a giant computer, watching a river of bits and bytes flow past. Except it was the computer that was in me.

In a nanosecond, it ordered a mech-warrior to drop on a frag-grenade that appeared at my feet. The explosion was muffled, but still accompanied by a splatter of blood that announced another death.

A damaged auto-cannon screeched around the corner and, spying my team, accelerated over the debris. Half a dozen cyborgs formed a wall and absorbed the slugs, giving me time to dive into a side alley. Three tracer rounds blew the machine into its component parts. Several more defensive units surged up the street and each was dispatched by my bodyguards, on orders from my dispassionate AI.

By the time we reached the core, there were only a dozen of my team was still standing. I tapped a security code into the maintenance door. Unless the codes had been changed within the last twenty-four hours we were in.

It slid open with a soft hiss and three mech-warriors were blown apart by a fixed sensor unit. Two thermal grenades disabled it.

Because the elevators were not an option, we took the stairs up eighty-seven levels. Five more sensor units and four of my companions were left in pieces on the stairs.

Minutes later, we stood outside a yellow door and for a brief instant I felt a flicker of… excitement? It disappeared just as quick. I plugged my AI into the locking mechanism and waited. For long minutes the advanced technology inside my head battled with the computer controlled lock. Some part of my psyche noticed that my hands remained surgeon-calm, despite the fact they were opening the door to mankind's future.

* * *

The room reminded me of the operating suite, white and sterile, with the distinct hum of machines in the background. The AI informed me the machines had regrouped and were counterattacking. The remaining mech-units outside couldn't hold and were falling back.

My remaining escorts jammed the yellow door shut and welded the edges just as something heavy struck the outside.

It wouldn't hold for long.

I hesitated briefly as the AI went into survey mode. While it searched every inch of the room, strange thoughts filtered into my consciousness. I remembered Lynne and her blond hair. God, we had some good times! I had forgotten so much...

The AI ordered my body into motion before I realized it, carrying me towards a narrow console fitted against the far wall. Gabriel had told me that the machines would try and hide the power terminal. It was their Achilles' heel. Neither of us expected them to show any degree of creativity.

Lifting the glass top labeled 'Power Coupling', I carefully scanned the row of buttons. The words 'Emergency Override' and 'Power Input' had been reversed. Only a machine would have followed orders and pressed the wrong one. I tried to smile at the obvious ploy but my mouth muscles didn't respond.

The door vibrated again and a crack appeared. The surviving mech-warriors were looking at me expectantly. Their expressions were mixed and yet linked by common concern.

My finger hesitated over the button that would end computer and machine dominance forever. There was another blow and the split in the door widened. In my brain, the AI had gone silent. I still felt no emotion and, at that moment, realized my old student Janey had been right. I was no longer myself, I was something… else.

Lynne had prayed in vain. I had become one of them, one of the machines. To defeat the machines, we had to become the machines. The old man had avoided telling me the entire truth but I now saw it in the eyes of my comrades. For us, there was no going back. What they had taken from us, physically and mentally, was irretrievable. The moment I pressed the button, we were obsolete. There was no room for chaff in the zone.

There were tears in the eyes of my comrades.

To save humanity and damn ourselves or to live side by side with a new, dominant species, a species we now resembled. A new world order, or the end of a dream. Gabriel had chosen me for this moment, not to find the correct button but to decide whether to press it. It was a calculated risk, and I briefly wondered which one he wanted me to touch.

The door exploded inwards.

My finger hesitated over the button.





Copyright © 2007 Michael Simon

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Michael Simon is a hockey and rugby player who resides on the east coast of Canada and manages to practice medicine in his spare time. He enjoys writing hard science fiction but can often be found writing in other genres as well. Recent published words include ‘Layers’ in Apex: Science Fiction and Horror (Best of 2005), ‘The Answer’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, ‘Star in the East’ and ‘Natural Selection’ in The Sword Review and ‘Standing in Line’ by Ragged Edge. He has contributed to several anthologies including Travel a Time Historic, Tall Tales and Short Stories and The Unknown. The short story ‘Marionettes’ won first place in the 2004 Conestoga Short Story Competition and 'Year 3037' in the 2005 Reading Writers Contest. Non fiction articles have appeared in Stitches Magazine and The Physician’s Chronicle. 'Standing in Line' will appear in Art&Prose in October.

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