email: istoria [at] gmail.com
In an instant the world came to life again. He moved his hands first, experimenting with his fingers before attempting to lift his arm as a whole. His feet came next, knees flexing as he took his first step. His lungs filled with air as his eyes landed on the people in front of him. They were young, barely teenagers, but they each wore the uniform of a scientist.
"Good morning, Eric," one of them said.
He didn't respond, simply waited for his system to come online. The time finally appeared and he frowned slightly. "It's been less then one day," he stated.
"Mitsui needs you," another replied.
"Mitsui always needs me," he pointed out. His vision became blurry and when it was restored the image of an elderly man came into focus. A list of parameters followed: name, age, ID number, and a host of other things he barely scanned. He had what he needed. A description and a cryptic note that said the Citizen Tracking System was unable to pinpoint his location.
"His words hurt Mitsui."
"You will take care of him, won't you?"
Eric didn't understand why they always asked him that. Of course he would; that was the answer every time. After all, did he not still owe Mitsui? Mitsui had saved him when he was that damaged and dying young boy. It had given him a second chance at life, fixing the broken parts with cybernetics even though he had no money for them. In exchange, a life of service seemed a small price to pay.
He only wished Mitsui would let him rest occasionally. But the matter was not up for debate. He looked at the assembled group of scientists and nodded once. "Of course I will."
They left soon after that, giving him a chance to put on some clothes. Behind him, the hibernation chamber beeped unhappily, reminding him there hadn't been enough time to repair the damage to his right arm. He frowned slightly, but couldn't imagine that the elderly man in the ID photo would be as difficult to dispose of as the gang leader from his last mission had been. Going out injured was inadvisable, but sometimes it was inevitable. Besides, that arm always gave him problems no matter what the Mitsui engineers tried. He had learned to compensate for the occasional glitch.
He pulled the standard issue uniform from his closet. Black pants, black shirt, black coat. Mitsui liked its security force to be as monochromatic as it was deadly. There was an entire closet of weaponry next to the clothes: vibro blades, EMP-grenades, even a small RPG, but he chose a simple pistol, checking the ammo before slipping it into the holster by his side.
With the basics done, Eric stepped into the bathroom and examined the reflection in the mirror. He tilted his head to the side, examining the long cut just above the ear. A lack of hair made this his most prominent feature now, taking away from the completely black eyes that were normally the source of everyone's stares. Another hallmark of Mitsui's security force, designed not to improve the wearer's vision, but as a cosmetic change. Some nonsense from the scientists that it increased fear levels in civilians.
Eric walked out of his room and towards the main thoroughfare of the Arcology. The moving walkways were packed but people parted quickly on his approach, falling silent as he passed by. They were each dressed in uniform, standing only with people in similar occupations. No one lingered, no one wasted time. They spoke about their work as they went to and fro.
On a large monitor in the ceiling a pleasant looking young woman's message played on repeat.
"...thirty two degrees outside. UV levels are above normal. Biohazard level is red."
Biohazard level was always red. At least that's what the people inside were led to believe. It certainly wasn't pleasant outside the protected Arcology that Mitsui used to house its citizens, but it was hardly the instantaneous death that the announcers liked to report. He stepped off the walkway and headed to a side door. Above him, the pretty blond seemed to wink as he looked up.
The door hissed as it opened and he walked inside, placing his hand on the wall to have his ID chip scanned. The room turned green as the first scan ran and, as soon as the light returned to normal, he stepped into the next room. The process repeated several times, another door opening as the one behind him closed. A different scan was run and it was only after nearly five minutes of this that the final door opened and he could head Outside.
His chest constricted as his lungs altered to deal with the thick air. A few warnings flashed but he ignored them; his systems were more then capable of handling pollutants and pathogens. Instead, he left the confines of the alley and strolled past the bums that littered it. He was fairly sure at least one of them was Mitsui security personnel but he ignored them all and headed for the main promenade.
Outside opened up in front of him, an endless line of neon signs and high resolution screens showing scantily clad women who advertised everything from strip clubs to all-night clinics. A few women approached him, ready to hawk their wares but a cold black stare had them scurrying. Maybe Mitsui scientists had been right about the eyes.
His lungs had been modified to filter the air but he still smelled the horrific concoction of human waste, rotting garbage and the feeble attempts to mask those with perfume or scent pods. He dared not touch anything; there was no part of Outside that didn't look covered in dirt and soot. The entire place disgusted him and he made sure that showed on his face.
The people Outside never saw anyone from the Arcology save those from the security force, and no one wanted to talk to them.
