The stifling, putrid air of depravity had driven him to the rooftops, eager to bask in the muffling of the noise below. The rooftops are the perfect vantage for the dispassionate observer. They at once give a removed look at the activities of people below, and in the grime and filth that settles on their surfaces, they give an accurate depiction of the nature of the inhabitants.
He perched like some great predator, his cloak flapping in the hot currents of air that rose from below just barely concealed the equipment strapped around his body haphazardly. Glancing at an ancient pocket watch that dangled from his waist by a chain, the figure pulled a spyglass from under his cloak and placed it against his goggled eye, scanning the streets below. They scurried about in their disarray, each attempting to re-shape the world to their tastes. Each man and woman was their own god. Chaos reigned.
The hum of the antigravity units was just inside the upper limits of human hearing. Most people wouldn’t have caught it, but his ears were just a tad sharper than most. Replacing the telescope, he turned to face the newcomer. He was greeted with the sight of a massive, chiseled figure of a man who hovered impossibly above the rooftops.
And so they met.
The two men regarded one another silently. Finally the hovering form spoke, looking down at the smaller, hunched and guarded man in the cloak.
“Your dress, location, and actions seem to indicate either vigilantism or criminal activity. Please identify yourself.” His voice was not harsh or demanding. In fact, it was rather soft. Calm. Even cold and distant.
The cloaked figure let a smile creep across his face.
“You must be The Admiral. I’d thought about meeting you someday.”
“You have identified me correctly. I am still waiting for an answer to my original question.”
The dark man sighed, letting his shoulders slump a bit.
“Fine. You can call me Warden.”
The expression on The Admiral’s face remained blank, but The Warden intoned a slight raising of an eyebrow. He knew that even as he spoke, the cybernetically enhanced eyes of The Admiral were scanning him in every possible spectrum, and had already analyzed his equipment, and physical makeup.
“Not your real name, I assume,” The Admiral responded.
"Depends," The Warden replied, "Is Admiral your real name?"
“It is a name I chose,” The Admiral said. He paused. “You’re point in asking that is that names are simply relative identifiers chosen by the bearer of the name, or society in general.”
“Yup,” said Warden, “That was it.”
“While I recognize the validity of the thought, I find no entry for ‘Warden’ in Section 6. You must have another identifier.”
“That’s the only one you’re going to get.”
The Admiral paused. Warden could only guess that he was transmitting new data back to the computer mainframe called, for unknown reasons, Section 6. He was directly up-linked to the system at all times. Warden took the silent moment to analyze this legendary form in front of him. He did not have the super-perception that The Admiral possessed, but he had studied the origin and design of Admiral as extensively as his limited information sources would allow. The Admiral had emerged from The System near the end of The Republic. He was their last-ditch effort at peace keeping. His body had been genetically and cybernetically enhanced to the upper limit of technology. Most of that technology had been packed into or beneath the skin, so that he appeared to be a massively muscular man with age-less features and wild, iron gray hair. His dress was a midnight-blue padded outfit stretching in one piece over his entire body. It was cut low at the neck showing the winding muscles that stretched down below the outfit into his unnaturally wide chest. His scarred and hardened hands were the only other flesh revealed by the suit. His wide chest displayed the emblazoned symbol of the republic, now an image associated solely with Admiral. It was a stylistic icon of a mythical bird-of-prey known as the “eagle”. Warden was well familiar with the legends of the eagle whose eyesight, it was said, was so keen that it could see the entire world from its perch. All that Warden knew was that it didn’t look like a pigeon, which was the only bird Warden had ever seen. Even now, the roof he was crouching on was a dirty, white testimony to the extraordinary pigeon population.
Admiral had an almost regal bearing to him, a tribute to the military dignity that The Republic tried to display. Warden rubbed some of the grime away from his goggle lenses and squinted. As he had expected, The Admiral had the military insignias on his arms ranking him as a full Grand Admiral. Warden frowned. “Admiral” had become a word without a definition.
Warden thought he heard a faint click, and then The Admiral spoke again.
“Currently you are not engaged in incriminating activities, though I question your use of such unconventional… gear,” The Admiral’s dead-gray eyes shifted in the direction of the copper cogwheels strapped across Warden’s chest, just visible beneath the cloak. “I must return you to the street-level and secure your word that you will do nothing that could bring us into conflict in the future.”
“Why must you return me to the street level?” Warden asked cautiously.
“My directives state that I protect the population against domestic and alien threat, that I protect the individual against actions by others or by that individual that would cause harm, and that I bring terminal order to those who pose a permanent threat to the population.”
“I see,” responded The Warden, “So you’re protecting me against myself.”
Warden made a grand gesture to the enormous painting of the all-too-familiar “A” within a circle on the side of a burnt-out brick building nearby.
“Have you noticed that the government that gave those directives is no longer around?”
The Admiral responded without pause, “I am still here, am I not?”
“Yes,” The Warden replied, “But if you’re saying that you are the only representative of the law, you’re no better than them.”
He pointed down. In the streets below several already dead bodies could be seen lying about as explosions and screams echoed through the streets and alleyways.
“So much wrong,” Warden continued, “How do you right it all?”
The Admiral floated downward until his feet touched the soiled rooftop. He strolled forward to Warden. Warden outwardly remained still, but inwardly prepared himself for a possible attack.
“I do not intend to harm you.” Admiral stated, as he seated himself on a metal air conditioner box beside Warden.
“I didn’t say you did,” The Warden countered.
“But your heart-rate increased.”
The Warden did not respond. For a moment both men simply stared at the desolate chaos in front of them. Then The Admiral spoke.
“I do not uphold those directives because they were programmed into me. When The Republic weakened, I altered my own programming. I streamlined it to get rid of all the things that I felt were unnecessary. I continue to uphold those particular directives because they are right, not because they are mandated.”
Warden stared off into the smog-shrouded stars for a while. Finally he turned to The Admiral, the lenses on his goggles turning a reflective light in the pale glow from beneath.
“But I’m right in saying that there is too much for even you to handle.”
“And you have no allies.”
“If my cause is just, God is my ally.”
This comment caught Warden off-guard. He suddenly sensed there was more to Admiral than he had first thought. Perhaps the Justice Machine had a heart of flesh after-all.
“You’re not here to pull lunatics like myself off the roof-tops, are you?” Warden asked. Below him he heard the sound of several gasoline engines in adjacent alleys. Gas vehicles were rare, and he began to listen more carefully.
“I am here to protect people,” The Admiral responded.
“You don’t give straight answers, do you?” Warden smiled humorlessly. Below him, he heard some sliding doors slam on both sides, and several dozen boots on pavement.
Admiral didn’t answer his question. He simply stared straight ahead as his gray hair drifted in the sour breeze.
“They’re here,” Admiral stated.
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been waiting for them.”
“You are one of them?”
“No. I’m the one that’s going to stop them.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
Warden fixed Admiral with a steady gaze.
“Admiral, we can put our differences aside for a moment. Those people down there need our help. You can waste your time on me, or we can try to do something right.”
Admiral walked to the edge of the building and looked down. The anti-gravity units installed somewhere inside his shoulders began humming. He looked back at Warden, his hair whipping around his face.
“I can not be held responsible for what happens to you when you get in the way.”
He paused. Warden waited. A gray eyebrow rose above his cold eye.
“Coming?” Admiral asked. Then he was gone.
Dirk came out of the van leveling his rifle. Food and shelter were increasingly difficult things to find, and violence was the only path to either, or so it seemed. The world had become Darwin’s paradise, though Dirk wouldn’t have put it that way. He’d have said, “You (mess) with me and I’ll take you down.” He’d say it as a statement of fact. Nothing more.
He and twenty other guys had been training for this moment for weeks. Like rehearsing for a play. They had even run surveillance on the scene a couple of days. This site was chosen for its high population.
The twenty men piled out of the vans bearing their firearms, and began to disperse through the alleys and streets. The People huddled in blankets around fires built from trash were the first to fall to the stun-darts. Dirk grunted as he pegged one victim after another. The tranq riffle didn’t have the heft of his weapon of choice, the M-16. They were also single action guns. It annoyed him that he couldn’t spray. Some of the bolder and more bloodthirsty men were coming at him and his comrades with chains, pipes, broken bottles and any other weapons they could easily find. Still, his comrades were backing him up with their fire, and each one of them was a deadeye shot. The stun-darts were treated with a powerful neurotransmitter-disrupting drug that acted instantly upon the victim. The vics fell as soon as they were hit, and the cleanup crew was coming behind to drag the bodies back to the vans. The boss had said to peg the youngest and strongest (“Get me children,” he had urged, “What we need most are children,”) but Dirk was just hittin’ whatever was comin’. If the boss wanted specific targets, he could come out here and get them himself. Still, Dirk and his crew were doing pretty well. Everything seemed to be following the plan.
Dirk rounded the corner into the street and spotted about twelve or fifteen good vics to peg. This part was going to get a little rough. The vics had more room to maneuver, which meant they would lose most of them. Still, the other crews were covering the alleys, so that cut off most escape routes. Even now he could see some of his crewmembers coming out of the alley next to him. That’s when the air exploded with a wail that sent Dirk to his knees, his head wracked with pain. He saw the point man in the crew down the street sprawled on the pavement. This was NOT according to plan.
Dirk leaped to his feet, and looked around to see what was happening.
“Spread out! Pattern… um… sigma! We’ve got some sort of unseen attack!” He shouted to his crew. They immediately fell into a wide line, each man looking a different direction. Dirk scanned for the attack everywhere but couldn’t locate a source. He had heard of stories about powerful rifles with telescopic sights that could shoot over half a mile. Snipers, they had been called. How do you defend against THAT? Was someone trying to PROTECT these people? The man next to him, Peterson, let out a howl and went down clutching his hand, which seemed to be bleeding now. Dirk looked where Peterson had dropped his rifle. Its base had been splintered nearly in two. The gun was unusable.
“DROP YOUR FIREARMS AND VACATE THE AREA,” a voice from the sky boomed, “OR SUFFER TERMINAL CONSEQUENCES.”
Dirk almost became religious on the spot. He looked to the sky to find the source of the voice. It was immediately obvious who had given the command.
He glowed like some holy angel descending from on high. His wild hair seemed white and his eyes were literally blazing lights. Admiral didn’t live up to the legends. He exceeded them. Dirk was frozen in horror and awe. Still, somewhere at the back of his head, a rational, removed Dirk noted that Admiral was stupid to make himself so obvious a target. Especially since he and his crew were prepared for the possibility of meeting The Admiral.
“Fall back! Plan B!” Dirk heard himself shout to the men. Then he saw himself and the men respond instinctively to the order.
…Well, almost all the men. One poor sap stood gaping for precious seconds, and then began to try pegging The Admiral with his stun-rifle. Almost before he could level the gun, The Admiral had reached an open hand forward from the sky. The man’s rifle splintered in his hand, just like Peterson’s had, and the man fell wailing. Dirk cursed the stupidity of this man. They were all supposed to be tough under fire, not panicking and weeping like babies.
Dirk dropped his stun-rifle and un-holstered his secondary weapon. He allowed himself a quick grin. This baby was a beauty. It was compact and high caliber, and outfitted with rounds of armor piercing, Teflon-coated bullets. The Admiral was a living nightmare, but he was still partly human. He had a hide like a rhino, thanks to genetic engineering, and beneath his skin was a light-weight armor which all made him a pretty tough cookie. But even HE had to fall before some kind of firepower.
Dirk took a position in the narrow alley with his back to the wall. He leveled his gun at the alley’s opening, while the five other guys in the alley took to watching the sky and the other opening. There were only so many directions Admiral could come from, and they had them all covered.
They hunkered down in the silent corridor listening and watching for anything. In the distance people screamed and glass shattered. These sounds were regular street noises. No shots were fired anywhere. Dirk was tempted to try to communicate with the other teams on his talkie, but they had been told that The Admiral could monitor such transmissions.
A dull thud and a crumbling sound came from Dirk’s right. He snapped his head in that direction to see one of his comrades screaming as a hand came through the brick wall beside him and grabbed his weapon, the hand disappeared as quickly as it had come, taking the gun with it.
