Daniel Kemmits! Conratulations, Daniel, you have won a digital copy of Leah Good's debut novel! And now, for Daniel's story:
The two armed men in lab coats stood from behind their desks and saluted as I approached the blast doors. I returned the salute, my ungloved right hand brushing against the fresh scars on my forehead. I dropped my hand and pressed it against the biometric sensor beside the desk, flashing the two guards my ID badge as I did so.
“You’re clear for entrance, ma’am,” one of them said into the mike on his desk. The triple-layer security was cumbersome, but necessary for what was imprisoned behind these doors.
The access opened with a hiss of hydraulics, and I strode between the half-meter-thick steel and concrete doors into the containment cell beyond. A brisk wind accompanied me as negative air pressure took over, ensuring nothing kept in containment would leak out into the rest of the base.
“Gentlemen,” I said, acknowledging the two scientists who stood before a cell wall made of transparent polymer. They nodded at me, barely registering my approach. I reached them and stood for a few moments, tapping my boot toe against the ground. When neither of them looked up I cleared my throat.
“Gentlemen,” I said again. “The General wants me to assess your progress.” Finally one of them—a scrawny, bearded man with glasses named Finley Cowper—looked up and met my stare.
“You can take this to the General,” he said, handing me a hard-copy printout. “We got nothing.”
“Nothing new,” his taller, clean-shaven associate—Sorenson, if I read his name badge right—amended. “It just keeps saying the same things. Over and over and over and over and—“
“Fine, just let me see it,” I interrupted. Sorenson looked miffed but the two men stood aside. I took their place and stared into the cell.
I’d seen it before, but the thing still made my skin crawl.
It was made completely of black metal, coated in a matte oxide finish that reflected almost no light. Human in shape and height, it was skeletal and functioned via gears, hydraulics, and servomotors. Its body was covered in—or consisted of—a segmented armored carapace that allowed complete humanlike movement.
Most unnerving was its head. An egg-shaped metal case, it had only three angular plates where a face should be, a crest of metal like a deranged Mohawk, and a rounded skull atop a segmented neck. The only feature on the dull surface was a pair of glassy black sensor clusters, roughly where eyes should be.
It looked like something out of a nightmare, and seeing it sit here, before me, head on one hand like a bored man who’d fallen asleep in his chair, just made it all the more uncanny.
“What has he been saying?” I asked. Cowper raised an eyebrow.
“He? Why would you call it that?”
“I don’t know. It just looked so much like a person—never mind. What do you have for me?”
“He just keeps saying: ‘What do you want me to do? How can I prove I’m human?’ That’s it. Over and over and over.”
“Interspersed with the occasional expletive and the opinion that maybe it made the ‘wrong choice’ to ‘defect’ to our side.”
“Turn on the intercom,” I said, gesturing to the mike by the cell. Cowper shrugged and walked over, flicking a switch and activating a green light.
“You’re good,” he said. I stepped up to the mike and asked,
“Can you hear me?”
The thing’s ‘head’ came up, the lens-eyes focusing on me.
“I can hear you.” The voice was grating, mechanical, made even worse by the distortion of the intercom system.
“Are you the one they’ve finally sent to destroy me?” The head seemed to shift, the lenses tracing an invisible line to the Calmsworth-Thompson M49 grenade pistol strapped to my thigh.
“No, not unless you give me reason to,” I replied, brushing a lock of my fiery orange hair out of my face. “I’ve come to evaluate you, see if you’re as big a security risk as these techs say you are.”
“Oh, trust me, if I were let out of this cell, I’d kill twenty-five percent of the people in this base before anyone could put me down.” I thought I detected a note of grim humor in the distorted voice.
“Keep saying things like that, and we’re not very likely to let you out,” I responded. The thing stood up, folding its arms across its chest like a man ready to debate his position.
“Exactly. But if I’d been programmed to infiltrate this base, saying things like that would be the last thing you’d expect me to do. I’d be saying everything I could to get out. No, like I’ve told these two lab coats here, I’m not a threat. I want to fight for your side. I don’t look it, but I’m human.”
“No, you are most definitely a machine,” I said. “That is a physically confirmed fact.”
“That’s not what I meant,” it snarled, unfolding its arms and clenching its fists. A very, very human gesture.
“I’ve told these two over-educated squints and I’ll tell you: I am the consciousness of a wounded soldier, copied moments before death, into a robotic body.”
“Prove it,” I said. I heard a little gasp behind me and muted the intercom.
“Please tell me you already told it that,” I said, without looking over my shoulder. Both men stammered for a moment, then Sorenson said,
“I thought proving it human was our job.”
I growled under my breath. The thing had kept asking them the question, how to prove it was human, and the two idiots had completely ignored it.
Well, good thing I was here. I turned the mike back on.
