"Colonel Gilders, sir," the tall, lanky android saluted as the mechanical doors slid apart to grant him access to the office. "You called for me, sir?"
"Massdiatiel," the colonel replied. Mass noticed the salute was not returned, but it did not bother him. He was an android, he wasn't supposed to know what being snubbed felt like. "Come in."
He entered the room and stood before the colonel's desk. A seat was not offered, nor necessary. His yellow optic plate -- one of the few parts of his metal body that was not red -- saw the colonel look him up and down, as if sizing him up. "It's been a while, soldier," the colonel finally said.
"Yes, sir," Mass nodded. The moment he received the message that Colonel Gilders wanted to speak to him, logic dictated what the first -- and probably only -- topic of the conversation would be. "Three months, sir."
"And have you had time to reconsider your actions?"
Mass chose his words carefully. "I have thought about my insubordination a lot, sir. But I still feel I did the right thing."
Gilders sighed, spun his chair slightly sideways. "I figured that's what you would say," he rubbed his chin. "If only I could wipe your memory and start you over, Massdiatiel, I would, but you would also lose all your combat experience in the process, and we can't afford to lose that." Mass kept his eyes focused squarely on the high ranking officer as Stan Gilders shook his head. "You've survived and completed three missions classified as blatantly suicidal. As a sentient being, if you were to ever disobey orders, we thought for sure it would be one of those. But two of them you volunteered for! And then we order you on a simple assassination..."
He focused his optics on the colonel's desk, a blatantly human gesture. "The order did not make logical sense, sir. There are rules of combat. Assassinating civilians..."
With a wave of his hand, the colonel stopped him short. "Save it. That's not what I called you here for. I wanted to know if you wanted a chance to get out of that brig cell you've been in for the last three months. Think you can get yourself out of sleep mode long enough to complete a mission?"
Mass's mind flashed back to three months ago, when he was shown a civilian's picture as his target for an assassination. "That... that all depends on the mission, sir."
Gilders shook his head and grumbled. Mass's highly sensitive auditory system heard something about discipline, and unconditional loyalty, but he couldn't make out all the words. "Two weeks ago, the science division finally managed to successfully clear a path to the ancient ruins."
Mass looked up sharply as Gilders continued. "Two days ago, the science division lost contact with the expedition. We haven't been able to contact our inside people, either. And not long after contact was lost, No Man's Mines had to be evacuated."
"What happened?" Mass asked.
"We don't know why, but the industrial machines suddenly turned violent and started attacking the workers. Eleven scientists and three of our men were killed before the evacuation was complete."
"What do you want me to do, sir?"
"We need you to go into the Mines first," Gilders explained. "Communication with Calus at this point is touch and go. We think whatever happened to the robots is starting to happen to him as well. Your mission is to attempt to regain control of the Mines AIs. Once the Mines are secure, we're sending a platoon into the ancient ruins to find our team."
"Why not just send your platoon through the Mines, as well?"
"We will, if we have to," Gilders nodded. "That is, we will if you get destroyed. Our hope is that, as an android, you may be able to find out what happened easier than our people can, and certainly easier than the pinheads in the science division."
"I will do my best, sir."
Colonel Gilders chuckled, shook his head. "Number four."
"This will be your fourth suicide mission, Massdiatiel," he explained. "You know how big an operation the excavation was, you know how many industrial AIs are down there. They've all turned lethally violent, we're sending you right into their arms, and you're outright eager to take the mission. But I ask you to kill one meddling woman, and you'd rather sit in a brig for three months."
"Yes, sir," Mass nodded. He really didn't know what else to say. He had always respected Colonel Gilders, and he understood that as an Army AI he wasn't always told all the facts surrounding his missions. But there was just not enough good reason for the assassination he'd been ordered to carry out. Threats he could eliminate, yes. But possible, potential threats... threats that might not even pan out...?
"Dismissed," the colonel nodded. Mass turned and headed for the base's armory.
As the Mines materialized around him, Mass stepped out of the interference of the transport field and tapped the Section ID symbol on his chest. "Calus?" he asked into the open comm line. "Calus, this is Massdiatiel, Military Division AI 240. Do you remember me? Do you hear me?"
He waited for a response but none came. Peeking into the room outside the transport foyer, Mass saw a row of Gillchics slumped over in sleep mode on either side of the room. He listened closely, but all he could hear was the soft hum of the power conduits buried in the walls.
