“Get your hands off me!”
A harsh slap filled the air, followed by a short gasp. Bethany Wilko shivered, her cheeks stinging as she rapidly looked with wide eyes between the four men and women standing around her. She struggled futilely in the chair she had been strapped to by tight ropes. There were no windows in this space, and only a few electrical lights plugged into the sides of the walls on either side of her current bound position to provide light.
“Quiet, sweet tart,” said a scarred man epitomizing the image of “punk wannabe” in his clothing, tattoos, and neon blue dye for his spiked hair. The hand he had used to slap Bethany had some extra punch behind it due to a metal ring rapped around the middle finger. A telltale mark showed on Bethany’s cheek to signify the blow.
To the punk’s left was a glasses-sporting man straight out of a corporate worker’s guidebook for proper uniform, with one noticeable exception: his right sleeve was torn from the shoulder down to show a fully metal arm and hand. He wielded a serrated knife in that hand, twirling it like an expert carver or butcher. When he glanced at Bethany, she felt like a piece of meat about to be cut to pieces.
To the punk’s right were two women sporting matching red hair dye, spiked leather jackets, thick eye shadow, and the bubble gum that they chewed out of their chemically enhanced lips. They looked like twins, down to the same disinterested look in their eyes as they took in Bethany and her attire. The bats slung over their backs, and the pistols tucked into their belts, further amplified their dangerous nature.
All four of these people were blocking the only door in and out of this place. All of them were taking close glances at Bethany’s body and clothing.
Bethany wore a copy of a cliché high school uniform, complete with a flowing skirt and audacious front buttons. Despite the attitude of the punk, the uniform did make her look sweet; that was why she had chosen it, to look “sweet” in front of her classmates. However, those people seemed, and probably were, miles away from this run-down shack where these people had taken her.
Bethany had strong reason to believe this was a kidnapping. But as to the how, why, or where she now was, she had no clue. What had she done to offend these people, besides being alone on the streets in the slums? When did Summer Sun City, “Jewel of the West” become capable of letting people like this live inside it?
“Hey! Eyes up here, tart!” Bethany’s attention was forced back onto the punk who had slapped her when he grabbed her cheeks and forced her to look at him. “Follow what we say,” he growled with a visible smile, “and we won’t get you all messy.”
“Easy, easy,” one of the twin girls warned, her voice sounding slurred through her lips. “Don’t damage the goods,” the other finished a moment later. It was as if they were thinking each other’s thoughts and saying them in sequence. Some twisted part of Bethany’s mind like that mutual link, something she had never experienced with anyone.
The punk laughed, which came out more like a snort. “I’m not going to ruin this beauty,” he told the girls while staring longingly at Bethany’s face. “Her folks won’t do what we want if we get dirty.”
Bethany swallowed a lump in her throat. “Y-You know my parents?” she asked.
“Sure do, darling!” The punk flashed a grin that revealed blindingly-white teeth—chemically enhanced, Bethany figured, to shine that way all the time—and patted Bethany’s cheek with his ring hand. “But you don’t need to trouble your poufy head about that. Once we call them, we can have a proper conversation.”
Bethany’s mind rushed to figure out a reason why they were talking to her like this. “This is… blackmail?”
“Kidnapping.” The knife-wielding corporate man finally spoke, his voice sounding bland and uninteresting despite his word choice. “There’s a clear difference, but the results are the same. We get our money, and then you get to go home.”
“Got that right,” one of the girls rattled off before she blew a big bubble. Her supposed twin clicked her tongue just as the bubble popped.
“Don’t try to be funny,” the non-chewing girl warned Bethany while her twin sucked the expelled gum back into her mouth. “Or silly. Either will make us angry.”
“And when we get angry,” the swaggering punk claimed with bravado Bethany did not think was fake, “we get hungry. Maybe hungry enough to see how sweet your folks are along with you.”
He did not say anything else, his message clearly understood by everyone listening. Bethany could clearly picture it; tens, hundreds of different ways these four people could hold her down and ruin her. Hurt her so badly she could never go back to normal life again.
The sound of Bethany’s heartbeat filled her ears. She closed her eyes and tried to think of happy thoughts. Then she opened her eyes and looked around the room when a rumbling sound far too loud to be a heartbeat came from outside the house.
