By Benjamin Sonnek
GIDEON OPENED HIS EYES.
There was still that cavernous darkness all around, but it bore a faint bluish tinge that promised light. Yes, he could see the ceiling beams above him now, so the sun had to be at least as awake as he was. Gideon rolled to his right, focusing on the bedside clock. The digital dashes confirmed his suspicions: six-thirty, already a half hour past his normal wakeup time. Honestly. Gideon shrugged onto his back again, a little annoyed at himself. Perhaps his parents had let him sleep in today out of nostalgia, as though he were still an infant. Ah well, that would change after today. He smiled to himself. Happy birthday to me.
As though continuing his thought, the voice of Gideon’s mother became audible outside his bedroom door. “... Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Giddy, Happy birthday to—” swssh “—you!”
The door slid aside with a hiss as Gideon’s mother came in. The boy himself didn’t move from his back at first, trying to suppress an annoyed smile at his mother’s nickname for her youngest child. “Really Ma?” he asked helplessly, getting off his bed so as not to make eye contact. “I’m sixteen now—I probably haven’t been giddy in a decade, with or without a capital G. Can’t you call me by my full name?”
“You know I only do when I’m angry,” his mom responded with mock severity (although her face radiated excitement). Her legs quietly whirred as she walked over to Gideon and spontaneously hugged him. Embarrassed but a little moist-eyed himself, Gideon barely struggled to escape. She must have adjusted her arms to a pleasantly warmer setting today. Finally getting free, he ducked into his closet. “Has Saul come back yet? I thought he was getting a leave of absence from his commander.”
“He’s downstairs now,” she nodded. “His pass came through! His uncle was quite willing to let Saul come home for his brother’s birthday—he’s even been given an extra three hours to stay before his transport comes back for him. He’s so proud!”
“Does he have all his military attachments?”
“Yes, he was allowed to bring most of them. If you choose a military designation today, promise me you boys won’t spar? I don’t think the house would hold up.”
“Great!” Gideon’s voice replied from his closet (promising nothing). “I’ll be down in a second. I’ve just got to change.”
He heard the door swish again as his mom left. He chose his outfit for the day—his favorite gray and black. I’ve just got to change. After today, many things are going to change.
“... So that was certainly generous. You’re one of their best fighters—have things quieted down in the disputed borough?”
“Hah, only because we quieted it down. The Fortin Clan made a provocative show of force yesterday, so I joined the party with my troop. Broke it up right fast! The Omnicourt already judged the Venici’s actions to be within code. Yeah, they won’t be showing so much as a digit near 7th Street if they wish to keep all of their ... brother!”
The family’s conversation was interrupted as Gideon came down the stairs. He stopped halfway down, letting his eyes rest on the domestic scene below. First there was his dad, a proud member of the Venici clan. He was a technician by trade, as his toolkit enhancements made obvious. His skill was legendary—some said he could do more with the tool arrays in his arms alone than ten foremen could do if they pooled their abilities. Gideon’s mother and older sister Eleanor both had maternal upgrades, but the latter hadn’t been assigned to a compatible partner yet. She was still young, but everyone teased Eleanor that the “OM” that started her identification code really stood for “Old Maid.” Then there was Saul, the family’s soldier. Duty-bound since his own sixteenth birthday, he’d chosen to receive the military upgrade and join the Venici family’s front lines. He had earned so much built-in armor and weapons over his period of service that he was nearly as large as the rest of his family put together. At Saul’s exclamation, all eyes in the kitchen leaped over to the stairs.
“Happy Birthday!” everybody shouted. As Gideon descended the last few steps, he beamed and nodded over to his big brother. “Do the thing, Saul! Do the thing!”
Not one to refuse a chance to show off, Saul flashed a big, toothy grin. He lurched back into a fighting stance as his left arm’s energy shield flashed into life. The right arm, poised over his head, then sprouted its multiple breach-cannon barrels and armor shears with a menacing schrack! It was a magnificent spectacle, completely undermined when their dad struck a comically similar pose to unveil his drill and bolt-driver. That cracked up everyone as Gideon took his place at table, glancing at his own arms that he’d had since birth. Nothing but skin, muscle, and bone. Ridiculous things—wonder who’d designed them, really.
“Whoa now!” exclaimed Dad as he retracted his tools back into his forearms. “No breakfast for you, remember? Nothing to eat for ten hours before the procedure.”
“I know,” Gideon sarcastically replied. “I’m sitting ’cause I don’t want to wear out these legs before I get new ones.”
Saul completely filled up a bench as he sat down. “So what upgrades are you going for today, little brother? You’re lucky I became a soldier first. You get to pick, well, whatever you want!”
“Except a maternal upgrade,” Eleanor commented. “You don’t have the figure—or gender—for it.” That caused another round of laughter.
Gideon smiled and shook his head. “You know? I’m seriously considering selecting a military designation as well. I’ll bet I could get to your rank faster than you did, Saul. You’ve taught me all the moves already!”
Saul crossed his arms with a smirk. “Bah. Only the ones I don’t need anymore.”
Dad’s smile across the table was genuine, but not as full. Gideon noticed. Maybe, like Mom, his father was also going to miss his little boy after today. But it was also true that Dad wouldn’t have minded it if Gideon had wanted to become a technician like him.
Seven minutes until noon. Sixteen years ago, that was seven minutes until Gideon Venici was born. Now he was getting closer to a new birth, in six minutes fifty seconds.
Some said that the metal-gray augmentation hall had once been a cathedral, and the silence of the pillars and arches certainly corroborated that report. The notable exception was the massive cylindrical procedural column where the altar would have been—in there, many citizens had surrendered their old bodies for new ones. As the main doors spiraled shut behind him, Gideon began his slow walk from the back of the hall. The procedural chamber hatch was open.
Venici family and relatives quietly crowded on either side, forming an aisle towards Gideon’s destination. He could see all types of occupations in the crowd, not just soldiers and technicians, but medics, emergency response crew, pilots, bio-preservation workers, media crew, and more; all different kinds of people and augments, and each one most likely hoping that Gideon would choose his path. There was even Pastor Mattathias—Old Matt, old skin-and-bones, a citizen who had never upgraded. He was a vociferous opponent of this “human-robbing” practice, now silently watching as his nephew walked down towards the hatch. Rumor had it that the pastor himself had an ocular imaging graft that kept him up-to-date on the city’s news, though. Hypocrite.
Five and a half minutes.
As Gideon neared the procedural column, he saw that his brother and other Venici military personnel were flanking the last few feet of his journey. As he passed between them, one by one they raised their weapon arms in salute. Saul gave Gideon a tap with his free arm, whispering “Congratulations, Gid,” before he was gone. Reaching the stairs, nothing remained in the boy’s vision except the entrance to the procedure room. Hesitation got to him for a split second as his eyes involuntarily glanced at the crowd of his family, but he quickly pulled himself together as he stepped across the column’s threshold. The hatch closed.
“Good morning, subject. Please state your name.”
“Gideon Kyretto Venici, childhood ID code ODF55128.”
“Welcome, Gideon. You may proceed.”
The security beams fizzled out, allowing Gideon to walk the last few steps towards the center of the room. Despite the sterile neo-Spartan simplicity, the short final hallway was decorated with shallow relief etchings and electro-edge swords, relics of the Venicis. The boy could also see a few additional scratches within the etchings, left there by some of the extra-celebratory new citizens after their upgrade procedures. Gideon ran his finger along them as he kept walking, imagining that a few of those marks belonged to his immediate family.
The hallway led into a white vertical tube of a room, empty except for a mechanical chair and the augmenter itself. It would have seemed to be a small room had it not been so impossibly tall. The augmentation machine’s arms above him looked like a tangled mechanical mess, but Gideon’s trained eye could see the complex interworking of the system, an efficient human-modifying device.
Four minutes thirty seconds. “Please take a seat.”
Obeying the automated voice’s promptings, Gideon reclined in the chair’s embrace. As he did so, a monitor lowered in from above—the system’s ceremonial speech was about to begin. Gideon knew the speech. Everyone knew it. Even unaugmented children knew it. But it just had to happen, like it was integral to the process. He settled in for the computer’s monologue.
“Welcome to the Venici Transformative Augmentation Implant System,” the machine began (and the family’s crest was helpfully displayed), “version update C20121615. Today’s procedure: Subject ODF55128 will select his physical reconstruction and operational tools in order to become a full citizen in the Venici family. We welcome Gideon to the workforce, and hope that he chooses his career path with prudence and foresight.”
The screen shifted to a diagram of a human’s growth stages. Yeah, here comes the history lesson. “In the 21st century, mentally controlled mechanical components were successfully added to humans,” the computer continued. “However, as the technology began to be introduced to younger members of society, it became clear that immature youth were not compatible hosts. Attempts to augment younger humans would lead to either disruption in the mechanisms or growth impediment to the subject. Therefore, by ordinance of the newly established Omnicourt, the legal age to receive physical reconstruction and enhancement was set to twenty-one, later lowered to sixteen in response to the successful “Ultra-Teen” lobby. Subject ODF55128 will be eligible to receive the treatment in two minutes.
“The augmentation process will replace the arms, legs, and most organs of the subject. Experiments have found that further replacement, especially within the cranial area, tended to destroy the patient or lose him in the machine. Until the essence of the human identity is further defined and the mind can be definitively and consciously transferred to a machine, the head and a select few organs will be retained.”
Gideon could hear the various mechanical implements above him going through their activation and prep cycles. “Thanks to this augmentation technology,” the system went on, “the human physique is perfected. What was formerly uncontrolled and unruly can now be regulated for the subject’s optimal societal performance. Hormones can be controlled in order to better command the emotions. Family partners will only sense attraction to their counterpart and their children, and soldiers will not feel fear when their focus in battle will save lives. Different energy sources can be utilized in order to produce energy for the subject, preserving the Earth’s food supply. Pain, discomfort, sadness, and other negative products of the senses can be suppressed unless absolutely necessary, creating a happier, more balanced community. With augmentation technology, humans have taken the next evolutionary step to becoming a perfect society.”
The screen’s montage switched to a city scene that zoomed out to encompass the planet. The sphere then split into a multitude of circles, each one with a different symbol—the different career paths. “Gideon,” the computer concluded, “which treatment will you select?”
This was it. Gideon was about to change. As he sat in front of the screen, though, his thoughts suddenly became confused. He had heard everything the computer had said—he’d heard it from family members a long time ago. But now, staring down his future, he was hesitant. Was the military a wise choice? He knew that their emotions were the most suppressed out of all the careers. Hunger, fear, and blind rage could backfire in the battlefield, but a lot of positive emotions also had to go in order to keep them focused. Saul loved his family, yes, but if they compromised the city’s security, that feeling could be shut off. Did Gideon also want to sacrifice this? His eyes moved to the technician’s logo. Perhaps that would be better. Less would be taken away from him…
The machine’s clock chimed—it was noon. “Subject is now of age,” the system announced. “Have you reached a decision?”
No. He hadn’t. Gideon was looking at all the options, weighing how much he wanted each one. A bio-preservation worker got to work with animals plus the solar charging panels came standard, but that was a delicate and time-demanding task. Medics save lives, but their emotions could also get axed in order to have them operate more efficiently. True, a technician’s job was less regulated, but then again it locked one into the machines on the outside as well as inside. Gideon remembered how many late shifts his dad had to pull in order to sort out a city grid problem. None of the choices seemed appealing to him anymore. Why could he only choose one?
Get a hold of yourself, his own voice spoke inside his head. Can’t you see? Right now your emotions are making you hesitant, unsure, inefficient! Time is getting away while you sit here and shake. You need to become a soldier, sir—you have to weed out these weaknesses! Do it!
“Soldier!” Gideon’s mouth autonomously declared. “I choose the soldier upgrade.” Now that’s done, the voice commended him.
“Excellent,” the computer said. The whir of the machines began to increase in intensity. “Now please sit back as the knockout dose is administered. Your augmentation sh-sh-shall begiiinnnnnn ...”
The machines’ whirring stopped abruptly. The lights went out. A crimson emergency bulb blinked on overhead, but that barely held off the chamber’s shadows. Gideon frowned. What happened? A power failure? Am I out already?
Then he could smell it. A metallic tingling and burning odor had drifted into the room. Microprobes. Gideon sneezed, remembering a story his brother had told him of the front lines. During sieges or standoff situations, sometimes the militia would deploy devices that sent out a cloud of microscopic probes, penetrating around enemy defenses to simultaneously let off a short-range EMP pulse. COR-odor grenades, that was it. This had to be the effects of one of those ...
His head jerked up. An EMP without the proper protection. And his entire family was outside. If they’d had no time to prepare any defenses ... dear heaven, no. Not his family!
Leaping from his chair, Gideon ran to the hatch. No windows—he pressed his ear to the metal, trying to quiet his own heartbeat so he could hear. There it was ... a chorus of thud thud thud sounds, the echoes of big-bore breach-cannons. It didn’t sound like a battle. It sounded like cleanup.
“That’s everyone, sir.”
Gideon shifted, trying to listen to the new voices. These were unfamiliar—deep, rumbling, metallic words that he had never heard before today.
“Good. Their latest citizen should be in mid-augmentation. We’ll move on to check the lower dwellings, but you stay here. Breach the procedural column and make sure there were no complications. Report says he was ready to become military, but if he had second thoughts he could still be alive. If not ... don’t bother cleaning his parts off the machine. Salvage can take care of that later.”
“Copy that, sir.”
Stunned, Gideon slumped down until he faced the augmentation system. An attack, specifically timed so that machine would kill him. Didn’t matter now—someone was coming in to make sure he was dead. Gideon looked helplessly at his arms of flesh. Nothing there could help him. He needed a weapon, and he needed it in less than a minute.
The electro-edge swords! They hadn’t been active when the COR-odor grenade hit. If only one of them still had its power cell ...
With a ragged crash, the procedural column’s hatch was torn away. A massive humanoid form came straight in—covered with huge plates of heavy armor, and even his entire head protected by an opaque helmet. No eye slits were necessary, as all the data was being transmitted and displayed on the inside of the shell. That data was giving the soldier a clear visual field of the column’s hallway. Magnetic-lock motors in his legs groaned as he marched towards the central chamber, scanning the chair and the mechanisms above. There was no sign of the subject—not so much as a blood smear on a cushion or residue on the surgical systems. Where was the boy?
Suddenly the soldier’s sonic sensors picked up a hellish scream—Gideon jumped from his hiding place over the entrance, hitting the floor in a roll and sprinting towards the intruder. The soldier turned just in time to register the electric flicker of the boy’s blade before it was driven between the pectoral armor plates. Gideon stood back as the electricity caused the soldier to shake and shudder ...
But only for a second. The unit relaxed and then straightened up again, prowling towards the unaugmented target. Of course, Gideon thought desperately, he has backup pulmonary systems—he’s augmented more than a normal citizen! What else? What else?
One more desperate attempt. As Gideon leaped forward, the hulking mechanical monster leaned towards him and threw its arms wide, building up to crush the boy in a fatal embrace. No time left. Gideon grabbed the handle of the sword, yanked it free, then spun and ducked his head—with the blade held underhanded, he swung his arm up and behind. A blind strike.
There was a screech. A spark. Something gushed oil onto the boy’s head.
Gideon opened his eyes.
With a shaky exhalation, he opened his hands and took a step forward out of the enemy’s shadow. The sword had gone home—entering under the soldier’s chin, the blade had penetrated the weaker armor and disappeared to nearly half its length. His opponent was dead.
Gideon quickly took a few steps back as the behemoth unlocked, toppling over onto its face with a rattling boom. Crouching on one knee, the victor checked the intruder’s identification markings. This was a Fortin Clan combatant. Evidently they weren’t laying low after all, the bastards. His family! Gideon took a moment to grab another sword from the wall. After checking to make sure that it had another operational power cell, he ran from the hallway.
Outside, a much wider tableau of death lay in wait for him. Gideon froze in shock, eyes spasmodically jumping over the scores of headless, scattered members of the late Venici family. It was too clear what had taken place. Unprepared for the COR-odor grenade attack, their augments had been disabled, rendering them helpless for the Fortin’s assault. The invaders then swept in, firing on their enemies’ unprotected heads. Not only did this ensure that the Venicis would perish immediately, but it also made them nearly indistinguishable—without their ID codes obvious, Gideon could hardly tell one from another. Dizzy from grief, he ran down the stairs and wove amongst the dead, searching for any trace of his own family.
A noise! Gideon looked up from one of the metal soldier corpses and brandished his sword. A few feet away, two bodies slid aside as Pastor Mattathias sat up, having just regained consciousness. His eyes became just as bewildered as Gideon’s for a moment as he surveyed the wreckage. “What the ... something fell in ... shouting, weight, darkness! What happened ... Gideon!” Ignoring the blade in his nephew’s hands, Old Matt ran forward and embraced Gideon, the blood and tears on his face mingling with the oil on the other’s head. Gideon didn’t ask him what happened. They both could see what had happened.
Releasing the nephew and turning away, Old Matt fell to his knees and put his head in his hands. Gideon knelt beside him—what else did they have now? They stayed there in the graveyard, silent, for what seemed like years. Nothing but the smell of blood, metal, and oil. At last Gideon spoke.
The old man opened his eyes. “Yes, my son.”
“You remember, you once told me a story about people like you. People who do not get augmented, who live apart from this system. Do they exist?”
Pastor Matt looked down. “It’s possible.”
“I want to find them, Uncle. I want to be one of them. After this ...” he trailed off.
The elder glanced to the side. “Are you sure? Non-augs are a minority. They’re not exactly treated with respect in the world—some are even persecuted and executed in other regions.”
“I don’t care.”
“Your path would be much harder. The emotions become much more unruly. You’ll have to conquer them yourself in order to master them and not become their slave.”
“I’ll do it. I’m strong enough.”
Exhaling a sigh, the old man nodded. “We will see, my son. We will see.” He rose unsteadily to his feet. “I think I know a way around whatever perimeter they may have set. Follow me.”
Picking up his sword, Gideon followed the Pastor towards a small side exit. The two men vanished from the hall, leaving behind the machines that smelled of death.
“So ... I assume you’ve read my file?”
The Batterhahn Tank-class soldier kept his arms up, sweeping the prongs of his wrist-mounted arcbolt cannons to cover a large radius of the chamber. “Yes,” he replied to the unseen speaker. “I have a full record of your history and capabilities.”
“Then you realize I have defeated your kind before. Many times.”
“And for that you must be brought to justice.” The soldier kept scanning the dark passageway, but all frequencies were coming up empty. He somehow couldn’t even narrow down the source of the intruder’s voice. It might have been frightening—if the Batterhahn operative was capable of feeling fear. “Come out and give yourself up,” the soldier continued. “The judge could be more merciful if you willingly surrender.”
“My apologies, but I’m not here to surrender today. I only wish to retrieve my wife.”
“You were never augmented, and a suitable companion was never assigned to you. You have no wife.”
“I have a pastor and two kids who’d like to argue with you, sir. Anyway, she wasn’t engaged in any illegal activities, so you’re holding her here without cause.”
The soldier kept circling—the branching hallways were still empty. “She is a known associate of yours. Holding her in custody was the most certain way to bring you out of hiding.”
“If you do not give yourself up, she will be of no further use to us.”
A pause. “Please, for her own sake and for that of my family, let her go! They’re innocent. I won’t bother the Batterhahn Division any more if you just set her free.”
Ah, a tinge of desperation in that voice now. He could be upstairs ... the soldier slowly began stalking towards the maintenance lift. “We will not release her. She is guilty of associating with a known outlaw. Come out, and she might be allowed to live.”
The chamber resonated with a sigh. “Ah well. I suppose appealing to your heart was a useless effort.”
Almost to the lift. “So what now?”
Directly above the soldier, Gideon Kyretto Venici rolled out of the air duct and onto the metal catwalk. His thumb ran over the activator button on his sword as he responded:
“I’ll try the head.”
Benjamin Sonnek is a science fiction writer, currently an undergraduate in college. His short stories have appeared in “Aphelion,” “Daily Science Fiction,” and elsewhere. He is also the head writer/artist for the cartoon blog “Lab Rules.”