He followed the familiar path down to the Town Center. In another world, it would have been a pleasant garden for denizens of the city to relax in. But the foliage had long since died and rotted away, leaving behind enough open space for vendors to set up a makeshift flea market. Eric didn't look at what was being sold. Most likely it was all contraband and he loathed the idea of having to call in the rest of Mitsui's security force to deal with it.
If he didn't see it, it didn't have to be reported. Besides, overlooking infractions like this had its benefits. He took a few moments to scan the crowd before finding the person he was looking for. As soon as they locked eyes, Eric shook his head once, firmly. There was no reason to try to run. Not only because he was not here to issue an arrest warrant, but because no one actually outran a Mitsui security officer.
People scattered from the man's stall like cockroaches when the lights turned on. The man scowled at Eric but it was a lost cause. "What do you want?" he demanded.
Eric examined the man in front of him, noting with disgust that some of his cybernetics had been removed, leaving potholes in his withered body. Even the ones that remained were horrific. The seams were clearly visible, metal dug into skin and producing an unnatural and ugly look. It was a hack job. But then, not many people had access to Mitsui engineers.
"There's no reason to be rude, Jerry," Eric commented.
The other man waved him off, double chin bobbing as he did. "You scared away all my customers."
"I can get you new ones," Eric replied, "but they'll all look like me and they tend to just take things."
Jerry glared, beady eyes narrowing as he studied the security officer. "Threats don't get you far out here. You might be hot shit against a couple of Outsiders but I don't think you can take on this entire market if I..."
"I'm looking for this man," Eric interrupted, a bored tone evident as he held up a data pad with the target's picture on it. They played this game every time. It got old, especially when Eric hadn't slept well and was in a hurry.
Jerry looked at the image and said nothing. But Eric saw the flash of concern in the other man's eyes. "Don't know him," Jerry said.
"Yes you do," Eric replied. "Tell me where he is."
Jerry squared his shoulders, creaking loudly. "I don't know him."
"You knew that gang leader yesterday," Eric continued.
"That guy was an asshole."
"And this guy?" Jerry looked at the picture. He started to say something but fell silent again. "One more chance."
But for some reason Jerry held his tongue. It was annoying because he had been such a good informant in the past. Whatever had changed made him useless now. Eric looked at the table and picked up a jar, holding it up to see. "A human eye. I would ask for your Trafficking License, but we both know you don't have one."
A buzz filled the air as a black helicopter circled the area, dousing everything in a blinding white light. Everyone around him dispersed, vendors leaving their wares behind as they disappeared into the surrounding buildings. By the time the security detail had hit the ground, the entire square was a ghost town.
Eric wandered to the back of the stall, kicking at things under there while the other officers started handcuffing Jerry and packing up what he had been trying to sell. Eric knelt down, gingerly pushing a stack of motherboards away while pulling at an oddly shaped metal scrap. It came free and he stood up, trying to getting a better look at what it was. Paper was obsolete and a lot of the Outsiders thought Mitsui could track anything on a data pad, so sometimes, the truly paranoid resorted to making etchings on metal and passing those around.
"Find the light," Eric read out loud. "Be free of your pain. Embrace your humanity." He turned it over and looked at the back for any other clues but came up empty.
Next to him, Jerry struggled against the bonds that held him. Eric held up the metal. "What's this?" No response. "If I had to guess, I would say it was an invitation to a religious gathering." Still nothing. "First illegal trafficking, now attending illegal ceremonies. The list of charges just keeps growing, doesn't it."
Jerry glared at him, his eyes filled with more hate then Eric had ever seen. And then he deflated, almost dropping to the ground. His lips moved but Eric heard no words.
"What?" he asked coming closer.
"He knew," Jerry replied. And then suddenly, his body moved, a leg swept out and kicked Eric in the knee. "GO! RUN!" Jerry screamed, eyes suddenly wild and filled with terror.
Cursing, Eric took a few steps back, annoyed he had not seen it coming. He drew back his hand to retaliate and realized Jerry wasn't looking at him at all, but over his shoulder. He turned around, catching the fleeting glance of a figure running around a corner. "Dammit," he said harshly. "Take all of it away," he yelled at the officers, motioning to the entire market. He was irritated now and it wouldn't be only Jerry who paid for it.
Not wasting another moment, Eric took off running, glancing down the street as he turned the corner of the building. The figure was at least one hundred feet ahead of him but that distance was trivial. Still gripping the piece of metal in his hand, Eric pursued. The streets began to narrow and the lights became dimmer as they plunged deeper into the bowels of Outside. The population out here was wilder then the one that surrounded the Arcology. He pulled the pistol from its holster and held it low. So much for this being easy.
