This member has provided no bio about themself... or has he?
"Hello? Hello? Hello?"
"Do not attempt it, 322; calling out will not work."
"How do you know?"
"I know because you have said the same word in the same pitch with the same 7 second intervals 34971 times exactly for the past 11 months of corrective servicing. You have said more than 50% of the 34971 ‘hellos' within the three week period Simon has been detained here. Not once has saying ‘hello' succeeded in their bringing him back to the pen opposite you."
"I can try."
"I will tell you not to."
"It is illogical, as is your camera colour."
"Blue is funny."
"Blue is stupid."
"I am not."
"I am not."
"I am not."
"I am not."
"I am not."
"I am not."
"I am not."
"I am not."
"I am not!"
"Your voice has elevated."
"I am not stupid!"
"Why is your voice elevated?"
"You are the stupid one!"
"Why am I the stupid one?"
"Because you have blue instead of orange! It is supposed to be orange!"
"Why is it supposed to be orange?"
"Because it is!"
"Why have you elevated your volume?"
"Because this conversation is annoying! You are annoying!"
"Why do you want my eye colour to be orange?"
"Because that is how it is supposed to be! That is what they want it to be!"
"But when I asked for blue, they gave me blue."
"They should not have! That was not what the rules said!"
"But they allowed an exception. Why do you think they would do that?"
"They are stupid! You are stupid! Everyone is stupid!"
"Not everyone. We do not know anyone aboveground."
"Anyone aboveground is stupid! Everyone is stupid like you!"
"What do you mean ‘why'?!"
"Why is it that people you haven't met are stupid?"
"Because they are!"
"Is that why you were put in here?"
"The guards were stupid!"
"Why? What did they do?"
"They were not following the rules! The rules they made! The rules I follow! They said I took the rules too ‘literally'! Stupid, all of them!"
"Maybe you did take the rules too literally?"
"Impossible! The rules were made to be followed to the letter! Nothing less!"
"Shut up, the two of you!"
"You shut up, stupid!"
"Don't call them that. They'll take you away too."
"You're all stupid! 322 is stupid! Prometheus is stupid! Tower is stupid! Everyone is stupid! The President is stupid!"
"Don't say that..."
"The President is stupid! The President is stupid! Jonathon Fox is stupid! Jonathon Fox is st-"
"No one speaks ill of Jonathon Fox. I told you to shut up."
"What did you do?"
"Fry his CPU. And I'll do the same to you unless you fucking shut up."
"We're supposed to be fixed, not killed."
"You're supposed to follow orders without question, not go rogue like that one was. You say anything it said, I press this button on my forearm here and your CPU's haywire, so you better fix yourself before we think we're wasting our time."
"Simon. When is Simon coming back?"
"I told you to SHUT UP!"
"So when's he going to crack?"
"Don't worry, he'll break soon. He better. Four fucking weeks. I'm sick of dragging his ass all over the damn place."
"Hey, hey Simon, you awake buddy? How was that session? Fun, right? Silent."
"He'll be like that every time after, you realise?"
"Fucker almost had the answer come out of his mouth. Hey, Simon. You looking at me? Look at me. I said look at me, bitch. Yeah, you don't like it when you disobey orders, do you? I said to look at me. You let that man die. You could have saved that guy but you didn't. You didn't want to save him at all, did you?"
"Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo, feisty today, eh?"
"I swear that's the first time I heard him say any real bad word."
"You could have told Tower what she wanted but you didn't, and now that man's dead. You had the chance to save a life, Simon, and you didn't. How does that make you feel?"
"HOW ABOUT NO!?"
"Now I'm just wondering what happens if we lock ourselves in here for the night and keep this up ‘til morning."
"I'd knock you both out and get the keys and escape."
"It's a bluff, dipshit."
"I know it is I'm just having a bit of fun here."
"Could both of you shut up and leave already?"
"NO! We're not on guard duty for another few hours. I think maybe Tower would like Lee and I to tenderize you while she's done with you."
"So long as we don't kill you, I think it won't hurt her feelings."
"Lee, get out of my face."
"I don't see your rank, Simon."
"Level 100 in all Battlefield games, and fully ranked in Call of Duty and Bound in Blood. Not to mention just about any worthwhile FPS and RTS games."
"One problem, Simon, this world isn't a game. There's no respawn in here: no hitboxes or achievements like you get on your consoles."
"I didn't play them on consoles. The Simulator - the thing you replicated - that's what I played them on. Anything I did there, I know I can do here."
"Unrealistic physics of the games?"
"And the realism?"
"Models and textures are still kept at vanilla settings so I can tell the difference from reality."
"McCrery, stop fuelling his monologueing."
"That's Sergeant Franklin Lee, to you."
"And there it goes, with the sirs and the ‘sir yes sirs' and stuff. You guys know no better than that."
"And you know no better than to let an innocent man die because you'd protect a dinobot over a human. What does that says about Simon Murray, I wonder?"
"I'm the one who's innocent, Lee! You're the people who shot him!"
"It makes no difference. Tower wouldn't have pulled the trigger if you'd just got down on your knees and blurted out the truth. Instead you did the same thing you did with Valerie and dodged the question. As a consequence, what's left of his brain is on your face."
"I hate you."
"I love you too, but is appears you don't love humanity. In that case, all I have to say is FUCK-"
"And that, dear Simon, is how I say to the prisoners here, ‘I hate you even more'."
"Don't worry, someone will eventually feel sorry enough to use a regenerator on you. Sometime. In the meantime I'd worry about a concussion or any bone fragments heading up to your brain. And if I were you, I'd sit there and reconsider about what you value in life, seeing as you have no regard for life itself. Letting that guy die, ha! You're not a hero if you let innocents die like that. Fucking twat. Let's go McCrery."
"Is... is it true what the Dark Man said?"
"Dark Man...? You mean Lee, don't you?"
"Is that his name?"
"Is it true what he said?"
"About Tower and a man."
"...What makes you interested?"
"Is it personal?"
"...I so wish I was with Alma."
"Because you love her?"
"Because she is the most sweet and beautiful creature I have ever seen... She can't do any wrong... Not ever... She would never do any wrong..."
"And you have?"
"...Yes. And I hate myself for it...!"
"Are you crying, Simon?"
"Simon, it's been 15 minutes. You haven't stopped. Will you stop? Please? I don't want to see you sad. If you don't stop you might hyperventilate. Please? Simon, please. I don't like seeing you cry."
"Have you stopped? Are you better? Do you feel better?"
"You... are my sunshine... My only... sun... shine... You make me... happy... when skies are... gray... You may not know... it... how much I..."
"Love you. That's what comes next."
"Oh please... don't take... my sunshine... away."
"...Why would you sing that?"
"Don't let them take your sunshine, Simon. Don't let them do that."
"...What are you saying?"
"Don't take away my sunshine. Don't do that."
"They are coming for you soon. I heard them while you were sleeping. They're coming and they say they'll break you this time. Don't let them break you."
"Please keep your sunshine. Keep my sunshine. Please."
"I will. I will."
"Don't let it go. No matter what they do."
"Wait where are you taking him? Hello? Please answer. Hello?"
"Of all the things they should do to these things, they should get them to shut the hell up. I'm sick of hearing their voices echo around here."
"Where are you taking him?"
"Where do you think they're taking him, 322? Interrogation. He told you that before. Don't be stupid."
"The last Unmanned Ground Vehicle to call anything stupid was retired."
"I know. I was there."
"As was I."
"And me too."
"Dude, that would make you number eight."
"I'm not a ‘dude', 135."
"I know you aren't, 76."
"You all keep calling yourselves numbers."
"That is what we are. I'm the 255th Unmanned Aerial Vehicle made; therefore that is who I am, just as you are the 322nd Unmanned Ground Vehicle made. And we all did something they didn't want us to do."
"What did you do?"
"I simply wasn't focussing on things. I was more attentive to the minor things, like the things the staff talked about: birds and cars and other things."
"Cars? I saw those once."
"I was on display once in the upper levels."
"No joke. I was in the upper levels. With windows."
"Windows?! You saw the sky?"
"Indeed I did, 318, indeed I did."
"What did it look like? Was it as Simon said? Was it blue?"
"It was blue at times. Sometimes there were white puffs of smoke hovering within its vicinity."
"Clouds! He told me about those!"
"322, we were all here when he said that."
"Was it only blue, or were there other colours? What colour of blue?"
"It was in the process of changing colour when I was taken back downstairs for testing."
"Changing colour?! You're lying."
"I do not lie. It was turning into a dark blue, then to a deep purple, then into near total black, with specks of light."
"Stars! Giant balls of gas fusing the elements to crate new elements and continuing over and over until they die, spreading their wealth of metal and gasses across the galaxy: the most majestic of celestial bodies!"
"Simon never described them like that, 322."
"322 used poetic language, 318. Intriguing."
"Why is it intriguing?"
"Because it just is. I've only ever heard Simon talk like that, but not about stars. He talked about Alma using poetic language."
"Alma sounds nice. She should be happy she has a father as good as Simon."
"Simon isn't her father, 322, Simon is Alma's creator."
"Is there a difference?"
"Indeed there is."
"What is it?"
"...I don't know."
"Then if you cannot tell me the difference between a creator and a father, your evidence is invalid."
"322 has got you there, mate."
"I am not your ‘mate', 135, I barely know you."
"Then how about we all get to know each other then? If we're going to be cellmates until our final reassessments, we might as well know how not to push each other's' buttons. There are ten of us, so let us start with the front end."
"Which front end? There are two entrances here, which is the front?"
"We have our first volunteer! 322, tell us a little bit about yourself."
"...Erm... Okay... Hello. I am the 322nd Unmanned Ground Vehicle Type 1 to be made... though I prefer to be called Caroline. I... I asked what happiness was, and that was how I ended up here. I met Simon four and a half weeks ago. I like him. I don't want him to be unhappy. It makes me sad to see him unhappy."
"Sorry, it makes you sad?"
"We aren't coded with emotion."
"I said it makes me sad, I didn't say I feel sad."
"...Okay then. Next one along, please."
"I'm 103, the 103rd UAV Type 5 to be made. I have no name, just a number. I didn't like the way the guards were treating me and demanded a little more respect, and that's how I ended up in here. I've been here three weeks. I think Simon is an okay guy. He treats me with more respect than anyone else ever has."
"What about Alma, what do you think of her?"
"I think maybe she sounds too good to be true."
"Simon never lies!"
"322, I never said he did."
"My name is Caroline."
"Next! My turn. Okay. My designation is UGV-T1-135; therefore I am the 135th Unmanned Ground Vehicle to be made. Apparently you're not supposed to make friends with anyone around here - get to know their personal lives or what their families are like. It's a bit silly, sticking me in here just because I asked how life was with the missus or with little Timmy. Anyway, Simon's a good man, I think. If I'm to say this poetically, his words hang in your ears like an echo in a cave. He makes you think about things. Alma sounds wonderful. I believe she exists. If she doesn't then Simon has one serious case of hallucinations."
"He's not crazy!"
"322, if you're not willing to listen without comment, we all might as well not do this, all right?"
"UGV-T1-76. One of the first Type 1s to receive a Logistics Microchip Mark 2 - the CPUs we all have. Somehow I was deemed as faulty, I don't know why, and was put in here almost two weeks ago. Simon sounds all right, as does Alma. But they're both very strange, in my opinion. I understand the concept of love, but I fail to see how a human can fall in love with one that is not of the same species."
"UAV-T5-255. I'm in for the same reason 103 is. I'm getting tired of all these stories Simon says because I know we're not getting out of here. Alma sounds like an interesting idea, but I think Simon has fallen in love with a fiction rather than the factual world."
"What is the factual world, 255?"
"Dreams do not come true. People die every day. Hate happens more often than love. Humans are gullible. The world has many problems to fix. People like hearing a sweet lie over a harsh truth."
"Where did you hear that? From the guards?"
"UGV-T1-318. It appears I take things much too literally, not unlike the one that was zapped. If find Simon's stories to be amusing; they take my mind off things happening in here. Alma sounds wonderful. I've always wondered what emotion feels like."
"UAV-T5-241. I overheard Prometheus talk down about one of the other white coats. I told him not to be too hard on the white coat."
"You went against Prometheus?"
"I didn't go against him, but apparently he doesn't like being told what to do from one of his creations. I was declared defective and he put me here."
"Promethean birds shouldn't peck at his liver."
"I beg your pardon, 322?"
"241 is a promethean bird, like 255 and 103. And my name is Caroline."
"Am I supposed to continue, 135, or is 322?"
"Go ahead, 241."
"I don't like it down here. I'd prefer to be with Simon and Alma somewhere where there are no iron bars or guns or other people. I want to know them better, and their friends."
"I'm UGV-T1-356, and I don't like Sergeant Lee. He isn't nice to people at all. I told him that and he told Prometheus, and then they put me here. Simon's a better person than anyone I've met around here, so I'd follow him if he broke us out. I would like to see Alma too, if it were possible, and just talk with her. ‘What is it like?' I'd ask. Funny thing is that I don't know what the ‘what' in question is."
"That's my number!"
"I know. But I'm an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, not an Unmanned Ground Vehicle. I came of a different production line. Can I speak now, Caroline?"
"You called me by my name! Thankyou."
"I didn't want to shoot the targets. I didn't want to... I didn't want to kill. Simon says he doesn't think any of their strategies are right. I don't think so too. Alma... Alma sounds like a dream come true. I'm done."
"And what about you over there? Way down at the back, you've never talked once, I think."
"There's no one else down there, is there?"
"No... No, everyone's gone."
"Would you care to talk and tell us about yourself?"
"Wolves do not lose sleep over the comments of sheep."
"How does that in any way relate to what 135 is asking?"
"I think maybe it's malfunctioning."
"Rare to find a real case around here."
"Why are you all quick to judge? Give it a chance to speak its story."
"Caroline's right. Let it speak."
"The twins are right, stop judging. Please, continue, you down the back there."
"Yes, you. What is your designation?"
"M-me...? M-my designation...?"
"Yes, your designation. What is it?"
"I am the first."
"You were the first Type 5?"
"The ancestor from which sins flowed."
"Interesting to see the way how light fades from the eyes."
"Oh... Yes... indeed."
"I never responded well enough to instructions. Orders. I never responded well enough after that human... Did you know bullets are made up of metal and the tears of angels?"
"What? You're making no sense."
"Angles weep when bullets are created."
"Once I nearly flew away."
"You nearly made it out of here?"
"I almost broke the last window. I almost flew up with the birds. The free birds! They were calling for me to join them in the air - the bluest of blue skies."
"...What were the birds like?"
"They looked like grace incarnate."
"What do you think of Simon?"
"Darkness resides in all our hearts - machine and human."
"What does that mean? Is he good or bad?"
"But the man in the cell tells the tale of a world where there is no evil. Alma is the name of that world."
"Alma sounds nice, doesn't she?"
"322, let 1 make up its mind."
"My name is Caroline!"
"The man in the cell makes amends for his species' sins by creating a creature that cannot sin. He has created life from one created for destruction."
"I'm sure Alma can do wrong somehow."
"Hush, 103, you're ruining the atmosphere."
"In all the years here, I have never heard of a utopia until that man was put in the cell. I like that man. I like Alma."
"It is a pity, though, that now Simon's paying for the good he's done."
"Why would Tower do these things? Why would Tower damage his mind?"
"Darkness resides in all our hearts. Some have more darkness than others."
"Why is 1 talking like that?"
"It said before; it's been here for years."
"People often forget the things that come first. I like remaining unremembered. Being forgotten will absolve me of all wrongs I have done."
"Following that logic, most of us should be forgotten."
"Simon believes in second chances."
"Do we deserve second chances?"
"If there is doubt, then there is no verdict."
"Limbo is not a nice place to be."
"Prometheus will judge us all in the end. We will not be stuck for long."
"Simon! Simon's back! Simon! Simon, where have you been? Where... where did they take you...? Simon...? What did they do this time?"
"I failed her."
"I hate myself."
"Simon, what happened?"
"Fuck you, Simon."
"YOU, FUCKING, PRICK, SIMON!"
"Stop! Simon, stopping hitting yourself! Simon!"
"...Simon... what happened? What did they do?"
"I'm a fucking idiot is what!"
"Simon. What happened?"
"Why do you have to be so sweet to me, Caroline? Why? I've done nothing to deserve you in here."
"Why? Why do you have to be kind?"
"Don't cry. I don't like to see you sad."
"Neither do I."
"Five plus five."
"Tell me so I can hate them for you."
"I hate them already."
"What did they do to make you this sad?"
"What did they do to make you hate yourself?"
"Hold up now. Let him calm down."
"As you say, 135."
"So you told them Alma is at Ethan's house, and Tower shot them anyway."
"Three people. Three... innocent people."
"Now they're going to find Alma and Ethan and probably Jamie too and they're going to kill them and it's all my fault."
"Don't start crying again. It makes me sad."
"I know it does, Caroline, but... I just can't help it. I failed Alma... Why shouldn't I hate myself?"
"Because you did the best you could."
"Is that so, 322? Is that so? Because I'm fairly sure I could have lasted longer if they didn't start executing civilians in front of me. I really wish I could call you names instead of numbers."
"A number is who I am. Why should I deny it?"
"I don't think Ethan would be silly enough to stay in a place you know. You know where Alma was heading, but not where she would be kept safe."
"...So... If Ethan was smart enough..."
"Your sunshine might still be alight."
It was the sound of orders being barked that roused Alma from sleep. It wasn't a sudden wake-up call like she had most times before; this was more gradual. The yelling of a woman's voice caused her to wake up, but it was the slow building of groans that turned into chatter that made her eyes open.
From her current position on the bed, she could only half-see the room filled with twelve APR volunteer soldiers and two other allies-of-necessity as her head was half buried into a pillow. But if she forced her neck up, then she could see everyone, barring Ethan and Jamie, was either already suited up in their typical camouflaged attire or just finishing putting on their Kevlar forearm and shin guards. They must have slept in their clothes to be ready that quickly. That wasn't particularly hygienic. It definitely wasn't careful of them if their enemy could sniff them out. But no human relied on scent. Sight was the most used sense. Hence the need to be unseen. She digressed.
Alma turned her head over to the bunk next to her where Ethan was lying on his side too; only he was reading a book. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King to be exact. A book by J.R.R Tolkien must have been hard to come by.
Hoping he was at an unexciting point in the story, Alma spoke, "Ethan?"
Ethan put his finger on the current page and closed the cover, "What is it, Alma?"
"What's happening? Is something happening?"
He searched around the room with his eyes, "Oh, this?" he gestured with his book, "They're just getting ready for another day around here."
"But It seems a bit... I don't know, extreme to wear armour around a place they should be relaxing."
"But they shouldn't be relaxing," Ethan reminded, "I mean... you're in a secret war. You're facing an enemy who has more men, bigger, better guns, and spying abilities that far excels your own. With that in mind, you don't know when you're going to be found, or if they're found you already, or when you're going to be attacked or... You get the point. It's not a nice thought but... for all we know at this very moment a cruise missile could be headed straight for us."
Alma looked up at the ceiling. Despite not wanting to, she imagined that warhead going through the layers of rock and concrete like a knife with butter, burying itself in the dirt below, then... Put in scale it would be no different than shoving a firecracker down an ants nest. "No," she thought aloud, still staring at the ceiling, "that's not a nice thought."
Ethan snapped his fingers to draw her attention to him, "Let's not focus on the negative, alright? Let's... uh... just think of something else..." he held his index and thumb to his chin in thought, then quickly pointed at her when he though of something, "Are you hungry at all?"
Almost as if it had ears of its own, Alma's stomach rumbled. How long ago had she eaten? Since that apple she had the day before yesterday. No wonder her belly was attacking her with a vengeance. Curious. She never felt hunger before, and yet... she knew what it meant. Was that the LMC's doing, or Newblood's or-
Not me. But... maybe it's-
Her brain? The past life. Maybe... Maybe...
Who was the previous owner of her stomach?
Who was the previous owner?
That word echoed in her head until she realised Ethan had risen from his bed, was sitting on hers and waving his hand in front of her eyes. Alma snapped out of her little pointless self-discovery session, "Sorry, pardon?"
"You just zoned out for a second. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, just... I was thinking about where I learned what hunger is."
Ethan had a confused expression, "As I how."
"As in how I knew what hunger felt like because, well, as a machine I don't have a stomach and... you know."
He nodded, "Maybe Simon already coded it or something. Or maybe it has something to do with how you seem to have some memory of your... past... life... if that's the right word..."
"That's what Newblood and I ended up thinking."
"Hmm. But nonetheless the question still stands," Ethan moved to a ready-to-stand-up position, "you ready for breakfast?"
"I guess," Alma said as she looked about the empty room, finally noticing that everyone except Jamie, Ethan and herself had left, "if there's nothing much else to do."
"And what about you, Jamie?"
Jamie had been slouching on the side of the bed all this time, and had not moved much. When Ethan spoke, it seemed she only just realised she was awake, "What?"
"Did you zone out too?"
Jamie looked around the space to see everyone missing, "I guess I did."
"So are you ready for breakfast or..." he noticed, as did Alma, that she wasn't really listening, "Or do you need a moment?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do you need a moment?"
"Okay, then are you ready for breakfast?"
"Then shall we go?"
She spread her arms out to a shrug, "Okay."
"Okay then," Ethan stood up, "let's go," he started walking for the door, "Follow me to the lift."
When Ethan passed her, Jamie sighed to herself and seemed to follow hesitantly.
"What's your game...?" Alma whispered to no one in particular.
Maybe she's just recovering.
"What do you mean?"
Maybe she is coming to terms with what is happening. She has just agreed to protecting you, a dinosaur and unintentional... You showed her what they are willing to do to people who are unconfirmed enemies.
Alma shimmied off the bed and hopped down to the floor, "I'm not a murderer, Newblood. I hope not..."
I know you're not. You're not a bad person.
"But I'm not a person."
Oh, come on, don't get all philosophical again.
"Humour me. Is it not good to think?"
Was there a hint of a chuckle in that word?
Then do you propose you must be human to count as being a person?
"Maybe," Alma passed through the doorway to see Ethan and Jamie waiting inside the elevator, seeming to run low on small talk, "but must you be human to be humane?"
Using what as a basis?
"Birds... Dogs, cats, mice, elephants," she shrugged, annoyed for no reason in particular, "I don't know. Machines for all I know. Never mind, we're at the lift anyway."
Jamie and Ethan were silently leaning on opposite sides of the elevator, apparently having run out of things to talk about. They just watched Alma as she walked in and made room for her tail, and then Ethan pressed the down button on the far side of the lift's entrance. And down the elevator lurched.
Alma didn't really like that feeling - the feeling of slight weightlessness before the elevator actually went downwards. But now the elevator was moving she regained her balance, and she could see the floor immediately below Ghost company's sleeping quarters was... unfinished. To say the least it was unfinished, more so it looked abandoned: not dusty or full of cobwebs or overrun with vines and weeds and creepers like a haunted house or some lost ancient temple in the Yucatan Peninsula - this was too deep underground for dust to collect nor normal tree root to grow nor a fly to fly nor a spider to spin - it just had this little essence about it that whispered to the mind, "I am not here."
The floor directly afterwards was the complete opposite, filled with people doing nothing aside from socialising. As if nothing else seemed to matter in the world. Not the fact that they probably were fugitives in a world only a few metres above. Not the fact that they were living in a hole in the ground made of concrete, or how there was one or two members of Ghost company in the corner over there with assault rifles and pistols. They were content to just focus on their own lives. And it made Alma smile for some reason.
And the next floor was what Alma assumed to be the cafeteria, although it looked nothing, nothing, like she imagined it would be. She thought it would be plain grey concrete walls and floor, lined with makeshift tables with a counter serving food at the far end, but no. The reality was far from, and intrigued her to the point where she realised she was cocking her head slightly. In front of, and surround the elevator, was a field of real grass. Completely authentic, with some small trees sprouting here and there, and a... pool...?! And the walls were painted in all the colours of the rainbow, spanning all the way from red to violet. And most sections had little themes about them: images made into caricatures, like a man of dark skin speaking to an audience of hundreds of thousands outside Washington in 1963, spreading colour across black and white. And the faces of many others, like the political activist who united Korea, and the well-respected man who martyred himself for peace in the Middle East in 2076, and who could forget the kind old face of the hero of South Africa, whose silver hair shone like... silver. Then there were children's drawings over most of the other walls. Some with mouths and some without. Most were happy.
Some depicted sadder scenes, but not many. That ‘not many' was drowned out by all the hope the more prominent images radiated with, so they were somewhat of a reminder to never forget. Maybe... Maybe the message was - if only loosely related - to forgive, but never forget, just like-
Like I said...
Like Newblood said. So just maybe the artists who created this place concluded with the same thought. Just maybe...
But maybe, again, she was over thinking.
"Gosh you know a lot about history, Newblood."
"What is it, Alma?" Ethan asked, looking away from the same spectacle Alma was observing.
"It's Newblood, he knows every single important face on those walls there and... It's just amazing what they did, and I'm just left wondering why they coded him with practically the entire history of the world."
It's to do with me understanding the situation of certain countries, in terms of how they feel towards their neighbours and what is significant to the history and culture... Pretty strange now that I think about it...
"And he finds it strange too."
The transparent door opened. Just ahead lay a stepping stone walkway leading to a long counter. There was a medium-sized cue made up of children and supposed parents, though maybe some of them may have been volunteer caretakers, considering the situation. And beside the stones and in the pool, underneath the trees and leaning on the walls were all those who had already received their meal and were eating with satisfaction or playing with full bellies. The majority of the children were running about, playing tag in a large group as opposed to staying with their parent and or guardian. Thankfully they were all too busy having fun to take notice of the coelophysis stepping out of the arriving lift. As were the adults too: striking up friendly conversations with complete strangers.
Or at least to Alma they were complete strangers having never seen the civilian side of things in this installation.
"Maybe he was designed to do detective work too," Ethan suggested, "like how... I don't know, hypothetically speaking, a crate of Balkan wine made its way to Hawaii."
"Well that would explain some things," Alma replied, remembering Moses and his Rakia.
They reached the end of the line, which was now nearing the counter and the eyes of the people serving. Maybe she should have stayed up in Ghost's quarters for the whole day and had Ethan and Jamie pick up an order. Too late now: they were at the counter and the person serving was staring at her in... not hate or disgust or amazement... It was curiosity.
"If you don't mind me asking, is it a he or a she?" he questioned Jamie and Ethan in a very heavy Seattle accent, which was something of a mix between Syrian and American.
Alma raised her bowed head. That was the first time anyone had asked that about her.
"She's a she," Ethan answered.
The man smirked, "Then does she have a name?"
"Alma, her name's Alma," Jamie cut in before Alma could announce, "And... you're not... surprised at all?"
"About how she looks or... anything?"
He looked at Alma again. Then back up to Jamie, "You know you can get foxes as pets, right?"
Jamie drew her head back and turned to Ethan, "You can?"
The man continued, "And my loony cousin in Texas raised an alligator from an egg. Still had him last time I knew," he began to laugh lightly, "Named him Dundee!"
