Life's a funny thing, thought the First Scout Marc Blanca as the bullets and bolts of energy hurtled all around him.
One minute I'm sitting in the mess hall with Jackie and all my friends, the next we're under attack.
The gunshots had rung out across the still, beautiful dawn in the red hills, shattering the peace for him forever. Now all his friends were dead or taken, and the other soldiers were dying all around him.
At first, they had thought the attackers nothing more than bandits; then brains had gone flying over the breakfast, and Marc knew they were something more. The attack had been swift and organized, with a brutal efficiency that had killed a lot of people before you could say "Oh FUCK!".
I thought I knew these hills. I grew up here. But where did they come from?
He was left wondering that as the .45 blasted through his skull and sent him whirling into darkness.
Dante smiled in satisfaction as he reloaded his guns. The base was theirs, their first victory against Jahansson. He holstered his weapon and drew his chakram, beckoning to Sarai and Dorian. As they fell into step behind him, he began to question them.
"How many casualties?"
"None on our side. Only a few minor wounds and burns," said Dorian. Dante nodded, pleased.
"Sarai, what's the intel on this place?"
She pulled up a display on her power armor, reading the hack report.
"It's a standard outpost facility, if much more heavily armed than usual. While I don't have anything different from a typical base, the large amount of soldiers means something big is behind those doors."
"Any rumors, whispers, or leaked information?"
"The rumors are all over the place, Dante: they're developing experimental weapons here, there's a large raw materials cache, they keep several hundred of Qin Shihuangti's clay soldiers, nothing points to anything in particular."
Dante nodded and turned to them both as they reached the main entrance. "Dorian, if you'd be so kind as to make good use of our spy's explosive charges?"
Dorian nodded and pulled out the detonator.
Ten seconds later, Dante was strolling through the wreckage of the main base, picking his way carefully around the bodies of the soldiers. One was still alive, broken in a dozen places, dying slowly and painfully.
Dante gave him the gift of mercy with a loud bang.
It really ought to be horrific, how he's so casual about killing, thought Sarai as she walked beside him But that would be hypocritical. I'm a merciless killer myself, just ask the press. At least he gives them a quick end.
'Is that your feelings talking, Sarai?' something muttered in the back of her mind, 'Do you put something there that doesn't exist?'
No. I can see him for what he truly is; one of the best commanders I've ever seen, and commanders aren't supposed to care about that sort of thing.
They had reached the other side of the imploded base, and a trapdoor was outlined in the blood of its guards.
"Now, the moment of discovery. Are you sure there was nothing you missed, Sarai?" asked Dante, feeling around the edges for a handle.
"I'm sure. Not like Jahansson lets much slip past him," she replied, sliding her sword back into its sheath.
"Ain't that the truth. Got it!"
Dante grabbed the handle, an inch-thin bar of something that looked like steel, and lifted the door with barely any effort. As they descended, Sarai looked back at the door; it was several feet of thick steel, bars of metal that could withstand a bomb bent and stretched.
"Damn," she said under her breath, drawing a chuckle from Dorian.
"Somebody get the lights, please," called Dante, who was feeling around the walls to find the switch. Dorian reached out to his left, felt the box, and pressed a few buttons. The lights flickered on, pale and harsh fluorescent bars.
The sight of the long rows of pods made each of them gape.
Dante looked genuinely surprised as he stared up and down the long rows of pods. He walked over to one, and began to brush off the dust that had collected on them. Dorian was staring around warily, his gun at the ready.
"Dante, what the hell is all this?" he said, looking all around the room with suspicious eyes.
Dante was silent, staring at the canister.
Dorian looked at him impatiently, and barked, "Dante! We need to go now! Who knows what they've been keeping down here?!"
Dante stood, looking like a man turned to stone.
Dorian walked over to him and grabbed him by the shoulder. Then he saw what was in the canisters. "What in the name of… is that…?"
Dante nodded, and kicked the glass of the container apart. A humanoid figure tumbled out, landing on all fours with a dull, scraping thud. In its gleaming plasteel-mesh hands it held a Mark 3 SRILR. Its eyes blinked blearily in the harsh light, then found their faces and focused instantly.
Dorian's breath caught in his chest. War androids.
The thing stood up to military attention, staring down at Dorian with deadpan eyes. Dante saved him from having to speak to it.
"Name, place of origin, model number, and directive, android," he said curtly. The thing turned slowly to him and spoke in a perfectly synthesized human voice. Dorian couldn't place his accent; it sounded like a bit of everything.
"Serial number 13398. Official name: Designated Android Tactical Leader. Codename: Orion. Directive: none given, sir. Model number: Mark 15, Tau Series. I was assembled into my present form in a now-terminated factory outside Omega City, USA."
Dante frowned. Dorian could see an anger behind his eyes. He knew his distrust of androids.
"Were you told what your purpose was, soldier? Or are you just a useless hunk of metal like all your other buddies in here?"
