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Blood, Sweat, and Steel

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September 5, 2058.

Chicago. Southeast, Precinct 42.

10:45 AM.

Eight fresh rookies finished filling out paperwork, their new uniforms clean and pressed. Two women, six men. The leather on their belts hadn’t broken in yet, their boots shines under the fluorescent lightings. Not one was older then 25.

8 new scabs.

Not the kindest term, but what else do you call someone with a new implant at the back of the next, where the flesh met metal, and the edges are rough and raw. They body would adapt, but for now the surgery meant that they were wearing bandages and trying not to touch the the newest part of their bodies. They talk and joke about what’s coming up. Nervousness, rookie nerves.

And they should be. 42 Isn’t a good place to be a cop. Even in the station, bulletproof vests are a common sight. Mechs are on duty in a two block radius at all times. 42 isn’t a place you ask for, it’s a place you end up.

Scabs didn’t have it as bad as the others, maybe that’s why they got some shit from the locals. It’s easier to sleep at night when you know a few tons of mechanised armor would be around you tomorrow. Scabs tended to make it to pension. Scabs could get out of 42.
—————————————
Sergeant Kole walked into the room. Six seven, solid like brick wall. He loomed over the new scabs. Kids half his age. What the hell were they doing here? He knew, he’d read their paperwork.
“Well, as I’m sure none of you are eager to stay in 42; I have good news. We’ve got just 4 mechanised units without pilots. Two threaded cruisers, which means you get to spend the day playing bus driver. An ariel drone, which means you get to stay in a pod at the station.” He pauses, noting that the kids are looking happier. They should, not bad shifts at all.

“And a maximum-sized single-pilot SWAT mech with full AI.”

Ah, that got the look he’d wanted. He let a half smile pull up the left corner of his mouth.

“Which of course, means you lot get to go through an integration.” That got groans. Of course it would.
—————————-

Kole new a few things about the good man he’d lost when the Mech had taken that hit. You didn’t get to his position without spending time with your best. When 42 had lost it’s heaviest hitter, things had gotten worse. Four months it had been now. That was an eternity for an AI. One month of repairs. Three more mourning. Yesterday, it’d said it was ready.

Kole had 8 rookies ready the next day.
—————————-

Chris knew 42 better then the others. He’d spent time in here when he was younger. Anyone who grew up in this armpit of Chicago spent time in 42. Either as a victim, or having done a crime. Chris’d turned by the end. Spilled the beans on his gang.

That’d gotten him a reward, a ticket out. He took it. Now he had a GED, he’d gone through the Police Academy. And he is back. He watched as the technician clean up the black vinyl chair that housed a remote interface. Somewhere close by, down in the motorpool, is a large mech in a docking bay. It’d turned down the first three in less then a minute each. THe next two had lasted longer. Now it was almost lunchtime, and Chris is going to have to get his AI cherry popped.

Not that he hadn’t interfaced before, but that was with training computers. Calm machines on courses, patient and well experienced AI that dealt with rookies every day. Not with an older, experienced partner. Not with an AI that might hate his guts. THat’s what the chair was for. To prevent the kind of feedback that’d fry your brain. You did NOT hook into an AI that didn’t want you. That was a good way to end up drooling in an asylum the rest of your life.

Sitting down, shuffling to get comfortable, Chris nodded to the tech. “I’m good. Let’s see what he thinks of me.”

The interface plates connected. Chris saw green lines, markers to indicate proper connectivity.

“You’re into the chair. You ready?” confirmed the Tech.

Chris swallowed. “Yes. Link us up.”

He felt like a pit had opened under him, the borning room in the station fell away as the machine pushed it’s awareness onto his own..

 


 

Up on his slab in the docking bay stood a formidable HLX-9 Vanguard Hawker: fifteen feet and six tons of bunker-busting, mortar-slinging machinery. The Long, Metal Arm of the Law they called him around here. It was a hard-earned title, believe it or not.

The mech, who everyone just called Hawker, vented a short gust of air from the rear manifold outlets underneath his scapular plates, shifting his feet a little on the slab out of irritation rather than fatigue. His face, a glossy white against an immense body of matte black, scowled vaguely as he waited for the next recruit. He didn’t want to be here, but he needed to be here.

