by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson
Dr. Oberheim went to his office again. His secretary was paging him. He flicked on the communicator and asked her what she wanted.
“Nero called,” she said. “You should call him back as soon as you can.”
Dr. Oberheim would have had goosebumps had he not been near emotionless from drugs. He called Nero.
Nero did not even bother introducing himself, but went right to the point. “Have you found out who let out the product?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Oberheim.
“Is he any good?”
“No. I don’t think he even needed treatment before he started working for us,” said Dr. Oberheim.
“Is he rigged?”
“Number 22,” said Dr. Oberheim.
“Make it good,” said Nero after a pause, and the screen turned black.
* * *
Eddie was coming from his coffee break, late as usual, even though he was drugged for actually doing his work. This strange behaviour always mystified his employers. His field was skin coating. That was an easy job that required little skill.
The foreman spotted him and approached him. Eddie got rid of the rest of the candy he was munching on and stopped.
“Eddie, we are a bit short in waste disposal. You will be working there today,” said the foreman, pointing Eddie to go another direction.
Eddie went where the man pointed, disappointed at being directed to such a boring and foul-smelling job. He expected to return to his regular place after lunch. The employees were pretty easy to manipulate there. He rubbed his hands together. Maybe he could do something interesting with the waste. How could he access the kitchen? He wondered...
The waste disposal was on the other side of the building, with one-way airflow toward it the whole way, as well as several doors.
There were rather more people in the waste disposal area than he had anticipated, looking at him.
He looked around. Bits of non-viable products were in containers, ready to be dumped into the grinder and processed separately from the growth-vat liquids. Those could be seen twirling around in a vat on the floor. Offal from the kitchen also went in there, along with anything mopped up from the floor. It was nuked before being filtered and disgorged into the river. The sludge was periodically cleaned out and shipped into a landfill.
Then there was a special device for dealing with faulty hardware and crates. Employees had in the past gotten permission to use it to recycle their cars. That sometimes drew a crowd.
Eddie looked around for a car, or something else unusual.
“Eddie,” said a voice over the speaker system.
Eddie looked up, toward the speaker.
“We know what you did the other day. You know that, don’t you?”
“Hey man, I was only having fun,” said Eddie with an apologetic smile. “I got it from the reject bin.”
“Eddie, that was company property.”
“But I got it from the reject bin! You weren’t going to use it,” said Eddie.
“Eddie, the rejects get processed separately. Look,” said the voice, and the foreman led Eddie to where the reject bits went. It was a conveyor belt that lead to the grinder. The workers were standing beside it, pausing from their job of shoveling muscle bits and bones on the belt, and watched.
Eddie looked up.
“This is not the first time you have deliberately goofed around with company property. This is not the first time you have goofed around on company time.”
“Am I fired?”
“No, we are going to kill you, Eddie.”
“What? Hey! I have friends you know! Friends that will come looking for me!”
“Sure you do, Eddie.”
“They will come here! They will come here to kill you!”
“You won’t get away with this!”
The back of Eddie’s neck blew up and he fell down like a rag doll. The foreman rolled him over with his foot, and looked at him. His eyes were moving, looking at the foreman.
The foreman shrugged and kicked Eddie’s body onto the belt. Alive or not, the grinder did not care.
* * *
Johnson and Tubbs had printed out an old-fashioned map and fastened it on the wall of their office with stickers they had cut to size. “Vote” said one of them, “Posthumus,” said another. Two had an American flag on them.
They busied themselves with sticking coloured pins on the map, indicating where the employees of International Biotec lived.
“Okay, now we know where they live,” said Tubbs, “and they are sensibly located within five miles of the plant.”
Johnson nodded. “We also know it’s a low crime area. Yet so many of them have a criminal record.” He looked at his pad. “This guy, this Dr. Frazer, has not paid a parking ticket since he moved there. And this other guy, Morgendorfer, racked up a huge debt at a pizza place. In fact, a disturbing number of guys working there have been sued for having huge debts at a number of places.”
“A lot of people owe fast-food businesses,” said Tubbs.
“A year ago all employees at International Biotec were blacklisted by these places, regardless of whether they were new in town or not,” said Johnson.
“I’m interested,” said Tubbs, and went to look at Johnson’s pad. It displayed prominently on the homepage of one of the many fast-food places: “International Biotec personnel cannot shop on credit.”
“That’s odd,” said Tubbs.
“It gets weirder. Those guys appear responsible for most crimes in the area, it seems...”
“Let’s put that on the map,” said Tubbs.
They started putting dots on the map, green dots for gang-related crimes, blue dots for single one-off crimes and red dots for crimes perpetrated by International Biotec employees. In just over an hour they were done. Over half the dots were red.
“That is so odd,” said Tubbs again.
