1. mootz
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    mootz Member

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    Winner, Force! Short Story Contest 117: Ruthless

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Poetry Contest Archives' started by mootz, Aug 27, 2012.

    Force
    The Next Generation [3300]​

    This was the best job ever, thought Jacob as he waited in the darkness of the pod for the system to boot up. To test the first complete immersive gaming system ever created. When he had been first offered the job, he had thought it was a joke. There were a few rules of course: A non-disclosure agreement which was to be expected. Also, he wasn’t free to explore the world as he would like but instead had to follow orders to the letter. Apparently the game wasn’t particularly good at adapting when one chose to step outside the boundaries of what was required. But the amount of money he had been offered was insane. Truth be told, the money was just a bonus. He would have done it for free.

    The developers had wanted him to test the next level of the game today. He was ready and happy to comply of course. Tracking and butchering cartoonish woodland creatures grew dreary no matter how realistic the surroundings. It was a sharp contrast really –something that had nagged at the back of his mind. Who creates a game background first? Perfect HD surroundings filled with monsters that could have come straight out of Minecraft. When he commented on it, he had been told that the real models weren’t ready yet, but they were going ahead and working on behavior algorithms.

    There was a small rumble of static as audio switched on. The world shimmered into focus a second later. He was standing in the laboratory. It was a location he had spawned in several times before, usually for calibration exercises or to test new equipment.

    Objectives flickered briefly across his vision: Eliminate all hostiles. There were four humans before him: three standing and one in a chair. At least he assumed that was what the heavily pixelated blobs represented. He scanned them quickly. The one on the chair showed:

    Humanoid. Civilian. Friendly.

    The other three glowed red around their descriptions which read:

    Humanoid. Soldier. Regenerative. Hostile.

    Regenerative? He supposed he would find out soon enough. A quick flick to through his inventory showed him his usual array of weapons, predefined maneuvers, and then some. He was still smiling at the new staple additions he had been asking for when one of the hostiles charged.

    This was new. Until now, he had always been the first to initiate combat. He reacted quickly, working fluidly with the system. A small step to the side followed by a backhand swat as the soldier brawled past. Turning in the same motion, he raised his firearm and put two bullets into the back of the pixelated head.

    Target down, he thought with satisfaction as everything shook slightly. The world glowed red briefly. “Warning,” A calm female voice said, “Crippled.” The hell did that mean. A slow?

    He took a step forward and almost fell over as the entire world tilted at an angle. He looked down. His lower left leg was missing. Combat damage that wasn’t limited by hit points. He had been wondering about that. This was beyond awesome.

    Two arrows pinged in opposite directions of his vision. Jacob turned towards one of them instinctively, using his damaged leg as a swivel point. One of the soldiers had picked up something. He was carrying it like a vacuum cleaner. One hand holding what looked like a small barrel, the other wielding a short pipe attached to it via a flexible tube. The soldier was fiddling with it, as if working it for the first time. Another warning flashed and a circle zeroed in on the pipe in his hand.

    “Warning,” the female voice repeated. “Energy swords are lethal.” Weird design for an energy sword, Jacob thought. He would make a comment about that later.

    Something must have hit him from behind because he was forced forward a step, nearly topping over. The third soldier! He activated his blade armor -- thousands of tiny blades erupted from his back the same instant he felt another hit. There was a small high pitched squeak confirming that he had ‘nailed it perfectly’. He smiled at his own joke.

    Jacob focused on the last opponent. He was hanging back warily, energy sword in hand. He was obviously operating under a different algorithm. Which was just as well because it had been too easy. Jacob assessed the situation. His crippled state destroyed any chance of him initiating melee combat successfully. Unfortunately that also cut out most of his arsenal. The good news was his opponent would most likely want to make the most use of his weapon. Besides, he still had his pistol. It was a win-win situation either way. He raised his gun.

    “Warning,” the female voice said suddenly. “Signal inter—”

    The sound cut off, and everything went black. It was only for a moment. No more than a second. But his vision reestablished with him looking at the floor.

    “Warning,” the female voice said again. “Disabled. Warning. Systems critical.”

    A systems report flashed. He was missing the lower half of his body. Well that was hardly fair, he thought. Damn lag.

    He tried to move but the controls appeared to be frozen. An attempt to escape to the menu failed as well. He felt his avatar move on its own accord, picking himself with his arms. He saw the remaining soldier standing there, watching him energy sword activated and ready. His vision continued to pan and he saw the first soldier start to pick himself up. Regenerating from a headshot? Jacob made a mental note – clear design flaw right there. Or maybe they were supposed to be zombies.

    He saw the civilian who had remained sitting on his chair the whole time. Without warning, his gun arm came up and fired. Jacob watched as the civilian toppled over backwards. He seemed to freeze up as he fell. The pixels shattered as he hit the ground. It was a rather comedic way to die.

    The screen blacked out leaving him in the darkness once more. He closed his eyes as he awaited ejection. Weird as bug, he thought.

    **

    “You think this will work?” asked Deckard as he shifted restlessly in his seat. The pangs of withdrawal were back. Though they were faint, it was just enough to make him uncomfortable. He turned to look at the man in the driver’s seat. “Arch?”

    Though he hid it well, Deckard had no doubt that the withdrawal was hitting the older man much harder. "Arch?" Arch cracked open one eye and glared at him. “Shut up kid. There’s no su—”

    “I’m in position,” O’Neill sounded crisply in their earpieces.

    “I’m done,” Nat echoed a moment later. “We should be good to go. Lester?”

    Deckard glanced back as the car door opened and the large man slid in the back. “Good to go,” Lester said cheerfully, stinking up the car with cigarette smoke. He popped a piece of gum into his mouth.

    “What are you trying to prove Lester,” Arch snapped as he wound up the seat. “That you’re stronger than us? You know how nanos react to smoke. You want to die faster?”

    “Aww, lighten up Archy,” said Lester. “We’ll all probably be dead by tomorrow anyway.” His fingers made a shape like a gun which he pointed at Arch. His arm quivered slightly. Barely noticeable, but it betrayed the pain he tried to hide. “Bang bang. Not a bad way to go.” He laughed bitterly.

    Arch said nothing but started up the vehicle.

    “Oh yeah,” Lester said suddenly, “Hey Deckers. Catch!”

    Deckard turned and caught a small wad of what looked like chewed up gum as it soared at his face.

    “What’s this?”

    “Birthday present.”

    “It’s not my birthday.”

    “Early birthday present then.”

    “What is it?”

    “Some kind of explosive I think. Saw some white coats testing it before I swiped some. Think it’s made of a different compound or something. Just don’t get it wet unless you want to use it.”

    “Dammit Lester, that was you?” Arch said angrily.

    “Yup.”

    “Stop doing stupid shit. They had the entire barracks confined for three days because of that.”

    “Sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry at all.

    Arch’s eyes narrowed. “They told me they were missing almost four pounds.”

    Lester grinned innocently, “No idea what you’re talking about.”

    “What did you—” Arch started then stopped himself. Then he mumbled something to himself under his breath.

    “What was that?”

    “I don’t care.”

    It was a quiet two miles after that.

    It was a two checkpoint base. The first for identification, mostly designed to turn away lost tourists. The second one would be a vehicle search. The first would be easy. But that didn’t mean nothing could go wrong. As they approached, Arch deliberately kept the car on the far side of the gate.

    The guard pulled open his window upon their arrival and started yelling the usual spiel about US military bases. In response, Arch grabbed a map and started pointing to it while jabbering quietly in French. This went on for around twenty seconds before the guard gave up. Slamming the window shut, he stepped out of his booth. That was good. It was easier this way.

    “Where did you learn to drive?” the guard asked amused as he walked up to the rolled down window.

    Arch smiled back but said nothing as he grabbed the guard by his collar and slammed his head against the car frame. Opening the car door, he dragged the unconscious guard back into his booth and opened the gate.

    “Checkpoint one cleared,” he said quietly into his throat mike as he slid back into the car. “No alarms.”

    “Copy that. Signal Void activated,” said Nat. “Ten minutes till it kicks in. Then nothing should be leaving the twenty mile radius for a good half hour. Good luck boys, I’m going to fetch the bird.”

    “Thank you Nat,” O’Neill said, “proceeding. Start your timers, lights going out in ten.”

    “Let’s go,” Arch said as he hopped out of the car. He started running.

    They had ten minutes to get to the perimeter, then about twenty seconds to scale it before auxiliary power came online.

    **

    The Director stared as his masterpiece rotated slowly on the pedestal in the center of the room. For the first time in fifty years, he could be proud to call a project his own. He murmured the word quietly, savoring the name of his brainchild – Orion.

    As if responding to his words, the computer pinged. A satisfactory chime as the system acknowledged a complete and successful scan. He strode over to the console and gave the report a once over. All of Orion's functions were now operational, making it the most lethal fighting machine created by man. Just short of being ten feet tall and weighing just over half a ton, Orion had the strength to rip open tanks as well as the speed to match its biological predecessors - the Hunters. The first was a proven fact though the second was only statistics and speculation. With the right pilot anyway, and he did have the right pilot. He had sought out the best.

    Satisfied, he tabbed out of Orion’s analyzer and checked his email. Aside from the usual reports, there was something from one of his lawyers. The subject line grabbed his attention immediately. He opened it and found a short letter confirming the changes made to his final will and testament. Apparently he was now donating everything in his name to a charity named ‘Second Life’. It was dated today. What the hell? He fired off an angry letter and was surprised when he got a response almost as soon as he hit send.

    What he read made a chill run down his spine. It was a simple message though clearly not from his lawyer:

    Oh, seeing as you are going to die today, I took the liberty of settling your affairs for you. It was signed with an ASCII picture; a blur that suggested a half moon pierced by an arrow.

    He had seen it before of course. Whoever was on the other end had been the brains behind his previous project. A specter they had dubbed Artemis that had never been seen outside a computer screen. Over the years, Artemis’s messages had showed up in many forms and sizes. Some offered pointers whilst others told them how badly they were about to screw up. The messages shared only three traits. First was the ASCII signature, the second was their inability to be traced and third was that they were always right. His predecessor had considered those messages as almost biblical to their work. A belief he did not share. And today he would prove himself right.

    He was halfway through a response when everything shut down. He understood what Artemis meant immediately. He had planned for this. He had expected it to happen.

    A power cut was a standard procedure for the Hunters. It was one of their tactics. He knew this because he knew all their tricks. After all, he had played a major role in their creation. He got up and flipped a couple of switches next to Orion's pedestal before returning to his seat. It would redirect auxiliary power straight to the Kerberos Gate and the Shatterfield first before returning any sort of lighting. It was an advantage he felt he would need. He turned it around to face the door and waited in silence. He would probably need to buy some time for Orion to power up. But he was ready.

    It was almost five minutes before light was restored in the laboratory. It flickered on without warning, bringing with it the glares of three angry looking Hunters. The Director studied each of them carefully. Each stood over six feet all. Smaller than the Orion but they would still be considered giants compared to normal humans. Their faces were uncharacteristically gaunt and pale. There was a small scratch on Arch’s face. It was clear that the nanos in his bloodstream were no longer doing their jobs. At least not for him.

    Deckard was the only one that was armed, his military training no doubt still attaching him to firearms. Lester stood behind the other two, watching the door and chewing gum nonchalantly. False bravado. Simply another trick he had taught them.

    “Gentlemen, I must say I’m a little surprised to see you here,” he lied whilst glancing at Orion. He needed maybe two more minutes. “What can I do for you?”

    “You know damn well what we want,” Arch growled. “Where is it?”

    “Lunarium? I’m afraid there’s none left.”

    “Why?”

    “You’ve been retired and I’ve been reassigned. The time has come for a new generation—”

    “Enough!” Deckard yelled. “If we’re dead then you’re coming wi—”

    “Put the gun down Deck—”

    The gun exploded in Deckard’s hand and he screamed, dropping the useless lump of scrap metal and clutching the bloody stump of where his hand used to be. The nanos started to heal him. But it was slow, much slower and far more painful than normal.

    “Dear me,” the Director said, “I did try to tell you to put that down. Do you not know how unstable gunpowder becomes when passed through a Kerberos Gate? No of course you don’t. That’s something we’ve been working on here.”

    “Why?” Arch repeated. His eyes had lost the intensity that was there a moment ago. It had been replaced by hopelessness, a look of someone who had given up trying to change the inevitable. It was strangely satisfying to see someone so crushed.

    “It’s quite simple really,” he responded crisply, clasping his hands together. “The answer is money.”

    “Money?” Lester echoed incredulously from the door.

    “You see,” the Director continued, “you’re expensive: Both to build and maintain. Lunarium isn’t cheap you know. The Artemis Project got privatized two years ago. I’m sure you must have noticed a sudden change up to your assignments.”

    He saw Arch nod subconsciously as if agreeing with his explanation.

    “Well your sponsors lost interest. There are other projects that can do what you can. Better than you can.”

    “What do you mean?” Arch asked slowly.

    “Machines, Arch. Tell me, what separates humans and machines?”

    “Ingenuity,” Arch growled instantly. “We’ve been through this before.”

    “Well I was wrong. It is compassion. Even you have a line you will not cross. That was why your team failed your last mission. And that is why your sponsors lost interest. There is a difference between ordering a massacre and carrying it out. There is ruthlessness that cannot be drilled into a sane human being. Not without severe consequences. Because if you do cross that line. In that moment, you will have lost your humanity. And when that happens, you will be no better than a beast. A beast we may not be able to control. That is the difference between you and a machine.”

    “You cannot possibly create a machine with the ability to do what we do,” Arch hissed defiantly.

    “But we can, the result is standing over there,” he pointed towards the Orion. “He’s cheaper too.”

    “Can you not see that I’m doing you a favor,” he said softly. “The jobs we are given have grown far too dirty for human hands but the sponsors don’t care. They are only interested in the ends, not the means. Would you not rather die a human?”

    Arch walked slowly towards the Orion and examined his successor. Then with surprising perception he said, “All this talk, yet behind this machine is another man.”

    “Ah yes," the Director replied smoothly. "But you do know what they say about ignorance.”

    “Ignorance spawns arrogance.”

    “Yes, that. But ignorance can be something else too: A shield against the insanity, the nightmares; Ignorance can be bliss.” he paused. “Do you know in what situation a person can commit atrocious crimes and still remain sane?”

    Arch shook his head.

    “A game,” the Director answered, “It will all be a game to the pilot. I did some research on the subject and it was surprisingly easy to find people with reflexes that could match yours. Unfortunately, they don’t have the physical abilities. The solution was actually quite simple.”

    “You build them a body,” Arch stated.

    “That’s right. We find the mind and build the body. The mind can be reused when the body is destroyed as well. It’s so much cheaper this way. And that makes the sponsors happy.”

    “So we’re just left to die?” Arch left the Orion and started towards the Director. The killing intent was back.

    “I would be careful if I were you boy,” the Director said, raising a hand to stop his advance. “The Shatterfield will freeze you and anything that comes within three feet of where I am. Nothing you do here will change your fates. Accept it!”

    There was a small beep from the Orion. There was a dim glow emitting from the eyes. It was ready. The Director's lips curled in triumph.

    “Let’s face it,” he continued, his patience fading fast as his tone hardened. “You’re freaks. Freaks created by technology centuries ahead of our time. I know this. I have worked on the Artemis Project for over fifty years. This world was not built to sustain the likes of the Undead. This is not your age. This is not your world. Orion! Destroy them!”

    “Lester,” Deckard said quietly as he turned towards the giant machine. Orion still had not moved but was now emitting a small hum that radiated with energy.

    “Yes?”

    Deckard patted his jacket pocket with a bloody hand. A hand that had just regrown. “How long do I have?”

    “About three seconds,” Lester replied.

    “Good enough.”

    Congratz, Force
     
  2. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    Nice job, congrats.
     
  3. abby75
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    abby75 Member

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    Congratulations on a well deserved win, great story!
     
  4. luna claire
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    luna claire Senior Member

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    Congratulations!!! Great story!
     

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