Consciousness surged into him, clawing and biting. For a full 38 seconds he couldn’t see, hear, or detect much of anything around him – his sensors came online sluggishly, and it was all he could do to keep from lashing out to make his software boot faster.

At last Hawker was able to see the engineers standing nearby, a safe distance away, as he looked at them almost accusingly.

“Where is Davidson?” he rumbled haggardly, his vocal unit still throwing error codes.

They all looked at each other anxiously.

“Where’s Lee?” He rarely said his pilot’s first name around others out of sheer respect – but in the cockpit, they spoke freely together. And right now, his cockpit was eerily empty.

“He…” Chief engineer Colburn looked away toward the monitors, as through their logarithmic readouts and lines of tiny code would help. “He was in a coma, Hawker. His son made the decision this morning.”

The giant mech just laid there on his side, heavy cables dripping out from the back of his head like a tuft of freakish hair. He balled his hand into a tight fist, emotion threatening to overcome him. The humans, so goddamn tiny, took a few more steps away, though none of them would dare try to take him offline now.

When one of the screens exploded in a shower of sparks and burnt plastic, however, a few of ran screaming.

“Hawker, I’m sorry,” Colburn offered, unfazed at the outburst; there was genuine sadness in her eyes, though. “I didn’t mean for you to find out this way.”

Next, he sent to the computer terminal in the processing room. It would appear as a little blip of a word on the screen, belying the intensity of what the poor scab was about to experience. For the mech, it would be nothing. The equivalent to delivering an unexpected punch to the gut and seeing if he had the wits to block it. Most rooks didn’t.

The kid’s file was modestly promising, but then, so were they all. The scabs were here for a reason just like anyone else – do a job, get paid. Hawker was never going to find another Lee Davidson, he knew that much.

“Hurry up so I can get back to being relegated to patrols,” the mech muttered to himself.

A few seconds later, the connection was open and priming. He counted down from 5, and like that, a whole other world suddenly ballooned into his foreprocessors.

Hawker didn’t pause to feel around – he ‘circled’ the kid’s mind once, quickly, and delivered a electro-neurological jab of meaningless information of just the right load and frequency to make most humans unseasonably uncomfortable. There was no form here – just noise, thought, sensation, and Hawker was designed to have one foot in that world at all times. This kid – this Chris Celn – wasn’t. It wasn’t even a matter of finding out if they could, either. That was the academy’s job. What Hawker was here to do was see if Chris knew how to duck.

 


 

Hawker.

He at least had a name for the AI now, it’d flashed to him right before everything went dark. This wasn’t like being with those training AIs. Nor was it like when his wetware had had the lowest operating software installed by the surgical staff.

He is alone with a tiger.

The -PRESENCE- of the AI dominated his awareness. He blinked, then closed his eyes. No good looking when your optical processing was being re-directed. It read him, he could feel it measuring his mind. It make a slow circle around him, as if it’s oversized footsteps were reverberating around him in the chair. Then Chris wasn’t sitting anymore. He was on his feet, in darkness. Danger is close.

His childhood all over again. The hairs on the nape of his neck perked at the sensation of exertion. The pulling back before a blow. He didn’t know much about coding, many of those lessons were resting in the mechanical databanks in his mind.
Years of instinct from growing up on the streets kicked in, he pushed back from the blow; his boots squeaking into the floor as he crouched. Something grazed his arm, like getting clipped by a passing truck. That was too close. Would there be more?

His hands went for his sidearm and flashlight. Nothing. He didn’t have his equipment here. His fingers flexed and he swallowed. Coming up on his haunches so he could spring away, he tried to ‘face’ the threat he couldn’t see. Until it wanted to , the AI could be as elusive as it wanted.

 


 

Oh? he thought, though deeper than their current connection. Deeper – further – than he would permit the kid to hear. For now. Well this is interesting.

Human minds fascinated him more than he cared to admit. They were messy, tangled things, seething with blood and iron and lipids. Though the scab felt small here – no, he projected ‘small’ – their awarenesses were comparable in complexity. Hawker’s ‘mind’, his software, was a bit more elegant, a bit quicker with numbers, and he was capable of seeing out of many eyes. Or, as the case may be here, none at all.

Celn’s reaction intrigued him… did it really feel right?

Let’s try this…

A hand – a worm connection, really – shot out to grab the kid by his face – his densest cluster of conscious thoughts. It was a basic psy-hack technique, but if Celn could recognize the danger here and react accordingly, then… well, Hawker would have to see if he could manage it first.

