Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
Pushing all non-essential thoughts from her mind, Kirsten strolls onto the grounds of the plant as if she has every right to be there. Which, she considers, given her recent promotion to the head of what’s left of the free world, she does.
Her computer enhanced senses assure her that the building is unguarded, which makes sense, since its unprepossessing façade hardly screams out "We’re making killer androids here!" Taking in a deep, cleansing breath, she grasps the door handle with her free hand and pulls. The door opens easily, silently, on well-oiled hinges, letting out a blast of chilled air. Huh. Air conditioning. Almost forgot what that felt like.
The air smells musty and canned, and she finds herself wrinkling her nose, and blinking at the sudden over-brightness of the fluorescent lighting that bathes the sterile, empty reception area.
Huh. Guess I’m getting used to this Robinson Crusoe stuff after all. After a moment, she straightens her shoulders and drops the emotionless mask back over her features. Ok, kiddo, showtime. Let’s get it right this time, hmm?
Striding through the empty room as if she hasn’t a care in the world, she pulls open the heavy glass door to the factory proper and steps through. Her senses are immediately assailed with the heavy scent of oil and machinery, but she takes it in stride, and approaches the neatly dressed android facing her. His scan hums along her ear canals, tickling against the tiny hairs there. When it finally comes to a stop, she looks at him directly. "I have been programmed to download a patch into your system. 7-E23-1267AA-349."
"I was unaware of such an order, Biodroid 42A-77."
Kirsten lifts her laptop and places it on the desk in front of the man. "All the instructions are here, should you wish to verify."
The scan is more direct this time, deeper and harder, and she fights the urge to clamp her hands over her ears as the drilling pain shoots along her nerve endings in agonizing pulses of pure energy.
The pain stops as abruptly as it begins, and Kirsten is hard-pressed not to gasp for air. She knows her heart is pounding quickly, but hopes the android will take it as a normal response for her model. If not, she’s dead. She has no illusions about that.
"Proceed to the computer room, Biodroid 42A-77."
Very careful to mask her relief, Kirsten moves off in the direction indicated, looking neither right nor left until she stands before another glass door. The computer room is, as expected, scarcely furnished and icy cold. Mainframe servers take up space along all of the walls, humming, whirring and chittering complacently to themselves.
Walking over to the central desk, she places her laptop down and seats herself on the more-or-less comfortable office chair. As her computer boots up, she taps the keys on the loaded desktop sitting beside it. Less than surprisingly, the passwords haven’t been changed since the uprising, and she is able to get into the system easily.
Quickly scanning down the standard list of codes, she stops as she reaches the area where the "suicide bomber" aspect of the androids’ "personality" is encoded. "Interesting," she whispers softly, squinting slightly to try and unblur the huge string of binary staring back at her. Shoulda remembered to make these damn contacts prescription.
Easily changing the view from ‘read only’, she clicks the cursor at the beginning of the added code, then takes out the wire needed to mate the two computers. That done, she drags the blinking cursor over a certain area, then hits the ‘enter’ key on her laptop, and sits back as her computer begins to disgorge its altered information. She can feel her heart rate pick up as she waits out the download, hoping beyond hope that she’s not tripping some alarm system down the line. A quick scan before the download told her that wouldn’t be the case, but she can’t help worrying nonetheless.
Several tension filled moments later, the words download complete appear on the screen, and Kirsten finds herself taking her first full, unencumbered breath of the afternoon. Fingers flying over the keyboard, she builds a secure site, then launches a test program, eyes darting across the screen as she watches the new code in action. "Perfect," she announces to the empty room, before dumping the test program and erasing all traces of its existence.
Just as she’s about to power down her laptop, the door swings open and another android steps through, staring down at her through his emotionless, dead doll’s eyes. "You will explain and demonstrate the new parameters of the patch you have just installed."
Ohhh shit! I knew this was too damn easy. Think, Kirsten, think. Don’t screw up now, or you’re dead.
"Your heart and respiratory rate mnemonics show an increase of 7.34%, Biodroid 42A-77. In a human, this would indicate nervousness."
"I am programmed to mimic human autonomic response to a multitude of different stimuli, 16617-398PZ."
Kirsten’s mind races a mile a minute as she desperately tries to think up a story that will placate the killing machine standing a foot away from her. An idea slides into her mind so perfectly that it seems to her as if some outside force has placed it there. Her fingers quickly map out an alternate test pattern as she eyes the android steadily. "As you know, the units here are currently programmed to detonate upon the acquisition of human targets. However, given that a small but noteworthy number of humans have joined together with the standard units, the probability is significant that a one or more of these units will detonate within a mixed group, causing unneeded collateral damage." She holds up a hand, finger pointed to the ceiling. "Normally, such collateral damage to standard units would not cause difficulty, but with the factory at Minot now substantially out of commission, every android unit is needed to continue its task to completion."
