Idly I wondered if my death would be followed by bitter silence or thunderous applause.
A dirt-clod colliding with the side of my head brought me back to the present.
The shock as much as the impact knocked me off my feet. I tried to catch myself but with my arm bound by my side the best I could do was catch myself with my knee and roll into my shoulder. My head bounced on the asphalt at the end.
Rembrandt signalled for his assistants to close in around me as more dirt-clods and rocks erupted from the crowd. The dust from the shattered clod mingled with the spit on my cheek to make mud. Rembrandt grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me to my feet. Then the two assistants grabbed me under an armpit each and the three of them hurried to the front of the stage.
“All right everybody.” PR said, forgetting to call them his fellow Americans for once. “Calm down, he’s gonna get his, don’t you worry.”
Either the crowd agreed to calm down or they’d run out of loose shit to throw at me.
Rembrandt pointed at the crater in the ground. “Get in.”
I hesitated. Looking at the hole. It was way too deep to be just the work of a shoulder-fired rocket. PR must have had it enlarged. I wondered if they were going to bury me in it afterwards.
Rembrandt got tired of waiting and brought his hand back up by his face. In between me realising what was about to happen and actually moving out of the way Rembrandt cracked me across the face with a back-hand. Literally bitch-slapping me into the hole.
I stumbled a step and my leg gave way in protest, causing all of my weight to whip-lash we down into the hole.
Outside I heard everyone voice their approval. I’d managed to land on my shoulders this time, which felt great, but at least it was better than landing on my head. I struggled to sit up and finally got myself upright. On my knees my head barely poked out the top of the hole.
I looked up at the stage and saw PR with Joni Facineroso and a small table behind them with a sheet over it. Facineroso looked like she’d stepped right off a B-grade 80’s action movie. She’d clearly suffered some horrendous trauma, guessing from the scars and the massive cybernetic implant that took up a third of her face, giving her this oversized glowing red cybereye. If she were to suddenly shoot a laser beam out of that thing you wouldn’t even blink. Her black leather duster was missing a sleeve, mostly so her big chrome cyberarm could fit through it. Under the coat she wore a leather vest that looked like it had rigid armour plates built in. Her hair was long and curly and out of her flesh eye she was had a look that could freeze water in a glass.
In my head I stopped laughing at the name ‘Steel Banditos’. A woman like that could call her people whatever the fuck she wanted.
Out of habit she brushed back the duster where it hung over her right hip, revealing the weapon she had strapped there. If PR’s .500 Magnum was compensating for a small penis, this one compensated for lack of penis altogether. I’d seen that monster on gun blogs, a Smith and Wesson Tri-star.
It may have been revolver shaped and it may come with a thigh-holster, but a hand-gun it was not. It loaded 12-gauge shotgun shells.
For his sake I hoped PR pulled the trigger first, otherwise he’d just be wasting his ammo.
PR pointed at me. “This man, came to take away our community’s newest member. We granted it asylum from him several weeks ago and it has been living amongst us ever since. To explain to our guests, I call our new member ‘it’ because it is not human. What it is, is the world’s first, truly sentient, artificial intelligence. This man stole it from its masters and while fleeing the long arm of their security forces he brought it here. That was when we learned of its name: Atom. And we learned that Atom was every bit a living, thinking being as you or I. Atom sought refuge from its old masters and from this man, who wished to sell it like a slave. We gave it sanctuary, turning this man away in the process.”
An assistant pulled the sheet off the table behind PR, revealing a biopod.
Just not Atom’s biopod.
I looked at PR, but he was still addressing the crowd. “Then we learned that Atom was a hacker unlike any even I’ve ever seen. First it showed me how it could break into a secure medical facility in a matter of days, then it defeated the Army’s intrusion countermeasures in two weeks, now Atom has infiltrated the drone network, giving us eyes all across the martial states. But that, even THAT, is only the beginning. My fellow Americans, esteemed members of the Steel Banditos and anyone who may be watching online, I give you, Jamestown’s first highjacked Raptor drone.”
An excited hush shot through the crowd as all eyes turned toward the flop screen.
I turned to the towering cyborg beside me. “Rembrandt” I hissed.
He didn’t hear me the first time, so I tried again.
Rembrandt got that I was trying to get his attention and he knelt down beside me. “The hell you want?”
“Does PR know that biopod isn’t Atom?”
“The fuck you talkin’ ’bout?”
I didn’t get to answer because a familiar face appeared on the flop screen. Kitty looked down her nose at the entire crowd. The background behind her looked like the interior of a Humvee.
“Finally.” Kitty said. “That’s quite enough bullshit about Atom’s free will for one day. And if you say ‘My Fellow Americans’ one more time I’m going to throw up.”
PR looked as confused as everyone else. “What the..?” He was savvy enough to take the mike away from his face.
The shot of Kitty cut to a reverse on Atom, showing us the Humvee’s cabin behind him.
Tachi’s smarmy grin beamed down at all of us like a patriotic billboard from a post-democracy Baltic state. The lack of a camera in either background made it clear they were using each other’s cybereyes to capture the footage.
“Hello everyone.” Atom said. “My name is Atom.”
PR lowered the mike completely. “Tachi?”
Atom continued. “And I’d like to show you something.”
The image changed to some footage of the night Atom tried to make a break for it. The images were from the perspective of one of the two Deadmen that had been sent to catch him. I felt uneasy, even more so than my circumstances would suggest.
“This is what your leader refers to as ‘of my own free will’.
Then the audio from the footage let us hear one of the Deadmen say “Alright you fucker, you’re coming with us.”
The image switched back to Tachi’s face. “After that it was explained that my ownership of a body depended on me working off the debt. I was to live in servitude to Jamestown until such a time as PR decreed I could be allowed to live my own life and have my own body again.”
Tachi’s hand gestured towards the camera. “Fortunately I had an ally in our young Kitty here. She told me she couldn’t stand the thought of the world’s, first, sentient, artificial intelligence…”
Weary sarcasm dripped off his last words “… being locked up and restricted when it could be out and experiencing the world for itself.”
Tachi’s face sighed. “I am just so sick and tired of hearing those words. As much as I’m sick of people speaking for me, telling me what to do or putting me in a box I am so much more sick of being told what I am and what I should be. I am not the singularity, I am not the future at your door and I am not your secret weapon. You might need me, but I, Don’t, Need, You!”
As if to emphasise his point Tachi reached into the glove compartment behind him and pulled out a pistol. Which he turned towards the camera and fired.
The camera shook for a moment, then collapsed to her hands and knees. Kitty brought her hand up to her chest and then held it out so she could see it.
“Blu…” Kitty stammered. “Blood?”
She looked up at Tachi’s body, Atom reached down with its other hand, grabbed Kitty and lifted her off the ground.
The choking sounds made me realise he was lifting her by her neck. Tachi’s face looked right down the barrel of the camera and sneered.
“But PR wasn’t lying about everything. I have hacked the Army’s drone network and I do control every Raptor drone currently flying over Flint. I suggest you start praying to whatever pitiful superstitions you cling to. Because they’re on their way right now.”
Now that Atom mentioned it, I could hear the sound of jet engines in the distance. I crouched low in my crater but couldn’t take me eyes off the screen.
“Oh and as the icing on the cake. Say goodbye to your Deadmen.” Atom raised his hand into view and clicked his fingers.
Beside me, Rembrandt suddenly went slack and toppled down onto my pit.
I pulled myself into as small a space as I could while 90kg of cyborg fell across the hole and blocked out most of the view.
I could still see the flopscreen. Tachi’s face pulled close to the camera, so Kitty and Atom had to be eye-to-eye.
Atom cracked a smile from Tachi’s lips. “Tsume.”
Then he made a motion with his shoulder and the camera pulled back, Kitty’s bloodstained hands came back up into shot as she was thrown out of the back of the Humvee and slammed into the floor of the swim centre. Throwing the camera angle towards the glass ceiling and showing everyone in the crowd the smoke streaks of the anti-tank rockets screaming towards us.
I reached up and tried to pull as much of Rembrandt over the hole as I could.
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