Louis looks at Kremel. “You’re disabled, John. You can’t detonate.”
John’s shoulders sag. There an audible clicking now. A mimic of human emotion unmasked by the failing inhuman motors whining beneath the quasi-flesh. Its torso spasms now. One eye, head hangs limp, glares at Louis, then at Kojak.
It’s defeated. A machine that does not know the meaning of defeat or loss, yet it knows it's done. Its programming begins to loop. Garbled words emit from the whistling speakers in its lower neck.
“We’re running out of time,” Star says. She’s ready to shut the projection curtain off when Louis gives the word. A curtain that hides them, but not for much longer.
Louis seems to wake. He shakes his head: not yet.
Myra kneels. Kojak remains by her side, ready to yank her away if the thing reacts.
“John?” Myra asks, “What have they done?”
The thing emits a series of clicks now, then deflates like an old tire. Its inner frame continues to dissolve. It sizzles now, and flecks of viscous orange decorate its forehead.
“Are you in there?” Myra peers at the remains of John’s face. Her hands shake. Anger or relief? Mock surrender comes now.
“Don’t touch it,” Louis says. “It can still kill you, Mrs. Kremel.”
Myra gives him a sharp look, stands. "For what ever he is now," she replies, "some part of him was once John."
Some small part of Louis wonders if somewhere in the augmented carcass before him, the original John Kremel still lives. Some last human or humane fragment. If he is aware at all, it’s almost over. He wants to say he’s sorry, for what it’s worth. And what is it worth?
“The AI has made a prison of his body—and his mind,” Louis explains. “We disable them to extract information.”
“If they don’t explode first,” Kojak quips.
Louis shakes his head—not now.
“He’s mostly machine.” Star tries to lessen the blow. She’s standing next to Louis. “He’s no more your husband than your cell pad is,” she tells Myra, knowing it doesn’t matter.
Myra moans, “But he’s alive...he’s flesh and blood and he’s warm…” And yet even she knows. She refuses to admit it.
“Only what you see,” Star explains. “His insides are all augments, even his brain is...”
“The AI invades it,” Louis explains. It keeps the basic structure intact, to help with the body's regular functions, but the frontal lobes--”
“--are fried,” Kojak finishes.
“Wow,” Star says. “You suck at this. We just slagged an AI—John--and all you can do is—"
Louis holds his hand up, "Okay...enough. We don't have time."
Kojak and Star go silent.
“And his soul?” Myra asks. “What of that?”
John, the thing, is watching them. The intelligence behind the one good eye is cold and indifferent.
Kojak gives the John-thing a kick in the shoulder. It tumbles to the ground. “These things have no soul.”
“Stop!” Myra is crying. She leans down. “Stop hurting him!”
“Ma’am, don’t touch it!” Star yells.
Myra kneels again, sobs, reaches out. Kojak pulls her away. Myra does not resist.
“It’s not John. He died years ago,” Louis explains. “It has been hiding in his body, using it like…like a costume.” He regrets every word and doesn't. What a mixed bag of nonsense, he wants to say.
Suddenly the thing snaps at Myra. Tries to bite her hand. She moves away in surprise. Its teeth snap like a machine. Bits of silver fleck away.
“John!” Myra screams. It snaps again. “John!”
Myra’s eyes flick up. “How long?” She backs away again. Realization comes, finally. But she knew all along. Must have kept that realization locked away, she knows. This isn’t John. Hasn't been John for years...
“There’s no way to be sure, Ma’am,” Star answers. “But judging from the extent of the invasion, three to fours years at least.”
Again, some private realization works its way into Myra’s thoughts. “Oh God. What has happened to us?”
Star doesn’t understand what she means, but Louis knows. She means, what has happened to all of us—the human race. How has she let herself ignore the anguish around her? Her denial—her perfectly constructed wall—has been torn away in seconds. Even her husband has succumbed and she knows it. At the same moment, she refuses the knowledge. Her safety and security living behind the walls of the cities all her life is all that matters.
Presently, John’s hand is clawing at the pavement. Fingers tap like an angry spider. Tap, tap. The arm slowly slides away from the oozing orange mush. Strings of flesh and wire snap as the arm detaches from what’s left of the mangled torso. It begins to move toward Myra.
Her eyes widen. The orange melting hand is wearing a wedding band.
“Kill it!” Myra screams suddenly. "Put it out of its..."
Louis turns to Kojak. Louis nods.
“My pleasure,” Kojak says. He releases Myra, grabs a chair, and slams it down on the detached arm. The thing’s fingers break and start to bleed--real blood. The arm stays put and begins to dissolve like the rest of it. Kojak smirks.
Myra's reaction is a prolonged gasp.
“All skin and tin,” Kojak says. He grabs the wedding band, wipes it on his slacks and hands it to Myra. “Sorry for your loss, Ma'am."
“Sergeant,” Louis says under his breath.
“Yeah, I know. No slag jokes on duty.” Kojak shoves a sucker into his mouth, shrugs.
Star cocks her head. “They're watching,” she says. Her eyes are suddenly bouncing like fried marbles. She’s online again, head in the cloud, scanning the Integration.
“They don’t know our exact location, but they're localizing. We need to hurry. I got all the data I can from it.”
“Good,” Kojak says. He reaches over and yanks the probe from John thing's eye socket. The destroyed eye comes out along with it. A metallic ball with several eye-sized lenses, including one in the back. “That’s new,” he says. “Colonel?”
Louis glances at the ball. “Mini-nuke. Let's keep it.”
Kojak shrugs and pockets the nuke eyeball and his sharp probe.
Louis turns. What’s left of John tries to lift itself now. Its parts are dissolving into an orange slush but a metallic cage is visible. A cage affixed to natural rib bones beneath. Some of him is still human, Louis knows, but not enough to matter.
John’s stomach plops sickly to the pavement.
“Christ,” Kojak says. “They always keep the stomach but never the a—”
“Sergeant!” Louis yells.
“Never mind Ma’am,” he apologizes to Myra. “I’m…”
Myra is holding the wedding band, wiping it absently.
“We need to go,” Louis says. He looks at Myra. “Come with us if you want to live.” The moment he says it, he feels like an idiot.
Myra doesn’t reply.
Star is on it. She takes Myra by the hand, then gently clasps her neck from behind. A quick sedative and she’s agreeable.
Kojak bends over the orange puddle that was once John Kremel. He removes a scanner from his pocket and checks. He does it again.
“What’s wrong?” Louis asks.
“I got nothing.”
Star sits Myra down. She uses her scanner, double checks the slag puddle. “He’s right, it’s not here.” She looks at Louis. “What do we do now?”
“If it’s not here, then we’ve been had,” Louis turns. “Let’s go! Grab her!” he yells at Star. Star reaches for Myra but without warning, Myra pulls away.
“Hey, not so rough!” Myra exclaims. “Or I won’t tell you.” Myra has a Cheshire Cat grin.
Louis does a double-take, looks at Star for an explanation.
Star shrugs. “Maybe it’s the sedative. Makes her paranoid.”
Myra’s head is drooping. “Ma’am,” Louis says gently, “we’re here to see you to safety.” That’s what he hopes anyway. “But we don’t have time to explain.”
Myra doesn’t give an outward sign that she understands. “Okay,” she answers. Louis and Star exchange glances.
“You’re nice so I’ll tell you the secrets.” She leans forward and whispers into Louis’ ear. His eyes widen.
“Is that so,” Louis answers.
She nods, giggles. “I’m the carrier.” She pauses, smiles and promptly passes out.
© 2020 Jack Shorebird