“Get away from the wall! Everyone, get back!” Dirk shouted his command to the team, which was already doing just that. The thought struck Dirk that The Admiral would next try to disarm the men stationed in the alley on the other side of the building. As soon as the thought came, Dirk was on his feet running. There was a hole in the boarded up door on the front of the warehouse, and Dirk dove through this. Two other guys came in behind, apparently picking up on his idea. There was a rush of steam through the factory, deadening the sound of their footsteps. Dirk was thankful for the distortion. The Admiral was rumored to have enhanced hearing. He and his men worked their way quickly through the labyrinth of pipes and latticework. The Admiral was hovering along the far wall of the factory, preparing, no doubt, to punch through to the men on the other side. Dirk silently leveled his gun, and held his hand up in signal to his men. The hand came down and all the men fired at the same time. At the sound of the gunfire, The Admiral shot straight up in the air and made a full turn coming down on his assailants. Dirk ducked behind some heavy piping as The Admiral came sweeping past at unbelievable speeds. A spray of liquid swished across him. He touched it with his fingers, which immediately felt sticky. It was blood.
“So the slime CAN bleed,” Dirk smiled.
The Admiral had descended on the two other men as they ran for the door. At his touch, they fell to the floor and didn’t move. Dirk didn’t know if they were dead or not, but he couldn’t let The Admiral get near him. He leveled his gun.
The sound of the whizzing was almost out of his range of hearing, but the pain that followed was very real. Something hit his gun hand hard and fast, knocking the weapon into the darkness. He nursed his hand as he looked in disbelief at the object that had struck him. A thin metal gear was still wobbling on the floor. He scanned the room above him to see where it had come from. His eyes settled on a hunched, black figure whose long, tattered coat hung down several yards below the pipe he was sitting on. Two more gears were clutched in his hand, and his face was expressionless behind two blank goggle lenses. One of the stranger’s hands flicked, and the gear in it seemed to disappear. Then there was a something speeding toward his face. After that, Dirk’s world went black.
Warden had rigged a winch-and-wire system operating through a gearbox for quick descent off buildings. It wasn’t a very efficient system, since he kept losing both wire (which he frequently had to cut hastily in order to save his or another life) and gearboxes (which wore out quickly and often jammed). It was a system he was constantly improving on. When The Admiral had disappeared, Warden had made a quick surveillance of the situation. There were 21 men and seven vans. They were dispersed between five alleyways, approximately four men to an alley. A peek through his spyglass showed that the guns they were using seemed to be operating off an air-compression system, which he knew was only used for firing darts. With this knowledge he started his descent down the side of the building. He repelled quickly, but Admiral had already taken out two groups by the time he had gotten to the first window on the building. He’d seen a number of the street-dwellers fired upon by the darts. They fell down immediately, convulsed, and lay still. The darts were either a lethal poison or a very potent tranquilizer. The first didn’t make any sense. If they wanted to kill, there were much easier ways to do so. The second opened up a larger question. Why were they tranquilizing these people?
Warden swung through the already broken window and cut his wire with a multi-purpose knife. The Admiral was on the inside of this building as well. He could hear a cracking sound from the other side. Admiral was breaking stuff. The men in the alley below Warden had dropped the air rifles and pulled out some wicked-looking pistols. Warden hadn’t seen firearms in decades, and it was difficult for him to guess what they were packing. He pulled a bottle of home-brewed liquor from his coat. It’d probably blind somebody to drink it. Warden wouldn’t know, he had never tried the stuff. He pulled the stopper from the bottle, which was attached to an alcohol-soaked cloth. He sparked it with a long-exhausted lighter, and the potent brew on the cloth immediately began burning. With a quick kiss, he dropped the bottle into the paper-strewn alley below. On impact, the glass-shards hit the gunmen and were quickly followed by a spreading fire. He was gone from the window before they could level their guns on him.
The Admiral was sweeping across the darkened interior of the factory, and didn’t seem to notice Warden being there as well.
“The steam pipes must be playing havoc with his heat-sensors and sensitive hearing,” Warden thought to himself. Admiral had put himself in a vulnerable position here. His suspicions were confirmed when he saw the three men sneaking in through the broken doorway. Admiral didn’t appear to notice them, either. Warden launched himself across the pipe-work, moving quietly toward the men’s position. The pipes were greasier than Warden expected, and he nearly fell three stories to the concrete floor on the first jump. His close brush made him move more cautiously as he climbed through the tangled pipes.
“Killing myself won’t win The Admiral’s trust,” he grunted.
He was behind a large, clunky industrial pump when he heard the gunfire echoing through the massive building. He looked in the direction of The Admiral. Admiral had already become a blur of motion moving across the building, but Warden caught sight of a puddle of blood where The Admiral had stood. These guys had hurt him.
Warden swung around the pump and slid down a pipe to a position directly above one of the gunmen. He quickly pulled a gear from the belt across his chest and flung it with practiced precision at the gunman. The gear disarmed the man, who screeched and looked with wide-eyed disbelief in Warden’s direction. A second gear knocked the man cold. Warden dropped to the floor and rolled, recovering the two gears as he did so.
The Admiral had already taken out the two other gunmen, and a trail of blood marked where he had left the factory. The sound of gunfire came in bursts from outside. Warden ran to the broken door, then dropped and rolled as bullets punched holes in the remaining wood of the doorway. Warden flung himself against the brick wall just beside the door and pulled a canister from his belt. He sucked in his breath and held it, then pulled the pin from the canister and flung it out through the doorway. The smoke billowed both inside and out, and Warden plunged through. The goggles he wore protected his eyes from the effects of the tear-gas, and a few well-placed kicks took down the four guys coughing outside. He shackled them quickly, and then ran from the cloud of gas, sucking air as he did so. He looked around and located his blood-trail. It was arching across the street and into another alley.
“He’s losing blood fast, and he’s still going!” Warden cursed the bravery or stupidity of The Admiral. A few screams erupted from the far side of the street, and Warden ran quickly to the other side. Just as he reached the entrance to the alleyway he heard a single shot fired, and then silence. He skidded up to the opening with a gear clutched in each hand. Admiral lay unmoving on the ground and a man was quickly fleeing, smoking gun clutched firmly in his hand.
Puzel was a short, stout man who couldn’t care less about his looks. He kept his beard shaven to a sloppy looking stubble most of the time, and he had the habit of wearing the same coveralls for weeks in a row. He rarely was seen without his leather flying cap, an ancient item he had picked up heaven-knows-where, and wore compulsively to hide his thinning hair. The man Puzel followed now, weaving in and out of the rows of unconscious bodies like a skillful surgeon, was his opposite in terms of appearance. He was tall and lean, built like a Grecian statue. His shimmering blond hair hung long, ever so gently brushing his shoulders as he moved.
“Look at them, Puzel,” the man was saying in earnest, hypnotic tones. “Each one a victim of his own ignorance,” He ran his hand over a nasty scar on one man’s face that ran through the man’s now- hollow eye-socket, wincing as he did so. Puzel grunted and then slurped air through his over-large nose in response to the young man’s show of empathy.
“The poor wandering fools. I can heal their wounds.”
“Y’ain’t healin’ that one, boss,” Puzel responded in a flat, croaking voice.
“Puzel, you are a cynic,” the young man sighed. Puzel grunted.
“Whatever your personal beliefs,” he continued, “I know that we can mend this tattered cloth.” He lifted the head of another vic. “Here’s a good specimen. Note the attractive features, musculature and overall lack of scarring. This one’s managed to stay healthy and survive to adult-hood relatively unscathed. It should be interesting to find out what his personality is like. Puzel, make a note of this one.”
Puzel dutifully pulled out an ink-gun and tattooed a quick mark on the man’s forehead. He then made a note on his clipboard. By the time he was finished, the boss was five rows down, and Puzel had to huff to catch up with him. The boss was opening the mouth of one of the vics with his thumbs and staring at the rotting teeth inside his mouth with a look of sorrow in his deep blue eyes.
“Puzel, why are you even working here?”
Puzel rolled his eyes.
“Cause ya feed me.”
The boss’s brow furrowed.
“In order to reform a person, there are three things you must do for them,” he said as much to himself as to Puzel. “You must first address their physical needs. Heal their wounds and feed their stomachs. Secondly, you need to help them with their spiritual needs. Fill the gap in their soul. Finally you must give them a purpose.” He paused and looked at Puzel. Puzel stared back with an inscrutable look on his face. The boss shrugged and all at once his face took on a cold look of neutrality.
“Finish preparing this group. Our Eastern party should be back by now.”
He turned quickly on his heel and walked away. Puzel waited for him to disappear through the door before walking over and calling the medical team in. As the white-coated medics started working their way through the beds, Puzel sat down, took a pull from a bottle of home-brew, and let his eyes roll back into his head with a great sigh.
The “boss,” who called himself Kallak walked quickly with his lean, muscular legs into the main courtroom. It had formerly been some sort of meeting room for a large business of some sort. He had had the monolithic table cut into pieces and shipped down to the common quarters to be used as firewood. With all the empty space, he now had a proper courtroom. Meetings would still be held there, but those meeting with him would not be allowed to get comfortable. The walls had been tastefully re-draped in banners with his adopted symbol, the golden apple. His small group of disciples at the time had enthusiastically suggested that every wall within the organization be decked with the symbol, and even volunteered to freely wear the symbol as their uniform. Kallak had cautioned in his wise and fervent way against the over-usage of a symbol.
“Symbols are of absolute importance in any new movement or idea,” he had said, “But they are a weapon and must be treated as such. A philosophy with no symbol will die a quick death. Even so, a movement that uses a symbol too much will destroy itself by deadening people’s senses to that symbol. It becomes cliché and impotent.
“Take for example The Republic,” he continued. “The Republic used a number of symbols that were worshiped with an awe-like loyalty at the beginning, and burnt in disgust at the end. Even so, the Anarchist movement used the capital A within a circle, and who here isn’t sick of seeing THAT by now?” he punctuated the rhetorical question with a smile, and his disciples had laughed, taking the point. Kallak had gone on to explain that he wanted people to see the golden apple in hints and snatches. To glimpse it in awe and mystery and to wonder at its meaning.
“Only then,” he proclaimed, “Will they adopt it willfully and cling to it desperately.”
The courtroom had been outfitted with an enormous iron chair that had been lined with comfortable leather padding, then draped in velvet cloth and finally adorned with a single golden apple at its right hand-rest. It had been a flattering gift from his followers, and Kallak had decided to allow it. Kallak flopped down in his over-energetic, almost juvenile manner and plopped his crowning symbol of power, a pair of spectacles, on his roman nose. The lenses had been removed as unnecessary. His vision was better than perfect.
“Well?” he looked questioningly at the guard, as if they he had been saying something and suddenly stopped. There were a total of four guards that kept Kallak’s courtroom. They were also advisors and the janitorial staff in charge of keeping the massive room looking clean. Each one was an ardent supporter of Kallak. This current one, Gregory, was an over-achiever and obsessed with keeping things in order.
“Sir, the Eastern party just arrived. They seem to have had a run-in with The Admiral. I had the liberty of sending the injured ones to medical. They only got nine vics.”
“Geez, Greg, what’s with the formality. I’ve told you, you can just call me ‘Kallak.’”
Kallak pulled a clipboard from a shelf underneath the throne and scribbled on it for a bit.
“Hey, Greg, my throat’s a little dry, here. Have we got anything left to drink?”
“We’ve got water and apple-juice,” Gregory replied automatically omitting the much larger list of alcoholic beverages they stocked. The boss was very particular about what he allowed to enter his body, and alcohol, which in this day was more available than water, was forbidden.
“Great, get me some apple-juice.”
Gregory had foreseen the request and had some waiting. It was a luxury that Kallak had worked to gain. The burnt out shells of a number of buildings had been filled with soil, and apple trees had been dug up and transported tens of miles to be planted in these in-city orchards. Kallak had a dozen such orchards and gardens capable of supporting more men than he currently commanded. The food was stockpiled and preserved. His meat supply was a little worse off. He had men keeping large flocks of sheep and pigs inside modified buildings, but they were troubled with malnourishment, disease, and infertility. Still, his food was his main source of control. What was left of the country’s population was starving, and those who would not follow him for his insightful leadership would flock to him because he could fill their bellies.
After sipping from his apple-juice for a bit, Kallak turned to Gregory and picked up their former conversation at the point he had left off.
“Yeah, I expected some trouble from Admiral. Was Dirk injured?”
“I think he was one of the ones that had to go to medical.”