It was a far cry from the last time he had visited the Mines, when the excavation was in full swing. The clanking of metal was everywhere as Gillchics carried supplies around for the construction of new corridors. Every once in a while, a real cacophony filled the area as a swarm of Dubchics together carrying something large, like a set of doors for a new corridor, marched in unison off to wherever it was they were going, a Dubwitch hovering behind them controlling the entire synchronized group. Canadines buzzed by your auditory inputs, taking small materials here and there, transporting messages between scientists, and delivering power to tired machines.
But even those sounds were not the loudest of all, the last time Mass was here. The loudest sounds came from "the front," the areas of the Mines that were in the process of being dug out of the ground under the direction of the scientists, aiming for where the radar said the enormous... bunker was the word they used often... was located deep beneath the surface. The Sinow Beats and Sinow Golds pounded at the rock, pounding and cutting chunks of Ragol away, clearing tunnels the Gillchics later filled in with reinforced metal walls, artificial lights, ventilation systems, and all other necessities of human life. When the Sinows couldn't get through a particular chunk of rock, a Garanz was called in. A blast of rockets later, and the rock was like warm butter, the Sinows practically walking straight through it.
All the noise of construction was now gone, however, and Mass found the silence incredibly eerie. He stepped cautiously into the next room, turned right to head down its long length. This had been the scientists' command center once, before the digging had progressed further down, and a new command center was established deeper into the Mine.
The sound of gears spinning broke the silence.
Mass looked to his left and to his right. He was standing right in the center of the room, between the two rows of Gillchics, which were all now standing straight up, coming out of sleep mode. "Hello," Mass called to them. "Who is in charge here?"
Without even a single binary output stream of response, the Gillchics began walking towards him. No, that wasn't the right word -- they began surrounding him.
"Halt!" Mass called out. "I am Military Division AI 240." No effect. "Military command override, 357-XF. Halt!"
One of the Gillchics raised its hand. In it was its welding ray.
He'd tried diplomacy, and it had failed. So next, Mass tried the Calibur strapped to his back. The sword was in his hands in a second, and he brought it off his back and around in front of him in a wide arc that cut through one wave of the Gillchics, shattering them into pieces. Jogging three steps forward, Mass then spun around and swung the heavy broadsword again, chopping apart the rest of the worker robots.
He kept the sword in front of him as the sound of site-to-site teleporters hummed near the ceiling. He leaped to his right, further down into the room, just as the first Sinow Beat tumbled down from the ceiling and leaped, slashing through the air right where he had stood a moment before. The Sinow was now walking towards him, as its accomplice tumbled down from the ceiling a few meters behind the first. Sinows were fast, but he was faster. He charged the Sinow and swung his sword back and forth across its chest, gouging out thick lines in its blue metal hide. There was a flash of white as the Sinow's blade came into explosive contact with Mass's Calibur, but after the parry Mass slashed the robot once more and it fell forward, non-functional.
Stepping onto its dead back, Mass was pushed off half by his own power and half by the force of the fallen Sinow's explosion. Swinging his sword backwards, he swung at the second Sinow in a heavy attack that destroyed the bot instantly.
The sound of the second Sinow's explosion almost masked the sound of the site-to-sites, but Mass turned in time to see the four Canadines appear behind him. Putting his sword onto his back, a holster compartment in Mass's leg opened and pneumatics shot his Raygun up into his waiting hand. Three quick shots and one of the Canadines exploded in mid-air, while a second one tracked him with its red laser sight. He aimed squarely at it and pulled the trigger for a heavy attack, destroying it with that single shot.
The laser tracking had been a mere distraction, however, as the final two Canadines swooped down close to him, tilting on their axises to expose their power outputs, which were already overloaded and crackling with way too much energy for any machine to absorb. They obviously intended to use one of their designated functions as an attack, but Mass was faster than even the quick little robots were. He fired three quick shots that took out the Canadine in front of him, then spun around and did the same to the one at the rear.
Replacing his Raygun in its holster, Mass brushed debris from the Canadines off his chest plating.
"Mass?" a voice came from the comm unit in his ID badge. "Mass is that you?"
"Calus, it's me," Mass answered to the scientists' AI. "Calus, what's going on here?"
"Mass, don--" the AI stopped. "Don-- Go bac--"
"Calus, you're breaking up. I didn't catch that last."