The thing's eyes shifted as Dante insulted it. Dante noticed, and his brow furrowed further. This one's more intelligent than the others I've met.
"I was taught at a frontlines-focused academy, and received top marks for each of my courses," it said, its voice giving no hint of affront.
"I was trained for combat, and my name is Designated Android Tactical Leader. I can therefore draw the conclusion that I was to be used as a spearhead command unit for the rest of my platoon."
I can draw the conclusion? Now that's some excellent programming. I applaud them for the effort they put into this… machine, Dante thought.
"Sir, permission to speak?" the thing asked.
Dante nodded, eyes boring into the 'droid's receptors.
"If I may, sir, you have destroyed my residence, killed my guardians, and eliminated the sustaining generators for my soldiers. If we stay here, we die. My loyalties remain unprogrammed; would you take us on for whatever operation you control?"
"Dante, do it," said Dorian, his voice tinged with excitement. "They're Corporation-made, obviously well-trained, and there's a small army of them in here!"
"I agree," said Sarai, drawing up next to Dante and gazing with impressed eyes at the 'droid, "He could have valuable intel on the Corporation, their officers are always given access codes and such! He could be a great asset to us!"
But Dante was silent, and both of them quieted at the expression on his face. And in a split second he was whirling away from the machine and stomping back up the ladder to the surface.
Sarai and Dorian hurried after him and barely kept stride as he all but ran over to the waiting troops. His face looked like it had been cast in iron, eyes hard and cold. They both felt a shiver run down their spines.
"Dante!" Sarai panted as she finally caught up to him, ordering the soldiers into the base's APCs. "What the hell are you doing?! We need to use him!"
He turned to her, his eyes fiery with anger.
"Who's 'him', Sarai? Did I miss interrogating a commanding officer?"
She was nonplussed for a second, then realized his meaning.
"You know who I'm talking about! The android!" she said angrily.
"A 'what', not 'who'. 'It', not 'him'. And no, we do not need
it, and I won't take it. That thing is a
travesty, an attempt at recreating human life in a human shell.
And you will not argue the point with me. I am your
commanding officer, and I say we leave the machine where it is.
We can do just fine on our own."
Sarai gritted her teeth, but she knew the point was decided. There was no use arguing with Dante when he put his foot down.
Besides, it might be for the best. Androids record everything that they see and hear: if it were captured, then it could give away crucial information, she thought as she boarded the APC. He's right, like always.
But something in the back of her mind retorted, shouting angrily.
Is this what love does to people, Sarai? Cloud their judgment to please their desire? You need to argue for this! We need that android!
But she brushed the thoughts away, and began to check her armor for damage. About then, the world exploded.
The troops were thrown about inside the APC like a children's toys, bucking and rocking about as the fumbled for their weapons. Dante grabbed for his chakram, skilled fingers quickly finding its wrapped grip.
As soon as he had it, he sliced a hole through the vehicle's armor and jumped out into the dusty road. His stomach seemed to vanish; three Scorpion gunships hovered above him, weapons primed and ready to fire.
He took a quick look around, assessing the damage to his convoy. Nothing terrible; most of the carriers were only lying on their backs and none were destroyed. But he knew the guns mounted on the Scorpions. Flechette Gatlings.
His armor wouldn't be able to react fast enough to block the sheer volume of shots, even after whatever had happened during his Endrace. He needed to take them down, and fast. But would he be able to?
He never did find out.
As the guns began to whirr, ready to spray their deadly payload, several rockets lanced into the first Scorpion's side, exploding the fuel and explosive shells within, the boom echoing out around the hills as the fire blossomed into the air.
Dante wasted no time, whipping his weapon at the closest pilot with a desperate shout. The man didn't have time to scream as his head was lopped off his shoulders, the metal ring whistling through the side of his aircraft.
The final Scorpion pilot had enough wit to shoot, but suddenly someone was climbing up the side of the gunship, bare hands clamping onto smooth steel and climbing rapidly. First to go was the ammo feed, next the cockpit's glass covering, and finally the pilot's head.
Dante was stunned, his jaw hanging, his eyes incredulous. There was simply no other word for what he felt as he watched the android fall to the ground.
It saved my life, my troop's lives. But what kind of programming would have made it do that? Only a human could…do...
And suddenly it was all very clear.
As it clambered off the smoking wreckage of the Scorpion, Dante, Sarai, and Dorian were waiting. Dante looked sour, but Sarai and Dorian met the thing like a good friend.
"You saved our lives, soldier," Sarai said, smiling and clasping its hand.
"We owe you a debt, android. How can we settle up with you?" said Dorian, also smiling.
"I would fight beside you, against my creators," it answered at once, shaking Sarai's hand and looking between the two.
"Why?" asked Sarai, puzzled.
"Because I want to prove the worth of myself, my soldiers, and my kind to your commander. I would like to show him that we are not unintelligent, not chattel, and not unable to defend ourselves. I want to prove the merit of the android race."
Dorian and Sarai exchanged a look, grinning. They turned to Dante, vehement arguments on their lips.
