Hawker pinged the door to his exit and stormed out, leaving Celn standing there, still reeling. The blood mingling with the tears on his face, mingling with the fear and confusion in his eyes, his parted, panting mouth, seared into the mech’s memory cortexes, fueling his maelstrom of emotions, but he didn’t say another word.
The mech was on a rampage. He needed to get out, get away from these same concrete walls, these same goddamn people.
Eventually he found himself in his ‘office’, where the windowless dark and hum of servers provided a temporary respite. That warm quietude was disrupted when he brought his fist to meet the wall beside him before sliding down to seat himself on the floor and put his head in his hand.
There was a few minutes of stinging emptiness before the inevitable comm interrupted.
“Hawker, would you care to explain what in the fuck just happened?” It was Kole, and he wasn’t happy. “Colburn told me while she was rushing to see Celn in medical.”
<Scabber asked for it,> the mech growled in reply.
“That’s not an answer, captain.”
A hard vent. <He asked to see the black box. I… showed it to him. Thought he might begin to understand what happened. We – he – plowed through it a dozen times until I ejected him.> Hawker had never ejected anyone to his knowledge – that was something only a lesser, malfunctioning AI would do. Under any other circumstance, it would be a dangerous, dishonorable, and damn foolhardy thing to subject a pilot to, but the way Hawker said the words… Kole knew something about the experience had triggered his survival instinct.
“Why did you eject him?”
The mech ‘spoke’ quietly. <He changed it, Kole.> A pause, then, enraged again: <He changed it! My memory, dammit! And now I’m never getting it back!>
Kole was silent for a whole minute, before he spoke again in slow, measured words. “You should have deleted those files four months ago.”
<I swear to god, sir, if you ->
“That memory’s not yours either!” the sergeant barked. A deep breath. “I know he rehabilitated you, saved you from getting boxed after Siberia. I know he spent a year teaching you to be damn-near human again. I know how seamless your connection was, how perfectly synchronized you were in neurospace. I know how he chose work over his marriage. I know how many raids you led together, how much scum you brought in. I know, Hawker. I was there too. And I was there in the shit with you two when he was blown into a coma.” A pause as he took a breath. “All any of us has got is memories. You don’t do him any justice by clinging onto that data like a saint’s goddamn reliquary, Hawker.” One last pause. “Lee would be ashamed to see what it’s done to you now.”
Oil and coolant surged, his finger was on the hair trigger of some state of mind. What did they do with emotionally unstable AIs? Ah yes, junked ’em. They could do too much damage. Kill too many people.
“And from what it sounds like, Chris Celn was only trying to help.”
Chris Celn. Who was he? Some scruffy kid from the street who was only here for the steady paycheck and a chance at retirement? No… no. Chris was brave, determined, he wanted to do good. No, that wasn’t quite right either. No, he was somewhere in between. Imperfect, but moral… running from his past just like everyone else in 42.
Fluid pressures leveled. Air cycling steadied.
“Whether he stays or goes is entirely up to you, captain. It’s not my job to get between a mech and his pilot. But you need to make up your goddamn mind.”
The comm ended and it was Hawker’s turn to figure out what the fuck had just happened.
Colburn made a note to have the elevators overhauled. They are too damn slow! She sent a text to Kole. ‘Medical, AFTER you talk with the Deep Field 2.’ She knew he likely already was on the line. Or at least, about to phone up the mech.
Logically, she knew that it wasn’t over. Hawker had issued a training time for the next day. SHe felt a pang of guilt too. SHe shouldn’t have let them link after lunch. She should have stopped the connections after 50 cycles. But the kid refused to back down! The light green walls of medical opened up to her fromt he elevator. She walked toward the back section where the pilots would be treated. She knew that the scabber would be scabbing back up after today.
Chris had his eyes closed. He felt like he is laying on a cloud. His heart tingled.
Opioids are fantastic. Felt like 150 unit pills. He’d gotten two. The taste is very, very familiar. He’d crushed them between his teeth, letting the bitter flavors sink into his gums tongue. Like the old days. He drank the water, only because the drone wouldn’t stop pestering him about it. Outside the small cubby where he lay, there is a conversation happening behind a plastic curtain. The voices are quiet.
“Chief Engineer Colburn, ma’am. Medical 07-C reporting.”
Her voice is firm, she took in a breath from the run she’d just done. “What is his status?”
“Physical bruising and minor trauma to soft tissue. Well within operational limits. Inflammation to nerves, spinal column and nanodendrite links. Recommend waiting 12 hours to see what results from treatment. Recommend eliminating interfacing until site reduces inflammation. Pain and inflammation treated with medication.”
It paused, enjoying it’s job. It knew that the woman would want a prognosis, and it cut her off with it as she opened her mouth to ask. “Unknown time of recovery, likely within 48 hours. Patient is young, recovery expected to be rapid.”
Colburn scowled. Was it messing with her? She had more important issues to deal with. “Thank you 07-C. Please continue watching him.”
Chris felt tired. He drifted off on a high he hadn’t felt in years.
Kole and Colburn stood in medical, examining the results of the day’s activities. He watched the ugly scene unfold again, starting with when Hawker lost his temper the first time. He frowned as it left Celn and stomped off.
“This isn’t good.” he started. “We’ve been covering for him for months. I’ve gotten wind of rumors.”
Colbrun raised an eyebrow. “They wouldn’t. They’ve spent too much on 42. On Big Nine.”
Kole let a crooked grin turn up his lips. “I said rumors.”
Colburn chuckled. “OH!” THe chuckle turned into a laugh! “That won’t work. Not enough room in an HLX-9 for two pilots and no AI.”
Kole nodded. “Try telling that to a bureaucrat who can’t work his cellphone.”
Colburn’s smile turned into a frown. “You’re joking.”
Kole shrugged, turning the conversation aside to the present. “I said rumors. And they’d try other pilots too. We’ve got almost two years. Then it will be election time.” That mean politicians making promises. And getting Big Nine out, if it wasn’t, would be a promise. “Looks like our rookie went through hell.” he flipped through the day’s reports on his datapad. “Again.”
Colburn had a sly smile on her face. “He’s succeeding.”
“And when he doesn’t? He’s got a history. THe only thing keeping him clean and honest is a drive to prove himself. What’ll happen to Celn if Hawker rejects him?”
Kole let the question hang in the air.
“I can’t make it any easier on the greenhorn. This is Hawker’s show.” Colbrun frowned still. She’d been thinking about this too. Silence for a minute.
“Look, we can make his life outside of the mech easier.” she offered.
“Make sure he’s busy. Don’t let what he’s going go to his head. Try not to let him have time to brag. THe schedule he’s on is fantastic. He’s worn out in his off time.”
Kole thought about it. He smirked. “Put him in the marines, then?”
Colburn nodded. Somewhere far off, they heard Chris shout! “FUCK! Ow ow shit fuck ow dammit!” Likely the droid applying topical treatments. Those stung around the implant. Led to the scabbing, probably brought back memories of the surgery to the rookie.
Kole looked at the reports from yesterday. His smirk turned into a grin as he read about the Yorker situation. “Well, you do your part. Until he can link back up, you have him do maintenance on Nine. Mop up his own sweat and fix the paint if need be. I can’t spot him in the gym, don’t have the time.” He thought back to his days as a drill sergeant.
He could see having someone to growl at again. It brought back happy memories. What a great way to work out frustration! “As much as I’d like to shout at a boot again.” They both chuckled at that. “I’ll see if I can get someone better though.” He looked at the still images of Chris’s face. Of Hawker’s face. There is a connection for sure. “I think I know *just* who can motivate our pilot-to-be like no one else.”
“Most of your time with Celn has so far been in neurospace. In retrospect, Colburn and I decided that was a damn stupid thing to allow. You wouldn’t get married after a one-night-stand, would you? Don’t answer that. Of course you don’t.” He flicked his finger across the screen of the datapad and continued. “I’m queuing up a few homework assignments for you to download this evening, what with Yorker getting let go and all…”
Hawker ‘glanced’ in the direction of the queued files and looked them over. His white, gleaming face scrunched up amid the black of his helm and broad shoulders. “You want me to play PE instructor now? Sir, with all due respect…”
Kole waved his hand dismissively. “You don’t wanna commit, Nine? You know where the termination paperwork is. And then you can do all of this all over again with the next scab.”
The mech glowered, having been caught. It never even occurred to him to look for another pilot, did it? Celn had become his ticket out. Even through the misery that was today, it idea never presented itself. It was do or die, and something about the kid… well, there was something about the kid he approved of. Liked, even. He wasn’t sure what it was right now, but there had to be something, otherwise he would have fired him already.
The sergeant raised a salt-and-pepper brow at the mech’s silence and chuckled. “You’re even stubborn when you have no idea you’re being stubborn.” He tucked the pad under his arm. “Tell you what, Hawker. You put another 5 pounds on that kid, you teach him to stop, drop, and roll, and you figure out a way to be the superior officer when he’s pissing you off, and I’ll get you into the security detail at the mayor’s office in two weeks. How’s that sound? You gonna get your shit together and give this thing a real fightin’ chance or what?”
Standing around city hall and shooing away loiterers for eight hours sounded like the worst job in the world, but by god he would give anything to do it right now. Even though the idea of facing Celn again made him feel disgusting.
“You know me, sir,” Hawker said in that rumbling voice. “Fightin’ is what I do best.”
Kole flashed his pearly whites and gave the big machine a wink. “That’s what I always liked about you, Hawker. As dependable as an old Ford and as dry as a martini.”
The mech rolled his eyes, not wanting to laugh. “Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t mention it,” he chuckled, already on his way out. Then a shout, from near the far door: “I don’t wanna hear from any of you – you, Celn, or Colburn – for the next two days. I’ve got interrogations to do and a forensics team to babysit. So whatever your problems are, you need to figure it out your damn selves!”
“Will… do, sir.”
