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Running Behind

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Fifteen years after MT unit NH-01987 is commissioned, they designate him defective.

He doesn't know for sure who makes the final call.

Maybe it's the doctor in the long white coat that straps him down onto the table in the laboratory two times a week.

After all, his body's been rejecting the treatments more and more lately. When they tape tubes to his arms and fill his veins with viscous black goop, he vomits it up hours later, until he's a shaking wreck on the floor, heaving nothing but bile.

Maybe it's his training instructor, who drills him nine hours every day, until he's limp and exhausted, panted breaths burning in his lungs.

After all, he's earned failing marks in hand-to-hand combat and 86% of the melee weapons he's attempted. NH-01987 has the best marksmanship scores in his squad, and he's in the ninetieth percentile for speed. But an effective combat unit requires strength and durability, and he's far below average in both.

Maybe it's the guard who mans the storage wing, whose job it is to walk the catwalks between the metal pods where the MT units are kept overnight.

After all, NH-01987 hates those pods. He's slept in them since he was transferred to a proper training squad, maybe four years after his commission date, but he's never gotten past the suffocating closeness of them. NH-01987 isn't big, as far as MTs go. He's short, and he's scrawny, and he has trouble putting on muscle. But the storage pods brush his shoulders when he's in there; he can feel them pressing in on him, when he closes his eyes. He balks sometimes, when it's time to go inside. Twice in the past six months, the guard has needed to push him in and close the door behind him.

So there are plenty of options. Plenty of higher-ups who probably don't think he's worth keeping around anymore.

But whoever it is, NH-01987 doesn't hear about the news. He just finds it, when he returns after training one day.

There's a tag hanging on his storage pod, instead of the clipboard that documents his progress. On that tag, there's a single word stamped in red: defective.

NH-01987's feet stick on the metal of the catwalk. Behind the ever-present metallic mask, his eyes grow huge.

He knows what that tag means. It means that, in the morning, while the other MT units are collected for training, a guard will come for him. He'll be restrained and escorted down the metal corridors toward the east wing, into the double-doors that house the correctional facility. But he won't be up for re-programming, not this time.

This time, they'll strap him down to a table for the last time ever. They'll pick him apart, to try and learn what caused his failures – and he has so very many of them, no matter how hard he's tried.

When they're finished, they'll take what's left to the crematory. That will be the end of him: a pile of ashes and a wisp of smoke.

NH-01987 knows it's not his place to question the will of the Empire. He knows he was commissioned to serve. He knows that the impulses he can never quite suppress, selfish moments of reluctance, are what separates him from the successful units, and that if he'd only managed to contain them throughout the years, he wouldn't be facing this situation now.

His new designation is fact. An MT unit can no more argue against decommissioning than a gun can rebel against its owner.

NH-01987 knows this.

And yet his legs lock, there on the catwalk. His fingers close over the metal railing, so hard his armor leaves a dent in the steel. The guard has to force him back into his storage pod for the evening, and NH-01987 does not go easily. It takes three of them to do it, to hold him in and latch the door, and when at last the metal pod is sealed, taking the light with it, he stands there in the dark, shaking, and thinks of the tag outside that reads defective, and the crematory, and a hundred different ways he could have done better.

He doesn't sleep.

He just breathes, so hard and so fast he starts to get dizzy. When he leans against the back of the pod to keep him up, the closeness of the metal crushes in on him, and he breathes harder still. Beneath the mask, his face feels wet and sticky.

There's nothing he can do. If he wanted to convince them that he was worth keeping, he's far, far too late for that. In the morning, the pod will open, and NH-01987 will be waiting there for them to take.

Unless. Unless he isn't.

It's an idea so shocking – so unthinkably outrageous – that NH-01987 flinches. Once, perhaps five years after commissioning, he tried to run. It was during a training exercise in the courtyard. He hadn't been confined to his armor, yet; he remembers thinking that if he could only get past the walls, perhaps he could hide himself away, somewhere far from his training instructor's corrective punishments and the nightly confines of the storage pods.

Sometimes when he sleeps, NH-01987 sees fragmented glimpses of that ill-advised attempt. He still has the marks from it, all along his back, and his legs, and his arms.

So his first impulse – his strongest impulse – is to shy away from the very idea.

His second impulse, coming in on its heels, is: they're going to cut you apart and then burn you until there's nothing left. What worse could they possibly do?

It's a reasonable question. He turns it over and over, examining it from every angle, there in the dark, in his storage pod.

Nothing, he decides at last. They've marked him as irreparable already. One more defect on top of all the others won't change the new designation.

So, in the morning, when the pod opens, NH-01987 won't be here. That's all.

It seems easy enough, on its surface. But in practice, the pods lock when they close. NH-01987 learned this during the early days, when he was first transferred to the storage wing. Back then, when he was much smaller, he would slam his fists against the metal and call for someone to let him out, over and over, until exhaustion forced him to silence.

Eventually, NH-01987 learned that no one would come.

It's been years since those nightly waves of terror. He's grown more familiar with the pods, in more ways than one.

Sometimes, the guard who patrols the storage wing requisitions NH-01987 after training, to assist with maintenance on the storage units. It's work that NH-01987 never minds. His hands run through the repairs with an ease he never finds in hand-to-hand combat training; the instructions always seem second-nature, the shape of the parts and the placement of the wiring an intuitive thing.

NH-01987 has changed out power cords and put together electrical circuits. He's welded parts together from scraps.

He's also repaired faulty pod doors – and he knows that the hinges face inward.

It takes NH-01987 a moment to decide what he'll use. He doesn't have any tools with him, after all. But he has his armor; he always has his armor. And the slender, rounded puncturing blades meant to take out eyes and soft tissue at close range – he thinks they might fit.

NH-01987 eases one free from its casing. In the dark, he can't see where the hinges rest.

So he takes off the armor plating over his hands, and then the gloves underneath. He feels his way along the cold steel of the storage pod until he finds the hinge pin. Then he presses in the blade, forcing the pin up.

It hits the floor of the storage pod with a clink of metal on metal, and NH-01987 lets out a breath, heart hammering in his chest.

Just one more.

He kneels, and traces his fingers along the edge until he finds the second hinge. Then he works it free.

The door doesn't fall open at once.

The locked end holds it sealed, but when NH-01987 presses against the other side – the side now without hinges – it gives under his weight. He presses harder, and sees a slice of the outside world appear.

It will be a tight fit. If he wasn't in his armor, the metal would probably crush his chest in when he attempted to squeeze past.

He doesn't have a choice.

NH-01987 leans all his weight against the door, forcing the hinge-side open perhaps a foot, in total. Then he wedges his shoulder into the gap, and begins to wriggle through. It's hard going; the door scrapes and drags. He's certain that it's going to crush him after all, armor or no.

But then he's through, standing on the metal catwalk, the only light the dim glow of the overnight backup lights.

He's not familiar with the watch rotation on the night shift, but he suspects the numbers will be low. There are dorms that accommodate the human guards, and the MT units are all in storage for the night.

NH-01987 pauses, something about that observation making him hesitate.

Then it comes to him: the MT units are all in storage for the night. As soon as someone spots him in his armor, bulky and clanking, he'll be stopped and questioned, and then sent back to his storage pod to be decommissioned in the morning.

NH-01987 hesitates, there on the catwalk.

MT units are not allowed to remove their armor, except for required maintenance and periodic scheduled visits to the hygiene chamber.

But then, MT units are not allowed to be out of storage at night. MT units are not allowed to run. MT units are not allowed to ignore a designation, defective or otherwise.

NH-01987 takes a deep breath in and finds the manual catch releases for the plating of his armor. He digs the wiring from his skin, and he works the tubes from their ports, hissing sharply when the one burrowed in near the base of his spine catches and tugs.

But eventually, he manages. Eventually, he stands in nothing more than the thin, black full-body undersuit that serves as required wear beneath the armor. He's shivering, with both cold and pain, but NH-01987's training has accustomed him to discomfort. He ignores it as he hides his armor behind the storage pod, out of sight from any guards patrolling on the chamber's floor.

Then NH-01987 begins to walk.

If he can reach the courtyard, he thinks, he can leave the compound over the walls.

He'll walk slowly, and he'll act as though nothing is amiss. At a distance, without the armor, he might pass as a person for long enough to be overlooked.

His plan, what little plan it is, gets NH-01987 farther than he expects. The storage facility is empty; he doesn't pass a single guard along the way. The only sounds are the sounds of his own footsteps, bare feet on the metal of the corridor floor, and the pounding of his heart, loud in his ears.

Every breath is a struggle. He feels like he does when they strap him down on the examination table to run new experiments: lightheaded and dizzy with fear.

The storage facility gives way to the training wing, dark and quiet at this time of night. The slick, polished floors are devoid of blood, wiped clean of the evidence of the day's drills. NH-01987's training instructor is nowhere to be seen, and the chamber seems empty without the man's harsh voice.

NH-01987 presses on.

He passes a corridor he doesn't know, where a sign indicates that he can turn toward the dorms, and there, for the first time, he hears footsteps.

There are two guards, when he turns to look – both out of uniform, both with white pieces of cloth draped over their shoulders. They're talking together, voices casual, on their way down the hall.

NH-01987 freezes. He's certain they've seen him – certain one of their voices will ring out, any moment now, to demand his identification number and purpose. His feet feel like they're melded to the floor; every individual part of his body is heavier than steel.

But neither guard says a word. They carry on their way down the hall, and NH-01987 stares after them, heart drumming in his chest, fear a bitter taste at the back of his throat. For a moment, he doesn't understand.

And then, just as suddenly, he does: without his armor, they've taken him for another guard. Without his armor, at this distance, they've mistaken him for a person, after all.

The guards turn a corner, and their voices echo back toward him, growing fainter, until the sound of a door opening and then closing again cuts them off entirely. NH-01987 forces his legs to work; they're shaky and weak beneath him, and for an instant, he isn't sure they'll hold his weight. If he was in training, he would have been on the ground bleeding after a lapse like that.

NH-01987 rubs a hand across his face and takes a breath in. When he starts to walk again, he picks up his pace.

He passes the hygiene chamber with its grey tiled floors and the nozzles that spray icy water. He passes the double doors to the east wing, where the correctional facility and the crematory lie in wait. He's making good time; there's no one out here, far less watching eyes to avoid than he expected.

He might actually make it, and that thought causes some strange feeling to swell up in his chest, bright but cautious. NH-01987 doesn't have a name for it.

He presses on, past storage chambers and offices and one room with a bank of monitors that show other parts of the facility. He thinks he knows where the courtyard is, thinks he remembers the path he took with the rest of his squad to reach it, but it's been years since the last time he was allowed to train outside. He takes a left, and then a right, and then another left – wonders, increasingly urgently, whether he remembers as well as he thought.

He passes a door marked RECORDS, and another one that says RESEARCH. With a sinking sensation, he realizes he's never seen these doors before. Somehow, in all the twisting turns, he's taken the wrong one.

He'll have to go back. He'll have to retrace his steps until he finds familiar ground and work from there.

NH-01987 is turning to go when a voice reaches his ears. "Hey," it says. "This place is off-limits after hours."

He turns as though under sedation, horror a vice around his throat. Standing there, mousy hair rumpled, is a man in a long white coat. He's just come through the door marked RESEARCH, maybe five feet away.

The man stares. NH-01987 stares back.

He can see the instant the expression starts to change – can see realization as the man's gaze flickers from NH-01987's eyes, to the black undersuit, to the ports where he unhooked the armor's tubing. This close up, it has to be obvious, all exposed wiring and the remnants of blood. This close up, there won't be any fortunate misunderstandings.

The man opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He staggers a step back, and then another, then slams into the RESEARCH door and disappears inside.

An instant later, an alarm blares to life, the wailing cry of it shaking NH-01987 to his bones.

That's a level four alarm. This very instant, every MT unit in storage is being released to conduct a full search of the facility.

He doesn't have time to find the courtyard – not anymore.

Instead, he slams into the RESEARCH door behind the man in the white coat and pushes his way inside. He does a quick sweep of the room: a station with glass tubing and a lot of rectangular steel desks. The man is crouched behind one of them, speaking into a microphone. He drops it when he sees NH-01987, cries out and shrinks away.

NH-01987 doesn't have time to wonder about that reaction.

He reaches for the man in the white coat. NH-01987 knows, from long years of training, that he isn't supposed to touch real people – but he's desperate, and he needs the man to understand. "Please," he tries to say, but he hasn't spoken in a long, long time. His voice comes out as a rusty creak.

He licks at his lips, and opens his mouth to try again – but the man beats him to it. "Wait," he says. "Don't hurt me."

The words are so far from what NH-01987 expects that he's stymied for an instant. Violence against the facility staff – it's unthinkable. It's the very first conditioning exercise he can ever remember, and it's burned into him in half a dozen places, etched into his flesh in age-old broken bones that still ache when the weather turns cold.

Even the thought makes his skin scrawl.

"I won't," NH-01987 says, and this time, at least – this time he forms words, strange and ragged. "I just." He swallows. "Which way is out?"

The man points a shaking finger toward the other side of the office, and NH-01987 turns to look. And there it is, the most beautiful sight he's ever seen: a bank of glass, looking out onto other buildings, a whole sea of buildings, beset with light and fading into the distance. Above it, the sky is dark and speckled with pinpricks of white.

NH-01987 feels his mouth fall open.

That isn't the courtyard. That's something else entirely.

He lets go of the man and turns toward the glass – crosses the floor at a dead run. He doesn't have time, not with that alarm. Definitely not now that the man in the white coat is picking up the microphone to yell into it, calling for backup in the research wing.

He'd thought there was nothing worse they could subject him to, no punishment more final than decommissioning, but that was before NH-01987 caused a level four alarm in the middle of the night.

They'll make something up.

NH-01987 seizes a chair from behind one of the desks and swings it at the glass. It shatters in a spray of glimmering shards; one catches him across the face. He has just enough time to think that it would be better if he had something to cover his feet, but then the door to the hallway bursts open, and the world is filled with voices raised in anger.

He glances back to see human guards crammed into the doorway. Red spots of light, the swooping pinpoint tips of the laser sights on their guns, skitter toward him along the floor.

Go, NH-01987 thinks frantically. Go now.

He turns and throws himself toward the now-open space where the glass used to be. With every step, the shards on the ground shred the vulnerable skin on the bottom of his feet. The world explodes into sound behind him, the cacophony of a half-dozen guns going off all at once.

Something slams into NH-01987's back, sudden force. Then he's falling, and the ground's rushing up to catch him, and he thinks, desperately: just keep moving. Whatever you do, keep moving.

His left ankle twists under him when he lands, and something hot and wet is spilling down his back, and every step makes his feet feel like they're on fire.

But NH-01987 knows what will happen if he stops.

He keeps moving.