The scab’s presence here, so close to him, so small and quick, was thrilling. It’d been months, and those other candidates had been such spectacular disappointments. But here… Hawker was already getting the sense that something had the potential to resonate.

 


 

Chris’s mouth pulled down into a frown. In the simulated interface, there usually was a background. Sometimes it was an open field. Sometimes the inside of a warehouse. Usually it was a comfortable living room. This is just a dark alley. There’s almost nothing to see. He can feel a ‘wall’ behind him, and he knows there’s another not too far off. There’s some ground under his feet and a sense of open above.

Hawker is large, bordering on huge. There’s no question about how the AI presented itself. As if the moon had crept over the top of the buildings that made up this alley, Chris could ‘see’ the highlights of a truly oversized mech. Shoulders broaders then he stood tall shifted, a hand opening up, fingers splayed wide, to grasp… him?

-fuck THAT!-

The human wore his duty uniform in this mental simulation, brass buttons glinting in the moonlight. It shouldn’t be possible for something that big to be so fast. He knew that if he let that impact hit him, he’d be brained up against the brick wall behind him.

The kid ducked down, letting the gravity in the simulated environment pull him down. Arms over his head, he tucked into a crouch as he ‘felt’ the mechanised brute smash into the bricks. Digital debris fell onto him, his forearms felt like the robot’s palm hand bruised and scraped his flesh.

It wasn’t that the kid thought of himself as small either, he looked too small to be wearing the uniform. Like some teenager on halloween. Chris thought of himself as a teen still. Perhaps it was the danger, the menace and control the AI had in this digital realm. Reminding him of life when safety meant sleeping near your mates. Chris had survived on the streets by not taking hits. And he felt like he really, really wasn’t welcome here.

Putting his right hand down, he pushed up and launched to the left. All the AI had done was act aggressively toward him. It didn’t say hello, but neither had he. As he did his best to put the robot ‘behind’ him by getting on his feet to sprint, Chris called out in the simulation, his lips in the real world moving slightly.

“Okay! You don’t like me Hawker, I get it!”

 


 

The kid was catching on quick. Much quicker than the rest of his ‘graduating class’. But he was scared – Hawker could feel, even over their rather superficial connection, his adrenaline pumping, his chest heaving, and… was that sweat on the nape of his neck?

“Okay! You don’t like me Hawker, I get it!”

A setting familiar to the human had come into being at his nudging though the AI knew how to co-create in this space just as well as any meat intelligence. It gave the kid a place to run to in order to run from him. It was the mental distance he was wanting to put between them.

Hawker stopped his volley of assaults and held still, taking a moment to check himself. He’d put a half dozen other scabs through the ringer already – what was he trying to prove here? That none of them were Lee? Of course they weren’t. You were built to be a professional, he scolded himself with a scowl. Start acting like one.

The mech let their environment fully realize, and he took a tentative step toward the rook, revealing himself in the dim light.

“You’re being too goddamn hard on them,” the neural bridge operator had flatly noted after the third candidate was sent from processing with his nose gushing blood. “You wanna get back out in the field or what?”

Hawker’s projection vented air in time with his real self down in the hangar.

“You’re a damn good scab,” he said finally, almond-shaped yellow optics glinting, tiny concentric rings of lenses behind them shifting as they studied his form. The kid was shapely, strong. Just what he needed. “But only time will tell if you’ve got what it takes to pilot a Vanguard-class HLX in this precinct. To pilot me. Now come on downstairs,” Hawker said, trying to sound approving with that deep, commanding voice, “so I can welcome you to this hellhole in person.”

 


 

In the virtual environment creation, there were three involved. Chris, Hawker and the technician. The tech’s job is to make sure Chris didn’t end up on a slab. Aside from that the human and the AI had free reign. Chris got about six firm footplants into his spring before he ran into a chain-link fence. It spanned the alleyway, go up, far to high for him to climb. The black and white nature of the environment began to color, both his skin,t he metal of the fence, the blue of his uniform. He turned slowly, hearing the machine draw close.

A singular light came on above, making a pool of illumination over the kid. He was in full flight mode, and already he was gauging if he thought he could get around or under the AI’s presence. Then it came into the light as well.

“Holy.. fuck!” he uttered, having to look UP to meet those yellow optics.

The mech towered over him, nearly three times his height. Armor. Antennas. Weapons. Fists like wrecking balls. Feet that could punt a squad car with ease. As it loomed, intimidating jets of pressurised air and steam ejected from it.

Chris’s eyes are open wide, as he stared at it, having no place to run. The AI could reach all over the alley, how he’d avoided it until now he had no idea. It’d been toying with him, like a cat with a mouse. Then it spoke.

The words came out strong. There is no question that Hawker is utterly military, both and design and mentality. Chris felt like a new boot. Fresh off the bus, having the drill sergeant growling at him. Except that the words are complimentary.

There is only one thing he could say to Hawker as Chris came to attention and nodded with an obediant. “Yes, Sir.”

—————————————–[end of line]

With a soft mechanical whirr, the chair disconnected. Chris twitched as motor control returned to his body. He sat upright fast, boots hitting the floor as he sucked in a great gout of air. Sweat soaked through his back, his hands shook as he leaned forward. The tech handed him a bucket, and the scab coughed up his breakfast into it. After he’d had time to recover, the technician provided a few paper towels as well.

“Officer Celn.” rolled out Kole’s firm voice. The man had a big smile on his face. He’d expected Hawker to chew through rookies for weeks. Getting one on the first day? Better then he could have possibly hoped. The kid got on his unsteady feet and nodded, drinking from a bottle of water as he followed the big human. “So, for the next few weeks you and Hawker are going to get to know each other. That means you train with him,” he handed Chris more paperwork. “Sign where I’ve highlighted. A couple each page.”

The elevator doors opened, they got on and it wasn’t until they closed that Kole spoke up again. Quieter, subtle for a big man. “He outranks you Chris. You’ll spend every waking moment training, socializing and preforming repairs on Hawker. You’ll be sleeping in his gantry bay. I need him on the streets like he never left. Understand?”

Chris’s head is swimming, he’s just finishing the high of the encounter, knowing that Hawker is top-spec military Mech. CURRENT! Current tech Mech. Hawker’s model is still well in use on the military’s front lines. Hawker likely is the biggest dog in 42, and Chris was the key to getting that force of nature back out where it belonged. “Yes. I get you sir. I won’t let you down.”

As the elevator doors opened, Kole took the paperwork and gestured down the busy open space that is the motor pool. “It’s not me you need to prove yourself to. Hop to it scabber.” He pushed a button and the doors closed.

Chris walked down the side of the room, watching his step and trying to keep the water down. He is full of nerves after that. And he’s getting looks. Curious, judgemental looks. They knew he hadn’t flunked out. And they had known Hawker’s previous Pilot. Chris had some impossibly big boots to fill. Hawker’s alcove had a translucent plastic barrier, those long strips from the 20 foot ceiling.

As he stepped in, Chris could only stare. This wasn’t just a niche, this is like someone stuffed half of an apartment in the motor pool. And dominating the space is the 15 foot tall,(not counting antennas) form of Hawker. Three times Chris’s Height. Male. Imposing.

Chris stool up straight. Saluted before offering his hand to shake. “Hello again, Captain Hawker. Office Celn reporting for duty.”

 


 

Hawker left just before the tech ended their connection, returning to his body.

Visual net offline, he felt around his own hands. Big, black appendages, as wide as a man was shoulder to shoulder. In a grip, they could exert just over 500 foot-pounds of pressure. In a full-wound punch, septuple that amount.

He onlined his visuals, and noted that the motorpool’s technicians, whom he’d sensed as vague radar blips of warmth and EMS otherwise, were looking at him now. Wondering. When his optics flickered on, they hurriedly went back to their jobs – none of them dared say anything to him unless he spoke first.

Hawker’s cold detachment wasn’t a persona, it was who he was, down to his last line of code. Few people had the honor of seeing anything else. And one of them was dead now. The mech had no intention of getting that close to a pilot again.

The door on the far wall, past the row of 8-wheeled MRAVs, shunted open. Kole remained in shadow on the other side, but Hawker knew that salt-and-pepper hair and ugly smile from a literal mile away. He nodded his subtle acknowledgement and the door shut itself.

Lit harshly from above, Hawker knew he looked like some kind of bastardized Catholic icon, tucked back into his ‘parking spot’ like that. Chris just added to the irony of it all as he approached with something that pass as religious reverence, taking careful, measured steps. The mech wondered what Kole told him on the ride down.

A weak klaxon sounded only once as Hawker disengaged himself from the slab – more a vertically-oriented berth where he could hook himself up to the precinct’s systems – warning others that the giant was about to be mobile. Planes of plexi, edged in caution striping, separated into six and folded away as he stepped out onto the concrete and tread plate floor.

Boom.

The techs, he realized with faint bemusement, had made themselves scarce.

“Hello again, Captain Hawker. Officer Celn reporting for duty.”

Hawker tilted his head as he looked down at his new pilot, barely taller than knee-height. Just like their shared simulation. Except, as always… different.

The kid flinched when he took a step closer and folded his big arms around his broad chest. “Don’t ask me for a handshake, greenhorn, unless you don’t want a hand left afterward.” He wanted to laugh at the kid’s reaction, but he knew just what his hands were capable of. With that, he turned, beckoning with a quick gesture for the human on his little legs to follow.

“I may be your superior, and I may be your partner,” he went on, striding over to a twenty-foot door and ordering it open with a wireless ping. Inside was his domain, his place for police-work: massive screens along one wall, and 42’s computer servers on the other. Leading up to the bank of controls was a small lift for human personnel. “But I am also your equipment.” He stopped at the computer screens and pulled up a slideshow of his own design specifications, engineering schematics, and a dozen potential loadouts.

Hawker turned back to Chris. “And you need to trust me exactly as far as my operating limitations allow.” Bitterness crept into his voice now. “Because if I fail critically, you’re going down too.

“Now. My job: protect this city, protect you, protect myself, and in that order. Understand? Good. I know that Kole probably gave you the rundown already, but here it is again: we will be training for the next several weeks together, and we will be training hard, because Lead Dawn knows that 42 is compromised without me out on the street.

Your job: Know me. Know every inch of me. Know what I can and can’t do, what I haven’t seen, what I haven’t considered. We need to be seamless, but not so seamless that we can’t check each other.”

Hawker eyed Chris on the platform as he stood there, trying to look tall and squared. Chest-high – cockpit high. (Something in him twitched at that.)

“Your file says you’ve got experience with 42,” he said, leaning against the console and threading his thick fingers together as he finally handed over some room for the rook to speak. “Care to elaborate?”

 


 

Chris had no idea that Hawker would be so intelligent. And he didn’t mean books smart, he meant lifelike. It is hard for him to believe that the big mech didn’t have a pilot and this was a joke at his expense. He lowered the offered hand, letting it rest at his side as the mech talked. The voice is loud and big and fit the mech perfectly; right down to it’s deep, naturally authoritative resonance. Chris looked sheepish at not getting a shake from his new direct superior. He’ll have to offer a to fist bump next time.

The young scab had a high body temperature and is sweating. Aftereffects of the virtual encounter. Not that the motor pool was a cool place, all those engines and not enough ventilation to keep the concrete pit cool. It’s a blessing in the winter, curse in the summer. The massive machine took a single step, moving it’s mass with ease. While there’s no way to mask that much weight, the steps did not reverberate like explosions. They did seem to ripple the floor though. Chris had to run to keep up with the robot’s casual walk.

As Hawker talked, half of the people around could overhear with ease. Anyone else definitely knew the mega-mech was rumbling about something. Chris noticed something in his run, aside from the heat pushing out of the big mech. There was a smile. A look of appreciation from the others in the motor pool. Not at him though. At Hawker. Respect for the boss.

Chris wanted that. He wanted that kind of appreciation. He decided right here and now to do whatever it took, to have that kind of respect.

Chris panted as he rode the small elevator up, the yellow metal and wire bars of the cage looking like they’d taken a beating over the years. It was unlikely any other mech was big enough to use this space. ALL of this is for Hawker. And now him. He didn’t interrupt, he listened. Attentively.

Chris finished the bottle of water and held it in his hands, wiping his brow with his sleeve before speaking up. “It was about 5 years… no… that’s not right.” He looked down, which put his gaze at the armored cockpit in the mech’s chest before getting his full story right in his head.

“I grew up with the Reds. They were a gang that used to run from Red Park and down two streets. Drugs, petty theft. Survival. I did try to make it through highschool. Actually made it to tenth grade before I dropped out.” he rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Stupid decision. They kick you out of the public housing if you’re under 18 and not in school. So I just did what I had been. Cutting up anyone who looked like they might have something I wanted. Paying into the gang. Being a good bitch and getting high on whatever we could score.”

His shoulders drooped a bit. “That was four years ago, 2054. Eight years after the nukes went off overseas? One of the coldest winters on record? The year with no summer? I was cold. Fucking freezing. Cold enough to start getting desperate.” Right foot drags on the gantry’s grated floor. “That winter, the police got their first real mechs. The big winter cleanup. I didn’t know it, but that hobo with a thermos of hot something? And the nice coat? Yeah. SWAT guy on stakeout for a bust. He saw me too. Some little street rat, cold and hungry enough to have been stupid. Stupid enough to be thinking about I could get my hands on anything warm. He had me come over and shared.

Chris took a deep breath in and let it out through his teeth. “I can’t expect you to understand what it’s like to slowly die; knowing that you aren’t gonna live. That nothing out there gives a shit about you, down to the people who you thought were your mates. All that graft I made? Suddenly no one remembered what I brought in. So I told him. Everything. What the Reds did. How he could find the Reds. More importantly, what we did for the Silver Suns and the stuff we moved through the sewers for the Triads.”

Chris’s eyes are red, ashamed at those memories. He pinches his nose, breathing again. Trying not to cry. “They brought me to 42. This place was a haven. Fed me, had me play stool pigeon. The Reds disappeared. Silver Suns and Triad lost big, even had some of their fronts go down. So I got told. Then they gave me a ticket out. I got a GED. When to community college. Got an AA in Criminal Justice. I wanted to help. Wanted to help other dumbasses like I had been. I had the right biology to become a scab.”

He leaned back on the handrail, sighing. He wiped his face then crossed his arms. “So yeah. I have a history with 42.”

 


 

He hadn’t been expecting the kid to spill like that – he didn’t seem the type – but something about the kid being capable of emotional vulnerability, something about his body heat and raised heart rate, touched an electronic nerve. His expectations shot up a little: a compliment from Big, Tall and Grumpy, as the commissioner called him.

“I remember the Triads,” he rumbled, recalling the raid on their headquarters in Fifth City that resulted in four killed and nine arrests. The organization effectively crumbled after that. “Their schtick was cutting off your thumb and little finger as a first warning.” Hawker nodded and vented a gust of air. “Glad you’re off the street.” Then: “There’s a lot of us here who got their start underground,” the mech said, maybe trying to reassure him for some reason. “Even me, apparently. I volunteered to have my memory cores wiped at some point in ’50. Woke up here.”

Hawker was an ex-military mech, used in black-ops specialized assaults back in the Siberian Wars – tip of the spear shit. Everything he knew of that old life, aside from his name, serial number, and English-speaking abilities, was second-hand, though. The rest was TOP SECRET: FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY. Not that any of it mattered; organized crime was the biggest threat these days anyways. He was in the right place. Thinking about his past would be nothing more than a…

…Distraction, huh?

 


 

Chris takes a little time to set himself back into an emotionally stable state. Deep breaths, stay strong, be strong. He closed his eyes and wiped his nose with thump and forefingers as he listened to the strong voice. Hawker’s rumped filled the chamber, all around the monitors and weapons looked ready. Hawker is ready. Chris isn’t.

“Three finger Tony found out that the hard way. Tried to keep some of a brick. Didn’t know the triads weighed the stuff on both ends.” he throat-clears, gazing up at Hawker’s faceplate. “Yeah. Glad I am too. I’d bet if there was a reasonable way out, about a third of everyone on the streets would go do something honest. But .. well, there just isn’t.”

When the robot talks about it’s own memory. Chris looks surprised. “Man, I’d love to do that. Just keep the experience, the reactions, turn off the pain of the past.” He thinks for a moment.

“Well, seeing as how we’ve got to train and I’m the ignorant one; what do you recommend? Where should I start?”

 


 

“Man, I’d love to do that. Just keep the experience, the reactions, turn off the pain of the past.”

Hawker vented, said nothing. His uncannily human ways of speaking and moving usually caught new-comers off-guard; all told he was a rare AI, though there were others like him out there. St. Louis, Los Angeles, Seattle – those were the kinds of cities that required more than a mech with a sophisticated computer. A mech who couldn’t just locate an armed target in a crowd, but wonder if it should fire at all.

