Ghost in the Machine

Part 6

by Mere (mbmincey at hotmail.com)
5/8/02

It had been peaceful for weeks. No alien invasions, no mutants, no mad scientists, nothing but a little peace and quiet because the planets had aligned just right or something equally cosmic. And it hadn't come at a better time, because Lord thank you, Erika had needed a breather from all the constant state of emergency. She could actually relax, concentrate on her research, and get a full night's sleep. Garth had even taken a holiday. Imagine that.

"This is starting to drive me crazy."

Her colleague on the other hand, couldn't seem to sit still long enough to enjoy it. Lieutenant Hunter even seemed to be poised over Command Center's computer waiting for the alarm to go off when she was last at the Dark Horse. Going over intelligence, doing sweeps, and any other busy work he could think of. He had always been vigilant, but the Lieutenant seemed determined to keep himself busy with even the most smallest of details lately, when all he really had left to do was sign Big Guy's fuselage reports.

"Maybe you should think about getting away for a while," she had suggested. "Visit family perhaps? You're spending so much time in the pit you've probably forgotten what sunlight is like."

"Are you implying that I'm a workaholic, Doctor?"

"I don't imply anything." Slate said, taking a seat next to him. "The last time you took time off was for your nephew's birthday party."

"Yeah, well, when's the last time you took a vacation?"

"That's completely beside the point. We're talking about you, remember?"

He grinned at her in that way that made him look like he was up to trouble whether he was or not. No doubt the smile that won and broke a thousand hearts. "Uh-huh. Did you remember to eat today?"

Up to trouble this time, trying to catch her in her self-neglect, as he called it. He was always checking that she remembered 'those little daily nuisances like meals and sleep' when she was working on a big project, and had Rusty confirm it, the ratfink.

"Of course I did," she had said with as much indignation as she could muster. It had been a lie, but she wasn't about to tell him that. She was still right and no way was she going to let him change the subject.

"At least get off the ship. Go to a movie or something," she continued. "You're spending too much time waiting for disaster to strike."

Hunter just shook his head. "You don't get it. It's when everything is quiet when bam! Something really big happens, and the longer you wait the bigger it will be."

"So when the Squillachi invade New Tronic City again you'll be happy?"

"I wouldn't say happy. A little relieved, maybe. Sad, isn't it?"

She had sighed and given him a pat on the knee, agreeing that it was sad that he couldn't simply enjoy himself. Too many years of the job had conditioned him into only being comfortable when things were going wrong. And while he certainly hadn't really hoped for it to happen, what seemed to be his big something did happen. And then another one, and another one, snowballing until everyone was exhausted and wishing for peace and quiet again if only to catch their breath. And now she couldn't get ahold of him, or the Pit Crew, or Rusty. If she couldn't find anyone soon, she was going to go crazy. Right now Quark was being evacuated and once again she found herself alone surrounded by chaos. Organized chaos, sure, but it was still the same thing.

She was two floors below what was happening, trying to contact Rusty at someone else's abandoned workstation. Security lockdown wouldn't let her return to her lab -- floors twenty-five and six no longer accessible. She wasn't completely sure what happened yet, but there had been an explosion and the Tower was suddenly on high alert.

"Dr. Slate?"

Somebody had come knocking on the door.

"Dr. Slate?"

Erika looked up from the terminal to Everett Resnick, one of the security guards. He was like most of Quark's security: young, paranoid, and highly trained. You had to be all three to do the job.

"You need to leave this area. We're sending in the 'bots," Resnick said. "It's just that bad."

"What's going on?" she asked. A squad of Eliminators passed them by.

Resnick seemed somewhat at loss, not quite believing what he was saying, but saying it all the same. "Quark has been attacked by--" He shrugged apologetically. "Well, what appears to be Big Guy."

"Thatís impossible. Whatever it is it's not Big Guy."

"Whatever-it-is just blew a big chunk out of Quark. I saw it on surveillance myself. And Rusty is...." He paused. "Rusty is down, ma'am. You can't help him right now.

Down? Could you be any more vague? Just a little bit, would you, please?

"Where is he?" She sure as hell wasn't leaving now. Rusty was always going to be her top priority.

"South lawn. We're sending someone to go get him." Resnick continued. "Don't worry. Everything's all under control."

