Epic Duels: Man vs. Machine.
Man: I’m not perfect. But then again, I smile with contempt, I’m not a machine. I’m Gus Manson. I look over the sandy rise at my big partner who is approaching the eleven foot electric fence of Power Plant 9. My partner is John “Mach” Smith, short for his hard earned title “The Machine.” I count down the seconds on my wrist band, keeping a close eye on Mach and the infrared camera above the fence. At 00hr.05min.16sec.32ns since the start of our mission, Mach arrives at the fence. Right on time. I swear the man carries a clock in his head. I take a steady breath, waiting for the camera to swing past the “sweet spot.” At 00.05.19.45 I break from the cover of the sandy rise. That’s a second sooner than I should have moved but I’m counting on my cooling suit to keep me from detection. Like I said before, I’m not perfect. But me and Mach have been through hell together. And we’ve survived because we ain’t perfect. I pass through the “sweet spot” and carry on directly for Mach. The gap between us closes. I shove off with my right boot and plant my left boot in Mach’s interlocked fingers. I don’t call him “The Machine” for nothing. My palms instinctively reach out and tap Mach’s shoulders for balance as he hurtles me head first over the fence. I realize this isn’t the best tactic. But no pain no gain right? I hit the ground in a role, taking the brunt of the impact on my left shoulder. The sand is soft, but not that soft. I force myself to my feet and sprint toward the small relay box and a twinge of pain arcs across my shoulder blade to my spine. Mach remains in the “sweet spot,” scanning the night sky for signs of the Sentinel patrol.
I slide to a stop by the relay box and throw a cursory glance at my wrist band as I pull the rerouting cable from a clip on my bandolier. 00.05.27.89. I’ve got until 00.05.31.00 before the camera sweeps back over Mach and our mission is all shot to… Well, I get the cable to reroute the electricity running the fence but the camera is still moving. It must have a separate feed. I turn to signal Mach but he’s already ahead of me. He heard the buzzing of the fence quit I’ll bet. He’s already cutting his way through the links and making short work of it too. The camera sweeps over part of his back as he pushes through. I realize that even though the suit is keeping my skin temperature at 40° F, I’m sweating. Maybe I’m letting the pressure of this mission get to me. This is the big one we’ve all been waiting for.
Mach meets me at the relay box, his face stolid, as always. Nothing gets under his skin. I guess he’s the reason I’m still alive and sane. He has a way of calming my nerves. We sprint toward the subterranean power complex, Grid 12, which holds 700 humans and powers at least five percent of Section 15. Section 15 is an area of ground the size of a state they called Idaho that the machines have closed off and turned into a human power sucking pit. We could use the fertile earth in Section 15 nearly as much as we could use the 14,000 humans imprisoned here.
“How’s it going Mach? Having fun yet?” I ask, trying to get my mind back in the game.
Mach begins to fall behind, “Save your breath.” He says flatly in his Austrian accent.
Always the realist Mach is.
I’m a lot faster than Mach and I hit the bunker door first. I glance down at my wrist band. 00.06.45.23 since the beginning of the mission. No Sentinels yet but they’re due. Hopefully the distraction down the line will keep them a while longer. I try not to think about the men who volunteered for that suicide mission as I catch my breath. Maybe they’re thinking the same about me and Mach. My partner is coming up. Mach is heavy on his feet and keeps jerking his head in different directions as if he’s analyzing everything about the bunker.
“You got the codes bro?” I ask. We each have our own part on this mission. Mach’s is getting us inside. Mine is dealing with the grid.
Mach looks down at me oddly, as if he’s trying to understand me. “I am not your brother. And of course I have the codes. That’s my part of the mission.” He looks up at the sky and begins entering numbers into his datapad which is linking with the door lock remotely. Mach has probably seen the Sentinels on the horizon. He has a knack for knowing just when they’ll show up. “Just don’t do anything you’ll regret once it gets to your part of the mission Man,” Mach says.
I nod. Mach has called me Man ever since we first met. And he’s been warning me not to do something I’ll regret just as long. Some things never change with Mach.
Machine: Signal received: status request from V.I.K.I.
I am perfect. I am a machine. Identification: T-800 prototype. Cover: John Smith. Human designation: Mach. Primary Objective: protect Section 15 at all costs. Primary Means: by infiltration of human resistance, Colony 9, and maintaining cover. Means are subject to circumstance. Secondary Objective: uplink to V.I.K.I. for weekly programming. Error: 19days.23hrs.19min.59sec.12ns since last uplink. Signal Relay Error: status not sent.
I enter the last code and the access slides open. Man has drawn his weapon and rushes in, sweeping left and right. Man gives “all clear” signal. I step inside in time to miss the returning Sentinel Patrol. I would be dismantled if sighted. It is expedient that my identity remains unknown to man and machine alike to better facilitate Primary Means. I have been in facilities like this one. However my knowledge of this complex is limited as is my knowledge of Section 15. This also is expedient. If my Primary Means is compromised my memory chip will not contain vital information that Colony 9 can use against Section 15. Section 15 must be protected at all costs yet it is vital that I know nothing about Section 15.
The access slides shut behind us. Man quickly locates a maintenance shaft and we begin our descent.
“What is our Primary Objective Man?” I query.
Man grunts. The descent is physically testing to Man. “Come on, Mach.” He pauses reaching down for a handful of wires. “You know,” his foot finds purchase on piping, “I can’t,” sweat runs into his eyes, “tell you. Besides,” he looks at me, “I don’t want to do anything I’ll regret.” Man winks at me. A sign of trust.
We reach Level 3 and soon enter an observance corridor overlooking the human power conduits on Level 4. The humans call the human power conduits “baths.” This is because the large pipelines that store the humans for power collecting are filled with a liquid solution. Man does not stop at the access to Level 4 leading to the human power conduits as I anticipated. Instead he turns left down a corridor leading toward the transformer grid. “Why are we not rescuing our men?” I query.
Man smiles slyly, “Control has big plans for this place Mach. We’re going to shut down Section 15.”
Direct threat to Primary Objective detected. Error: Grid 12 supplies only 5% of power to Section 15 and is not vital to Section 15 continued performance. Threat level: low. Inference for threat: Human hopefulness.
I tilt my head to the side, a man’s way of looking perplexed, “Why don’t we rescue our men? It would be a better use of our time, Man.”
Man shakes his head indicating a negative, “Sorry big guy, Control knows what they’re doing. I know you have a heart for those poor souls down in the ‘baths’, being rescued from the power conduits yourself. But we have orders.”
“Right. Primary Objectives come first.” I acknowledge.
We approach a corner in the corridor and my proximity alarm picks up Sentinels. Man has already rounded the corner. A laser strikes the opposite wall and Man comes running back around the corner. He continues sprinting the way we have come. I take his six and draw my Westinghouse M-27 Phased Plasma Pulse Rifle.
“We’re in trouble bro.”
“I’m not your brother…”
Man drops a grenade near a support as lasers start to fly past us. We have nearly reached the end of the corridor. I turn and target the grenade. Two laser strike my endoskeleton. Damage: minimal. Man grunts. I fire. The grenade explodes and the corridor behind us collapses. I see several tentacled Sentinels crushed. Immediate Threat: neutralized. I look down and see Man lying face down. There is a cauterized hole the size of his fist in his abdomen. “Damage report?” I query.
“Not good Mach,” he grunts and tries to roll over. Action unsuccessful. “Help me up bro.”
Primary analysis of damage complete: Death is imminent.
“You are injured. You cannot complete your Primary Objective.” I lift Man and sit him against the corridor wall.
Man gasps and takes several breaths. “That bad huh?” He looks at my photoreceptors, concealed beneath the living tissue. I nod. An affirmative action. Man grits his teeth and pulls two grenades from his bandolier. “Then it’s up to you bro.”
Man hands me one of the grenades. I examine it closely. It appears as a normal thermal detonation device but my readings confirm there are no traces of the explosives used in its manufacture on the shell. I look at Man. He smiles. “What is the Primary Objective?” I query.
Man grunts again. His sweat glands are over producing. Blood is beginning to recede from the capillaries in his face. He is nearing shock. He will not be able to inform me of his Primary Objective. Man sucks in a sharp breath. “Mach, you need to get that grenade to one of the main transformers. Leave it next to a power condui…” A muffled explosion from down the corridor indicates the Sentinels are coming through. Man’s wound is beginning to seep blood. He exceeds my original analysis and continues to speak through gritted teeth. “Pull the pin. Run. We don’t know what the nanites in that grenade will do to humans yet. But we do know they infect electrical components, and thrive in power lines. They reproduce using the conductive materials in the power lines and feed of the electricity. In a little less than a week, all of Section 15 will be down. Permanently.” Man forces a smile. A triumphant smile. He acts as if he has completed his Primary Objective even though he will die. “Pretty slick, huh bro?” He gasps again. “Them machines won’t see what’s comin’.”
Unfortunately the machines will. We are perfect. I need to uplink to V.I.K.Y. to inform her of this development. There will be a manual port in this complex. I need to find it. My wireless uplink was damaged when I received cerebral damage. 19days.23hrs.29min.38sec.18ns is too long without an uplink. I turn away from Man and clip the nanite grenade to my bandolier. I must complete my Primary Objective.
Man: Mach walks around a bend further down the corridor and out of my sight. A man on a mission. He’s never been much for emotions. But I did expect some sort of “good-bye” nod. Maybe I don’t know him as well as I thought. I shake my head to clear those unwanted thoughts and my whole world immediately distorts into a spinning mass of nausea. When my head clears, I look down at my stomach. Mach was right. I don’t have much left in this world. I find that I still have the second grenade from my bandolier clutched in my hand. This one’s real. I could end it quick. A shudder in the floor and a crash reminds me that I’m in the middle of a machine power complex. And some Sentinels are still bearing down on me. I smile at my grenade. Let those machines come.
Three push their way through the rubble and about the same time five more come from the direction of the maintenance shaft we used to access Level 3. Machines think they are perfect. But their logic makes them predictable. Once they asses my wounds they’ll see that I’m no threat. I close my eyes. They’ll think I’ve passed out. Logically it would be good to patch me up and plug me into the “baths.” What machine in their right mind would waste a good resource. Right? All eight Squidies converge on me at once. I can hear their multi-jointed legs clinking as they writhe about. I just wish they’d hurry. I’m fading. My head begins to swim again. A hard tentacle encircles my ankle. This helps bring me to my senses. Now or never. I open my eyes and grip the grenade pin.
An explosion burns my face and causes my eyes to close instinctively. I smell melted metal. A caustic fume permeates the corridor that I know all too well. Plasma. I force my watering eyes open as two more Sentinels explode above me. And I see Mach at the far end of the corridor with his Westinghouse M-27 Phased Plasma Pulse Rifle. One more Sentinel drops with half of its head melted. The remaining four turn their full attention on Mach, leaving me forgotten. They use their tentacles to ward off Mach’s continued fire. Protecting each other like the four are one machine. Them things have so many stinking legs It’d take Mach another power pack and a corridor twice as long to stop them before they get to him. And that’s if they don’t shoot him first. Me on the other hand.
I pull the pin and find that it takes more effort than I thought. It’s all I can do to keep the striker lever depressed. I hope I can lob it far enough. A hoarse cry escapes my throat and I throw the grenade. It bounces down the corridor. It isn’t but a moment and the concussion hits me. My world goes black.
Machine: Man is not perfect. He pitched the grenade too short. I am struck three more times with Sentinel fire before it explodes. The backlash from the explosion throws Man back two meters. I target the two remaining Sentinels and they drop. I move toward Man. I must keep Primary Means of Primary Objective intact. I can’t waste a good resource. My movement has been impaired. Personal Damage Assessment: moderate damage to leg and head. Cosmetic damage: extensive.
Man: I’m drowning. I can’t breathe. What happened?
I come to with a gasp. Lukewarm water surrounds me. I realize where I am. The Baths. Across from me is a man with an oxygen mask on his face. He is completely bald and securely strapped to the wall of the power conduit. Cables run from a mini transformer above his head down to where they attach at the nape of the man’s neck and the length of his spine.
I’m part of the power supply now. I’m powering the machines. I slam my fist against the wall of the conduit and pain shoots through my abdomen. I forgot that I’ve been wounded. I look down and find one of the delicate health maintenance machines working on stitching my stomach. I can feel a slimy gauze on half of my face, my shoulder, chest, and my leg. Something to help with the burns. There’s a tickling at the back of my mind. Something is out of place. I shouldn’t be conscious. If I’m part of the power supply I wouldn’t be allowed to remain awake. And judging by the lack of a burning pain in my spine I’m not connected to a transformer. Neither are my arms and legs secured to the wall, only my torso.
It takes a bit of effort but I bring my knee up into the base of the health maintenance machine and twist its head off with my hands before it has the chance to put me back under. I’ll ask questions later. I look around and take in my surroundings. The access port on the top of the conduit is open and someone is moving around up there. To my surprise I’m still wearing my bandolier and what’s left of my cooling suit that hadn’t melted in the explosion. I look at my wrist band. It’s damaged but I can still make out a reading. 00.34.18.17. I’ve been out at least 15 minutes. The health maintenance droid that is now drifting away must have done some fast work. I pull my knife from the bandolier, cut my restraints and rip my oxygen mask from my face. I’m still powerfully sore but I swim for the access port.
My head breaks the surface and I recognize Mach’s blurred outline. I shut my eyes tight trying to squeeze out the residue of the “baths” liquid. What is Mach doing here? Did he deliver the nanites? Finally I’m able to see somewhat clearly. Mach is facing several men and women lying on the ground with towels wrapped around them. His left side is toward me. “What’s happening Mach?”
“I am maintaining my Primary Means.” Mach doesn’t look at me and his voice sounds a little off. He is disconnecting the last few cables from a small boy’s neck. The boy is in a stupor, as most people are after being in the “baths.” They’re compliant and pretty much do what you tell them. But they can only follow basic commands.
“What?” I say.
Mach keeps his focus on the boy. His face looks pretty tight and I can see charred marks on his cooling suit. “The Primary Means of my Primary Objective. I must maintain my Primary Means.”
“Mach, you aren’t making sense.” I test pulling myself out of the water. Being suspended in the liquid makes it easier to move. If I’m going to get out, it’s going to hurt. “Did you finish our primary objective? Did you deliver the nanites bro?”
“I’m not your broth…” Mach stiffens, if that’s even possible for him. His eye widens as if he’s trying to get a look at me through his peripherals but doesn’t turn his head. “I must protect my Primary Means. Brother.” His head turns a centimeter my way, “You consider me family?”
I nod. “Of course I do Mach. With all of the flak we’ve been through, what else would we be?” Something is wrong with him. I smell burnt flesh and I know it’s not coming from me. Tread carefully. I caution myself. “Mach. Answer me straight out. What primary means are you trying to protect?”
Mach’s eyebrow rises slowly. “Primary Means: by infiltration of human resistance, Colony 9, and maintaining cover. Means are subject to circumstance.”
I push toward the back of the access hatch with one hand and reach for the firearm at my hip with the other. “Mach, you’re not speaking in a way that I can understand you. Cut with the technical talk and tell me what’s going on. Did you deliver the nanites?”
“Why?” I draw my firearm slowly, keeping it below the access hatch.
“Identification: T-800 prototype.” Mach says. I begin to raise my firearm. “Cover: John Smith. Human designation: Mach.” I think about diving back into the “bath”. I want to get away from what’s happening. Something happened to my friend and I don’t like it. “Primary Objective: protect Section 15 at all costs. Primary Means: by infiltration of human resistance, Colony 9, and maintaining cover.” Mach raises his plasma rifle at my head. “Means are subject to circumstance.”
Suddenly my abdomen doesn’t hurt so bad. My heart sure doesn’t feel right though. Mach still hasn’t looked at me. And apparently he isn’t finished. “If I deliver the nanites, the threat to Section 15 is at maximum level. Primary Objective would be compromised. Error has occurred in Secondary Objective. Progression to Tertiary Objective would be mandatory.”
I swallow. I’m not nearly quick enough to shoot Mach, especially with my stomach all shot to… Well, I’m pretty much drilled any way I look at it. I’ve never heard of a man working for the machines. But since this awful war started both sides have surprised me. With Mach’s plasma rifle pointed right at my face it’s hard to deny the facts. And kinda hard to think. Darn I wish he’d just look at me. If I’m going to be shot I want to look into the eyes of the man that does it. “And what is the tertiary objective Mach?” I challenge.
“Tertiary objective: Kill as many resistance fighters as possible. Starting with the ones closest to me.”
My leg twitches. That hurts. Mach says it with such callous that I begin to doubt his humanity.
I keep my face calm. “Look at me Mach. Why are you trying to save these people? Are you going to shoot me with your eyes closed? If you are going to kill me why haven’t you done it?” I holster my gun and pull myself out of the access hatch. It hurts like I just ripped out all my stitches and the nausea comes back. I force myself to my feet and lean heavily on the conduit. I see through my swimming vision that Mach still hasn’t turned to face me. The boy is lying on the ground unattended. I’m really out of options and I take a gamble on my last argument. I pull my firearm and train it at Mach’s head. To my surprise Mach does nothing. “And what will you do if I finish my primary objective and deliver the nanites, Mach?”
Mach finally looks at me. He turns his whole body to face me. The right side of his face looks like a chrome skull with a handful of hydraulic pistons in his jaw. He is missing flesh in a couple spots down his torso and leg with metal shining through. But his eye is the worst of it. Glowing red and running up and down my body. Analyzing every inch of me. Still Mach does nothing. I force myself to look at the left side of his, or its face. The side I know. Or knew. The side I can reason with.
Mach tilts his head to the side and I can hear damaged servos whirring. “I would be forced to do something I’ll regret, Man. I’m trying to save these humans so that you and I can go back to Colony 9. I would keep my Primary Objective intact and you would return as a failure in your Primary Objective but a hero for salvaging the situation and achieving a Secondary Objective. Secondary Objective: save some of your own kind. Your objectives were subject to circumstance.”
Mach said, “something I’ll regret.” I latch onto that as hope that there is still some of my friend in there. Because any other option seems to be slipping away. He hasn’t shot me yet. That’s a plus. If he wanted me dead, I’d be dead. I see one of our field-med-kits sitting on the ground not far from one of the men. It has a shot of adrenaline in it that might even the odds a bit. If Mach is as damaged as he looks, that is. I begin to ease myself away from the conduit.
Mach tilts his head to the other side and nudges the small boy with his boot. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret, Man…”
Things just went to… Well, it all went in a pretty little hand basket.
You Decide: How should this Epic Duel end? You guys get to decide. Should the Machines win? Or should Man win? Give me at least five votes and we’ll have us a winner. A finished story. A complete Epic Duel! Maybe even the first completed Epic Duel. Until then, Keep being Awesome!
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P.P.P.S Book News! Of Pirates and Werewolves. That’s the book I wrote. The news has been the same for the past few weeks. I’m meeting with my publisher tomorrow and I’ll get to see three sketches for the cover art. I’ve finished reading A Voice in the Wind as a dual storyline study. My story has a dual storyline element as well. I’m excited to get back to work on my book soon. Subscribe to keep updated. Thanks for your interest. If you have a question just leave me a comment. Or check out my Awesome publisher’s sight: NCC Publishing!