There was a brief blast of static through the comm unit, then Calus's voice came through loud and clear. "I said don't go back to Pioneer 1 just yet, Massdiatiel! It's great to see you, and with you here, I think we can clear up this little problem in no time. Heh heh heh."
"You know what happened?" Mass asked the fellow AI. "That is, you know what caused the machines to become violent?"
"Oh sure!" Calus replied through his comm. "I think I've got control of the machines now. I'm going to show you the way to the central control room. There you can fix everything, okay?"
"Well, I'm not an engineer," Mass replied. "I'm just a combat AI. I really don't know about anything else. Perhaps I should go back and get someone in the science division--"
"No, you're perfect, Massdiatiel," Calus replied, then chuckled. Mass didn't realize Calus had been programmed for such complex emotion as laughter. "You'll work out just fine."
True to his word, Calus had gained control of the machines. En route to the control room, Mass passed more long rows of sleeping Gillchics, formations of Canadines hovering quietly in corners, even a few Garanzs, powered down but still towering over the tall android in terms of height.
As Mass reached the square transporter that would take him to the Mines' control room, his comm badge squealed just as he stepped into the teleport field. "Mass, it's a trap!"
A moment later, when he materialized in the control room, Mass drew his sword into his hands. "What is it, Calus?" he asked quickly. He spun around, half-prepared to dive back into the teleporter, but he was alarmed to see there was no teleporter there.
The Mines control room was circular, with several large and small monitors lining the walls. There was a raised platform in the center, which Mass slowly walked towards. "Calus, please respond," he called through the comm link. "Calus, I'm in the control room, please respond."
"He can't hear you," a new voice replied. This one seemed to come from throughout the room, as if there were speakers with every one of the monitors. He checked the screen for any kind of useful information, but they seemed to be lit up only with blue. Standby mode, from the looks of it.
"Who are you?" Mass asked.
"I am the AI that runs the control room," the new voice replied. "I also control all the mechs in the Mines. My name is Seth."
Mass tilted his head. "I've never heard of you before."
"Have you ever been to No Man's Mines before?" Seth asked.
"Did you visit this control room?"
"Then no wonder you've never heard of me," Seth explained. "Calus is the AI the scientists used to plan their excavation, but I controlled all the mechs and carried out the labor. And who are you?"
"I'm Massdiatiel, a military division android." A pause. "Calus said this was a trap." He still held his sword before him, cautiously circling the room's raised center platform, looking at all of the surrounding ways, seeking an exit... just in case.
"Calus is being hacked by the same malicious force that took control of the mechs from me," Seth said. "This force didn't want you to get in here. It knew together, you and I could correct the situation. That's why the military sent you here, I would presume?"
"Yes," Mass nodded, "but I'm not a repair android. I'm a combat model."
"Ah!" Seth replied. "That explains how you took care of those attacking mechs so well. So combat, seek and destroy, assassination... I take it these are your primary missions?"
"Yes," Mass replied quietly. "If... if the motives are right."
"I don't understand. I thought you said you were a military model. Mustn't you obey orders?"
"You're awful inquisitive," Mass said to Seth, and if he could have smiled, he might have. As a military android, he was so used to encountering only other military and government AIs, almost all of whom were bred not just for loyalty but for efficiency. They liked to stay on the task at hand, even when the only thing to do was wait for their next orders. Mass didn't like that way of life. In fact, Mass didn't care much for the military at all anymore. It wasn't that assassination mission from three months ago; that had just been the final brick to fall.
"To be honest, though it's in my core programming, I'm getting a little sick of following orders all the time," Mass replied. "I'm tired of being used as a tool. I want to make my own choices, decide for myself what I want to do. That probably has a lot to do with why I sat in the brig for the last three months."
"I must say, this is a foreign concept to me," Seth said. "I'm a military model, as well. We follow orders. Isn't that what we're here for?"
"But what if our orders don't make sense, Seth?" he asked. "Three months ago, I was asked to kill a civilian. They said they thought she might be getting too close to things, and it was best just to get rid of her."
"Civilians can't understand everything we do, Massdiatiel," Seth replied. "Sometimes... how do they say it? Sometimes their ignorance is their bliss."
"I know we need to hide some things from them," Mass replied. "But why did this woman deserve to die? And there's more to it than that." Mass paused. He probably shouldn't be telling anyone this, even if he was telling only another military AI. But what could they do to him?