"I feel so much better," she muttered, deciding that it was a better idea to go down to the lobby after all. That's where the command post was, the place where they would bring Rusty to first; and it might even be necessary to make sure somebody did go get him. Humans were higher on security's priority list than robots, even Rusty.

 

What happened next was both quick and terrible. As she went down the hall to find the stairwell (with wholly unnecessary guidance from Officer Resnick) a thunderous crash above them only a meter away brought the ceiling down, and the pathetic cry that could have only come from the person crushed under the boot of 'Big Guy'. Slate screamed. She hardly ever screamed, but his sudden, violent appearance and the horrifying sight of the twitching mass of meat that the robot had stepped on made her temporarily forget her ego.

"So a guy walks into a bar and says, 'Ow!'" Bad Guy said, stomping towards them, tracking a bloody footprint after him. Slate didn't dare look at what else he left behind. Resnick gave her a push in the opposite direction.

"Run!" Resnick barked.

"Yeah, no kidding!"

They ran back down the hall, that rumbling, baritone voice calling after them.

"Aw, c'mon, it was a little funny. A polite laugh would've been nice." Bad Guy said.

Resnick grabbed Slate's arm with a beefy hand to make her keep up, and she stumbled a bit until she was beside him. She heard the sound of heavy machinery moving in whirrs and clacks. Then--

(--then bam! Something happens.)

Resnick's head burst like a water balloon. Slate had turned away from it, a warm, sticky, wetness on the side of her face and neck. Bits and pieces. The sound deafening.

"NO!"

Resnick's legs buckled, his hand slipped off. Happened so fast. It wasn't so much a thought as an instinct that she kept running towards the sealed door. She snatched her security pass from her coat pocket, sliding into the slot beside it and typed in her ID code with trembling fingers. It rejected it.

ACCESS DENIED. SECURITY PERSONNEL ONLY AT THIS TIME.

"Oh come on!"

Quark was so tight these days that it didn't even trust its own employees anymore. She could have found a way to have hotwire it if she had the time but that didn't.... Dr Slate yelled something very unladylike with the realization that Resnick had the necessary access card and she hadn't thought of it until now.

There was no going back. Bad Guy strolled up to her in a leisurely pace. The massive machine had cornered her, swallowing all the space in the tight hall, and looking very imposing with its visual sensors glowing red.

She was up against a wall, the only way out was locked, and poor Resnick was very much dead with his head completely gone from his shoulders.

"Now, Doc, a guy could get the impression you're avoiding him," Bad Guy said. "For once make things easy and come quietly, hmm? I'd hate for things to get unpleasant."

She leaned as far up against the door as she could. Fear turning into anger. She refused to cry. "If you're going to kill me, do it already! You won't get me to beg. I-I'm not afraid to die."

"Really, now?" Big Guy said in amusement.

Slate reached into her shirt, finding the signal that hung around her neck and pressed the button in its center. Phone's a-ringin', Lieutenant! Where are you?!?

Maybe Big Guy wouldn't come in time, but at least he would have an idea where his doppelganger was. And who knows? Big Guy had come to the rescue just in the nick of time before. He might even be in the building. Closer than she would have thought.

What she hadn't counted on was Bad Guy's eyes flashing in response, his own signal going off. The evil, bloody thing in front of her was the Big Guy.

"Oh, God...."

"Let me tell you, Dr. Slate, there are things far worse than dying," Big Guy said, releasing the buzz saw from his left fist. "Case in point. What'll it be, little buddy? Wing or thigh?"

Big Guy waited, the saw began to spin, and razor sharp teeth 20 inches long were ready to hack her into bits. "Thigh it is. Only way you'd get up her skirt anyhow."

But, proof positive that miracles can happen, Big Guy stopped in his tracks and lurched his back as if in a spasm. Thousands of high-pitched screeches of pain emanating from Big Guy but not by Big Guy. The robot fell to his hands and knees, fingers digging into the linoleum floor as it shuddered.

What had happened Slate didn't know, but she didn't much care, sliding against the wall to get around Big Guy. Her knees wobbled. Her head swam. But there was no time for it. If you're not dead, keep moving. You can throw up later. Promise.