“Yes it is,” said Johnson, “I know it’s all little things: shoplifting, minor property destruction... ‘for fun’ in most cases, and some violence towards animals. But the quantity!”
“Aha. And those are doctors and highly educated people, not random bums. How come?” asked Tubbs.
“Let’s interrogate the next one who comes in,” said Johnson.
* * *
“They look human,” said General Eastland, still looking suspiciously at Nero.
“They are,” said Nero, “kind of.”
The black figures walked in formation onto the field. It was strewn with wreckage; a couple of cars, a few oil drums and a low building.
“What do you mean, ‘kind of’?” asked the general.
“Not born, not raised,” said Nero. “None of the traditional human stuff. We edited out the stuff we don’t need and ended up with mostly self-healing bio-motorized combat units.”
Nero showed the general the control panel. “Look at this. It utilizes the satellites you already have in orbit surveying the planet. There’s a bit of time lag on it, that can’t be helped, but it gives the controller an idea of what the terrain is. Then some info is fed to the units about where they are, and possible targets. Look, that’s us.”
“Why are we designated as possible targets?”
“That’s just the default setting. They won’t do anything till we press the button,” said Nero calmly, as though he were explaining a VCR. “Look, it’s just like playing a video game.
He poked at the touch screen. He selected half of the units, and had them run around the area in front of them. Then he selected the other half, and had them fire at random oil drums.
“The technology is actually less advanced than the auto-drive in your car,” Nero said and grinned. “Do you want to try?”
The general reluctantly took the controls, still vaguely creeped out by the human-looking things standing in front of him.
After fiddling with the controls for a few seconds he managed to select one unit, and have it shoot another. The victim retaliated. Then they just stood there.
“I meant to do that,” said the general, and put the control down on the desk in front of him.
“That can be fixed,” said Nero, “As long as they don’t physically die, it should be all right.”
“They can die?” asked the General.
“Yes,” said Nero, “they are alive, technically. They are cyborgs, not robots. It is sort of like having your own army of zombies.”
“Yes. They don’t think, never have, and pretty much do what they are told, nothing else. You can set them to return fire if you want, or not; whatever suits your mind.”
“Tell me again why I should buy these macabre things from you?”
Nero smiled. “My associates have already been through this with Congress. Left out the gory details, of course...” He sighed. “For the money. You know how much your regular troops cost?”
He held up a finger to stop the general. “That was a rhetorical question; I know. It costs over 4 million U.S. dollars every month, per unit. Each unit needs at least six months to train before being sent to combat, in which case he can get PTSD and all sorts of stuff like that, not to mention the bother if he comes home missing a limb or two. Or he might die.”
Nero looked at the General. “It has always been such bad PR to bring back dead troops, and the crippled ones aren’t exactly the best advertising to get new meat into the forces. Of the ones you do get, only about ten, maybe fifteen percent of them are actually willing to fire a rifle at another human.”
He looked at the black figures. “Those don’t actually have parents. Well, not formally anyway. We have them made in our secret facility and shipped to the plant in little tanks to be grown to full size in a year. They do not think. They fire at whatever they are programmed to fire at. They do not fire at things they are not programmed to fire at. If they die, scrap them. Nobody knows them, nobody ever will. They are just materiel.
“But I digress. Each will cost you 70 million dollars U.S. I’ll throw in some rifles and ammo for free. I can get you railguns, but there’s pork-barreling involved.”
“Remember, a regular trooper costs you at least 48 million a year. These do not need constant training, so the cost goes down considerably after the initial purchase.”
General Eastland thought about it and nodded.
“Less PR expenses, less food expenses — you just feed them nutrient sludge. No families...”
“We have a deal,” said the General, and they shook hands.
* * *
“You are Dr. Samuel Lemming, right?” asked Johnson.
Dr. Lemming nodded.
“You were caught vandalizing a snack-vending machine. We have a couple of eyewitnesses, as well as a very clear CCTV recording.”
Dr. Lemming nodded again.
“So... what’s your story?”
Dr. Lemming said nothing. And he continued not saying anything until his lawyer came. And still Dr. Lemming wisely shut up through his short trial, while paying the damages and fines, and kept quiet all the way outside.
Johnson could not swear by it, but he guessed he kept silent on his way home.
“That was extremely uninformative,” he said to Tubbs.
“Yeah. But I found some new info on them. Three employees have disappeared while working for the company.”
“I’m listening,” said Johnson, still watching Dr. Lemming, who was leaving in a taxi.
“All three were last seen on their way to work. Then, nothing.”
“Let’s check that out,” said Johnson. “When was the last one?”
“Three years ago,” said Tubbs.
Johnson almost uttered some rather futuristic curses, but didn’t.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson