The Voice came to me only three times before. First, I had to sabotage some poor student's experiment in the lab. It was easy, slinking in and tripping into the control panel. The second time, it ordered me to turn in a student for cheating during robotics class. It too was an easy task, though he gave me quite the thrashing after the fact. I didn't begin to worry until I was given the third task of stealing information from one of the teacher's Pads. That time, I tried to resist. But I was never able to go against the commands of the Voice. It tears at me and drags me to my appointed duty. Hacking the Pad was far more difficult than I would have guessed, but the Voice gave me guidance. For a long time afterward, there was silence, and I thought that it had left me.
But then the Voice came to me a fourth time.
Dinner was always the simplest thing on campus. Each of us got our single portion of fried vegetables, fluffy rolls, and a dense lump of meat, sometimes with fruit for desert and water to drink. Of course, that never stopped the others from snagging a bottle of brandy or two.
I stared at my plate as the others finished their meal for the night, laughing and talking. A slanted brow sat low over my dark eyes. The mischievous curl to my thin lips did well enough to draw the attention away from my pointy nose, but nothing could distract from the metal peering through the skin on one side of my face.
“Be grateful you survived, boy,” they said. “A couple years ago we wouldn't have been able to revive you. Be glad.”
The bionic arm was easy to hide beneath a heavy jacket, and most of the repairs to my body were underneath the skin. But all I could do to try to conceal the disfigurements was let the ebony mess on my head hang into my face. It did no good. They all knew what I was.
No, not just ugly. Monstrous. Something not quite human.
I sat near the end of the table, eating a last morsel of strawberry. White walls pressed close against us, but the ceiling stretched up high above, made of glass so that we could see the stars in the evening sky. Orbs of light powered by the solar generator floated about the room.
“Did you go to Mr. Newman's lecture this morning?” one of the students – I think his name is Paul – asked.
“No,” the girl across from him shook her head. “Was he spitting blood and fire?”
“Apparently there's been another bombing,” his voice held an intensity. “Took out a little town well past the border.”
“Damn Calamatists,” Kepler snarled. He sat across the table from me. A sickly runt of a young man, his skin had a yellowish hue to it. His body was completely bare of hair, giving him an odd, babyish look. “They'd best go hide in their holes because the tables are going to turn. Very soon.”
“You'd be wise to not take Mr. Newman's propaganda seriously,” I stared at the table as I spoke.
Kepler reached across the table and gave me a quick cuff. His slanted, steely eyes pierced into me, “Shut it, Cyborg! No one asked for your opinion.”
I began picking holes in the white table cloth.
“Anyway,” Paul continued with a roll of his eyes, “Mr. Newman said that the military was refusing to give you an endorsement for your inventions. Is that true, Kepler?”
Kepler's eyes went black with anger, and he nodded. “They wouldn't appreciate the perfect weapon if it kicked them.”
Paul shook his head, “I don't understand... You'd think that with all these bombings they'd be eager to try out robotic soldiers. There would certainly be less casualties on our side.”
“They say that war is won by soldiers. Real soldiers,” Kepler chipped at the plate with his fork. “I don't know about them, but I don't want this nation overrun by terrorists.”
I couldn't hold back the remark, “Maybe what they don't want is the world overrun by robotic super-soldiers.”
Kepler grabbed the collar of my shirt, jerking me forward, “I swear, Andron, if you don't keep your mouth shut I'll beat you until they have to replace the rest of you with metal.” After a long moment of glaring, he released me.
I sat back, adjusting my shirt, and snorted. Another beating wouldn't make anything worse. Nothing could be worse than the accident.
The door at the end of the room opened, and Maia came running in. She hurried over to me, dropping a stack of books on the table, “Did I miss dinner?”
I nodded, “Yeah, but I'm sure the cook saved you some. Go talk to her.”
“Okay,” she smiled.
I watched as she walked over to the counter, brushing wisps of straight blond hair out of her face. Those funny round glasses made her blue eyes look twice as large. Freckles lay underneath her eyes and across her nose like a gorgeous splatter-painting.
“You keep making googly eyes, they'll fall right out of your head,” Kepler smirked. “Oh, excuse me. I suppose I should say eye.”
I stared at the table, anger washing through me. Surely he knew what it was to walk down the street and have little kids point and ask questions that made the adults blush.
Maia sat down beside me after a moment, eating quickly.
“Why the rush?” I asked.
“I've got a report due tomorrow,” she mumbled between bites.
Her main project had been creating a more efficient energy source that would not pollute the air. The others looked down on it. But I suppose that if every waking moment was not spent thinking about how to destroy, you were going against the grain of society.
She looked up and brushed the hair out of my face, “Why are you hiding under there?”
“I'm not hiding,” my shoulders lifted.
Her fingers laced in mine, and she gave me a smile before going back to her meal.
“These bombing have to stop,” Kepler told Paul passionately.
Maia raised her eyebrows and looked up at him, “Well, why don't you do something about it then, Kepler?”
His lips twisted, shadows beneath his eyes, “Maybe I will.”
That night, the dorm room was quiet. With the year's finals coming up, we were all exhausted from the horrendous amount of homework. I stared at the ceiling in the darkness. My vision was tinted red slightly by the false eye, but it was more noticeable during the day. In the silence of the night, I relived the accident.
A normal day. How ironic that it should be the last day of a normal life.
My parents had been working with the college several years ago, working on a multi-million dollar project. A vehicle that could follow a designated route, navigating any sort of traffic. They were so excited when they took it on the final test drive. I rode with them, bouncing around in the back seat. The ride was so smooth and steady.
The vehicle operated on the signature of the sound waves and magnetic pulses of everything around it, using satellite and traffic cameras to navigate. It was so sensitive to those waves that when we passed a television station, the waves confused its setting, sending it down the road at high speeds until it collided – head-on – with several other vehicles.
After that, all I remember were the screams. And there was pain. Excruciating pain.
I woke in the hospital, and the doctors told me that I had been in a coma for a month. My parents had died, but the coma saved me. Slowed my heart, kept me from bleeding out. They salvaged what they could and replaced the rest with the most advanced mechanics.
I pushed away the vivid memories but could still smell the blood and burnt metal. Slowly, the snores of the others in the bunk room lulled me to sleep.
And that's when the Voice came.
I grunted, “Hmm?” snapping awake in the darkness. Nothing moved.
“I said, wake up!”
“I'm awake,” I mumbled and rubbed my eyes. “What do you want?”
“Get up, and head for the lab,” it commanded. The Voice was deep and metallic, like someone shouting at the end of a long hall.
“Why?” I slowly swung myself upright, groping for the trousers at the end of my bed.
“Head for the lab.”
A wave of dizziness washed over me, and I held my head. Unable to resist. Must go.
“Can't we do this later?” I groaned as I pulled on a loose T shirt and walked out of the bunk room. “I've got finals in the morning...”
“Don't worry,” the voice was smooth. “This will be the last thing I ask of you.”
“What do you want me to do this time?”
There was no reply. I issued a heavy sigh as I padded, bare-foot, down the empty halls. The lights flickered on and back off again as I passed. The deeper I went into the building, the more I heard the mechanical churning of the generator, the college's metal heart. Everything smelled cold.
“This is stupid,” I muttered and turned to head back to the dorm.
My body whirled back down the hall without my choosing it. “Ah, ah, ah,” the Voice taunted, “I'm still here.”
I gritted my teeth, a sudden lump of fear knotting my stomach. “Let me go,” I growled.
“Be a good little Cyborg and obey. After this, I will be done with you.”
The small steel door that led to the lab appeared ahead. I tried to dig my heels into the floor, but my limbs were no longer paying me any heed.
My hand reached and turned the door knob. The metal pulse of the generator became louder. As I entered the room, I realized I wasn't alone. The huge main screen – the college's super computer – was still running, casting a white glow over the shadowed room. It covered nearly the entire back wall. In front of me was row upon row of desks with Pads on them, for students to do research on. Beyond that, the room was clustered with machinery used in the experiments. Near the enormous screen were glass cases where the projects were kept. I noticed that a few of them were open, though I could not tell which in the darkness.
A head poked out from behind a stack of books on a desk. Maia – bleary-eyed and sleepy – frowned, “Who's there?”
“It's me,” I closed the door and walked toward her.
She yawned, “I didn't expect you to be in here this late...”
“Me neither,” I looked around, trying to decide what mischief I might be forced to cause this time.
“I think that I finally got that paper done,” she turned off the light on the desk.
Her face scrunched, “What are you doing?”
“What I'm told,” I replied absently.
She walked over to me, folding her arms to ward off the chill in the air, “Are you okay?”
I opened my mouth, then shut it again. I hadn't tried to tell anyone about the Voice before. They would likely put me in a rubber room. “I...I don't know.”
She sighed, rocking back and forth on her heels. Her funny, stick-out ears peered from underneath her hair, catching the light from the screen. Then a small smile twisted her lips, “I haven't seen you without a jacket in a long time... You don't have to hide this you know.” She touched my bionic hand, and I swear I could feel it.