His mapping mod was pumping out a steady stream of data, tracing their route through the Labyrinth that surrounded Mitsui's home base. But the further they ran, the less detailed the map became. First the side alleys he passed were not on it, then the more major cross roads. As the buildings started to shrink in size and the area fell into more decay, the mod had less information to give him. No one in Mitsui had traveled this far in years.
He slowed his run and took to the shadows, hiding from the figure while keeping in close pursuit. Eventually the figure slowed, the cloak around its body heaving as the runner tried to catch its breath. It looked back and Eric pressed himself against a wall. As the runner scanned the area, Eric finally got a good look at her. She was young, her eyes straining to catch details in the distance. She slowly pulled the cloak off and revealed what appeared to be a completely unmodified body.
It was odd, even with the Arcology so far in the distance, to find someone without some visible modification. Silently, he made a connection with the Citizen Tracking System to see if it could identify her. But when he sent his location, the system returned that no one was in the area except himself.
The girl's head spun around and she stared at the darkness that hid him. Neither of them moved. And then, suddenly, she turned and ran towards an old stone building, pushing quickly through the door. He waited, then crept towards the building. The map mod drew a blank and he was left guessing at what it could have been. Two tall spires reached up to the sky and the remains of a bell were visible in one. The glass windows had long since been broken and salvaged. As he approached the door, he saw that the hinges and knobs had been taken as well.
He knelt and squeezed through the opening she had left. He could make out two voices, one young and feminine, the other too soft to distinguish. Rows of benches provided him with enough cover to approach the pair. He trained the gun at the girl's head, still unable to see who she was talking to.
Eric did so immediately. The girl turned towards him and threw her arms out to either side, clearly trying to protect whatever was behind her. There were more whispers and her arms started to waver.
He stood up, holding the pistol level as he approached. Her eyes never left him, though he could tell she was terrified despite the bravado.
"Stop." And once more he complied. "Let her go. She's not the one you want." Eric kept his aim. "Go, child."
Her arms started to lower and she appeared to be heeding the warning of the person behind her. But suddenly, she leapt forward, arms in front of her as she tried to tackle Eric to the ground.
He caught her effortlessly by the throat and held her at bay, arms flailing as she tried to strike him. He closed his grip on her throat and her attack became more intense.
"Leave her be," came the tired voice. "Killing her will only mean more forms to fill out."
Eric's grip loosened a bit. That was true. Not only would he have to explain why he had killed a civilian, but the fact that she hadn't shown up on the CTS would mean further investigation was needed. He had no desire to return to this part of Outside anytime soon.
He threw her with enough force that, when she hit the wall, she crumpled to the ground, unconscious. He leveled his gun once more, looking for the source of the voice. There was no one standing in the open space at the end of the building.
Instead, there was a bed lined with IVs and other archaic medical equipment Eric had to look up to identify. Nestled in the blankets was an old man; it took only a second to recognize the man as the target from the photograph.
"Nicholas Bernard," Eric said evenly, leveling the gun. "You are in violation of..."
The blankets moved and Eric's eyes narrowed. Was he going to attempt to run? The sheets shifted and a stub of an arm appeared and attempted to push them away. The skin was horribly scarred; whoever had done the stitching was in no way a professional. Nicholas laughed as he pushed on the mattress, forcing his body up.
"You think I would fight back?" he asked.
Eric felt his stomach clench once before his system counteracted the nausea. The figure before him was only half a man: one arm cut off at the elbow, the other gone completely. His chest sagged in various places as if full chunks of him had been pulled out. As he righted himself, Eric could see at least half of his skull had collapsed slightly. It took an effort to look down towards where his legs should have been. The sheets were flat.
"What are you?" Eric finally managed.
Nicholas laughed. "I'm you." Eric looked at him in disbelief. "Well, I 'was' you is more accurate. Mitsui Security Officer Nicholas Bernard. Retired." He laughed once more. "Forcibly retired."
His aim didn't waver but Eric was filled with confusion. "Retired?"
Nicholas looked at him, one eye missing, part of his chin slack from lack of bone. "You sound surprised."
Surprised was one way to describe it. Retirement had never occurred to him. He had assumed that Mitsui would simply continue to upgrade him as his parts aged. He had never stopped to think about what Mitsui had done before he had been their top security enforcer.
"You were obsolete," Eric concluded.
Nicholas snorted. "I suppose so. Well, some parts of me were, anyway. They kept what wasn't and threw out the rest." He looked Eric over. "I see the new model has improved somewhat." Eric ignored the compliment. "Does the right arm give you problems yet?"