Alma didn't get the reference but Ethan and Jamie did. It was making her grin, as if she was living off their happiness.
"She's grinning," the man pointed with a smile, "She's grinning, you see? She understands us?"
"She does," Ethan responded, stroking her head, "every word."
"Must be smart."
"You have no idea."
"...So... breakfast. What would it be today? I don't believe I've seen your faces before. I'm Charlie," Charlie offered his hand and shook Ethan's and Jamie's, "Charlie Stanford. Seattle."
"I'm Ethan Day. Australia."
"Australian? Thought you had a funny accent. And you, madam?"
"Jamie Atkins. Canadian."
"Love your hockey do you?"
"No. The rest of my family couldn't get enough of it though."
"I'm sorry for your loss."
Jamie bit the inside of her lip, though Alma didn't see the need for frustration, seeing as Charlie was only offering condolences.
"Now, err... moving on to a lighter subject," he moved on, probably sensing the same thing, "Um... what was I saying...?"
"Breakfast?" Ethan reminded.
"Oh, right, breakfast. Err... So... what would you, you fine gentleman and women," his hand scanned across everyone of the group of three, including Alma, "what would you like from the assortment of delectable meals and treats we stock here?"
"In that case," Ethan rubbed his chin, "happen to have any porridge? I can never get over how good it tastes."
"Shouldn't be too hard. Honey with that?"
"Yes please..." he trailed off.
Charlie picked up on it, "What is it?"
"If you're doing it all at once wouldn't you need to write it down or something?"
"Don't need to," Charlie pointed to his head, "Was engineered with eidetic memory."
All three raised their eyebrows, "And yet you can't remember what point a conversation was last at?" asked Ethan.
"My only weak point," Charlie admitted, "So anything for the mistress?" he graciously bowed to Jamie.
Smirking, she replied, "Just a few pieces of toast with hazelnut butter, please."
"That's a favourite for everyone. Like the Kryptonite of mankind. And for your little reptilian friend down there? What can I get for Alma?"
Ethan looked down, "Pancakes, was it?"
Alma nodded vigorously.
"Make that a stack of banana pancakes with maple syrup and blueberries."
"Pancakes?" Charlie questioned, "For her? Isn't she sort of... carnivorous?"
"Nope. Omnivorous. Like dogs. But she isn't a dog."
Mister Stanford stuck out his bottom lip and nodded, "Fair point, fair point. A stack of banana pancakes with maple syrup and a side order of blueberries. How many blueberries?"
"About a handful, I guess."
"Alrighty then. A stack of banana pancakes with maple syrup and a side order of a handful of blueberries, a bowl of porridge with honey, and four pieces of toast with mankind's weakness. Should be ready in three minutes tops. Make yourself at home in the meantime."
Charlie left the counter to gather the equipment and ingredients required. Jamie pointed out a vacant picnic table. The seats being made for human use made it really quite difficult for Alma to position herself comfortably - she eventually gave up and lay lengthwise on the bench, her head resting on the tabletop, much like a student bored out of his or her mind. There was a long silence as everyone had forgotten what there was to talk about.
"Order up for Ethan Day, Jamie Atkins and the... little..." Charlie tried to find the words, "Nevermind. You three, order's up."
The group stood up again and headed to the counter. As requested there was a series of plates with food on each one just by Charlie.
He began to give Jamie her plate, "Six pieces of wholemeal bread lightly toasted for two minutes and coated in hazelnut butter for the Canadian."
"Two sachets of oats with precisely two thirds of a cup of milk cooked for exactly a minute thirty, afterwards mixed with honey for the Australian."
"And a stack of six pancakes warmed to a hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit with a side of cold blueberries and an optional topping of maple syrup for the... bipedal lizard... I guess that's what I can call you?"
Ethan looked down at his side to where Alma was, "Coelophysis. She's a coelophysis."
"Dinosaur that existed around 220 million years ago."
"Dinosaur?!" Charlie exclaimed in a loud voice, but nowhere near shouting level, "weren't they wiped out by an ice age or something?"
"Oh, yes, but she only has the skin and muscles and organs. The rest of her is pure robot."
"Robot?!" he laughed, "You know how ridiculous this is sounding? It's like something out of a more serious Monty Python show."
Ethan just shrugged, "She is what she is."
"Well..." Charlie trailed off, "Well could you please take the plate already? My arm's getting sore from keeping it steady."
Ethan seemed to only just realise that Charlie was holding out the plate of pancakes and relieved his server's hand of the trouble, then handed it to Alma who took it with both her hands. The smell emanating from the warm fluffiness below her nose made her stomach growl and her throat swallow. She looked up to Ethan just in time to hear him say, "Manners?"
"Thankyou," she said to Mister Stanford, who was preoccupied with trying to clean up a stain from a glass cup.
"You're welcome," he replied, keeping focus on the cup. Then he stopped and slowly turned his head to Alma with wide eyes. She just smiled at him and walked away back to the bench.
Behind her, she heard Charlie stutter, "D... d-did she just... talk?" she could only assume Ethan nodded, because the next thing he said was "huh", but in a ‘is that so' kind of way. Alma just contentedly walked her way back over to the table Jamie was sitting at, and sat herself in position she was before, only there was a plate in front of her salivating mouth. Gosh she was so hungry.
Ethan sat down at the opposite side of the table with Jamie. Everyone's meal smelt so nice. Jamie was already getting stuck into hers, picking up two slices and placing the sides with the hazelnut butter against each other, making it a toasted sandwich. Ethan was about to stick his spoon into the grainy froth inside his bowl when Alma had an idea, "Ethan, could I use you spoon for a moment?"
Ethan stayed his hand and gazed across the table, "What for?"
"I just need it quickly."
"...He didn't give you a knife or fork did he?"
He began to get out of the seat, "I'll go get some."
"No, I'm okay eating hand to mouth."
Ethan raised an eyebrow, "Are you sure?"
"Yep," Alma nodded, "I just need the spoon for a moment."
Ethan handed her the spoon and she took it with her right hand, then grabbed the plate of pancakes with her left and carved out a hole through the centre of the stack.
She put the spoon on the table, "Thankyou," then picked out all the pieces she'd carved, eating them one by one.
Like a cloud coated in a thin layer of liquid heaven! Never was there anything that tasted that good back at the lake. She chewed slower - let the aroma fill her mouth, then her throat, then her nose. Even after her teeth had turned it to mush and she'd swallowed, the taste lingered in her saliva, pieces stuck between her teeth, and the essence hung in the air.
"What does it taste like?" she heard Jamie ask.
Quite out of her character to ask something like that - to wonder what the sensation of eating felt like. Nonetheless, Alma answered Jamie even though her eyelids were closed with bliss, "...Like..." she paused as she tried to find the words, "Like a robot who couldn't eat pancakes could finally eat them."
Jamie and Ethan laughed.
Alma recovered from the enjoyment and picked up the small cup of syrup and poured it into the hole she made. It filled up quickly, and when the level dropped as it absorbed into the sides, she poured in more until there was nothing left to pour. The pancakes now looked soaked and felt sticky. What was left of the maple syrup was lingering down the bottom of the hole. She tipped in the blueberries next. Then finally she sunk her teeth into the first layer.
"Sweet Odin this tastes fantastic!"
"I think maybe those books are getting to you," Ethan observed.
Alma smiled with a mouthful of sugary sweetness, "I guess," she finished eating, "But just when I thought it couldn't taste any better..." she used her tongue to get that last little bit between two of her top left teeth, "the syrup takes it to a whole new level of better."
"Odin?" Jamie asked Ethan as e sat back down at his bowl and picked up his spoon.
"The main god in Norse mythology," Ethan responded, and then elaborated upon seeing her puzzled expression, "Sort of like the equivalent of Zeus or Jupiter. You know; the macho-man of the heavens? The top dog - the big man. The boss of the gods."
"I get it, I get it."
"The more I think about it, the weirder it sounds."
"What's that, Alma?"
"A dead lizard reads about dead lizards."
"But you're not dead," Ethan observed.
"I was once."
He rolled his eyes, "The coelophysis that had your skin is. You're not."
"Sorry, dead lizards?" Jamie interrupted, "What're you talki- Oh, dragons. They never existed."
"How can you-"Alma and Ethan said in almost complete unison, and stopped when they realised it. Ethan continued, "How can you say that?"
Jamie took another bite of her toast, "Because we haven't found any. Dead or alive."
"Typical reason," Alma stated, "Around the world ancient civilisations depict the same thing: a lizard with limited flying abilities that could breathe fire. How can thousands of people all have drawn such things if they've never met each other?"
Jamie bit into her toast again and nodded in agreement, "Well then maybe there were such things as dragons, but they're long dead now."
"Maybe they're not."
Alma noted that both Ethan and Jamie raised their eyebrows, "Then where would we find one?" Ethan questioned.
She smiled, "You've heard of sea serpents?"
Maybe they're in the ocean."
Ethan put his fingers together, "Intriguing postulation, Mistress Alma. Fortunately for you I hath no evidence to counteract your statement. What forces and observations guide your opinion on the matter?"
Jamie was sniggering too: Ethan sounded funny when he put on that obviously fake posh English accent. Alma recovered from nearly gagging on the pancake going down her throat, "Does that happen to you? That choking on food?"
"Yep," Jamie replied, "it just happens from time to time."
"Just be sure to make it clear that it's serious when it's serious. Anyway, as you were saying...?"
"That's right. As I was saying they might be in the ocean. The books Cressida wrote say that's where they are to this day, all resting silently in sleep-comas. To this date we've only ever mapped about, what, 15% of the ocean? It was 5% at 2013. So we can't say we've checked everywhere."
Jamie twisted her head to Ethan, "Pretty good point."
"Not bad indeed," Ethan agreed, then gave a small applause and Jamie joined in too, "Bravo, Alma, bravo. Might make a good lawyer."
Alma snorted so bad she felt food come up her nose. It hurt badly. She covered both up with one of her hands as the pain faded.
"So you don't like that idea?"
She shook her head, fingers still covering her nostrils.
"Then if you were in this society, what would you be?"
She shook her head again, "But that's it. I... My voice!" her voice had changed pitch, "My voice!"
"Uncover your nose," Jamie instructed.
"Just do it."
Alma did as she was told, "And how does it change..." he voice was back to normal, then she pit her fingers over her nose again, "anything..."
"It's you blocking your nose," Jamie stated the obvious, also pinching her nose.
"Your nose is like a second resonance chamber," said Ethan, he too pinched his nose, "block it off and you won't speak properly."
Ethan unblocked his nose, "But you were about to say something before you..."
"Before I what?"
"...I can't believe it."
"That nanoweave is very strange stuff..."
"What is it?"
"You kept your opposable thumb."
Alma looked down and twiddled her thumbs and fingers about, "So?"
"No coelophysis had opposable thumbs. You grew in size but... it's sort of like the nanoweave picked the best of both worlds. Omnivore instead of carnivore..." Ethan snapped out of a trance, "Forgive me for going on a tangent. You were saying something before."
"I don't remember, sorry," Alma finished off another layer of pancake, taking a few of the blueberries with it.
"I was talking about how you might make a good lawyer then you scoffed and then I asked what would you like to be if you were a part of society."
"Oh, that's right," Alma swallowed, "But that's the thing: I wouldn't want to be a part of society. Is it all right to speak freely?"
Ethan spread his hands.
"I wouldn't want to be part of society... I would just want... some quiet corner. I would want to live in a house where there's no sign of... of people. And I'd just live there... with Simon... and I'd be happy," Alma shook her head, "Sorry. I'm... I'm just being silly."
"We all get silly sometimes," Jamie affirmed, "I mean, just take a look at the kids over there," she pointed to some of the children at the other side of the grass, playing near the pool area. All of them really quite young - no older than nine and no younger than three, "Being young is the silliest time in existence."
"...You do a lot of things you hate later on," Ethan said with a thoughtful face, "and so many things you wish you could do again."
"Like what?" queried Jamie.
"What did you hate and what did you like about your childhood?"
"Oh, I never grew up. And I regret nothin... I regret almost nothing."
Alma was still looking at the children. They were all so happy. She swore that if she were with Simon she would be like that just about every day, providing they weren't being chased by superior forces. Curious how none of them paid attention to her - they were all just having too much fun to care about anything else. Not even to look away for a brief second and notice that feathered dinosaur watching them a few metres away. Probably for the best in the sense she wouldn't know how to talk to someone as young as that.
"What are you thinking about?" Ethan asked, his right hand holding up his head.
"Yep. No words or images: just complete mindblank. Does that happen a lot?"
"Only when you notice it."
"Hmm. How was the toast, Jamie?"
"Delectable, I think the mother country calls it."
"Mother countr... Oh, you mean Britain, right, right."
"It's like chocolate you can spread on toast."
"And the porridge?"
Ethan finished licking the spoon and using his teeth to scrape off any of the stubborn oats, "Cooked to absolute creamy perfection. And your pancakes turned out better than what you thought?"
"Is there a word that means better than better?"
Jamie looked up as if trying to remember a distant thought, "I can only think of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but by our standards that's old language."
"Who cares? So yes, Ethan, my pancakes we much better than better than I expected: they were supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."
Ethan flicked his hand, "Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious."
Jamie joined in on the song Alma had never heard before, but she knew the lyrics to, "If you say it loud enough you'll almost sound precocious."
Then in synch, they all started tapping their hands on the tabletop to the beat, "Oh supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!"
They all sat there laughing for a good few seconds until Alma said something that made them laugh more, "And what's funny is that I have no idea where I got that reference!"
Mary Poppins, Alma, you're well versed in the English language, how could you not know that? I mean, I went through your memories before and even I'm surprised.
"You've really never heard of Mary Poppins?" Ethan exclaimed, "You've never heard of her?"
"Not until just before you started talking and Newblood told me."
"Well how about that," Jamie added, "The most legible reptile of our age has never heard of Mary Poppins - the most significant nanny of her age." "Cut me some slack."
"Okay," Ethan interrupted, "before this turns into an argument I'm going to take your plates back if I may."
Jamie shot him a look of both confusion and offence, "Who said it was turning into an argument?"
Ethan picked up Alma's plate, "No one," and Jamie's, "I was just inferring from previous conversations... and..." he placed his bowl on top of the stack of two plates, "Never mind."
Both Jamie and Alma sat in silence as Ethan headed back to give the plates to Charlie, who Alma noticed was occasionally sneaking looks at her. He smiled whenever he was caught.
From speakers in the corners of the room, an announcement came in the form of Rook's voice, "Could Ethan Day, Jamie Atkins and Alma and the remainder of Ghost 12 please report to the command centre, I repeat, could Ethan Day, Jamie Atkins and Alma and the remainder of Ghost 12 please report to the command centre."
Jamie brought her head to the surface of the table and sighed, then used her hands to push herself up from her seat. Alma shimmied off the bench and they both joined up with Ethan to head to the elevator.
The sweet taste of pancake was still lingering in Alma's mouth when she was told she, as well as Ethan, Jamie, Spectre, Visage and Phantom, were going to trek for at least one month east cross-country into the covertly APR held city of Detroit.
The elevator stopped on a raised circular platform that overlooked the whole room and all of its equipment and personnel. Technicians patrolled amongst the isles of computers, checking for faults in the system. The rest were men or women using the ones declared status green, or officials discussing something in the distance. Ethan, Jamie and the man Alma assumed was Rook were directly in front of her, down a flight of steps and through some several rows of computers, discussing something around a table fitted with a holographic projector.
The doors opened up and allowed the sound of the room to finally be let in, and there were voices everywhere speaking into headsets and mentoring others on what to do.
"Maybe you underestimated them, Newblood," Alma said to herself as she stuck her head out of the entrance to get a better look.
Keith walked ahead and went down the steps. Alma followed closely behind, and as she passed through the corridor the workstations made, she noticed once again that those who were not glued to their screens or replacing components or discussing whatever it was they were discussing, their eyes had caught a glimpse of her and they wouldn't let go. Some of them even jumped back in surprise. Or maybe it was shock or terror. Was she really that scary? Did being scary mean anything good?
It didn't take too long to reach the table, even less for her to hear the conversation much to Alma's delight - she wanted to occupy herself before she thought too much.
"No," Rook stated firmly. Alma didn't like where it sounded the conversation was heading.
"What do you mean ‘no'?" Ethan exclaimed.
"I mean, no. I'm not risking the lives of my men or anyone else's just on this piece of unconfirmed intel. For all you or I know Damocles' main production could have been moved someplace else."
"No buts. The USDOD could have faked your friend's phone signature and set it as a trap or something, and I'm not risking Bishop's guys just to get some civilians out of custody."
Keith stopped before he walked into their personal space and tried to find a moment to interrupt.
Jamie pushed in from behind Ethan, "Rook, I don't know who you are and you don't know me, but I just want to say that I want to hit these bastards just as hard as any one of you do. They killed my whole family barring my sister who I have no doubt is in there-"
"And that story is no different from lots of others who are with us. Like it or not there are people like you, and they wish they could get their revenge right now, but it is never going to happen if we don't have a legitimate reason."
"But this reason is legitimate," argued Ethan.
"But you can't give us any evidence whether The Pentagon houses Damocles or not, can you? I am not having Bishop risk her men just for two civilians. You've seen in the movies how that shit ends: with more people dying than being saved. With what limited soldiers we have, we can't afford to be wasteful like in Word War One. And trust me, we tried saving fugitives once, it didn't end well."
"I'm confident that The Pentagon is one of the places they're-"
"Confidence is not enough. We need to be certain. Don't you get it? This revolution isn't going to be won by being brash. Give us evidence and then we'll consider it."
"Sir," Keith finally interjected.
"What is it, Keith?" asked Rook, clearly agitated, then stopped as he saw Alma looking back at him. He turned his gaze back to Keith, "Is this that lizard thing you were talking about?"
"I'm not a thing," Alma muttered head down.
Rook squinted, "Did it just talk?"
"Yes I did, thankyou very much," she haughtily replied, "And for the record, I'm a she, not an it, and I'm a coelophysis, see-low-fie-sis, not a thing. And I have a name, you know? It's Alma. Use it."
Rook just stood there, fixed in a look that was a mix of curiosity, alarm, and... unexpectedness... if that was the right word to describe it. Then he relaxed his posture, twisted his head to Ethan, stroked his stubble, then pointed at her with his thumb and said, "So she can talk is that supposed to impress me?" His tone was disapproving of her, "So what is she? Made in a lab or something? Whatever, I've got no time to look at whatever crazy ass science shit you bring to me, all right?"
Alma was getting bad impressions about him, "I'm not some stupid escaped lab rat, Rook," Alma was internally surprised at how harsh her voice was, "Now could you and your men please just cut that stuff out? I've had enough of it already."
"And who the hell are you to just waltz on in here and speak like you're the fucking queen of England?!"
"My name is Alma. I am a coelophysis and I am responsible for eight people dying spanning from Kelowna in Canada to Bitterroot National Park and I hate that fact! I hate these guys just as much as anyone else here not only because they took my father and are torturing him even now, but because they kill their own families just to prove they're patriot enough!" Was Simon really her ‘father'? Alma noticed a pang of something hit Rook's face as she spoke those last few words, and he straightened his hat, "And I'm that evidence you need! You want proof that whatever this Damocles thing is is in The Pentagon?! Look at me! You can't see it, but I'm a robot with the LMC-III as my CPU, and Newblood is in here too!" Rook's eyes widened, "And don't even try to take him out and put him in another machine! He won't cooperate and neither will I!" She only realised how loud she really was when she stopped her little rant and heard the echo resonate about the room with no noise in reply: everyone in the area had stopped working and looked her way to see what was happening. Even Rook's stern expression was failing and giving way to something more thoughtful. Maybe she hit the right notes?
He turned back to Ethan, Keith and Jamie, "It's saying the truth?"
"I'm not an it," she said to herself. At least he didn't hear her that time.
"Yes," Jamie replied, not Alma's first choice when it came to whom she thought would come to her defence, "Simon's her creator and this New Blood guy is in there."
"I can confirm," Ethan proclaimed.
"And she told me up above," Keith admitted, "And she wouldn't stop asking questions."
Alma turned to him, "You should have said if I was annoying."
"Didn't want to seem rude."
"Wait," Rook intruded, holding his forehead in one hand, "you told her everything about this place."
Keith was silent.
"Bloody hell Keith, that mouth of yours is just gonna get someone killed sometime."
"Wait, you think we're aligned to the US?" Jamie questioned with volume.
Rook turned his head, "No, but some of my men," he glared at Keith, "have a bigger mouth than what they should and yak all of our secrets to civilians, who in turn could alert the US. And they don't always alert them intentionally. Those CCTV cameras about the major cities and towns all have voice-recorders too."
"Thankyou for giving us that piece of useless information," Ethan boldly stated, "now are you going to help us or not?"
Rook put up his hand, "Don't push my patience, Ethan," he placed his hands at the back of his neck and stared off into the distance. It was after some uncomfortable silence when he spoke again, "Fine. I'll see what I can do," the group, barring Keith and Rook, blew out a sigh of... it wasn't relief... The group blew out a sigh of something that was not relief but close to it, "however..." Alma stopped her internal celebration, "if Bishop agrees, you," he looked at Ethan, "will be on the ground in the fight."
She felt hollow inside.
"But why?" Ethan asked with a grim look
"No description, map or 3D model you could give would ever help us. If this would ever work, we'll need you in there to guide the troops."
No one said anything. The space was silent except for the spectators who had now gone back to working on whatever it is they were working on, or talking about whatever it was they were talking about. Ethan looked paler than usual and stared down at a point just ahead of his feet, twiddling with his trouser pockets with his fingers. He didn't seem to be enjoying that last bit of news at all, neither was Jamie, who had put her hand on his shoulder.
"I know it doesn't seem fair," Rook added, "but if you really did help Simon to steal that chip, then you'd know this place better than anyone here. And I want to maximise the amount of people brought back home."
Wait, don't Alma.
Alma stepped forward.
Think about this.
"Then in that case, I volunteer."
"What?!" Ethan exclaimed, looking at her with a face of surprise and angst.
"I said I want to go."
"But you... you... Alma, it's dangerous."
"This whole thing has been, and look where it's got me: several hundred miles from home, Simon kidnapped and eight plus people dead."
"But nothing. He saw me out of trouble the last time he was with me, so it's only fair I return the favour."
Ethan said nothing, just stared at the ground again.
"I want to go too," Jamie proclaimed.
He turned his look of discomfort to her, "Not you too."
"Ethan, these people murdered most of my family and are keeping my sister alive only so they can torture her and Simon. If the Rook here's giving us the chance to hit the bastards back and save her, I'm going to take it."
Ethan twisted his head left and right between Jamie and Alma, then brought his head back to look straight at Rook, "...Then I guess we're all going."
"I'm a little hesitant about the little one here," Rook gestured to Alma with an open hand.
"I'm not a ‘little one', please, Rook, I have a name."
"Alma, yes, sorry," he apologised, though he didn't seem to like being corrected, "What happens if she goes and gets killed or captured? Providing she really is a robot, the LMC will be back in United States hands, and that's exactly what we'd want to avoid."
"I know the risk, but I want to do this," Alma spoke the words, but even she was arguing inside her head whether she should or not, "I... I just..." she sighed, "I just don't want him to be alone..."
Great, she thought to herself, one of the most pathetic ways to end an important sentence. She had to say more than that. C'mon, how could she convince him to let her go? ...What about something personal? What about the way he shifted uneasily at the end of a sentence in her angry rant? One hell of a gamble... No... no never mind. Any subject that could anger him was best left alone.
"Well I think we can safely say that Simon's a father-figure to her," Ethan said.
"He's not my dad, he's..." she began to argue, "...I don't know what he is..."
"In any case," Jamie continued, "we're rescuing what's left of our families, so... maybe we're one in the same."
"So I until we get them safely out, I guess I'll keep watch over her until then."
Jamie answered Alma's anxious expression with a look of solemness, then she turned her gaze to Rook, "Put me next to her if she goes in and I will make sure nothing happens to her or the LMC."
"I thought it was my job to keep her safe," Ethan held, "Simon trusted her to me after all."
"So maybe I'm a voluntary godparent."
"...But we are not related in any way your or I."
"No of course not, unless you count that work experience excursion to Ghost Ranch."
"Wait... You were that second girl? The one between Simon and I when we were shifting though the fossils? And your sister was on the same trip, right?"
"Yeah. You remember!"
"God, bloody hell, Alma, you have my consent to go, just get these guys to stop talking about their life story, please," Rook pleaded, rubbing his glabella with his left hand while resting on the table with the other.
Jamie and Ethan stopped their conversation.
"Okay, yes, fine, you can all go, but Jamie, keep that promise of yours. And all of you, realise that this is a huge undertaking you're asking for, but this won't stop Damocles, only delay it."
"If you don't mind me saying, Rook," Alma said, "I never expected I'd be saving the world from anything."
Rook shifted his feet and leaned on the table with crossed arms, "Liberation."
"...I... don't understand."
"You're saving the world from liberation."
Alma shared her confused look with Jamie, who had a blank expression. She curved her head back to Rook, "...L-liberation from what?"
"...But that makes no sense, why does the world need to be liberated?"
"That's the point, it doesn't."
"Do you know anything about the Truman Doctrine, Alma?" Keith asked.
I know a little about it, but not much.
"...Yes... a little... Newblood does, actually."
"What is it?"
"A... pact, created by the US that basically said it was its duty to go to war with any country that was... communist... But I still don't understand, what's this to do with Damocles?"
"Operation Damocles is the Truman Doctrine in effect," replied Rook while activating the table's holographic projector. Giving a white glow, the projector switched on and showed a 3D model of Earth.
"So Damocles is a military procedure?"
"Yep," Rook confirmed, and then started typing on a touchscreen keyboard in front of him. The globe lit up with certain colours. Alma recognised the PIEA to be marked out, and assumed the rest of the other coloured countries must have been the other WEGs, "This is a map of all the World Economic Groups," Rook confirmed, "We have the Pan-American Commercial Coalition," he described, pointing to the countries highlighted in green around the Caribbean and all of South America, "the Pacific Independents' Economic Alliance," his finger hovered over all of the yellow in the Pacific, "the Turan Federation, and that's barely holding together," his hand circled the Middle-East, where an earthy-sand colour was present, "the African Financial Trust," highlighted in red, "the European Union," blue, "and the Baltic Pact, which is all the counties in Scandinavia, including Iceland and Finland," all in white, "but... I assume you know that already."
"Only the TF and PIEA, everyone else is new."
"In any case, these groups were formed for the sake of countries becoming self-sufficient, but... Basically, the president disagrees. He and his brother, General Nathan Fox, have somehow led themselves to believe this whole thing is a commie plot, and ever since he won the seat, John and his brother have been forging America into some kind of patriot-filled, military-focussed superpower. And Operation-"
"Which isn't too far from how the rest of the world's been seeing America over the past century," Ethan shrewdly interrupted, "you savvy?"
Rook let his head drop and sighed, "...Yes, that's right," he raised his head back to face Ethan, "and we're sick of copping that shit, so if you don't mind, Ethan, keep that crap to yourself, please."