“What the hell?” the punk asked. Before anyone could answer him, the front door expanded several times over from the force of a pair of giant metal hands. A robot standing just below the level of the house’s ceiling tore its way into the enclosed space. Sunlight glistened off parts of its body, reflecting polished coats of blue and gold paint. It had large arms and legs, a spherical chest, and a small cluster of sensor vanes sticking up like an antenna.
The general shape of the robot was a giant human with metal instead of flesh. It had two hands, each having four bionic fingers and a thumb. It had two legs, its feet shaped like thick boots pressing against the floor. The machine lacked a human head, the sensor vanes acting like a “face” in its place.
“YOU HAVE BEEN OBSERVED PHYSICALLY HARMING, AND SUGGESTING ILLICIT ACTS, TO A MINOR OF SUMMER SUN CITY.” The robot spoke without a mouth, words coming from an unseen vocoder below the various sensors and antennae. “AS OF CODE O-X-2-6 OF THE CITY’S CODE OF LAWS, YOU HAVE EACH BEEN MARKED FOR PACIFICATION AND ARREST.”
“It’s one of those walking robots!” the punk shouted to the others.
“Walking, nothing!” one of the twins yelled. “It’s a combat ‘bot!” the second finished.
The quiet corporate man said nothing as he readied his knife, his glasses glinting from the new level of sunlight coming inside. The twins then whipped out their weapons—one girl readied her bat, the other her pistol—and the punk moved towards Bethany while keeping his eyes on the new threat.
“AGGRESSIVE ACTIONS DETECTED.” The robot had no visible eyes, yet it still saw what was going on. “SURRENDER YOUR WEAPONS AND LIE FACEDOWN ON THE FLOOR. COMPLY OR YOU WILL BE INCAPACITATED.”
“Up yours, ‘bot!” one twin shouted in defiance.
“You ain’t the boss around here!” the other bellowed.
The punk, instead of adding an insult, decided to go with a threat. He grabbed Bethany by her hair and put something cold and sharp against her exposed throat. “Let us go with the girl,” he then shakily ordered the robot, “o-or this place gets a new coat of paint!”
“YOU HAVE CHOSEN INCAPACITATION.” The robot’s feet pressed down even harder on the house floor. “DISPENSING TASER DARTS.”
Small plates opened on the robot’s shoulders and upper arms. Red laser lights emerged from some of those plates and locked onto each of the four aggressors’ bodies. The corporate man leaped to one side just before several small hisses came from the robot’s arms. Several darts shot out, slamming into the bodies of the twins before they got out of the way.
Both girls screamed as the darts unleashed their stored electrical energy into their bodies. They fell to the ground, twitching and dropping their weapons before ever using them. The punk looked at the pair with rapidly widening eyes and sinking comprehension.
The corporate man darted around the robot, trying to get at its backside with his knife, maybe cut into a weak spot and sever some wires or cause a short-circuit. The robot turned faster than he anticipated, able to keep up and grab his weapon-wielding arm. A sharp squeeze made the man cried out as he felt the bones in his arm tearing out of place, and then he screamed as the robot’s hand ripped his own metal limb off his body.
The robot appeared confused as to what had happened at first, not moving to attack any further. Eventually it stated to the now one-armed man, “YOU WILL BE RECOMPENSATED FOR THIS DAMAGE WHEN PARAMEDICS ARRVIVE.”
“Mother of God!” the man screamed as he clutched the stump of whatever pieces of the arm he had left. “Drop my arm, you damn machine!”
The robot complied by tossing the arm backwards so its previous owner could not get at it. The corporate man’s composure became useless against the raw pain he was experiencing. Blood did not leak out of the hole his remaining hand tried to cover, but he was clearly unable to do any more harm for the moment.
“Damn it!” The punk leader thrust a hand into his pocket and pulled out a small, cylindrical metal object. “Take this, you tin can!” he yelled as he popped a pin at the top of the object and wildly threw it at the robot.
Bethany sucked in a breath when she saw the object bounce off the robot’s side while it turned back to face her and the punk. More of those darts came, and the punk crumpled as thousands of volts made him lose his sense of balance. None of the darts hit Bethany, despite how close the punk was to her bound position.
