This was my submission to Machine of Death II – so the story follows the requirements for that book which can be found here. (It wasn’t accepted for that volume, so here it is for everyone to read for free!)
Sarita stood in the doorway, eyes wide open, laughing almost loud enough to hear over the sound of her machine pistols. A terrible shot, with no idea even how to aim, much less any interest in doing so, she enjoyed the pose and the loud noises and the drama. I am so sexy! She knew how good she must look right now. She did wish that Steven had let her wear her high heels tonight, but she had to admit that the knee-high French paratrooper boots she’d just bought were pretty hot with her all-black outfit. The soldiers who had come around the corner of the steel corridor, maybe thirty feet away, weren’t in much danger, but they had no way of knowing that. They jumped back around the corner. This gave Sarita enough time to toss her glossy black mane out of her face, reload her left pistol, and yell “Wooooooo!” as she started to fire again. I am a sexy badass!
“Wooooooo!” wasn’t much of a war cry, but Sarita wasn’t much of a warrior. That is what she used to yell on the dance floor when she was clubbing, and it was all she could think of now. This rush of adrenaline was why she’d joined Free the Future, and it made all those boring conversations and planning meetings worthwhile.
Jane, ever practical, had been ignoring all the gunfire and had picked the lock on the door behind them, leading into the heart of the MAU Ops Center. One of the soldiers shoved his rifle around the corner and started firing wildly down the hallway. Steven and Pedrag dove through the now-opened door, while Jane grabbed the back of Sarita’s black silk jacket and pulled her into the room. They tripped and fell over, Sarita landing on Jane. As Pedrag slammed the heavy steel door shut Sarita sat up and tried to fire a few more rounds down the hall, but they just bounced off of the interior of the door and ricocheted around the room. Steven grunted softly, leaned against the wall, and slid to the floor. There was a perfectly round 9 millimeter hole in the exact center of his forehead.
The team had agreed to meet at Steven’s apartment the night before the mission, just to go over things one more time. Jane arrived a few minutes early. The two of them sat at the tiny kitchen table drinking strong coffee out of chipped mugs.
“Steven, we are going to die tomorrow night. You know that there’s no way for us to survive this.”
He smiled grimly. “Yes, but we won’t die until after we destroy the Machine of Death.”
She hesitated. “Is it worth it? Is the MAU Data Center worth dying for?” She rushed ahead, “Don’t misunderstand, I’m not backing out, but I just wonder if it’s worth it sometimes. At this point, though, I’m going through with it no matter what. Don’t misunderstand me.”
He stared into her eyes. She held his gaze for a few moments, but then looked away, slightly flustered.
“Jane, just between you and me, the Machine of Death is not worth dying for. Not for any of us. Definitely not for all four of us.”
Jane gasped, but Steven carried on. “But if we knock out enough of the systems of prediction and control around the world, it will free the future. It’s not just about the Machine of Death, it’s about the weather control system, it’s about the way the economy is planned, it’s about the way our careers are selected for us before we’ve even learned to walk, it’s about the end of freedom for every living human being on this planet. Knock out any one of these systems, just by itself, and it would be quickly replaced. But taking all of them out in one night will change the course of human history.”
Jane nodded and fidgeted with her coffee cup. They could hear Pedrag and Sarita knocking on the front door. Steven stood up to go let them in. He stopped and looked down at Jane.
“That is worth dying for.” He walked across the linoleum floor. He paused at the door and turned back to her. “And worth killing for.”
Jane shoved Sarita out of the way and stood up. She was the same height as Sarita, and that’s where any comparison ended. Dressed plainly and with her light brown hair cut short to keep it out of the way, being a sexy badass was clearly not on her agenda. Her main clothing concerns were being comfortable and having enough pockets.
Jane glanced at Steven, glanced away, then her eyes swung back to him. Oh, crap! Her expression never changed. Oh, crap. Oh, crap, crap, crap! You were in charge. Crap, Steven! You’re dead, and I’m not, and what do I do now, and you’re dead. Steven!
Despite the turmoil inside, Jane’s eyes remained calm and her breathing steady as she turned toward Pedrag. Can he handle this? Probably not. He’s going to freak out as soon as he figures out what’s going on.
“Dammit, Sarita!” Pedrag was shaking. He wanted to strike a blow for freedom, yes, but tonight was turning out to be a lot more real than all the talks over coffee had been. My good black slacks are torn, Steven is dead, I’ve never been this scared before, I really wished that I could have one more glass of white wine before I die, (I am going to die tonight!), Steven was… He looked around the room and the fact that Jane was wearing wrinkled khakis and a plaid shirt (plaid!) instead of all black, the way the rest of them were, just irritated him no end. Plaid! It’s like she has no respect for…
Sarita rolled over and stood up. She noticed Steven while she was in the process of brushing the dust off of her pants. “What happened to Steve?”