“Is there a problem?” the machine in the cell asked. “I was just asking how you want me to fulfill your request.”
I thought for a moment, thinking back over everything my mother taught me, everything I learned in Sunday school and Church, everything I thought the war had burned out of me…
“What?” I asked. Though distorted, the tone was not of incredulity but simple incomprehension.
“Sacrifice something,” I replied.
“Alright, give me a weapon and assign me your most dangerous missions.”
“Not good enough,” I said. “As a soldier for the other side, you performed many dangerous and daring tasks. That’s no sacrifice, that’s what you were created for. Regardless of how that creation came about. No, I mean for you to sacrifice what matters most to you. What you want. Assuming, of course, you have any wants at all.”
The machine stepped closer to the cell wall, arms crossed again.
“I want to be human again. I want to feel. I want to be able to touch someone and feel with my skin. Not just the rough facsimile I get through these.” It held its fingers in the air and waved them back and forth in front of me.
“But you’ll die. You said you were injured.”
“I believe, if they were not looking for candidates to this program, I could have been saved. Besides, who would want to outlive everyone they ever knew? Who would want that, even if it came with being able to shrug off bullets or fall from ten stories and walk away unhurt? No, I’d rather die and feel my death, than go on in this touchless prison."
“But if you want me to prove I’m human, I’ll destroy the facility that created me. Make sure that nobody else goes through what I have. And in so doing destroy my only hope of escaping this living Hell.”
“I think he’s telling the truth.”
I leaned forward on crossed arms, resting my elbows on the cool wood of the conference room table. Around me, other officers sat, their somber blue and green uniforms blending well with the muted light reflected from the dark wood paneling of the room. From beneath the tattered Old Glory hanging at the head of the room, Army General Archer Fleming cocked his head.
“Excuse me, Major?” he asked. “You actually believe that thing?”
“Yes, General, I do,” I replied. “I think it—he—is telling the truth, and will do what he says. I request authorization to release him and accompany him to this facility.”
“Has he told you where it is?”
“Yes, sir, he has.” I reached out and inserted a card into the projector at the center of the table. It flashed a map up onto the blank white wall at the far end of the room. Twisting in my chair, I pulled out a laser pointer and aimed it at points on the projection.
“Here, as you can see, is the facility. It’s located in the center of Rochester, Minnesota. My guess is that the Rebels took over the old Mayo Clinic surgical facilities there and started using them. They used to have a lot of computer and manufacturing business there, so it’s not a bad choice, really, to create a mechanical soldier like this. The infrastructure is in place or could be easily rebuilt.”
“That’s assuming this thing is telling the truth.” That comment came from Major General Harriet Oswald, representing the Air Force. She raised a delicate grey eyebrow, her smooth skin and sophisticatedly salt-and-pepper hair at odds with the tough fighter I knew her to be.
“I don’t understand, General,” I said.
“We are talking about a Spartan X3 Combat Drone here. They’re the nastiest piece of hardware the Rebels have come up with yet, and there’s no reason to believe they couldn’t have programmed some basic lying into its survival coding.”
“There’s no reason to believe they did, either,” I replied. “And to be honest, General, what the drone in the holding cell came up with is far from basic. I mean, it’s highly improbable, on the face of it. Requiring far more creativity than the average combat drone, or even an above-average one, should be able to display. No, I think he’s telling the truth. We know these facilities exist in Rochester, and we know the Rebels hold the city. It’s not out of the question for them to be manufacturing these things there.”
“We’re all busy, General, so how about we cut to the point where Major Tymon tells us her actual proposal.” I looked to my right, locking stares for a moment with Colonel Anton Alens, the Marine Corps representative. “It’s always interesting to hear what you Army types cook up.” Though his words were mocking, I heard the grudging respect in them as well. Though our branches were bitter rivals, the dark-skinned Colonel and I had worked together too often not to develop a rapport of sorts. Though he was only a Colonel, he acted in the capacity of General since the death or defection of his superior officers. His opinion carried a lot of weight with the Armed Forces Council, and if I could get him to agree to my plan, I was almost assured a green light.
“Thank you, Colonel,” I said. “I propose a strike on the facility, to knock it out if it’s a simple manufacturing operation, or to reunite these men with their bodies and then destroy the facility if it is indeed a transfer site for human consciousness. We’ve known for some time the Rebels were working towards a goal of Transhumanism of some sort, so if this is true it wouldn’t be a complete surprise.”
“And who do you propose to participate in this strike?” General Fleming asked.
“Myself and the drone. No more.”
“What?” General Oswald tried to turn the exclamation into a courteous question halfway through, but failed. “You intend to accompany that thing into enemy territory? On questionable intelligence and for questionable gain?”