Pain struck at my chest with such suddenness that I dropped to my knees. My throat felt as if it was swelling. Cold sweat began to bead on my forehead.
“Andron? Andron!” I heard Maia's voice. “Are you okay?”
I tried to answer but could not make a sound. The pain struck again, harder this time, and I fell to the floor. Clouds blurred my vision. After a moment, the pain stopped, but I could not move.
“Andron!” Maia shook me, her voice high and frantic. “Kepler! Come here! Something's wrong... Kepler?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him standing in the shadows. He wore a devilish smile on his baby-like face. “Oh, don't fret so,” he snorted. “He's only paralyzed...for the moment.”
Maia stared at him a long moment, eyes widening in shock, “What have you done?”
Anger churned through me. I knew the Voice sounded familiar. I knew!
“Now, don't try anything,” he held up a small device, “or I'll fry his brain.”
She stood slowly, swallowing, “I don't understand.”
“Then I will use simple words, dear,” his voice was cold. “I need the code to launch my projects. We both know my access is restricted.”
Her face went white, “And we both know what happened the last time we tested them. They're out of control.”
“That's exactly the sort of violence we need if we're going to exterminate the Calamatists,” he hissed.
“Your so called 'super-soldiers' don't distinguish between the good and the bad. They'll slaughter all of them!” her face lined with horror.
“Many innocents die in war.”
“Just give it some time,” she pleaded. “Maybe you'll be able to perfect your project. But right now—”
“Time?” he shrieked. “Time is the one thing I don't have!”
I struggled to move, to make my limbs work, but they were completely numb.
She stared at Kepler, shaking, then said, “You'd never get away with it. They'd know it was you. What's the point?”
“I'm dying!” he sounded hysterical, his face red and puckered. “You think that I really give a damn?” He stood there, panting a long moment, one hand clutching his side. “Those bombers are dropping radiation! Do you know how many people who don't get killed in the initial blast have to suffer of radiation poisoning? Do you know what they have to go through?”
“I—I'm sorry, Kepler,” she whispered. “I didn't know. But this won't help... You can't launch something this destructive onto soil where there are innocents all around.”
“I can do whatever I want! Now put the code in and get those things unlocked, or I'll kill him!” He punched a button on the device.
Pain exploded in my chest, and I began to shake uncontrollably like I was having a seizure. I struggled to let only a strained groan escape my lips. Spots speckled my vision. Don't do it, Maia! I pleaded silently. Don't!
“Stop! Please, stop!” she cried.
“Then go and put the code in!” Kepler bellowed at her.
The pain intensified until I let out an agonized scream, convulsing violently.
She turned and ran toward the screen, trembling. With a quaking voice, she ordered, “Open up file number 831, section B...”
The pain eased. I gasped for air, clouds swirling before my eyes.
A smile worked its way across Kepler's face. He limped over, still holding his side, and crouched down beside me. “Do you like this?” he cooed, holding the device in front of my face. “It's taken me years to get this baby figured out. Been working on it ever since you came here, just for fun. The teachers don't know about it yet.”
I glared up at him.
“Did a lot of research on your parents' accident. Testing out a new vehicle without computing the high frequency radio waves? You don't get any stupider than that.” His fingers turn the device over and over, “This works the same way, you see. Do you know how hard it was to create waves that had a high enough frequency but would affect only that steel plate in your head? Didn't think I was going to get to use it for anything besides fun until I realized that I needed leverage.”
“Release code 9864F...” Maia said.
Kepler stood again, placing the device on Maia's desk. “You always were too much of a coward to stand up for yourself. I guess now you don't get the option.”
My heart dropped into my stomach.
He walked toward the huge screen. I struggled to move, to just turn my head. After a long moment, I managed to look in the direction he was going. A piercing beeping began, and red lights flashed on the ceiling as several huge glass cases opened.
Maia turned to him, her voice pleading, “Please, Kepler, you've got to reconsider...”
“Shut up!” he shoved her out of the way, and she yelped as she stumbled into a table of equipment.
I screamed silent curses, forcing my neck to crane. I could see the device sitting on the desk, just out of reach. So close.
Then I saw the two hulking figures standing in the open cases. They stood over seven feet tall, made up of steel plates that protected their wiring. Their empty eye sockets began to glow. I could see lights in the seams of their armor as they booted up. Kepler held no control, so I realized they were set to follow specific voice commands. Guns were strapped to each of the stiff arms, and a small rocket was attached to the sturdy backs.