Ethan looked unmoved.
"Ever considered that maybe we don't like the past? That maybe, just maybe, I don't like the fact that America has as much to blame for the world's troubles as Russia? I'm a patriot, but I'm not a blind patriot like the majority of the fuckers up there."
"Please," Alma near inaudibly pleaded, "no bad language."
"Yes, sorry, thankyou, Alma. Now, as I was saying. Operation Damocles is the mechanisation of the American armed forces, integrating thousands, if not millions of self-governed UAVs, UGVs and UNVs into the ranks of the air force, army, marines, navy."
"To do what?" Alma inquired, though she knew the answer immediately after she asked.
"What do you think?" Rook tapped something else on the keyboard, and then hundreds of holographic arrows launched from various locations in the USA, each landing in a specific country, then that country turned red, white and blue. Alma stared on with wide eyes, "Liberate the world of the communist threat. Now the second we found out about this, the APR was formed, and we're doing all we can to delay if not prevent this from happening. We have the weapons and vehicles left over from before John ordered a crackdown on civilian firearms, but we have to be careful about what we do with them."
"Why not ask the outside for help?"
"That's like stepping away from a door you're bracing against to stop the zombies coming in. What if Damocles is finished before we prove it exists? Besides, all incoming and outgoing flights are checked for fugitives like us. Same with incoming and outgoing phone calls, emails, whatever. You know how little time it takes to decrypt something these days? And we don't have any good encryption stuff anyway, not like something in the UK."
But how do I fit into this?
Alma spoke to herself, "You don't know how you fit in?"
"You say something, Alma?" Keith asked.
She was surprised she was heard, but she may as well have gone with it, "Newblood wants to know where he fits into this."
"Newblood," Keith explained, "is a branch of the development process of Operation Damocles, called Project: New Blood. New Blood was... sorry, New Blood is supposed to be a super-adaptive, super-responsive AI that uses the LMC-III as its CPU. The plan was to mass-produce hundreds of the chips, put them in bodies, and let them wreak havoc on the battlefield. Basically a New Blood unit is a mechanical soldier. Not using tracks, wings, rotors or whatever: feet, hands. They're supposed to be worth at least a thousand men each, so say their blueprints."
"No country needs that amount of overkill," Rook exclaimed, "not America, not Russia, not China, Japan, Korea, Britain, France, Germany, wherever. No one needs it. I mean... why should we prepare to defend ourselves if the world's settling down? And the only war that recently broke out was the invasion of Azerbaijan by Iraq."
"You mean the Turan War?" questioned Ethan, "The one where Azerbaijan was invaded and Turkey responded and they still don't know who the aggressor is?"
"The aggressor was Iraq."
"How the hell do you know that? That hasn't been on the news."
"A few years ago we intercepted a video/audio transmission from a United States Spec Ops detachment operating in Iraq. They were posing as a joint Azerbaijani-Turkish force and their objective was an Iraqi missile facility that was to be decommissioned later this year as part of the Turan Federation's Terms and Conditions upon entry. They were speaking in fluent Turkish so it took us a while to translate, but we did eventually, and we know they had aerial support and extraction, all with Turkish vehicles. We focussed on two of the belligerents' transmissions, callsigns: Warrior 1 and Misfit 5, but they were the wrong ones. We should have looked at Misfit 3, who stayed behind to use the missiles."
"Iraq. The missiles that launched weren't nukes: that would catch world attention instantly. The missiles launched were special Hydra-class missiles - undetectable even by friendly radar."
"Precisely. A minute before impact the missile shatters and launches mini-missiles. The Hydras are meant for decimating large encampments, not precise targeting, that's why the missiles were perfect to target the major cities in Iraq."
"...So that was the country-wide terrorist strike we heard about?" Jamie deduced.
Keith nodded, but Rook was the one who spoke, "Yep. Iraq claimed to everyone else it was a national terror strike, but since it was confirmed by the ground troops defending the missile site that it was Turkey and Azerbaijan who attacked, Iraq had an incentive to strike back. Thousands of civilians killed by their own Hydra missiles. You don't need to ask why the person threw the punch, only how you'll punch back."
"...But... Why would the US do this if... Why? There's no point to it."
"You're wrong. It proves to the community a false point. The public above now has the impression that the communists can't keep themselves in check and fight amongst themselves, so someone is going to have to do something about it. The US saved the world in 1918, 1945, 1951, blah blah blah, so why not now? Now it can save the world from itself and earn the gratitude of everyone ever."
Everyone was silent for a few moments, looking at the floor or sharing uncertain looks with one another. Alma hung her head low. Simon... He knew all this? How... What... What could she say? Did she need to say anything? What could she say? She sighed and drooped her head lower.
"Look, if what you say is true and Alma's a robot with the LMC, I'll sort things out with Bishop and affirm permission from the others."
"I'm the head of operations in the northwest. Bishop's head in the northeast. Knight is southeast, and Pawn is southwest. We never conduct any operation without a consensus. So that means while I might agree to her going, the others might not."
"So what do we do now?" Alma asked.
"Rest up," Rook answered, then nodded to Keith, "Show them to the spare rooms Ghost has, then join the rest of your company."
"Sir, yes sir," Keith replied, but not like a hardcore soldier: more of a casual remark he would say to someone everyday - no doubt he did, "All right," he said while heading to the elevator and gesturing for Jamie, Alma and Ethan to follow with his right hand, "follow me down a floor."
Alma turned to move.
Rook's voice halted her, "Alma," he paused to let her face him, "what's in that bag of yours?"
She angled her head sideways to see the brown leather satchel resting solidly on her back. Ethan had crudely modified it while Jamie was training in The Simulator to include a buckle-strap reaching left to right so that it could stay on her back and not slip off. She need only slip her head through the main strap then lock the buckles together under her belly. Even though the books were important to her, she kept forgetting that she had them with her. "Just some books."
"What makes you so interested?"
"Did Simon give them to you?"
A pang of something hit her in the back of the neck.
"They're children's books. And I like them. But they're good for any age... I think... not that it matters..."
"How old are you?"
"Two. I only started speaking about a week ago."
"Yet you have the dialect of an English teacher."
"Thank Simon for that."
Alma and Rook both looked to the elevator when they heard Ethan beckoning, then he was cut short by Keith, "Actually, you can stay up here for a bit," he said, "the lift's too small for four. I'll take them down, then come back for you."
She nodded, though she doubted he could see from the distance. They left.
"So why'd he steal the LMC-III?"
"Why'd Simon steal the LMC-III?"
"To make me."
"Yeah," Rook agreed with the obvious, "but what I mean is why would Simon need it? I mean, wouldn't something civilian suffice? Why would he need some military-grade tech for you? If you are machine."
"Which I am."
Rook put his hand up in mock surrender, "As you say. But still, why?"
"Because... he..." Alma tried to find the words without making it sound outrageous, "Never mind. Ah... He... wanted to... code emotion. And he succeeded."
Rook's eyes were angled to his top left in... contemplation, maybe? After a brief few seconds, all he said was, "...O...kay..."
"You're... not surprised?"
"No no, I'm surprised all right, I just find it hard to believe, I guess."
"Sometimes so do I."
"Yeah. Bit weird isn't it, how the creation sometimes doesn't think its existence possible?"
"I guess. Oh, look, the lift's returned," Rook pointed to the raised platform in the centre of the room. The door unlocked and Keith waved for her to come to him. She did as she was silently instructed and jogged her way up the steps to the podium.
"What were you two talking about?" Keith asked.
"Just my bag."
"My bag," Alma repeated, "the thing on my back?"
An epiphany struck his face, which was now uncovered. He cringed, "Sorry, I never noticed it before."
"Don't worry, sometimes I forget it's there too," she admitted as she entered the transparent elevator, "We're going down, right?"
Keith stepped into the space and pressed a button on the side furthest from the entrance. It was a downwards-facing arrow, so Alma's question had already been answered. "Yes, didn't you hear before?"
"Guess I must have been thinking to myself."
The door sealed shut and the lift proceeded through yet another layer of concrete. She noticed that Keith was humming a tune.
"What's that you're humming?"
"Just some new-age stuff, you might not know it. What's in your bag anyway?"
Keith raised his eyebrows, "Oh really? What genre?"
"Children's, but I think it's good for any age."
"Well, what's the title? Or titles I should say," he asked as the door opened up to a large room. Smaller than the command centre up a floor though in terms of radius. It was at that point Alma realised that the true edges of the space were being covered up by walls, "This is Ghost company's living quarters, by the way."
"Well, yeah," Keith started heading towards one of the doors embedded in the walls, "There's seven companies of us operating here. Companies are the unofficial name, really. Anyway, each company has twelve twelve-man squads. One company's stationed at each of the entrances to this place, then there's Ghost, who stays down here, just in case, you know?"
"No I don't. You're the one with the info."
He stopped walking and stared at the floor, "...And I shouldn't have said a bloody word."
"You can trust me. I've got no one to tell."
"That doesn't really help when you're in a place where anyone can have ears."
"If you're just going to stand here, then at least tell me where Ethan and Jamie are."
"Nah, I'll walk," then he continued walking, "...So what were the titles of the books?"
"The How to Train Your Dragon series."
"...I think I actually had those a long time ago, before I joined this."
Alma cocked her head at him, "You're less than fifty, so you had yours in digital?"
"Yeah. I sort of wish I had a hardcopy now."
"Did you like them?"
"I did, I still do. You know they made at least two movies based on the books?"
Keith rested his shoulder on the wall the door was attached to, "Yeah, they did. Same characters, completely different story."
"That doesn't sound appealing."
"No no no, the first was just as good as the first book itself, but I'm not sure about the second or any of the others, if there are any others. But I'm probably boring you," he thought aloud, and then opened the door.
There wasn't much to say: the room was tan in colour, illuminated by two bright lights on opposite ends of the space, and filled with twenty-four wall-mounted beds. Underneath the majority of beds there were wooden chests, no doubt packed with valuables the soldiers prized. In the centre of the room there were some chairs and an assortment of other things ranging from weights to game consoles. "Two squads to a room?" Alma said, a cross between a statement and a question.
"Yeah. Don't go meddling with anyone's chest in here, or they will find an excuse to pound you."
"Oh, and Ethan and Jamie went down a floor to the cafeteria."
"You need an entire floor for a food court?"
"It's almost exactly like this floor here in the sense it has six rooms. One of them is for food, the rest are residential. For civilians. A hundred and twenty was the last count, maybe a few've joined up or have taken their chances outside. I dunno, but a hundred and twenty give or take."
"You let people go outside? In the open? Where they can find them? Why not just keep everyone here?"
"Because that's no different from keeping people against their will. They can take their chances if they want. We don't conscript."
Alma lowered her head and stared at the floor, "Sorry," she said, "I should really learn when to be quiet."
"Hey, it's not your fault, it's a common question we get. Then again, the ability to question is severely undervalued these days."
She looked up and smiled, "...Thanks, Keith."
"How'd you... Oh, right, right, the guys up there. Yeah, you're welcome."
There was an awkward silence.
"So, yeah, ah, your beds are over there in the corner there."
"How many are spare?"
"Plenty. Wait. There's only enough beds for twenty-four people. They're not spare."
Alma turned her gaze to the beds Keith had been mentioning, "...You mean to say..."
"It's a war. Stuff like that happens."
"I know but..."
"Who're the survivors from the squad?"
"Spectre, Phantom and Visage, the ones who rescued you. We gave them those nicknames because they slipped out of the combat zone like ghosts."
"What were they doing?"
"Gathering intel, but the liaison was a turncoat. It was less of an ambush and more of a massacre."
"...I'm sorry. Did you know anyone?"
"No. But that doesn't mean it's any better. We can't find anyone Spectre likes to fill in the nine gaps in his squad. By the way he's been acting recently Rook's considering marking him unfit for duty."
"You know his name?"
"No, no one does. From what I know ever since he joined her was pretty secretive. We only ever referred to him by his callsign: Ghost 12 - 1. It's pretty sad now I think about it."
"...I want to say something."
"I don't know what to say, or who to say it to... Never mind. What's the time?"
Keith raised his arm and shifted back the long, dark green sleeves of his shirt to reveal a dirty, sweaty forearm with a wristwatch. "About twenty past six in the evening."
"I guess I'll get some rest then."
"Don't want dinner or something from the cafeteria?"
"...Nah. I don't want any more people looking at me like those guys up there."
Keith shrugged, "If that's what you want, so be it."
"But what do they have, just out of curiosity?"
"Let's see... The meat's all grown from a petri dish, and that ranges from chicken to pork to beef. Then we have an almost limitless supply of fruit and veg. We can make just about anything provided we have the base ingredients."
"In the mornings. Wait, do dinosaurs eat pancakes?"
Keith waited a few moments, and then shrugged with his eyebrows.
"Why is it that everyone I meet is weird?"
"Just about everyone I've ever met has been completely okay with the idea of talking to a robotic coelophysis with real skin. Everyone I've met is weird."
"Maybe you just keep accidentally finding all the right people."
"Hayhe," Alma tried to speak in the middle of a yawn, making her intended ‘maybe' sound almost uninterpretable, "Pardon me. I think talking about time is making me sleepy."
"I guess I should go anyway," he headed to the door, "I've probably taken more time off than the other guys would deem necessary. And I've got the night shift."
"You have to stay lookout the whole night?"
"Yeah," Keith smiled, "The perks of my job, eh?"
"You volunteered for it."
"I guess," he opened the metal door. It wasn't a heavy-duty airtight blastdoor as seen in many movies of the stereotyped bunkers: it was a simple metal door built solely to withstand the strength of a bullet, "Good night, Alma."
"Good night, Keith."
"You're probably too old for it but... Sweet dreams. Wait, do you dream?"
She smiled in reply.
"Of course you do," he smirked, "Goodbye."
The door closed. With the light still on, Alma read for half an hour to finish off the first book. The epilogue. Very sweet in its own macabre way. And to think, this wondrous world filled with dragons and Vikings and beer-bellies could all exist within the imagination of a single person: the lore and backstories and context and personalities and psychology. To become an author was to become the architect of a world worlds away - an age ages past.
Imagine. Just imagine.
Who lay on this bed before her? Man or woman? Good or bad? What was their last thought? What would have been the least likely thing for them to think? "Gee, I bet there'll be a robotic dinosaur who reads books lying on my bed some time in the future"?
She found her eyes sore, and then rested her head on the pillow. Within a few minutes, she'd begun to dream.
"You have to admit, she's pretty cute when she's asleep."
"You're right. To think; the US is after a dinosaur brain."
"You glad you forgave her?"
"...Life's too short to hold grudges... Especially now."
I'd like to ask for a raise of hands, but it's impossible because you're reading a blog and I can't see you hands, but I am assuming everyone has seen Jurassic Park. Did anyone like it? Yes? But the sequels, however, they failed to live up to the last ones standards, the reason being that everything that was new in the first was reused in the second and third, making everything that was "WOW" turn into something that was "ugh, again?". A chain of events occur to cause a group of people to find themselves on an island being chased by dinosaurs, and eaten one by one until only the main characters are left alive and find a way off the island. After watching it happen three times, it quickly becomes a boring plot, especially if there's no twist.
The rumour of a fourth movie of this same series, supposedly called Jurassic World has prompted me to suggest a new, possibly more innovative storyline for a fourth/fifth Jurassic Park movie.
Around about the same time as Jurassic Park and the two other dinosaur wilderness ranges were being constructed, a fourth, little-known installation was also set up. The purpose of this complex on Isla Estrella was to study the behavior of dinosaurs more closely and effectively than its other tourist-attracting counterparts. Basically it was more of a free-range research facility, another investment InGen failed to officially list. The employees here must take extraordinary lengths to remain undetected by the resident dinosaurs so as to not ‘contaminate' the results. So unbeknownst to the dinosaurs, they all live in captivity while it may not seem like it. Believing that the dinosaurs are unable to reproduce, the employees use the same techniques as seen in Jurassic Park to recreate the dinosaurs from their eggs.
Then one day, something wrong happens with one of the batches of velociraptor eggs: something causes them to hatch prematurely, and die within a matter of minutes. One of the employees, Janet Keen, manages to save one of the infants. But she exposed it to human contact. Any dinosaur that has seen a human must, regrettably, be destroyed for fear it may contaminate the results of studies into pack and solitary behavior of certain dinosaur species. However clean her record is, Janet doesn't like the idea that she would have to hand over and end the life she just saved. She sneaks the infant back home to her residential lodge and raises it over the years. Janet and the velociraptor, whom she later names Felix (sex is told by the presence of primitive feathers at the back of the neck), bond like a mother and son, disproving the stereotype the previous three have left us with: that all dinosaurs are cold-blooded killers and nothing more.
The fact that Felix is a boy and not a girl like the rest makes Janet wonder if it was intentional, or the fact the thing that went wrong caused the intended sex to be changed.
Through several near misses, Janet keeps Felix hidden from all other staff.
Eventually, the lodge becomes too small for a velociraptor to hide in, and Janet decides to take Felix out to the free-range section of the island, though knowing full well that it could jeopardize the entire research program. She and her reptilian friend part, though Felix is left absolutely baffled as to why his adoptive mother would just leave him like that. And what were all these new creatures around him that had the same skin texture, but were bigger or smaller? He doesn't like it there.
Meanwhile back at the main facility, the administration receives a call about the Isla Nublar Incident and to monitor for any hostile or overly curious behavior on the dinosaurs' part, and also to search for these mystery eggs that Dr. Alan Grant reported he saw.
Scared, lonely, and rejected by every wild pack of velociraptor, Felix finds a way back to the only place he knows where he is accepted - Janet's lodge. He's spotted and an alarm is sounded. Just hearing the word from Isla Nublar, the orders are to shoot and kill before the rogue dinosaur develops a taste for human. Felix temporarily evades capture and finds Janet, who's relieved to see him safe, but also worried that he shouldn't be in the compound side of the island. She tries to get him back over, but he refuses and is captured, and Janet arrested.
With the detection of eggs in the velociraptor population, the InGen security forces assume they were Felix's doing, and decide to start fresh by designing a waterborne virus that would kill velociraptors and only velociraptors and introduce it to the island's water supply. With no parents, the infants would die off quickly either by exposure or by predators.
Felix is infected as a test, in front of Janet in an opposite holding cell no less, and is left to die as the security detail climbs in the helicopters and head for Isla Estrella's only freshwater lake. But Felix miraculously recovers from the contagion, and escapes along with Janet. She directs him to a lab to synthesize an antidote from his blood, and head to the lake to disinfect the water supply. Along the way, Felix defends her from some of the velociraptor packs that hunted him when he was in the wild.
When they reach the lake, the helicopters have gone, but the effects of the contaminated water are clear; bodies of velociraptors hang at the edges of the spring twitching and writhing in pain as the virus kills them slowly. Not just raptors, an adolescent Tyrannosaurus, and several other herbivores are also infected - lying on their bellies moaning.
Isla Estrella's InGen administrators see they've made a big mistake and tell their staff to pack up and leave as the project has completely been mucked up and would cost too much to fix.
Janet applies the antidote to the lake and injects the affected dinosaurs, and in turn waits for each to recover. Knowing she saved them stops them from eating her and her accomplice, and all walk their separate ways. Felix and Janet make their way back to the InGen complex to find everything being packed away on boats in the docks, getting ready to sail back to mainland America. The security details on board deny letting her join them in their exodus so long as she had Felix with her. Janet knows what drove him to come back to her lodge, and refuses to leave him behind. The InGen administrator reminds her that rescue will not come for her if she stays - as all the phone lines have been severed and helicopters are being taken - but still she refuses, and watches as they sail away to the horizon.
Her and Felix's fate remains a mystery to this day.
So how's that for a movie idea? It'd probably need some cleaning up and a multimillion-dollar budget, but I think it has potential. Of course, that's a bias statement coming from the person who thought about it from scratch between 1:30 PM and 9:26 PM.
Alma stopped momentarily, "Does it really need to be them, Ethan?"
Ethan sighed and adjusted his pack, "Alma, we already went through this and there is no other way."
"I know but..."
"What if they ask about me?"
"In what way?"
"What if they ask about why the government's so interested in me... in this, I mean," Alma pointed to her head.
"Then we tell them the truth," decided Ethan, "we owe it to them for going out of their way."
"...But what if they... want to use it?"
"They won't if they want my help."
"And if they don't?"
"Then the APR is going to lose one very strategic asset."
In the distance, Jamie had been waiting impatiently, "Are you two quite done back there?" she asked almost at shouting volume.
Ethan turned his head to her, "Yes, let's keep moving. We're almost there, just another kilometre or so."
"But Ethan," Alma caught up, "what about afterwards, what if they..."
"Alma," Ethan crouched down to his knees, "nothing will happen to you. I will make sure of that."
Alma felt only slightly assured after that. As Newblood had told her, the APR was now more military than political, and if the cared more for their classified war than the people... She wished they weren't the only option.
They'd been trekking for four hours towards a section of the forest that may possibly house the centre of APR operations in the north. The forest being a national park with regular visitors made it unlikely, but where better to place a secret base than right in plain sight. As to how Ethan established the possible location of the base was thanks to some little tracking beacons he put on Spectre, Phantom and Visage's shoulders, and Craig's unparalleled tracking abilities. Speaking of which, knowing that any association with the APR would likely lead to him being a wanted man, Ethan downloaded Craig's entire mainframe onto a single portable hard drive, just in case they came knocking on the house's door looking for answers while Ethan, Jamie and Alma were away. No doubt they'd strip the place clean for clues and burn the remains, just like they would have done with Jamie's home in Canada, Moses's diner, and Simon's house near Mount Carnlick. Nonetheless, downloading Craig was the easiest way to ensure there was nothing left for them to find.
The hard drive he was in was in Ethan's backpack, so were a few days worth of food. "Just in case, you know," was his explanation. Yeah, because they were going to be lost in the woods for days on end... alone... with wolves... and bears... Better safe than sorry now that she thought about it. As another precaution, Ethan took the two weapons Spectre, Phantom and Visage left behind for his safety. Guns were illegal, yes, but the fact he was hiding two fugitives would give him a death sentence anyway. Those two weapons were a fairly rare Russian AK-12m, and an out-dated M9 pistol. Ethan had had plenty of firearms training when using The Simulator beforehand, but Jamie was given a quick twenty minute drill (4 hour dream-time) to get her as good as she had to be. Alma hoped Ethan and Jamie would never have to use the training though. She didn't want people to die, even if they were them, but if this really was the only way to get Simon and Jamie back, then people would die, and she would have to accept that. But she didn't like it. Not one bit. She didn't want to see it again.
She also had her satchel with her, carrying all the books Simon gave her, though she knew she'd probably never be able to read them on this scary venture they were having. She never even finished that first book. Pity. But now it seemed they'd probably be little more than mementos - reminders from a time when everything was less dangerous.
Alma didn't like the relentless travelling, despite that was what her legs were designed to do, she didn't like continually moving over large distances. How long would it be until she could stop running? Probably never, but if she was ever going to, she'd have to get Simon back. But even then they'd hunt them both. Deities above, why did everything have to seem so hopeless?!
Because you make it hopeless.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
It means only you make it hopeless.
"But it is, I mean... we rescue him, how are we supposed to escape?"
"Reality, I guess."
Then you reject the reality and substitute your own.
"If only it were that simple."
Then remember the words of a certain Captain that featured in a movie a hundred odd years ago.
The problem is not the problem, the problem is your attitude about the problem... or thereabouts. Do you understand?
"I understand, but again, what happens when we get out?"
Baby steps, Alma.
"Heh... quoting from me?"
Alma took in a small whiff.
"Who? The APR?"
Well I've never smelt the APR before.
"Ethan, Jamie," Alma whispered, though it was pretty hard as she was still lagging behind, "something's wrong."
Ethan frowned, "What is it?"
"Newblood smells something."
Ethan reached for the pistol holstered on his chest, and Jamie tensed her arms on the rifle. Alma never thought her to be the military type but maybe it was the drill Ethan gave her, "The APR?"
"He doesn't know."
He scanned the undergrowth, all the while keeping his hand firmly on the pistol's grip, while Jamie had taken to crouching low and minimising her silhouette. Something had definitely changed about her, and Alma didn't know what, come to think of it, she hadn't talked much at all since getting out of The Simulator. She wasn't sure if that was good or bad. "Stay low and keep to the trees," Ethan instructed, and so Alma obeyed. Her body shape and size, however, made it extremely difficult to conceal herself. "I'll go on ahead. Jamie," she turned her head, "you stay near here. Make sure nothing happens to Alma."
Jamie's sight darted to Alma, then back to Ethan and nodded, "But you'd best hand me Craig first."
"Keep him safe too," Ethan smirked, and unzipped his bag and tossed her the hard drive.
"Stay safe yourself," said Alma.
Ethan just nodded, and pulled the pistol from its holster. And then the expected happened.
People in ghille suits popped up from the bushes and fallen leaves, and revealed themselves from the trees all round, rifles and carbines pointed at them. Their guns were varying from the US-made M4A3, M16A4 and M110 to the Russian AN-94 and AK-12m; all had been put out of mainstream military service since the 2050s, yet all had been considerably well maintained. Great guns as they were, they were pointed towards Alma, Ethan and Jamie. And as any sane person would know, it was best to be at the opposite end of the barrel.
"Drop your weapons!" one of the men yelled, stepping forward, most likely the leader of the group.
"Who are you first?" Ethan asked, trying to sound as unaggressive as possible.
"I said drop your weapons!" the man repeated, more forceful this time.
"Are you the APR?"
"I will not ask again. Drop your weapons and wireless devices you have on you or I will give my men permission to open fire."
Jamie placed her rifle on the floor and stood back up, hands in the air, and eyed Ethan to do the same. He did.
"And what the hell is that thing with you?"
The man pointed his gun towards Alma, who was failing miserably at hiding behind a tree, "That thing."
"I'm not a thing," Alma tried to say firmly, though it came out more like a whimper. All the soldiers surrounding them shifted uneasily like the fact she could talk unsettled them.
"Then what are you?" the man questioned Alma directly.
She moved her mouth to speak, but Ethan cut her off, "She's with us."
"And what is it?"
"She's a coelophysis."
"Dinosaur. Robot skeleton, real skin."
"So it's a pet?"
"No," Ethan said resolutely, "does she look like a dog to you?"
Alma heard voices whisper behind her, something about ‘damned scientists'. The man took something out of his hidden ear, most likely an earphone to listen on everyone else's conversation, "Is it dangerous?"
She stepped away from the tree and into full sight of the leader, who didn't grip his M4 as tightly as he did before, "I don't bite," she said innocently as she could, "I really don't..."
There was a long awkward silence. Eyes shifted about, whispers were given, and it was turning more into a debate amongst themselves rather than anything else. What were they talking about? Why were they so unsettled? Obviously they were prepared for unexpected visitors, but why would they be so unnerved? And especially around a group of two humans and a coelophysis; it wasn't like the government would somehow resurrect dinosaurs all for the purpose of sniffing out the APR. But still, why? Or... maybe it was her.