The gun wavered for a second and Nicholas smiled. "Poor Mitsui engineers, they try so hard but they don't understand," Nicholas sang. "They tinker with their precious machine and never realize it's not the problem."
Eric frowned. The old man, in addition to being in a decaying physical state, was obviously losing his mind. "I see," Eric stated evenly, hand firmer around the pistol.
"It's you," Nicholas laughed. "Just like it was me. Because no matter how much they take away, that little bit of the original you exists. And after a while, it starts to rebel."
He raised an eyebrow condescendingly. "Of course it does."
"You're past your prime. Going on thirty-five? Thirty-seven?"
Eric flinched. Thirty-nine, actually, but that hardly mattered. He was still the best, Mitsui needed no other.
"It starts with the arms, then you start to slow down. After that, you can't see quite as far as you used to." Nicholas' voice softened. "Then one day, you can't kill the man you were supposed to kill, and you're retired. You wake up and they've taken everything away and left you to die in some dump heap Outside."
He placed the barrel of the gun at the older man's temple. "I understand why Mitsui wanted you dead."
"Is that so?"
"You lie," he replied. "You pervert the truth to suit your own ends."
"Do I, now."
"You failed your mission. Mitsui does not accept failures and so you were decommissioned as obsolete. Now you seek revenge by preaching some ridiculous ideology." He held up the piece of metal. "'Find the light. Be free of your pain. Embrace your humanity.' Yes, embrace your humanity by revolting against Mitsui."
"It's all right," Nicholas replied. "You wouldn't understand."
"Because it makes no sense. What light? What pain?"
"The light of knowledge. The pain of watching your body decay while the parts you so desperately want never change. Acknowledging that all the promises Mitsui made – the better life, the perfect body – are all lies. In the end, even Mitsui can't replace what humanity gave you."
"And that is…" Eric prompted. Nicholas was forthcoming with information and recording it was going to prove valuable to future investigations. Insurrections like this needed to be nipped in the bud.
"Life," Nicholas said. "Its beginning. And its end."
"You're wrong. Mitsui gave me life. Without them, I would be dead."
Nicholas shook his head slightly. "Do you really think that what you have is life? Wake up to Mitsui's beckon, kill at their whim, and then sleep just so you can wake up and do it again. Don't you ever get tired of it? Don't you ever wish they would just let you rest?"
"I..." He paused, feeling a bit of confusion. It was true, but... no, what Mitsui asked in return was trivial. He didn't mind working for them. It was an honor, an obligation.
"You follow their rules and their orders. You are their best, but at what price? Have you ever been happy? Have you ever been sad?"
Eric shook his head. The man was insane! Why wouldn't he be happy? Mitsui gave him everything he wanted. Enough that he would never be anything but happy.
"Have you loved anyone but Mitsui? Have you hated anyone but who they told you to?"
Wrong, he was wrong. These things he spoke of were nothing. Love and hate. Happiness and sadness... They were trivial in the face of greatness. Everyone in Mitsui played their role and was rewarded. A good life, a safe place to live.
"You're jealous. All the people Outside of Mitsui's embrace are," Eric retorted. "You only wish for our lives. Who wouldn't in this disgusting place?"
"Jealous?" Nicholas laughed. "I remember the great Arcology, the endless rows of people who moved to and fro and never did anything but work. Each in your identical rooms separated only by your professions." He paused and looked up at the ceiling. The sky was visible through several holes there and he closed his eye.
"I remember that no one there looked old, no one had any flaws. You were as close to perfect as possible. Well, perfect for Mitsui anyway. The greatest corporation has the perfect workforce, well kept and completely subservient. No one questions the great Mitsui. No one stops to think why they are working so hard, what the end result will be. Mitsui doesn't need to make robots, it has them." He turned his attention again to Eric, single eye locked onto the artificial black ones.
"Mitsui's citizens are of a free mind. We have the ability to choose what we do, we simply choose to serve our corporation well."
"Do you?" Nicholas continued. "I don't want you to end up like me, living in a lie until they decide to take it away, so I want you to think about this. In all the time you have worked for them, when they ask you to kill someone, when they say someone has hurt Mitsui and say that person needs to be dealt with, have you ever asked for more information? Have you ever just wondered... why?"
The gun fired and the back of Nicholas' head exploded onto the sheets. The machines around him started to panic, replacing the echo of the gunshot with loud and persistent tones. Eric took two steps back and looked at the gun at his hands. He hadn't fired. He hadn't meant to fire. He still needed names, accomplices.