The spherical object rolled underneath Bethany’s chair. She screamed as her world exploded into red and white light a few moments later.
The operation went as expected. That was what he wanted to say, but that ideal image collapsed with the distinctive crack of a grenade going off.
“Son of a…!” A man cut off his own vocal objection to what he had just seen on the VR screen before he voiced anything profane. The feedback gloves over his hands and fingers sent tingles along his nerves, artificially responding to triggers from the robotic unit halfway across Summer Sun City from him. While he could not feel everything the robot did, he knew enough of combat situations to replicate the sensations in his head.
The punk had thrown a grenade, a final effort to cause some damage. The girl he had used as a hostage was lying prone, the chair she had been strapped to blown to bits by the grenade’s detonation. It didn’t take a paramedic to recognize she was burned and had splinters and shrapnel scarring her legs, thighs, and rear end.
A few twitches of the man’s fingers directed the robot’s scanners to bring up information on each of the people around it. The punk, two gangster girls, and the corporate man were all analyzed in moments, criminal records created or referred to for the arresting team. The bystander’s records came next, revealing her identity and lack of criminal standing.
Standing straight, the man briefly oriented himself to look outside of the headset and take in his actual location. He stood in a small room with wires and electronics all outside his immediate reach. His feet were locked into plates that connected to servos and levers. Those were wirelessly linked to the robot’s own feet through linking software, connecting his motions to the machines. The same thing was with the gloves over his hands and arms, and the headset and visor covering his ears and eyes. Altogether, the electronic equipment connected him as close to completely with the robot as he could handle.
A robot could not replicate human feelings, however. Right then, the man was feeling intense worry because he had caused a causality on the job. That would end his career, and possibly even his life.
The man said the word, “Dispatch,” into a microphone connected to his headset. This triggered the robot’s wireless connections antennae to send a voice chat link to the city’s Police Force’s Dispatch Office. The call was quickly opened, and he gave his message.
“This is Pilot Dillon of Remote Chassis Oh-Seven. The kidnapping situation has escalated into a pursuit situation.” The pilot took a breath, shivering inside his form-fitting bodysuit that the VR equipment fit over like smooth gloves. “Paramedics are required at the chassis’ current address to tend to four incapacitated suspects and one injured hostage. The hostage is named Bethany Wilko according to her city records.”
A woman’s voice, mixed with synthesizing elements designed to mask the exact frequency of her voice, answered back in seconds. “Confirmed, Pilot Dillon. Paramedics will be on route shortly, along with a capture team for the criminals. Anything else to report?”
The pilot turned in place, willing the robot to turn with him. The corporate man was gone when he looked back there through the robot’s photoreceptors. Spinning himself around, the VR equipment strained to keep up with his natural movements. “One of the targeted criminals is escaping,” he told the dispatcher, “It’s a man in a corporate uniform and formerly wielding a cybernetic arm and serrated knife. Both the arm and knife have been removed from him.”
“Confirmed,” said the Dispatch officer. “The capture team will be informed on the way there. Anything else?”
The pilot turned himself and the robot back around to the initial scene. The weapon-wielding girls and punk were no longer moving; the electrical shocks had rendered them unconscious. It was the bystander, Bethany, which had him more concerned. He leaned the chassis forward, and the machine’s cameras automatically centered on her injuries.
Visual information flashed on the helmet’s display, which Dillon reported to the dispatcher. “The kidnapping victim has been injured in the thighs and lower body. Collateral damage from a grenade used by the criminal’s leader, with intention to damage the chassis.”
“Confirmed. Paramedics will be—” The Dispatch officer stopped talking, and then gave a brief, “Hold on,” before she fell silent again. The man shut his lips tight, waiting for an explanation and not willing to take any risks in this situation.
“Pilot Dillon,” the dispatcher said a moment later, “Commander Markus is connecting to our line. I’ll put him through; he’ll act as Dispatch for the remainder of your call.”
The pilot did not get the chance to object before the call’s channel was changed. A quiet man’s voice came into the pilot’s headset next, the voice of Commander Markus, a leading officer in the police force.