“Dammit, Sarita, you killed him! You killed Steven!” Pedrag shouted.
Jane caught Pedrag’s eye, and shook her head slightly. He’s starting to lose it. I need to be charge now.
Remaining very calm, Jane said, “Pedrag, Steven knew what he was signing up for and…”
“She killed Steven! This crazy little…”
“We knew that all of us would die tonight.”
Pedrag froze. Jane’s tone of voice was exactly like she was saying that she’d take the chicken instead of the beef, when all she really wanted was a salad.
“There is no escape plan,” she continued. “You know this. We do our job, then we take as many pigs with us as we can until they kill us. Steven just got his a little bit earlier than we will.”
She wiped her hands, picked up her backpack, and considered the room. It was small, just an antechamber that lead into the ops center. She closed her eyes for a long moment, took a deep breath, then opened them and walked over to the other door. She examined the lock, and then started digging through her knapsack for the right tools.
Sarita saw Pedrag’s expression and grinned, then glanced at Jane. Her eyes were wild. “I think Pedrag is just starting to realize that it is finally happening. Ten years of talk and planning, but it’s just now sinking in.”
Jane sighed as her light brown eyes flicked from the lock over to Sarita and back. What an ass! This silly girl has no idea why we’re really here or what’s going on. Steven should have never brought her into the team, much less on this mission.
Sarita chuckled. “You’re going to die tonight, Petey. Too late to change your mind. With all of the other attacks going on all over the world tonight, the pigs are going to be freaking out. No way they’re going to let anybody surrender.”
“So, after all that, we’re in the Ops Center, we just destroy the Machine of Death, and then keep shooting the pigs until we run out of ammo.” Steven looked around the table. “Make sense to everyone?”
Jane was watching Steven, and once he turned towards her she nodded. Sarita glanced up and said, “Sure,” and yawned.
Pedrag was confused and asked, “How do we get back out of there afterwards if we use up all our ammo?”
Steven was in the middle of lifting his mug off the table, but halted midway, looked directly at Pedrag, and raised his eyebrows. After a long pause he took a sip of coffee.
Jane was staring expressionlessly at Pedrag. Sarita smiled, and suggested, “Petey, why don’t you come up with a plan for that?”
Jane popped the lock on the inner door and swung it open. The outer door was thick enough that bullets bouncing off the other side were just a light tapping sound on this side. Jane helped Pedrag stand up. “Let’s keep moving. It’s in the next room. This door won’t hold them for long.”
Sarita laughed again. “Let’s go kill the Machine of Death!” This was the nickname Steven had come up with for the MAU’s main processing unit.
They stepped out of the anteroom in the data center proper. The room was fairly bare, walls in plain government beige, and carpet the color of coffee stains. A simple console with an input for blood test slides and a small card printer on one side. On the other side, there was a box the size of a microwave oven, made of smooth and glossy black plastic. There were a number of wires and rubber hoses connected to this box, running out to pumps and valves and other, smaller boxes. There was a very soft and steady whirring sound, with an almost subsonic pulse under that.
Jane froze in her tracks
“Whoa”, she breathed, “this is biotech.”
Jane accepted Pedrag’s invitation to coffee at least in part because she had not been able to determine whether he was smart or an idiot – actually a deep thinker, or an intellectual poser. She wanted to find out.
She would never admit this to herself, but another reason for accepting his invite was that he was kind of interesting, in a dressed-just-a-little-too-well kind of way. Not her type, really, but it was flattering to have a handsome and possibly-intelligent man ask her to coffee.
She was surprised when another man, obviously some kind of manual laborer – work boots, worn jeans, union t-shirt – walked over and sat down at their table.
Pedrag smiled at him, “Hi, Steven. Jane, this is Steven; Steven, Jane.” Steven’s handshake was firm, and his smile friendly. But he skipped all small talk and started talking politics immediately. They all agreed that the government had too much control.
Finally Jane asked, “But what can we do about it? The government controls and predicts and adjusts everything. How can we change that at this point?”
Steven turned to face her, and a complete non sequitur popped into her head. He’s very attractive. She felt herself start to blush, and forced herself to concentrate on what he was saying.
“Jane, that is exactly the right question to ask.” She felt butterflies in her stomach, and felt stupid for being so pleased at his compliment.
Steven continued, “Humans have always tried to limit the surprises in their world, and the government has taken this to an extreme – they’ve tried to create a world with no surprises. The way to end this is to give them a surprise – give them something that their methods and machines could never predict.”
Sarita stepped up next to her and asked, “Biotech? What does that mean?”
“This system includes components engineered from hybridomas.”