“Yeah, well, if he’s able to talk, I want him up here now. And he’d better be hurting pretty badly. I put him in charge of a group of men, I expect him to report to me when he gets in.”
Gregory nodded astutely and quickly hurried off to make sure Dirk got the word he was suppose to be debriefing Kallak.
Dirk tried to look tough as he stumbled into the courtroom, clutching an ice pack to his head. He didn’t know how the boss was going to take this news. When Kallak had discovered several abandoned munitions plants, he had needed men with knowledge of guns to help him get the plants up and running. Dirk had been stockpiling arms since he was a kid, before the Anarchist revolt had quickly depleted the country’s supply of firearms. He had used his supply of guns sparingly in order to survive in the ensuing chaos. Kallak had somehow found him and offered him food and power in exchange for his gun knowledge. Dirk never got close to the boss, though. Everyone around here seemed to view Kallak with a mix of admiration and fear.
“Hey, Dirk, feeling okay?” Kallak asked in a caring tone.
“Uh, I got knocked pretty hard on the head. Hurt’s pretty bad. Might have a concussion. I’ll live, though.”
“So Greg here tells me you guys ran into The Admiral.”
“How did he hurt you?”
“The Admiral didn’t. It was some guy in one of the abandoned buildings. Threw a metal gear at me. I guess he was protecting his territory.”
“A gear?” Kallak paused to consider this for a moment, marking it for further consideration. Then he looked back at Dirk. “So you actually SAW The Admiral?”
Kallak leaned forward with a childish excitement.
“What did he look like? How did he fight? Tell me all about him.”
Dirk wasn’t given to elaboration, and anything he might say at this point would just make him look bad. He shrugged and replied, “I never got a good look. He was a big guy in a dark outfit kinda like the military used to wear. Moved pretty fast. And flew. I don’t know how he fights. I guess he shoots something out of his hands. Anyway, we managed to take him down with the guns I suggested.”
“But you didn’t recover his body?”
“Nah. Some of the men say that some guy in a black coat took the body before we could get at it. Whoever he was, he came up from behind them and dealt some pretty fierce punishment with his fists.”
“If you didn’t recover the body, then you really can’t say you ‘took him out’, can you?”
“I guess not.”
“This man that took the body of The Admiral, could he have been the same man that threw the gear at you in the factory?”
Dirk shrugged, “Could be. Never thought about it.”
“You know, Dirk, that’s really a shame. You brought me only nine people from one of the greatest potential breeding ground for the strong, every observation you made about The Admiral is something we already knew about him, and now that there is a potentially new threat, or ally, you didn’t even think to find out about him.”
“You mean the guy in the factory? I don’t really think he’s a new threat or anything.”
“Apparently, or you would have treated him with more respect.” Kallak turned to Gregory. “Do we have any of those air rifles sitting around here?”
Gregory produced one immediately and handed it to Kallak.
“Now this,” Kallak said, turning the gun in his hands, “Was a great piece of machinery. Compressed CO2, accurate up to 50 yards, and each dart is tipped with a potent neurotoxin of our original design. Not even my technologically superior predecessors had a stun gun this advanced. And Dirk, you engineered this gun all by yourself.”
Dirk’s eyes narrowed at the compliment. He didn’t know where this was going, but the boss had a weapon in his hand and had just expressed disappointment moments ago.
“I didn’t find the toxin.”
Kallak laughed. “You’re right. We stole that idea from a foreign consultant. My science men managed to figure out how to synthesize the stuff on their chemistry sets. I guess my point was, yes, you failed me, but you’ve also proven useful.” He smiled at Dirk. Dirk looked back unhappily, saying nothing.
“Okay,” Kallak continued, “Here’s the deal. I want you to go down and join the new acquisitions. The ‘vics’, as you call them, for conditioning.”
“Why?” Dirk took the risk of questioning an order. Kallak toyed with the gun a little, its muzzle creeping uncomfortably close to pointing at Dirk.
“Well, when we brought you on, I don’t think you were ever properly taught about our movement. Our philosophy. Now’s your chance.”
“And what if I refuse?”
“Well, I’d considered that you might not want to do that. I don’t want to kill you or toss you back out on the streets. You’re too strong and too useful to do the former, and you know too much to do the latter. I was thinking I might stun you and send you down anyway.”
“Yeah, I thought it might be something like that.” Dirk said grudgingly. “Alright, I’ll go. I guess you’ll still feed me.”
“Think of it as a temporary demotion. Once you’ve gone through our basic training of the new acquisitions, you’ll be re-inducted into our organization and promoted to a position that suites you.”
Dirk turned and began ambling the long walk toward the main doors of the courtroom. The rage of humiliation was burning in his chest.
“Oh, and Dirk?” Kallak called from behind. Dirk turned. Kallak pointed at the ice pack he still held. “Never put your personal needs before those of our cause again. Understand?”
Dirk turned without acknowledging and walked out the doors.
“See that he gets where he’s going,” Kallak instructed Gregory. As usual, Gregory was already calling security to do just that.
Operating System: Online
Commence boot up sequence. Boot up sequence commenced.
Primary Organic functions: 85%
Primary Neural functions: 99.85%
Tertiary Neural functions: 99.9972%
Mechanical functions warm-up complete. Mechanical functions all go.
Nanite diagnosis complete. Nanite loss: 21%
Primary sensory functions engaged. Secondary sensory functions engaged. Expanding electro-static sensory range.
The first sound that Admiral was aware of was the ticking of an enormous clock. He could isolate approximately 72 smaller clocks ticking at the same time. All in perfect sync. He did not immediately open his eyes. He really didn’t need to. Three of his different modes of vision could see right through his eyelids. He engaged his electrostatic sensory field to gain more information about his environment. The invisible feelers he extended told him there was one other person present, moving around the room in quick bursts of motion. There were metal gears, cogwheels, and shafts turning all around them. He checked his sensitive air-pressure indicator. It registered them as 263.376 feet above sea level. This was a good hundred feet higher than ground level in this city. This confirmed his suspicion. He was in some sort of clock tower that was, amazingly, still keeping proper time. He was lying on some sort of improvised stretcher with an inactive IV jammed into one of the already-healed holes made by the bullets fired upon him. His other wounds were dressed and bandaged. The stretcher, and a number of work-benches packed full of time-pieces were all sitting on a platform extending from the solid building structure into a cavity in the gears, pulleys, and weights of the clock-tower. Admiral checked his own internal clock. It had been nearly 24 hour since he had gone down in the alley. He sat up so fast that it appeared he had gone from inert slumber to alert upright without any movement at all. The other person in the room, Warden, dropped the gun he had been inspecting in startlement.
“Oh, good,” Warden relaxed, his heart rate dropped to normal, and his aura of body-heat went from angry red to gentle orange. “I’m glad to see you’re back with me. I was beginning to think I’d done you more harm than good.”
Admiral noted the bent needle-tip lying on the table next to him, testifying to a failed IV attempt.
“I couldn’t figure out what put you out,” Warden picked up the gun he had dropped, started probing it with a tool. “You lost some blood, but it wasn’t a lot, and none of the bullets fully penetrated the armor under your skin. They were all just lodged in there. I had an easy time pulling them out.”
Admiral’s gaze shifted to a jar on the workbench containing five crumpled slugs. There was a bloody pair of pliers lying next to it.
“One of the bullets severed the cables to my logic processor unit,” Admiral explained. “It is a design flaw I must correct. Those cables are too close to the surface.”
“Well how ‘bout that,” Warden muttered. “I don’t mind telling you, it’s a pain trying to patch a cyborg. I just happened to have a few packs of your blood-type on ice, but I had a doozy of a time getting a needle into you.”
“I noticed.” Admiral pulled the expired IV tube from his chest.
“So you’re computer cord was cut, huh? I take it that’s bad?” By now Warden had the gun in pieces and was sketching something on a torn piece of brown paper with a quill and ink well.
“It rendered me inoperable. My bionics cannot function without my logic processor unit.”
“How about your biological body. It shouldn’t need a computer to work.”
“My brain-to-body neurotransmissions work through my fi-cable network. This allows me to think and act roughly five times faster than a purely biological person.”
“And also makes you keel over if someone puts a bullet in the right place.”
Admiral rose from the table and walked over to the bench where the bullets sat in the jar. He picked one up and examined it.
“One of these bullets could incapacitate you in a single shot.”
“Don’t tell me you just grew a sense of humor on me. So if your wire was sliced, why am I speaking to you right now?”
“My nanites repaired the damage.”
“Nanites. Microscopic mechanisms in my blood-stream that effect repairs and upkeep on my bionics.”
Warden simply shook his head and continued sketching. Admiral walked over to the far section of the clock tower and looked from a hole in the clock-face into the ruined cityscape below them.
“Why did you tell me all that,” Warden’s voice came from behind him. Admiral turned. He saw that Warden’s goggles were pushed up to his forehead, revealing clearly his wide, soft eyes. They lent a flavor of childishness to his otherwise rough face.
“I am sorry?”
“The information you just shared could easily be used against you. Either you’re cocky enough to actually believe you are invincible, or my first impression is wrong, and you actually trust me.”
“You took the effort to save me, transport me to safety, and attempted to aid me medically. I am in your debt.”
“You got that straight. Do you have any idea how heavy you are?”
“Five hundred twenty-nine pounds. May I ask you a question?”
“I am of the impression that you were awaiting the arrival of those men on the roof-top. Am I correct?”
“Yup. I got the idea you were there for them also. Am I correct?”
“Yes. How did you know that they were going to arrive?”
“A couple months ago, I got word through my sources that a few abandoned munitions factories had been sealed off by some gang. Reports said that the factory had been re-activated, and some war tribe now had guns. I’ve been trying to trace them for a couple of months now. Then I got reports that they were going into densely populated areas and shooting people down. So I made a little map of where they had hit so far and found a pattern. I’ve been staking that part of the city out for about a week now. How’d you know?”
“I have arrived in areas that they struck after the fact several times now. In gathering information, Section 6 and I found the same pattern that you did. Further deduction of time-of-engagement and method of operation indicated that they would strike that block tonight.”
“Well, sure, when you’ve got a super-computer backing you…” Warden was cut short as the sound of the ticking clocks was joined by a door opening and then closing somewhere. Admiral looked in the direction of the sound. His eyes adjusted to cut through the surrounding darkness. A small figure in hooded in an oversized raincoat was walking toward them. Admiral’s vision zoomed in on the person, and in a matter of seconds had analyzed bone-structure, musculature, circulation, and objects on this person. She was a young woman, slight of frame, and she was carrying a great deal of paper stuffed in her oversized pockets, a pen, some metal tools that looked as if they may have been dental in nature at one time, and three knives secured in various parts of her clothing. She didn’t seem like a threat, but already protein strands were weaving together inside Admirals wrist ejectors into splintered pellets much harder than steel. As she stepped into the light, she pulled back her hood. Admiral looked over to Warden. His heart rate had jumped up, and his face had softened with an emotion that Admiral was unable to read. The expression hovered on his face for a fraction of a second, and then he looked back at what he was working on. The woman walked over to the bench Warden was working on, pulled the wads of paper from her pockets and set them down gently, pushing them purposefully toward Warden. He continued to work without looking up.
Next she looked at The Admiral. Some part of him registered that she had a girlish kind of attractiveness to her that was almost masked by a hardened look that every street-dweller wore these days. It was only then that Admiral realized Warden did not wear that hardened look.
She walked slowly over to The Admiral, looking him up and down.
“Please identify yourself,” Admiral spoke to her. Instead of replying, she gently took Admiral’s massive arm in her small hands and began to guide him toward the stretcher on which he had lain. Admiral allowed himself to be led, curious as to her intentions. She patted the stretcher indicating that he should sit. Admiral sat.
With graceful efficiency, she quickly checked him over, noting, it seemed, the rate his wounds had healed, his breathing rate (slower than an average human’s, most of his bodily energy came from his internal fusion reactor), and possible infections. Admiral noticed that she didn’t bother checking for a pulse. She had apparently learned from earlier examinations that his pulse was nearly impossible to detect through his thick skin and sub-dermal armor. When her examination was complete, she looked up into his face, gently pushed a strand of iron hair away from his inhuman eyes and smiled.
“You could do with a bath,” She said. A slight chuckle escaped her throat. “Of course, so could Clock-Man, over there.”