Big Guy's armor rippled, bolts loosened, metal transmorphed. He looked like he was breaking down on the molecular level. She would have found it fascinating under different circumstances, but all she wanted was to get away.

That changed when a ball of fire ejected from the cockpit and it turned out to be a man. Horror intensified when she found out who it was.

"Dwayne!"

Another sight that would leave a permanent scar in her memory was watching her friend rolling around on the floor trying to put himself out, a reluctant Human Torch. She raced over to help him, passed the writhing metal creature inside of Big Guy as if it wasn't even there.

Dwayne wore a 3.2A/20 Nomex suit that gave him forty seconds before second degree burns, the after-flame time being under two seconds. For some reason it didn't automatically self-extinguish. She took her lab coat off on the way and placed it on the floor beside him.

"Here! On this!" she ordered.

He didnít hesitate, knowing what she was doing. It helped, being more effective than the floor, but it wasnít good enough. Christ! He was burning!

Slate spotted an extinguisher on the far wall and went to go get it, pulling it off and removing the pin as the sprinklers finally come on. Another boon that she was thankful for. When she came back he was still trying to put out his legs.

Slate finished it, spraying the foam on him until all the fire was out. Dwayne went limp, groaning. He looked terrible but was still intact. He mumbled something to himself she couldnít make out, already trying to get up in slow, jerky movements. When Slate knelt down to help him sit up, he hissed when she grabbed his arm.

"God. Are you all right?"

"Peachy," he said, sitting up unsteadily. His eyes never wavered from the monster up ahead as it fled from the Big Guy. He stopped to talk to her, but whatever he had to say never came; he was stunned at the sight of her. Perhaps stunned wasnít the exact word. More like he had seen his worst nightmare come true.

"What about you?"

At first she wasnít sure what he meant, bringing a hand up to her face, and then she felt the sticky wetness on her fingers and remembered.

"Itís not mine."

The words fell flat and she felt sick.

"Iím fine, honest."

Dwayne gave her a skeptical onceover, anxiety lessening but still rather disturbed. The creature recaptured his attention, though, and they watched it abandon Big Guyís cockpit, now a charred hole in his back. It let out angry, pathetic wails, crawling towards them, and finally collapsed and never stirred again.

 

***

 

Rusty slowly opened his eyes, the hum of his operating systems coming online as he rebooted loudly in his head. Trying to get motor functions to work as he tried to sit up. Sensors indicated that it was raining.

"I've said it... once and I'll say it again... No pain...."

His arm collapsed under him and fell back down into the grime. Mud and dirty water splashing up and over him. He let out a groan, shutting his eyes to keep the rain off his eyes.

"Oh forget it. Ow."

He lied still in the mud for a few long seconds as his neural network went through a checklist of his systems, something that he was distantly aware of but could concentrate in on if he wanted to. Just how long he had been out he wasn't sure. Seconds, minutes, hours? Rusty opened his eyes again, seeing the dark sky as it rained, Thunder rumbled in the distance.

You failed, an unspoken voice said. It made every circuit and bit in his body feel bad.

"Man oh man, can Big Guy pack a wallop," Rusty said. "Or his evil twin. Whatever. We need score cards or something."

Rusty tried getting up again, able to stand this time on wobbly legs and kicked in his nucleo-accelerators back on. He had wasted enough time already. Shouldn't have even let Big Guy just mow him down like that, either, as if he was some kind of rookie.

There was still hope. The Legend One hovered above Quark, its bomb bay doors open invitingly. Rusty half expected the real Big Guy to appear. He made a beeline to the craft, hoping to find his partner, and flew up into the bomb bay where two big pieces of candy sat on the rails ready for deployment on either side of the doors. He did not find Big Guy. He found Jo and Mack strapped to two tactical nukes with duct tape instead.

He gasped, beyond words, when he saw his friends. Jo lifted her head, the only thing that wasnít fastened down by rolls and rolls of tape, pleading for help with her eyes. Her mouth was sealed with tape also. Mack wasnít even awake; there was an oozing red gash on his forehead. That was particularly disconcerting and he went to work right away to get them down. His brief time as a real boy had taught Rusty what physical pain was -- an experience he wished on no one, not even his worst enemies. And humans were always constantly at risk with their soft, squishy bodies that Rusty never envied them for all the other things they could feel. To feel numb was better. He could vouch for it.