"Therefore," she continues, lowering her hand to continue her character mapping, "I have been programmed with a patch that will cause these special units to avoid any human target that is detected within the presence of standard units, and only to detonate when it finds human readings alone."
Crossing mental fingers, she turns the monitor toward her listener, and presses ‘enter’. "The flashing red number is our special unit, adapted with the patch. The flashing black numbers are human and android targets. The flashing blue numbers are human targets alone."
As if reading her thoughts, the tiny red number veers away from the group of black numbers and heads into the very center of the blue group. A split-second later, the entire screen flashes, and when it steadies, a line of numbers scrolls down the monitor, ending with a flashing black 78% target acquisition.
Oh, thank you God!
"Does this scenario meet with your satisfaction?" she asks.
"Affirmative," the droid replies after a moment. "Will there be anything else that you require?"
"Yes. This patch only ties in to the original manufacturing mainframe. If you have any completed units that have not yet been released, I’ll need to apply it to them as well."
"Acknowledged. If you will follow me, I will lead you to them."
Powering down her laptop, Kirsten rises from her chair and follows the android out of the room, through a series of intersecting corridors, and down a well-lit stairwell into the basement of the manufacturing plant. The room is large, spotless, and completely dust free. It is also filled with row upon row of deactivated androids, looking like something out of one of those ancient television shows. The Outer Limits, perhaps. Or the Twilight Zone. Kirsten suppresses a shiver as she eyes the stringless puppets awaiting their Master’s bidding.
As she steps closer, she notices something that causes her very soul to grow cold.
These particular androids aren’t only human-like. If she didn’t know, with one hundred percent certainty, that they are simply made of high quality organic plastics and computer chips, she would swear that they are, in fact, human. Gone are the silver circlets around their necks. Gone are the dark, dead eyes that seem to absorb all light. These eyes, these faces, have expression, human expression, and Kirsten feels her mouth go dry at the implication.
Jesus. I have to let Maggie and Dakota know right away. We could be harboring these monstrosities right under our noses without even knowing it. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
She’s brought back to the present by a cord entering her field of vision, held by the ever-helpful android to her left.
"These units are connected to the secondary computer at the pedal terminus."
Accepting the cord, Kirsten looks down and notices that the androids, twenty five in all and lined up in neat rows of five, are all standing on a metal strip. The cord she’s holding trails out from the far left side of that strip. "Acknowledged," she comments finally, placing her laptop on the computer desk and connecting the wire to its back.
"Is there anything further that you require?"
The droid looks at her. She’s sure if it was within its programming to lift an eyebrow, it would be doing so right about now.
"I’ll be appropriating one of these units for a field trail when I leave."
The pain hits again, like a high-speed dental drill being slowly shoved into her ear canal. Mercifully it stops before she decides to slit her own wrists just to stop the torment.
"Affirmative," the droid remarks. "If there is nothing else you require, I will leave you to your tasks."
"That’ll be all."
As Kirsten pushes her way through the last of the trees, she finds herself face to muzzle with an automatic weapon. Even though she recognizes the man who wields the weapon, instinct stops her strides, and her hands go up, palms out.
"It’s alright, Ma’am," Jackson says, meeting her eyes quickly before returning his gaze to the man in back of her. "Just step to my right. I’ve got the asshole covered."
Instead of stepping away, Kirsten instead steps forward. Raising a hand, she gently pushes the muzzle of the weapon to the left and holds the Lieutenant’s startled gaze. "Relax, Darius. He’s one of the good guys."
"Good guys, Ma’am? You mean there were humans there?"
"He’s not human, Lieutenant."
The weapon comes back up, a long dark finger tightening on the trigger. Once again, Kirsten pushes it away. "Stand down, Lieutenant. That’s an order."
She’s serious. He can tell that from the blazing emeralds all but soldering him to the ground at his feet. Deeply ingrained respect for a superior officer wars with his absolute need to keep said officer safe and whole.
"Do it, Lieutenant, or I’ll have my buddy Max here take that gun and twist it into a pretzel."
"Unit MA-233142176-X-83," the android helpfully supplies.
"You got it," Kirsten replies, smiling slightly. "Now, are you gonna lower your weapon? I’d kinda like to get out of here."
"Are we taking him…it…whatever, back with us to the base?" Jackson asks, disbelief plain in his voice.
"Not…exactly," Kirsten smirks. "Let’s just say we’re gonna play a little game of hide and seek. We hide. He seeks."
"And what is he going to be seeking, if you don’t mind my asking, Ma’am?"
Kirsten’s smile becomes positively predatory. "Androids."
"Hey, soldier, how far is it to Minot?"