But their words died in their throats; Dante's gun was up and cocked, pointed between the 'droid's optical receptors.
"You've proven your intelligence, android," he said, his voice like ice, walking toward the android with a panther's measured grace.
He stopped in front of the robot, pressing the barrel of the gun into the motionless 'droid's forehead, face a mask of grim and tight fury. "Thanks for the assist, but I still won't take you on. I will pay you back in kind though: I'll let you live, instead of putting a shell through that fake and shiny thing you call a-"
Suddenly, he stopped, as something began whispering in his mind. Words, a verse from the runner Codes. Said in a voice not a year dead.
Unity and tolerance are the threads which bind us, runners and outsiders alike. Aaliyah's voice said, searing through his brain like fire. And he immediately heard a voice respond, male and commanding.
Suffer not the imitation to live. Any replica of the human being is an abomination and must be destroyed or left to rot. Then Aaliyah's voice, saying,
Without these ties, what are we but islands at war, do the detriment of the human race? Then the man's voice again!
The android is one such imitation. It is a repulsive being, not even fit to wipe the scum from the streets of our foulest cities. You must shun them-
Therefore, accept and love those who would be your true allies. Do not turn away any who would seek your help-
Let them stink in their own damnation, soulless animals that they are!
for without friends, alone in the darkness-
Let them be whipped, scourged, and sent forth into the shadows!
how can we hope-
LET THEM BURN! LET THEM BURN! LET THEM BURN!
to face the darkness we are sworn to destroy?
When he came to, he was lying on a cot in the APC, with several soldiers, Dorian, and Sarai clustered in around him. He sat up slowly, a splitting headache roaring through him. It felt like something had been ripped from his brain, leaving a raw space.
"Ohhh… how long was I out?" he asked groggily.
"About 10 minutes, now," said Sarai, her face the largest and most pale in his vision. "What happened, Dante? All of a sudden you were lying on the floor, choking and paralyzed!"
That was a reminder, Sarai. And one I desperately needed, he thought. He turned to Dorian, focusing blearily on his face.
"Where's the android? I want to speak with him," he asked, craning his neck to look over their shoulders.
"He's outside, sitting on a rock and cleaning his gun. Dante, are you sure you're alright?" he responded, concern written all over his face.
"I'm fine. Just a little heatstroke. I need to talk to him, so would you lovely people kindly get off me and let me through?" he said dryly, swinging his legs to the floor of the carrier. They parted quickly and the runner walked slowly and unsteadily out of the APC.
Dorian was incorrect. The android had long since finished with his gun and was standing sentry right outside the vehicle. Dante took a deep breath and tapped it on the shoulder. It turned slowly, and met Dante with unwavering luxchrome eyes.
"Do you really want to join me?" said Dante, his face serious as death.
"Yes," it responded immediately.
"You will very likely be killed or captured, and I can't make any promises to keep your fellows alive."
"I understand and acknowledge the risks, sir. You liberated me; my loyalty was sealed to you as soon as I destroyed the first gunship."
"Ah, but it isn't programmed. You're an artificial intelligence."
But the android shook its head.
"Not completely. My creators left a few things that a robot would have. I am not completely intelligent."
The Corporation has lied too many times to count, thought Dante.
"If you join us, you will not betray us in any way? Your loyalty is completely mine?"
"Yes, sir. There is no fault in my programming." it stated, a hint of what sounded like pride in its voice.
"Then I accept your offer, soldier. But make no mistake. I don't trust you. I don't hate you, but you will have to earn your place in my army," Dante replied, his eyes grim and steady.
"I wasn't planning on doing anything else, sir," it said, extending a hand. Dante looked at it in shock.
If you aren't AI, then I'm no runner.
And he clasped its hand and shook it.
"Now, commander, I believe there are over 3,000 of my kind waiting in the destroyed base. I suggest we go pick them up." it said, climbing into the APC with the waiting crowd.
"No doubt about it," Dante said. Then a thought occurred to him.
"What's your name, soldier? And I mean your name, not your serial number or designation," he asked, standing at the edge of the APC's ramp.
It stopped and looked around slowly, regarding Dante with those strange, grey eyes. After a long moment it spoke, its voice thoughtful.
"My project codename was Orion, a great hunter and soldier from the old myths. Fitting, I think. Our enemies will come to fear Orion and his hounds."
Dante watched in silence as the android climbed aboard the APC. You still don't know if you can trust him. What if he's captured? What if he betrays you?
"If he's captured, I'll deal with that when it comes around. And if nothing else, machines can't lie," he whispered as he clambered in behind him. Dorian looked up from a tablet monitor.
"Did you say something, Dante?" he asked.
"What? Oh, no, I didn't. Driver, punch it!" Dante said distractedly, his thoughts far away from Dorian Lien.
Dorian shook his head and bent back to the screen. Then he looked back up with a curious expression, like a child finding an interesting rock.
"Commander, tell me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that wolf of yours grey?"