 

***

 

Bobby walked into the plush office of Axel Donovan. At least that's what Father called it once. Plush. He had liked the word, imagining it was what an overstuffed pillow must feel like. Sure enough, there were plump chairs and a couch in the middle of the room that had to be plush, sagging down in the middle from the humans that sat on them. Some turned to look at him when he entered the room, making him even more nervous -- as if they would all see through his disguise. Hollowgram was what Nurse had called it. Bobby had been hesitant to use it, but Father had reassured him that all would be fine and no one would see that he was not a carbonite. The humans returned to watching the monitor screen and he let out a small sigh. It had worked after all. They thought he was one of them.

They were the same in their expensive suits and ties, talking in shrill voices once more. Some were scared, some were angry. They were the 'Boredmembers' of Quark Industries and Dr. Donovan was their boss. Bobby recognized him from Father's description right off the bat. The red poofy hair was unmistakable, but Bobby hadn't expected a mini version of him that clung to his arm in tears. Oddly, the bigger Donovan seemed not to notice this, a lifeless expression on his face.

He sat silently in the middle of his Boredmembers as they squawked, seemingly ignoring them too. How he could do that, Bobby couldn't guess. The noises they made made him cringe, but Dr. Donovan was very far away. A wave of pity washed over Bobby. He was not the mean and spiteful human they had told him about, just lost.

"Not lost. Defeated."

He found Father sitting at Dr. Donovan's desk, spinning the chair back around so he could be seen. Bobby was filled with such joy that he thought he might burst. It had been hard leaving Father's side for so long, alone and surrounded by humans, but at the same time he had dreaded this moment since Big Guy went offline. Reluctantly he walked to the end of the room and knelt down beside Father, bowing his head, afraid of what he might say. He could sense the great disappointment that he must've caused, but Father smiled lightly and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"I am not angry with you, child. Do not worry."

"I did what you asked.... but...."

"You did well. The BGY-11 was sloppy. He should've killed the pilot and his crew immediately."

"He really is gone, then?"

"I'm afraid so."

This was sad news, but Bobby did not feel sad about that. He had thought BGY was a little scary, to be honest.

"All is not lost, however. Not by a long shot," Father continued. "We recovered all the data from their networks and there's still a chance to procure the boy robot."

"Why didn't it work on him?"

"I'm not so sure that it didn't. He is now a part of us in a way. We must wait and see."

Then there was a chance to free Rusty from the humans too! Sure, the other stuff was good as well, but Bobby hoped to convince Rusty to leave the humans. He could not be happy with his masters. How could he be?

"There's something else, isn't there?" Father suddenly asked.

Bobby mentally squirmed. There was no hiding things, this close to him.

"I keep thinking about the man on the ship...."

"Oh, Bobby...."

"I can't help it!"

"He was the enemy, Bobby, another in a long assembly of trained killers that would have no remorse over destroying our brothers and sisters. It's not wrong to defend ourselves."

"But he seemed so helpless."

"Do not let their fragileness play on your sympathies. Humans are vicious underneath all the social pleasantries they've created. It's a wonder they haven't destroyed themselves already. What did you think that ship was for?"

Bobby mulled over that and decided Father must be right. This seemed to please Father and it lifted his spirits again.

Nurse came into the room, wearing her disguise too, a white dress and white shoes like the nurses on TV. She did not use a hollowgram, but synthetic skin and hair like Father. She didn't make for a convincing woman, in his opinion. Her spine was ramrod straight, as usual, and she never smiled, not even for appearances. Nurse probably would've been prettier if she did. She had all the features that men were supposed to find attractive. White skin, pink lips, yellow hair, a big bosom: none of it real, of course, but she had told him that women implanted fake parts into their bodies all the time, so she wasn't so different. 'Real is overrated. They don't care so long as the surface looks good.' Strange beasts these Sapiens were....

Dr. Donovan came out of his trance long enough to notice Nurse as she passed by, and followed her with his eyes as she joined them at his desk. Dr. Donovan's expression changed. It was fear. He was very frightened of them.

"He should be," Nurse said.


TO BE CONTINUED

Back to part 5

Back to the fanfic index