“If you are responsible for administering medical attention to me, I am grateful,” Admiral replied. “I intend to return to Section 6 soon. I will be fully repaired, my uniform will be mended, and I will be cleaned.”
The woman smiled. “That’s a relief. Will you be visiting us again?”
Admiral didn’t respond immediately. He looked past her through the face of the clock tower. His eyes blazed with light.
“Only if it is to my benefit. There are so many that need me.”
The woman’s features suddenly grew cold. She replaced her hood and disappeared into the clockwork. Admiral was puzzled at her reaction. In fact, there was much that was puzzling here, but it was largely irrelevant detail. The Admiral rose and walked over to Warden.
“I am leaving for Section 6. Is there any information you can give me that will help me in my search for the organization behind this?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got some things. I fingerprinted the weapons, for all the good that will do us. I’ve got a manufacturing code from these guns. I figure if I can tie this in to old records, I can find the plants on a city map. I’ve been looking at this air-rifle thing they used. I’d like to analyze the drug in the needle, but I don’t know that much about chemistry.” Warden suddenly looked directly into Admiral’s cold eyes and, with unmasked envy said, “She actually spoke to you!”
The Admiral considered this for a moment and then replied, “She does not speak with you?”
Warden fingered the wad of papers the woman had left on the bench next to him.
“Not really.” He picked up the wad and began leafing through it. “Hang on, here’s something that could help us.”
Admiral had already scanned the sheaths of paper as much as his electronic vision would allow without actually opening each one up. They were detailed notes written in a neat, quick stroke. They dealt with an amazing variety of subjects. A number of them were about various clans, families, and people groups who had apparently renounced the strict anarchist code and began to work together for preservation and prosperity. There were a few accounts of organized food supplies and gardens that had been carved out in the unyielding shells and hulks within the broken city. More than half were tips about various wars, bloodlettings, and acts of destruction that were being planned in the dark recesses Out There. Such was the nature of the paper Warden held out to Admiral. Admiral accepted the paper glanced at it, and handed it back within the space of a second. In that time he had read it twice.
This might be what you’ve been looking for. Jed from The Western Edge was trading with the war-clan Tobo and apparently saw a few of the leaders carrying guns that looked fairly new. I asked around, and the rumor is that they stole them from a scouting party. Everyone seems to think that whoever is making the guns is working from somewhere far away. Given the pattern and what I’ve heard, I’d say that your best bet is to check out the smaller city to The Northwest. I will try to salvage some maps from the old library for you in a few days. Don’t do anything stupid until I get you more information.
“It appears that she does talk to you,” The Admiral commented.
“If you call this talking, yeah.”
“Her theory is a good one. I have not scouted The Northwestern City for several years now. It has been abandoned since the end of The Republic. I am calling up maps on Section 6 now.”
“So you admit The Republic ended now?” Warden grinned.
admit that the people do not follow its governing. Arguably, they never did.”
“Oh well, I hate arguing politics anyway. Listen, I want to come with you. The sooner we bust this thing open, the more people we save. Whoever is behind this may be enslaving people for any number of ugly reasons.”
“If I take you to Section 6, it would compromise her security.”
Warden raised an eyebrow. “Her?”
“That was a slip of tongue.”
Warden’s look showed that he wasn’t buying it.
“Admiral, it would take me a week to make it up to The Northwestern City. I need to finish what I started.”
“I apologize, Warden. You have been very helpful. I still cannot allow you to accompany me to Section 6.”
Warden held up his hands. “I will find my own way, then.”
“I hope that you may.”
Admiral’s anti-gravity units began humming as he rose slowly off the ground. Before he could get far, a voice from behind cried, “No, wait!”
Ella had re-emerged from the clockwork carrying a tray with three steaming plates on it. She had a hurt look on her face as she saw Admiral hovering above them. Somewhere at the back of his mind, an emotion erupted. It was not something he understood, and he pushed it away. Sweeping gently to the ground, he walked toward her. She held up a plate. It had an oddly enticing aroma. Admiral took it and scanned the contents. She set a second plate in front of Warden, and took the third for herself. Warden picked up the plate, and stepped over to the edge of the platform where a metal cable a foot thick was working its way upward in a never-ending circulation. He looked back at Ella.
“Thank you,” He said, and then grabbed the cable, allowing it to carry him up into the dark, churning gears above.
“Thank you?” Ella said in disbelief. “He has never thanked me! He must have let company change his manners.”
“He says you never talk to him,” Admiral observed.
“I never talk to HIM? HE never talks to ME! Well…” she stopped to consider, “It’s probably mutual by now.”
“Why do you help him?”
“Because SOMEONE needs to help him.” She nibbled at some of the food on her plate. Admiral waited. She looked at him.
“Eat something,” she insisted.
“I have no digestive system.”
“How do you survive?”
“Section 6 runs nutrients directly into my bloodstream.”
Ella’s smile was sarcastic.
“She sounds like a good mother. I guess you have no reason to hang around here, then.”
“You were going to say something to me.”
Ella chewed her food silently, looking at the floor. Her dark hair hung in strands about her face. Eventually, she spoke.
“A few years ago, I was out in the junkyard trying to remove the alternator from an old bus. The “Junkyard Dogs”, a bunch of scavengers who live out in that area, found me, and started to topple the bus on me. My hand got jammed in the engine, and I was nearly crushed. Before the bus hit the ground, though, this guy comes bouncing from junk-heap to junk-heap toward me. He grabbed a steal beam and wedged it where the bus was falling, saving me from being crushed. Then he pulled me clear of the wreck, and fought off twelve junkyard hounds by himself.”
The Admiral nodded. This was the type of heroics that he found himself involved in on a regular basis. Ella continued.
“He left when he was sure I was safe, but I tracked him down and found out where he lived. I climbed 2000 steps up to the top of this clock-tower to thank him, and guess what his first words to me were?”
“I have no way of knowing.”
“He tells me to ‘Get Out.’”
Even Admiral recognized her look of hurt and anger.
“But you did not get out.”
“Well,” Ella sighed, “I owe him something. Every day he goes out there, he loses his balance, slips, or is taken off guard. Not a day goes by that that sorry son-of-a-gun doesn’t come within an inch of his life. And if he’s not willing to keep himself safe, somebody should. Because much as I hate it, they need him out there,” she made a sweeping gesture with her arm toward the city. “I need him. But he doesn’t need any of them.”
Admiral gently placed his hand on her shoulder.
“He needs someone. Even if he can’t see that.”
“Yeah, I know. But look who’s talking. You’re in the same boat.”
Admiral’s shoulders began to hum as he rose toward the ceiling.
“No,” he said as he floated through the clock-face, “I am different.”
Ella watched him go. She picked up his plate and turned to leave herself.
“No,” she whispered, “You’re not.”
The man that awoke in the barracks was no longer Dirk. Dirk had been forgotten. He looked around at his surroundings, confused, but accepting. He felt tremendously drowsy, but for a reason he couldn’t begin to name, he was fighting against the urge to sleep. The hall had been jammed with hundreds of beds, each side-by-side, and there was a person in every bed. Some were stirring, but none was as awake as he. One side of the hall was lined with an enormous mirror, and the man who had been Dirk walked over and inspected himself. As he walked away from the bed, wires and tubes that were attached to his skin began to tear away. He winced, but continued toward the mirror. It was only when the wires left his skin that he became aware that each one had been pulsing with a regular electric shock.
The person he saw in the mirror was not a man he recognized. His muscles, only now deprived from the regular electric pulses, were straining against his skin, bulging and rigid. His face was savage, his eyes wild. And it was only when he saw this that he realized that he FELT savage and wild. A growl escaped his throat, and the utter wildness of it felt good. He laughed and thought about smashing the mirror.
“RETURN TO YOUR BED.”
He didn’t know who had spoken, but the voice seemed to come from all around, and he followed it immediately back to his bed. Lying there, he felt that he desperately wanted more instruction.
Behind the one-way mirror, Puzel whistled.
“E’s a real beast, though, ain’t ‘e?”
“That’s the point, Puzel,” Kallak replied. “It’s the second stage. In order to re-build a peaceful society, we must first face and tame a violent society. We are doing that now. I have healed these people physically. I have strengthened them physically.”
“An’ then you zapped their heads with yer brain-washin’ juice,” Puzel added, eagerly placing a greasy finger to his temple. Kallak shook his head patiently.
“What I did, Puzel, was clean the slate. As much as is possible, at any rate. Using a number of methods including mild brain surgery, electroshock, and chemical induction…”
“Your brain-washin’ juice,” Puzel nodded happily.
“…I have pushed aside everything that they were for a moment so that I can show them what they can become.”
“Yeah, Boss? And when are ya goin’ ta do dat?”
Kallak glanced at a rusty watch that he wore proudly, knowing it was the only wristwatch in this city. “Heads up people! We’re doing an assembly in twenty minutes. Someone get # 254 over there reconnected,” he indicated Dirk through the glass. “I want full potency when I speak.”
The man who used to be Dirk stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of strong men and women, all of them waiting eagerly for some sort of instruction, some sort of information. When the tall, god-like man strolled up to the front of the stage, he did so with none of the grandeur or haughtiness of a conqueror or king. Instead he walked with a jaunty, eager step, a friendly smile spread across his boyish face. He stopped at the edge of the stage. His head turned slowly from left to right, his eyes working their way around the entire audience. Post-Dirk felt as if this man on the stage was looking into each and every face. The golden-haired man nodded approvingly and the genial smile grew wider, showing his flawlessly white teeth.
“You’re probably all wondering why I called you here.” The man chuckled. Post-Dirk and hundreds waited. The man on stage threw his arms out toward them.
“Look at yourselves!” he shouted. “Each and every one of you is strong. Your minds are sharp. You’re perfect!”
Post-Dirk looked around at the crowd and was filled with a sense of pride and camaraderie. The man was right. They were all perfect. The man began pacing as he spoke. His voice was earnest and excited.
“You weren’t always this way, of course. We took you in from the chaos and the pain out there, and healed your wounds. You were weak, now you are strong. You were blind, but I gave you sight. And each of you used to be bound by confusion and lies. I have freed your minds from that way of thinking.”
The man on the stage stopped pacing and turned to give the audience an intense look.
“I want to share my vision with you. We are the first of the new race. The vision is mine, but you can make it yours. And you will pass it on to others. Chaos will give way to order.”
The man held out his empty palms, brought his hands together, and placing his lips gently against his closed hands, he blew. Then he opened his hands flourishing a golden apple. Holding it high over his head, he shouted, “Survival to the strong!”
The hundreds below erupted into cheers and screams of pure acceptance. Tears filled Post-Dirk’s eyes. He felt consumed by the desire to follow this man, to hear another word, any word, from his lips. He wanted, no, NEEDED, to understand the truth of the Golden Apple.
At the edge of the stage, Puzel raised his eyebrows. For once, even he was impressed.
Kallak had divided his close disciples up to teach small groups of the newbreeds. Their first task was to choose names for themselves.
“Ultimate Freedom,” Kallak had once told his disciples, “Is to choose your own name. There is nothing more essential to defining yourself to the world than your name.
“Take, for instance, the last defender of the old Republic: Admiral. He is virtually a robot. He was grown in a laboratory, and The Republic named him. Everything about him echoes the hollow words of a dead idea. Now The Admiral has a brain much like mine. It’s 7 parts water, 1-and-a-half parts fatty tissue, half a part protein, and one part fi-cables. I opted out of the fi-cable program,” Kallak had smiled at his joke. “In most ways, The Admiral thinks like a human thinks, and yet he continues to make himself a slave to masters that don’t even exist anymore. Why does he do this? Because he still buys into the name that they gave him. As long as The Admiral stays the ‘Admiral,’ his life will have no purpose.”
It was at the end of the day when the group reports came in that Simon, one of Kallak’s close personal guards, slipped up beside him and muttered, “The newbreeds are mostly all choosing the names they had before they went through the process. Perhaps the brainwashing…”
Before he could continue, Simon found Kallak’s arm draped around his shoulder.
