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Used As A Machine
by Rune Lai


Wren traced small trails in the gravel of the desert cave, using the tip of metallic finger. There was not much for a cyborg like himself, especially a combat one, to do while waiting as long as he had. Waiting for what, he didn't know. But for now, this cave was fine. Nothing bothered him, he bothered nothing. Except maybe the gravel.

He had been a soldier once--like most cyborgs. He had been human once--like most cyborgs. But sometimes people tended to forget about that--including cyborgs. He supposed it was easy, with his thick metal body, plastic eyes, and rubbery face. Ninety-five percent artificial, he guessed. The last five percent was hidden, where not even a res could cure it.

He did not often bemoan his mechanized existence, but today the gravel reminded him of something. Maybe it happened to be the way he first saw it when he woke. He no longer slept the proper way a human did, instead assuming a sort of rote shutdown a computer would perform, but that did not prevent him from experiencing the beauty that one could find upon waking. Something small had disturbed the stones while he slept, but was not hostile enough for his sensors to trigger his waking. The gravel was grouped together neatly in a small mat, with no one stone covering another. His internal calender told him it had been a thousand years since the last time he had seen them in this fashion. It was centuries ago during the great battle some people now called the Devastation War. Back then the stones were part of a game.

Wren had fought in that war for several years. That was when he lost his body, became relegated to existence as a brain in a metal shell. But when he thought back, he hadn't regretted it. He regretted the pain, the transformation, but never the decision to fight. The hardest part, he supposed, was that he had to accept he was no longer human. He'd outlived nearly everyone he ever knew, except the other cyborgs. But he still had human feelings, and perhaps that was the cruelest part of all. Even the fully human Orakians, for all their compassion and invention of the cyborg itself, with him no less, could not understand what it was they had put him through.

Wren remembered walking into a small tent, the temporary office of Gorman, aide to Lord Orakio, while the Aridian division of the army was on the move. The man was not too young or too old, being in his thirties, and well liked by most. Unfortunately this led to him often being the bearer of difficult orders from Orakio's war council. Wren approved of his king's goal--for an eventual Layan surrender on all fronts with reparations for the damages made--but sometimes he questioned the methods. It was not his place to question, being only a unit commander, and he knew most larger forms of strategy eluded his understanding, but sometimes something cold writhed in his gut, or rather where he remembered his gut to be.

"Welcome, Wren," said Gorman. The Orakians often referred to the cyborgs by their body type designation. They had tried to use it as a title such as Lieutenant or Commander, but the message often referred the cyborgs too greatly of what they had become.

"Reporting for duty, sir," Wren replied.

"What's your personal name?" The question had been asked out of concern for his comfort, which the cyborg appreciated.

"It is Wren... Wren Drakon, sir."

Gorman hesitated, his composure broken. "I'm sorry. I hadn't recognized you."

Wren shook his head. "I did not expect you to. I look like all the other Wrens, and I currently have a Type 286 body. The last time you saw me I believe I was still in the prototype 086."

It had been a bother when all the other cyborgs of the same body type as himself took his name. Not everyone knew that the type number originally designated the body and programming, and Wren was but the name of the first male cyborg produced, but Wren accepted that now. It was a tide he could not stop. But the fact that Gorman had to ask for his personal name meant that whatever he was called here for could have been meant for any Wren. Well, any Type 286, the commander type Wren.

"What is it, sir?" he asked.

Gorman curled his hand in front of his mouth in thought. "To be blunt, Wren, we're probably not going to be able to recover Haden."

A myriad thoughts filled the cyborg's mind, for with a electronically enhanced brain he could manage several streams of consciousness without breaking a moment's concentration from Gorman's words. Haden was the name given to the seventh dome of their worldship, and along with Landen, Aquatica, Draconia, Elysium, Frigidia, and Aridia, made up the home they called Alisa III. Against the background of Haden, he saw the Orakians and Layans battling it out on the windswept prairie, a blue furred people hiding in the mountains from the frightening humans, and the games their children played, forming mats of stones along the lakeshore sand.

"I thought Lord Orakio wanted it badly," said Wren.

"Yes." Gorman nodded deeply. "But we're taking heavy losses on both the Draconian and Frigidian fronts. If they beat us back from this corner of Aridia we're going to lose Haden. The Layans have already entrenched themselves there. They've either killed or drove away the inhabitants of all three towns and even built up a new base if our information is correct. There's no way we can drum up the manpower to drive them out, so Orakio decided that what we'll have to do is wipe them out in a single move, so they won't be able to retaliate and this division can go and help the others. Losing that great a number of their forces will severely deplete the strength of their army."

"And how will we manage this?"

"We were thinking of simply sealing off the dome, both inside and out, but that will do no good as it won't be a permanent solution to our problem. The Layans might be able to find a way out, plus we'll lose the use of the dome, unless we can find a way to disable them. Intelligence reported that the Layans are also using Haden as the breeding ground for a new type of monster. That sort of creature could flourish without our immediate intervention. So we came up with something else, something only we can try since we control Aridia, and something only you can do as this division's sole Wren Type 286.

"Here in Aridia is the weather control tower. It also contains controls for some of the worldship's functions here in deep space. One of them is for the master airlocks of all the domes. Are you aware, Wren, that Alisa III was built so that the contents of each dome could be completely exposed to the vacuum of space? For emergency cleaning was the original design. But imagine if we were to trip the switch on Haden while the Layans are enclosed within? A cyborg, with the intelligence of the human mind and the processing speed of a computer, would be able to link directly to the controls and override any requests to shut down. The Layans would not be able to halt their fate."

Wren was silent for a moment. He understood Gorman's words. By requesting an emergency cleaning a cyborg could active the mechanical seals in the tubes connecting Haden to the rest of the worldship. In the event people were trapped in a dome about to be exposed to the vacuum, the ship's designers offered an emergency signal that could be activated from within the dome. The signal would immediately override the command to open the airlock. A computer savvy Layan could conceivably block a human opponent override for override as each tried to convince the system that his or her order had priority. And such action as opening the dome would take time, time the Layans would use for escape. A cyborg could probe for openings faster than a human mind could find them, shut the doors on Haden before the Layans knew they were trapped, before the warning klaxon would sound.

"But what about the Mota people?"

"Pardon?"

Wren made an encompassing gesture. "There are Mota people living in Haden. They have a small town of theirs in the mountains. It's mostly underground."

"I wasn't aware. I haven't seen a Mota person since this war began. Now that I think about it, yes, they should still be around, but why did they settle there?"

Because we drove them from everywhere else.

"I don't think command would go for a delay to evacuate them--if the little buggers would even hear us out. They had no business sneaking on this ship anyway. If it wasn't for the fact we had plenty to go around at the time we probably would've spaced them."

Palm was going to explode. We built these ships for us, but what about those who moved to our planet and had no other means to escape?

"So my mission?" said Wren.

"Is to go to the weather control tower, alone, to prevent detection. You will be given access codes we have 'obtained' from Aerone so that you can interface with the tower's control centers and open up the main airlock to Haden. From the moment you activate the system to the moment the door opens, you will have to rely on your processors to quickly uncover the information you need to complete your mission. Once requests for overrides have been denied, the dome itself should swing wide open, exposing its contents to space. After a period of ten minutes the area should be clean of mobile life, including the Layan monsters. At that point you will close the airlock and allow the weather control system to refill the dome with air."

Wren nodded solemnly. "Understood."

"I won't be surprised if you think it's cruel, inhumane even," said Gorman, "but if we don't the lives of thousands of Orakians could be lost. If Haden's airlock is not opened, then this very division has orders to invade and wipe out the Layan forces. It is tantamount to suicide and will leave Aridia vulnerable to attack should we fail, but we can't risk letting the enemy get any stronger. You're a cyborg. You can compute the odds and numbers yourself and know what's in the best interests of the Orakian army. You will perform your task at one hundred hours. It's the least we can do for the Layans if they're asleep when the moment comes."

"Yes, sir."

To be spaced was a frightening thought. Though Wren's cyborg skull was air tight, he did not relish the thought of spending an eternity drifting through space, slowing going mad from lack of humanity's touch. When he was human, the thought was of suffocation as the air left his lungs and his body exploded. The engineers of the Alisa III did their best to stem those fears, creating a habitat as lovely as the world they had left--almost. The weather control systems even made rain and snow. It was a marvelous invention, though frightfully out of place in the dome that had been chosen as this ship's desert world. Haden had been a lovely world though, green as Palm once was.

Wren spent most of his early years aboard the ship there, before he decided to enlist. He rarely saw the Mota people, but he remembered the games their children played along the lakeshore, because children formed the heart of a culture. The game was to create a mat of stones, then trace a trail through them with one's finger. A round rock would be found, then rolled through the path, using only one's breath blown through the lips, or more commonly through a wooden pipe, to nudge it along. For that reason they liked the sand, because they could level out the ground the way they wished, and the lakeshore assured that the sand they got would not be so dry as to fly up in one's face while blowing.

To be honest, Wren had not thought of the Mota people often, because they seemed terrified of Palmans, but he had spoken once with a young adult he had helped while the Mota people were being herded, unconsciously though not entirely unwillingly, by the Palman populace to the remote mountains of Haden. The Mota person had told him about their one town, how it was built into the mountain itself to hide from Palmans. They grew their own food there, stuff that could thrive but the Palmans couldn't stomach. It wasn't a preferred way to live, but better than their treatment elsewhere.

Now Wren found himself in front of the weather control system, metallic hands shaking with jitters he should not be able to express. The Mota people had no business being where they were, but they were there anyway, caught in the crossfire. Would it be right, to murder the future of others he barely knew? He was a soldier, so were the Layans. He knew he could kill them under orders even if he didn't like it. But he thought of the stones by the lakeshore. It wasn't just the slaying of children or innocents. It wasn't just a case of us versus them. It wasn't genocide because as far as he knew there still were Mota people on Mota. But nonetheless it was the murder of an entire future. A future they had no part in deciding. Would they know what was at stake? Would they even care?

Wren pulled his sidearm from the holster built into the side of his leg. A laser blast destroyed the airlock console, one of the last remaining technologies of Palm. It would never be repaired in time, he knew, and he left to return to camp.

*     *     *     *     *

Without the airlock plan, the Orakians had to attack the hard way. The Layan horde surprised them and pushed its way out of Haden before their march was underway, but the Aridian division was there to push them back. They called for reinforcements, and surprisingly a few came. The battle raged, shoved back into Haden and deep within.

Wren was held back on disciplinary measures, sent away to the capital in Landen. How could he be allowed to go when all those in his division would look on him with tears and loathing before they marched off to die? How could he cope with the anguish of knowing he could have prevented the deaths of those he knew if only he could find himself capable of killing the Mota people no one cared about?

Machines do not believe in justice. He had calculated the numbers as Gorman said he could, but numbers could never encompass the entirety of the life they represented. A machine would do as told, could not separate the number from the soul, but Wren, for all the logic his technologically enhanced mind possessed, could find doubt in his mechanical heart.

He only heard of the carnage wrecked within the wartorn dome; biological warfare, gas and germs, monsters and humans alike crazed with pain. The tide turned and the Orakians were being slaughtered. The Layans surrounded the majority of the Aridian division, cutting off all hopes of escape. At last the War Council could take it no more. They returned to the idea of trapping the Layans in, now that the world was virtually unviable. They recalled what troops they could, forfeited the rest.

Only hours later they sealed the dome. Neither side would be able to send anything or anyone in or out. All knew that eventually the trapped people would die. The soil was scorched, the water polluted. In time they would recover under the care of the Alisa III's weather control system, but not soon enough for those within. At least the Mota people would be all right. Long regulated to the dumps of Palm they could stand the toxic fumes of the lake, eat what food could be grown on the parched ground. Perhaps they would attempt to share with the trapped Palmans, but Wren doubted they could overcome the fear that had driven them to hide their very existence.

The small blue-furred people would instead wall themselves up in their mountain burrows and wait out the tide. Perhaps they would, and after a time they would have the whole world to themselves. At least until Palmans returned to reclaim it.

In the coming weeks, the ill-fated dome had a new name: Terminus.

Wren never understood why he was not court-martialed or even executed for the loss of life he had caused. Instead he had been given new responsibilities to fulfill in the Orakian army. His king had looked at him one day, fierce and stern, but Orakio simply nodded deeply in his direction. No words of disappointment or disgust. Perhaps his king had forgiven him. Perhaps he understood.

Wren stood up, still looking at the gravel on the floor. Yes, he would like to go back to Terminus someday, perhaps see if the Mota people still lived there. But as far as he knew, the dome had been sealed since the days of the war. For now he contented himself to look at the game before him. It was nearly complete, there was only one thing missing. Wren knelt, picking up a round stone, and tried to bowl it through the path he had carved. It didn't roll very well, so he moved his head down beside it and clumsily pursed lips seldom stretched beyond normal conversation. He could no longer breathe, but perhaps if he tried hard enough, he might be able to blow--just a little bit.

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