“Yes, General, I do. My reasons are thus: If he is telling the truth, a small strike force will be more likely to succeed than a large one. If he is lying, we will lose only one person rather than an entire squad or company.”
“There’s another reason, isn’t there?” Alens asked. He knew me too well.
“Yes, sir, there is. He—the machine—proposed that, to prove his humanity, he be allowed to destroy the facility that made him what he is. He also offered to destroy his human body, effectively trapping himself in a world he referred to as a ‘living Hell.’ If he is willing to do this, it will prove that he is human. All combat drones are programmed to preserve the facility that created them. That’s why we can’t get hijacked drones to fly into factories. It’s hard-wired into them. If he’s telling the truth, it’ll prove he’s human.”
“And if it’s lying?” Oswald pressed. I shrugged.
“Then I’m standing next to him with a grenade pistol to blow his head off. Any sign of false motives on his part, I’ll blast him and make my way back to enemy lines. It’s not like I’ve never done that before.” Even Oswald smiled a bit at my wry humor. I’d become known as the “Cat-soldier” for my seemingly inexhaustible amount of “lives” I possessed. Presumed dead more than once, I always came back alive.
“When would you propose leaving?” Fleming asked.
“Yesterday,” I said. “I’d need minimal time to prepare weapons and gear, then arrange transport into enemy territory. I think, actually, that our drone could be of great help in that regard.”
“Keep moving. No stopping.” The drone behind me—whom I’d taken to calling Razor after his head ridge, prodded me with his rifle. “Prisoners are not allowed to cease moving until they reach the processing area.”
Razor kept pushing me forward, occasionally with his hand, sometimes with his gun. We advanced quickly, but not so fast that I couldn’t see what was around me.
It had changed quite a lot since I came here before the war.
The glass-and-marble buildings of the clinic complex, some of the soaring to over twenty stories that made a Kansas flatlands girl like me feel tiny and hemmed in, were now mostly repaired. I marveled at how quickly the Rebels had fixed the damage their takeover of the city had caused.
Razor pushed me down a street between the largest of the buildings—and edifice of shining glass and forbidding grey marble—and a garrison building that I think started life as a parking garage. We meshed in with the other prisoners crowding the street, some being herded into the building to my right, some into the barracks to the left. Everyone shrank away from Razor as the menacing black machine pushed me onwards. As he shoved me through the throng of disheveled, dispirited souls, I picked out the tattered remains of some Federal uniforms. I didn’t recognize them, but then even with half the population of the old country the Federal States still fielded a massive army.
We arrived at what had once been an expansive glass-fronted entrance. Now, instead of the gently undulating transparent panels and revolving door, it was a simple slab of concrete straight across, with a single metal door that retracted upwards as we approached. The two human guards didn’t even bat an eye as we passed.
Razor took me inside the building, across the atrium. Once it had glittered with marble and blown glass sculptures. Now it glowered dull and concrete grey, with no hint of the former splendor. Razor turned left, took me down a high, arch-ceilinged hallway, and stopped at a set of elevators. He punched a button, summoning a car. The door opened to the steel-walled interior, and he stepped in after me. The door closed and we began ascending.
“Do you trust me?” he asked, not looking at me. I glanced down at his rifle barrel, with almost brushed my stomach as I stood beside him. One twitch of his finger and he could open me up like a sack of rotten fruit.
“You haven’t given me reason not to.”
“What a lovely, evasive, answer.” Razor reached into the combat chest rig he wore and pulled out my grenade pistol.
“I am trusting you.” He handed it to me, along with a magazine of grenades. The variable-munitions pistol was capable of blowing the drone’s head off from twenty yards. In the confines of this building, if I wanted him dead, he’d have no chance.
The door opened on the third floor and we stepped out.
“Follow me,” Razor said, turning right and coming up against a walled-off hallway and a trio of guards watching over the door.
“Hold it there, drone,” One of them said, putting out a hand to forestall Razor’s progress. “You’re not allowed in here. Humans only.”
“I am human,” he intoned, his inflectionless voice somehow growing more menacing. He took a blindingly fast step, grabbed the guard in a wrist lock, and hurled him to the side. He crashed into the wall with a sickening thud and lay limp.
The other two guards tried to bring their weapons to bear but were too slow. Not using his rifle at all, Razor moved like a kung-fu master. He leapt into the air and scythed out a leg, catching one man on the temple and sending him crashing back into the door. As he completed his midair spin he snapped out a fist, catching the final guard in the sternum and flinging him over his shoulder and past us to land in a heap in the hallway behind us.
I hadn’t even chambered a round in my pistol.
“The cameras will have seen that,” Razor said, gesturing to the recording devices in the corners above the door. As he finished speaking, an alarm began blaring around us. I guessed the delay was due to the fact they hadn’t expected a rogue drone in their facility.