“Pilot, I have reviewed your chassis’ optic feed since the interception of the kidnapping. These injuries are serious. Paramedics may not be fast enough to save the girl.”
Dillon gulped. Internal damage, most likely. This could leave Bethany crippled for life, or even dead. “What do you suggest, Commander?” Dillon asked.
“Use the chassis’ Immersion System on Bethany Wilko.”
Dillon flinched; the officer’s words had weight despite him not being anywhere near him. “Commander, that’s still--”
“In prototype stage, I know. Remember, we are supposed to save as many innocents as possible in our duty. Activate it, Pilot.”
“Yes, Commander.” He would not disobey an order from higher officers. They knew what they were doing to keep the city and its people safer.
Commander Markus disconnected the call. Dillon took a moment to get his bearings, and then began entering in the codes to activate the “Immersion” system, using his glove’s connecting circuitry to access a virtual keyboard he saw through his visor. All he knew about the system was that it was intended to help injured or violent people remain calm and stable until further aid could be provided. How that was all provided, he had no clue.
Dillon hoped he would not have to report a mechanical or electrical failure alongside a casualty after this operation was finished.
Bethany felt cold. The world didn’t sound right. It didn’t feel right. Her brain tried to figure things out, rationalize it all. She remembered being held down, being hurt, and a burst of fire and noise.
Something picked her up; she could tell that much through the fog in her head. She wearily opened her eyelids and saw something blue standing over her. The blue was around something large and black, like some kind of gaping maw.
Bethany shut her eyes again. She remembered the pain through the fire and noise. Pain she was now feeling again as whatever was holding her up drew her into the dark space. She could not move or resist. She could barely understand what was going on anymore.
Bethany’s sense of direction changed as her body spun around while staying upright. Unknown to her, she was made to face outward with her charred back and legs and rear in front of the robot chassis. The robot’s arms then pulled Bethany into the open space, carefully pressing her inside so her limp body curled up into a fetal position.
The space closed. Bethany only realized the change once the cold around her was gone. This new space was filled with walls that felt warm. Thick. Wet. It was comforting, in a strange sense.
Then the walls started to move around her, letting things come towards her that she couldn’t see. Something was pressed over her eyes, digging into her skin. It sent bursts of light into her retinas. The bursts translated into letters and words she understood as she saw them.
[Please remain calm]
[You are safe here]
That made sense. Bethany was surrounded by warmth and slow motions. She heard quiet beats as something soft covered her ears. Outside this space was coldness, pain, fire, and noise. Nothing she liked to feel.
The words continued, not blocked by Bethany’s closed eyes.
[You are safe]
[Please remain calm]
Calm. Bethany’s thoughts became single words, easy to repeat. Safe. I… am… Where am I?
[You are safe]
Bethany felt her mouth and nose be covered by another warm thing. A sweet liquid entered her mouth, in between pumped bursts of air. She coughed once before swallowing the liquid. Then she breathed in air and coughed again.
She regained some clarity. The liquid energized her, just a little bit. She understood she was breathing, drinking, and resting. Safe things.
Safe. Yes. I am… safe.
The words continued their repetition while Bethany breathed in and out between bursts of the liquid. Bethany repeated them in her head, following them in docility.
[You are safe]
I am safe.
[You are safe]
I am safe.
[You are safe]
[You are calm]
I am safe. I am calm.
[You are calm]
[You are safe]
I am calm. I am—Ouch!
Something sharp stabbed through the back of Bethany’s neck. A needle wriggled around her spinal cord, Bethany’s nerves transmitting every sensation to her clogged brain. She felt this was not right. She woke up even more.
Ow! OW! That hurts! What’s happening?
She remembered this pain, or something just like it. A black object had caused that pain. The black object tossed by that punk. It had rolled beneath the chair she had been tied to. And it had blown up beneath her…
The needle twisted. Bethany’s body scrunched up automatically, reacting as certain nerves fired off with pain. A numbing serum was injected into her bloodstream, and she felt its effects near-instantaneously. But it did not fully stop the pain her mind amplified to make real.
MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP!
Bethany’s reactions triggered new words to form in front of her eyes; the machine was reacting to her motions with further sedation.