“Simon, my friend, let me share something with you. What we did was NOT brainwashing. Got it? Those guys we brought in? Every one of them was content wallowing in their pitiful dung-heaps because they didn’t know any better. Now, we had the option of slowly teaching them to eliminate those negative thought patterns over a period of a couple years, while reinforcing positive ones. OR, we could do what I did and disrupt their thoughts just enough so that they were IMMEDIATELY receptive to the new ideas. And let me share with you the various distinctions between THAT and brainwashing. See, in brainwashing, you turn the person into a mindless zombie willing to do anything you tell them. Everything we took away from these people they will get back. But by that time they will know the difference between right and wrong. And THAT,” Kallak gripped the golden apple on his throne, “Is what we’re all about. That’s why they’re using their original names. It’s not important that they’re using the names they already had. What’s important is that now those are THEIR names. Follow?”
“Completely,” Simon said.
“Good,” smiled Kallak. “Now what else do you have to tell me about the newbreeds?”
Admiral’s course of flight sent him arching high over the clouds that had settled eternally on the city. In the clear, cold air, Admiral could see something few people ever saw anymore: stars. Of course his flight took this parabola because it was the shortest course, but something within Admiral was moved at the sight of the stars. He had instructed Section 6 to overlay his view of the stars with Dodson Lines, the imaginary lines of the zodiac. He could easily navigate according to these Dodson Lines stretching to the bright points across the sky, even without the coordinates, magnetic lines, and topographical maps that Section 6 was constantly feeding him in his flight.
Admiral’s flight had been curving downward for five minutes when he dropped below the cloud cover. He arched sharply upward and then dropped like an arrow accelerating toward the earth at amazing speeds. His fall took him downward toward an enormous crater, the center of which held a great egg-shaped bolder. He fell through a gap in the top of the bolder, dropping into the heart of Section 6.
Section 6 lay in the wastelands outside the city. At the time it had been built, it was designed to be impenetrable to all but those who knew exactly how and where to get in. Admiral had since disabled many of its defensive systems and radar shields as being an unnecessary drain on its power. Section 6 was in need of more maintenance and upkeep every year, and Admiral’s great fear was that someday she would fall apart beyond his ability to fix. When Section 6 died, so, Admiral knew, would he. Section 6 was the gentle voice within his head at all times. Section 6 nourished, bathed, and healed The Admiral, just as he tended and repaired her. It was only this latest brush with Warden that caused Admiral to consider that he may not be alone in the world. He chose, for now, to ignore this hope.
Inside, Section 6 had a low ceiling, just high enough for The Admiral to stand comfortably. The halls and rooms were functional, metal structures with the wiring exposed. The light was bright and sterile. Humans had once walked these halls. The core of Section 6 was a spherical room with a platform at its center that was crowded with metal arms, wires, and tubes. A glass cylinder surrounded the platform. This was Admiral’s throne within his castle.
“Welcome home, Admiral,” the distinctly female voice spoke as Admiral’s bulky form settled gently to the floor.
“Thank you, 6. I will require cleansing, maintenance, and an infusion of Nanites.”
“I think I can handle that.”
Admiral did not need to communicate verbally with Section 6. Their thoughts mingled through one another constantly. Yet Admiral felt the need to talk with 6, and she conformed herself to this need.
As they spoke, a hairy blur sped around the corner, skidded on the smooth metal floor, and leapt at Admiral, barking happily. Admiral stroked the dog’s fur as he happily licked The Admiral’s hand.
“Hello, Dog,” Admiral spoke gently to the beast. The dog was a diverse mixture of breeds, and had been a poor, bedraggled pup when Admiral had chosen to rescue it from human tormentors, intent on eating the thing. Dogs and cats bred wildly within the broken city, and were the most common game for the hungry people.
Dog was blissfully unaware of the unimaginative name Admiral had dubbed him with. His love for Admiral was overwhelming and flowed without condition. Section 6, for her part, had quietly accepted this addition to their odd family and adjusted the air circulation to filter the shed dog-hair. When Admiral was not about for her to shower attention on, she goaded Dog into the maintenance tube for washing and grooming. Admiral had modified a ventilation duct to allow Dog to come and go from the outside freely. Section 6, for all her versatility, was unable to feed Dog. The animal had quickly learned to hunt the mice, rats, rabbits, and ground hogs that filled the countryside outside Section 6’s shell.
Dog followed Admiral panting happily as the cyborg strolled along the corridors of Section 6 into the maintenance tube. The tube slipped closed with a whoosh, and filled with a green fluid. Admiral closed his eyes as Section 6 stripped him of his uniform and plugged tubes and wires into ports in his massive back. As the communication wire slipped into Admiral’s neck, he entered his own version of REM sleep. Information was catalogued and downloaded from his weary mind into Section 6’s infinite files.
Who is Warden? Admiral asked 6.
He is who you would be if you had been born a normal man. Section 6 answered.
You both fight to save humanity from itself.
His muscle mass scans showed an unusually high protein structure within his muscle fibers.
I have analyzed those scans. My projection shows that he may be twice as strong as a normal man his age, size, and mass.
Not exactly normal, would you not agree?
You are correct. There is something more to Warden.
He warrants more investigation.
Agreed. Shall we work on the problem of this organization producing guns?
Warden has an advantage over you in collecting information. His friend, Ella, and presumably he as well can mingle with the crowds and gather information through networks of rumor and word-of-mouth. You have myself to analyze and record information, but the only information we have comes from your observations and you are only one man.
It is your belief that we should seek help on this problem from Warden and Ella?
Possibly. The Northwestern City may be all the information we need to settle this. However you may consider consulting them for future investigations.
What do you know of The Northwestern City?
Before the weakening of The Republic, it was a business community. It had twelve major banks, five major insurance companies, one major front for a government covert operations organization posing as an import/export company, at least sixteen legal firms on record, four major crime syndicates, and a software contractor company. During The Anarchist Revolt, the banks were the first to collapse and the entire community became a war-zone between the crime syndicates, attempting to seize the opportunity to expand their base of control, and the government covert ops, trying to do the same. Predictably the law firms were the last things to fall apart. As a business community there was a very small residential base, and when the economy collapsed, most people fled to residential cities. The population within the city ebbed and died. You, of course, did not patrol that city after the population dropped below 500. My satellite information on that city is limited, but it appears that there has been a large amount of activity within the last three years.
As she spoke, Section 6 fed three-dimensional maps into Admiral’s brain.
Why did you not inform me of the increase of activity when you received the satellite information?
You did not request that information.
Mentally, Admiral tensed. Section 6 had purposefully been keeping information from him more and more regularly. Several years ago, any information of unusual activity would have immediately been brought to his attention. Now Section 6 only gave him information he specifically requested, or information about something that was an imminent threat.
Admiral knew without asking why Section 6 was keeping things from him. Just as Admiral feared losing Section 6, the computer had decided that Admiral was wearing himself out at an alarming rate. Neither the computer nor the cyborg had any concern about their own rate of decay, but each was entirely devoted to the other.
The most likely center of activity is this building.
Section 6 continued the analysis. In Admiral’s mind, a specific building enlarged and began rotating.
This high-rise used to house the countries foremost banking organization. It and the buildings immediately surrounding it show the highest reading of thermal energy.
Admiral logged the information and then the connection between himself and Section 6 closed. The tank began draining of fluid, and in two minutes Admiral emerged freshly cleaned, fully nourished, and clothed in a very new-looking uniform. Dog had been waiting impatiently for his master to emerge from the tank, and ran up to him. Admiral knelt next to the animal and began stroking him rhythmically. Dog’s eyes closed in pleasure and he leaned into the massive, hardened hand. Something about this animal softened Admiral. He almost felt human when he was around Dog.
“Should I ask Warden to join me in my investigation?” Admiral addressed the computer.
“That is, of course, your decision. I would recommend it though.”
“It will be dangerous. We will be dealing with guns. I haven’t been fired at in fifteen years. I doubt Warden has any experience with firearms. He may get killed.”
“So might you. Two are stronger than one.”
“I do not matter.”
“Yes, you do.”
Admiral picked up a small cylinder he had set on the platform and held it up to the light.
“This is some of the chemical that those darts injected in the people. I need you to analyze it for me.”
Admiral placed the cylinder into a port in the wall. The port slid shut with a click, and Section 6 began to instantly give him a chemical readout.
“This seems to be a synthesis of a chemical extracted from the bones of the South American blowfish. This chemical was used by voodoo priests to put people into a state of hibernation resembling death. The people would later be dug from their graves and made to serve as zombies.”
“Can you trace how such a chemical might end up in the hands of a local gang or group leader?”
“Negative. I need more information.”
The Admiral arose, taking Dog in his arms.
“Very well. I am going to go walk Dog.”
Admiral’s shoulders hummed as he rose up the shaft to the wasteland beyond.
It stood like a behemoth on the western bank. A vast black hulk sprawling in all directions with great, rectangular structures humming and chugging and churning in ugly efficiency. Smoke stacks shot toward the sky from the center of the gun factory, pouring forth choking black clouds. A recently mended wire fence surrounded the entire mess with razor-sharp barbwire twisting around the top. Groups of men with semi-automatic weapons patrolled the rim in a way that was almost organized.
Warden had visited this spot once before. That trip had yielded a fairly accurate map of the surrounding area. Ella had provided him with inside information about the factory ranging from tips dragged from the mouth of a family that used to live inside the deserted structure to blueprints dug from the rubble of the city planning bureau. All this had been helpful, but what he saw before him through the spyglass still made his gut churn.
The family who had lived inside this factory had mentioned that there was a number of large, cement drainage pipes emptying into the river on the western side. Warden had been working his way around to the drainage pipes for the better part of an hour now. He had little cover out here at the outer ridge of the city, so he had had to rely on distance and the overgrown weeds and briars that sprouted around the edge of the fence. Startled birds were constantly threatening to give him away, while ticks, spider webs, and brambles became an intolerable annoyance.
When Warden finally came to where the banks sloped down to the river, another problem presented itself. There was a fifty-foot clearing with no cover down to the cement drainage pipes. A single guard paced restlessly at the entrance of the drainage pipes. Above him, and on the other side of the fence, sat a patrol of men who were drinking and talking loudly. If he made a run for it, he was sure to be seen and shot. He checked his watch.
Reaching in his long, trench coat-like garment, he produced another of his homemade alcohol-based firebombs. From his left hip he pulled an odd-looking device. It had a gun-shaped base complete with handle and trigger. The small gears in back creaked and turned as he pulled back the rotating arm into the large, iron spring that took up the middle of the gun-base. He then inserted a two-inch, rusted gear into the slot now formed by the cocked arm. Warden stood up and tucked the geared device under one arm. Saying a quick prayer, he lit the cloth on the firebomb, cocked it back with his right hand, and using his entire body, threw it in a lazy, forty-five degree arch. Without waiting for it to land, he aimed the gear-gun at the guard pacing around the pipe and pulled the trigger. The arm flipped forward and the spring uncoiled with a crack as the rusty gear went whizzing off toward the guard.
The bottle and the gear struck at the same time. The bottle crashed and burst into flame. The guards staggered drunkenly in a not-too-inaccurate show. Some went running and shouting while others fired their guns wildly into the air. The gear struck at the guard’s leg and he staggered in pain, but did not drop his gun. Warden cursed the inaccuracy of the gear-gun as he dove and rolled down the hill toward the alarmed guard. One good thing about no one using guns for the last twenty years, Warden thought, is that everyone should be a bad aim. Warden sprang to his feet at the bottom of the hill just before he hit the rocks that lined the drainage ditch. The guard at the base brought his gun up and fired twice directly at him. Warden staggered as the bullets struck the iron plates he had fashioned into a crude vest and worn under his shirt for just this occasion. The bullets slamming into him hurt badly, and for a moment Warden wondered if they’d punched right through the plates. Warden’s arm flashed and a gear was airborne toward his assaulter. The guard hit the ground cursing, and reached for his gun, but by then Warden was on top of him. Landing with a knee on each arm, Warden pulled a stun dart he had salvaged from the air rifles out of his coat and flashed a quick smile at the wide-eyed guard.
“G’night.” He commented, punching the dart into the guard’s chest. The man jolted and then fell back.
Sitting inside the dark drainage tunnels, Warden toyed with the gun he had pulled from the guard’s stiff fingers. Using his multi-purpose knife, he disabled the trigger and then tossed the broken gun aside. Next he took the five clips he had collected and started breaking the bullets open and emptying their powder into a hollow plastic tube he pulled from a larger pouch in the hem of his coat. This, he decided, was taking too long, and he emptied the rest of the bullets into the tube and capped it off. He lit another bottle of alcohol and started making his way along the low, musty tunnels by its light.