“Open the door,” Razor said, gesturing to the lock panel. I took aim and fired. One of the miniature rocket-propelled grenades streaked out, its shaped-charge warhead detonating against the lock plate and burning through it and the door. Razor stepped up and kicked the door inward, then rushed through.
The light inside was all in the red spectrum, throwing shadows into deeper darkness and casting the reflective points into high relief. All along the walls were tanks or pods—I wasn’t sure what to call them. Inside were bodies. Human bodies.
All of them were male, most of them young, and all bore the scars of grievous injuries. They were being kept alive by breathing apparatuses, their flesh surrounded by some kind of preservative fluid. The sight of it, scores if not hundreds lining the hallway and the ones branching off from it, made my flesh crawl.
“My God, you really were telling the truth,” I breathed.
“Now do you trust me?” Razor asked.
“Good. Then let’s get started.”
I followed him at a dead run down the hallway. Halfway down a guard came barreling around a corner and slammed into us. Razor used his rifle like a club to smash the man out of the way. Behind us I heard shouts, a shot cracking though the sterile, chilled air, and a near-miss sparked off a pod divider. I turned and fired a round, blasting a crater in the ceiling and showering our pursuers with tile fragments.
Razor raced around a corner and yanked me into a control room. He slammed the door behind us and locked it.
“This room is triple-secure. They will need to bring in a cutter to get at us.” He brought the lights up to workable level, and I looked around.
It was a small control room. There was a large bank of computers on the left wall, and a variety of surgical equipment on the right hand side of the room. Across from me was one of the pods. Inside was a handsome man of middle height, with the rakish look of a Mexican bandit prince. His good looks were only marred by the horrible burn on the left side of his face that continued down onto his shoulder and emanated from a terrific slash wound scar across his collarbone.
“Say hello to me,” Razor said, gesturing at the pod while he began rattling away at the keys on the computers.
“This is your body?” I asked. He swiveled his head, and his eyeless face seemed to glare at me.
“No, that is me. Now let me work.” I held my tongue, focusing on the door to the outside. I could hear angry voices shouting and boots banging against the metal surface, but so far nothing seemed to be getting in.
“What are you doing?” I asked. Razor didn’t look at me.
“I’m turning on the fire suppression system…now.” He hit a button, and from outside I heard a hiss coupled with shouts of alarm and panic. I heard a mad scramble as feet beat a hasty retreat from the door.
“That should clear the hallways,” he said. He tapped at a few more keys, then cursed.
“What?” I asked, coming to stand next to him. A great red lockout icon flashed on the screen.
“I tried to download the consciousnesses of the drones back into their bodies. I can’t get into the system.” He handed me his rifle, then continued tapping away at the keys.
“Do you think you can get out of this building alive?” he asked, not looking at me.
“Probably. This is my specialty. Why?” A sneaking suspicion began to coil in my gut like an icy snake.
“Because I can’t get into the download function, but I have gained access to the killswitch protocols. I am going to destroy every drone on the battlefield.
“But you’ve exempted yourself, right?” I asked, trying to keep the worry from my voice. I failed.
“No, it is a looser-take-all system. We all go at once.” He twitched his head to take in the body he’d never use again.
“I have initiated an overload of the floor’s independent power plant. They designed me too well. I was meant for infiltration and assassination; now they have to live with the consequences.” He turned to look at me at last.
“You have twenty minutes to make it out of the building.”
“You don’t have to do this,” I whispered, placing my hand on his metal cheek. He lifted his own cold steel digits to cover mine.
“Even Oswald will believe you now. Come with me, we can bring something back to prove this place is what you say.”
“No. I gave my word I would sacrifice myself. This is the only way.” He pulled my hand away from his faceplate and folded it in both of his.
“Thank you, Major Tymon.”
“Call me Ember,” I said, forcing the words past the lump in my throat. He nodded once.
“Thank you, Ember.” He let go of my hand and poised his finger over a key. You had better start running.”
I swallowed, a single tear running down my face. I barely knew this man, trapped in his mechanical body, but he was willing to give his life for me.
“The hall should have cleared of gas. Go while you have time.” He shrugged off his combat rig and handed it to me.
“God bless you,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Was it my imagination, or did the light reflect off his face like a smile?
“He already has. I’ll see you again, Ember. Now go.”
He pressed the button and collapsed into a heap of parts on the floor. Biting back a sob I opened the door and raced out.
I made it down and through two blocks before the lab floor detonated.
About Daniel Kemmits: I am a 20-year-old Christian writer, homeschool graduate, and art student. I enjoy time with family, reading, history, shooting sports, the outdoors, art, and of course writing. I scored semi-finalist in an international novel competition with my first and second novels and have been published in the outdoors journal Backwoodsman Magazine.
We have an art contest, which you can find here, and a poetry contest, which you can find here.