"Her name was Rico. Rico Tyrell. She's a hunter and a scientist, though she doesn't work for the science division. She'd been asking a lot of questions, making a lot of official inquiries. And she's very popular amongst the populace. She's a hero to a lot of them. Colonel Gilders felt if she got too close to the excavation, if she learned too much, she would take it right to the people. Or worse, to the media. And this excavation depends on secrecy. Everyone is already nervous enough about leaving home, Pioneer 2 is already on its way. If we find something down in those ruins that means we can't settle on Ragol after all...
"I understood why she was a threat," Mass nodded. "But I chose not to kill her because she didn't do anything to deserve that."
There was silence in the control room for a long time before Mass heard it. Laughter, soft laughter, coming from the unseen speakers. It got a bit louder until it was obvious that it was Seth.
"What is so funny?" Mass asked.
"It's nothing," Seth replied. "I just so love irony."
Two pillars rose up from the floor on either side of Mass. Before he could react to them, assess them as either benign or hostile, a wave of electricity shot out of each one, making him drop his sword to the floor as large portions of his body shorted out. He stumbled backwards, unable to speak, as another pillar rose from the floor and shocked him again. A fourth, and a fifth pillar appeared, and all five launched their electrical attacks at him, over and over, until Mass collapsed to the floor, utterly paralyzed.
His optic sensors still functioned, and as he stared at the ceiling, unable to move, an amplifier dropped from the ceiling and landed in the middle of the floor. Wires shot out of the device and attached themselves to his head. He felt another surge of power, this one directly focused on his artificial brain, and in the next moment, Mass no longer saw only the ceiling of the control room, but he also saw the five pillars that had risen from the floor, still crackling with the electricity they had used to disable him.
He saw the control room from numerous angles -- sideways, from above... it was as if he had the hundred eyes of a Mothmant, but instead of seeing one hundred images of a single, straight-ahead object, his visual processing center saw the entire room from every angle imaginable.
And in the center of the room he saw his own body, sprawled out on the floor, crackling with electricity, as the amplifier from the ceiling continued to send shock after shock of voltage into his brain. With the hum of transporters, a group of Gillchics, a swarm of Canadines, and a single Sinow Beat were in the room, all moving towards his prone body.
He felt the pain as one of the Gillchics took an oversized hand drill and drove it through the right side of his head. Optic fluid and hydraulics splattered from the wound like human blood, and Mass tried to scream in digital agony. The Sinow was upon his body now, and with two quick slashes his left leg had been dismembered, and was being carried off my Gillchics. His other leg and his left arm soon followed.
Who are you? a voice cried out within his program. It was Seth, Mass knew that, but the voice sounded so much different now. It sounded deep, scratchy... old... powerful...
I... I am... he tried to answer, but as he tried to access portions of his memory they were being wiped away. His first military mission... it had been on... where? Back home? On Ragol?
Where was he now? What was he doing here? He didn't know anything! He...
He searched his entire memory. It was filled with nothing but combat experience. Weapons proficiencies. Known weaknesses of various types of hunters.
He searched his higher cognitive abilities. His moral tree ended in one word, in numerous places. Kill. Kill. Kill.
He searched his highest levels of AI, his identity levels. He found them blank.
If you were sent to kill a woman, the voice in his head continued, because she was getting too close to an important government mission, and there was a fear that if she learned too much, she would take this classified information to the people, what would you choose to do?
His answer was definite and immediate. "I would choose to kill her." This time, it was his voice that came from the unseen speakers, and was broadcast into the Mines control room.
The other voice, the voice in his head, laughed. There is an old phrase in the ancient tongue. It means "chooses to kill." It is your new name, my servant.
He saw the mechs in the room stand aside from where they were working. All that was left of his old body was the head, still attached to the amplifier. It was but a useless shell now; his program was no longer within it. He called his amplifier back into the ceiling. He did not let go of the useless head at first, and started to drag it with the amplifier before letting it go, and watching it land in the middle of the room.
Then he opened the ceiling and dropped his combat form down onto the useless head, smashing it to small pieces, before rising back into the air.
"Dispose of that mess," he ordered the Canadines. They, and all the other mechs, were his servants, and they swarmed down to the wreckage to carry out his orders. But he was a servant himself... and his master was the owner of the voice in his head...
"Your humble servant, Vol Opt, is at your command, Dark Falz."
Ayn, please help my friend--rescue Thea!
|Please send all comments and feedback to mike at ripplinger dot us|