“Where should I start?”

“For your probation period, you’ll be living on-premises. To your name you’ll get a room with a bunk – the rest is communal.” Hawker pulled up a few files on the computer and sent them to the terminal located in Celn’s suite. “You’ve got homework,” he continued in that deep voice like the lazy rumbles of an idling V8. “It’ll be waiting for you upstairs.” He turned back to the human on the platform though, optics on him again, and cocked his head to the side a little. “For now, I recommend some R&R because we’re going to hit the ground running. Starting with tomorrow. You’re going to meet me in the firing range at 0500 where you’ll -” he tapped at his chest here “- be trying me on for size.”

 


 

Chris hadn’t survived this long by being the biggest or the strongest. He’d lived to be a cop by choosing which Alpha to support. He’d chosen the Reds over this school. Not the best of decisions, but he’d been smart enough to dump the Reds for the police; recognising who had the might to enforce their rules. Hawker fit into that position, the strong one. The one Chris naturally would want to look up to.

A combat AI can be far superior to a human. However, the wars being fought are human versus human. Humans complain when robots kill without a ‘man on the button.’ So there needs to be a pilot. The pilot’s presence comforts generals and politicians.

As Hawker spoke and gestured, Chris felt calm. He’d need to get a chance. He needed the AI to accept him a a recruit. It had clearly laid down where their professional boundaries would be, and it hadn’t accepted him as a bunkmate in it’s personal alcove. But he now had a chance. He’d prove himself, no matter what it cost him personally. Even it it meant letting the 15 foot, multi-ton mech firm stomp his ego under it’s monster feet.

As Hawker tapped his chest, Chris felt his nerves spike. Talking with the mech is fine. But going inside? Experience that mental interface directly, sealed up where the machine could literally turn him into a meat puppet?

R&R? More like, good luck sleeping.

Hawker spoke and gestured like a human, and it had no problems using it’s voice and size to enforce the authority it possessed. Over me. Chris thought to himself.

“Yes sir. Homework and report at 0500.” Sensing he is dismissed, (he did marvel at Hawker’s ability to give off such an impression.) Chris made his way to leave. Grasping the empty water bottle, Chris rode the gantry lift down to the floor. From there he walked out of Hawker’s office/armory. It was only after he had his back to his new partner that he let the grin span across his face; feeling the elation of the AI’s approval fill him.

 


 

The mech turned his face toward the screens as Celn left, but his sensors followed the rook out until the heavy, leaded doors closed, blocking the visibility of these other “eyes”. He pulled up some case data, recent news reports. The big machine didn’t need to do it this way; he could have just downloaded them and mulled them over on-board. But he was getting piloted again. He considered it a matter of etiquette to do things in the open for his human partner.

But Hawker was getting distracted. He could feel the heat from the thorium in his reactor core burning, he could feel the surge of his liquid cooling systems woven throughout his chassis. He could hear the dull thrum of his own internals, the faint sounds of his joints as they responded to the slightest changes in his stance. He could feel the emptiness of his cockpit.

The last person in there had been a tech before he woke up. The last person he remembered being in there was Lee, just as he had blown the hatch open – literally; an emergency mechanism powered by explosive charges – to make a last stand as Hawker succumbed to an agonizing EMP attack.

For all his hard aloofness, Hawker was still a mech – still a pilotable machine, designed to work with the guiding hand of a human. And though he’d never admit it to anyone, being without a pilot felt wrong. Being without someone small and fragile to partner with, to protect, to physically house, was wrong. To be alone was wrong. Incorrect. Did not compute.

Hawker realized that his hands had balled into fists, and he released them with a harsh vent of hot air.

Part of him was eager to feel Chris strap himself in, but part of him wasn’t sure if the kid could handle it. Most of him, though, was indifferent. It was too soon to tell. He’d passed the first neurospace test, reacting impressively to the mech’s wordless assault, but working together was another matter.

At 0445, Hawker roused from hibernation and headed for the range. Simulations had their place, but he preferred the real thing where weapons were concerned. He pulled a heavy rifle from its rack on the wall – eight feet long and a little over 900 pounds, made sure it was in good working order, and loaded it with a magazine.

His internal clock read 0458 when he was done, and he hoped that Celn wouldn’t be late. Hawker had little patience for tardiness.