Warden had collected over 200 stun darts from the guns the assault team had dropped. He had fashioned a blowgun to fire the darts, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t accurate any further than 10 yards. Nevertheless, it was this he had ready when he climbed the ladder up to the manhole within the inner court of the factory. He could have followed the tunnels into the main factory, but he needed a large source of gunpowder, and one of the warehouses was his best bet for that.
He pressed his ear against the hatch and listened to the sounds of the street above him. There was the constant rumble of the factory, but he heard no footsteps. He pulled the cloth from his bottle and let the burning rag drift to the ground. Wiping the sleeve of his black coat across his goggles, he peered through the small hole in the hatch. A silhouette loomed over him. Warden groaned. There was a man standing ON the manhole cover. Putting his shoulder against the cover, Warden shoved hard, driving the cover up and toppling the man standing there.
“What the…” the man yelled as he tumbled to the pavement. Warden grabbed his legs and pulled him into the manhole. The man screamed his surprise and his arms flailed as he fell into the murky blackness of the drainage tunnels. Warden shot up out of the manhole and picked up the lid to replace it.
“What’s going on over here?” a voice called. Warden spun around and hurled the heavy manhole lid at the approaching guard. The man was knocked back and his gun went flying from his hand. Warden dropped the man’s gun down the manhole, and replaced the lid. Then he dragged the limp form between warehouses. Stripping the man’s cloths from him, Warden bound his hands and legs with the shirt and pants.
This done, Warden pulled a gearbox from his right hip, pulled out ten feet of cord, and tied it around a small iron hook. Swinging the hook around, he let it fly to the top of the warehouse roof. It caught on the second try, and Warden pulled the release lever on the gearbox. The spring inside began to rewind, pulling him toward the roof. It ran out of energy about three feet from the roof, and Warden climbed hand-over-hand until he could grab hold of the roof. Swinging himself up, he recovered his hook and gearbox and looked around. There were no patrols nearby, so he had some time.
Warden pulled a drill from his belt and drilled a one-inch hole in the roof. He then looked in. Crates of guns. He leapt to the next roof and repeated the process. More crates. Three warehouses down, a group of men came by and Warden had to press himself against the roof to avoid being seen. When they were gone, he looked through a drilled hole. The warehouse was packed with large barrels stacked to the roof. This was the one he wanted.
Each warehouse had a main door that slid up for loading and unloading, and a smaller side entrance. The side entrance was locked, of course. Warden pulled some old dental tools out of the inner pocket of his coat and toyed with the lock. It took him two minutes before the lock clicked and the handle opened for him. Ella would have put him to shame.
The barrels were not labeled, so Warden drilled a hole into one. Pure gunpowder began pouring from the hole. Warden quickly pulled his plastic tubes out and filled them one by one. There were ten tubes, and when he was finished, tied them together into a bundle and snapped the cap on each one. A wire ran into each cap and the wires were bundled together and attached to a small clock. Warden smiled as he looked at his finished bomb.
He checked his pocket watch. By his estimate, it would take another twenty minutes to sneak into the factory itself. He drilled into the top of another barrel and stuck a pair of wires down into the powder inside. He set the clock attached to these wires for half an hour, just to be safe. Then he quietly left the warehouse.
The factory proper presented opportunities Warden hadn’t counted on. There was a rusty fire escape leading almost to the roof that was entirely out of sight of the patrols. Warden scaled this quickly with acrobatic grace. The window at the top had already been broken out and Warden slipped in without trouble. He checked his watch. He had ten minutes left.
Inside the factory, noisy machines chugged and crews of men yelled loudly to be heard over the noise. The light was bad, mostly coming from the broken windows. Warden smiled and pulled out his spyglass. In the middle of the factory, he saw what he was looking for. It was the bin that contained the gunpowder that would be poured into the bullets. It was out of reach from any catwalk at its level. Fortunately, Warden thought, I don’t have to get THAT close.
Flitting across the catwalks, Warden worked his way from shadow to shadow. He only used the blowgun twice, each time dragging the limp bodies into the shadows and continuing quickly. Several times people on the floor looked in his direction and then away again. Apparently from that distance he looked like anyone else to their work-numbed minds. Finally, he was level with the gunpowder bin. He looked at his watch. Five minutes. Setting the timer on the bomb for seven minutes, Warden tossed the bundle into the powder-bin, and started heading back the direction he had come.
“Hey, what was THAT?” a voice came from below.
“Up there on the catwalk! The guy in black!” someone else shouted. Warden put on speed, fully expecting bullets to start flying around him at any second. The commotion and shouting below increased, but nothing else seemed to happen. Warden was almost to the window when someone tackled him from behind. A meaty fist slammed into the back of his head, and Warden felt himself go woozy.
A slap in the face brought Warden out of his daze. He was being held from behind by several well-muscled factory workers and slapped in the face by a mean-looking bearded man in coveralls and nothing else.
“Who are you?” the bearded man demanded pushing a gun into his face, “What are you doing here?”
“What time is it?” Warden asked. The man was taken off-guard by the question enough to glance at the ancient clock on the factory wall.
“Uh… ‘round five-thirty, why?”
“No reason,” Warden responded, and threw his head back between the massive arms of the men holding him. A mind-shattering explosion rocked the factory followed by several more, louder ones, as the gunpowder warehouses literally blew sky-high. The few remaining windows of the factory blew inward, and most of the workers were knocked off their feet. Warden sprang into action, kicking the gun from the hand of the man in front of him, and then flipping backwards in the weakened grip of the men holding him. The men fell to the ground, shocked from their resistance.
“Get out of here!” Warden shouted. Most men followed him without question, fleeing in a panic toward the door. The group of armed guards running into the factory at the time was nearly trampled in the mass of people fleeing from the building. Moments later, the factory-proper erupted in a fiery explosion as Warden ran toward the gates followed by fifty panicked workers. The guards at the gate paused unsure what to do. Finally most of them decided to join the rush. It was only when he was nearly beyond their range that some started firing on Warden. The last thing Warden saw as he disappeared into the city limits was the toppling smoke stacks of the gun factory.
Kallak was punching away at a refurbished typewriter when Puzel burst into the court.
“Boss, someone wants to see you.”
Kallak looked up from his page. He had been working on his volume of The New Law for several years now. The manuscript, which was well over 500 pages long, was kept in a sacred vault behind his throne, and protected by Kallak’s disciples as one of their most coveted possessions. When Kallak died, this was to be the new Bible by which the world would be governed. Though Kallak himself simply called it “The Volume”, most of his disciples referred to it as “Book of the Golden Apple.” Or sometimes just “The Golden Apple.”
Kallak’s train of thought was broken and he looked annoyed.
“Is this really so important that Gregory couldn’t handle it? I do delegate authority around here.”
Puzel shrugged his hunched shoulders and replied, “Just thought you’d wanna see her, s’all.”
“Her? Her who?”
Puzel looked uncomfortable and rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, Boss, it’s… you know…”
Before Puzel could continue, the woman herself stepped up from behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay, Stumpy, I can introduce myself.”
Puzel hobbled away grumbling, “Never liked it when you called me that.”
The woman strolled in, casually pulling back her bulky hood as she did so.
“Hello, Ella,” Kallak said, noncommittally punching a few more keys on his typewriter.
“Your warmth is rivaled only by your humility,” Ella said dryly, as she looked around the courtroom. She removed her raincoat and tossed it to the side.
“And your grace is matched only by your forthrightness,” Kallak responded without pause. The typewriter dinged and he looked up, removing his lens-less glasses. “Just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought you might drop by, did you?”
“No, actually I had to hitch a ride with one of your gun shipments.” Ella strolled up to the throne and snatched the paper from the typewriter. “Whatcha writing?”
Kallak waited calmly as she perused the paper. After a moment she snorted.
“The best ruler is a strong servant of the cause. If a people elect a governing body based on how that body presents itself as a group of people, they will find themselves bandied about by a sea of individuals devoted to individual causes. It is for this reason that the cause should be always foremost in the public mind, and the people behind the cause be, as much as is possible, invisible.” Ella quoted from the paper. Handing it back, she coyly stated, “You always write such beautiful things, Paul.”
“My name is Kallak.”
“Your name is Paul, Paul. Must I tell you everything?”
“My name is something I choose, Ella. No one truly owns them self as a person until they are able to define themselves. Choosing your name is one of the surest…”
“Stop preaching to me, Paul. Just stop it.”
Kallak shrugged. “You never understood. I don’t know why you would now.”
Ella spun around, taking in the entire throne room.
“This is all very impressive, Paul. The star struck disciples, the mindless followers, the propaganda. What are you trying to accomplish, exactly?”
“Just rebuilding society.”
“Is that all?”
“Well someone ought to do it.”
Ella cocked her head and pondered a moment.
“You really do believe in yourself, don’t you?”
“Yes, Ella, I really do. Forgive me if this sounds preachy, but look around you. I’ve brought people together. I’ve established laws. I’ve strengthened and taught people. And I have done all this with very little bloodshed. ‘Many a king on a first class throne, if he wants to call his crown his own, must manage somehow to get through more dirty work than ever I do.”
“What was that?”
“A very old poem. Now let me ask you, Ella. What are you doing here?”
“I just came to see if what I’ve heard is true.”
“I can’t let you leave here, now. Not yet, anyway. I can’t let the world know what I am up to until the time is right.”
Ella nodded. “I thought you might say that.”
Kallak looked at her softly for a moment.
“I know you think I am being tyrannical, Ella, but I swear I will let you go when the order is ready. Until then, you will be treated like a guest. If you decide to join us, that will be your free decision.”
“Alright then,” Ella smiled, “I’m your guest. Let’s see my room.”
Kallak nodded to Gregory.
“Show Ella to a nice room. Make sure she’s kept safe.”
“Yes sir,” Gregory strolled from the room with Ella in tow. Kallak watched them go, and then placed his glasses back on his face. Reinserting the paper in the typewriter, he began typing once more.
The night was young, and the fog that had gathered on the streets caught and enhanced the headlights of the ancient truck as it drove slowly up to the gate, surrounded by a dozen motley guard-men. The Junkyard Dogs had scavenged, repaired, and horded a few precious automobiles. Keeping them guarded and running in their ever widening quest for gasoline, the Dogs had made themselves the foremost trade and barter tribes in this charred city.
One “Dog” guard ran forward to open the gate. As it slid to the side, he cried out and fell back. As the other Dog’s looked up, whispers and growls danced through the group. Coolly waiting at the gate stood a dark, cloaked figure that had become a menacing sight to them all. Somewhere in the distance, the clock tower chimed midnight.
Warden held an iron staff cocked back in one arm, and flowing gracefully behind his body. On either end of the staff a gear was welded. This was understood by all on the street as a challenge.
The Dogs and Warden stood unmoving for several minutes. The Junkyard Dogs had become a great deal more organized and survival minded since that day years ago that Warden had rescued Ella from their grasp. Negotiation was not out of the question. It may very well have happened if one of the young hot bloods in the gang had not chosen that moment to rush Warden with an aluminum baseball bat. Warden twirled his staff and took a fighting stance. The twelve other men joined the hot blood in the rush.
The hot blood swung his bat toward Warden’s head, but just before contact, his head was no longer their. The hot blood stumbled with the momentum of his swing, and Warden’s staff at his feet had him flat on his face a moment later. The general rush overtook Warden, and his staff became a blur. This was what he was used to, and although he never craved violence, there was something satisfying in being able to match fist to fist rather than having to deal with weapons that could kill from a quarter mile.
A man coming at Warden with a broken bottle found the bottle shattered in his now-bleeding fist. Simultaneously the other geared end of the baton struck the man with the chain in the gut. As Warden swung around to nail the man with the board, his baton suddenly wrenched in his hand. The board came down hard across his back, and Warden’s entire body went numb for a moment. Warden forced himself to roll as he dropped to the ground, narrowly avoiding the stamping feet of his attackers. Springing back up, Warden pulled two gears from his chest belt. Holding them so that the cogs protruded between his fingers, Warden lay into his attackers. He had only dealt two blows when a voice called.
The Dogs and Warden backed away from one another, breathing heavily. The new voice had come from an imposing man in spectacles and a dress jacket.
“Warden is it?” the man said, walking toward the fighter.
“That’s me,” Warden responded.
“Why are you attacking my men, Warden? We’ve hurt no one. We’ve done nothing to violate whatever code of justice you hold dear. We were on our way to trade parts with another group.”
“Your men attacked me first, Tye. I was just defending myself.”
“Yes, well, you’ll forgive them if they’re not thrilled to see you. What do you want here?”
“I came to ask a favor.”
“I don’t recall owing you any.”
“I need a gas vehicle, Tye. There’s a group that’s making and shipping guns in The Northwest City. Trust me when I say that it will be a very bad thing for your Dogs if I don’t stop them.”
“Would you return the vehicle unharmed if I let you borrow it?”
“I can’t make any promises.”
The leader, Tye, looked down at the ground in consideration, then up again with an odd grin on his face.
“I’m sorry, Warden, but we can’t trust you on this.”
The truck behind Tye gunned its engine and its wheels spun as the gear was thrown. Tye stepped aside as the vehicle’s lights loomed and bore down on Warden. Warden leapt and rolled across the hood as the truck hit him hard. Pain welled inside his ribcage. As Warden worked on breathing again, he rolled up the windshield and onto the roof of the cab. The roll bars stopped him, and he pulled his gear gun from his hip. Using its base, he smashed out the driver’s side window and pegged the driver with a rusty gear. The driver cried out in pain, and the truck veered sharply to the right, riding up on the sidewalk. Warden was nearly thrown from the roof, but caught himself on the window. Shards of glass tried to cut through his fingerless gloves. The driver, now clutching his injured arm, veered again to the left to ride back on the road. A long dead streetlamp slammed the rear fender, jolting the truck. Warden used the jolt to launch himself through the window, tackling the driver from the seat. The driver put up little resistance as Warden slammed his foot onto the clutch and popped the gear into neutral. As he applied the brake, his knife appeared in his hand, and pointed at the driver’s face. The truck came to a jolting halt and the engine stalled.
“Get out,” Warden said. The driver scrambled at the door and slid out of the cab, whimpering.
As Warden hit the road for The Northwest City, he noted that the truck had only a quarter tank of gas.
“Great,” Warden stated.
Though Kallak generally had his speeches planned out before he got on stage, he found that true inspiration came to him impromptu. The newbreeds were developing exceptionally well. Already he had found himself replacing the ignorant and inefficient street-bred staff with the newbreeds. And all the newbreeds were zealous about attending Kallak’s speeches. He felt that finally he was achieving some control.
“Every government system has failed or is in the process of failing,” Kallak began another speech to the hushed awe of the spectators. “We’ve tried almost every approach, and every approach has failed. They have failed because people are selfish, ignorant, weak, and incapable of self-government much less governing a group. Philosophers and intellects for countless ages have wrestled with the question of how to tackle this insoluble problem. In the end it’s always the same: people will only work under a governing system that they accept.
“It is this line of thought that I wish to pursue with you. You see, what I offer, what WE are, is the ultimate in governing freedom. We offer people the option of choosing not to abide under our system. Any one of you could walk away freely at any time. In this way, all those that live under this system will be those who choose to accept it. Those who choose to leave will be thrown into the outside and hostile world, and eliminated as a problem. This is political Darwinism. Survival of those who work to build the system. We can no longer afford to live exclusively for ourselves. We must now live and work toward the good of the system. Only in serving the system will the system serve you.”
The applause at the end of his speech annoyed Kallak. This was not a motivational or charismatic message. This was a lesson. The fact that they applauded him seemed to show that they weren’t getting it.
Puzel met him at the edge of the stage.
“I got bad news and worse news for you, Boss.”
“Give me the worst news.”
“I’d kinda planned on givin’ you the bad first.”
“The woman escaped. Guards just found er’ room unlocked and empty.”
Kallak shrugged, “What took her so long?”
“I know Ella, Puzel. I knew she would get free.”
Puzel removed his cap and scratched his balding pate at the great mystery that was his boss.
“Okay, well, the worse news is that our gun plant got blown away.”
“Well, the boys tell me that some guy in a long black coat and goggles snuck in and blew all our powder.”
Kallak paused and pondered this for a moment. Then he turned and began to walk quickly toward his courtroom.
“Puzel, call my council together. We need to make some decisions.”
The gas ran out twelve miles outside The Northwestern City. Warden had taken time to load some gear on the truck before he left, and he was forced to choose what he would take. Even he had to admit that he carried too much stuff sometimes, and that he tended to overly depend on his equipment. He loaded his chosen equipment into a bag and hiked the twelve miles. His surveillance of the city took most of a day. The city seemed to have a gun-nest on every roof, but they were scanning for attack from the air, not from down below.
“They’re waiting for The Admiral,” Warden thought. “Good thing I made it here first.”
By nightfall, Warden had located the skyscraper headquarters of his nameless foe. The perimeter was heavily guarded, but he was able to sneak by in the dark and begin climbing perilously, story after story looking for an abandoned window. He wasn’t sure exactly what he planned to do. He generally hoped to find the groups of people that had been tranquilized in the streets, and free them. Once he had freed those people, he was hoping they would help him in destroying the force that had taken them. Perhaps he would only find information. Whatever the case, he knew something had to be done. He was tired, hungry, and ached from a multitude of injuries. He hated being away from the security of his clock tower. Still he was driven on.
Warden kept to the column line between the windows as much as possible, taking quick peeks into the rooms beyond and then moving on. It was surprisingly difficult for Warden, who was used to the task of climbing concrete and brick buildings that were, at most, ten stories. This metal-and-glass monstrosity made his climbing tools almost useless.
The first several stories had rooms that were mostly all occupied by sleeping people piled into various makeshift bunks. It was impossible for Warden to tell whether they were captives or captors, so he continued to climb. Finally, about six stories up, Warden found what appeared to be an empty storeroom. He cursed himself for having chosen not to bring his glasscutter tool. Wrapping the tip of his long cloak around his fist, Warden hammered the window. The first blow did nothing to the window and succeeded in nearly jolting him off the side of the building. Warden tightened his grip and tried again, harder. By the third blow, the window cracked, but did not break. Both of Warden’s arms ached terribly, and he repositioned himself, trying again with the other hand. This time the window splintered inward, showering hundreds of glass shards into the room beyond. He waited a moment or two to make sure no one was alarmed by the sound of broken glass. When the coast seemed clear, Warden swung in and sat heavily on a box, waiting for the ache to leave his limbs.
The inside of the building was poorly lit and lightly guarded. Warden made good use of his remaining tranq darts and blowgun. Creeping from room to room, Warden set about the daunting task of finding the group of imprisoned victims. The night dragged hour by hour, and Warden’s hopes lagged. He was almost ready to go hide out in the storeroom and wait for the next night, when he found a sleeping face that he recognized.
The face belonged to Flynt, an eager young man, and one of the few friends Warden had. Flynt was a gardener, of sorts, and kept a greenhouse on the top floor of an abandoned apartment building that helped supply Warden with food and raw material for the alcohol he used in his weapons. Flynt had disappeared at the same time the raiding band had kidnapped the street-people, but Warden had never made the connection.
“Something is wrong here,” Warden thought. The door to this room of bunks had not been locked or guarded. If Flynt and the other men and women in this room were captives, why weren’t they being better guarded? Warden slipped his knife into one hand and slapped the other down over Flynt’s mouth. Flynt’s eyes popped open wide and he let out a muffled cry. Warden let the knife hover over Flynt’s face where he could see it easily.
“Alright Flynt, what are you doing here with these people? What’s going on here?”
Warden felt a hard shove that knocked the wind out of him, and found himself on the floor with Flynt on top of him. The knife clattered across the floor.
“Who are you, what do you want with me?” Flynt cried loudly, and Warden saw bodies begin to move around elsewhere in the darkness. Flynt had never been particularly quick or agile, yet he had somehow just managed to floor Warden. Twisting and shoving simultaneously, Warden tossed Flynt off of him, and sprang to his feet.
“So now you’re pretending not to know me, eh Flynt? Just how long have you been in league with these people?”
“How do you know my name??” Flynt yelled, lunging with impressive speed at Warden. Warden just barely managed to dodge him. Swinging around, Warden prepared for another attack. Something definitely wasn’t right here. Warden had known Flynt a long time, and this man wasn’t acting at all like Flynt. By now, other sleepers had the general idea that Warden was some sort of intruder, and joined the fray. Warden spun and parried and drove hard blows into the crowds of people that flung themselves upon him, pushing to the side of his mind how weary he was. It soon became apparent, though, that he was easily outmatched by just a few of these people. Tackling his way through three men, Warden slid through the doorway and slammed the door behind him. He began to run madly down the hallways, hoping to get to some place he could hide. The sounds of pursuit grew sporadic behind him, and he found his way back to the storeroom he had entered. Opening the door quietly, he slipped into the room and closed the door behind him. That was when he heard the click and felt cold steel pressing against his temple.
“Yeah, I kinda figured you’d try to escape the way you came in,” the man with the gun casually remarked.
Kallak sat in his courtroom looking at the bound intruder. He was probably in his mid to late twenties, about five-foot-ten, thin, but well built. His hair was dark and tussled, and his eyes, when Kallak had peeked under the goggles, were wide, blue orbs. They had stripped him of his coat and equipment, but Kallak didn’t mind letting the man have his precious autonomy. The intruder hadn’t said much since his capture. It was a shame, really. Kallak was interested in what made this man tick. He began rummaging through the equipment they had stripped from the man.
“What’s this obsession you have with cogwheels?” Kallak remarked, after a bit of inspection.
“What time is it?” the intruder responded.
Kallak glanced at his wristwatch, “Uuum… it’s 7:35 in the morning in the lovely city to The Northwest. I’ll probably be having breakfast soon, so we’ll make this as short as possible.”
“What does MY watch say?” the intruder pressed.
“Why, is it booby-trapped?” Kallak asked in amusement, opening the watch away from himself. When nothing happened, he read its face.
“This one says 7:28.”
The intruder nodded.
“You know, this watch is much nicer than mine. I’m almost tempted to keep it.”
The intruder grimaced, and Kallak laughed.
“Relax, you’ll get it back. I’d say you’ve earned it, all the work you’ve gone to. Say, you wouldn’t happen to be the guy that trashed my gun factory, would you?”
The intruder remained silent. Kallak shrugged.
“Pretty impressive for one guy. I’m also told that you were protecting The Admiral during one of my mercy-raids. I mean that’s got to take the cake. Someone PROTECTING The Admiral,” Kallak chuckled.
The intruder raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, mercy. As in, helping loads of helpless, innocent, ignorant and warring people. That’s what you’re about, right?”
“You shot them full of drugs and carted them off like animals,” the intruder growled. Kallak waved a hand dismissively.
“People don’t know what’s good for them. You think they would have come on written invitation?”
“Flynt didn’t even recognize me. Apparently your drug did more than just put them to sleep.”
“As I mentioned before, people don’t know what is good for them. You can lead a horse to water, casting pearls before swine… you know. People who live in their own refuse without seeking to improve themselves have some bad programming up here,” Kallak pointed to his head. “All I did was reprogram them for the better good.”
“Flynt was good. He was trying to help people. Your recruitment program needs organization, not guns.”
Kallak didn’t respond immediately. He seemed preoccupied with Warden’s coat. Finally, he produced the blowgun Warden had designed. He looked it over and held it up.
“Now this is a significant downgrade on the original design. Why didn’t you just grab a few of my guns and use those?”
“If you’re talking about your air-rifle, it’s too bulky for me to carry around. As for your lethal weapons, I’ll pass, thanks.”
Kallak ignored the intruder, looking the blowgun over some more.
“So how does this work? You put your lips here and blow?”
The intruder didn’t respond.
“Guess I’ll have to find out myself, then,” Kallak said. He pressed the blowgun against his lips and blew a dart into the intruder’s neck.
“Goodnight,” he waved with a frown and the dark man shuddered and went limp in the arms of his captors.
Admiral knew that Warden was not home about thirty seconds before he reached the clock tower. He had run a series of scans that allowed him to induce a number of things. All the watches, including the clock tower itself, were running anywhere from a few seconds to a full minute off. Some of the spring-wound ones had stopped entirely. Section 6 automatically ran the calculations and told Admiral that Warden may have been absent as long as three days, judging by the disorder suffered by the clocks. A great deal of Warden’s physical equipment was missing as well. Wherever he had gone to, he had gone well prepared. Admiral also noticed that Ella was in. Judging by her heat signature and heart rate, she was rather upset.