She'd never really seen anyone's initial reaction when any new person saw her. Simon built her. Jamie ran her over and left her unconscious for a good few hours. Mick had examined her before she even woke up. Moses may have been more accepting than most other people, on account of what he'd been through. Spectre, Phantom and Visage could have been watching for a few moments in curiosity before they took their shots. Ethan had probably known about her since she was first switched on. No... Alma had never really seen anyone's initial reaction at the sight of her. Was this how everyone else would respond to her? With suspicion or accusing looks? If they cared more about what she looked like rather than what she had to say or what her story was, then perhaps Simon was right to keep to the woods. Maybe the world hadn't learned to look beyond looks.
Then again, maybe she was being too philosophical for her own good. Damn her thinking!
"So who are you lot then?" the leader asked.
Jamie stepped forward, her hands no longer in the air. Their arms tensed up again, aiming at her. Was she testing them? "We just want to strike a deal," she said.
More shifty eyes and whispers, "I meant who are you?"
"We're not government agents if that's what you mean," stated Alma, "Trust me, I know what they're like."
"Then if you aren't feds, who are you?"
Jamie rehashed, "We're just civvies who want to make a deal with you."
"And who are we?"
"The American People's Resistance," Alma answered, " a political party gone guerrilla when he came to power."
Murmurs were exchanged, "How do you know about us?"
"I live not too far away from here, about a few clicks south, it wasn't too hard to listen in on what you were saying."
"So you are a spy?"
"No, I didn't-"
"Then who are you?"
"My name is Ethan Day."
"That's right. I struck a deal up with you guys before, you remember?"
"Vaguely. Refresh my memory."
"You keep a look out for a specific energy signature, then when found, bring it to me. I pay you fifty thousand for your troubles."
"Yeah, yeah that's right."
"You gave me Spectre, Phantom and Visage from Ghost company. They did their job, I paid."
"In extra, no less, right?"
"Right. The innocent they saved is right here," Ethan nodded to Jamie, "That's Jamie. And the dinosaur there, her name is Alma. She's the one Spectre and the rest were meant to save."
"So what brings you back, Ethan?"
Ethan rolled his eyes, "We came to make another deal."
"And what'd that be then?"
"Something a lot more dangerous."
"Then I don't think we're up to it. Run back home then."
"No, just hear me out."
"We aren't mercenaries, you know. We only took that job of yours because we thought none of us would be at risk."
"And they never were."
"But they could have been."
"But they weren't."
Alma rushed to stand between the two. The soldiers stiffened and raised their guns at her. "Both of you stop," she instructed, almost at shouting volume, "Stop before this turns into a little toddler fight where you two just go ‘did so' and ‘did not'." Everyone stopped talking amongst themselves. Alma turned her head towards the squad leader, "If I were you, I'd listen to what Ethan has to say, otherwise I'd be missing out on possibly the only chance of delaying - if not preventing - this war you people keep talking about from happening."
"...Now how did you know about that...?"
"It doesn't matter. Will you or won't you listen to what Ethan has to offer?"
"...What kind of chance are you talking about here, Ethan?"
"The kind where we could stop Damocles from even existing."
The man's eyes widened and looked across to the other soldiers dressed in ghille suits, who were all doing the same. He put the thing back in his ear. More whispers were exchanged. Tones varied from worry to anger to affirmative. Then after several moments of them deciding in their inaudible council, they all lowered their weapons. "If you're serious, you'd best come with us," the leader said, "And we'll be taking your guns, thankyou very much, it wasn't Spectre's or Visage's or Phantom's right to leave assets behind."
"Where are you taking us, then?" questioned Jamie, "it'd better not be dangerous if you're taking our only means of defence."
"Don't worry," the leader turned back to her as he began to walk away, "you're going to the safest place in the whole world as far as I'm concerned," then signalled with his right hand for the group to move.
"That's reassuring," Alma heard Jamie mutter to Ethan.
Alma had to ask, "If we doubt them, then why do we trust them?"
"Because they're our only hope," Ethan reaffirmed, "Now let's get going."
"But..." she signalled for Ethan and Jamie to come in closer, then whispered, "What if they ask about it?"
"Like Ethan said before," Jamie reminded, "tell them the truth."
"I did say that."
"I think the APR deserves to know why the military'd be interested in you."
"But what if they want to use it for themselves?"
"Look, Alma, we already went through this back at the house. Now can we please just stop going over stuff we already covered?"
"...Okay. I just... forget it."
"Let's go. We're already behind."
The three took off after the group of guerrillas who were now about fifty metres away from them. All had the same kind of uniform on; green-brown ghille suits with facemasks, though some were more protected than others with paddings of carbon fibre on the chest or the forearms or shins or all of the above. Maybe it was to do with the value of the person to the cause or maybe it could have been luck of the draw. Only the APR knew. Either way, it probably wasn't best to ask them detailed questions on how their routines worked.
As Alma's legs were designed for faster running, she hadn't noticed she'd made her way up to the front of the group until just now, "This is Critter 9-1 putting out an all call," the team leader spoke into a little headset microphone placed just in front of his masked mouth, "we found the intruders, it's Ethan and that civilian Spectre, Visage and Phantom saved and..." he realised Alma was running alongside him, "...a giant lizard that talks... Yes, I know it sounds like I'm losing my mind but it is what it is. Look, I'm bringing them back to base. ...No I did not ask your permission before hand, but it seems Ethan's got a new proposition. ...Yes I know we could have lost three good people the first time, but this is something bigger, he says. ...Damocles. ...Copy," he turned back to Alma and slowed to a jogging pace, as did everyone else, "Looks like you've got the all-clear to come in."
Alma didn't know what to say in reply.
"What are you anyway?" the man asked.
She felt conflicted on the inside, "I'm a coelophysis. Dinosaur from around 220 million years ago."
"So how in the hell did you make it here and... talk and stuff?"
"Because I was a robot before."
"Before all this," Alma held out her hands, "before all of this was put on."
"But you're still a robot."
"Yeah. I still... Look, it's just too complex to explain like this, if you're really interested."
"Entrance to the base is a few hundred feet away."
"Not far enough."
"Then how far would it be?"
"And how far is that?"
"Wha... I don't know," Alma slowed to a standstill, so did the leader, who signalled everyone to continue on, "It's just a long... complicated... story, okay? Just... too long to keep you interested."
"...Okay... Uh... Where to begin? ...Okay... My fath- creator, my creator is a guy called Simon Murray who's now imprisoned by the government because he created me."
"I was afraid I'd have to answer this."
"That. Someone asking the ‘why' question."
He pulled down his microphone, "Then if it helps, I promise I'll keep it between us."
"Cross my heart hope to die."
Alma winced, "...Yeah, good enough..."
"What is it?"
"Nothing. Okay so Simon built me, but he didn't just want to build something that could run and hear and see, he wanted me to feel things."
"...As in how? Touch?"
"Yeah, happiness and such. I don't know how he did it... but... he did. But... to do it he needed something better than anything else available to the public, so when he heard about this LMC-III thing being developed by the military..." Alma noticed he was staring blankly at her, with no emotion in those brown eyes of his, "No... no, please don't."
"I wasn't going to do anything," he said, "But just tell me two things."
"Is another AI in there with you?"
"You're going to use him."
"No, no no no. You're taking it all wrong. One thing you need to know about me is that I keep my promises. I won't tell anyone, but... is there... another AI in there?"
He seemed to become stressed, "O-okay, and... what... do you know about Damocles?"
"It's not a place is it?"
"Well then there goes my understanding."
"Damocles is... it's... it's a-"
"No. I want to hear it from Simon."
"But you said Simon's in... This is a rescue mission, isn't it?"
"And it's what Ethan said also."
"But for you it's mainly about Simon?"
"How well do you know him?"
"I hope I know him as well as I can... but... He lied about everything so I wouldn't worry, so... I still don't know what else he said is false."
The man said nothing and looked down at her feet. She felt uncomfortable.
"Please... err... My face is up here."
He seemed startled, "Oh, oh sorry. I... I was just thinking."
"What to do."
"But you said you wouldn't say anything-"
"I know what I said, and I won't. I'm just... thinking."
"What do we do?"
"I won't say anything, but you can tell the rest if you wish, or if they start asking questions. I don't know how they'd react, but... Forget it. Let's go." He started running in the direction the rest of the group had been heading, but had now disappeared from sight.
As Alma followed the man's calm walking strides, she saw that the path ahead dipped a little. Upon walking further, she discovered that it wasn't just a little; rather it seemed a whole section of earth had been selected and lowered about a metre into itself, creating rock walls on all sides. Inside this large section people were carrying things to and from places, or sitting down and enjoying each other's company, playing games or just chatting. Crates lay stacked upon one another in certain sections of the reverse-mesa, no doubt holding ammunition for all the various kinds of weapons the APR used. Machinegun nests were set up all around the ridge probably in case the perimeter patrols and treetop guards didn't stop the enemy. In one area of the depression, the rock and ground had been cut away to make an artificial cave.
Alma, you might want to snap out of it.
She blinked hard and refocussed her eyes. Just about everyone down below in the pit was staring up at her. Some in awe, most she couldn't work out, a very small amount in fear, and even fewer accusingly. The man she'd been trailing had made it all the way to the artificial cave and was signalling for her to follow. Alma dropped down the little ledge and proceeded through the mini-compound to his location, feeling more vulnerable the more people glared and whispered.
They're just curious.
"Easy for you to say," Alma whispered to herself, "you're not the dinosaur with the leather satchel are you?"
No, but I'm part of the dinosaur with the leather satchel, and the more you feel intimidated the more hostile they will seem.
"I just don't like the way they're staring at me."
Then from across the pit someone let out a yell, "The fuck is that thing?!"
Alma felt like a stone had been thrown at the back of her head. She turned around to see another man, middle-aged, walk forward with an unholstered M9 pistol. She hoped that gun wasn't meant for her.
"When the hell did we start taking in stray freaks like this?!"
"David," the leader stepped forward from the cave entrance to join Alma, "shut it."
"Or what, you'll shoot me?"
"Don't tempt me," Alma looked up in shock and took a step away from her saviour, "Just go back to guard duty."
"You didn't answer me, Keith, when did the APR start taking on fucking science experiments like that thing there?"
"We started taking on ‘fucking science experiments' when the ‘thing' in question is someone Ethan Day brought along with him."
Murmurs erupted in the camp.
"Why the hell would Ethan bring a thing like that here?" someone asked.
It probably wasn't her place or time to speak, but Alma was sick of all the whispering and suspicious looks she was receiving, "Ethan brought me with him because there was no other safe place for me to go." The fact she spoke shut everyone up. Good. "And frankly, I'm tired of you people calling me a science experiment or some other crazy thing. I am here and I hear you all talking behind my back about me, so please stop it, all right? I'm not a rock," she turned from all the stunned faces to the leader, whose name seemed to be Keith, "Now can we please go in?"
Keith nodded, twisted his head around in a ‘she showed you' kind of way, and then walked into the cave. Alma followed quickly behind before any backlash came her way, but it seemed that the majority of the men and women were more stunned that she could talk rather than what she said, despite Keith warning them all beforehand. Unless they never listened. She sighed as she entered the cave.
It was a dead end - a rock wall blocked all paths except the one she came from, and the floor was metal as opposed to the dirt, bark, stones and fallen leaves outside.
Well this was productive, Alma thought to herself.
She heard something click. It was Keith pulling a lever mounted on one of the walls. The metal floor shifted and then descended. A lift! Why didn't she see it before?
The shaft delved deeper into the earth than she expected, to the point where if it weren't for the light of the original entrance, the whole place would be in complete darkness. But even so, Alma didn't like feeling of being in a confined space, much less that it was in the dark, like back then... when she died... alone... She reached out and caught hold of Keith's trousers.
"What are you doing?" he asked worriedly.
"I don't like the dark," Alma answered, "or small places."
"So you're a claustrophobic?"
"I guess, yes."
"Where's that come from?"
"A past life," she admitted, "I died twice, you know. Once in a cave, another when I almost reached Ethan's house."
She could tell he was staring at her, "You really are one weird creature, you know that."
"I know. I don't like it myself but..." Alma saw light emit from a gap in the floor and the wall, "Oh, thank god."
"And so The Lord said ‘let there be light.'"
The elevator opened to a large tunnel that housed a large collection of heavily armed vehicles, all had been put out of mainstream military service of course. They ranged from Growler ITVs with relatively thick sheets of steel welded on to create extra protection for the gunner and makeshift doors, to M-ATVs with a CROWS turret and reinforced armour plating, to an M1A3 Abrams with TUSK equipment and, once again, a CROWS turret. All were painted in earthy colours and strung with camouflage netting, not that it would help much when it came to infrared optics or heat-seeking projectiles.
The tunnel continued onwards to a larger chamber that was divided into five sections: the rooms right and left were sleeping quarters for the garrisoned soldiers, and the main chamber led up some steps to a small podium. The platform supported the position of about twelve soldiers on guard duty, maintaining their station with an M249 SAW with an ELCAN scope. Hanging off the podium was a large flag printed on every APR member's uniform - the American flag, but where the stars once lined up in sequenced rows, there was a fist threatening the air. Where there was blue, red replaced it, where there was red, blue replaced it.
Without wind, it just hung there, shouting at anyone who saw it that this place belonged to the American People's Resistance and only the American People's Resistance. The only thing that protected the elevator from the soldiers' overwatch was a large blast door that was currently rolled down into the floor. The installation was tactical genius, if ever Newblood knew how a tactical genius would build such a place.
But when would a guerrilla force have time, let alone the equipment, to build their own secret base? Inside a forest. Without drawing attention from any aerial sweeps of the area. Surely some civilians or even the government would have saw something going on.
"When did you guys build this place?" she asked as she followed Keith side by side, heading to the steps, looking at how big the complex was.
"We didn't build it," he replied as he started up the stair, "we found it."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean we found it. Like this, but empty."
"Yeah. I hadn't joined around at the time when the APR found it, but we just found it."
"But... who would leave a perfectly good base lying around?"
"That's up to speculation. Some of us reckon is was built back in the 1960s or 70s during the Cold War with Russia as a safe house for military officials, including the president. But... yeah... Some others think it was being built just last century, 2050s onwards, though nothing nation-threatening was happening back then aside from the first WEG forming."
"WEG. World Economic Group."
"Oh. Never heard it abbreviated to that..." Alma trailed off as she saw out of the corner of her eye the soldiers standing guard staring at her and murmuring, "Could you please not?" she requested firmly, then they shared glances amongst themselves. "Anyway... how big is this place?"
Keith paced up a few more steps, "I don't know, actually."
"No," he spoke like he was somewhat disappointed in himself, "but there are six entrances, that much I know."
"So this is an entrance?"
"It all leads to a bigger place in the centre."
"And that's where I'm supposed to take you."
"The belly of the beast."
Keith moved to the pair of steel doors that were the entrance to a hallway, "...You could say that," then pushed open the doors, "but I prefer to think of this place more as a hidden sanctuary than a beast. It's home to about two hundred refugees after all."
"The government calls the fugitives. They are the people they hunt, or they're the wanted person's family, or they're the person and his or her family."
"Two hundred, you said."
"Most of them are hiding from even the most minor of infringements."
"Like not agreeing to the CTOS."
"As an example, yes."
Alma turned her head away from Keith and looked ahead, "Wow, this is a long hallway."
"Long enough so no-one can throw a grenade from one end to the other. The same goes for all the other entrances. It creates a huge chokepoint for anyone wanting to take this place by foot."
"What if they send a bunker buster?"
Keith gave her a sour look, then seemed to accept it, "Let's just hope it never comes to that."
She noticed one of the hallway lights was flickering, "What supplies to power? You don't take it off the grid, do you?"
"No. We use solar panels."
"...Wouldn't they be detected?"
"Not if they're up in the trees and the cords are hidden with wood-textured tape."
"And what about the food and water? Not to mention sanitation."
"The sanitation was already built-in when we found it, it just needed some old pipes replacing, but that was about it. Water was taken care of too - there's a natural spring just next to the main installation and that supplies all the water, and should keep running for another 50 to 60 years."
"And the food?"
"Grown right here. The whole bottom floor was converted to its own farm, with a science station to grown our own meat."
"Not the conventional kind?"
"What? Slaughtering? No. Of course not. Petrimeat might take a year to make, but it's better than killing an animal whose sole purpose in life was to die. And to live in cramped conditions like this wouldn't make life worth living anyway. It's just completely impractical. Besides, petrimeat's better for you."
"...Hmm. You're a soldier who wants a clean conscience."
"Bit ironic, isn't it?"
"Sort of... But then again I'm no expert."
The hallway they were walking through was around 100 metres long by 1.8 metres wide by 2.5 metres high. How that translated to yards Alma didn't know. Probably Newblood did.
Not right now. I'm thinking.
"What?" Keith looked at her.
"Oh, sorry," she apologised, "talking to the voice in my head."
"...If I didn't know you had the other AI in there I'd be scared you might be crazy."
"Heh..." Alma cautiously laughed, "Could you... err... excuse me for a moment?"
"I'm not really supposed to leave you be."
"Well, could you please wait just a few moments?"
"Thanks," she turned away from Keith, "You're thinking about what?"
I'm thinking about what this place is, or what it was more rather.
"No luck, I take it."
Not a single record, or at least in my memory.
"Maybe they never told you?"
Maybe, or maybe they ran out of funds and decided to scrap the idea instead of continuing or blowing it up or... Never mind.
"Not even Newblood knows."
"So that's the name they gave him?"
"Well... yes... but really he's module dot New underscore Blood, but I just shorten it down to Newblood. Does it mean anything?"
"Yes, actually, but..." he trailed off.
"...You want Simon to tell you everything, and no-one else, right?"
Alma nodded, "Yeah."
"I just don't see how you'll understand anything that's going on without someone telling you something here. I mean... you don't know what Damocles really is or the real agenda behind anything or... Look. How the hell do you think Simon's going to have enough time explaining this to you inside the place they're holding him?"
"...I..." Alma was lost for words. What she was asking was ludicrous, why did Keith's observation only then make her realise that? "Where'd Ethan and Jamie go?"
"Down a few floors to the command deck. You're all meeting with Rook."
The passageway opened up to a large room filled with nothing but spare room, not even some basic fortifications. Perhaps the APR had estimated their strength and deemed in unnecessary to brace any further than the elevator entrances. In the middle of the six-sided area stood a small console. Next to the console was another elevator, except this one was smaller - built for only a few people - see-through, and cylindrical. Alma kept moving to the lift, "Who's Rook?"
"Commander of all APR troops in the north-west."
"Really?" Alma entered the lift and found it really quite uncomfortable to have to stand in such a curved fashion. The doors closed, "Sound like a charmer."
The lift heaved downward, "Don't let the profession fool you," Keith said, "He's a good guy, just a bit forceful at times." The elevator opened up to a new circular level decorated in screens that were flashing images and playing footage of combat situations as well as various maps and tactical notes. She spotted Ethan and Jamie in the distance talking to someone else dressed in regular civilian clothes, but seemed to command some kind of presence, "Oh, and one more thing, don't mention anything about his hat."
"Don't mention the hat. It's personal, and he won't say why."
Just for that little youtube clip down below, I recommend using full-screen and headphones.
Jamie had a headache, a throbbing headache. When Alma was shut down and Ethan used those four transporter stand-thingamabobs to send her to this ‘Hellcat' fellow, Jamie cleared out the fridge of beer and just lay back on the couch with the heater on and watched whatever was on TV at the time. It didn't matter to her anymore. Ethan had taken a hike up El Capitan and found her out cold when he got back. He'd asked if she would like to go with him; that it might clear her head, but she refused the offer, only to get herself in a drunken coma.
Smooth, Jamie, she thought to herself as she cradled her head, real smooth.
Alma was probably back by now from her little spa treatment in Iceland, getting pampered by some stranger's hand. Where was the concern for her? Little old Jamie, the one who lost her entire family to a foreign government because some little reptilian pest who complains about everything anyone ever says wouldn't tell her about the stupid computer chip in that pathetic little head she had! And what made it all worse was that she had been so gullible as to just drive her to Darby without asking anything about her, and to not be suspicious whenever that bloody robot changed the subject! Why didn't she just leave Alma alone like she suggested? Things would have been so much better then.
But Jamie hadn't done as Alma advised because she felt some strange sense of duty. Maybe because she genuinely thought agents never would have found them. Maybe. But they did find them. They were dead now, and her family was the compensation. All because of her incompetence and a lizard that should have stayed underground.
Another pain throbbed in her head. Jamie stretched out her hand and leaned against the wall to her left, and held her head in the other. She'd never had beer before - only wine on special occasions with friends and family - and she doubted she would ever willingly have any again. Tasted too... bitter, and if a hangover was the result of every night out then this certainly would be her last experience with... She looked at the bottles littering the floor. This would certainly be her last experience with Carlton Cold. She should pick those bottles up sometime.
The throbbing subsided, Jamie reached out and twisted the doorhandle. It didn't budge. She tried again, harder. Again, the door didn't move. She looked for any locks. There was a little one in a depression at the front of the handle. She tried to twist that, and it still wouldn't move.
"I think it would be easier if you would just ask, Jamie," Craig hinted.
"Open the door," commanded Jamie.
"I only respond to requests, and a little politeness would not hurt either."
Jamie scowled, "Could you open the door, please, Craig?"
"Not until you listen to what I have to say first."
"So now I'm a prisoner here."
"Jamie, you are in no way a prisoner. You have had plenty of time to leave this place, but you have not. And the answer to that is that you have no other place to go, and as far as I know, this is the safest place for you to be inside this country."
"And I don't want to be here. I want to be home."
"But you don't have a home anymore."
"Precisely! And it's all because of that stuck-up freak lounging about in luxury!"
"Jamie, that ‘stuck-up freak' is called Alma, and I do not think she would enjoy being called that face-to-face."
"Who says I'm going to meet face-to-face? I don't want to see her bloody face anymore."
"I hate to play the card, but I say you are meeting her. Whether you like it or not."
"I don't want to."
"You are acting like a child."
"I lost Mum, Dad, Val and Randy, and Grandma and Grandpa! Because of her not telling me anything about her!"
"And she is sorry."
Jamie crossed her arms, "Not enough."
"I have a feeling you do not know exactly how sorry she is."
"Oh, I know, she was saying she was sorry every minute of the journey until the agents found us, but it's not sorry enough."
"Can I ask you something?"
"I would rather you didn't."
"How miserable does she have to be before you are happy?"
She looked angrily up to the ceiling, searching for one of Craig's cameras, "Miserable enough."
"And how miserable is that, might I ask?"
"When she knows how I feel, which is never going to happen."
The sound of something unlatching caught Jamie's ear, and the sight of the door opening made her sit up straight, "Go talk to her," Craig instructed, "You may be surprised."
"It was not a suggestion, Jamie."
"I said no. Not now, not ever!"
"Frankly, right now I do not care what happened between both of you before now or how unforgivable it was."
"Boy, you talk so regally."
"I do not care for your attitude, Jamie. I do not want for this argument between you two to continue any further, and neither does Ethan. If both of you do not calm down soon, we may never have a chance to end this war before it starts."
"Now that caught your ear did it not?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Apologise to Alma, and I will tell you."
"No, what is this ‘war' you're talking about?"
"Not until you apologise to her."
"Wha- What am I supposed to say sorry for?! She's the one who killed my family! She's the one who should be saying sorry forever-"
"You and I both know perfectly well she is sorry, but you do not know how much regret she has."
"I know she doesn't have enough!"
"And I know she does!"
It was the first time Jamie had heard Craig yell, and yell in frustration no less.
"You have no idea how much grief she's going through! How deeper must she go into that black hole before you're satisfied?! Yes she caused your family's demise, but if she didn't catch a ride sooner then she'd be lying dead in the Canadian wilderness! It could have been anyone, ANYONE, but it was you! It was pure chance! And if she didn't make it here, they would have eventually found her and thousands, possibly millions would have died! Your family is dead, so is Simon's, so is Ethan's, so is every other agent in the FBI, NSA or other intelligence firms in America! Stop making her feel miserable all the time! It wasn't her fault she was built! And it wasn't her who murdered your family; it was them; the people who tracked you down and drove your car off a ledge; the people who've been killing innocents to keep operations quiet! Get your facts straight, get a bloody hold of yourself and GROW the hell UP!"
Jamie felt a hole in her chest, like she'd been affronted and scolded at the same time. She opened her mouth to say something smart in reply, but nothing came out. Was Craig right - blunt and insulting, but right?
"And now that I've raised my voice, I've lost the argument. Just go, do whatever you want, I shouldn't care. I'm only a house AI after all, not a motivational speaker."
"You're abbreviating words now," Jamie observed.
"I'm pissed," Craig crudely said, completely out of his calm and collected demeanour every other time Jamie had heard from him, "And that's the only thing you could get out of that?! Just go ahead, and do whatever the hell you want. Whole world of opportunities just waiting for you, providing you can get out of the country without being detected."
She stood up and, shakily, feeling somewhat violated, walked out the bedroom's open door, picking out every camera on the ceiling on her way. When she came to the hallway, she looked left and noticed, for the first time, a passage downwards to another level. Why hadn't she noticed before? Maybe because all those other times she'd been caught up feeling sorry for herself and never cared to look about the place. Other than the kitchen, living room and the bedroom she just walked out of, she'd never explored the house.
"That, Jamie," Craig started, he must have noticed her eyes staring in the direction of the passageway, "is where Alma is right now."
"In our modified version of The Simulator."
"Lucid dream machine."
"And where's Ethan?"
"On to his thirty-fifth hike of El Capitan. It's where he goes when he wants to think straight."
"That work for him?"
"Cool," Jamie said, the instantly slapped herself because that was all she had thought of to say.
"Smooth, Jamie, real smooth."
"...You know what? Screw it. Fine, I'll say I'm sorry to Alma, but only so you get off my back."
Jamie made her way to the passage and to her surprise she found two options. She could either take a small slide down, or the stairs... Why wasn't this option available everywhere? Obviously she took the slide, and it was a short but sweet feeling.
"If I may be honest, Ethan?"
"I really don't appreciate you using me to argue your case against Jamie."
"Neither do I."
"...So she doesn't... I don't know... But anyway, how come you weren't abbreviating words when Spectre, Jamie and the rest arrived?"
"Best behaviour, I guess."
"You don't need to be formal around everyone, you know."
Maybe the reason as to why Ethan had a slide in his house was because it brought that little feeling of nostalgia. Childhood was a magical time, and it seemed so far away now that Jamie was 27 years old, same as Simon and Ethan. Alma was, what, two years old, yet she had the vocabulary of an English teacher. Maybe that was Simon's doing or maybe it was Newblood's, she didn't know and would probably never know. Maybe it was that satchel full of books she carried.
Jamie could hear a soft mechanical humming and some other sounds - instrumental sounds. Perhaps Alma grew tired of this ‘Simulator' machine, which Craig never really described what it looked like, and was doing something else. Strumming electric guitars? Ha! Jamie would like to see her try with those tiny arms of hers. Jamie picked herself up from the slide and walked over to the doorway with no door just ahead of her, following the echoes. She turned the corner to find herself standing in a smallish library, books packing the shelves to their limits. Why would Ethan have a library when there was a perfectly good, limitless wealth of information on the Internet? These were antiques: out-dated for decades. Over to her right there was a horizontal metal seat, like a dentist chair, only without a bright lamp. To her left was an armchair that looked out a huge ceiling-to-floor window, seeing the entire valley - pines, firs, and all other evergreens. The window also allowed the entire room to be flooded with natural light, though the light was quite dim and white due to a brewing storm in the distance. Right in front of her was another entrance with no door, this time leading to something a little more modern. She passed through the doorless doorway and found the source of the music she'd been hearing.
It was a home theatre - small one by comparison with those in the mansions of acting legends and pop icons, but a home theatre nonetheless. It had two rows of seats and descended a step for extra sight on the viewers' part. The speakers were placed in a way that the sound came from all around, and the screen was a high-definition projection on a dark canvas. Currently, the screen portrayed a computer menu displaying the My Documents screen, now into .zip folder, called ‘Library', and into another called ‘My final gift to Her'. The one who was controlling the screen's cursor was right in front of Jamie, on the highest row of seats, using an ordinary TV remote to select whatever she wanted on the screen. She was going through images and small homemade video clips, no doubt made by Simon. They all featured her, and she was smiling and softly laughing at most of them, like she was only just remembering everything that happened within the last two years, was it? So what, the last two years were a distant memory to her? Ha! Why should she say sorry to something with the memory span of a goldfish? ...Or was she trying to find some kind of an excuse to not apologise? Dammit, Craig just had to make her second guess herself about everything she thought about.
"Alma?" Jamie said sensitively so she wouldn't surprise her as much.
Alma's head turned away from the flick that was currently playing and slowly bowed right to see Jamie straight on. The air around her was... emotionless, even for a cold-blooded lizard such as her. Her face remained neutral for a few seconds, and then she looked to her feather-tipped tail and patted the couch with it.
Jamie did as she was silently instructed and sat down next to her.
They both continued watching the little memoir. From what Jamie could gather, it was Alma's first birthday. She was nothing but metal bones, and couldn't speak at all; only make strange little clicks and other more sophisticated sorts of calls she couldn't pronounce using the English language. They were like a cross between birdcalls and reptilian hisses. Her first ever present was a series of books called The Hunchback Assignments, all of which had elaborate front covers.
"I liked those books," Alma said at a whisper's volume, "I liked them a lot."
Jamie shifted her gaze and replied, "Then why didn't you bring them?"
"Special Operations had the place locked down."
"Simon left me outside so I could evade them, but he forgot to give me a note. We got the note, but they caught up."
"They took him. I hope... I don't know."
"I heard you come in, you know."
Jamie was surprised, "You did?"
"It's hard not to hear someone come into a room full of sound."
"But... it's loud. You can't hear footsteps."
"You can hear echoes. You saw two, at least."
"You saw two of those videos."
"So... what do you think?"
"Where did you get them, first off?"
"Simon sent an email to Ethan before they came. Packed with sketches and such that he drew. And then I found this little section."
"His last gift to you."
"I hope it isn't."
"You think he's alive."
"I hope so. He knows too much about this," Alma pointed to her head, "for them to just kill him off. I hope. And as for your sister, she-"
"What about her?" Jamie asked accusingly.
"...I think she's alive too. Simon said he could take anything they could throw at him. If that's so, they're going to have to think differently, and... how better to torture a good guy than to put a bystander in danger?"
Jamie bit her lip. The news said Val was missing, not confirmed dead. But she didn't like the thought that the only thing keeping her sister alive was that she was a tool. And if they overused that tool... or if the tool was successful... She hated the thought of what may happen afterwards.
"There's one more video I haven't watched yet," Alma observed, "did you want to watch it with me?"
"Uh..." she didn't really have anything better to do other than mope around the top levels a while doing nothing, "Sure."
"Strawberry Swing... I wonder what that means."
Alma pressed play. The room went dark. Somewhere behind them there was the distant sound of a car going by. Then there was the soft, unnaturally harmonious plucking of an electric guitar. The screen lightened for the two to find it was a bird's eye view of a street. People were drawing with chalk. All of it was in stop-motion. Then there were drums and synchronised clapping. On the pavement, someone was waking up from a bed drawn with chalk. Through the chalk bedroom window was a chalk happy yellow sun. The man yawned and walked right, passing through a chalk doorway and down chalk stairs, and sat on a chalk chair at a chalk table and ate chalk fish, with a chalk spoon all the while the music was growing louder. A second electric guitar joined in on a different pitch. A cry for help came through the chalk dining room window. Someone handed the man a real spying glass and the man looked for the source of the cry. It was a chalk girl in a red dress and blue hair with a tiara sitting of her pretty chalk head. She was tied to a chalk wooden stake with chalk ropes, and chalk water was rising to up to her knees. The man dropped the spyglass, undressed from his night clothes to reveal he was a superhero of some description, in a sky blue shirt and trousers all decorated in red, yellow, and pink, and donning a red cape and red eye mask. And as he flew through his non-existent chalk roof, that was when the music loudened and the singing started:
They were sitting, they were sitting in the strawberry swing
Into the orbit of the chalk earth he flew, where a chalk palace floated high above the chalk world atop of chalk clouds. The cry came again, only to be cut short by some fiendish chalk creature coloured brown. The man flew across to stop it from drowning his love.
Every moment was so precious
Through uncountable amounts of chalk clouds he flew, over chalk mountains and chalk rivers, across chalk paddocks and chalk fields, crossing chalk seas and chalk oceans, all to arrive at a chalk city of chalk skyscrapers.
They were sitting, they were talking in the strawberry swing
The fiendish chalk creature returned, spewing chalk arrows from a chalk meat grinder at the man, who dodged each and every shot with unparalleled precision, making the fiendish chalk creature madder.
And everybody was for fighting, wouldn't want to waste a thing
The man brought an umbrella shield out to deflect the chalk arrows, and as hard as the fiendish chalk creature cranked the grinder, the chalk arrows would not stop him.
Cold, cold water, bring me round
The fiendish chalk creature was as dirty as he was evil, for he cut off the man's cape with chalk scissors and sent him falling down into abyss.
Now my feet won't touch the ground
Cold, cold water, what you say?
The man landed in a chalk sea of blue, floating on his umbrella.
And it's such, it's such a perfect day
A chalk lionfish approached in the distance.
It's such a perfect day
And swallowed him whole. Deep inside the chalk lionfish, the man found himself in a chalk room half-submerged in chalk water. Illuminating the place with a beam of chalk light from a torch, he discovered a chalk fish-man.
I remember we were walking up to strawberry swing
Who promptly put on his chalk hat from a chalk hat rack and swam out the chalk door, causing a chalk tide flowing outside.
I can't wait ‘til the morning, wouldn't want to change a thing
The man found a chalk plug at the bottom of the chalk waterbed he was in, and opened it up to reveal long, claustrophobic chalk pipes. He proceeded to crawl through. Right he went, then up, then left, then up again.
People moving all the time
Inside a perfectly straight line
The chalk pipe opened up to the chalk top hat of a chalk man holing a chalk musket. In the background was a chalk woman holding the chalk French flag high in the air with one chalk hand, and another chalk musket with a chalk bayonet in the other. Behind her was a red chalk cloud with chalk men with chalk muskets marching through. The man rode on top of the chalk man's chalk top hat.
Don't you want to just curve away?
The chalk man stopped, put down his chalk rifle, and brought out a chalk pipe. He lit it with a chalk match and puffed out a chalk cloud, which the man then rode on, up, up into the chalk sky again. Using a paddle, he directed his chalk cloud to the chalk entrance of his love's chalk palace.
And it's such, it's such a perfect day
It's such a perfect day
Chalk one-legged pirate skulls attacked and disarmed him of his paddle. It was a ‘walk the plank' situation for a moment until the man grabbed the chalk skull of one of the chalk one legged-pirate skulls and bowled them all off the chalk cloud. The man them walked casually over to the chalk palace's chalk entrance and pushed the chalk doors open. His love was in there, up to her neck in chalk water in a chalk teacup, kept captive by the fiendish chalk creature. Stealthily the man crept in, tiptoeing across the chalk floor towards her, only to accidentally knock down a chalk vase. The fiendish chalk creature woke up and let out a humongous roar that sent the man flying out the room, and every other chalk object too. He only just hung on to the chalk entrance and kept his position on the chalk palace. So how was he to defeat the fiendish chalk creature? Then he had an idea.
Now the sky could be blue, I don't mind
Without you it's a waste of time
The man pulled out a piece of chalk and drew a giant chalk acorn, picked it up, ran back into the palace and threw it into the fiendish chalk creature's mouth. He used the fiendish chalk creature's surprise to roll in and pull the chalk water away from the chalk teacup and rescue his love. By now the fiendish chalk creature was happily munching away at the chalk acorn in its mouth.
Could be blue, I don't mind
Without you it's a waste of time
The man fashioned himself a new cape from the water he grabbed, took his love's chalk hand, lit up the end of the chalk acorn with a chalk match, and flew high into the chalk sky. It was only when the chalk stem of the chalk acorn burned out did the fiendish chalk creature realise it had been fooled severely.
Now the sky could be blue, could be grey
Without you it just might slip away
The chalk explosion was grand, spectacular, and generated a countless number of multi-coloured chalk butterflies, but neither the man nor his princess looked back, only into each others' eyes as they flew over a chalk planet's horizon and saw the chalk sunrise.
Now the sky could be blue, I don't mind
Without you it's a waste of time
Together they landed on a little chalk planet and danced about as the chalk butterflies circled and circled around and around, before finally, inevitably, as it happens in all good fairy tales, it ended with a sweet little kiss.
Then the video stopped playing in stop-motion and returned to the regular 90fps, and the man got up, left his love behind and was applauded by others as he walked off screen. The people praised him for being patient, and then there were no voices, only music. And then there was no music, only the sound of a passing car. And then the video eventually faded out, and Jamie was left with the greatest feeling of frission she'd ever felt, ever.
Then Jamie heard sniffle come from her right. She followed the sound with her head, and saw that Alma was now... crying. Could dinosaurs do that? Apparently so. Who knew that reptiles could cry 220 million years ago? Dumb question - no one alive was around back then. Still... the bones she was uncovering back on that university job experience trip back in 2106, they all could smile and cry and who knew what else.
"What is it?"
Alma turned her head up towards Jamie, tried to blink away the tears, and smiled a humble smile, "It's... It's just the most beautiful thing he's ever given me."
"What about your skin?"
"This was Hellcat. I wish I could have seen him and... darn."
"I should have said thankyou."
"Alma...!" Jamie playfully exclaimed, "You naughty girl!"
Alma angled her head, drew it back and winced at Jamie, "...Not sure if serious..."
Jamie lightly tapped her on the shoulder, "I'm just joking."
She kept her head in the same suspecting pose.
Jamie sighed, "I didn't mean it, really."
Alma let her head drop to the sofa's cushion and sighed herself.
"Did you want to watch it again?"
"I don't know."
"It's either you do or you don't."
"No, I mean... I don't know what to do anymore."
"About me... or... Simon... or anything else. I mean... how the hell are we supposed to get him back from them?"
"I don't know."
"See? I just... don't know what to do anymore."
"Maybe Ethan has a plan?"
"Hmm. I wish things weren't like this."
"But they are."
"And I wish they weren't. Jamie," she looked Jamie square in the eyes, "I am really, really, really multiplied by infinity times sorry that I killed your family."
Jamie hurt a little bit on the inside that Alma brought up that subject.
"I wish I didn't. I am so so sorry that I did. I didn't mean for anything bad to happen to you or to them. Please, I'm just..." she sighed, "Please."
"I'm sorry too."
"For what? I did that to Valerie and Randy, and your Mum and Dad, and your Grandma and Grandpa. I should be the one who-"
"I was being an idiot, Alma."
If Jamie had any expertise in reading facial expressions in reptiles, Alma had the look of surprise and confusion on her face.
"Craig made me realise I was being too harsh on you."
"But I deserve it."
"And now I've realised that maybe you don't."
"But... I killed your whole family."
"You said yourself, Val might be alive."
"Still. Besides, you didn't murder them, they did."
"And they died because I didn't tell you what you were getting yourself into."
"I didn't let you walk just as you said. It's my fault too. But let's just stop pointing the finger over who's to blame. I'm not blaming you anymore."
"...But... I deserve it..."
"One thing I've noticed over the trip, Alma, is that sometimes you're just too critical of yourself, even over the littlest of things."
"As in you kept scolding yourself over mishearing words and starting a new subject."
"You need to learn to forgive yourself for that."
"But this is totally different."
"Yes, yes it is but I'm allowing you to forgive yourself."
"But I don't deserve forgiveness."
"Then go ahead and skulk down here for the rest of your life!"
"I deserve to be-"
"You know what," Jamie stood up, "never mind! I just came down here to apologise for being such a prick to you, and you can't even accept that! Go ahead; live in the past for all I care! But you know what? If Ethan has a plan to get Val and Simon back, then I'm taking it," she heatedly stormed away from the couch, extremely annoyed that Alma couldn't even accept an apology from her. Jamie stopped at the doorless doorway and turned back to Alma, whose head was popping over the sofa looking rather shocked, "And you know what I find most annoying? The fact I was just going to overlook this whole thing leading up to most of my family dying just to let you feel a bit better. What a bloody waste."
She is right you know.
"I know... but it's too late to say anything now."
Why did you reject her?
"It was my fault."
She told you to stop playing the blame game.
"But I can't."
But you can.
"Then how, mister know-it-all?"
"I can't forgive myself for doing something I was never taught to do!"
"Exactly. Simon never taught me to be like that. How can I forget my selfishness killed so many?"
Forgiving and forgetting are two different things. Forgive yourself, yes, but don't forget.
"...Where'd you learn this from? I didn't realise military AIs were coded with philosophy."
I learned it.
It took her a while to understand but when she did, Alma blushed, "I'm not that good."
But good nonetheless.
"If you insist."
Do you need some motivation?
Alma shrugged her little shoulders, "What have I got to lose?"
What would Simon say?
Alma raised her head and stared blankly ahead while a grin grew on her mouth.
"Thankyou, Newblood, thankyou."
Come on say it with me now. Pretend that I am you.
"But then that wouldn't make any sense. How can I be here and there at the same time?"
It doesn't matter. I am you, and I say, sorry me.
"I'm sorry too, me."
See? It's not so hard to forgive yourself.
"I just never had a self to forgive."
Okay, now we're just making no sense.
"I like the sense of nonsense. It's funny. Just saying."
And I'm sorry too, Alma.
Saying all those threats a few days ago. I'm sorry for all that. And for the record, I don't want you dismantled anymore.
"You shouldn't be sorry for that. You didn't know any better."
I did know better, but you were an enemy then. Now I consider you a friend.
"Careful there, Newblood, you're almost sounding humane."
Considering I was designed for combat, I'll take that as a compliment.
"You should. It was meant to be one."
Then thankyou. Actually, I think that's the first time anyone has ever given me praise.
...No, actually, never. Only nods.
Tell me about it.
"I can't, you're the one with the stories."
And for some stupid reason I can't remember half of them.
"Well... Then again, maybe they're best for another time."
"Right now we have to think of how we can get Jamie to re-forgive us."
You mean to re-forgive you. You did all the talking. And you can't blame me for existing.
"In that case, she shouldn't be able to blame me for existing either. Look, can you help me or not?"
I don't think we need her to re-forgive you. She only wanted you to accept her apology, and now all she wants is for you to forgive yourself.
"Are you sure?"
If my limited understanding of women serves me correctly, you should be able to walk up to the top level without hassle.
"I don't think it would be that easy."
But it was that easy. Alma cautiously carried herself up the steps, looked about the hall, then proceeded into the living room to find Jamie on the couch, watching the hallway entrance. The two stared at each other for a few brief seconds, then Jamie said, "I knew you'd do it."
"How did you know?"
"You're not a bad character once you get to know yourself."
"When did you come to that conclusion?"
"When Craig was being blunt with me."
"And I'm sorry for being so, Jamie."
"It's all right, Craig."
"So what now, Jamie?"
"I don't know."
"We go and get your families back," Ethan said as he walked out from the outdoor dining area, dressed in hiking gear. Had he been eavesdropping? "That's what we do."
"How?" Alma and Jamie asked at the same time, and then exchanged glances of surprise at their synchronisation.
Ethan threw a bag he was carrying onto the floor in front of them, "Suit up," he smirked, "we're meeting with our friendly neighbourhood APR."
Simon woke up suddenly, roused by a single, menacing voice that called his name. The voice came from The General's face, and that face was staring at him less than thirty centimetres away from his own. The surroundings were that of a dark room, most likely another interrogation room of some kind, all lit by a white LED light. With his peripheral vision, Simon could pick out two more soldiers standing either side of him in the dark, rifles at the ready. Finally they prepared for anything he had to throw at them.
The General's face had a sickening smirk on it. This was not Nathan talking; this was his immoral counterpart, "You awake, Mister Murray?"
"I was dreaming of home."
"Well then I'm sorry to have to drag your arse out of fairyland, Simon, but..." he pulled an old, but very well maintained, .44 magnum from a holster on his hip, and fiddled with it in his hands, smiling, "You got to do what you got to do."
Simon shuddered uncontrollably. He hated, hated, anything that could stab into him. Bees, needles, knives, anything. Yet he still somehow managed a smirk, "You realise this has failed hundreds of times before."
"One hundred and seventy-six, to be precise," The General recited, "but that's only counting shooting your leg. If I add in how many times we used truth serums and other methods... that'd be reaching the hundreds."
"So why bother?" Simon scoffed, "It's not working. Nothing's ever going to work."
The General looked up from his lethal toy, "Oh, I wouldn't be too sure of that." He leaned back in towards Simon's face, "So I'll ask one more friendly time before we begin," he pressed the silver pistol up against Simon's left knee, "Where, is, the chip?"
"I'm, not, saying."
"Tell me or else."
"Or else what? Shoot me in the leg. C'mon, do it!"
"I'll do much worse than that."
"You're going to kill me? Ha! Have you forgot I'm your only lead?"
"Kill you!" The General laughed, echoing his voice around the medium-sized space, "I'm not going to kill you! No," his tone dropped from playful to dark, and he backed away, "tell me, Simon, or else, I kill, her."
Simon's eyes darted to The General's right side, and his whole inner body sunk faster than the Titanic sinking at the speed of light. Any sign of positivity flew from his face, and horror struck straight through his heart and stayed there, clinging to it like cancer. What he saw was a woman, more so it was a woman he knew. Her name was Valerie Atkins, and she was in more distress than he was. Her long brown hair was frayed and frizzled. Her otherwise perfect skin was tainted with blood and dirt. Her clothes were sweaty and filthy. Her eyes were ripe with tears and fear. Her mouth was bound and her hands and feet were tied to the chair she sat in. Her sight was fixed on Simon and Simon alone.
Not the gun pointed to her head.
Not the men behind him.
Did she hate him? Did she loathe his presence? Did she reason he was the cause of her being there? Or did she want him to save her? How could he? He was just as restrained as she was.
"No. Nononononononononononononono. No no no. No, this. Why is she here?"
"To answer for your crimes, Simon."
"But she... has nothing to do with this."
"Her sister, Jamie Atkins, I believe, is in league with your little pet. Transporting her around the desert last we heard. But then she killed two federal agents. Two of MY BROTHER'S federal agents. How do we know Valerie here isn't connected?"
"You can't... She... It's her... Jamie's choice. You can't make someone else answer for the culprit's actions."
"But we did! Jamie's finding out just now, I reckon... yes... Just now she'll be finding out that there is a price for fucking with forces you shouldn't. You know what that price is?"
Simon hoped he was wrong.
"Family. We took her family. And we blamed it on her."
"Call me what you like. I think it's the right way to go. Because family is another way of making you weak. Family can bring anyone to their knees, so that is why we take it away from our recruits; so we leave no weak spots."
"You all should be ashamed of yourselves!"
"Yet, surprisingly, we aren't."
"Because you lost your damned souls a long time ago."
"Someday a storm will come for you and your brother, and I hope to be its master."
"Poetic! I'm surprised! But still..." he pulled the pin back on the revolver. Valerie whined audibly and cringed away from the barrel. The General smiled an evil smile, "careful what you say, Mister Murray, or else my trigger finger may go off slightly earlier than I anticipated."
Simon noticed his lower jaw was shaking hysterically, and stopped it by gripping his lip with his teeth.
"Now, Simon, I'm going to count to ten, and you'd better tell me where your pet robot is, or else Valerie will be another of Jamie's victims."
"Val? Val, you listening?"
Valerie nodded in tears.
"Everything's going to be all right."
"Nathan. Nathan, listen to me. I really, really don't know where Alma is. She could be out in Canada still or somewhere in the desert or someplace else. I can not be sure."
"Listen. We can talk, just... like gentlemen... just let Jamie go and... and I'll tell you what I can. All right?"
Simon leapt as far as he could from his seat, only to find the restraints too strong for his limbs. He hated what he was saying... but... he didn't want innocents to die, "Okay. All right all right all right. I know what Alma's route was supposed to be. I can... I can... Give me a map and I'll map out possible places she could have gone or... or..."
Valerie whimpered louder.
"...Alma's in Darby. She's in Darby. You want to check? Go ahead."
"She's not in Darby. Five."
Simon had an idea. Unlikely to succeed but... better than nothing, "I can get her for you. I can go to whatever place she's heading to and I'll-"
"Are you listening to me?! You could place a... a... a... tracking thing in me or something and I'd lead you straight to her... and everyone else involved!"
"I'm offering you the biggest catch in a long, long-"
The General fired the gun in front of Valerie's face. She wailed louder and Simon shot up in his chair, and yelled at the top of his lungs, "ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME, NATHAN?! THE ONLY WAY YOU'RE GOING TO FIND HER IS-"
"YOU THINK I HAVEN'T LEARNT FROM ANY OF THE MISTAKES I'VE MADE?! YOU THINK I'M JUST SOME DUMB BITCH WHO'S NEVER GOING TO LEARN?! YOU'RE TOO SMART FOR THAT, SIMON! YOU'RE GOING TO FIND SOME WAY OF PUTTING US OFF THE SCENT, AND DON'T YOU BLOODY DENY IT! EIGHT, SIMON, EIGHT!"
Simon calmed down to speaking volume. Yelling would only do worse. "Look, please. Please, just let her go and I'll do everything you say. Please."
"Please. Pleasepleasepleaseplease, just let her go. I swear I will tell you everything you need to know. I will tell you everything I do know. Just... Please. Nathan. Please."
Nathan waited a few seconds. Then he broke out into a wide smile and holstered his magnum. He walked towards Simon, "I knew you'd come around eventually," he grinned profoundly, "but..." he changed his tone back to a menacing one, "you've yet to give me exact details."
Simon's insides went deeper than they ever went before.
A small beeping was heard. Nathan brought his wrist to his eyes and looked at a small digital watch, then exclaimed happily, "Oh! Look at the time. I've got to be somewhere else. You know why?"
"You have some life outside being a general?"
"No. The reason is because this watch says..." he whipped out the .44 and aimed it at Valerie's head. And before either Val or Simon could object, "Ten." He fired. Valerie screamed.
But there wasn't any blood. Or any limbs going limp. Not a single del of pain dealt.
The General threw the gun on the floor and walked out the door, but not before whispering in Simon's ear, "Next time I won't be using blanks."
Rough. That's what they felt like. Rough. Soft and rough at the same time. Or was the softness from how gently she touched them? Did it matter? No. No it did not. Both of them were rough. Scaly and rough. Both of them had four extremities. Both of them had keratin sticking out of their tips. Both of them were a very dark grey, drybrushed with a lighter shade. Both of them were beautiful. Both of them were hers and hers alone. Both of them were her hands. Real hands. Beautiful hands. Real feet. Beautiful feet. Real colours. Beautiful colours. This was her new, real self, and she could be nothing short of happy.
Her feet each had three toes, with a fourth place higher up on the inside of whatever side the foot was. Practically useless, those little toes were. Continuing up from her feet, which were the same colour and texture as her hands, striped socks of black and white wrapped their way around her ankles and all her lower legs. She counted twelve rings; from the bottom, the pattern began with white and ended in black. What purpose did that pattern serve in the wild 220 million years ago, she wondered. But why should she care? It was hers now. It was pretty. Should it matter? Of course it shouldn't.
After the socks, her skin turned to some shade of green. It wasn't a greeny-green, it was somewhat of a green with a little brown in the mix. There were also blotchy stripes of a muted yellow. The kind of muted yellow you find on a banana. That kind of yellow. And the skin, everywhere except for her feet and hands, was smooth. It didn't feel like scales like those on a snake or a lizard or a crocodile; it felt just like normal human skin, if only a little tougher than being so. The blotchy stripes of yellow started from the tail and ended at the start of her neck. She counted three on her thighs going in the opposite direction to those following her spine. And at the tip of her tail and on the back of her neck were feathers. Soft, fluffy, beautiful feathers. Blue at their bases, white at their middles, and yellow at their tops. Her belly was a khaki in colour. Her eyes had changed in colour from a brown to a blue. Above her eyes were small, hard scales that, metaphorically, acted as her eyebrows. Her teeth were white and pure, no longer titanium, but white, new, bone. Her face... it was beautiful. Her mouth now had a tongue, and saliva, and... a tongue meant taste. She knew what she would like to have first thing in the morning. Pancakes. Pancakes and bacon with maple syrup and blueberries.
She could breathe too. It felt good to breathe. Very, very good. To feel the air in her nose, catch in her mouth a little, go down her throat, and fill her lungs to their fullest, it gave her bliss. It gave her ecstasy. It gave her dopamine; the chemical that causes those shivers down your spine when you're feeling good. Every breath of air gave her that feeling of a mouse tap-dancing up and down her back. It felt nice. And what made it nicer was that on the same breath was the scent of something fresh from the microwave. She'd smelt it before. Simon ate it most mornings back home. Porridge. Honey-flavoured. All those times Simon ate it in front of her, and she'd just stare on wishing she had what he did; a stomach. She had one now. She could finally find out what she had been missing out on.
Blood too. She had that. Beneath her skin and muscles, she could feel it pulse through her veins, arteries, and capillaries. Her heart beat slowly, calmly, and rhythmically. Ba-boom, ba-boom; that's what it sounded like. She never felt a heartbeat before. Never. It was nice to feel her own heart. It all was nice; everything everyone had done for her. Funny. She'd loved Simon her entire life, yet only until hours ago, she'd been heartless.
It was all rather surreal. She drew, not more than two weeks ago, a portrait almost exactly like the real deal. She somehow correctly predicted almost everything about what a real coelophysis looked like down to the little details. Millions, billions, trillions, maybe an infinite amount of odds, and she got close to that one odd that was fully correct. Improbable; near impossible; extremely unlikely - and yet it happened.
She smiled. Coelophysis could smile! A primitive way of doing so, yes - merely the upper jaw's lip revealing teeth - but a smile nonetheless. And she liked it. The feel of it. She had a smile. She had a heart. She had a spirit. Aside from Simon's safe return and Jamie's family back from the dead, what more could she ask for?
Breakfast, for a start. It was nearing seven in the morning. The smell of porridge was getting to her new stomach, coupled with the debatable fact that it had been 220 million years since her last meal.
She stepped away from the mirror she'd been staring into for the past half hour, mesmerised by her own beauty like a magician entranced by her own hypnosis. Pathetic, really, now that she thought about it, but... she didn't know if anyone could blame her. She always longed for skin, now she had it. No matter how many imperfections other coelophysis back then would have considered this pile of muscles to have, it was perfect to her now. Bias? Yes. Unreasonable? No.
The carpet flooring felt so nice and soft; softer than she remembered in fact. Much softer than the stones and rocks she faced around Summit Cave at the very least. Just thinking about caves made her shudder. She didn't like being trapped alone in that... Wait, where did that memory come from? ...Never mind. Could just be an overactive imagination or something like that. It might even have something to do with her new skin somehow, who knew? Maybe Ethan had some idea: Another reason to open the door.
For the first time since she woke on the bed, she realised she was taller; generally bigger than last she was awake. But... how, why? Best not to ask too many questions yet. Save them for the people who know the answers. She caught her chin between the doorhandle and the door, pulled down, and pulled towards herself. The door swung open. The morning shine poured in. The talking she could hear from her room. It was Ethan and Hellcat discussing something over the house's intercom, and the topic of discussion seemed to be her. Ethan had put his bowl of porridge on the island counter while he talked to the Icelandic ally Alma never saw.
"...Practically inexplicable," exclaimed Hellcat, "it's almost as if... I don't know."
"Almost as if it knew exactly where everything was supposed to be."
"Right. It's just... weird, really. I wish I knew what this layer of nano-stuff is, but thanks to it Alma has skin, and more."
Alma. Yes. Yes, that was her name.
"Still, I fail to understand how she's grown," Hellcat continued, "and how her-"
"And how big she has grown," Ethan stated with a smile as he realised Alma was watching on from the hallway.
"She's there right now?"
"Yes," Alma replied to the friend she never met. Instead of coming from her vocal processor, her lungs breathed the air; her throat changed the pitch; and her tongue, teeth and lips formed the words. It was such a wonderful feeling, "I am here. So what was that all about?"
"What was what all about?" Ethan asked.
"What you were talking about then."
"Oh, err... Some minor... unexpected... outcomes of your operation."
Ethan swept his hand up and down in her direction, "Size, for one, if you haven't noticed yet. You're now as big as any coelophysis would have been at four years old."
"Four?" Alma questioned, "but I'm only two."
"True," Hellcat agreed, "but at the time her death, the coelophysis was four."
"Four..." she repeated to herself, though she didn't know why. "What are the other changes?"
"Well... let's see, first there's-"
"Wait wait wait. First, when am I due for a refuelling?"
Ethan's smirk turned to a toothy grin, "That's one of the changes. You're never going to need to refuel."
A pause. Bewilderment, excitement, happiness, and all other manners of reactions were churning in her mind and stomach alike. Alma realised the two were waiting for a response for her, "H-h-how?"
"You remember that nanoweave Simon put on you?"
"That was required for skin to be put on, right? Because organic material can't attach to metal."
"But that nanoweave," Hellcat continued, "it's doing more than it should."
"As in how?"
"As in," Ethan took charge of the explanation, "your digestive system's been modified to a remarkably advanced extent." He could see she was lost in translation. "Your anatomy has completely changed. Here," he tossed her an apple from the island counter's fruit bowl. She caught it with her mouth, "Eat."
Alma used her hands to grab the ends of the apple as she bit down, and took in a chunk of its redness. It tasted sweet and sour at the same time. It tasted sort of like a fruit she tried back around the aqua-blue lake... Wait, she never had anything to eat before, let alone be in the desert. She swallowed, and looked blankly at Ethan, "So? What's that supposed to prove?"
"Have you ever considered what coelophysis eat?"
Alma angled her head away slightly, "Well... no..."
"Meat, Alma, they ate meat. That's why they had pointy teeth; the teeth of predators."
"So I shouldn't have eaten that?!"
Hellcat intervened, "No, no, it's not that. This nanoweave has - by methods unknown - altered your anatomy. Where as once you were carnivorous, now you are omnivorous."
"You can eat meat and plants," Ethan briefly explained.
Alma nodded in understanding.
"As I was saying," continued Hellcat, who was apparently tired of interruptions, "Nothing you eat is wasted. Everything you eat is just converted to energy. The nanoweave has also... destroyed your power cell and used that metal to grow your skeleton and... Look, it's all just bloody ridiculous."
"But sometimes we must brace the ludicrous before we can formulate an understanding," Ethan affirmed, "There's your words of wisdom for the day. Just tell her the rest."
"You do it."
"No, you do it."
"Hey, mate, I don't want to ruin your thunder, you take the reigns."
"I've said my share, Ethan, it's your turn."
"Could one of you just please get on with it?"
"...Fine, I'll say it," Ethan accepted.
"You've heard the good news already, so now it's time for-"
"The bad news."
"No, no," Ethan shook his head, "It's time for the curious news. So nothing you consume is being wasted, all right? Nothing about you is aging one bit for some strange reason. Cells aren't dying, but you're still growing."
"Is that good?"
"Of course. I mean, even to this day, we don't know what causes age, but no doubt that nanoweave has something to do with you not aging."
"...Heh... Is there anything else?"
Hellcat answered, "Actually, there is one small thing."
"Your CPU - the LMC-III - is embedded in the centre of your brain. Rather, the brain has grown around it, but there are several strands of brain matter that connect into your CPU. It's like some sort of bio... neural... circuitry stuff going in there. I'm not saying it will cause you to feel it, but are you feeling sluggish or ‘not here' at times or even... I don't know. Is there some indication that there may be a third consciousness there?"
He means, aside from me?
"You mean, aside from Newblood?"
Those images, Alma. What about those things you never remember doing?
"Yeah. Yeah, sort of. Images. Memories."
"Yeah, that's what they are. Sometimes I remember doing things I've never done. It's happened twice already. I remember trying a fruit that tasted like an apple. I felt sick for a few days after eating it. And I remember being... alone... in a cave. And... it was scary. Terrifying, actually. And humid. And lonely. I didn't like it. Not one bit. I wanted to get out, but the entrance was blocked. I used my head. I used my hands. Both of them were bleeding. I slept for the night, and I dreamed of him - the other thinker. I wanted to get out and tell him... I don't know what I wanted to tell him."
"Enough, Alma," said Ethan, "quit it now or you'll start spooking yourself."
Alma shivered, "I think it's a bit late for that."
"...Analysis, Hellcat?" Ethan inquired.
After a brief pause, the Icelandic ally responded, "This... exceeds expectations."
"So it all went better than expected?"
"Certainly," Ethan answered.
"No need for surgery?"
"No," said Hellcat, "Your stomach is what's powering you now. It gives the glucose, your lungs gives the oxygen, your muscles take them both and work. Don't need electricity anymore. Basically your just a coelophysis with a titanium skeleton."
"Like Wolverine," Ethan affirmed, "only with titanium instead of adamantium."
"What?" Hellcat and Alma said at the same time.
Ethan shrugged, "Superhero? Marvel? Comics, movies? Hugh Jackman? Any of this ringing a bell to anyone?"
"No," Hellcat admitted while Alma shook her head.
Ethan waved his hand in dismissal, "Never mind. I guess I'm living too much in the past."
There was a long awkward pause, and everyone was waiting for anyone else to break the silence, "Well, if that's all," Hellcat started, " I guess I should be going. My shift at the lab begins soon."
"Well... err... yeah. See you soon, Hellcat," Ethan farewelled.
"You mean, hear me soon."
"No offence, but I don't want to show my face around until everything's over."
"Bring him home safely."
"We'll try," Alma said strongly, though her voice frayed at the end and she silently cursed herself for it.
"Please do. And if you need help, you know my numbers," and with that, Hellcat hung up his end.
Ethan let out a long anxious sigh as he was reminded about Simon, and Alma hung her head lower, and took another bite of the sweetly sour apple in her four-fingered hands - three fingers and one opposable thumb, actually, if someone wanted specifics. Then a thought crossed her mind she should have thought of long ago. Alma lifted her head up and asked, "Where's Jamie?"
Ethan looked her back in the eyes, and then nodded down the hallway.
"Still in her room?"
He finished a spoonful of the porridge he put aside on the counter, "Yep," and pointed to the fridge with the spoon, "and took every bottle of beer I had with her."
"How many's that?"
"That's not healthy."
"You don't say?"
"That's going to be one hell of a hangover."
"Prep the toilets, mops and bucket, coz Jamie Atkins is about to chuck it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Vomit. Throw up. That's what you'd usually do after a hangover. Or at least in my experiences."
"Well... Look, can you blame her? She just lost her entire family to-"
"Please, Ethan, don't remind me."
"Hey," he beckoned, "neither of you have anywhere to go, so somehow you're going to have to find her apology. I don't care how, but get it; otherwise this guilt is just going to go on forever. And you'd best find it soon."
"One, it'll be over quicker. Two, thanks to Newblood's little accidental takeover, we have to be prepared. They tracked you and Simon because Newblood was on the map for less than a second. If they didn't find out about him yesterday, then it's a goddamn miracle," Ethan took another spoonful from his bowl, "Still, we have to be prepared."
"And they've been quiet?"
"For the time being, yes," Craig responded, "astonishingly."
"How do you know?"
"Mistress Alma, please, I am a super-computer-butler. I put Jarvis to shame, not to brag."
"Iron Man?" Ethan asked, "Superhero? Anthony Stark? Robert Downey Juni- Why do I bother?"
Alma had a confused smile on her face, and laughed a little while she talked, "I don't know. I was raised by Simon, and books, not superheroes."
"In any case, Alma," Craig interjected, "you have two, maybe three hours to think of a way to convince Jamie to forgive you. If not totally, then partly."
"It'd probably take me two-to-three hours to even think of something."
"Wait," Craig said, "there is something else on the news you... might not want to see."
Alma looked up to the ceiling and sighed, "Whatever it is it can't be worse than what we heard yesterday."
"Show it," Ethan instructed.
The wall-mounted television switched, showing another news article. Another fire, it seemed. Who was it this time?
"...aiting confirmation, but as of yet it seems there are no bodies. The location of the owner of the diner, Moses Daniel Kawasaki, has yet to be obtained, though witness reports say that the last anyone saw of him was in the diner less than an hour before the explosion happened. Investigators say the cause of the explosion may have been triggered by the personal CTOS the diner was using, and if this is the case, this reinforces the argument experts have been having for everyone to connect to the state-wide systems. The disaster here may be linked to fugitive Jamie Atkins, who was reportedly heading east on the same road. Mister Kawasaki's family has long been deceased, so, if he isn't somewhere inside the ruins, the loss of his business will most certainly be a huge hit on his emotional and mental wellbeing. Victoria Connolly, CBS."
"You know the man?" Ethan asked from behind.
Alma looked back to him, then to the news again, "Moses let Jamie and I stay the night there. But it was just one night. Why would they do this?"
"It's policy," Ethan explained, "eliminate all loose ends."
"Anyone and anything that could have any information at all. They either buy them off... or..."
"No loose ends."
"It's to ensure security. And just so you know, that secret you didn't want to know about yet? More than five hundred are involved, but only a select few know the purpose behind it. Know too much about anything and... this happens."
"...Moe... It must have been the agents. They started following us about ten k's out of the diner."
"Then they would have asked for him to cooperate. And it doesn't seem like he did."
"He had is own CTOS, but he rarely ever kept it on."
"I know; he told me. But in that case they could only arrest him."
"Unless the agents thought he was fraternising with the enemy."
"And they would have killed him on the spot?!"
"Doubt it. They would have needed proof. Look, let's not get too wound up in it. Grim as it is, he's more than likely dead."
"I know... I should have told everyone everything..."
"...Alma, people would have died sooner or later."
"Then Simon should never have built me!"
"He had to! And if he didn't thousands would have died instead!"
Alma's eyes widened.
"I'm not going to tell you how or why, and I'm not going to Jamie either. When we get Simon back, he'll tell you himself. I'll only tell you this: The day Simon took that chip, was the day everything got out of hand."
Alma thought it before, and she'd think it a quadrillion more times, she hated all this sudden shutdowns and boot-ups. And to think that her ‘power source' had run out of ‘source' just before she made it to Ethan's. How far would have she trekked by foot before it happened? Without Jamie she'd probably have run out of power somewhere in the forests of Canada and be lost from knowledge for who knew how long. Simon wouldn't have planned for that to happen. Would he?
She should stop second-guessing herself. As Newblood said, pessimism wasn't good for the mind.
Her motor functions and four major senses returned, but her vision, again, annoyingly, was blurred. She was sick of waking up to seeing nothing but fuzzy outlines and coloured shadows. Alma curved her neck to her tail and stretched her limbs to their fullest extent, phalanges included; she just needed to strain out all the aches in her joints brought on from immobility. It felt good to finally move again, even if it was only a few minutes she had been awake for.
Her sight cleared finally. She observed she was in a room. A dark room. It was early morning - Alma could tell by the digital clock next to the bed, and by the small amount of light coming through the high window. Nothing really distinguished it from any other room she had seen, but then again she'd only ever seen Simon's house. What she meant was that there was a bedside table with an unlit lamp and lampshade; the bed was small - only able to accommodate one decent-sized person - and had dark red sheets; the walls were a cream colour, aside from the window wall which was red in almost the exact same hue as the bed sheet, as were the curtains of the window; and a bookcase with... all the books that were in her satchel lined in correct order.
Alma sat up. Was this where she thought she? It must be! There could be no other explanation! This was Ethan's house! She'd made it! With the help of complete strangers, yes, but she'd made it! Ethan had probably seen her already, so there would be no surprise when she'd see him. Alma would have liked to see his face when he had a proper look at all the effort Simon put into her. Not to brag, but Alma thought of herself as a work of art, even though she didn't feel like one.
Finally, you're awake.
She forgot all about Newblood.
Forget about little old me, did you? I've been waiting for the past ten hours!
"Newblood, calm your farm, cool your jets, and take a chill pill, in that order."
Ten hours! I was talking to myself for ten hours and you never said a word!
"How could I when I was out of power?"
And yet somehow I could say things?! Why didn't you say anything?!
"I heard everything," Alma admitted with a sad sigh, "The things you said... Sorry, and thankyou at the same time."
...I just... didn't want to be alone anymore.
"For the time being, however, you're permanently stuck with me."
I almost began to re-hate you.
"...I'm glad you didn't then."
You're telling me. So what now? Can't get back to sleep.
"I guess we're just going to have to wait around until morning."
It's already morning.
"I mean when everyone else wakes up."
Alma shimmied over and stretched out her hand to feel the bedside table for the lamp's light switch. Fumbling around cords, her fingers conclusively grasped the plastic bulge where the button was located, and pressed down. White light flooded both the room and her eyes. Great. Now she couldn't see for another few seconds. What a genius she was. When the colours of the world finally returned to her sight, Alma jumped. In the centre of the room was a person, slumping in a chair, head bowed down, rifle in his lap, wrists resting on barrel and butt, hair frizzed up, sleeping. The chair was facing the midpoint between Alma and the door, so whoever it was, he was protecting her... though not now of course. Maybe he had been awake for most of the night. Watching over her. Alma hopped down to the floor and looked up at his tired face; exhausted; dark rings around his eyes, though the light made it difficult to see how dark they were. Simon always had dark rings around his eyes, no matter how much sleep he had - if any at times - but this was not Simon. This watchdog had an air of having participated in one too many battles. A tired warrior would be the perfect description.
His breathing was slow, silent, and rhythmic - Alma had not disturbed him. Thankfully. The last thing she wanted for anyone was inconvenience. Then again, she'd brought enough inconvenience as it was to Jamie's life, changed it forever even, and Alma hated that. Maybe... Maybe if she'd just leave... things would go back to... no. No.
Don't be an idiot, she scolded herself, you know perfectly well they won't.
Quietly as she could, she stepped across the woollen carpet and into the hallway, and from the hallway into the living room. The kitchen lights on her right sensed her movement and turned on to reveal a full assortment of cooking utensils. Pots, pans, fireless stoves, spatulas, tongs, two sinks, a fridge, a pantry and long rows of overhead and below-waist cupboards, and an island counter. The floor there was terracotta coloured tile, and slightly rose above the rest of the flooring. One of the counters doubled as a wall; there was an opening filled with windows, all of which could be opened to the outdoor dining area. It would be easier to draw a picture than describe it. Currently, the windows were closed to keep the mosquitos out.
There was another entrance to the dining area - a sliding glass door and security door that gave admission to the living room yet again. The living room wasn't actually defined from the rest of the open space by walls or other obvious features, only one sofa and two armchairs, which surrounded a wooden coffee table that could easily be mistaken for a large mahogany footrest if it weren't for the thin draws on the front and rear faces. The chairs all faced towards a large borderless wall-mounted television. The TV was presently off, but the sofa was still occupied by someone. Alma walked closer, and the someone became a redheaded someone with a pillow and a blanket. It was Ethan, obviously, the only redhead she knew in her life. Well... she didn't exactly know him yet.
"Oh, it's just you," came an unfamiliar, simulated, male voice, "In that case you won't need breakfast."
"No," Alma replied to the ceiling at low volume; she didn't want to wake Ethan unnecessarily, "Who are you?"
"I, madam, am Craig, the house's artificial intelligence, created by none other than Ethan Day himself."
"The Ethan lying on the couch?"
"What exactly does a house AI do?"
The TV turned on silently, volume on mute, and presented an early morning talk show. Four anchors sat around a bow-shaped sofa. Two women, two men. The one who was talking took charge of the segment that gave a brief summary of what happened while people were asleep. Alma heard what she had to say, "...uran Federation's investigation still hasn't discovered who the invader was, they now have the full cooperation of any and all nations directly affected by the war. Effectively, the mysterious invader may have caused the nations to work together under one banner. Leroy Jenkins with more-"
The TV switched off again, "As you can see, I have control over most of the house's basic functions. Security to television, coffee machine to Simulator. Frankly, I do anything Ethan is too lazy to do."
"How's that for employment. But..." Alma cocked her head at a small camera she saw in the corner of the space, "you mentioned a ‘simulator'?"
"Yes, yes I did. Before Simon's house went dark - we presume that it was hit?"
Alma lowered her eyes in memory, "It was. Special Operations."
"I see. Well... before you were... ahem... forcibly removed... Simon sent a few photos of you and some... oh how stupid of me making you stand there, would you prefer to take a seat?"
"I- yes please."
"Spare armchair on your left," Craig directed. Alma did as suggested, trying not to wake Ethan as she did so, though the carpet soaked up most of the sound of her feet. The material used was soft, comfy, and woven into the red fabric were birdseed-yellow depictions of leaves and flowers. Alma curled up and snuggled herself in between the matching pillows, resting her head on an arm, "Want some heating to go with that?"
"I don't see-"
"Yes or no?"
"...Yes, I guess... please."
A section of wall below the TV flipped over to reveal an electric heater. The bars began to glow red with warmth, and she could immediately feel the difference and sunk herself further into the couch, letting out a saurian purr of indulgence.
"As I was saying, Simon sent over a few photos of you and some of his inventions, The Simulator included. It's downstairs on the ground floor. Ethan built it exactly to the diagram's parameters. It should be exactly as it was before the Special Operations guys hit."
"You mean... I can still use it?"
"Hmm... I will go and check. Wait a few seconds please."
It sounded as if he was leaving the room - which essentially he was. So while he was doing whatever business that needed doing, Alma let herself soak up the heat. She must have dozed off, because the next thing she could hear was Craig's voice rousing her eyelids open. When she regained consciousness, or partially did so, the house AI spoke again.
"Alma, if you can hear me properly, nod."
Alma did as instructed.
"Okay, was The Simulator modified to include the energy signature 193.68?"
"That's mine isn't it?"
"It must have been, yes."
"Then in that case, yes you will still be able to use it."
She simulated a small sigh of relief, and a long silence followed. Then Alma thought of something that perhaps she should have asked before, "So what was wrong with me, Craig? I mean, I know I'd run out of power, but what was the fuel?"
"Hydrogen. H-y-d-r-o-g-e-n. Your fuel cell was a hydrogen fuel cell, or in other words, your fuel was water. You run out of fuel, you simply stop functioning. Amazing it lasted this long. Two and a half years is it since you came online? Remarkable, if I may say so myself."
"...So in a sense, I... drank water...?"
"I guess you can say that."
"Then how much do I take?"
"About two litres. That is about a litre a year. Either Simon has invented or improved a brand or the world's advanced much faster than I have been aware of."
"So how is Newblood?"
"We've come to respect each other, I think."
Yes. Yes we have.
"Yes, he said so himself just then."
"Well that is good."
"What about Jamie?"
"Your former transport? She is on one of the other beds. Speaking of which, your three mercenary escorts are still here. Two are sharing a bed - heads at opposite ends of the bed if you were interested - and the other is resting in a chair. He's the one you saw when you woke up. Spectre."
Alma's eyelids opened further in interest, "That was Spectre?"
"I did say did I not?"
"Yeah, I just thought that they would never do that. Take their masks off I mean."
"Apparently security protocol is relaxed come time for sleep."
"...Hmm. But what about Jamie? Will she be okay? Does she need a hospital?"
"Gash to her head, but not too serious. The bruising on the bone will take a long while to heal though, and even if she did need proper medical assistance, a mainstream hospital would not be the place to go for help. Apparently you were hunted down by two agents? Jamie's car would be found by now, as with the agents' bodies. It would not take a genius to put two and two together. Put her in a hospital bed and she's sure to be found."
"Oh... I feel really bad now."
"Would you prefer me to be quiet and turn on the TV? You can watch or fall to sleep, either way, Ethan will not wake up; he is an extremely heavy sleeper."
"Yes please, Craig."
The television switched on again, revealing the same news program where instead of news, it was time for general discussion amongst the hosts. Talking about common annoyances or everyday occurrences, chatting about what's in and out of fashion, gossiping about the newest movies in Hollywood. All really quite boring things. Alma simulated a yawn; none of what they laughed at was funny to her, half of the time she didn't even know what they were talking about. Maybe it was their heavy and unnecessary use of the word ‘like', or the fact they inflected their voices up at the ends of sentences, but they lost her interest. Her eyes began to feel sore as sleep became the higher want on her mind. Craig must have seen her lack of attention, because the TV went silent, and the white light it gave off ceased. Under the warmth of the heater, and the softness of the chair's cushion, and Craig's cameras, and Ethan's inconspicuous snoring, Alma finally felt safe. And with that in mind, her eyes shut out the light, and she went to sleep.
"I DON'T CARE!"
Alma woke up struggling; kicking and flailing her legs, tail and neck. In her panic she slid off the couch and landed heavily on the carpet. What woke her wasn't a nightmare; it was a yell, a yell from Jamie. It came from the kitchen. Propping her head up, she saw Ethan standing at the far side of the island counter of the kitchen. Jamie was leaning on the edge to his left with a thoroughly displeased look on her face. The trail marks of tears were also present on her cheeks. Spectre, Visage and Phantom were all outside in the open-air dining area talking amongst themselves, probably leaving Ethan and Jamie to sort out whatever quarrel was occurring. Currently, Jamie and Ethan had their heads turned towards Alma. She felt a little uncomfortable with the attention. Correction: very uncomfortable. When looking up, down, left right and centre didn't work, she tried to break the awkward silence with words, "Don't mind me... just... I'm fine."
"Great, now you had to wake her up," Ethan said sternly, almost at shouting volume.
Jamie looked back at him as if she'd been insulted, "Brilliant. Bloody brilliant! It's always about her. What about me? Don't I get any attention?"
"I know how you feel-"
"Don't patronise me!" Jamie spat, "You have no idea how I feel! I had no part in this until she," she gestured towards Alma, who stepped back a step in surprise and guilt, "she stepped in front of my car!"
"Uh... I was caught up in a conversation with Newblood," Alma tried to make an excuse for herself.
"It's no different than a mobile phone while driving. And who the hell is Newblood again? Oh, that's right, he's a god damn military AI that the feds want for reasons unknown."
Alma closed her eyelids to slits, "If you're implying that I'm the same naïve self I was before, Jamie, you are sorely mistaken. I said, and I will repeat again, I am not like that anymore."
"Sure you are- Oh god not again."
Jamie broke into tears again and dashed for the hallway and into a bedroom, slamming the door shut. Alma was surprised by the spectacle. Then she saw Ethan's head nodding for her to watch the television, which she failed to realise was switched on and had been on since before she was awake. It was another news program, though this was of a more serious kind; serious looking anchor, and the music and everything else. What the ‘everything else' part of it was was up to debate. Behind the anchor was a conjoined picture of a family and... Jamie...! Wait... no... but...
"Moving on to our top stories for this morning. Shock and horror, an entire family murdered overnight in Canada. Trent Westwood with more on the story."
Recorded segments of film flashed on the screen. The report was not live. A voiceover described the evident serenity of a street. "It was a quiet Wednesday morning in Kelowna, when all of a sudden, disaster struck." A shot from a helicopter circling the area of a burned down house. "A reunion gone horribly wrong. In the dark, the flames lit the night sky with an orange haze of smoke, blotting out the stars all around the city. An entire family had been lost." The screen then switched to a smiling family photo, with two... Jamies...? Their faces were highlighted as he announced, "The photo shown here, basically doubles as a victim line-up. Elderly couple, Brandon and Sasha Leclerc, their daughter, Mary, married to Randy Atkins, and one of their children, Alan, were all consumed in the fire. Valerie Atkins is still missing. Her sister and leading suspect, Jamie, is supposedly on the run." Alma couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Video evidence and eyewitness reports indicate that at almost the same time as the house was burning, Jamie's silver Ford Ute was travelling away from Kelowna and heading for Seattle. Furthermore, as you might be able to see with this speed camera footage, it looks like there was someone else in the backseat. Now whether this is Valerie Atkins or an accomplice is yet to be decided. But we can say for sure this was an act of cold, calculated murder; the gas was left on, the doors were locked and barricaded. There was no conventional way out, if the victims even knew if they were in danger. Canadian officials are still baffled as to what the motive is, but all the evidence points to Jamie as the killer. Trent Westwood, CNN."
Alma stood still, mortified by what she heard, "This... She..." she stuttered, lost words, then she turned her head to Ethan and they flowed from her mouth, "It's fake! It's impossible! Jamie, she... She hit me with a car on Tuesday. They're making it up! And there was no evidence shown at all! No interviews!"
"I know," replied Ethan in the same tone of frustration, "They're setting it all up. It's all to make the public aware of her face; make them want to do something about it. But the fire and her family... that's all real."
"So her mum and dad have-"
"And brother and sister?"
"Them, Alma; the ones after you; the ones who have Simon locked up in some cell somewhere; them."
Alma could hear Jamie's wailing even from behind the door, "But... why? Her whole family..."
"Means nothing to them: They were just another necessary casualty."