Kepler surveyed them for a long moment with a look of approval, then pointed a finger in our direction and growled one blood-curdling word, “Kill.”
Maia let out a faint cry of terror as one of the robots started slowly in her direction, its movements stiff and mechanical. Every footstep made the floor rumble. The other came toward me.
Maia! I shouted wordlessly.
I fought against the clouds of confusion that dragged through my brain, forcing a weak hand up toward the desk. The closer it came, the thicker the clouds became. Desperation sent adrenaline coursing through me.
I heard an explosion and several crashes. Maia screamed. Bullets tore through the equipment scattered about the room. Maia ducked behind some large tanks. The robot slammed a thick arm against them, knocking them apart.
The footsteps came closer.
I groped for the device, my numb fingertips brushing it and pushing it farther out of reach. Sweat ran into my eyes.
A large shadow fell over me, and I strained every muscle in my body against the invisible force pushing me away. My fingers were just closing around the device as I heard another gunshot. In the same instant, fiery pain cut into my back, knocking me flat. Blood began to soak my T-shirt. For a moment, I thought I was going to die, but then I realized that the bullet must have caught in the steel mechanisms inside my body.
Gasping for air, I threw the device down against the floor, and it shattered. A sigh of relief and shock escaped me. Feeling flooded back into my limbs.
I looked back to see the robot turning toward Kepler. It began making its way toward him, crushing pieces of machinery beneath its feet. Kepler shouted at it, “What are you doing? Get her! Kill her!”
It raised an arm, and the gun fired.
Kepler fell to the floor, screaming, clutching his shoulder. The robot approached, its gun still pointed at him. They do not distinguish between friend an enemy. They kill. Kepler rolled over and cried, “Help! Help me!”
Part of me was tempted to let it kill him. After a moment of hesitation, I snatched up a chunk of metal and hurled it at the robot. “Hey!” I shouted. “Come get me!” Then I ducked behind a tank as it turned toward me. Wringing my hands, I listened to it approach. Then, I dove out of the way just as it slammed its metal arm into it, tearing off the top of the tank and scattering bits of wreckage everywhere.
I ran toward Kepler as it searched for me among the ruins. He still lay on the floor, whimpering and holding his bloody shoulder. I hauled him to his feet without being very gentle. “Call them off!” my hands gripped the collar of his shirt.
“I can't!” he wailed.
“Then get on the computer and fix this!” I demanded, my face inches from his.
He gave a frantic nod and stumbled toward the large screen.
I ran away from the screen, my mind racing to form a plan. I had to give him a chance to get them shut down. And keep them from hurting Maia. “Over here!” I bellowed, waving my arms.
But they were heading toward the screen where Kepler was.
“No, no, no!” I ran toward them, trying to cut them off. “Wrong way, you big stupid brutes!”
They pointed their guns toward Kepler.
I screamed, “Kepler, run!”
Gunshots rang. I dove down behind a case as I heard a horrible explosion and several crashes. When I looked out, I saw the screen smoking and hissing, the glass shattered. Sparks flew out from it like fireworks. Kepler's limp form lay motionless on the floor.
The robots began sweeping the area with their sensors, obviously searching for Maia and I. I froze, barely breathing. Relief swept through me as I saw Maia crouched in the shadows nearby, eyes as round as her cracked glasses. She pointed toward the screen. I slowly shifted my gaze, careful not to make the slightest movement. The control panels were a broken mess after the bullets. Then I saw it. The emergency switch that shut down the generator. The robots were likely being powered from the wireless energy sources. But as I watched the sparks fly off it, I realized the exposed wires were still filled with electricity. Any part of that panel could be deadly to the touch.
She nodded at me, and I saw her swallowing hard.
If we didn't stop these things, they would never be stopped. Once they made it outside, they would be able to get energy from their solar panels. The only one who could give them the command to stop or shut off lay dead on the floor.
I nodded back.
One of the robots turned in my direction, pointing an arm at me, and the gun fired. Light pierced the shadows. I lunged to the side, yelping, and felt something hit my bionic arm. As the panic cleared from my vision, I looked down to see it hanging limp at my side. Useless.
“Andron!” Maia screamed. To my horror, I saw her running at one of the huge robots, wielding a large chunk of metal.
I bellowed, “No, Maia!”
The robot turned and batted her away, sending her sprawling. I ran to her and pulled her to her feet, pushing her behind me. She gripped my arm, sobbing. Blood ran down her forehead.
I glanced at the panel again. A bright spark of electricity illuminated the room.
“One last try,” I said as the robots turned back to us. Her grip slackened, and I lunged toward the panel, dodging bits of debris and exposed wires. Heat pressed in on me from every side. In a last, desperate attempt I lashed out and yanked back on the emergency switch. I heard a loud buzzing in my ears, and my body began to tingle.
The lights faded from the room as the generator powered down. Two earth-shaking crashes as the robots toppled to the floor. All that was left was the pain in my back where the bullet had entered as I fell forward onto the control panel.
I sit in the dining room of the college, nibbling on a biscuit. Peals of laughter drift across the room toward me. Maia eats beside me, leaning into my arm. The stitches in her forehead are still healing up. It has been over a week since the incident in the lab, and no one is quite sure what happened. Rumors spread across the whole college in wild speculation. Students spoke darkly about Kepler, but Maia and I claimed that he had saved us, that the robots had started up due to an accident and he had tried to shut them down. Everyone but the teachers believed us, and Kepler emerged as the hero.
It was fine with us because we wanted to be left alone anyway. It took a week for a doctor and several mechanics to bring me back to normal. By the time that was over I'd had more attention than I ever wanted.
I thought back to that day in the hospital room.
“Your name is all over the school paper!” Maia held it out in front of me excitedly. She still looked a little pale.
Medical equipment was piled about the hospital room along with several screwdrivers and a welding torch. We were surrounded by white curtains. I sat perched, cross-legged, on the bed in blue fatigues. The room smelled of bleach. I took the paper tentatively in my hands. My name, indeed, was in the paper, along with a poor-quality picture that must have been taken at the beginning of the year.
A smile touched my face. “Have they contacted Kepler's parents yet? His next of kin?”
“He didn't have any. His closest family was an uncle who lives by the coast. The rest of them were wiped out in the blast that gave him radiation poisoning,” she stared at the floor, sitting at the end of the bed.
I rubbed my hand against my face.
“How long do you have to be in here?” she asked, resting her hand on mine.
I shrugged, looking up at her. “Another week or so, they tell me. But enough about me. How have you been holding up? Have you been all right?”
“I'm okay, I guess. Just a little frazzled.”
The curtain rustled, and a pretty nurse emerged, smiling, “There's someone here to see you.”
A man followed her in, then nodded at her as if in dismissal. The nurse walked out. He was an older man with chiseled features and piercing blue eyes. His wispy gray hair was receding. “Hello there, Andron. I'm Maurice Parker,” he spoke loudly while shaking my hand, mussing his brown coat. “I work in the department of national recruits. Word about your story spread fast, and we have a proposition for you.”
I leaned back, glancing at Maia. Several reporters had approached me about the incident, making a huge fuss. I'd sent them all away. “Listen, if this is about setting up an interview, I'd really rather not—”
“Nothing like that,” he shook his head, folding his hands in front of him. “We are in need of advancements in technology, not unlike what that other unfortunate boy had in mind. Something to give us the upper hand in this war against the Calamatists.”
“I didn't know we were that bad off,” Maia squinted at him.
“Oh, we aren't...yet. However, we want to stay a step ahead.” The man looked me square in the eye, “You're special. Most people wouldn't have been able to survive what you have. We want to use these special abilities of yours against the Calamatists. You see, robots are out of the question because they do not have the mind of a human being, but humans are far too fragile. We believe that you can walk that fine line. Most of the attempts we have made at creating a cyborg have been futile, but you...we believe we could work with you and change you into a super-soldier. You could be a hero. You could save the world.”
I glanced uneasily at Maia. “So...you want to make me a weapon.”
“Oh, no, nothing dangerous, just gradual, calculated changes. But we need something that can end this war. Enough damage has already been done.”
Maia gaped at him, “Out of the question!”
I stared at the bed for a long moment.
“You're the only one,” the man insisted.
After a moment, I looked up at him, “Look...I get that you're trying to do the right thing here. And a while ago I might have agreed to the whole...'hero' thing. But I don't think that exterminating the enemy is the right approach. Maybe it will come to that, but I have no interest in being a part it.”
I shake my head, taking another bite of biscuit. The man had kept arguing for several minutes after that, but Maia and I would not be swayed. I've had enough violence to last me quite a while.
I rub my bionic arm, wearing a short-sleeved shirt. The white light reflects off every metal screw. Sometimes the others laugh or point at it, but it doesn't matter so much now. Let them think what they want to think. I put my arm around Maia, leaning back in my chair. We sit very happily in our corner these days. Most people don't really know what happened in the lab. None of them saw what we saved them from.
But I know.
And I think that's what matters.