As Admiral swept in on her, he announced, “I am attempting to locate Warden. Do you know where I might find him?” Ella looked up with reddened eyes and without a word, flung herself into Admiral’s arms, trembling. Admiral held her like he might have held Dog when the beast hurled himself happily into his master’s arms. Almost on impulse, Admiral’s hand began a stroking gesture through her dark hair. This, Admiral could not help but feel, was a waste of time. Judging by Ella’s emotional state, Warden was most likely in trouble if not dead. It was pointless to sit here when Admiral’s newfound comrade needed rescuing or avenging.
Perhaps this was a bad idea, Admiral commented to Section 6.
Humor her; she has learned to feel for people.
“Tell me where Warden is. I may be able to help,” Admiral spoke softly to Ella. Ella dug in her deep pockets and produced a piece of crumpled paper. Admiral took it from her, and she buried her face into his chest again.
I’ve gone to check out The Northwestern City. Take care of my clocks.
Admiral let the paper flutter to the ground.
“It will take some time to travel from here to The Northwestern City. And it is uncertain as to whether there is any danger there to begin with.”
Ella looked into Admiral’s face with wide, moist eyes.
“You don’t know my Clock-man. He’s there already. He was there by the time I got this note. HE’S got Warden, now.”
“Who has Warden?”
Ella sighed and fell away from Admiral’s arms, walking shakily in frantic circles, staring intently at the ground.
“His name is Paul Mann. He calls himself something else now. When I knew him, he was a lot like Clock-man… a lot like you. He was obsessed with helping people, with ending this hell-on-earth. He tried to get people to stop fighting, to stop living so selfishly and start helping each other. Everything he tried, every crusade, every campaign, every scheme, no matter how well thought out or brilliant always ran up against the wall when he met, head-on, the constant fact that no one wanted his help. But he never gave up or got bitter. When I finally left him, he was still trying something else.”
“Why did you leave him?”
“He became so buried in trying to solve the world’s problems that he forgot he was human.”
At that last comment, she shot a sharp glance at Admiral. Admiral nodded.
“So you are afraid that he has killed Warden?”
“No,” she replied, “I’m afraid he’s converted him.”
Admiral nodded again.
“Then I must go stop him.”
“No!” Ella called from behind, but Admiral was already floating out over the city. Ella screamed in frustration and slammed a clock to the floor, smashing it to bits.
“When will you men stop playing messiah??” she cried.
The man who had been Warden awoke on a sterile, white bed, with wires and tubes flowing into his body. He felt strong and savage, and eager for something he did not really understand. He also felt something gnawing at the back of his mind. Rising from the bed, he saw the rows of beds just like his, falling away in the distance down the narrow, mirrored hall. They were all empty. Post-Warden thought vaguely that he must be late for something. The gnawing at the edge of his mind grew more intense.
Rising from his bed, Post-Warden methodically pulled the tubes and wires from his body. It ached strangely, but the ache felt good, almost euphoric. The wires had been applying a regular electric pulse, and his muscles seemed strained to the pulse. This seemed familiar, but he didn’t know why. He felt a growing annoyance. There was something he needed to know.
Post-Warden walked over to the mirror and stared at himself. His face was stretched, tense, and hard. His wide eyes seemed frantic, and the skin was oddly paler around his eyes, in almost perfect circles. Post-Warden made circles out of his fingers and slowly brought them to his eyes. As he stared at himself this way, the sudden image of goggles flashed in his mind. The thought hit him like a physical blow. Warden staggered, wild-eyed from the mirror.
“RETURN TO YOUR BED.”
The voice came from around him. Warden’s drug-clouded mind struggled to obey, but the gnawing thought had burst full-blown on his head, and Warden howled back at the voice.
“WHAT TIME IS IT??” He spun like a caged animal. “WHAT TIME IS IT??” He stumbled around the room, wild eyes frantically searching for a clock, a watch, some sign of the hour or minute, some gentle, soothing ticking.
“WHAT TIME IS IT?? WHAT TIME IS IT??” Warden grabbed a bed and hurled it as if it weighed nothing. He upended several more beds, flinging them off in all directions. One smashed against the mirror, sending a torrent of broken glass upon an astounded group of people beyond. Warden froze, his rage-filled eyes zeroing in on the people in the booth. Their mouths were hanging open in unmasked horror, but Warden wasn’t looking at their expression. The tall, blond one was wearing a rusty watch. With a bloodcurdling scream, Warden sprang through the shattered window, landed on the bed, and launched himself at the man with the watch. The man managed to catch Warden’s hands before they could reach him, and the two men tumbled to the ground.
“THE TIME!” Warden shouted in the man’s face. Warden was vaguely aware of the heavy blows that were being dealt him from behind, but his rage seemed to block all that. The blond man gripping him scowled and pulled Warden’s arms close to his chest. Holding them both with one arm, he shoved his watch in Warden’s face.
“It’s two o’clock. Now stop.”
Suddenly the pain of the blows filled Warden’s mind, and he slumped into semi-consciousness. His face wore a smile.
Kallak stood in his courtroom looking over the tightly bound Warden.
“E’ certainly didn’t take yer brainwashing well,” Puzel commented, nursing an arm injured by the shattered mirror. Kallak smiled.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it? He took a very bad mental weakness and turned it into a strength. Darwin, you’re just full of surprises.”
“What’re ya talkin’ bout, boss?”
“Puzel, my friend, what you see before you is a man in the grip of an obsessive/compulsive disorder. I’ll bet he checks his watch twice a minute if he can. He can’t stand not knowing the time. We took this man, and put him in a room where he couldn’t even tell whether it was day or night. No wonder he went mad. Not all the reprogramming in the world could rid him of that one obsession.”
“So what now?”
“Well, I want to find out if he remembers who he is or not.”
Warden began to stir. Kallak placed a strong arm around him and helped him sit up. He held a glass of water to his lips. Warden drank thirstily and then panted for a moment.
“Thanks,” he muttered finally. “What time is it?”
Kallak held Warden’s pocket watch dangling open in front of his face.
“So you recognize it. Okay. Do you know who you are?”
“I… I’m Warden.”
Kallak glanced up at Puzel with a wry smile.
“I didn’t actually catch his name before we reprogrammed him, but I suppose that must be right.”
“Well congratulations, Warden, you are the first person to flunk the Golden Apple induction program. I don’t know if that makes you weak-minded or exceptionally strong-minded.”
“The Golden Apple is the new order. I, and the others here are trying to help people to become more than a group of feuding individuals. Understand?”
This all sounded familiar to Warden. Where in the world was he? Where were his clocks? What time was it?
These and other thoughts were interrupted by a crashing sound. He turned his head to find the door to the courtroom twisted off its hinges. Standing in the settling dust was the awesome figure of The Admiral.
“Release him,” Admiral ordered in a magnified voice that echoed unnecessarily through the large room.
“Admiral?” Kallak asked in amazement, “Is that really you?”
The giant in the doorway held a hand extended palm-first toward Kallak.
“Comply with the order.”
“Of course. He’s yours. Anything else you would like before you leave?”
“Release the hostage victims that you acquired off the streets.”
“Admiral, none of them WANT to be released. They’re quite happy here. I’m feeding them and teaching them. We’ve got a peaceful little community here.”
“Peace does not include the manufacture and use of deadly weapons.”
“Now how many people have I killed, Admiral? Ask your computer, I’m sure it’s got a count going.”
“There have been fifty-three confirmed gunshot victims within the last month by my observation. Three-hundred more have been drugged and removed from their home environment by darts fired from air-guns.”
“Well your gunshot victims are not my doing. Not most of them, anyway. We’ve shot some straggling bands that have tried to attack us in defense. The others were done by some punks that raided one of my gun shipments and stole the weapons we had produced.”
“Your men openly fired upon me.”
“You attacked my men first.”
“To protect the victims.”
“Who I now feed and shelter.”
Admiral narrowed his eyes.
“Is this true, Warden?”
“Yeah, mostly,” Warden muttered. “Fact is, he pumps these people full of drugs and brainwashes them into being his little fanatics.”
“I wish everyone would stop calling it brainwashing. I’m simply teaching them to live in a harmonic, organized system.”
“By unnatural means,” Admiral added.
“‘Unnatural?’ Did I just hear you use the word ‘unnatural?’ Tell me Admiral, when The Republic built a titanium skeleton and then grew a genetically engineered tissue mass around it, was that ‘natural?’ When they programmed this cyborg to defend their system so well, he’s doing it decades after that system no longer exists, was that ‘natural’ programming?”
“How do you know so much about my design?” Admiral scowled. Kallak snorted.
“That’s irrelevant. Answer the question. What’s ‘natural?’ Is living a life where you’re constantly on the verge of starving and at the mercy of cannibalistic men turned to animals ‘natural?’ Is the fact that they would fight to keep this self-destroying life rather than accepting another authority ‘natural?’”
“You are not qualified to make that decision. You are not God.”
“GOD??” Kallak cried in disbelief. He held his hands toward the ceiling, looking up in a mocking plea. “The cyborg appeals to some deity!”
Then Kallak turned to The Admiral with a look of such bitterness and scorn that even Admiral’s dead senses were shocked by the utter hatred in this man’s gaze.
“If I am playing god, it is only because whoever holds the position isn’t doing his job.”
“No more!” a voice shouted from the corner of the room. Admiral and Kallak both turned to see who had spoken. Warden stood, free of his ropes through some trick of escapism. He had found his coat and reclaimed it on his shoulders. As he spoke, he pulled his goggles down over his eyes.
“Enough debate. Admiral does not have the answers, and neither do you. The Republic failed, and Anarchy will fail too. You may believe you are right, but I will no longer tolerate your methods.”
A cogwheel spun across the room toward Kallak’s head. Kallak dodged it easily, and the missile embedded itself in the wall. A handgun was suddenly in Kallak’s grip, and he was firing shots at The Admiral. Crimson fountains burst in Admirals right and left shoulder. Admiral ignored the injuries and began walking toward Kallak. Warden tackled Kallak from the side. It was like hitting a brick wall, and he fell to the ground, stunned. The shots continued as Admiral walked forward unflinching as they punctured him again and again. Warden rose and attempted to knock the gun from Kallak’s hand. His shot wavered, but the gun stayed firm in his steel grip. Admiral reached Kallak, and yanked the weapon from his hands. He crumpled it in his fists. Kallak punched Admiral double-fisted in the face. Admiral flinched, but did not fall. He placed a massive hand gently on Kallak’s shoulder, and the blond man slumped to the floor.
“Dream your dreams where you can do no harm,” Admiral said.
Admiral and Warden sat silently on the clock tower, staring off into strangely quiet night. They had sat unmoving and unspeaking for over an hour now, the only sound between them was Warden’s methodical checking of his watch. Flipping it open and shut once more, Warden replaced the worn pocket watch and turned to his companion.
“Want to go somewhere else?”
“Why?” The Admiral responded.
“Well, the bells are about to start ringing. I usually try to be out when they do.”
Admiral raised an eyebrow. “You still have the clock ring the hour?”
“Only noon and midnight. Let’s the people know I’m still up here.”
The Admiral didn’t say anything for a moment. Finally he replied, “I think I would like to hear the chimes.”
Warden shrugged and pulled some wax from his pocket. He chewed it a little and then stuck it in his ears.
The clock tower’s ringing was all encompassing, overwhelming. As it slowly, rhythmically rang out the hour with each precise note, Admiral could see the waves of sound rippling out over the darkened city and reverberate back on itself. Finally the last of twelve chimes was struck and the sound wave lingered long into the night. As it finally died, Admiral mumbled,
“Then louder, still, the bells did speak
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right, prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Warden looked over at him.
“What was that?” he asked.
“A very old song,” Admiral replied, “Section 6 just transmitted it to me.”
“A computer that recites poetry,” Warden shook his head and smiled, “She’s something else.”
“Did we do the right thing?” Admiral asked. Warden’s response was firm and immediate.
“Never question the decision. If we start doing that, all is lost. Yeah, I believe that wrong’ll fail some day, but we are what these people have to look to until they can get themselves back together. You get it, Admiral? We’re the police, the heroes… no; we’re the JUDGES of this present world. Neither of us asked for the job, but we do it anyway because we have to. We have to.”
“Yes, we do.”
Far, far below them, Ella walked softly into the dark night.