As the sentry turns, Koda steps in to wedge her thumbs in his elbows, going for the nerves. His rifle drops to dangle against his belly, and she deftly relieves him of it before it can hit the ground. Behind the guard, only the glint of his eyes visible by the quarter moon, Tacoma raises both fists and brings them down on the unprotected back of the man’s neck with a dull thud. He slumps, folding in on himself with a soft "Uhhhhh…."
Dakota breaks his fall, laying him out face down in the grass while Tacoma pulls his hands behind him, slipping a length of self-locking plastic into place around his wrists. "That’ll hold him for a while," he breathes. "Let’s go."
"Right behind you, thiblo."
Tacoma slips into the tall grass before her, bending low to minimize the rippling wake in the purple spikes above him, black now in the moonlight except for the dangling chaff. Their shimmering silver echoes the moonsheen on Tacoma’s form, and Koda’s sight shifts almost imperceptibly to show her not a man but the lean, muscularity of a stalking cougar, his fur silver-gilt in the pale light. With that shift her own hearing becomes more acute, bringing her the small rustlings of mice and kangaroo rats as they go about their business under the shelter of the grass, bringing her the high-pitched whir of moth wings, the frequency so high it almost hurts her ears even now. Her feet go lightly among the tangled stems and roots, yet it seems to her that if she looks down she will see the rectangular print of wolf pads, the indentations of claws.
She does not look down.
This has happened to her before, but never with this intensity. Her vision in the sweat lodge has changed her in ways she does not yet understand. She does not look at her hands, either, as she holds the grass apart from her passage.
A faint, pale smudge to her left, seen intermittently as she slips along like a shadow, tells her that they are moving parallel to the ranch road, moving toward whoever or whatever the sentry has been set to guard. After a time the ground beneath her feet begins to slope and the grass to thin. It gives way to shorter plants, sidas and clover, bluebells with their dark cups, columbine with tails like shooting stars, white as ghosts under the moon. The ground opens up and flattens, and Tacoma crouches, making for a line of trees at a shambling run that only reinforces the unfocussed image of a tawny cat that overlays his own shape. Koda follows, her feet making no sound on crumbling earth and gravel. Great wings drift by overhead, and she shivers.
Owl. There is a death waiting in the night. She feels it in the chill of her blood, the touch of ice on her skin.
Not hers. Not Tacoma’s.
Dakota drops to her belly beside her brother where he lies among the trees, looking intently down at the ranch house and outbuildings a hundred yards ahead. Yellow light shows in the windows, soft and haloed. Kerosene lamps or candles, then, not electric. The space between the house and the barns is crowded close with vehicles: Jeeps in Air Force blue, desert camo Humvees, a pair of 60 millimeter guns on their own carriages. One barn also shows lights; the other stands dark. Barracks and ammo dump, most likely. There is no sign of droids. On the long, low porch of the house, an orange glimmer betrays a burning cigarette. Guard, probably.
Tacoma whistles almost soundlessly. "Got a bomb or two in your pocket, sis?"
"Left ‘em back in the APC. Sorry."
"We don’t have the firepower to take them, not even with the whole team."
Koda’s blood stirs, hot and hungry and not entirely human. Her tongue runs along her lips. "Maybe," she says. "Maybe there’s another way."
"We don’t need to take the weapons. Just the men."
Tacoma’s finger jabs the darkness, counting the shapes in the farmyard. "There’s a dozen and a half transports and guns down there. Count three or four men for each one, and we’re outnumbered even without their firepower. The odds are still bad. We’ll have to skirt around them."
"One on one is even odds."
"Unit grouping detected six-point-two-seven kilometers west-northwest of this position."
From her place in the passenger’s seat, Kirsten looks over her shoulder at the android smushed in the tiny space in the back. "How many? Have they spotted us yet?"
"Fourteen. Negative. These units are equipped with line of sight technology only."
"Ok, how close can we get to them before they spot us?"
"Two point three kilometers to the west of this position is a small ridge. Should you drive to the bottom of that ridge, you would be safe from their sensors. The pathway down is rather rutted and washed out, but I believe this vehicle is quite capable of making the descent with no untoward difficulties."
"Thank you, Max. Jackson, you heard the droid. Let’s find that ridge and make tracks!"
The set of Jackson’s jaw lets Kirsten know just how much he likes the order he’s been given, but he follows it anyway, going, once again, against every single instinct that has kept him alive for the last of his twenty seven years.
"Darius," she whispers, knowing the young man will hear her. "Please, trust me."
After a moment, the stiff bundle of muscles at his jaw loosens just slightly. "I do trust you, Ma’am. It’s--." His eyes flick to the rearview mirror, then back to the road in eloquent explanation.
"Trust me," Kirsten repeats before hanging on for dear life as the truck pounds its way down the pitted, potholed road wannabe.
Several bone shaking moments later, they are at the bottom of the ridge, though Kirsten wonders if perhaps her stomach and kidneys are lying, quivering, back up at the top. "Wonder if you could call that an ‘untoward difficulty’", she mutters, half to herself, earning a half grin from her driver and a purposefully blank stare from the android in the back.
Opening the door, she heaves her hurting carcass out of the truck, then eases the seatback over so that Max can extricate himself, which the android does with easy grace.
Too easy, Jackson thinks as he grabs his weapon. Exiting the truck, he places himself between his President and the android, taking no chances. Kirsten notices the move, but says nothing, satisfied for the moment that at least he’s not trying to ventilate their temporary ally.
They make their way up the rocky, vine-covered ridge until their heads are just below the lip. Max stops them there. "If you take care to keep hidden, you will be able to see the units just ahead."
Jackson takes the lead, and peers over the very edge of the ravine. When his eyes clear the lip, he can see the westering sun glinting off of the plastic and metal casings of the androids. Kirsten quickly scrambles up beside him and likewise looks over the top. "Any idea what they’re doing?" she asks Max who hunkers down beside her—if, in fact, an android can ‘hunker’.
"I am not programmed to read their transmissions. However, from what I can interpret, they appear to be awaiting reinforcements."
"And they haven’t spotted us."
"Not that I can detect."
"Ok then. You know what to do."
Kirsten finds herself not quite knowing what to say. The android isn’t human, and members of his kind have killed millions, if not billions, and enslaved millions more, subjecting them to rape and god knew what other tortures. And yet…and yet…she can’t help, if not liking, at least appreciating the polite, soft spoken being that looks so human even she herself can’t tell the difference easily.
Having no need for such pleasantries, he gives them both an android’s approximation (a very good approximation, if the truth be known) of a smile, and without further words, hops easily to the top of the ridge and strides off in the direction of his kindred.
Jackson sidles over closer, looking her and not quite able to hide the ‘I think you might have a screw loose somewhere’ expression on his face. Kirsten doesn’t really blame him, since his knowledge of this plan encompasses the words "trust me", and nothing else. She sighs quietly. "Ask away, Lieutenant."
"Why are we letting an enemy, who knows where we are, go off to a whole group of other enemies so he can bring them back here and kill our asses? Ma’am?"
"Darius, I know you’ve been very patient with me, and I appreciate it, believe me."
"But…in some cases, seeing something is much better than hearing about it. So I’ll ask you one last time to trust me, if you can."
Taking his eyes off of the retreating android, he gazes at her for a very long moment, jaw working silently. "Alright," he says finally. "We’ll do it your way, Ma’am."
"Thank you." A beat. "And Darius?"
"If they do start heading back this way…."
His hands go white knuckled on his weapon as he once again peers in the direction of the android group, very shortly to be increased by one.
As both watch, Max is scanned, and then accepted into the group, much to Kirsten’s silent relief. It is only now that she wishes she’d thought far ahead enough to have attached a transceiver onto the droid so they could get back some information before his task was completed. No use crying over fried circuits, she thinks as she begins a silent countdown in her head.
At ‘one’, she ducks down, grabbing Jackson by the shoulder and pulling him with her.
A loud, sharp cough-like sound rockets through the cool, still air, followed by the great whoosh of an explosion. Heedless of the possible danger, Jackson shakes loose from Kirsten’s grip and pops his head up to see a giant plume of fire rush up from where the droid group used to stand.
"Holy FUCK!" he shouts. "What just happened?!?"
"Max," Kirsten retorts, quite unable to keep the smug expression from stealing over her face.
"Max? Your android…did that?!? But how?"
"He’s what we’re calling a ‘suicide bomber droid’. Big government secret. One of those guys hit a convoy and did a good bit of damage to it, but we were able to gather up some of the remaining parts, and viola! I simply changed the code from killing humans to killing androids, and there you have it. One good guy and a bunch of dead bad guys."
Jackson slowly turns to look at her, a whole ocean’s worth of new respect shining in his light-colored eyes. "Jesus Christ, Ma’am! That was…amazing! Shit! How many more of those bad boys do you have wandering around?"
"As of now, twenty five, plus any more that they manage to make back at the plant. I changed the code for all of them."
"So, why don’t we go back and get ‘em all now? Man, this kicks ass!"
"First off, Lieutenant, where would we put twenty five androids in this truck?"
"Hell, Ma’am! We’ll send out a damn convoy for these suckers!"
"Secondly," Kirsten interrupts, holding up a hand as she watches the flames continue to burn, "we can’t let the regular androids who are making these new units in on the secret. If we do, obviously, no more androids for us. So, we wait as long as we can, then we send that convoy of yours back down here, and take it from there."
Jackson looks back over at the killing field, the grin on his face a mile wide. "Whatever you say, Ma’am. Whatever you say."
Thanks for reading this week’s update of The Growing! Hope you enjoyed it. Feedback is always appreciated. firstname.lastname@example.org . Until next week.
Continued - Chapter 41
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