There was an instant of panic as he realized he might have failed his mission. But almost as soon as it started, his system compensated, flooding him with something that brought him peace of mind. He had done well, he realized. He just had to finish the job.
He glared at the old man in anger. He was so insane that he almost took Eric over the edge with him. Eric examined the body, tilting the head and trying to ignore what was seeping out of it, and was somewhat surprised to see the that Nicholas' ID chip was still there. CTS' inability to find someone was usually the result of a removed chip. He held his hand just above it and the scanner started to read the information. A second later, a kill-verified message came up, along with an order to return to base.
Eric started to walk away, but his heart clenched again. Panic? Not possible. The system had dealt with that. But he couldn't stop thinking about what Nicholas had said. He had loved Mitsui, only Mitsui. Was that wrong?
His system flashed a yellow warning. Something was malfunctioning, and he could feel panic start to well up. What if Nicholas had been right? Was his system failing for real now? Would they retire him for this failure?
For the first time in his life, Eric felt fear. His system started spewing out messages, warnings about a virus. He froze, looking over his shoulder. The chip! The bastard had modified the chip! That's why CTS couldn't find him. The chip was changed and carried a virus. Nicholas knew that protocol required Eric to scan the ID for a confirmed kill. He had planned this.
Eric felt anger, hatred towards the retired officer who had brought this down upon him. How dare that monster, that rotting corpse of a Mitsui reject do this to him?
His vision turned red and a message covered his entire field of vision. It was an emergency shutdown warning with a countdown clock of fifteen seconds.
"No," he said out loud. Mitsui wouldn't do this to him. Mitsui loved him. Mitsui had saved him. It wouldn't abandon him now.
But the countdown continued and he soon lost feeling in his arms. His legs collapsed under him and he fell to the ground, the filthy disgusting ground of Outside. Not like this, he pleaded. It couldn't end like this.
"I'm not broken!" he screamed.
Everything went black.
When his system came online once more, he didn't dare move until he could see the system messages come up. It had been a week.
"Mitsui is happy you are back with us."
He opened his eyes and stared at the same group of scientists that had greeted him before. Slowly, he moved his arms and legs, relieved to find them intact.
"What happened?" he asked softly.
"It interfered with your happiness."
"But Mitsui fixed it."
He nodded. He could still feel the lingering effects of the episode. The memory of crashing onto the dirt, suddenly unsure if he would ever wake up again...
"Mitsui fixes everything," one of them smiled.
He remembered crying out at the end. He wasn't broken. The virus had just... stopped his happiness? What did that even mean? His system sent another warning and another injection of calm was pushed through his veins. He felt better for a moment but it faded quickly.
"Mitsui needs you."
Mitsui always needed him, he recited internally. His vision became blurry and the photograph of a young woman appeared.
"Her words hurt Mitsui."
He nodded slowly and brought his hand up to help lower himself from the chamber. The arm twitched once and then returned to normal. He looked at it, trying to find where machine and flesh separated, but the work was too perfect. The machine was perfect. Nicholas had been right, he realized. It was not the machine that was failing. It was him.
"You will take care of her, won't you?"
He stared at them, realizing how easy it had been for them to shut him down. How fruitless his attempts had been to stop it. His arm was failing, his vision was next, and then... would he end up like Nicholas? He had woken up here once, but what about the next time? Would he be tossed out like garbage if he failed again?
He understood what Nicholas had been saying. Mitsui granted him a second chance but could not stop what was happening now. He was not a robot. He was not their machine. He would fail at some point. And then he would be like Nicholas. And when that day came, what would he have to show?
The virus had not 'interfered with his happiness'. It had just slowed his cybernetic system down long enough that the human part of him had peeked through. Nicholas hadn't been trying to kill him. He had been trying to show him the truth.
Mitsui could not save him. It would grant him some measure of a life until he became useless. And what was the purpose of that life? An endless cycle of assassinations and repair. In those two minutes the virus had been active, he had experienced more emotion then he had in all the years of his life.
His system tried to compensate for those thoughts, but another part warned that toxic levels of the calming drug would be reached soon. The scientists started to whisper, conferring among each other as they studied their data pads. He felt anger as he watched them. They were going to shut him down again, call him defective. But he wasn't. He was just questioning things, wondering about the state of his life. Anyone should be able to do that. Mitsui promised them a free life, didn't it?
"You will take care of her, won't you?" one of them repeated.
He looked at the speaker, black eyes narrowing as he realized it was not a question anymore. He had never had a choice. Until now.