[Do not think violent thoughts] [You are safe here]
I am not safe! Let me GO!
[You are safe] [Do not be angry]
No! Help me! SOMEONE HELP ME!
The message cut off mid-sentence. Bethany screamed into the device placed over her mouth while thrusting and twisting against the warm walls of her prison. But her walls moved with her. The pictures in her eyes shifted in time with the turns of her head. The world was filled once again with light and noise: the world she had just been in herself. Now she was locked out of that world, being numbed to everything around and inside her.
Bethany spat out a mouthful of the sweet liquid as soon as she tasted it. That only served to clog up her nostrils with the stuff, overwhelming her with a flavor-laced scent and driving her past the threshold of terror. She screamed again, with no one else to hear her.
Everything was going black. It was getting hard to move, to think, as her body turned numb from the inside. Her terror wore down until it sank beneath an inexorable tide of blankness. She felt her heart beating slower and slower, against what little wishes she could still conjure against falling asleep.
[WARNING] [SUBJECT’S HEART RATE DROPPING RAPIDLY]
Pilot Dillon felt himself start to sweat beneath his clothes. He had never encountered this situation before, but he knew something was going very, very wrong.
The display he saw in his visor showed Bethany’s body held inside the chassis; the “Immersion” system had worked properly with that. Glowing lines marked wires that were connecting Bethany to the chassis’ medical systems. The system was trying to keep her sedated, and it had done its job too well.
Bethany was being forced into a coma by the machine’s injected chemicals. She was going to die inside that chassis.
No, no! This girl would not die while Dillon could help! He still controlled this chassis through his equipment, and he would use it to help as best he could. He flicked his fingers wildly, different display screens flooding past him as he tried to find something that would—
[PRIORITY COMMAND AUTHORIZED] [ADMINISTERING ELECTRICAL DISCHARGE]
The image of Bethany’s body flashed white as simulated lightning danced across the visor’s screen. Dillon felt simulated responses in his gloves, pain racing up his nerves and freezing him for a few seconds. His brain continued to process the situation, and he realized his motions had triggered some response at random. Some programmed command he had not known about.
[VITAL SIGNS STABLIZING]
Dillon risked a breath of relief: the girl would survive.
[HEART RATE RISING] [SUBJECT’S BRAIN ACTIVITY EXPONENTIALLY INCREASING]
Dillon didn’t take a second breath. A short gesture from his fingers—a gesture he knew the implications of—brought up a projection of the robot’s installed cameras, showing what was in front of the chassis. The three criminals were still there, but the fourth, the corporate man, was gone.
“Oh, no.” Quickly, Dillon opened a communication link to his superior office. “Commander Wilkin, this is Pilot Dillon of Remote Chassis Oh-Seven. I have lost my remote connection to Chassis Oh-Seven, but it is still active.”
“When did this loss occur?” asked the commander.
[BRAINWAVE ACTIVITY IN FRONTAL LOBES INCREASED 102% ABOVE NORMAL LEVELS]
“It was after the chassis activated its prototype Immersion System.” Dillon double-checked the readings he saw in his visor; he was amazed Bethany was still alive and thinking. Overthinking, in fact. “I can still get a reading on Bethany Wilko’s vitals. The chassis has given her an electric shock to… well, to wake her back up from its own sedatives.”
[ALERT] [MOTION CONTROL DISABLED]
Dillon bit back a gasp as the display of Bethany’s vitals changed rapidly. There were more wires showing than before, a sign the machine had done something to her. When Bethany next moved inside the chassis, the machine jerked along with her. When she tried to move her arm from inside, the matching arm moved as well with a few milliseconds’ delay.
The more Bethany tried to move about, the more the machine seemed to let her do so. Dillon watched, not wanting to trip anything else up, as Bethany’s human legs slowly extended outward, letting more wires be thrust into them. Bethany wobbled to the left, and then the right; the chassis lurched in the same direction each time, as if it was a child just learning how to walk.
“Holy shit,” Dillon whispered, “she’s controlling it with her mind!” On the other hand, was this the chassis guiding her? Had the girl and the machine become that deeply connected?
After making the chassis nearly fall on all fours, Bethany managed to turn the chassis around and wobble out of the newly expanded doorway of the house. Dillon looked at the robot’s camera feed just in time to catch a green jeep with a reinforced exterior barreling towards the robot.
“Shit!” he cursed.
The robot’s cameras magnified the image, split-second timing showing the wide-eyed and rage-filled face of the one-armed corporate man behind the wheel. He looked shocked, as if he hadn’t expected the robot to get in his path just then. A crash was inevitable.
When Bethany saw the jeep coming at her, she did not see it as a jeep specifically. Her brain, just starting to recover from an electrical shock and a barrage of chemicals, saw the vehicle as an immediate danger. A threat to her life.
She raised her hands in front of her face. The chassis’ hands moved in front of her spherical chamber just before the jeep rammed into those hands with a loud crunching sound. The chassis slid backwards on the ground, kicking up dirt and dust, until it bumped against the solid wall of another house.
The vehicle’s engine revved wildly, pushing the chassis further against the wall. Bethany heard the engine’s roar come through whatever was covering her ears. She could feel her new feet and back pressed against the wall behind her. The wall was not giving way to the body she was trapped inside—a body that was feeling more like her own now than before.
She had nowhere else to go. The jeep would crush her in moments.
This frightened her. Fear mixed with her pain, breaking through more of the numbness from before. Unbeknownst to her, her panic triggered a hormonal response in her brain, specifically the amygdala. The choice of fight or flight flashed in the parts of her head not drugged into submission.
She could not run, not even inside this giant metal body. The only choice left, then, was to fight.
Bethany gurgled through the pumps of liquid as, behind the visor, her eyes bugged out and her mouth opened to mimic a wild cry. She thrust herself forward, and the chassis moved with her. Through her new eyes, the “eyes” of this machine, she saw the man behind the wheel of this jeep.
She remembered that man, the corporate man with a metal arm and a sharp knife. Now, he had a jeep that could kill people. She would be the first victim.
No! I will not die here!
Bethany’s hands squeezed on whatever part of the car they held. Those parts of the jeep crunched beneath her touch. Panicking, the man swerved the jeep to the right with his one hand. Bethany’s grip on the vehicle was broken, and the jeep sprung free only to spin out and crash against the side of another building.
The man inside the jeep did not move. Bethany looked at the vehicle and its driver, remembering more about this man. The people he had been with. What they had done to her.
“We get our money, and you get to go home.”
“Don’t try to be funny. Or silly.”
“When we get angry, we get hungry. Maybe hungry enough to see how sweet your folks are along with you…”
Her parents were going to get hurt next. This man was going to do it.
I must save my parents. I must protect them.
She felt good thinking that. She felt right thinking that. It felt right to protect people she cared about. It made her feel safe.
However, her parents were not safe. Not until the criminal was caught.
The man woke up. The jeep’s engine roared as he tried to make it go. It was about to move; the man, the criminal, was going to get away.
I will stop him. Bethany’s heart thudded faster in her chest, fear changing into anger at the man and all he had done. Her vision tunneled down to the man and his vehicle, the only things that mattered to her anymore.
I must stop him. She gurgled and growled, breathing fast and gulping down more of the liquid like it was her lifeblood. Her limbs flexed, and the robot’s limbs followed her directions. It was her body. She could use this body to stop this evil man.
Stop the criminal! STOP THE CRIMINAL!
Bethany charged straight forward, aiming for the jeep. The vehicle shot away from her, leaving a trail of burnt rubber as its tires squealed against the ground. Bethany turned her robotic body and began chasing it.
Pilot Dillon could not believe what he was seeing. Well, he couldn’t really see it anymore, the feed had been cut off shortly after Bethany had seized control of the chassis. Dillon’s view was reduced to a radar screen showing the chassis as a red circle amongst white circles and squares representing the surrounding Summer Sun City streets and its occupants.
Bethany had taken complete motor control of the chassis; Dillon’s equipment couldn’t get him access again, forcing him to take different options to keep updated with Bethany and the escaped criminal’s progress.
Bethany was using the chassis as a tool, Dillon reasoned, controlling it as a pilot would. But she was driven by raw emotion instead of training and discipline. In her pursuit of a criminal, her actions had some level of justification. It barely held a candle when put against the collateral damage and disruption to the city’s normal routine, though.