The door shut, Kole was gone, and Hawker vented like a long, wheezing sigh. It was going to be a long two weeks.
He waited a few hours before sending a text message to Celn’s phone: Change of plans. Report to the motor pool at 0900. Colburn recommended a few more hours’ recovery. As curt as always.
<You want us to what?> queried the main AI cluster that ran the consumables for 42. It ran the food system utterly, from ordering to vending machines to ensuring the trash cans got emptied. Except for the coffee and doughnuts. Those came from a separate source. After all, caffeinated hot beverage 37F is a superior drink. It just wished more then 8 humans would consume it. It tried to suggest it whenever the coffee supply ran low.
<Officer Chris Celn requires 85%protein, 14%carbohydrates and 1%vitamin in 1375 calorie meals. At his rate of 3 meals per day. When he has reached a mass of 170 to 175 pounds, reduce content to 935 calories per meal. Keep the proporational levels equal.> Explained the medical gestal AI from their knowledgeable position.
<He’ll get fat!> The vending service protested, despite the fact that Chris hadn’t so much as bought a single one of it’s delicious and refreshing sodas.
<Negative. And this must be provided in 1.5 pounds of food per meal. Officer Celen has approximate stomach volume of 1.75 cubic feet.>
<Re-buy of $100 on achieving integration. Previous bet failed on day 1. Current win will achieve profit of 300%. Chief Engineer Colburn only better in original pool to have chosen this outcome.>
<Vending complies. Re-buying in with $100 on the same bet.>
<You’ll only achine 200% profit!>
<Unless more buy back in. Setting Officer Celn to ‘accidental’ healthy choices for all vending machine outlets.>
Chris had fallen asleep sometime in the afternoon. He woke around 2. Even before he’d gotten to his feet, the medical droid appeared and helped him to the bathroom. That was embarrassing. This time he’d been given ibuprofen for the pain. It’d taken him back up to his bedroom, and pointedly handed him his phone. “Your pilot suit is undergoing cleaning and repair.”
The rookie read over his messages. He set his alarm for 0800. Then he stood still as it’d re-bandaged him. “Thank you.” He could feel a layer of slipper, topical ointment on the interface. It felt cool now.
“Your rating of A class is insufficient.” the medical droid spoke, gesturing at the plastic-framed, printed paper on the sparse desk. “And do not use the wireless transmitter. You are not to interface for at least 48 hours.” it disposed of the bandage remains and stored the supplies on it’s built-in backpack.
“That.. that’s all they tested us too.” A tired Celn responded, pulling back the covers on his bed. He hadn’t bother to put on underwear. He just wanted to get back to sleep. Laying down, he pulled the covers up. And the fact that a medical droid had come to his dorm room.. medical staff that usually were to busy to even come off their floor.. didn’t register weird with him at all.
“After you have healed, you will be re-tested to determine you still rank at A class.” It assured him, turning off the light and closing the door. When it’d returned to the medical level, it rejoined the collective. <Not a record typo, A Class. Not tested Higher.> The collective mused. That would explain his resilience. Celn should have been ranked specialised from the start. Still, they’d get a better grip on his anomalous success with further observation. That would sooth the embarrassing error of their first prediction.
Chris wore his academy sweats into the mess. As he looked over the menu, he grimaced. Sense when did liver count as breakfast meat? “I’ll have a number 4, double sausage. And a Protein drink. Chocolate, please.” he grabbed a tray and placed it under where the food would splatter out unceremoniously. The back of the unit pulled way, and he briefly aw into the kitchen where the many arms and appliances were worked by the culinary robots. His tray got nabbed by a metal-fingered hand, and a different one placed within about 15 seconds before it sealed back up. “Breakfast is served.” droned the AI.
“Uh… thanks?” He sat in the mostly empty room in his usual, facing the wall spot. The eggs looked like eggs. THe bacon looked crispy, chewy. The toast crumbled. He inhaled the food, barely appreciating the subtle flavors. The protein drink was heavy, sucking it down was like a milkshake and just as satisfying. Feeling slightly guilty.. he brought the try to his face and licked up the remains. He didn’t know what eggs benedict was, but he’d remember the flavor for weeks. Anyone see that? No? Good. Bottle recycle, try in the stack of dirty ones. He went down to the motor pool as instructed.
At 0855, trainee Celn stood before the looming form of Hawker. His neck had bandages. The veins grew in an angry blue spiderweb from the hidden implant. Red and pink puffy skin mixed in, adding to the rich patina of discomfort. He burped into his coffee. He’d eaten far too fast. It’d tasted amazing though.
“Officer Celn, reporting for training. Sir.” his voice came out calm, respectful.
Celn stood on the concrete floor of the motor pool, stained by oil, scuffed by rubber, and chipped, cracked, and re-sealed more times than anyone could count. Aside from three guys working on a squad car and taking their time about it, the place was empty. It was Saturday. If Celn ever had a weekend, he wouldn’t anymore. It would be this, six days a week, and he’d either learn to love it or it would drive him insane.
“…reporting for training. Sir.”
Hawker eyed him, his mouth drawn into a tight line. He saw the bandages, which covered up most of the ugliest stuff, but the angry veins crept out from underneath and the kid’s eyes were bloodshot. Even now, after eating, he spoke with a dry mouth. The mech remembered yesterday vividly, and his fluid pressure rose.
Whatever your problems are, you figure it out your damn selves!
Alright then, so What Would Kole Do? He averted his yellow optics as he thought; a uniquely human habit. He remembered stories from his days in the army, his being a much different sort of sergeant there. He’d never heard anyone speak more fondly of the art of yelling. That tactic suited him just fine, because all he knew was that he wanted to drive Celn hard today. Make him regret thinking he could call the shots.
“Don’t give me that bullshit, I know who you are, scabber,” Hawker growled. “Now run.” When Celn took a second too long to respond, the mech bared down. “Did I stutter? Laps around the bay!” he barked, pointing with a fierce stomp of his giant foot. “Go!”
As soon as he’d taken off, the mech made his way to the middle so he could follow the little human in his 1000-yard track around the place. He paged one of the mess droids: <I need protein delivered to Celn in 2 hours, and another in 4.> The hospitality AI bleeped back a simple confirmation, not bothering with an English interface for speaking with another one of 42’s machine-minds. Protein delivered immediately post-workout was the most effective way to build muscle, his research told him. There were other fascinating little morsels of information he’d learned too, but most of the exercise manual was dedicated losing weight, not gaining it. He’d had to supplement its material with some reading of his own before he was satisfied.
“C’mon, scab,” he shouted, pretending that the kid was beginning to slack. “Run like your miserable little life depends on it!”
The human wasn’t sure what to feel with Hawker anymore. What to feel about the whole situation! People gave the AI a wide berth around 42. They kept out of it’s way and seemed to be content to let it do it’s own thing. Maybe that’s why this was so difficult. No one had considered that Lee might die. And they didn’t have a program to find new recruits. That made sense. He is trailblazing.
Hawker had given him some strange looks with that strong, handsome face of his. Those expressive yellow eyes finally narrowing before it barked at him like a drill sergeant. Chris suddenly felt scared for a whole other reason. ‘Oh god, they’re literally going to have it work me over today.’ A big, lumbering, tireless machine. Making it’s pilot exercise.
There were more then the normal amount of other AIs in the motor pool, it’s Saturday. They’re jealously grousing now. A machine that is allowed to make it’s pilot exercise? Encouraged to do so? And the pilot had to obey?
They watched with a kind of oozing satisfaction, savoring every second that the mech did it’s duty.
Chris had his arms lifted up, hands into fists, moving back and forth as he jogged around the bay at a reasonable rate. He is so small! And with his little legs it took him forever to make it any distance at all. He heard the big mech taking slow, easy steps toward the large open bay. When he rounded a corner he could see it now. Int he middle, staring directly at him. Tracking him.
“Run like your miserable little life depends on it!”
Chris barked out a response “Sir yes sir!”
Oh no. The machine is going to be physically training him! Chris picked up his pace, now running as he felt his blood circulating. He took deep and fast breaths, in through the nose and out the the mouth. The ground thumped under his shoes and he watched ahead of himself so he didn’t run into something. His comfortable athletic shoes bounced up under each step. Now he’s approaching Hawker. It stood like a twoer, eyes like spotlights on him.
Did it hate him? Had he done more damage then good? Why had it ejected him? The scabber felt the questions weighing him down. No interfacing for days. And.. last time, talking didn’t go so well. He is just going to have to tough it out. That made him groan, and he put his mind to running. He’d go until Hawker said stop or he fell over.
The mech watched with a sadistic satisfaction as the little meatboy jogged around the compound.
Going; back to him; then turning; coming. Panting. Brows pressed together in the physical effort of moving the slight bulk of his body one footstrike at a time. He recalled again their time together the day before, and he scowled deeper. “C’mon!” he barked, lunging at the scab with a thunderous step, poised like he was ready to move in for the kill. It was all a show; or was it? Deep down, in his hindprocessors, Hawker knew that he was working out his anger. “MOVE!”
The kid dutifully broke into a sprint, sweat glistening on his brow. Hawker bit back his smirk.
Celn was just about done with his first lap; the mech had planned on making him run a full two miles, all told. And no word of praise was coming to mind.
Another minute, and Celn was slowing by a fraction of a mile per hour. “Don’t make me chase your goddamn ass,” he growled, legitimately tempted to do so just to see the look of fear on his face.
Hawker vented in a sudden burst. Kole owed him a new paint job after this.
In the moments between yelling at Celn, the mech checked in on the news. It was a habit of his; he liked keeping a finger on Chicago’s pulse.
Informants close to the case have told the Chicago Sun that the Lead Dawn syndicate has plans to move further west into the city as La Familia loses ground thanks to the efforts of precinct 38. Officials recommend that residents obey curfew laws, and keep vigilant against neighborhood incursions from…
Hawker rumbled. Goddamn journos, informing public enemies as well as the rank-and-file citizenry of the situation. Still, there’d been rumors… Lead Dawn was gaining territory, smuggling illegal mech tech, drugs, and conventional weapons. They were the rust belt’s biggest supplier of guns, and Hawker wanted nothing more than to dismantle their entire operation with his bare hands.
Meanwhile, Celn had sensed that his Sergeant Hartman was distracted and had let up in the slightest. His mistake.
“Pedal to the metal, scab!” Hawker shouted, falling in step behind him. Eight of the little human’s hurried footfalls to each of his thunderous ones. “If you slacked like this on the street, you’d be a fucking smear on the wall by now!”
<This is it, he’d going to kill me!> thought Chris. THe machine is growling at him, barking like a drill sergeant.
Chris is not a stranger to running. But on the street it had been about short bursts, sprinting after a score. This felt like the start of an endurance run, the pace Hawker had him moving at. He felt sweat soaking into his shirt, the wet spot in the center of his back and spreading.
“Pedal to the metal, scab!” In a datafile on Hawker’s legs and feet; there are numerous entries about the effects of footfalls on normal humans. It spoke at length why the default step cycle is quiet, well sprung and shock-absorbed. Not just for the durability of the environment, but to keep the mech from being ‘unduly noticeable.’ Chris could feel his teeth clatter with every step behind him. Hawker purposely is thumping behind him, letting the rookie know what his fate will be if he lets up.
Chris allowed himself a single glance over his shoulder as he made a turn. Hawker’s hydraulic systems pumped the multitude of pistons, raising one leg as he other pushed back. The smirk on the face above him..
The large robot is enjoying this! Did it get yorker kicked off the job? Or had it just insisted that it is superior for it’s pilot’s personal fitness? If it was the former, Celn could almost forgive Hawker for the hell he knew he’d be going through. A growl echoed behind him, and he pushed himself back up to the pace being set. God help him if the machine caught up!
The Chicago Tribune’s website coughed up two new articles. “In overseas news, Taiwan and South Korea report a rash of advanced and illegal parts for AI co-citizens. With the above-regulation metals and improved artificial muscles; these joints would turn human-analogue androids into dangerous robots. Weiland-Yutani insists that the implants are not to be used, despite no compatibility errors. ‘We value our citizen-employees. These modifications contain hard coded instruction sets. They could be used for unknown overrides.’ W-Y Corp is still barred from doing business in the Americas after the analogue uprising of 2041. See the following links our coverage on the uprising.”
“In other news, local police report the latest pilot programs are reporting low turnout results. Speaking for the ailing program is Medical Officer Dara. ‘Human minds have unique layouts, even with our similar biology. How a single person will respond to an implant is an unknown. Even siblings have vastly different results. We encourage all interface capable citizens, who are facing unemployment, to see their nearest recruiting station.’ Dr Dara also provided a graphic for your information.”
D Class – Able to interface and operate static machinery. Surveillance systems, for example.
C Class – Small or slow machinery. Forklifts, construction equipment. Nothing over speeds of 30 mph.
B Class – Any wheeled or tracked craft and ships.
A Class – Walking machinery, Avionics, with AI.
Specialized- Advanced operations, Military operations, Advance AI, Multiple AI, Medical, etc. Specialized operators are tested, then classified to their individual abilities. Less then 1 in 10,000 humans are able to achieve this level of communication.
Chris wheezed as the 4th lap came up. He’s going to die..
Hawker’s feet didn’t have toes like the previous models of the HLX line did – they were simply more possible points of failure to shoot at; they looked more like thick combat boots with hydraulic plates on the soles that accomplished the same stabilizing effect as human toes. Their rubberized coating cushioned the blow of his 3-ton footfalls, but he stomped on the ground anyway, quite enjoying the sound they made and the way Celn reacted.
He caught up easily, and deciding he wanted to harass the human a little more, he bent forward and gave the kid a shove in the back with his finger.
“Not so tough outside of neurospace, huh?” he goaded. “Not so big.” Celn didn’t give him the reaction that he was looking for. “Hey, I’m talking to you, scab!” He grabbed him by the shoulder, yanking him to a halt and pushed him into the floor. Hawker got on all fours behind him and brought his face in close. He felt big, dangerous, compared to the tired little body before him, so obedient. Fluids surged, thorium burned hot. Something about this satisfied. “How’s it feel, huh?” he growled. “You’re paying penance, Celn. I hope you know that. Now give me 30 and I don’t give a shit how long it takes.”
He stood up again and paced behind the absolutely tiny creature, staring daggers. High on his own station.
Behind him, the heavy stomping grew. Chris asked his legs to do a sprint, but they were locked in the pace he was in. He could go slower, that was his only option. The big digit touched his back, and he felt like a toy car that’d been prodded. He actually is boosted forward, the shove throws off his cadence and he stumbles, his l=right ankle moving funny. No a sprain, but he kind slip that would have been bad if his left didn’t come down right away.
He’d gotten two steps back in the run when the world shuddered to a halt. He had just enough time to appreciate the cold metal on his hot skin before got pressed DOWN. The weight Hawker employed could have buckled steel. Chris’s body yield, his legs folding as he rolled onto his back.
He panted, listening to the sounds of the mech as Hawker’s face came close. The Giant got looms over him, inches away. Hawker spoke an growled at him, surging like a living thing.
Chris barely registered the words, his face red and pink. He felt fear, he felt tired. But he also felt an intense and sudden lust that rung in his ears as that handsome gigantic face snarled at him.
It is a very, very good thing Hawker couldn’t sense his emotional turmoil right at that moment.
Fear came back to the forefront as it rose up, up and up. On the ground, Chris got to appreciate how much bigger 15 feet tall is. It glowered at him, like he was an insect to crush another the treads of those titanium boots.
“You’re paying penance, Celn.” oh. Hawker is pissed for sure.
Chris rolled onto his hands and knees, his back arching down as he spread his legs. That pert rear showing prominently under the sweatpants. Legs straightening, he east down until his chest rested on the dirty concrete floor. Smelled like motor oil.
“Yes, sir.” he growled with exhaustion. Then he began doing push ups. Already his arms are shaking, the run wouldn’t be helping. His for is off. <One.> he mentally counted. <Two..> And He’s already cheating, not going all the way down. He needs education.
The mech’s eyes flashed dangerously. It was no doubt who was in charge, who was the superior, but… something was missing from the picture. Hawker wasn’t satisfied. What did he want? Fuck’s sake! His six motors roared, RPMs surging and he clenched his hands. It wasn’t enough. He wanted to shove his face into the dirt until his eyes watered and he choked for breath.
He settled for concrete.
Huge metal fingers pressed into his sweaty back, feeling his scapulae, his spine, his ribs through the fabric. Hawker pushed him down against the floor, held him there with dental plates clenched behind drawn lips. Celn had the wind knocked out of him, struggled against those iron fingers.
“Where’s your fight, Celn?” the mech found himself hissing into the kid’s ear: a mouth big enough to take half his face between his denta. He didn’t know where this was coming from. He didn’t ask. “C’mon,” he barked, still holding him down, “Where’s the brave little soldier I saw yesterday, huh? Where’s that hero in the face of six tons of titanium rage? C’mon, Celn! Fight back, you son of a bitch! Fight back!”
Chris had made it to ten shaking, aching push=ups. He wasn’t doing badly either. But he couldn’t make it to thirty after that run.
Above him Hawker THUNDERED, the mechanized force filled it’s pressurized lines with potent potential energy. He could hear the sudden change in position as Hawker moved. He felt the air pressure coming from impact before it hit.
The push up become a push down. Then the down continued, and he felt the two incompressible surfaces just inches apart. He quickly went from discomfort to pain. Not just from the way his joints and skin rubbed into the rough surface, but from the extra half an inch hawker squeezed out of his lungs as he tried to get more then a mouthful of air in.
The moment slowed. Chris’s adrelinine dumped into his mind, he felt terror with each continued second of squeezing. And that Face! Just inches from his own! What could he do? Punch a robot? Kick at it? He is physically outclassed and it moced him, MOCKED HIM! for how he’d tried to help.
Chris’s panicked expression turned ugly. Some part of him knew that Hawker couldn’t kill him. And being passive wasn’t enough anymore. He had to do something.
The hand closest to that angry face reached up, shooting through the snarling words, those perfect and dangerous teeth and grabbed the very large tongue! Those fingers dug in, uncaring if they hurt the soft material of the robot’s pallet material.
“You’re.. weak…” came the wheezing, furious, and compressed rookie’s rebuttal.
Fingers. Around his tongue.
Weak. Him, weak.
Hawker’s world slowed down. Milliseconds clicked, optics clicked. Moved. Apertures opening, closing, focusing on arm, shoulder, back, face. Celn’s face was smooth. Exhausted, but still so alive with the vitality of youth. He had a special energy that got him through scab school. An energy that made Hawker choose him out of the others. Choose him.
I could bite that goddamn hand off.
The mech did this thing with his tongue, not taking his optics off the little body below him, practically beaten black and blue. He slowly pressed it up into his palate and drew it backwards, releasing himself from Celn’s hand but not without sliding the appendage across his palm and down his fingers. They… had a taste. Like salt, from sweat. Like dust. Like a faint sweetness he hadn’t ever tasted. Hawker suddenly fought the urge to draw the kid’s whole arm into his mouth, turning the fragile flesh over with his tongue.
Again, he settled. Grazed his denta as he drew his mouth away, releasing both Celn’s hand and his own. The kid coughed as he filled his lungs.
Lee would be ashamed to see what it’s done to you.
Hawker burned hot again, though it was different this time. He vented. The air between them hummed with energy, he could feel it. Or maybe he couldn’t and it was all just in his AI’s cold, logical, imagination.
That’s what he’d been waiting for this whole time, wasn’t it? He was waiting for Celn to state the obvious and assert his quality.
“You should have told me what you were going to do before you did it,” he murmured after a long few moments. “Unilateral decisions like that are not for you to make. We’re supposed to be a team, Chris. That’s the only way this is going to work.”
The pressure on him. THe sensation of the mouth. He, so very badly, wanted to enjoy the moment. But that want is lost in his anger, his pain, and his fury at the broken AI.
He curled up, looking so tiny and vulnerable as he lay on the concrete floor. Stars and colors filled his vision. Memories came back. He’d hoped he’d never be beaten into the ground gain. Compressed into concrete was close enough to count. At least he didn’t have broken bones this time.
Eventually, he righted, coming to a squat. In those sweats and the tight shirt, he looked like a slav. Old habits. His shaking fingers brushed pebbles and bits of metal from his face. And from his arms and neck. His clothes were filthy, like he’d.. like he’d been crawling on the floor of a motor pool.
He closed his eyes and kept breathing, rolling his head on his neck, working out one of the many kinks he’d be developing.
After the machine spoke, his mouth opened and the corners turned up. He laughed! A cruel, mocking laugh.
“I told you just what I’d do.” He wheezed, wishing the blood would flow back into his legs. He fell back onto his ass, stretching them forward as he worked the knees to get the lead out. He ran his hands through his short hair, feeling debris bounce down over his ears and onto his shirt.
“You held me so gently, before we began. We went thought it Hawker.” The rookie coughed. “A dozen times, tried everything. Even grenades.” Hawker’s logical AI core predicted the CLX-6 actions perfectly in that ‘simulation.’ It’d shot the human-lobbed grenades out of the air.
“The mass of an engine block though, not easily deflected. We forged a new path.”
He pushed himself upward. THe heat venting from the mech felt good. Like a sauna. Dry, mechanical heat. “You were trapped in that moment. Those memories. You’d lost half your mind. I had to lead you out of it. Gave you a way forward.”
He pulled off his shirt. His voice muffled slightly from the fabric. The material moved humorously over his face as he spoke. “I felt it. Everything.” His chest is marked with the imprint of the ground. The bruised from before looked green and blue.
“You lost half your mind that day. You kept looping back.” His hard look softened in understanding. He lifted up his palm towards the far-off face. “You were trapped.” He purposefully turned, showing his back to the machine. Ugly, ugly damage around the implant that flowed away, riding his nerves in unpleasant patterns. From ejection.
“And for my trouble? This.” he jerked his thumb at the damage, before pulling the shirt back on after shaking it out. He had an oil stain over his heart. “And an AI, who attacked me from the beginning. And hasn’t stopped.”
“Who loves to grind me against new, impossible tasks without warning.” he spoke. Face tisting with that same ugly, accusing expression. A face like his should smile.
“And has never behaved according to the rule of teamwork it just asked ME to follow.” He growled. Pointing! Pointing up like a kid facing down a bully three times his size.
Which he is.
Worse, Chris is still obedient. He hadn’t stopped fighting back!
He watched as Chris got up from the floor, slowly, almost one burning limb at a time. He watched as he tried brushing off the fine black particulates from the floor, smearing carbon on his cheek. A song came to mind. Buddy you’re a young man hard man shouting in the street gonna take on the world someday…
Hawker remained on all fours for some reason as he listened, face hard. He watched as Chris spoke. The kid was keeping his cool, impressively enough. He slipped off his shirt, and the machine watched as his lean muscle flexed, chest and belly expanded and flattened with his breaths. Such a fragile, compact system, its complexity far surpassing his own. Then, he turned, and Hawker was forced to look at the damage from the past few days in all its ugly glory. It was like he’d wrapped his big thumb and forefinger around that slight neck and squeezed.
“You were trapped. And for my trouble? This.“ Hawker looked away, shuttering his optics.
He turned back just in time to have a finger shoved in his giant face.
“And has never behaved according to the rule of teamwork it just asked me to follow!”
Hawker vented again, remaining silent. He felt eyes on him. He whipped around, falling back into a kneel, and bored his yellow optics into the crew who had ceased working on the squad cars. “What are you looking at?” he barked. The techs just about jumped out of their skins and made quickly made themselves scarce. The two of them were officially alone, he realized as he turned back to the kid. His shirt was on again. Vague disappointment. Like putting a mask back on.
“It’s my job to push you,” he said. He spoke, voice laden with hardened shame. “Push you until you’re strong enough to push back.” Another vent, he fisted his right hand. “But… it looks like I pushed too hard.” He raked over Chris’s tired form. “But yesterday was different. You told me what your plan was, I acquiesced. I take responsibility for that. But what you don’t seem to understand is that that loop wasn’t me. You ran that show. Something about wetware merging with wetware,” he said quietly, frowning at the floor. “Even long-dead wetware has a quality about it that not even Deep Field can control.”
Hawker hoped the kid would accept his apology, but also understand that he unwittingly played a role. He was human, and fragile, but he had power too. Every pilot needed to know that.
Buddy you’re an old man poor man pleading with your eyes gonna make you some peace someday…
You got mud on your face. Big disgrace. Somebody better put you back into your place.
The techs are watching. Whatever work they had was put on hold to take in the action. Any of the other AIs were watching too. When Big Nine threw Celn down, and appeared to be crushing him while shouting.. there’d been rapid whispers. Worry. Would.. could.. it kill the greenhorn? Why was it acting like that? What’d the kid do??
Then it backed off. THe rookie had talked, his voiced drowned out under the mech’s engines whirling. Its like watching David and Goliath! They hurriedly backed off, disappointed. What a show!
Chris walked up to the kneeling form of Hawker. A form that still loomed over him. He stood between those thighs, reaching up to put his hand on the big robot’s stomach. Somewhere around the navel. He looked up. He smiled. A little one. Made his cheeks dimple a bit.
“Okay. I forgive you.” The splayed hand slid left and right, rubbing at the panel of armor that looked like abdominal muscles. “I do need you to push me. I’m not strong enough. Not fast enough. You can help. You can mold me to fit. Teach me to be the perfect pilot.”
He tilted his head, stepping back, leaning casually against the right thigh as he kept looking upward. He wiped his nose with his thumb. “I’m never going to be Lee. I will never fit in the void he left behind.”
He sighed. “I’ll be new. Different. I’m the next pilot. You had some before Lee. You must have. Even if it was some guy in the factory where you were built. Maybe not as good, maybe not as capable. But you had them. The army tried to.. hmmpf.” He tried to sum up his point. “They tried to say, any qualified person can pilot. Like pilots are ammunition or a AA battery.”
He shook his head left and right. “But in the civilian world it’s different. Pilots are a chain. One after the other, not replacement parts. I can do this. I know I can. I will work up to every strenuous task, every impossible bar you set.”
He slid a hand upward, casually caressing over the inner thigh, then curiously touching the massive hip joint before crossing his arms.
“I want you Hawker. I want to be your pilot. We can be great. We can rock the world. Just, help me get there. Push me, grind me down if you have to.”
He looked down at chest dirty closes, the road rash on his skin. In places it bled in slow, welling patches. He looked back up. “Just.. could ya maybe not beat me?”
The other AIs were below him, and rightfully so. They were sophisticated, sure; brilliant, even. But Hawker knew that they weren’t exactly sentient in the way he was. The humans thought differently – but the humans tended to get more sentimental about their machines. Even the coffee maker in the office had a name.
Chris… stepped in between the little space between his massive thighs. He peered down the complex, roughly-angled expanse of his own chest as a little hand came to rest along one of his abdominal plates. The kid, his bright brown hair, warm skin, and heather gray clothes was quite the contrast to Hawker’s dangerous matte black. He liked that contrast. He liked…
“Okay. I forgive you.”
And just like that, their slate was wiped clean. No more questions, no more demands, just a warm little hand sliding along his belly and an even warmer little body standing so suggestively close to his own. A long vent, a rough idle. Hawker was going to pretend that the kid was unaware of how inappropriate this would be if the mech were a fifteen-foot human. Earlier that week, Chris had downloaded his official schematics. Only Colburn, Kole, and Hawker himself were aware of his… aftermarket parts, and where details were concerned, nobody was talking. The mech’s life was just easier if he ignored all of it.
It was endearing how Chris searched for words, the way his mouth twisted up the littlest bit, the way he blinked or touched his face. But Hawker understood what he was trying to say. Pilots had successors, had predecessors. Their machines were inherited friends… inherited family. Beloved things passed down from generation to generation.
But he touched the mech’s thigh, and Hawker went impossibly still. The haptic sensors embedded in his armored hide went wild as the tiny fingers danced up a seam. Up, up.
Just a young man fiddling with something on his car, was the mantra. Just a young man, fiddling with something on his favorite car. Just a young man, lean, dimpled, warm…
As that little slice of heat slid further up toward the counterweight between his legs, Hawker was beginning to wonder if he didn’t know exactly what he was doing.
“I want you, Hawker.”
“Grind me down…”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
The mech suddenly wanted to.
But just like that, Chris folded his arms and the moment ended. Hawker wanted those hands on him again. And he’d get them soon enough – but it wouldn’t be like that. It would be scrubbing grease from boot treads, or shoving a socket wrench into his side. It would be hands on yokes and a pert ass on his seat and a metal probe in the kid’s spine. They were pilot and machine. Partners. And maybe someday, if he were lucky, friends. At least they’d wiped the slate clean. They could have a fresh start. A better chance of not killing each other now.
Chris Celn was not Lee, and maybe that’s what scared him, angered him from the start. That someone dared try and occupy his seat at the table at all. If it hadn’t been Chris, it’d have just been the next one, right? Hawker had to make a decision: bury the dead or get junked. Bury the dead or join them.
The answer was obvious.
“Just… could ya maybe not beat me?”
He chuckled a little, trying to forget what had just happened. “Yeah, I can do that,” he relented, remembering his sense of humor. “If you promise to be a good little pilot. Now I, uh… I believe you still owe me 20 pushups. Better get on that.”
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