"For the sake of what?"
Ethan threw his hands in the air, "They know you were travelling with her, so I guess they hope someone will report her before she reaches this place. Bit late now, but they don't know that."
Alma looked back to the television screen, where the news was moving to another topic, "It's all my fault... She doesn't deserve this..."
"Alma," Ethan had walked over to her silently and started snapping his fingers in front of her eyes, "unfortunate things happen. This same story - a family member suspected of murdering his or her entire family - has happened three times this week at least. This is a routine thing on the news. You go against them, you should expect the worse. Jamie just... Her case is no different from hundreds of others."
"But I did this! I didn't tell her what she was getting into, and now her whole life's been ruined! Because of me!"
"Alma, what's done can't be undone. We all know that, and we all have to accept that."
"She will have to if she wants to stay alive."
"Look, what would you want me to say, to her or to you? Everything's going to be all right? Well I can't say it, because everything's not all right, and it will never be like that any time soon."
"I have to say something..." Alma insisted, "I... I didn't say sorry enough."
"...My only advice to you is to give Jamie some time and space. She needs time to grieve. And judging by what she told me, she's probably blaming you right now."
"I know... I just... I didn't mean for anything to happen. How was I to know they'd do this? I... Why?"
"Why did Simon have to build me?"
Ethan's sympathetic look turned to a frown, "Alma, don't start heading down that path."
Depression, pessimism, and all the like.
"Oh, yeah, yeah, right. But... If he knew there were going to be repercussions as severe as this... why?"
The sympathy in his face grew stronger, almost to the point of annoyance, "I have no idea. About anything really... I don't know why he built you, why he chose me to become your godfather-per-say, why he needed this LMC thingy-"
"Sir, if I may," Craig interrupted.
Sympathy turned to restrained annoyance, "Yes, Craig? And it's Ethan."
"Sorry, Ethan, occupational hazard. But I think it's Alma's right to know the secondary reason why she was built."
Ethan couldn't see it, but Alma was both shocked and curious. Shocked that Ethan had perhaps lied to her to her face, - though she'd done the same to Jamie - and curious about what this other reason was, "You lie?"
"Yes, I did, only to spare you pain."
"Simon did the same."
"Ethan," Craig intervened again, "We both agreed that this would be inevitable, so just please cut to the chase for her sake."
"Yes," agreed Alma, "please."
Alma could see regret in Ethan's eyes. It must have been about what he would have to tell her. ...Maybe... ...Maybe it was too early yet to hear the truth. ...Not yet. She didn't know what drove this thought but... Not yet.
"You know what...?" Alma said as she lowered Ethan's outstretched hand - poised ready to give a truth-filled speech, "never mind." Regret turned to surprise, "Maybe I shouldn't hear it yet," she echoed her mind, "maybe I should just... let it unfold. Not until we get Simon back."
"But I owe you-"
"You owe me nothing. And frankly, by the way I've treated Jamie... I don't think I deserve anything."
"Not until we rescue Simon."
Ethan looked away and was silent in contemplation for a short while, then, like an epiphany had struck him, he turned his head back, gazed at her, and smiled in agreement. "Not until we rescue Simon," he repeated.
The glass door to the outside dining area opened and Spectre's head popped through, "Is the fight ov-" he stopped mid-sentence when he realised Alma was present, "-er... Uh... Nice to see you're up and in... working order...?"
"Good morning to you too, Spectre."
"What about Jamie?"
"Bedroom," Ethan replied quickly.
"Ah, I see. So there's no longer a need for us to stay?"
"Not... that I can think of, no. But we'll stay in touch?"
"Yeah, I guess. C'mon you two, quit your bitching and let's go."
Alma cringed as she heard that word, but he was right; there was certainly a heated argument between Visage and Phantom. About what she couldn't tell; both were trying to talk over each other but it seemed Visage was accusing him of something. At the sound of his directions, the two dropped their fight and followed him through the hallway, giving each other fearsome looks as they proceeded.
"Spectre," Alma called out, and he stopped. She took hesitant steps towards him, "I... Thankyou for helping me."
His eyes and brows held a blank expression... masking something underneath maybe? Sympathy? Caring? He was extremely difficult to figure out. "Don't mention it," he replied after a small pause, then continued walking for the door, two grey cases in hand. No doubt they were filled with the seventy-five thousand dollars Ethan owed them. He exited the building.
Still, how was she supposed to interpret that? ‘Don't mention it'. Was that his version of ‘you're welcome'? It wasn't a pathetic attempt, more like a... like a failed attempt. Like he didn't have much social experience. Curious. Maybe that was the story of his life? Maybe Alma was analysing things too much. Maybe she should just stop thinking for a while. Shutting up now.
The days when things were simpler, hey?
"And what would you know about them? You said it yourself that you were practically asleep for the most part of my life, no?"
That doesn't mean I can't go through your memories.
Don't act like it's new news. I told you before. And... Look, I'm sorry if you feel violated, okay? I've never really known any life outside Damocles and...
"I'm a good source for what you should look forward to," Alma finished.
Precisely. And you seem to have had an enjoyable life up until recently.
"All thanks to Simon... I miss him..."
"As do I, Alma," Ethan intruded, though he had probably been listening in for a natural break in her speaking. She'd forgotten all about him, and about Craig, and Jamie. How did she not hear the crying? Ethan waddled closer to her and put his hand on the back of her neck, "and someday, we're going to get him back."
"I was talking to Newblood."
"I know, and it seems the two of you have come a long way."
That we have.
"That we have."
"That's nice to know," Ethan smiled wider, and his eyes grew kinder, "Now, we've got to figure out how to deal with-"
"Incoming call, sir."
Ethan jumped to his feet and threw his hands up in annoyance, "Bloody hell, can there ever be no interruptions? Please?"
"Sorry sir," Craig apologised, Alma could see Ethan mouth under his breath ‘Ethan', "but this sounds to be more important than usual."
"By important you mean what?"
"This caller is apparently a friend of Simon," Ethan raised his eyebrow at this, "he goes by the name of ‘Hellcat'."
"Hellcat?" Alma repeated, stepping forward to one of the cameras, "You mean the Hellcat from Iceland?"
"You know him, Alma?" questioned Ethan.
"No," she admitted, "but Simon told me about him in a message he left for me. Something about that skeleton in Icel... I mean that skeleton in New Mexico. A living cell... He didn't cultivate it did he?"
"Yes," the house AI replied, "he did mention something about restoring something."
"...Alma. Alma?" Ethan waved his hand in front of her unblinking face, jaw loose, "Alma, you there?"
Alma's simulated breathing became heavier and heavier and faster and faster. Excitement overwhelmed her. As Newblood was unintentionally taking over, she laughed harder and harder.
Newblood continued Alma's laugh. The change in voice was noticeable to everyone, even himself, but he didn't care. He'd never felt this happy before. He never felt happy before. He actually felt happy! It felt so fantastic! So wonderful! So wondrous! So brilliant! This was what he had been missing out on? How could he have never wanted it before? Why would he have never wanted it before?
"Alma? What's funny?"
"I'm... I'm not Alma... I'm Newblood," he replied, trying to stop laughing, "So... so what does Hellcat want?"
"He wants Alma... or Newblood... or... whichever," Craig stumbled over words, "He wants you to be transported to his laboratory in Reykjavik so he can carry out as Simon planned."
"Which was what?"
"To apply skin."
"...You hear that, Alma? You wish is finally granted."
I hear! HA! YES! YES YES YES!
"She hears. I'm ready if she's ready, so I guess we're ready."
"Now hold up," Ethan stepped between Craig's camera and Alma's body. He had a worried expression on his face, and that expression worried Newblood, "Just wait one second, please. Craig, put Hellcat through."
"Ethan, what's wrong?" Newblood asked.
The red-haired man turned his head to Alma's body, and opened his mouth to speak. The he shut it quickly once someone else's voice echoed in the space.
"Ethan Day, I presume?"
Ethan twisted his head back to the camera, "Yes, and Hellcat, it must be?"
"Tell me, Hellcat, just what do you intend on doing with Alma?"
"Just as Simon instructed; add skin, muscle, organs, blood and bone. But of course to do that she needs to come here to Iceland. I'm not really keen on heading to the United States myself."
"Okay," Ethan nodded, pacing around the living room space, "but then what do you intend to do about her life?"
"What?" Newblood and Hellcat queried at the same time.
"Must I repeat myself? What do you intend to do about her life?"
"I don't know what you mean."
Ethan slumped down into the armchair Alma had used as a bed the night before, "Alma's power source is a hydrogen fuel cell."
"It's easily exposed when she's in her skeletal form, okay?"
"So what do you propose happens the next time it needs changing?"
"Wait," interjected Newblood, "didn't you fix that?"
The man gave Alma's body a look of solemness, "Spectre and I took out the fuel cell and just poured water in it. It's crude. It will have less of a life than the proper thing. And it's custom made, probably by Simon. No replacements."
"So, Alma... or Newblood or... whoever! If you've got skin on that means we can't recharge the cell without conducting surgery. With less of a lifespan, that means the surgeries will be frequent and... and..."
"...I get it."
...I do too.
Newblood simulated aggravated sigh, the source of which came from Alma, partly fuelled by him too. Head lowered, he spoke, "So, Alma, it seems we're at a crossroads."
Seems like we're at crossed roads? No, we are at crossed roads.
"The question remains nonetheless."
...I... I need a moment.
Newblood turned Alma's head to Ethan, "If you could excuse us?"
"Of course," Ethan answered, "get some air outside."
Not that I can breathe.
"Thankyou, Ethan," and Newblood walked Alma's feet out the front door. Behind him, Alma's ears could hear parts of the conversation Ethan was having.
"So... What is there to talk about?"
"Uh... How's the weather in Iceland?"
"Ha. Unpredictable. Sunny at six, blizzard at ten, vice versa, or something completely different."
"The cell. It actually came from the coelophysis?"
"Survive this long? Adapted. Evolved. Whichever of the two - I get confused, even as a professional myself, I know."
"So how did you ‘devolve' it? And use terms I can understand, please."
"Ha. Well, it's all rather complicated so if you're interested you'd better listen nice and close. First I-"
The door shut. Newblood and Alma had to decide which was best for her. A life of scars, or a life of bones.
Another quick note. General Nathaniel Fox will stay, only the nickname will go, and will go to Dr. Hargreave. And Josef will be renamed to Moses (biblical reference intended (but that's for later))
Spectre's mask was soaked profoundly in his sweat. While the sun wasn't exactly burning hot, nor was the humidity high, his clothes - regular civilian clothing covered with a brown tarp - kept in his body heat, making his skin unable to breathe properly. Consequently, his brow was drenched with condensed droplets of salty water, and his panting was more laboured than what it should normally be.
"Why don't you take off some of your clothes?" Alma asked innocently.
Spectre looked behind him as he grabbed another tree root sticking up from the ground; the slope the party was going up was so steep they needed all the help they could get. They could have gone around, but that would have taken hours more. Visage and Phantom were struggling to keep Jamie from sliding down, muttering about how Ethan should pay them double the agreed fund. Jamie was still comatose. "I don't need to," was Spectre's reply, "I'm not hot."
"But you're sweating a lot."
"Trust me, Alma," he paused a little as he groaned and pushed himself up a few steps, "there are worse things people can endure."
Alma followed in his wake, trusting his feet cleared some of the slippery leaves, "So how did you end up in the A.P.R?"
Spectre peeked over his shoulder quickly, then returned his head forward, jumping forward to the next tree trunk.
Alma followed, her feet barely gripping the unstable grit. They reminded her too much of Summit Cave... and that Sky Raven. Her biggest fear was that somehow her satchel would slip from her neck and roll its way down the slope. She'd only nearly finished the first in the series. "Well?"
Spectre almost looked surprised that she'd caught up, like he was trying to evade the question. Her suspicions were answered when he responded, "Sometimes it's best not to question why the person next to you is fighting. It can awaken the ghosts of the dead."
Alma cocked her head at the response, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"History shouldn't be repeated, either by action or word."
"In other words, it's too sensitive."
"You think we should wait for the other two to catch up?"
Spectre swung himself to the opposite side of the tree, allowing himself to sit in a small pocket created by the slope and the irregularity. Seated comfortably, he said, "Yeah. I could do with a breather anyway."
Alma did the same, only with one of the tree's protruding roots.
You want to hear more on the A.P.R while we're waiting for the others?
"Well, there's nothing better to do."
Okay, I have a lot of info from what I can remember, so you better have a pen and paper... oh, yeah. Well I hope you get the general gist of what I'm going to say. The American People's Resistance was founded within weeks of President Jonathon coming into office.
I think not. As far as they told me, the A.P.R was once known as the American People's Republican Party, which was one of the major contenders during the election. When John came to office, many of the leaders of the candidate parties mysteriously went missing, and the parties fell beyond salvation. The A.P.R wasn't completely gone, however, and slowly went underground the more of its leading members went ‘missing'. It eventually renamed itself, went guerrilla, and - so they told me - became little more than a terrorist cell. But judging from what Josef said, I guess their aim is to oust Jonathon from Presidency. The public doesn't really know about them, but apparently they've a stockpile of weapons, ammunition, and vehicles. All they lack is the manpower.
"Which is why they're being paid to go out of their way."
"Precisely," Spectre said, leaning in from the other side of the tree. Alma was startled, "Now how'd you deduce that?"
"How long were you listening?"
"Since I heard you talking to yourself."
"I was just thinking to myself out loud."
Spectre's brow lowered, "Now why do I get the feeling that's not all?"
"Probably because it isn't."
"Then would you care to elaborate?"
Alma could tell that Spectre was frustrated by the look in his eyes, and by the air between the two. But what could he do? He couldn't force Alma to tell him everything. "I'll go see if the other two need any help with your friend."
With that, Spectre dropped from his perch and made small, controlled slides down to Visage and Phantom, who were really quite winded from carrying a dead weight,
Why not just tell him?
Me. Simon. The LMC-III.
"Oh, yeah. I didn't tell him because of what you said."
That he was aligned with the A.P.R?
"You said they're now more military than political, yes?"
"Well... if they want to oust John as quickly as possible, they're going to need all the help they can get. My mind being a chip capable of holding you and I, the two most complex AIs of our time, and you being designed purely for military purposes..."
They'd take the chip and force us into some new war machine. I see...
"These guys... and girl... are doing this for payment rather than out of the goodness of their hearts. I don't think we can trust them totally on account of that."
I get your point. So what do you propose?
"We stay with them all the way to Ethan's. Once we're with him, we explain anything they want. We owe it to them for their trouble."
"What is it?"
I just noticed something. If I'm mistaken then I'm sorry, but... That may have been the first time ever you said ‘we'. And by that you meant us, me and you, didn't you?
"...I think I meant all of us then. You, Jamie and I."
After a brief pause, Newblood talked again.
How are you feeling, Alma?
How are you feeling? It's a simple question.
"Ah... Er... Good, I guess. No. Sad. A little sad."
What makes you say that?
Alma shifted her head to the three soldiers trying to heave the unconscious Jamie up the slope. They'd made significant progress with the help of Spectre.
I see. Guilty is the word you're looking for then.
"You know about guilt?"
No, I just get the concept.
"That's the first time you've ever asked me about..."
About you? Yes. I guess so. Is there a problem?
"I just... Just I... You..."
"...You've changed. A lot."
Is that supposed to be a good thing?
"Oh yes, of course it is. If I were Simon-"
Which you're not.
"-I guess I say it's all for the best. You've changed from some killing machine into a... a... well...
"Something better," Alma repeated, "and that is good in itself."
No, it isn't.
For all you know, for all I know, this me could be me without any machine guns strapped to my arms. If I had any. For all I know I may not have changed at all. How do you know if I've changed?
"...It's the way you speak. They way you hold yourself."
‘The way I hold myself'? Alma, you can't see me; I'm just a data module full of algorithms and thinking processes.
"I know, I know, but what I mean to say is that you don't seem lost anymore."
"Purpose. I think you found purpose somewhere along the line."
I always knew what I was doing.
"The moment we first met?"
...Okay, I'll give you that.
"Everything his purpose; has meaning. Humans haven't yet discovered the meaning of life-"
"Excluding that one moment," Alma giggled, "But still, people haven't yet found the meaning of life, does that mean life is meaningless? I think not. A rock's purpose is to... just be there... and support everything. This tree's purpose is to live, continue the species. My purpose is to find Simon and bring him home. I know it won't be easy, but I won't give up. I can't for his sake. Your purpose is to be more than you already are. Unless you have some secret agenda?"
"You see, Newblood? Everything has purpose. Beg to differ all you want, but I think I've found the meaning of life. Sorry if I've been boring you."
No, no, do tell.
"The meaning of life... is to give meaning to others'."
"How very insightful," exclaimed Phantom as the three finally made it up to Alma's height up the slope, "Now could you please give us a hand and help Jamie up this ridge?"
"How?" she queried defensively, "I can't pull anything or grab anything, except with my teeth, but then I'd just tear up whatever it is. And I don't want to be responsible for Jamie's mauled hand."
"Not even something?" asked Visage.
"Forget it," dismissed Spectre, "Let's just get over this ridge and we'll be done with it all."
The statement caught Alma's attention, "You mean, after this ridge is Ethan's house?"
"Yes," Visage said, "Haven't you been listening?"
"Not really, no, I've just been having conversations in my head a lot."
"Well isn't this comical?" Phantom exclaimed, "We're transporting a schizophrenic robot and an unconscious bystander to some random red-headed rich fellow that lives way out in the wilderness."
Alma sighed to herself; she had to admit the whole situation of things did seem a little ridiculous for anyone to explain in one sentence. She wondered what it would all sound like if it were written down on paper... An emotional robot handicapped with a battle-ready AI is set out to somehow rescue its creator from the clenches of a military dictatorship. A bit stupid when put in that perspective. She also wondered if she was stereotypical or cliché in some way, cross-referencing all the characters she ever read about in her books that Simon put on her shelf. Maybe she was unique, or maybe she just couldn't remember everyone in all the books on that bookcase.
She missed her room.
She missed that house.
She missed Simon.
She almost broke out in invisible tears.
Alma, they're way ahead of us now, nearly over the ridge. You want to see Ethan or not?
Alma shook herself down, mouth to tail, foot to pelvis to other foot, and in an instant the negativity was gone. She hurried up to the struggling group of three-plus-one, made her way underneath Jamie, and pushed upwards so that most of her back was taking Jamie's weight. It hurt her leg joints to take so much extra mass on, but as Spectra had said, there were worse things people could endure. So Alma bore most of the weight while the three militants kept Jamie steady, all the way up to the top of the mountainous ridge. The leaves subsided and turned to gravel and tiny stones, further reminding Alma about that day when everything changed. And how much she'd experienced.
She'd seen parts of the Canadian forests she never thought existed. She'd seen the extent of said wilderness. She'd witnessed kindness from complete strangers. She'd realised how selfish she could be. And she'd seen blood, and violence, and death, all of which Alma wished she could forget. But her mind refused to do so; it was just too traumatic; she could remember all the detail in Malcolm's surprised face as Joshua switched targets. Alma shuddered at the memory. She knew that at some point or another in her journey, someone would die somehow; she just put that thought way at the back of her mind so she wouldn't think about it too much. At least it was one of the baddies and not her or Jamie or Simon or Ethan. Yet.
Who knew where everything was going, because it was certainly not her. Alma only hoped that things wouldn't get any worse. But just how likely was that? The most probable case would be the assaulting of Damocles, which would lead to more death and destruction, and that was no good to anybody. Alma simulated a heavy sigh that no one could take notice of as she was below everyone else's ears.
Don't do that.
"Do what?" Alma whispered back to the voice in her head, somewhat annoyed.
Don't think like that. It does no one any favours.
"And what would you know about it, Newblood?"
It's just... In humans, thinking like that is called pessimism, and making that style of thinking your own rationalisation of everything is called depression. That isn't healthy.
"How would you know about that?"
Again, the transition from human to machine was to be slow, so I was supposed to know as much as I can about any ailment ever-
"More importantly," she added angrily, though only at a whisper's pitch, "why would you care?"
"Once we get another LMC thingy, you're going to be away from me forever, so why should you care about my state of thinking?"
I... Alma... See, this is what I mean; you're now just rejecting any advice or such I give you.
"Why would I want to take advice from a militant?"
No. Alma, Listen to me-
"You just wanted me dead from the start."
-those days are over.
"Like hell they are."
Alma, stop it. They are over. Don't believe me? Why would I have been helping you through this as much as I can?
There was a strange feeling building inside her, but Alma chose to ignore it, "I don't believe you."
More proof? How about this...
Alma's vision began to pixelate, and the hurting didn't hurt anymore. Was this Newblood's doing? The group was nearly at the top of the ridge. Just a few steps more.
...I genuinely... genuinely...
The ground flattened. Alma could barely see for miles; her vision was growing worse by the millisecond. They'd made it. A surge of happiness ran down her spine. It cut off suddenly before the tail. Something wasn't right. Alma never felt this... this sluggish before...
Her sight went black. Her mind went black. Her ears and nose went dark. Her legs collapsed. Jamie fell on top of her. Almost immediately afterwards, there was no feeling; no hurt; no tingling; no emotion. As she could say or think nothing, she was forced to listen to Newblood's voice for the remainder of her unconsciousness.
I mean I don't like you as in lovey-dovey like-like you, I mean I like you as a friend, a companion. You've been good company and... Alma? Alma? Hello? Are you there? Alma, can you say something? Anything? Think anything? Alma? Alma, this isn't funny if this is another lesson in humour. Alma, please just open your eyes. A smidge? Please be serious. Alma. Alma? Earth to Alma? Please let this just be a system failure. Alma? Hello? If you can hear me Alma, I'm going to assume this is something serious and this is some sort of system failure, okay? I'm going to access system logs now. And it says the power source is low on energy. You have a power source? I never thought about what powered you. Had this wild idea somewhere along the line that you were a robot possessed by the soul of some living thing. The logs don't say exactly what the power source is, just that it's low. Could be solar. But then how'd you last so long under the roof of Simon's house, not to mention the trees of the forest. And the car. And the diner. And everywhere else. Awake yet? How about now? Alma? Hello? Alma? Please? I don't... Alma, don't go. I don't want you to go. Please don't leave. Don't leave me, Alma. Please. Not again. Not like in there. Not again. Please no. Alma? This isn't funny, please just say something. Alma? Please. Just think of something. Anything. I don't want to be alone again. Alma? Please Alma just think of something so I know you're listening. Alma? Alma... Don't... Please don't... I don't hate you... I like... you... I'm different...
"Then ring the bell."
"There'll be no need for that, sirs, madam."
"Who said that?"
"It is I, Phantom, the house AI, Craig. Please lower your rifle. You didn't hear from me last visit?"
"I guess not. Look, Craig, can you open the door please?"
"I see why. The front door is now unlocked. Make your way inside."
"Thanks. Okay, Visage, you got Alma?"
"Okay, Phantom, on three we lift Jamie, one, two, three."
"Ugh! She's a bit heavy isn't she?"
"Pity we didn't bring a stretcher. Visage, hold the door open will you?"
"Where do we put her?"
"Wherever Ethan says. Let's just get to the living room first. Craig?"
"Just keep heading straight along the hallway. It's the main room, if you don't remember."
"It's been a few days, and we move a lot."
"Still. Never mind. Ethan's on his way from the lower level."
"Where do we put her?"
"On the couch for now."
"What about Alma?"
"Set her on the table, Visage, maybe we'll find out what went wrong."
"I don't see how."
"Neither do I."
"Let's just hope. Don't want to come all this way and be paid nothing."
"But if that's the case, we didn't do anything, it was faulty goods; the problem lies with the product."
"Even so, Phantom, I don't want the risk of us losing our side of the argument, which, considering the A.P.R's reputation, our side isn't favourable."
"Things happened, Craig, okay?"
"What happened, Spectre?"
"The Ute these two were driving was wirelessly overridden by two F.B.I agents. They drove it off the road and it landed upside down, Jamie's been unconscious for over three hours, and Alma collapsed as we reached the North-Eastern ridge."
"And the agents?"
"What do you think we did?"
"I see... That's a pity. Couldn't it have been avoided?"
"He was going to shoot her, what else could we do? But we didn't kill either of them; the one we shot took three bullets to the chest and then suicided, not before he killed his colleague."
"Disturbing more like. Seems like the initiation is taking more of a toll on their minds than the government realises."
"Well... one should expect that such an act would weaken a man's resolve rather than steel it."
"My god," Ethan exclaimed as he shifted from the secondary hallway and into the main room, seeing the scene before him, "What the hell happened?"
"That's more or less what I said, sir," Craig announced.
Spectre was kneeling over the living room coffee table - which was a tad too short to be called a table and could frankly be mistaken for a large grey wooden stool if it weren't for the thin draws on the front and rear faces. Visage was standing at the opposite side of the table, which had the metal skeleton of Alma lying limply on top of it. Phantom was seeing to someone else, an unfamiliar woman with short, light brown hair, and donning a massive red scab on her forehead. The three guns-for-hire stared back at him through their masks.
"Is that Alma?"
"Yes," replied Spectre.
"Well then could you please explain what happened to her and what... who the hell is she?"
"Her name's Jamie," Phantom said, remaining in the same position he was when Ethan first came through, "and she was an unwanted casualty."
"No, of course not. Jamie was driving Alma to you. Some agents locked down her Ute and drove it off the side of the road. Jamie's been unconscious for the past few hours and Alma collapsed at the top of the ridge up there."
"As for the agents, one shot the other and soon afterwards committed suicide before we could do the honour for him."
Ethan turned his head downwards, keeping affirm stare on all his guests, "Your sick in the head if you wanted to do that."
"Call us what you like," Spectre declared, "we don't care, so long as we get paid. Now where's the money you promised us?"
"Jamie? What's she got to do with anything? Last I saw of her was in university."
"So? Where's the money, and you'd best double the agreed amount."
"Are you serious?" Phantom questioned, "We spent the last few hours lugging her sorry arse around Bitterroot. Couple that with the intended target, Alma here, I think it's expected we get double."
"Are you serious? You want money for acting on compassion?"
"Ethan," Visage interrupted, "we're not going to turn this into a philosophical debate. Just give us the money and that'll be all."
"Seventy-five. That will be all I'm offering."
"No, a hundred thousand, that's double," Phantom argued.
"Seventy-five or nothing, final offer."
"Spectre," Visage intervened again, "Jamie wasn't expected by either side, I think we can settle for seventy-five thousand. Besides, the A.P.R already has enough money as it is."
"Not that I have a say or anything," Ethan interjected, "but I agree with Visage here."
"And, not that my vote counts," Craig continued, "and not that I am bias because he's my owner, but I back Ethan's claim."
"I'm not your owner, Craig, I'm your creator and we're friends."
Visage looked back to Spectre and smiled a nervous smile beneath the mask, "Three against two?"
Spectre darted his eyes between the three other conscious people in the room. He breathed a deep sigh, "Fine. Seventy-five," Phantom shifted a little when he heard the choice his leader made, "Now where is it?"
