Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

勢孤取和 (Influence Isolated, Make Peace)

Influence Isolated, Make Peace

Jake acquired his target as soon as he stepped into the cafeteria. For the good of the war, he had passed without a trace through forests and mountains to reconnoiter and assassinate. For the good of the subsequent peace, Jake now needed to have lunch with a random stranger and emulate a human being.

The target sat by himself at a table in the corner, staring at his tablet. His lunch sat untouched, his chopsticks clearly unused. Slices of poached chicken breast lay on a bed of brown rice next to a pile of kimchi. The soy sauce and star anise of the poaching liquid and the spicy salty tang of the kimchi no one else seemed to notice hit Jake from across the room. Far more interesting than four slices of cheese pizza. Grease pooled in tiny orange circles on Jake’s slices and soaked through the paper plate onto his hands.

“Excuse me, is this seat taken?” Jake pulled out the seat next to his target as he set his slices of pizza on the table.

The target’s gaze flicked up at Jake. “Cyborg.”

“Well, that didn’t take long.”

The mission was to avoid detection. If cyborgs could pass for human here, they could pass anywhere. Everyone on base knew that Jake and the rest of his squad had been ensconced here until DAIS decided their fate. They’d been sold out in the peace treaty. If DAIS could be convinced that cyborgs could successfully blend into society, DAIS might choose not to obey the treaty and decommission — that was the term the treaty used — them.

“The behavior’s about right, but you’d look more plausibly human if you lost, say, twenty, thirty pounds of muscle.” The target set his tablet down on the table. Text and a diagram of black and white circles on a 19×19 grid, a Go problem, filled the screen.

“So would you.” Jake glared at him. “That’s why I chose to sit here.”

Both Jake and the target were cracked tea eggs, white veins of scar tissue radiating across their skin. The way the target’s shirt warped around his torso betrayed the sort of solidity that didn’t come from benign neglect.

“Except I am human.”

“No kidding. Any of us would have solved that puzzle long ago.” Jake gestured to the tablet. “From that board layout, if both black and white play optimally, white will win by five stones. See ya. I’ll try to fool someone else.”

“Wait.” The target reached for Jake’s forearm. “You play Go?”

Jake rolled his eyes. “No point. Too much like work. I used to. Before.”

“Before?” The target picked up a slice of poached chicken breast. “Before DAIS reconstructed you.”

Jake discarded the sarcastic remark that headed his list of conversational alternatives. Snarking with every response was a decades-old gambit that anyone on base would recognize. Cyborgs soared through the Turing Test — they still had some human brain function, after all — but composing words was just a sliver of what he needed to do. He couldn’t merely pass for human; no one could be allowed to suspect he wasn’t.

“I’m too good at it now.” Jake shrugged. That sounded arrogant as all hell, but nothing he could do about that. “During the war, I used to joke that the worst thing DAIS had done to me was destroy my love of Go.”

“Too good at it?” The target’s questioning gaze brushed Jake.

The face that gaze betrayed, the slim hope of seeing it again could have pulled Jake through the war. Jake bit down that unhelpful thought.

“Are you just going to repeat everything I say? Who’s the cyborg in this conversation?”

“Tyler.” The target offered his hand. “Please, sit. Can you walk me through the answer?”

Jake shook Tyler’s hand, pursed his lips, subjected Tyler to a critical gaze, then sat down. Dealing with humans was annoying. He had to do everything off-speed. Dealing with humans who treated him like a glorified computer was especially annoying, even if the human in question had an especially winning smile.

“Sure.” Jake pushed away his greasy paper plate and then pulled the tablet to him. “I can be Jake, the analysis engine.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” If Tyler’s head radiated any more heat, he’d have glowed. “That was really thoughtless of —”

“It’s okay.” Jake knew how to be polite. “You actually asked.”

Being Jake meant he could break down the Go problem and savor the fragrance of Tyler’s lunch at the same time. The sweet meshing with the salty crashed into the spice and tang. For a moment, the heat of the gas stove in his parents’ kitchen grazed his face. He let that rare fragment of Before drop to the back his mind. The child who experienced that had become something else entirely.

Being Tyler meant Tyler’s gaze gravitated to the pizza and darted to the tablet only when he caught himself. If there had ever been a great pizza shortage, Jake would have known about it. Still, Tyler’s odd behavior was making him wonder.

