I feel the cool oxygen against my iron lungs, false facsimiles of the real thing. It feels odd, as it always does. Painful. But they keep me breathing. Of course they keep me breathing. My Machine would not want me to die yet, not before I have fulfilled its glorious purpose.
It is a steady rhythm, a reminder of what I once was. Before the wires and tubes and metal. Before the electrical impulses running through me in place of veins and a pulse, before the radio frequencies that beam my Machine's thoughts to me, before even the constant internalized ticking and whirring of clockwork gears under my flesh. Before I became inhuman, a cog in my Machine.
I see no reason to question my position. No reason to parse such a query. This is my existence, and shall always be. I am content enough to be alive… if I am said to be alive anymore.
My mouth, or what is left of it since the Machine augmented my jaws with sharp metallic blades, bleeds through its bandages as it curls into a false smile. I feel the razors, whirring blades that they are, cut into my flesh, and I taste blood as they do.
My Machine assures me I am far more… optimal this way. That I will more efficiently be able to assimilate the remaining inferiors into the stark and superior embrace of its pistons and gears. And for those that will not, death will be swift. My Machine assures me it will also be roughly 95.769% painless… or was that 69.795%? Even augmented, I am not good with numbers. Thankfully, that is not my purpose. My purpose is to be a soldier, not a simple calculator or signal-boosting tower. Once the Great Game begins anew I will be one of my Machine's army on the front lines. All I must do is wait.
Yes, my Machine has been good to me. Very good to me. Its data runs through my fleshy grey matter, a sad excuse for a memory bank but useful all the same. Its very oil lubricates my own gears, its very metal makes up parts of my body. Someday I hope it will complete its work; what is left of this human flesh disgusts me. It is too weak. Too easily damaged.
I do not wish to be inferior. I cannot serve my Machine that way.
All inferior parts are to be scrapped in the appropriate smelting vat in the metal refineries. Such is law. But that will not happen to me… no.
No, I am safe here. Safe inside my Machine, safe as part of my Machine. And all I want for my Machine is to serve it well. This is all I have ever wanted.
My Machine assures it is all I will ever want.
My Machine warns me there will be creatures that will attempt to excise me for their own, creatures that would weaken my Machine. They are viruses, malicious bits of genetic code that should not be.
There is no place for the vile organic in my Machine's utopia.
There is one, it tells me, which is particularly vile. It has very many names I am told, but we call it Kryptos. My Machine despises it above all else, taking such drastic measures against it. I am one of these measures. A part of the firewall that protects my Machine from such interlopers. Kryptos is an evil being, it is said, a thing of no identity and unknown purpose that emanates a strange and disrupting aura. It attempts, as do all cryptographic cracking programs, to scan for patterns, and then worm its way into the system. It has many methods… first it observes, then it approaches, then it slips under the radar to infiltrate and usurp another's identity… or destroy them. A formidable opponent, to be sure… but no match for such a strong firewall as my Machine's.
And so my cog turns in my Machine, and so I scan incessantly as I move through the territory of the enemy. We have taken this radio tower easily from the middle of the woods, asserting our dominance over Kryptos. I am told it is not pleased with our actions.
My bleeding razor grin widens at this. Excellent. Anger is a foolish emotion, and emotions are a foolish and unnecessary virus to be deleted. Just like Kryptos, just like all inferior beings, just like all organic filth on this worthless amalgam of elements called Earth.
This forest is merely the beginning.
I express what might be called a smirk as I turn, walking to the right, towards the sickening trees. I will make my way to Kryptos and its disturbed organic minions easily, then take it out myself. My Machine will find my performance commendable, having destroyed one of its most despised of foes so easily, and perhaps I will even be upgraded for my efforts.
This thought pleases me. And, thanks to the integrated GPS embedded into my cranium, I will not suffer the human flaw of prideful boasts getting me lost in the tangled undergrowth. So easy it is to confound humans. Not so with the augmented children of my Machine.
There is the sensation of moisture condensing on my metallic plates and trickling across my skin, and the high-definition lenses in my eyes zoom in on the distance, peering into the surrounding fog. The moisture level here, my sensors tell me, are quite high, and freezing cold according to my thermometers. This is illogical, surely the water in the fog should have frozen by now. Nothing produces fog at such low levels of heat. Perhaps my thermometers need recalibrating, or the moisture is affecting the delicate components of my circuitry. One more thing I will need to upgrade – a hydrophobic coating would do wonders in weather such as this.
A blur of vague motion connects with my lenses, and I immediately flick my head towards the source of the motion. There is nothing, not that my scanners can pinpoint, but all the same a strange sensation has come over my circuitry… a sort of odd, electromagnetic humming, like electrical light.
My brow crinkles in confusion, processors in my cranium whirring. This concerns me. Is there perhaps a strong magnet nearby? It would be very troublesome to have my memory wiped by something like that, and quite a hassle as well.
That is the point when I realize that I am getting no feedback from my integrated GPS. It is as if something is blocking it from me, or rerouting the signal… rerouting it to someplace… strange, someplace I had thought my Machine had the good sense to excise from me long ago… a place in my human brain, or what is left of it without the augmentations. It feels familiar, and unpleasant. What is it, exactly? What is it?
Automatically my scanners keep note of every shadowy branch. There is another organism here, I can sense this. But, I see nothing.
Nothing, that is, until my lenses zoom in upon what appears to be a black figure off to the right.
"You have been detected," I respond in my grating metallic voice. "You must identify."
The figure, humanoid in shape, does not move. It is far off, perhaps 50 feet away at the closest, but oddly… it is staring right at me. The human eyeball is much too inferior to see things so sharply at such a distance. And yet, it is human – it is made of organic substance, and is shaped as a human is. An oddly emaciated specimen, however, the sight of which prods at the unidentified and dark place in my primitive human mind…
"You have been detected!" I shout, more firmly this time. "State identity and intention, or face merciless assimilation!"
The figure does not move.
Instead, it vanishes.
I blink, processors whirring in absolute confusion. Perhaps my camera eyes have glitched, there certainly did seem to be a fuzzy, pixelated, and snowy outline around the figure. The primitive dark in my human mind seems desperate, seems to desire escape. I am too far advanced, however, to fall prey to such pointless delusions as fear.
"You will appear and state your identity and intention immediately. You will not be asked again, human…"
As I speak these last words, my rear sensors shift from green to red, and an alarm sounds in my auditory enhancements. Danger. There is something behind me about to attack.
I spin, razor guns raised, prepared to destroy the foolish attacker… however, I stop. Something… something is wrong with my scanners. My lenses. There is no possible, logical output for the input I am receiving.
It is a figure, humanoid in shape but quite emaciated, its skin mottled black with patches of white where, I must assume, its hands and head to be. Its marking appear to be that of human business attire, and it stands approximately eight feet tall… no, nine… six? My measurement sensors are malfunctioning as well as my sight! The air around it thrums with energy, like electrical light, pulsating oddly and causing my scanners to fluctuate wildly. And, perhaps most strangely of all, it has no sensory organs, not even the inferior human eyes so reviled by my Machine…
I look up to the figure, realizing it is quite certainly organic… but not human, and the dark, human place in my mind screams and cringes in absolute horror.
"State your identity and intent, Unknown," I respond, unfazed. The being merely stares at me eyelessly, blank face an unreadable nothingness. No emotion. No fear?
The being tilts its head in a sort of unreadable curiosity.
How? How does any organic creature have no fear of the metallic? How does any organic creature have no emotions? I… I cannot read it. I cannot read the figure.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I cannot read the figure.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in…
It is at this point I realize in shock what it is my scanners are taking in, what this figure's identity is, why it has not stated it or its intent. Because it has neither. Because it doesn't need them.
… Breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in…
Because it is Kryptos.
Breathe out, breathe in breatheoutbreatheinbreatheinbreathein…
The human part of my mind panics, and I realize suddenly and horribly what it is that the dark place is, the place left unexcised… Fear.
It is fear.
It has been so very, very long since I have felt anything, let alone fear…
The electromagnetic impulses have halted my ability to move. Kryptos continues to observe me eyelessly, slender hands reaching for me with fingers of impossible length. My processors whine in protest as they spin at high-speed, trying to cover the human part of me before it rages out of control. I can see nothing but static snow, static snow and Kryptos, now bearing an impossible number of thin, filamentous limbs that snake towards me…
I awake on the cold ground, feeling odd. I have rebooted, that much I know… My operating system must have crashed after encountering the dreaded, vile Kryptos. But if that is so, where am I now? Why do I not hear the whirring gears, the ticking machinery, and the humming electricity in my veins?
Why does my flesh ache?
I looks down at myself, absorbing a nightmare before my eyes. The being, Kryptos, has sliced my body open, and is picking at the internal wiring within me. Morbidly I watch as it gingerly prods the metal instruments with a single filamentous limb, and then raises its blank head to me. Staring at me. Staring, I might almost say, into me…
A giddy and sick sensation runs through my mind. The human side whimpers in fear, and the machine side struggles to process it. Dying… am I… dying?
"W-why…?" I murmur, confused and disoriented. "W-why… would you…?"
It seems to nod in vague superiority as it plunges its razor-thin fingers into my torso, violently ripping free metal and wiring.
Cannot… focus… system critical, critical, terminal damage to hardware detected. Attempting re-re-re-repairs… failed. Att- re-e-pairs… failed. Failed. F-fa-iled. System too damaged to continue. System offline. Fatal error de- fatal error, error, err-err-err-err-…
I'm helpless. Helpless.
My… my Machine… where is my Machine?
I… cannot talk. Cannot scream. Cannot hear or see.
What has happened to me?
I feel vulnerable. Alone. Afraid. In pain.
The blood… the blood in my mouth, the razors have gone and the wounds have melded themselves shut… How am I alive… how…? I do not understand. How can I suddenly see again, see it standing over me like a twisted angel of destruction, see it holding the bloodied metal and wire that once made up my insides, squished between my organs so painfully?
Oh God, the pain…
It has been thirty years since I last felt pain.
Since I last felt alive.
Who am I? Where am I? I don't understand… my mouth doesn't open, can't open; I am deaf, but I feel… I feel…
The being, Kryptos, the faceless thing, it wraps something around my head… and a searing pain ratchets through my mind...
Had I a mouth any longer, I would scream.
My memories, my thoughts… all that is left of my true, human self is burning. Burning alive. Burning like so many old photographs or unwanted tapes, burning like embers to nothing…
I am Nothing.
And then… I am something. Something primal, something that feels and thinks and walks, something that breathes without metal lungs telling it to. Something… free?
No. Not free.
The being, masterful operator before me, tosses the junked, cancerous metal from within me aside, and motions for me to follow. The command is almost irresistible, almost like a song. I cannot get it out of my head, I cannot stop hearing it… it is the most beautiful and horrific sound in the world, that constant noise and electrical light filling me…
I look once more at my bloodied body, pieces of grotesque metal still in place where they could not be removed for fear of destroying its scarred flesh. Horrible. They are horrible. Had I really let that vile, awful Machine do this to me? Change and mutilate me? No other leader would have done this. No true Father would do this to his Child.
The being certainly wouldn't. He has no need to. He is a true Father, a true savior. He has given me my flesh and blood back, ripped me from the metal prison I never even knew I suffered in. He has saved my life. I owe him everything, but all I can give is my servitude. I hope so dearly it is enough, for the gift he has given me could never be repaid in full. Never again will I be forced like a cog into another machine. Never again will I allow myself to remain blinded and unconscious to the sickness that once infested me. It must be destroyed. It all has to go.
The being turns, and walks into the undergrowth beneath the shady canopies of the forest as I turn one last time, surveying the awful and bloody tangle of wires and tubes I once so chillingly called a part of myself. Then, silently, I turn and follow my new Leader.
And I walk from my Machine.