“This is crazy.” Dillon muttered this repeatedly as he stood alone in his piloting chamber. In the solitary space of his control room, he felt the disconnection to the robot shell he piloted. It was as if he was exposed, naked without his second skin of metal and connecting wires.
Bethany had control now. How was she feeling about it? Was she even sane anymore?
A ringing noise came inside his headset; he was getting a call. He opened a channel, remaining quiet so the person on the line could speak.
“Pilot Dillon.” It was Commander Markus. “It is clear your chassis has gone rogue and is pursuing a criminal for its own intentions. This has become a top priority issue. We will inform all available units of the development. You will join a Special Forces team to pursue and evaluate the chassis’ actions. We will recover the patient and the chassis if possible.”
“Affirmative, Commander,” replied the pilot. “Pilot out.”
Dillon disconnected the call and looked back to the radar screen. The robot had moved onto a bridged section of highway in pursuit of its target. All the white blips—vehicles on the road, for sure—got out of Bethany’s way as she stormed past. It was clear she wasn’t stopping for anything less than the criminal’s capture.
He shivered. If he felt like this, then what was Bethany feeling being “immersed” inside untested technology? Would she kill the man, or just restrain him? Would the man try to destroy the chassis and Bethany to save his own skin?
Dillon reached up to his eyes and pulled off the visor. He peeled off the VR gloves as quickly as he could without risking any damage to the equipment. As he stepped out of the marked spaces for his feet, he knew he had to get moving. He swallowed a lump in his throat, rubbed his eyes to clear away a few spots, and strode out of the small room as the door opened automatically for him.
When Bethany stopped moving, Dillon wanted to be there. He had little hope that both the girl and the chassis would come out of this unscathed.
The chase ended on a stretch of highway outside the densest parts of the city. Special Forces soldiers led by Commander Markus rushed to the scene via a police chopper. At the same time, a squadron of police cars and a pair of ambulances weaved through the growing crowd of slowed civilian cars and pedestrians, sirens turned up to maximum volume.
The scene looked like a disaster zone. The criminal’s jeep appeared partially totaled, the front half crumpled like an accordion. The rear remained mostly undamaged, the tires worn thin from excessive use. Oil pooled around the vehicle, prompting observers to keep a safe distance in case a rogue spark decided to ignite the whole thing.
Several meters from the jeep, near the highway’s divider wall, were two objects of interest. The rogue chassis, Oh-Seven, was one of them; the other was the one-armed man it had been chasing. The man lay unconscious, bleeding from a long gash down his side. Chassis Oh-Seven stood over him, its metal fists coated in some of the jeep’s machine oil and lubricant.
The steady whup-whup-whup of helicopter blades reached the pedestrian’s ears first. As a blue and gold-painted police chopper flew low above the highway, many of the people watching dropped to the ground or dove back into their vehicles. A squad of five Special Forces soldiers wearing black body armor, and reinforced clothing beneath that, leaped from the open side hatch the moment a drop zone appeared. They landed hard, but their extra clothing and body armor cushioned the impact to minimize the damage.
The soldiers readied their rifles, tactical-grade weapons armed with armor-piercing rounds. The chassis did not react to their arrival or their rifles. Each soldier in the squad wore goggles with darkened lenses beneath their helmets, helping them better focus their sights as a few took kneeling positions and others remained standing.
The police sirens grew louder as several seconds passed by, neither the soldiers nor the chassis making any sudden movements. Then the chopper came to a stop above them all, hovering close to the ground and creating buffeting winds across both ends of the highway. By this point, traffic on the highway had come to a standstill for obvious reasons.
Just inside the chopper’s cockpit, Pilot Dillon and Commander Markus sat buckled into small seats behind the pilot and copilot’s seats. Both men wore headsets with microphones as they looked grimly at the machine, standing over the criminal like a dog watching its master. From an even grimmer perspective, the machine looked like a lion standing over its kill until it could eat it in peace.
Upon seeing a signal from the copilot, Commander Markus pressed a button on the side of his headset and brought the microphone to his mouth. “Chassis Oh-Seven!” he shouted into the microphone, and his words were amplified by a connected vocoder from the machine’s hull angled towards the ground. The machine turned to face the chopper, moving with jerky steps.
Commander Markus looked straight at the chassis as he addressed it. “Chassis Oh-Seven, your pursuit and subduing of this registered criminal have been noted by the Summer Sun City police force. The force thanks you for your efforts to prevent this felon from escaping custody.”
Chassis Oh-Seven said nothing, even as the winds from the chopper’s blades tried and failed to push it down to the ground.
“To the rogue pilot inside the chassis,” the commander continued, “you are ordered to disable your connection to the chassis’ systems. You are using law enforcement property without permission, and which must be repaired from your actions. If you cannot disconnect voluntarily, remain within the chassis until we secure this area and disassemble the machine. Resistance will be treated as aggression and will result in your termination.”
The soldiers steadied themselves, tapping their goggles to make sure a recording function in the eyewear was on. Every moment of this incident was being collected for later analysis; iron-clad proof that what was happening was legitimate. Each soldier stood ready to press the triggers of their guns at the slightest provocation or sign of danger.
The police and ambulance sirens grew even louder, the lights on those vehicles growing visible to anyone on the highway who wanted to look that way. The bystanders remained in their own vehicles, intimidated by the presence of the military. They became silent witnesses to what happened next.
The chassis turned to face the helicopter. Pilot Dillon bit his lip and gripped the sides of his seat. He knew where the cameras were on the robot; Bethany was using them to look at him as he would. It was creepy to be on the receiving end of that stare.
The metal sphere that made the chassis’ “chest” began to open, plates extending out and up in sequence. The helicopter flew up several meters as the soldiers kept their eyes peeled, watching for the person inside to make a move. As the helicopter got further away, the soldiers were able to hear low, heavy breathing, along with rhythmic clicking, from inside the chest cavity. As the chest’s plates fully extended out, a clear fluid gushed from inside the chassis to the ground like water inside a balloon.
The soldiers did not break their composure, although two of them flinched. The breathing sounds grew louder and slower. When Bethany’s body appeared, each soldier felt bile rise from their stomach. Nevertheless, the one nearest the chassis tapped their goggles to magnify their cameras at the human pilot.
Bethany Wilko looked more alien than human. Her hair was hidden beneath a thick pad, like an ice pack over a large burn. The rest of her body was covered in more of that clear, viscous fluid, giving her skin and what remained of her clothes a reflective sheen. She had multiple wires on each limb, punctured and pierced like a pincushion. The wires dug into nerve endings and ligaments through sucker-like insertion points. Her sensory organs–eyes, ears, nose, and mouth—were all covered by machinery mimicking the official pilot’s devices.
Exposed to the public eye, these devices appeared nightmarish. A curved VR visor that glowed a deep blue covered her eyes. A black rebreather, made of the same material as the pad over her hair, was over her nose and mouth. Her ears were cradled and hidden beneath a pair of black, metallic pods like the buds of a headphone. Wires extended from each device into the chassis, connecting them to the greater machine.
Even with the “immersion” broken, the devices continued to work. They took and gave unseen but necessary substances to keep Bethany conscious. Her breathing was broken by periodic gulping noises, her body tensing and then relaxing again with each gulp. The soldiers took a few steps forward, their rifles still aimed at Bethany’s form.
Bethany coughed into her rebreather. Then the wires began disconnecting one by one. Each one made an audible popping sound as they came free. When one part of her body was free it immediately dropped as far to the ground as gravity could naturally pull it. When one of Bethany’s arms dropped limp, the soldiers caught sight of several coagulated holes in that limb where wires had just been injected.
The visor, hair pad, and rebreather were the last things to disconnect. Once they did, Bethany dropped the few feet to the ground. She landed in the small pool of the fluids below the chassis with a quiet splash. The soldiers quickly made their way towards Bethany, some turning their focus on either the chassis or the unconscious criminal. Others moved to pick the girl up and carry her away from the now-immobile robotic shell.
The soldiers who scooped Bethany off the ground and rushed her to the nearest ambulance shivered when they saw Bethany up close. What was strangest to them was the blissful smile on her unconscious face.