“Trade lunches?” If Jake was going to grind through an analysis, Tyler had damn well better pay attention.

Tyler pulled the pizza to him, then slid his own lunch to Jake. Pizza sauce dribbled down his chin when he smashed a slice into his mouth.

“Pro tip.” Tyler wiped his chin with a napkin. “If anyone challenges you on the pizza, tell them that today’s your cheat day.”

Jake tested a slice of Tyler’s chicken. Overcooked chicken breast had the taste and consistency of soft wood. During the war, he’d resorted to eating trees more than once. Tyler’s chicken still had a hint of pink and a mild flavor that underlay the star anise and soy sauce. Not that surprising. Tyler looked like someone who’d cooked then eaten a lot of poached chicken breasts. Jake wanted to inhale the chicken like Tyler was inhaling the pizza.

“Is today your cheat day?”

“I had one coming.” Tyler took the next slice in multiple bites rather than one. “Look, I owe you at least one real conversation. Are you free tonight? The Go club meets at seven. We can go for drinks afterwards. Plenty of unsuspecting humans for you to fool.”

“Sure, if you can get me off base.”

Tyler’s face broke into an amused expression. “You can’t sneak away unnoticed any time you want?”

Jake glared back. “We are choosing not to flout the peace treaty for now. Maybe later if we have no other choice.”

Jake and his squad were illegal munitions. They’d blend into human society before they’d let DAIS kill them to meet the terms of the treaty. If they simply escaped, though, DAIS would have to search for them, hunt them down.

“So if I get permission to chaperone you out, you’ll go?” When Tyler’s gaze scanned Jake’s face for a reaction, Jake gave him one. “You don’t think I can?”

Jake could know everything about Tyler right now if he wanted. Breaking into even DAIS’s databases was nowhere near as impossible as they’d represented to DAIS. However, he wanted to be surprised if Tyler could and disappointed when he couldn’t.

“If you can, I’ll go.”

“It’s a date, then.” Tyler patted Jake’s shoulder. Jake enjoyed Tyler’s pliant touch, the gentle attempt to squeeze his shoulder more than he’d expected or wanted.

• • • •

The gate out of the base looked plausibly intimidating. The base hadn’t been designed to contain cyborgs; something had needed to be done about this, and what they did to the gate, if nothing else, was something. Barbed wire wove around substantial metal bars, blocking the outside world from view. Their pointed spikes writhed in a chaotic sequence. The gate seemed to ripple behind its implacable guard house and the sturdy soldier who manned it.

Even idling, Tyler’s truck rumbled like a feral beast eager to kill, or at least to crash through the gate. Jake displayed his most naïve expression as Tyler and the sturdy soldier exchanged brief glares. The soldier tapped Tyler’s badge against the sill of the guard house window as he weighed the situation. Tyler’s faint smile dared the soldier to deny him exit.

The gate parted. The barbed wire tightened, choking out the space between the metal bars. The soldier returned the badge and Tyler’s truck purred through.

“Requisition managers wield a lot of power.” Tyler could not have been more deadpan. “Cross me, and you may never get so much as a pencil from DAIS again.” With that and a smile, Tyler made it clear that how he got permission to take a cyborg off base would remain a mystery.

At least the bit about Tyler being a requisition manager was true. Jake’s squad mates had scoured the databases for Tyler as soon as Tyler offered to bring Jake off base. They could sense Jake now looking out the window, just as he could sense them reconfiguring the temporary structure that served as their barracks. He sighed. Their barracks weren’t meant to be reconfigurable.

Tall buildings slid by on either side of the truck. Trees canopied sidewalks dotted with pedestrians. Jake didn’t plaster his face to the passenger side window. Humans might get away with that; someone trying to avoid attention needed more self-control.

“You’ve never seen the city before?” Tyler’s voice pitched high with surprise.

“Not in person, no.”

“Hmm.” As though Jake had just unwittingly revealed a vital secret.

The Go club met in the basement of one of the city’s many interchangeable office buildings. Florescent lights buzzed from the room’s low ceilings. People sat across from each other at long, thin tables huddled over boards already in various states of gameplay. A dozen conversations untangled into separate threads in Jake’s head.

In the corner, Tyler taught a class on endgames. Jake leaned against a wall, watching the class and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. That lasted for about thirty-seven seconds before boredom drove him to graze past the games in progress, sizing up each player, projecting every game to its conclusion.

Eventually, Jake found himself looming over a Go board and his sixteen-year-old opponent, Christie. She’d seen him come in with Tyler and, after dispatching her opponent in short order, she’d asked him to play. Based on what he’d seen, she might, at her best, beat a low-ranked pro. He aimed to lose by exactly three stones.

She pursed her lips as she played, her fingers lingering on the stone when she made key moves. Jake pruned branches from the tree of possible Go games in his head, choosing moves that created interesting situations but punished her misplays. He snapped his stones on the board with the arrogance of a blowhard who kept expecting that his next move would somehow put her away for good.

Tyler finished his lesson and stood behind Christie to watch the game. Chains of black and white stones spread across the board, pushed against each other and, sometimes, were captured. His bemused expression dissolved into concern as the stones solidified each player’s claim to territory on the board.

When both players passed, Jake had lost by exactly three stones. Christie frowned.

“You let me win.” Christie’s quiet voice only amplified her disappointment.

“You won fair and square.” Jake deployed his best confused expression. “You stemmed my every attack. I thought I was good, but —”

“If I’d wanted a teaching game, I could have asked Tyler.” She began sorting the stones off the board into their respective bowls. “We’re going to play again. For real, this time.”

Playing for real, of course, would give him away. Given her attitude now, even winning by a mere few stones might. She’d belatedly realized how much he’d controlled the game play.

“I’m Jake’s ride, Christie, and I gotta get going.” Tyler’s pointed stare at Jake vanished when Christie looked back at him. “Let’s go, Jake.”

“Good playing with you.” Jake offered his hand, which Christie took reluctantly. “Look forward to hearing about your inevitable win at the U.S. Championships in a few years.”

The bar was down the street from the Go club. Jake and Tyler had gone from one basement filled with people to another basement filled with people. However, the bar was darker, its occupants drunker and their words louder.

Tyler sipped his whiskey. He sat across from Jake and leaned in as he spoke.

“Instead of just pretending to play about as well as Christie, you just couldn’t help picking at her weaknesses, could you? You did subtle work. She didn’t realize she was playing a teaching game until the end.” He gave Jake a sympathetic smile and continued, seemingly unaware of Jake’s long-held puzzled gaze. “If you’d simply let yourself win, she might never have. Or, better yet, you might simply have just offered her a teaching game. From how you’d read all several dozen games in the room — What?”

Jake had held his surprise-indicating glare for what felt like days before Tyler got it. In reality, he knew it’d only been three seconds.

“You’re debriefing my performance.” Jake downed his whiskey in one gulp. Courage in convenient liquid form never hurt, even though his metabolism would burn it up in an instant. “Why?”

Tyler pursed his lips. He stared down at his whiskey, took another sip, then set it down. His fingers tapped against the glass.

“Not a good place to talk about that, but you’re a sharp guy. Stick with me a little longer and you’ll figure it out for yourself.” Tyler matched Jake’s gaze. “Jake, no one is ever going to mistake you for a normal human being —”

“But if I own up to that, they’ll decide I’m an odd human and carry on. No one thinks ‘cyborg’ as a default. Understood.”

“You’re going to hate me for this, but it’s for your own good.” Tyler drained his whiskey. “We need to engage in sustained small talk.”

Jake stifled his sigh. In the back of his mind, he sensed his squad rebuilding the barracks. Even though that hardly endeared to them to DAIS, it was still much more fun.

• • • •

Jake’s barracks now squatted over the parking lot like a hulking, three-legged beast. The squad doubted DAIS had intended the building to be configurable, but it was a temporary structure and cyborgs were easily bored.

A seeming visual contradiction that shouldn’t have been stable, it disoriented anyone who didn’t know how to parse it. Tyler had looked a little queasy before he drove off in his truck but the building made perfect sense to Jake.

The asymmetrical panes of the skewed windows were dark. The building made no sound except the faint whir of the air conditioning. The squad had decided they needed to debrief him too, then. They shared memories but constructed their own narratives. Jake leapt up to the door and wasn’t surprised when Gray fell onto him as he walked through.

Gray slid him into a half nelson then shoved him to the floor. Jake shoved beds away as he fell.

“Gray, can we have the debrief without the horseplay?” Jake grabbed Gray’s arm and rolled. He escaped, then backed away. “I’m not really in the mood for this.”

“After all those hours around humans?” Gray threw himself around Jake’s torso. “We have to be so damn careful around them.” He launched Jake into the air. “Fine, but you need to pair with me.”

They were never a gestalt and, by now, the consensus corridor defining their average mental state had shifted. None of them were in spec by pre-war standards and everyone dealt with it differently. Gray, for example, had a habit of pushing his mind even further out of spec. Nothing wrong with that on occasion, Jake supposed, except when you couldn’t nudge yourself back into the corridor. Gray’s habit was innocuous so long as he remained around sturdily built friends who had direct access to his mind. Anyone else would be crushed by one of his hugs with no way to calm him down. This didn’t exactly show DAIS that they could survive long-term among humans without, say, accidentally killing them all.

Jake rolled out of his landing. As Gray reached for him, Jake quickly ran through the series of key exchanges that allowed them access to each other. Gray had gone too far out to adjust his own brain chemistry, but not so far that he’d deny access. Jake nudged Gray’s mind into some less slap-happy state.

“You’re no fun. You know that?” Gray set the tables and chairs upright again. “Nothing wrong with a little recreational mind hacking.”

Gray was too hard, too buff, and too tall all at once to truly look human. However, no human ever noticed. Blond haired with intense blue eyes and an irrepressible smile, he and his lightly pink, freckled skin invoked the heartland, middle America, and the Things That Made Us Great. Granted, this would be some sort of middle America where everyone changed the tires on their pick-up trucks by lifting them to chest height with one hand while loosening lug nuts with the other. He’d always been the squad’s candidate for Cyborg Poster Boy.

Jake paced the room. Staying still was maddeningly hard when cyborg minds were in the corridor. His path weaved between the beds strewn around the room like an asteroid field. Gray weaved his own path. The two swerved past each other as though they were simulating two bodies of a many-body problem.

“Nothing wrong with showing DAIS we can be trusted around civilians either.”

“Does that matter? You’ve done the analysis like the rest of us. The consensus is still that they will likely follow the letter of the treaty. Which brings us to your boyfriend.”

“Sure, he behaves like he’s interested.” Jake laughed. “He’s just gathering intel. DAIS knows we won’t simply wait for them to decide what to do with us.”

“No, he’s also gathering intel.” Gray tapped his fingers against skewed window panes as he strafed the walls. “Getting permission to take you off base? Absolutely mating behavior. He’s a peacock showing off his plumage.”

What they hadn’t learned about Tyler intrigued them more than what they had. No one believed that Tyler was merely a requisitions manager, if he actually was one at all. For a human, staying in Tyler’s physical condition was a full-time job. Anyone who could get permission to take a cyborg off base — to make the United States contravene a peace treaty, even in secret — had to be more important than a front-line manager.

“He definitely wants us to know that he’s a big deal.” Jake rolled his eyes. “DAIS is undoubtedly playing some game where we try to score intel off each other.”

“So as long as you’re both pumping each other, you might as well pump each other.” Gray made obscene gestures with his hands. “Know what I mean? Once we leave, you two’ll never see each other again. Might as well have some fun.”

Part of Jake knew that they should just escape as planned. However, they might have overlooked something, and Jake wanted DAIS’s blessing to leave. Otherwise, they’d be hiding from a massive military organization for the rest of their lives. That always went well.

• • • •

The door yielded to Jake on the third try. Its articulated slabs of metal clattered as they slid up rails on each side. Apparently, this gym didn’t depend on a lock to keep people out. It depended on practically nobody being strong enough to lift the door. The sort of heavy machinery that could winch the door up would never make it past the base’s perimeter security. Until Tyler suggested they come here to work out, Jake had wondered what the building was for. No source of information he could tap into even admitted to the building’s existence.

The surprise on Tyler’s face as Jake held the door open was worth giving away the limit of Jake’s strength. In the past weeks, at Tyler’s suggestion, they’d rock climbed, endured several adventure-type obstacle courses, and played Go and duplicate bridge, not to mention several types of chess against strangers. Jake enjoyed clinging to cliff faces and being drenched in mud as much Tyler did. That didn’t mean Jake hadn’t felt like Tyler was testing him.

Then again, Tyler gave away about as much as he learned. He was worse than even Jake at pretending any of the physical activities had challenged him. The struggling at advanced Go puzzles seemed genuine, though, as did playing only at a near-pro level.

“Oh.” Tyler walked into the gym. “You’re not supposed to be that strong.”

But Tyler was more than that strong — and by a comfortable margin. He had planned on actually entering the gym, after all. Jake might have taken how blatantly Tyler had dropped that fact as an insult, but he didn’t want to.

“Specs do get upgraded on occasion.” For bonus points, Jake lowered the door smoothly to the floor rather than letting it slam back down. It cut into his reserves more than he liked but showing off a little now might put Tyler off whatever trap he’d planned. “Into the Faraday cage with me.”

The door sheared away Jake’s remote senses as it sealed off the gym. Losing access always unsettled him. Information stored on every networked computer in the world, live data from countless surveillance devices, and the presence of his mates in his head blinked away. He’d worked on his own plenty of times, but he didn’t have to like it.

“Be careful as you enter, Jake.” Tyler sat on a thick weight bench. “Gravity is about five times stronger in here.”

As was everything else in the room. Benches and racks sported extra and thicker struts. Cables spun from carbon fiber rather than steel ran through the pulleys in various weight machines. The black padded floor felt hard but gave with each with step. For all of that, the room might otherwise have been any other weight room. Mirrors filled every wall, except for two small gaps for doors into other rooms. Weight machines and benches sat in rows in the warehouse-like space. Hefting ridiculously heavy weights over and over again was still the best way to actually get stronger, even if science and technology had obviously increased Tyler’s potential strength.

The air felt thick as Jake’s lungs pushed against his new weight. He’d humped this much weight before, but never for long. Just being in this room was out of spec for him. That Tyler was stronger suddenly mattered.

“Okay, you’ve got me at my most vulnerable.” Jake sat next to Tyler on the bench. “How long before you kill me?”

Tyler tensed. Fear bound him like an ill-fitting shirt. 你聽懂不聽懂國語?”

Jake stared at Tyler, annoyed that Tyler had asked if he understood Chinese in a way that assumed the answer. They’d discovered while hanging off a cliff face that they were both children of immigrants who opened restaurants when they’d settled in the States. “國語” gave away that Tyler’s parents had come from Taiwan. Someone from the mainland would have called Chinese “普通话.”

“當然聽懂。不過十億多人講的語言不比英文安全。”

“Sorry, bad habit.” Tyler had the good sense to blush. “You’re right, of course. A language spoken by one billion plus people isn’t safer than English. I dunno. Since I was a child, I’ve always thought of it as my secret language.”

Jake stood. His thighs burned from the extra weight. It might be good to leave before he was too weak to open the door.

“You didn’t bring me here to share your childhood misconceptions about Chinese.”

“No, I didn’t.” He sprang to a stand and then spread his arms, showing Jake his palms. “I need you to break my shoulder.”

Well, if Tyler insisted. Even if nothing else, it might even up the odds if they had to fight later. Jake sized Tyler up, then launched himself at him.

Momentum shoved Jake to the floor and, on reflex, Jake made Tyler his crash pad. Tyler’s scream hid the crunch of bones. Even in normal gravity, Jake was heavier than he looked. His legs nearly buckled as he picked himself up off the floor. Stomach felt as though it hadn’t come up with the rest of him. Killing Tyler would definitely not convince DAIS that cyborgs could be trusted among civilians.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Tyler lay supine, his limbs and torso twisted at unnatural angles. “Break my shoulder, not smash my skeleton.”

“I thought your bones would be like mine.” Increased strength required a tougher skeleton to be useful. “Um, should you be glowing like that?”

Tyler’s skeleton shone, highlighting the cracks in his bones. Ripped and bruised muscle sparkled. For the time being, Tyler was a collection of stars twinkling in a human-shaped, fractured, red sky. Crack by crack, his limbs straightened and his torso lined up with his legs.

“No, but I do when I push my heal rate out of spec.” Tyler gestured Jake toward him with his head. “In case this doesn’t go well, reach into my left front pant pocket.”

“Excuse me?” Jake inched towards Tyler. “Is this . . . foreplay?”

“How old are you? I have something I need you to pull out —” Tyler’s gaze dared Jake to comment. “Microfilm. Take the microfilm from my pocket.”

“Microfilm?” Jake stared at the white, palm-sized, slightly cracked reel of film he now had in hand.

“You know, old-fashioned microphotographic —”

“The only libraries more comprehensive than the one in my head are the ones in the heads of other cyborgs. I know what microfilm is. Why are you giving me a reel of it?”

The glowing eventually subsided. Tyler hefted his torso so that he sat on the floor. He shoved himself away from Jake before standing. Like Jake’s, his legs seemed to buckle for an instant before recovering.

“Plan A was to be all badass so you’d realize what’s on the microfilm is the truth. Spending myself to heal my body has the same effect, I guess.” Tyler tottered backwards, his hands warding Jake away. “You control cyborgs by curating their access to information, right? Well, my project was conducted entirely off network. All records strictly on paper. You never even knew it was there to look for.”

Jake turned the reel over and over in his hand. It was too delicate for this environment. He’d have to read it later.

“That doesn’t actually answer my question.” Jake zipped the reel into a pocket of his jacket. “What game are you playing?”

Tyler shuffled through one of the side doors, then returned with a Go board and two bowls of stones. “This, Jake, is the only game I want to play with you. How many handicap stones will you give me?”

Jake stumbled to the door out. Between his own failing strength and help from a spent Tyler, they crawled through the thin gap they opened and escaped onto the street with its normal gravity.

• • • •

After words were had, the barracks were restored by the cyborgs to its squat right-angled self. The entrance now hugged the ground and the beds inside sat in a perfect grid. No one felt the need to piss DAIS off, even though Jake was the only cyborg left who had any hope of DAIS giving their blessing to sneak away. The microfilm had crushed that hope in everyone else.

Jake was alone in the barracks getting debriefed again by Gray, this time surrounded by cases of beer. They couldn’t get drunk, not exactly. Gray’s mind was barely out-of-spec and it’d drift back within the minute. Alcohol was just a pleasurable source of calories, and they were always running low on calories.

“Jake, you do understand why we need to leave now, right?” Gray crouched on a bed and downed a bottle of beer in one swallow. “We’re not leaving anyone behind.”

“Sure.” Jake needed to demonstrate his non-consensus analysis was not a sign of malfunction. “No one replaces the calcium in skeletons with titanium, and then lards those skeletons with synthetic yet, strictly speaking, organic muscle fiber just for grins. Technically speaking, Tyler and all the other Organics are human. They aren’t subject to the treaty. They’re also stronger and faster than anyone else on the planet and smart enough to take advantage of that. We need to leave before DAIS makes enough of them that we can’t leave.”

Jake downed his own bottle of beer. He grabbed a new bottle for himself and tossed one to Gray.

“You have to hand it to DAIS.” Gray snapped the cap off his bottle. “They knew if someone kept a cyborg curious and occupied, that would keep all of us here until they could get the infrastructure together to kill us. Which bring us, again, back to your boyfriend. You should do something about Tyler before we go. He’s certainly not unwilling.”

“Tyler gave himself away. He gave DAIS’s entire plan away. That has to count for something.”

“Yes. It’s obvious to everyone except the two of you that you both are — as the kids say — sweet on each other.”

“No, even if he were, that’s not the reason he gave the plan away. Too smart for that. He has some other reason.”

“He also has some other reason.” Gray pointed his bottle at him. “Put this question to your supercharged mind: DAIS has soldiers who can dismantle us before we can stop them. Of DAIS’s many secrets, this is the only secret that they’ve gone to any length to hide from us, and they’ve gone to an extraordinary length. Set Tyler aside for a moment. Do you seriously think they’re going to give us permission to live within human society?”

“Passing for human is one thing. Hiding from DAIS for the rest of our lives is quite another.”

Gray shrugged. “No plan is perfect, not even one of ours.”

“No, not when passing is the best case scenario. There’s no chance we could ever just be ourselves out there.” Jake glanced down for a moment, then met Gray’s gaze again. “We don’t have a choice, do we . . .”

“No, we don’t.”

Jake raised his bottle in a toast. “To as much freedom as possible under the circumstances, then.”

Gray raised his bottle in return. “To as much freedom as possible under the circumstances.”

• • • •

Plan A was for the cyborgs to simply disappear into the night. They’d jump the base’s barbed wire walls, pretend to be human as well as they could, and create new lives for themselves. The base wasn’t designed to contain them. Infiltration and elusion were why they existed in the first place. No one had built a database yet they couldn’t access and alter in secret. Of course, no cyborg expected Plan A to work as stated, not with a squad of Organics guarding the walls every night.

Instead, the cyborgs went for Plan A-Prime. They scattered towards every section of the wall armed with pens and pushpins. Floodlights pinned everyone guarding the wall in pools of light. Jake aimed himself at Tyler, Gray rushing up behind Jake as an unnecessary chaperone.

Tyler’s legs gave way. He collapsed to the ground along with the rest of his squad. Jake stood close to Tyler, but not too close. The increase in gravity that pinned Tyler would crush Jake. The high gravity zone they’d created trapped Tyler and his squad, but also fenced the cyborgs in better than any wall. It was a calculated risk.

“Go get it over with. Say goodbye to your boyfriend.” Gray stood next to Jake, a pen in each hand, not to mention several in various pockets.

“Boyfriend?” Tyler managed only the one word before his chest collapsed. He shook but only managed shallow breaths.

“Ignore him.” Jake gave Gray a dope slap. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“I’m not?”

Tyler’s face contorted with strain. That had to have more to do with him struggling against the sheer weight of his body than anything else. Jake decided to ignore Tyler’s question and press on with what the other cyborgs were telling Organics they faced.

“Tyler, you can’t show me a graviton generator without expecting us to figure out how it works.” Jake shrugged. “Anyway, we had to reconstruct your gym. Don’t worry. We left a write-up so you can undo our changes if you want. But we think you’ll like the upgrades. It now has backup power. You can distort the gravity field anywhere on base, so you can create, say, a gravity moat around the perimeter. The upper limit on intensity is now somewhere north of ten times Earth gravity.”

“Still. Not. Intense. Enough.” With each word, Tyler squirmed away from the wall, inching his way towards normal gravity.

“Please, stop.” Jake held out his palms as if the high gravity zone were this thing he could push against. “If you all would just succumb to unconsciousness from the strain of the extra gravity, we could disappear without hurting anyone.”

“Have. A. Duty.” Tyler continued to work his way towards Jake. Sweat plastered his shirt to his body.

“I need to see you do this, Jake.” Gray handed Jake a couple of pens. “If you can’t do this to him here, you won’t be able to defend yourself against him out there.”

“We have biometric data for all of you. Even out there, we’ll always recognize you.” Jake threw the pens into the air. “Sorry, Tyler. We just want to be left alone.”

The pens tipped into the high gravity zone. They sped down towards Tyler, the pens’ nibs glowing from the friction. The glow worked its way back until the pens were bright rods deforming in the heat. Tyler screamed as they pierced his stomach and leg. Screams from his fellow Organics echoed across the base. They’d tried to squirm away from the high gravity too.

“Pens?” Tyler stopped moving. “Kill. With. Pens?”

“We improvised.” Jake shrugged. “No one notices pens going missing. But we’re not trying to kill you, just knock you out so that we can return gravity to normal, then leave.”

The flood lights went out. DAIS had cut the power. Even if the cyborgs did nothing, gravity would return to normal by itself when the graviton generator’s backup power ran out.

The world re-rendered itself in shades of luminous green. Troops began to muster in the distance. In Jake’s night vision, they looked those plastic toy soldiers kids played with. They’d keep their distance for now. Except for the Organics, any weapon that could take cyborg outs were sloppy enough that those troops would take themselves out at the same time. DAIS hadn’t come to that yet.

Tyler’s stomach and leg glowed. He grunted as he forced himself to sit up. A glowing, bent pen stuck out through the small of his back. He ripped the pens out of his body and screamed. Tears streamed down his face.

Grunts and shouts from the other trapped Organics crisscrossed the base as they all pushed themselves toward the cyborgs. They formed a slowly tightening ring as they plowed ahead only to collapse under their own weight.

The cyborgs linked their minds and caucused. Throwing more pens at the Organics would halt them for sure, or they could let the Organics exhaust themselves. Jake’s view held sway. They stood pat and waited. No one had the appetite for war anymore, if they had ever had any.

Instead of lurching through the high gravity zone, all the Organics had to do was lie still until the graviton generator failed. After that, they could have easily overpowered the cyborgs. They were too smart not to see that. They were also too smart not to have planned ahead. They’d been ordered to prevent the escape at all costs. Either they chose to obey the order or they chose to look as if they were.

The Organics lay exhausted on the ground. Only the dull red glow of their bodies convinced anyone that they hadn’t worked themselves to death. The cyborgs returned gravity to normal, and then leapt the wall. As he disappeared into the night, Jake hoped the Organics had exhausted themselves on purpose.

• • • •

Dressed in a bulky jacket and baggy pants, Jake slid through the sidewalk crowds. People stared at him, of course, but not everyone and not every stare radiated fear or caution. Some were curious and a few were downright appreciative. All of them, fortunately, were fleeting.

The crowds thinned as he reached the outskirts of the city. Tyler didn’t live on base. He lived in an apartment not an unrespectable march away. As if he were a normal person.

Jake made sure to arrive at night. He knocked on Tyler’s door with a gentleness learned from broken chopsticks and cracked teacups. As his reward, Tyler, stripped to the waist, opened the door.

“Jake?” Tyler’s mouth worked soundlessly for a few seconds before he could speak again. “It’s impressive how no one has been able to find any trace of you since you escaped, but isn’t the point of disappearing to stay gone?”

Tyler stepped aside and Jake entered the apartment. The coffee table and couch hunkered down like the massive beasts they were. Anyone else might have thought Tyler simply had a taste for austere pieces of solid hardwood. Jake suspected Tyler’s furniture could survive a full-scale military assault, or at least accidental shows of superhuman strength.

“You want me to visit.” Jake shed his jacket. It always cinched his shoulders, making him hunch over. He’d need freedom of motion if it turned out he’d guessed wrong about Tyler.

“You realize I’m more than capable of holding you here until my buddies show up. Once we have physical control over you, we can strip your mind bare, expose the locations of the rest of your squad.”

“But you haven’t called your buddies, and I don’t think you will.”

Tyler smiled. “Why not?”

“Because you let us escape. You ate lunch at the cafeteria because you knew eventually one of us would sit at your table. What DAIS did to you and your buddies nicely dodges this peace treaty, but you’re all looking ahead to the next one. You’re smart, but you’re not us. You’ll need our help to disappear.”

“Yeah, that too.” Tyler hung Jake’s jacket in a closet.

“And I owe you a game of Go.”

“You do, indeed.” Tyler gestured for Jake to follow him. “My Go set’s in the bedroom.”

The bedroom matched the living room’s cool, clean style. An unadorned rectangular dresser sat against the pale tan wall. The closet’s pocket door lay closed, melting into the surrounding wall. A skeletal cube of hardwood framed a substantial king size bed. Tyler reached into a drawer beneath the bed, then slid out a Go board and two bowls of stones.

“Let’s play on the bed.” Tyler centered the board on the bed, and placed the bowls on opposite sides. “I have to practice my finesse —”

“I’m aware of the problem.” Jake slowly sank before the bowl of white stones.

Tyler did the same before the bowl of black stones. As they played, if either one of them moved too much or too quickly, they’d jostle the stones out of place and ruin the game.

“So how many handicap stones do I get?” Tyler leaned towards Jake, his hand poised over his bowl of black stones.

Jake shrugged. “As many as you’d like.”

“Fifteen?” Tyler began laying out a starburst of black stones on the board.

Fifteen handicap stones was enough to allow a competent beginner to beat an accomplished pro some of the time. If Tyler never threw games to avoid attention, he’d be the top amateur in the country, perhaps even good enough to play professionally.

“Sure.” Jake nodded slowly. “We can start there. Add more for the next game if you need it.”

Tyler gazed expectantly at Jake. A smile spread across Tyler’s face. Jake placed his first stone, the lone white stone defiant in the lower left corner against the surrounding swarm of black stones.

John Chu

John Chu

John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator, and podcast narrator by night. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Uncanny, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Tor.com. His story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.