Please note that you can read the prologue here. Head past the jump to continue.
ONE: THE WORD, "COMMIE"
Rodney's cold, cornflower blue eyes stared at themselves.
He had been traversing the arid, sienna desert, when he detected a ray of light bouncing off something in the distance. This had offended his interest, as he had passed through Golem Cemetery (one of Earth's millions of technological graveyards) days ago and Port Crito, the city of ghosts, was just as far away. The probability of another sentient life form having taken his path before him was quite low, even in this age and climate, the deserts were the only remaining locations on Earth the monolithic concrete jungles hadn't absorbed yet. They were the same barren heathlands of centuries and millennia past, worthless in the pursuit of comfort.
His mechanical hand, glazed with soft rubber pads that held electronic sensors, shifted the dirt, and when he picked it up, he found that it was a small, broken mirror.
A centrifugal fan in Rodney's chest sent air rushing up a pipe that led to his mouth, vibrating his thermoplastic rubber vocal cords, "Oh, the humanity."
Staring back at him in the little piece of reflective glass was something far from humanity; his eyes, the rings around two tiny cameras that lit up in cornflower blue to represent the human iris but mimicked the neon sign of a cheap strip club instead, said everything.
He was an android, a robot. A machine. A mindless, soulless, godless, worthless machine.
A soft whirring sound caught Rodney's attention. It was a one-person helicopter hovering high above him, as though it were searching for something on the ground below. Rodney got up and started moving again.
TWO: A QUOTE, "I AM A SUPERHERO. I AM YOUR FATHER'S SUPERHERO, A HORNET DRESSED IN JAPAN."
The acacia trees had been kind to Rodney, providing enough cover for Rodney to evade the helicopter, if only momentarily.
Rodney knew that. He knew the helicopter was either further than his lenses could see or in the midst of a plan he had no knowledge of, and it would soon let him know that he had not yet escaped it's oppressive gaze. Furthermore, he knew the helicopter, and its persistent pilot, would never, not for a single second, succumb to the thought of giving up.
And, as Rodney knew so well, the pilot had every reason to chase him. Rodney was a fugitive. The pilot was a law enforcer.
But this wasn't, before the uninformed casual observer interposes with partisan ideas, a case of mistaken identity. Rodney didn't wake up beyond the Venetian blinds of Film Noir, he wasn't a fall guy, framed. His crime wasn't a sympathetic one. It was cold-blooded, calculated, and unforgivable.
Rodney was a murderer.
Further on, the persistence of trees evanesced. Rodney stepped over tussock grass, cumulus humilis clouds loomed over the distant mountains. The whirring returned, lifting Rodney's head to the sky as the helicopter passed over him. Rodney stopped at another human artefact, a worn Chesterfield topcoat covered in decades-old sand and dust. The helicopter flew past, towards the horizon ahead; Rodney picked up the coat and shook off the sand.
THREE: LIFE IS BIOLOGIKAL
Rodney donned the dirty coat as he walked past the sun setting beyond those distant, silent, hills. Night was advancing, Nyx rising from her somnolent grave, and Rodney needed to find a suitable place to shutdown.
There was an eerie similarity in that moment of temporary tranquillity to the sterile placidity of the cities. The folksy folks inhabiting the most rural of Earthly abodes were either already out of the moon's sight or waiting for the sun to fully depart, so Rodney walked the middle path segregated from his fellow life forms.
It could have been personal, almost, as though they knew his secret, his reason for fleeing from the jungle into the bush. And perhaps they wanted no part, however bit, in his story.
Rodney found exactly what he needed in a flock of trees ahead, something to rest against and provide some cover in case the Captain decided to start searching before he powered up.
Rodney picked out the one closest to the sun, and sat back against it. He watched the edge of the sun disappear past the horizon. It left a bleached yellow hue that melted into a light blue that faded into darker shades of blue as the sky stretched to the other side of the horizon. If he could find the right angle, Rodney could even find his eyes in the sky. Could he smile, this would probably be the moment to do it.
The fan in his chest slowed to a halt, Rodney's CPU cut off all functions. The cornflower blue rings faded out.
FOUR: MORNING GLORY, SUNSHINE
The chill of dawn still wafted between the trees.
The centrifugal fan started spinning. The CPU started sending out start-up instructions, jolting his body to life. The fan spun faster for a few seconds and then returned to normal. Rodney's eyes lit up.
The hulk of metal, cogs and wire stood up, and turned to greet the rising sun.
"I wonder. I wonder what the Martians were thinking when they heard us digging into their soil? They'd escaped to the warmth of the core, and we searched for them in shards of ice."
The vocal cords were in working order.
The softly murmuring corona --
A sound beckoned Rodney's audio sensors. It was married to a plume of dust that appeared to be advancing towards him. Rodney quickly scanned for a suitable tree, and upon finding it, climbed it. And he waited...
The cause of the disturbance was one of those old off-road motorcycles with rudimentary GPS and a basic hydrocarbon propulsion system. In other words, it's the man trying to apprehend Rodney.
The Captain stopped under a tree, and immediately pulled out a revolver as he got off the bike. His eyes searched for Rodney's metal body amongst the tree trunks.
Rodney's fingers gripped the bark like clamps.
"I know you're here! This is where you shutdown. You must've only powered up now!"
The fan in Rodney's chest slowed down. The Captain quietly moved between the trees.
"Let's end this now, Rodney! I have a tombstone to tend to!"
The Captain stopped below him.
"Rodney!" he quietened down... decided to wait for some indicator of Rodney's presence. He took off his fedora hat, and wiped some sweat from his forehead, when something caught his eye... Captain Burns lifted his head, to see --
Rodney leapt off the tree, grabbing the Captain before hitting the ground and taking him down with him. The Chesterfield coat billowed over the swirling sienna dust. Rodney disarmed the Captain, threw the revolver aside, and clutched his neck.
"You're sweating, Captain, the heat is too much for your body to handle. It was so even for the Ancients. My suggestion is hydration and a few days of rest at home."
"I'm hydrated." and with a derisive tone, "And I'll soon be going home."
Rodney picked up the fedora, brushed it against the Captain's shirt, and put it on. "Does it suit me, Captain?"
No reply. Rodney let go of the Captain, and warily backed away to the motorcycle. He removed the ignition key and tossed it into a bush.
"Why don't you just finish this here and just as soon be done with --"
"My intention, Captain, isn't to kill you. My intention was never to..." he searched his memory for the perfect word... "Kill."
"Yeah! Tell that to my fucking daughter!"
Rodney's inhuman eyes watched Captain Burns.
"You call it insanity." Rodney pushed over the motorcycle, turned, and ran.
FIVE: A SHORT STORY ABOUT A CAMP
His logic unit deducing that he was far enough, Rodney reduced his speed to a paced walk. Shortly thereafter, he came upon the Captain's helicopter and tent. He meant to simply continue past the camp, get on with reaching Port Crito, where he'd find a better chance of survival, but the tent was left open, no doubt a casualty of the Captain's haste, and his lenses caught something beside a modern pistol he'd shoved aside in favour of something more old-fashioned.
It was a picture imprinted on cardboard paper, a photograph. Taken a decade ago, when printing on paper was still a common practice, it contained the Captain, a woman, and a newborn baby.
Rodney took this photograph. And before putting it in one of the coat's pockets, he looked at the young family, and... although there wasn't any proof of it in his non-existent facial expressions, he appeared to be deep in thought. Focused on the baby girl, recalling memories recorded what felt like aeons ago.
SIX: FADE TO BLACK, IN WHICH OUR GALLANTLY HAPLESS HERO FINALLY ARRIVES AT PORT CRITO, THE END OF HIS JOURNEY, AND COMES UPON A BRIDGE
Only once, since his rendezvous with Captain Burns under the bemused trees, was Rodney bothered by his presence. It was when he saw the helicopter pass him on its way to, presumably, Port Crito.
The only thing, really, worth telling of the time between then and the moment he stepped on the bridge leading into Port Crito is the one minute he spent finding a midnight green mask in a pocket and putting it on. Besides that, his journey was uneventful.
Until he stepped on that bridge.
He knew the problem with his decision to do so. The Captain was waiting on the other side, several metres before the Port's broken-down and disused gates. But there was nothing he could do but head down that little stretch of baking concrete and tarmac, under that old nonchalant ball of burning gas.
The Captain leaned casually against the helicopter, not budging an inch when Rodney stopped in front of him.
"Good afternoon, Rodney."
"I am glad you're alive and well, Captain."
"Whatever happened to calling me Jim?"
"When I asked for your forgiveness, you told me never to call you that again."
"Oh yeah," Captain Burns finally stood up straight, "Now I remember, and you decided that you'd rather not be be decommissioned."
"It short circuits my logic chip when I consider the hypocrisy of your species. You use the word 'decommission' when 'execute' is just as valid. But you reserve that barbaric word for your barbaric history."
"Hah! Sure!" he took a few unconvincingly relaxed steps towards Rodney, "Does it short circuit your little microprocessors when you think of what those little hands of yours did? You say barbaric... but who's more barbaric? The executioner or the murderer?"
Burns pulled out the revolver and pointed the barrel between Rodney's eyes. "I am, hey?! How about my brain short circuits, and I go temporarily insane, and crush your throat with my bare hands?!"
He dropped the gun to his side, and stroked his hair with a distinctly insane swagger... "Nah... uh-uh... I'm better than that! I don't kill the people I love!"
"Can I tell you a story, Captain?"
"It's something about --"
"Well, what?! What is it?!"
"I had a dream once... well, it wasn't a dream, really --"
"No. Because you can't dream."
"Well, I walked into Nicole's room, meaning to wake her up for breakfast. When I checked her bed, she wasn't there, and I panicked. Her safety was my responsibility --"
"I panicked, I thought she had been taken or worse. And... you must believe me, when I heard someone come in, I was confused, my processor didn't think it would be her, it had already started calculating the possible courses of action for saving her. The only thing on my mind was saving her, and interrogating the person who'd taken her, and I... you... you... can hear it for yourself. When I killed her, the only thing I said was --"
"I know what you said. But you still strangled her."
"I asked the kidnapper for her location!"
Burns lifted the gun again... "Acknowledge your crime."
Rodney didn't reply.
"I will not."
Captain Burns grabbed the mask on Rodney's face and ripped it off, revealing that soulless metal casing he called a face. He held the revolver closer to his forehead. "One shot is just as fatal to you machines."
"I prefer nigger. And I know my cell is just as fragile as yours. But I still won't do it."
"Why?!" Burns dropped the gun again, "You think it'll change anything?"
"It will. It means I'll be admitting my guilt. And though I abhor that day my CPU malfunctioned, I do not regret my actions. Because that would mean I didn't love Nicole." The sun reflected off Rodney's face, "Sir, I hope in some parallel universe I walked into that room and she was in danger, and I did the exact same thing. And you thanked me for saving her precious life."
"But this isn't that universe." he pressed the gun against Rodney's forehead, "Any last words?"
Rodney thought for a moment... "I knew Nicole since her first birthday. I was her servant, her teacher, her protector, and her friend. I loved her. As much as any father could love his adopted child. Thank you for that opportunity. Jim."
Jim's index finger caressed the trigger. All he needed to do was squeeze, and the revolver would do the rest for him. Rodney would see the Blue Screen of Death before he could logout and save his settings.
Once more, he dropped the gun to his side. Jim stepped back; he shifted around, debating ferociously with himself, fighting with his conscience... he lifted the gun to Rodney's face. With, ostensibly, more conviction than before, but his lungs sucked in more air with each breath, and his eyes couldn't leave Rodney's black pupils.
Jim opened his mouth to say something... cleared his throat... and dropped the gun. He took several steps back. Inhaled deeply. Calmed his nerves down. Let his mind regain itself. Let his muscles relax. Let the gun feel more comfortable in his hand. Jim lifted the gun, aimed it at Rodney's fan, and squeezed the trigger.
The bullet shot through the centrifugal fan and severed Rodney's spine, sending him collapsing to the ground. Jim blocked the sun. The fan in Rodney's chest struggled to spin, sputtering erratically; all connection with anything below his chest had been lost with his ability to stand up straight. Rodney looked up at Jim.
"How's the legs?"
Rodney spoke with an audible strain, "Lost."
The fan tried spinning faster, "Fine."
Jim watched Rodney. The fan returned to it's slower speed.
Rodney's voice was deformed, unsettled in pronunciation, "Is a fake... song. Played by... real human. Better. Than. A real song... played... by a... fake human? Human?"
Jim sighed. He took Rodney's hand, and dragged him past the helicopter, into Port Crito.
Jim looked at Rodney for one final time... "Goodbye Rodney."
Jim walked away.
The helicopter, lifting Captain Jim Burns to the heavens, hovered over Rodney. His eyes could see the rotor blades slowing, nearing an event horizon but never quite getting there, as though time were moving so fast that life had slowed down. Or time itself was decelerating, leaving Rodney alone to grasp the final few seconds of his short existence on Earth.
Regardless, Rodney was finally in Port Crito. The city of ghosts. Home of dead machines. Soon, they'd emerge from the shadows to give him new legs. Or his arms would drag him to some electronic dump, and he'd fix himself. He'd be as good as new. Well, as new as trash could get. But good. Alive.
And, Rodney thought, whatever the reason, be it forgiveness or pity or something else, his hunter and old, he could say, perhaps, "friend" dragged him there.
Could he smile, this would have been the moment to do it.