Pedrag saw Sarita’s confusion and offered, “Some of this is grown from cancer cells. Pure electronics aren’t fast enough for really heavy-duty calculations, so they use biotech.” He was so used to explaining everything to Sarita that it was second nature for him now.
Sarita lifted one perfectly shaped eyebrow, “So this thing is alive?”
Pedrag shrugged. “Parts of it, at least, yes.”
She lifted her gun. “Well, I’m gonna kill it now!”
Pedrag and Sarita both jumped. They’d never heard Jane raise her voice before.
“Who cares? And so what?” Sarita always felt like she was just a few steps behind Jane. Of course, Jane always felt that Sarita was a few miles behind.
“It has a circulatory system.” She smiled, which was worse than when she’d shouted. Jane didn’t smile much – certainly the two of them had never seen it before – and it added neither warmth nor friendliness. “We’re going to perform a recursive test.”
The Mortality Assessment Unit predicted the cause of death for candidates for important offices, and helped law enforcement with the small number of murders still committed around the world. The fact that it could determine cause of death, descriptively after the death in question, or predictively beforehand, made it useful, but the high cost of processing meant that it only saw limited use.
On the descriptive side, no prosecutor would even bother pursuing a murder case unless they could include Exhibit A: a small white card, with the seal of the MAU and the serial number of the blood sample on one side, and the simple word “HOMICIDE” on the other.
On the predictive side, an embarrassing reading on the card could kill a political career. The candidate leading in the early polls before the last election for Global Coordinator had watched his chances, his political career, and his personal life all evaporate when his MAU card was published with the reading “autoerotic asphyxiation”.
Sarita turned toward Pedrag again.
“I think she means we’re going to have the Machine of Death analyze its own blood, see what it predicts for itself.” Pedrag stated. Why bother? Let’s just get this over with and destroy this stupid machine. I can’t believe that Steven is dead in the other room, and we’re here talking like nothing happened, and Steven is dead, and my pants are ripped and…
Sarita was surprised. “That is awesome! Jane, you’re brilliant.” Sarita sounded like a little girl seeing a princess for the first time – excited and happy and awed and thrilled and Wooooooo!
Jane, calm and serious again, nodded her acceptance. “Sarita, you stand in the anteroom and watch the door. If they start to come through, we have to quit goofing around and destroy this thing ASAP. Pedrag, you figure out how we input a sample. I’ll get some of the blood from this line over here.” They could still hear the sound of the soldiers trying to shoot through the door.
Pedrag found a binder in a cupboard, and started leafing through it, looking for operating instructions. He was calming down again. Very tall, very lean, Pedrag always dressed carefully – not necessarily following the current fashions, but aware of them, and very aware of his own appearance. The rip on his pants leg bothered him, but he could rise above it. If anything, it shows that I am dedicated to the cause. I am a man of action, too. I can do this as well as…
Jane took a clean glass slide from a stack next to the input console and walked over to the Machine of Death. She pulled out a pocket knife, cut a very small slit in one of the tubes, and smeared some fluid on the slide.
While Jane and Pedrag went to work, Sarita watched the door. The sounds of gunfire from the other side of the door stopped, replaced quickly by loud thumping as the soldiers tried to batter the door down. Standing quietly was not one of Sarita’s skills, however. She fidgeted and watched Jane and Pedrag instead of the door. In fact, she only managed to stay in the anteroom, facing the outside door, for a few seconds. She turned around and walked back to the others.
“I never thought that the Machine of Death would be alive.” Sarita flicked her hair out of her eyes and shuddered. “What a creepy bastard it must be! Can you imagine, your only purpose is to predict the cause of death for people? It’s so morbid.” I am so glad we’re killing this thing, she thought.
Since Jane always ignored Sarita whenever possible, the burden of conversation fell to Pedrag. “I guess it is creepy. Worse, it’s part of the system of control that the government uses to stifle the unpredictability that is at the core of basic human nature…”
Jane wondered if Steven wasn’t home yet. She had arrived a few minutes early for the meeting, and he wasn’t answering his door. She decided to go sit in the park for a bit then come back, but just as she turned away he opened his door.
“Jane. Hi.” He seemed bit distant, tired. “C’mon in.”
She came into the tiny kitchen and stopped short. Sarita.
“Hey, Jane.” crooned Sarita as she raised her mug in salute. “How are you?”
Jane felt a little dizzy. “I’m fine. Thank you.” She hesitated. “Can I have some coffee, too?”
Steven fumbled, “Uh, yeah, I haven’t made any yet but I’m just about to…”
“We’re having wine.” Sarita smiled. “It’s not very good wine. But what the hell. You should have some, Jane. You seem kind of tense.”
“No…I’ll just wait for the coffee.” Jane’s voice sounded distant. So this is how it is. I’m smart, and a good comrade, but she’s Sarita, and that’s what counts, apparently, she thought bitterly. I hope he has the good sense to know what kind of person she really is.
Steven, making coffee, started talking about the Free the Future movement, and the contacts they had been making with groups like theirs around the world. Jane could barely hear him. Sarita kept smiling at him. She reached up to brush his elbow at one point, and he fumbled his words and poured a scoop of coffee grounds on the counter instead of into the coffee filter.
She’s always flirting, and complimenting him over stupid things, and over-dressed. Who wears makeup and heels to a revolutionary meeting? Jane noticed that Sarita was barefoot, and the buttons on her top were misaligned.
As soon as Sarita realized that Pedrag had started ranting about politics again she tuned him out. She checked her reflection in the hinges of the inner door, and adjusted the way her hair fell across her forehead.
Jane had pulled a bandage from a first aid kit in her knapsack and sealed up the tube. No point in the Machine bleeding to death before the test finished. She saw that Sarita was not watching the door and sighed. Why is she even here? she wondered. “Here’s the sample,” she said as she handed the slide to Pedrag.
Consulting the binder, he loaded the slide into a slot and hit enter. When the console asked him for a serial number for the sample, he entered his mother’s birthday into the keypad and pressed “Start”.
Sarita asked, “How long will it take?”
Jane was a little surprised at that question, and admitted, “I don’t know. I hadn’t actually thought of that.”
Sarita smiled, “I hope it’s before the pigs make it through the door.” They could all hear the pounding coming from the other side of the door.
Pedrag was flipping idly through the binder, and said, “It’s weird – this printer is the only output this thing has. So it puts out the blood test results here, and error messages, and maintenance requests, and…”
The printer quietly emitted a card. Pedrag and Sarita started, but Jane stepped over to the printer and picked it up. The others crowded around her to read it:
They all felt a chill. There was a long moment when the only sounds in the room where the whir and pulse of the machinery.
After a long pause, Jane drew a breath and spoke. “Guess that means we’re going to succeed tonight.” The reality of what they were doing hit her anew. Wow, this is intense. This wasn’t just a planning meeting at Steven’s terrible apartment. This was real. Steven was dead, and the rest of them would be soon. It’s weird, I know that I’m going to die very soon – why don’t I feel anything about that?
Sarita giggled nervously. Jane wondered, briefly, what she was thinking, but let it go without comment. Pedrag immediately objected. “We’re not terrorists, we’re revolutionaries…” but Jane cut him off.
“Bet the people who programmed this thing would call us terrorists.”
Before Pedrag could reply, a second card came out of the printer. Jane picked it up and they read it together.
Jane’s jaw dropped.
It wants to die tonight. This thing is sentient? It had never occurred to her that the Machine of Death itself was trapped in the government’s systems of prediction and control. What a terrible existence it must lead… What a horrible thing to make this being into a machine…to use it regardless of its feelings…
Sarita got tears in her eyes. “You’re not a creepy bastard at all. You’re a poor…”
“Sarita, why aren’t you guarding the door?” Pedrag suddenly asked. “You are supposed to be in there…”
She snapped back, “I can guard it just as well from here.” She paused. “Hey, they’re not shooting at it or banging on it anymore. Maybe they…”
The outer door blew across the antechamber and the soldiers started firing personnel-only rounds into the room. These hard rubber bullets would easily kill an unarmored human, but just bounced off of most plastic and metal surfaces.
Pedrag was immediately hit by several rounds in the face and chest. Sarita turned and began to shoot back, but a ricocheting rubber bullet caught her from behind. She threw out her arms and fell face first across Pedrag, her trigger fingers clenched, both guns firing into the floor and wall until they were empty.
Jane didn’t bother shooting at the soldiers. She turned, yanking her pistol out of her bag, and sprayed bullets into the Machine of Death and its life support system. I owe it this much. She was crying. I know how it feels…Then one of the personnel-only rounds found her, too.
The worldwide weather system was coordinated and controlled on the other side of the planet at the Ministry of Meteorology in Cairo. At that moment, a firefight erupted between soldiers and members of Free the Future. Some of the FtF operatives were lobbing bombs onto the building using homemade mortars.
In Geneva, FtF operatives had broken into the Ministry of Economy, and were busy spreading dynamite throughout the data center. Soldiers were trying to retake the building, but were unsuccessful so far.
Truck bombs in the garage under the Ministry of Population and Life Statistics in Singapore…Rockets fired into the Ministry of Standards and Measurement in Zurich…FtF fighters storming the Ministry of Planning, Coordination, and Control in New York City…a total of seventy-four different attacks, all occurring at roughly the same time.
In the MAU Ops center, the bodies had been carted off, and crews were trying to assess the damages. A service tech noticed that there was a card sticking out of the printer, which was the only thing in the room that hadn’t been destroyed. He shook his head as he read it: