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
"Because the sensor-killers
would detect the energy signature."
I nodded. "And what would
Another hand was raised.
"The machines would come."
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
"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
"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
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
'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
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
"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
"Like the ones the scientists
have?" Randy asked. The cousin raising him was a weapons
"Similar," I nodded.
"And bad people could insert programs that made them function
"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?"
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?"
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
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,
"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,"
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
John asked the obvious question.
"Do we know what happened?"
"I'm told there was evidence
pointing to a virus infiltrating the enclave."
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
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
"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
"My father says they're
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
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
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
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
"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,
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
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."
"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."
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
"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
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
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.
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
"They managed to shut down
the power plant," I said. "That's what precipitated
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
* * *
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
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
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
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