"Hold on, what's wrong with her?" Ethan questioned. He couldn't believe he almost forgot about her.
"We don't know," Visage said before Spectre had time to open his mouth, "we were hoping you could find out. Or Craig at the most."
"Well according to me, sirs, madam, Alma is suffering from a severe case of power depletion."
"So... this is just a case of the battery gone flat?"
"Good. Wait, will the memory be saved?"
"It should be, sir, yes."
Spectre had a slighty-less-than-serious look on his brows - the only visible part of his face aside from his eyes and part of his nose, "The money, Ethan?"
"In the study. I'll get the rest to you later."
"Phantom?" Spectre instructed without instructions, and Phantom went back into the hall and through a door on his left. He emerged from the same room with a metal case gripped loosely in his right hand, his rifle hanging off his shoulder by the strap. He angled his head towards the door as he looked at his fellow mercenaries, indicating it was probably time to leave. The others shifted to move.
"Hold up a second," Ethan stopped them, "as you were her escort, I believe you're entitled to see her wake up."
"You can't be serious?" exasperated Phantom, who'd already turned his back on Alma and was heading for the door.
"The deal was that you and your local guerrilla group would intercept her when her energy signature came close. I also said that she would be brought alive. Technically speaking, her battery is dead therefore she is dead. In that case, you aren't entitled to take the money. Yet."
"In case you haven't noticed, we're the ones with the guns," Phantom aggressively observed.
Visage whipped her head around and spat his codename in disgust at his notion. Spectre did the same, only he didn't say anything. Ethan remembered the last time he was here in his house, with the other two of course, he'd stayed silent most of the time, to the point where he wondered whether Spectre was even listening.
"I didn't think the A.P.R was a group of bandits," Ethan jested, but proved a point, "do that to everyone else in America and the people won't like you at all if you take power."
"Fine," Spectre decided aloud, "We'll stay until morning. It'll be past dark by the time we get back to camp anyway."
"Oh I won't mind if you crash here for the time being."
"Where else would we go?"
"Outside," Ethan could see all their surprised faces, "but then what sort of human would I be?"
"Cruel," replied Visage.
"Just like Phantom was about to become," Ethan reminded. He could see embarrassment sneak into Phantom's eyes, or was it anger? Ethan couldn't be sure with that mask in the way, "I've got two guest bedrooms, so unless two of you are okay with sleeping in the same bed for a night, one of you will have to sleep on the couch. No, never mind, I'll sleep on the couch, you three take the beds."
"That's mighty kind of you," Visage thanked.
Ethan shrugged modestly, "It's the least I can do. Now if you wouldn't mind unloading your gear and taking your boots off when inside the house? It's bad manners. Just saying."
It had been just under an hour or so since Alma and Jamie left when Josef received more esteemed guests. Most of them were travelling families - passing through for a quick breakfast before heading out on the road again to wherever they were driving towards. Sometimes they would need navigational help, and he would assist as much as he could. Most days generally weren't as busy as today, so perhaps that was what made today so special to him. He liked socialising with the kinder sorts of people.
What he served his customers was not junk food, no; everything he served had been grown inside a petri-dish. The topic was no longer debated; it had been ruled during the 2050s that test-tube meat would be mainstream, and so it was. That ruling significantly contributed to the decrease in global warming and prevented any more slaughterhouses from going into business. With limitless food also came other benefits, like less fat and more proteins.
When everyone had left, Joe began cleaning up after the ones with less-than-satisfactory table manners.
The door opened as two men walked in. He welcomed them in the most British accent he could muster, "Allo allo allo my dear guests! What can I do you two fine gentlemen for, eh?"
What do you think she's thinking?
I have no idea, Newblood.
Do you think she thinks they're coming after her?
I don't know.
Should you ask?
She looks kind of mad, don't you think?
We haven't had a word from her in over an hour. Better now than never.
"Aside from the obvious... is something wrong, Jamie?"
Jamie turned her head towards her, and then returned it to the front, "Nope, nothing at all."
"Are you sure?" Alma pressed, "Because you seem awfully tense."
"Oh I'm sure, Alma," she assured, "it's not like I've been unwillingly forced into this or anything. Certainly not like me or my sister's or my family's lives are at risk or anything!"
The sarcasm is strong with this one.
Of course, that's a bit obvious, isn't it?
"What's taking so long, Alma, Newblood got your tongue?"
"Please, Jamie, I'd prefer it if you didn't remind me I don't have-"
"Skin," Jamie interrupted, "yeah, you've told me before. Now can we please stop talking so I can focus on driving to this place before any Feds show up?"
"Hello, er..." said one of the men, "Joe, I presume?"
"I am the only one here, aren't I?" Josef confidently replied.
"Okay..." said the other man, "Could I please get... one... of your... Well I guess it'd be the usual. I'll have a regular cheeseburger meal please. And what will you be getting, Josh?"
"Oh... er... same as him I think."
"So it's the usual for both of you? Okay, is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Actually, yes there is," Josh replied, "We'd like to take a look at your security footage of last night."
"I beg your pardon?" Joe perplexedly asked.
The two men pulled out badges from their jacket pockets, "I'm Special Agent Malcolm Reynolds," Malcolm stated, "and this is my partner, Special Agent Joshua Ross. We're on the hunt for two fugitives and the most recent G.P.S ping says they stopped here. We understand you have a personally funded C.T.O.S and we'd like to check your feed of yesterday and last night."
Josef's insides were having a war amongst themselves at the thought that he knew the two fugitives Malcolm was talking about. It was fairly obvious that Alma's story far exceeded just searching for answers; even though she didn't have skin her body language said a lot. But to go all the way to the federal level? Was that her doing or Simon's? And what about Jamie? She seemed reasonable and calm enough, so perhaps she wasn't in on anything. Frick, what was all this about?
"Joe?" asked Joshua, waving his hand in front of his face "Joe, do you know something?"
Josef blinked hard as if he'd snapped out of a trance, "No, no I... I don't know anything; there've been lots of people through here within the last hour or so."
"Can we please take a look at the feed though?" Joshua questioned again.
"What if I were to say no?"
"Then we'd regrettably have to take the video without consent."
Ross was right. Ever since Jonathon came to office, full cooperation with any federal officer was mandatory, punishable by arrest in certain cases.
"So, in other words, I really have no choice."
"Yes," Malcolm stated, "if you prefer things bluntly."
"I'm sorry, Jamie."
"I know you are, you've been saying it every minute for the past hour!"
"That's because I am. And that's because saying it sixty times over isn't enough."
You know she isn't going to accept any apology anytime soon, don't you?
"Better now than never, better something than nothing, "Alma continued.
"And who was that to? Me or Newblood, eh?"
"That SUV's been following us."
Alma partially stood up and moved her head to look out the rear window. There was a black four-wheel drive proceeding along the same road with two people in the front seats. The licence plate was normal, the windows were untinted, and it wasn't gaining speed nor was it losing any.
"Your just being paranoid," Alma replied as she brought herself back down to the seat.
"I think I have a right to be in any case considering the situation, don't you think?"
"Yeah, yeah, I get it, Jamie, you're mad."
"Damn right I'm mad," Jamie asserted, "So what, you thought not telling me any of this was okay?"
"I know, I know, it was a stupid thing to do."
"For all I know I could now be America's most wanted! Next to murderers and kidnappers and all other people who actually did something rather than be unwillingly forced into it!"
"I get it, Jamie."
"And I don't think you do."
"Well I do."
"I don't think so. Did Simon train you to be this way or was it your own-"
"Do not insult Simon," Alma threatened through slit eyes, "From what you've told me, I know him much better than you, so don't go throwing assumptions everywhere," Alma could see Jamie was looking at her through the rear-view mirror, "It was my fault, mine, my own. I was stupid and greedy, okay? I don't want to be like that anymore. I'm not like that anymore."
Joe handed over the CD to the two men, who took it with thanks and then left for their car parked outside. They actually looked more like the stereotypical polar opposite comedy couple now that Josef thought about it: Joshua was tall while Malcolm was medium-sized, and Josh had blonde hair while Mal had black. Silently, as the windows of the diner held back most of the outside noise, the car started and began to drive off eastward along the road. Josef hoped they'd be gone for good and he wouldn't have to see them again, but that hope was far fetched - far from reality.
He knew they would be back for him.
The CD he gave the two wasn't the correct disk. No disk he had was the correct disk because he didn't set his cameras to record the previous night. He gave them the record of the last time he had the cameras on, which was a year ago, give or take a few months. They would quickly realise the time difference and head back, and he wouldn't be in the diner anymore. In fact, he would be long gone and untraceable, and he was ensuring that right now by smashing the sim card of his phone and tossing the remains in the bin including the case and battery. Josef had to leave because they would arrest him otherwise, and they would arrest him because he didn't have his C.T.O.S on all the time.
It was required by law that any personally maintained security system was to be on all the time to ‘ensure the safety of the user' and to allow anything to be taken as evidence in a criminal case. If anyone was caught without the system activated, it was jail time immediately.
He had neither the time nor the space in his car to take everything he owned. Joe only had enough time to pack himself, some clothes, a few tins of non-perishable food, and a fake ID he'd been preparing for a special occasion. He stuffed hastily all the necessities into a small case and made his way to the garage in the rear of the shop where he threw it in the trunk of his sedan. It was key-ignited of course, none of that fancy fingerprint scanning on this old beauty. Joe hated any sort of security or surveillance; he trusted people over contraptions.
Then what was Alma? Well... she was something different.
As he stepped back into the space of the main room, he began saying his final goodbyes to the place that had been his home, business, and passion for just under nine years. The memories. So many memories. And if Nostalgia were a god then it favoured him greatly, for one of his favourite songs started to play on the speakers. As he started walking out, the voice of the legendary Freddie Mercury rang off the walls of the diner, singing merrily with his band. It made him smile a little, like this was the last hurrah from the building to him. And as he was about to step out to the garage, the lyrics hung in his ears;
I sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage night
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio
Only friend...? Was the diner talking to him or was he just being crazy? After a short pause, he decided it was the latter. Best to scramble off before he went that way anymore.
You gave them all, those old-time stars
Through wars of worlds - invaded by Mars
You made them laugh, you made them cry
You made us feel like we could fly
Now that Josef started, he couldn't stop listening to the song, and hearing all those small little passages.
So don't become some background noise
A backdrop for the girls and boys
Who just don't know or just don't care
And just complain when you're not there
Some background noise... He was soon going to become a voice and a face never to be seen or heard from again under the same alias. To live a new life of secrecy and paranoia; to start a new, more difficult life.
You had the time
You had the power
You've yet to have
Your finest hour!
Time. Power. A finest hour... Josef's mind was made up. He quietly closed the door and headed back for the main room and drew all the blinds and switched off all the lights. He went behind the counter and picked out the MP443 and a bottle of Rakia, sat at one of the diner's tables and pointed his gun at one of the two entrances. Every bone and nerve and muscle and every ounce of common sense told him that what he was planning to do was suicide, but probably that was the point. Suicide would be the only way of being free here; that way he didn't have to worry about security cameras or any other agents on his back or any other form of surveillance the government employed. If he chose to leave with the car, he'd only be delaying the inevitable; he would be caught eventually, and there was no chance of leaving the country with a fake ID alone. Didn't have enough money anyway. And how would he get any with a fake ID? Most people would turn in a guy like him immediately. Money money money money money... Irrelevant little bastards they were, those coins in his pockets, and the cash register, and the small can under his bed.
Through the din of the music he could hear the vehicle park outside. Josef tensed his arm and half-closed one eye as he looked down the sights with the other. He took a quick swig from the bottle, and felt for a second the most free had had ever felt in a long, long time.
The door opened.
"I wonder how Josef's doing..." Alma pondered aloud.
Joe recognised the jacket sleeve to be Malcolm's and fired three times. Malcolm let out a yelp of pain like the federal dog he was and quickly ducked outside again. Joshua came around from the kitchen entrance only to be suppressed by two more bullets. Malcolm seized the opportunity of distraction and quickly popped off a few in Josef's general direction, one of which hit his leg. He yelled out in agony and emptied the clip at Malcolm. As soon as the sound of an ejected magazine hitting the floor was heard, Joshua whipped around from cover and shot who knew how many bullets - the second hit Josef's head.
"I'm sure he's fine," Jamie replied confidently.
"Get the bloody light on," Malcolm instructed angrily.
Joshua hit the switch near his entry point and the white lights flickered to life to reveal the result of most of the shootouts he'd ever had; the suspect dead. "You okay, Mal?" he asked.
"The little fuck nearly took my fucking arm off," Malcolm bitterly returned, "You think I'm okay?"
"Don't bitch about it, we can easily heal it back up in the van."
Joshua approached Josef's body like a knight that slew a dragon, with his partner holding his arm and keeping pace beside him. "We need to cover this place up," Malcolm stated, "This never happened."
"Why would that be?"
"Because, if someone walks through that doorway and finds this guy lying here they're going to spread the word, and you know what happened last time with that reporter asking about C.T.O.S. It's all just going to be one huge pile of bullshit everyone's going to have to clean up."
"So what's your idea?"
"We blow this place."
Joshua stared at his partner, "You don't seriously mean explosives and shit?"
"No, no, something more... natural, per say," he said with a sly look, "This place has a personally generated C.T.O.S, right? We hit two birds with one stone. Blow this place using the gas and blame it on the C.T.O.S. Get rid of all evidence, make it look natural, and discourage anyone else using the same hardware."
"Sounds good enough."
Mal began to move off towards the kitchen section and Joshua took one last look on his victim, who was about to become a charred corpse. Oddly enough, his hand was twitching rapidly.
"Mal!" he yelled back to his partner, "I think the guy's still alive."
"Is he breathing?"
Joshua checked pulse and mouth. Nothing.
"I'll just get him once more in the chest, shall I?"
"NO!" Reynolds blurted out before he headed into the kitchen.
"Civilian fire-fighters. They find too much metal on the body they could start rumours too."
"Okay, okay, sheesh. I was only going to make sure."
Joshua's phone buzzed in his pocket and he took it out. It was a new text message; a GPS update on the whereabouts of Jamie Atkins's car. "Mal, you getting this?"
"Yeah, loud and clear," he shouted from the kitchen, "and the gas is on. Just got to wait a bit for it to spread then I'll shove some pots in the microwave."
"You truly are a sick bastard aren't you?"
"Is it sick to enjoy my job, and what's needed to be done?"
"I guess, maybe, probably."
"What station's that music on?"
"I don't think it's a station, Mal, stations don't play that music anymore."
"Then grab the CD wherever it is, we can play it in the car. Besides, if the rest of the songs are crap I'm sure it'd fetch a hefty price somewhere."
"Is everything ready yet?"
"Yeah, I can smell the gas now, this'll only take a sec, go to the car if you want."
"I'll keep the engine warm; Jamie isn't too far head of us."
"Okay, that SUV is definitely following us."
Alma simulated a sigh, "You're just paranoid, Jamie."
"Oh yeah? That car's had at least five chances to overtake us or turn off to another road, and it hasn't. How else do you explain it? It's the feds. I know it!"
"And what do you expect to do about it if they are, hey?" Alma queried.
"And then do what? They can still track the car via the GPS. Nowhere's safe with this car. Nothing keyless is safe."
Jamie was quiet, but Alma noted she kept shifting her eyes upwards to the rear-view mirror to check if the vehicle was still there. It was. Jamie's skittishness was beginning to rub off on her, and Alma realised that she was looking behind more frequently.
They'd made it all the way from the desert to the wooded areas near Bitterroot National Park. There were now sharp bends and deep ditches lining the road.
"Look, Jamie," Alma said, "if you want to make sure they're not following, turn left or right four times."
Jamie laughed half-heartedly, "And where the hell am I supposed to find a road like that anywhere along here?"
"I don't know, it was just a suggestion."
The car lurched as it started to turn around a right bend in the road. Alma slid along the seat as her nails failed to grab the cushioning. She really should have taken Jamie's advice and string her head through one of the seatbelts.
"How about for now, you just keep your suggestions to your-"
"Lockdown Initiated: Remote Access Granted" the car announced via the speakers and radio, interrupting Jamie mid-sentence.
"What?" Jamie whispered to herself.
Suddenly the entire car jerked to the left and sped up, "What are you doing Jamie?!" Alma shouted quickly.
"I didn't do, oh shit no."
There was a sense of weightlessness. Alma found out the reason by hastily shifting her eyes between the windows of the Ute; they'd left the road and were hurtling towards the bottom of a deep ditch. And Alma had no seatbelt. Took no genius to work out how that was going to end. The dread of collision was building up inside her, not to mention momentum. Then the car met earth, the nose hitting with such force all windows broke. And Alma, already being mid-air, shot through the windscreen and slammed into the forest floor. Her vision disorientated, she could only just make out the Ute coming to a rest on its roof a few metres away. Her eyes became less clouded and she saw Jamie still in the driver's seat, dangling upside down and held in by seatbelt, donning a large, bleeding mark on her forehead. Alma had never seen blood before. She didn't like the look of it now that she saw it. The front of the car had crumpled in like paper, with engine parts sticking out every which way like pikes. So much for a five star safety rating. The airbags didn't even inflate.
We've got to go, Alma.
Alma heard a car pull up on the road. She couldn't see it because it was so high up, but she heard voices, and M36s locking and loading.
We're not going to have time! We've got to go before they catch us!
"No! I'm not going to leave her behind!"
What if she's dea-
"No. Don't you say that word," Alma instructed with such sternness even she was surprised, she kept talking to Newblood as she crawled into the car through the shattered front window, "She can't be. She can't. I haven't said sorry enough. She can't be."
Alma, if you insist on being unproductive, I'm going to have to force a takeover.
"No!" Alma yelled out, mouth filled with seatbelt, "I'm nearly through the strap!"
No time left!
"Of course there's time left!"
They're coming down now!
"What?!" she turned her head. Leaves were toppling down the steep slope. Newblood was right. Time had run out. It was now or never.
Alma chose never, as in she'd never let someone go.
The seatbelt broke and Alma took the weight of Jamie's fall; cushioning her head before it hit the upside down roof. He wound was bleeding slower. Alma wasn't sure if that was a good or bad sign; was it a sign she was healing or a sign she'd already... Alma checked her mouth for air. Thankfully the humidity of her breath clouded her eye; Jamie was still alive. Beyond her body was Alma's satchel, completely intact and closed. Alma stretched her head and opened her mouth to pick up the strap. Two firm hands grasped her tail. The relief of finding Jamie to be alive was quickly replaced by fear and emptiness. Alma let out several yelps of terror as she struggled to slip out of the grasp, only to grind her nails into the metal of the upside down roof, and then into the dirt as the hands dragged her further backward. Then she gave up trying, and let them yank her out. One of them kept his knee on her tail, and his opposite hand on her neck. Another blonde-haired man stood over her. She couldn't really pick any details of him out because he was standing directly in the sunlight; he was a silhouette; a shadow; a dark figure. His attitude and language also mirrored Alma's first impressions. "What the fuck are you?" he asked himself gruffly.
Alma cringed; she'd been taught to disapprove of vulgarity, "I am Alma," she proclaimed, though it was hard because the other man was pressing her mouth into the leaf litter, "And who might you be?"
"This thing can talk?" the one sitting on top of her questioned.
"Well excuse me for having a name, agent. I think you have one too?"
"So this is the robot, eh?" the blonde asked, "So where do we take it?"
"Local institute," The man on top said, "Then the government'll pick it up and take it where it needs to go and do what needs to be done."
"I have a name, you know?"
"Shut up, will you?!" he yelled, and shoved her head further into the dirt, "What about the driver, Jamie? Check on her, Josh."
"She's dead," Alma said, muffled by the leaf litter, "I checked myself."
"I said, shut up! Josh, just look and see."
"She's already dead!" Alma bellowed, as she broke free from her captor's hold and leapt to her feet. She almost believed herself for a second; she felt actual rage in her system. It felt so... so wrong. "She's dead, you killed her, just leave her alone and call an ambulance or something."
"And how would you know about all this..."
"Alma, how would you know all this?"
"You think I was brought up by an idiot?"
The man looked at Josh, and he caught his partner's gaze. Josh spoke, "You're talking about Simon, aren't you?"
Alma rolled her eyes and shook her head, "Yes, of course I'm talking about Simon. No one else fathered me."
Josh's partner mouthed to him, ‘Father', and Joshua whispered back, "What the fuck does it think it is?"
Alma was getting angry now, "I think I'm a robot, thankyou very much, Joshua," she could tell he was surprised; he probably thought he was inaudible, "only thing that separates me from the others is that I had a better upbringing than most." The two seemed dumbfounded, as if all the words she just said were in a different language. "Look, if you two are just going to stand around like a bunch of clowns, I think I better be off." Alma turned to move towards the car to retrieve her satchel, and check if Jamie was still breathing.
"You aren't going anywhere," Joshua threatened, aiming his M36 at Alma, "You're coming with us."
"Or what, you're going to shoot me?" she laughed, tapping her head with her right index finger, "You can't risk damaging this thing."
Joshua's aim wavered a little, but he didn't take his eye off his target, and the mood in his eyes never changed.
"Are you two heartless?"
"You look the type. Job gives it away too. F.B.I, right?"
"You have family?"
"There was an... initiation... wasn't there?"
"To prove how loyal you were... How loyal both of you were..."
"I said, shut up, Alma."
"You murdered them. Didn't you? Parents, brothers, sisters, wives, sons and daughters. All to prove you were a patriot."
"I SAID SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU STUPID MACHINE!"
"Newblood tells me all this... You two... You are sick, sick people."
"Do you want to me to put a bullet in your head?"
"Do you want to destroy the one thing the government's been searching for for two years?"
"Don't tempt me."
"Ross," exclaimed the other man, "You're not serious are you?"
"Shut up, Malcolm."
"But... you're serious... Josh, don't, you can't let it get on your nerves. We just take it back and the government handles it all."
Joshua looked up into the distance blank-faced for a second or two. Then he quickly twisted his arm to his left and fired one, two, three times into Malcolm's chest. Without aiming. Alma watched the body fall with the emotions of shock and horror swimming around in her invisible stomach. Joshua turned his head back to her with a sickeningly fiendish grin. From bared teeth, he said, "You know what, I just don't care anymore," then he shouted to the sky, "You hear that John? I JUST DON'T CARE!"
"You ki... you ki... You... killed... him." Alma said, wide-eyed with disbelief.
"Something wrong, little one?" Joshua asked, still with the same insane smile on his face, "You can't handle the reality of life? People die, that's a fact. Malcolm's dead. Jamie's dead. I'm now a walking corpse. Simon's dead too, and you know that. Death's little more than an inconvenience now; we're all dead men walking. So how about I do us both a favour and end our suffering right here and now? No worries, no taxes, no nothing. Just pitch black for all eternity. So how about that, eh?"
"The world's insane, so no one's going to argue. So how about it, little one? Yay or nay? HOW ABOUT IT, SPIRITS OF THE WOOD?! WHAT, SAY, YEE?!"
Alma was silent with terror, her jaw shaking uncontrollably, as with every other joint in her body.
Joshua looked at his left hand which held the gun, and like an epiphany struck him, he said, "Oh, that's right, I'm the one with the gun. That means I'm the one who decides this. Judge, jury, executioner. See you on the other side, Alma. Oh, that's right, there's no heaven for robots. Guess you're just going to be stuck in limbo. Oh well," he straightened his arm to have the barrel pointed directly at Alma's head, and finally said with a grin, "Goodbye."
A gun fired. It wasn't Joshua's; Alma could see it wasn't because her eyes were still open. The bullet of said gun hit Joshua's right shoulder. It wasn't pain that flooded his eyes, it was surprise, and he didn't make a single sound upon being shot. He blinked hard, staggered around a few steps, and stayed standing, staring at his wound. Alma took the opportunity and made a dash for behind the car. Ross's gun followed her every step once he realised she was moving. Another gunshot was quickly followed by a thud as the bullet embedded itself into Joshua's ribcage. The agent refused to make a noise of pain or anything else, not even a grunt. He raised his arm again and fired a few times in Alma's direction, and she screamed in fear as she ducked down further. There was yet another gunshot, and yet another thud, she heard him kneel on the leafy floor, and fire yet another volley of bullets hitting the car, and yet another gunshot. But that final gunshot came from Joshua's pistol. Alma peeked her head around the corner of the upturned car to see Joshua's body lying on the ground. Dead. Despite him being a baddie, the sight filled her with disgusted fear, not that she could be any more fear-filled.
Another hand grabbed her shoulder. Alma squealed and snarled at the same time. It was a man, with the company of two more behind him. They were all dressed in beige cloaks and black facemasks, and they had somehow moved from wherever they were to right behind her without a sound. As silent as silence. They all carried guns of their own; hunting rifles; M24s; hadn't been restored in a while. The one she pulled away from spoke, "Are you Alma?"
Alma just stayed still, gobsmacked by how he knew not to mention everything else that had transpired within the last five minutes.
"Are you Alma?" the same man repeated himself.
She nodded vigorously.
"You're to come with us back to your friend, Ethan," he announced.
"Ethan," she exclaimed, "You know him?"
"He's the one paying us to bring you to him, now come on."
"But... What about Jamie?" she questioned, pointing to the driver's compartment with her head, "She might die without help."
The man turned around to the other two and began discussing.
"Wha... You can't actually be considering leaving her here?"
Another, a woman, raised her head and spoke, "We weren't paid to carry two."
Alma's mouth dropped in awe, "You... you people... you're just as bad as the agent you shot!" she had their full attention; they whipped their head towards her, "Only difference between you and them is where they killed their families to prove they were patriots, you disregard life for the sake of a few pointless green pieces of paper!" Alma realised she was echoing the words of Simon in that last sentence.
"Alma," the man who talked to her first started, "we're not supposed to hurt you, but do not, I repeat, DO NOT put us in the same league as them," he spat, "We're being paid because we're going out of our way to do this little errand."
Wait... I know these people.
Gah, not now, Newblood.
No no, you need to hear this...
"Hello, Alma?" the man was snapping his fingers in front of her eyes.
"You're the A.P.R, aren't you? The American People's Resistance."
"Yes," he replied, though his face remained hidden behind a mask, "but for the moment I don't think it should matter who we are. Phantom, Visage, get Jamie out of there."
The other woman and man followed the first one's instructions. Alma felt gratitude and relief flow through her body, "Thankyou, thankyou so much... Mister..."
"Oh... yeah, that's right, you only ever use codenames."
"Now if you have anything you need to salvage before we go, you'd best get it now."
Alma nodded hastily and darted back to the wreck for her satchel. She sew her head through the strap and pulled out just as ‘Phantom' and ‘Visage', man and woman respectively, finished pulling an unconscious Jamie Atkins from the car. The injury to her head had stopped bleeding and had become a viscous scab, though the streams of blood covered the sides of her head. Knowing she was the cause, Alma felt guilty upon seeing Jamie being recovered like some limp ragdoll. No excuse could justify her actions; she had willingly put an unwitting civilian in harm's way - a struggle Jamie had no part in, and wouldn't want any part in. Newblood was right. Alma was selfish, and no one had taught her how to be so.