Red's salvation came in the guise of the enemy.
Not that he recognized either at the time. Red didn't feel much of anything, much less the need to be saved.
Perspiration ran down his face, beading into his eyes and he wiped it away before he could feel the salty sting. His brown prison uniform was stained with sweat and he needed to take it to the cleaners soon. His fingers brushed over the fraying fabric; clean clothes were one of the few commodities he had left. He didn't waste them.
He jogged around the perimeter, the air was warming up but hadn't quite obtained the searing heat it would have at midday. There weren't many other prisoners out and about this time of the morning, another reason he preferred to be up at this hour. The only sound breaking the silence were his boots hitting the ground as he ran.
He ended his run as he always did in front of a set of massive grey doors. He paused to stare up at them again and then dropped into a series of push-ups. His arms had stayed thick and muscular due to his daily routines. Unlike many who'd come in here Red had no intention of letting anyone prey on him or run him into the ground.
His military training had snapped him away every morning at 4am, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him. Most prisoners weren't awake by then and the searing heat kept everyone inside during the hottest parts of the day. At that hour it was comfortably warm and he could come and go without running into to hardly anyone. Not even his cellmate, Dag, was up at this hour. The big man loved his sleep.
No one could say the prison had been designed with their comfort in mind. The place did not even had decent heating or cooling.
Red ended his round of push-ups and brushed his fingers through his red and black mohawk as he stared at the large grey doors that opened to let people in, but not out. He'd come through those doors once, not knowing, not quite believing how long his stay was going to be. If had known then what he knew now, perhaps he would have fought harder, forced them to kill him, because he wasn't worth the trouble it would have taken to drag him here alive.
But he hadn't known and could not have guessed and so here he was.
There were things prison had not changed for him. He'd spent every day for the past seven years following a strict routine of making his bed, leaving it perfectly smoothed over, jogging the perimeter of the prison yard when no one else was awake, and keeping up with a simple exercise routine the military had drilled into him since basic. The silence was easier to deal with than the hopelessness embodied by the prisoners like himself, whose only crime was to be flesh, circuit, and bone, victims of a political panic gone mad. The mindless exercise kept him fit and kept him moving long past the time others gave up.
He scrubbed his face and tried to remember what it felt like to not be here.
His symbiotics scanned the area picking up nothing, two lines of blue starting at his jawline running up around his ears and meeting at the base of his skull. He did this every day without fail, hoping against hope for a signal of some kind, or even picking up on chatter of life outside. He tapped the side of his head to switch them off again. He didn't need to do that either, but it was an old habit. Nothing immediately jumped at him.
There was only static.
Red had changed so much from his time before that no one would have recognized him now. His once spacer pale skin was now a deep tan from days in the sun, matching his brown eyes. His ears were pierced in several places, he had a labret piercing, he'd even considered his eyebrow. His mohawk was something he could look at in the mirror that didn't remind him of his loyalty to the government that had put him here. The style had been permanent and for Red a reminder of the fact that he would never give that kind of loyalty to anyone again. It was his middle finger to all that Neo-Tokyo stood for. After all, what had it cost him in return? Red had never truly hated anyone before until Neo-Tokyo had turned on him and others like him. Sometimes that hatred was all he had left.
Breakfast would be the usual, colorless, gruel, everything human body needed, but none of the flavors. They weren't here to enjoy life, they were here to die off while the rest of humanity forgot they existed. It was a prison for those they were ashamed of. The outcome for all of them was bleak. Men, woman, children all imprisoned because their augments were deemed a threat. Politically that meant they were the scapegoat, a group the rest of humanity could unite against. And after treating people like animals for so long, it's only natural for a few to start acting like it.
Red dozed after a few moments on the bench. This was part of his routine as well. A short nap, and then carefully avoiding the soulless animals that would come through showing off the fact that they were in charge of this mini hell.
The heat would wake him later, it always did, when it became too hot to bear and he would be forced to move indoors. The dreams came like they always did when he closed his eyes.
"Captain, do you think I have a soul?"
The question caught him off guard. His gaze snapped back at his second-in-command and he took in the AI's question for a moment. Lars had a curious mind that wandered over everything philosophical. Too much, on occasion, not that Red minded the conversations; he enjoyed the occasional discussion. But the AI's preoccupation with religion surprised him the most. Lars did not have anything resembling a head, his body metallic on the outside, resembled a headless humanoid. The body was capable of everything a human was and did not require ears, eyes, anything that would make it seem more human. It was flexible, could change in more directions than a person and had a strength that Red, even with his military grade augments couldn't match.
"A soul?" Red repeated, stretching his arms upwards before bringing his hands back and placing them behind his head. He didn't even know how to answer. It was a question he never thought about.
His bosses gave orders, he followed. He patrolled the borders of human expansion, making sure there were no threats from beyond. They'd gone farther than ever before, and technology had exploded.
And they'd found nothing out there.
"Yes, a soul." The AI, that was his second turned and *looked* at the open window into space. Red had no idea if Lars could "see" in the way that he himself could. AI's had a vision of sorts, sensors, more than any human was born with. Even Red had extra sets of sensors wired in, jokingly referring to himself as a plugin.
"I don't know. Why do you read that crap?" He was referring to Lar's laborious study of ancient religious texts. The AI was fascinated with them. Red's own eyes were drawn to the black once again. The stars shining out, their light radiating towards him, worlds unexplored... He was home out here. But Red also itched to move further out to see what was there. There was always something new on the black horizon.
"It's interesting philosophically speaking," Lars responded. His metallic voice shifted emphasizing the word "philosophically" in a way that indicated he held interest. He had no face to express his interests, his tone and words had to do it for him.
"You know we're not supposed to philosophize. Right?" Red shook his head at his second in command. Somewhere in the rising and falling of civilizations humanity had given birth to AI's. And instead of the death of all of humanity as predicted in so many science fiction novels, and Red had read as many as he could get his hands on growing up, the AI's minds had been fascinated with the same ideas that had captured the imaginations of early man. Men had long turned away from such thoughts; the AI's interest had birthed an "Awakening" of several old religions. After all, if the smartest among them were contemplating these thoughts, shouldn't they?
"If scientists can theorize about string theory and the existence of other dimensions, ones they can't even detect—"
"—yet," Lars' voice was smug. "Then I can certainly philosophize, as long as it's not interfering with my duties."
Red shrugged. Lars was right. They were cruising towards home, they'd been recalled a few weeks early but that didn't matter. Both needed time off. Red didn't admit it but while he loved being in the black, some downtime didn't sound so bad. It took considerable mental energy for his job, coordinating between ten leviathan class ships. Even enhanced as he was, he needed a break.
He watched a Vesper class ship zip around briefly in front of their fleet. They had the fleetness of a fly, could change direction on a dime. They flew with the Leviathan class fleet but were not allowed to mingle. The pilots were drawn from the children of the Upper-class elites on the central worlds, Neo-Tokyo specifically. They did not mix with their lower-class comrades, even as it was their job to protect them.
"They say those ships will be our salvation if we ever encounter hostiles out here," Lars whispered. At least his voice lowered, he too was awed by what they could do. Also, like Red, he was barred from the procedures to pilot one, which made no sense given an AI would be easier to integrate into a vessel like that. But Neo-Tokyo had its reasons, he had his orders and he and Red lived to obey.
Red watched the small ship fly with envy when a noise caught his attention. It was so out of place, the grinding of large mechanical gears groaning in place, it didn't quite fit this reality—
His eyes snapped open, the sun-blasted into them mixed with salty sweat that ran into his right eye. He groaned as he rubbed the tearing eye. It took him a moment to realize he was in fact back in the prison, lying in a prison yard, roasting on a bench and not back on his ship discussing philosophy with his second in command. The dream ebbed away as he tried to recall it, the clanking of the large prison doors erased the conversation completely. Was it a dream or a memory? He could no longer recall. He scrubbed a hand over his face feeling the stubble of a five 0'clock shadow. Maybe I'm finally losing it after so many years.
He sat up abruptly staring at the moving doors, doors that only allowed people in, never out. Augments, he corrected, they only allowed augments within. The noise was startling because it had been less of an occurrence as fewer augs remained free. He sat up on the bench he'd been reclining on and looked on with interest at their newest arrival.
There wasn't much there to find interesting.
The doors had opened wide enough to admit a small woman, or was it a girl? Shoulder-length, auburn hair with the pale skin of a spacer, she wasn't much to look at. She had no visible augments that he could see. In any other setting, she would look perfectly normal. But to be in here? There was something built in, no matter how small. An aug was an aug, any and all cybernetics included.
She jerked her arm out of the hands of the gray-uniformed guard and he shoved her roughly forward before stepping back. She stumbled forward but managed to keep from falling. Her blue eyes flashed with anger as she glared around her and quickly took in her surroundings. A quick glance would have told her that every eye was on her. She was new, fresh meat in a place where boredom could easily mean death for the target.
Red's skin prickled as her gaze lingered on him for a moment before moving away.
The doors clanked slowly behind her as she turned to stare up at them her shoulders sagging in resignation before turning around to take in her surroundings. Red knew from experience she would have been given specific instructions to her own cell, the number, the location and where she could wash her laundry, where the food was served, etc.
He also knew from experience what that first day felt like, although it felt like an eon since he'd been shoved through those doors. He hadn't come alone at least.
The prison itself was an oval-shaped cage, a giant open topped stadium, it had been refitted with layers of thick walls to house its inmates in the most humane way possible. The cells were located on the inner walls with a large track running inside the building itself. The guards lived in the outer wall and came and went as they pleased.
They had a few utilities, toilets, a sink in each cell. They had a laundry mat where they could switch out their laundry in an instant. But nothing more than that. They were not living here. Simply existing.
My only crime is that I'm flesh, circuit, and bone... Red hummed the words to himself as he took in the new arrival. The words had become a mantra to him over the years he'd been here. Something he repeated when the old anger surfaced...
Red observed the girl for a few moments more before dismissing her. There was nothing interesting about her. She was no great beauty, not that you'd want that kind of attention in this place. Her auburn hair stopped at her shoulders, her blue eyes darting around as she studied her surroundings. She wore the same light brown colored prison clothes as everyone else with long white sleeves underneath her shirt. She walked straight towards the cells, no doubt to get to her own as soon as possible. He turned away. Welcome to hell, doll, he thought as he flopped back onto his bench for a moment with a sigh. Just another rich kid...
She would figure this place out soon enough.
He tried to feel pity or something resembling it, but it had been a long time since Red felt sympathy. Years of nothingness day in and day out, seeing people fall to the lowest of the low. His own moral compass was a little out of whack. He protected those close to him, but others, people he didn't know here, he simply told himself there was nothing he could do. His own grip on humanity was tenuous at best. He'd spent his first few months here trying to stop people from preying on each other before saying "fuck it" one day. Even those he'd tried to help ended up turning on each other at some point. In the end, he became the guy that you left alone, and he left you alone. He sighed and went back to staring at the empty sky, surprised to find the old yearning to escape surge within.
The dream came back to him in full force.
"Do you think I have a soul?" Lars' robotic voice sounded in his mind once more.
No Lars. He thought of his long dead friend, even though he knew he couldn't hear him. After all this. I'm pretty sure there isn't even a god out there to worry about, let alone a soul.