FICTION: The Great Machine

FOREWORD: I submitted this piece to a submission call, but it got rejected, so here it is. My blog needed updates anyway.

#

Sol was poring over the building plans when the front door flung open. He traced his fingers along floor 48.

“Babe, close the door,” Sol said. “The smog’s getting in.” When no reply came, he looked up to find a tear-stricken Jenn.

“What’s wrong?”

“They did it,” she said between sobs. “They s-stuck me like a pig.”

“What?”

“I said I d-didn’t want it, but they threatened me with confinement. A-and they did this.” Jenn stretched out her forearm, a glow pulsating under the skin. “T-they said it was to increase productivity.”

Sol had dreaded this day ever since the incident with his parents. He tried to keep his voice level. “It’s okay babe, it’s just the basic monitors. We can do something about it. I know someone that—“

“It’s no use. They’ve tamper-proofed it.” Jenn lifted her hair to show the micro-sutures on her neck. “There’s no way to getting around it without turning me into a v-vegetable.”

Sol studied her modifications, his lips pressed into a thin line. “We’ll find a way, babe” he said. “We will.”

That night, Sol rumpled the sheets from tossing in bed. He couldn’t find it in him to hug Jenn to sleep. Memories of his mother came flooding back. She had volunteered for the augmentation programme to advance her standing in the company. Slowly, she began adding parts, each procedure chipping away a part of her soul.

He recalled the arguments his parents had, and what his father did in the end. Sol looked at Jenn’s chest rising and falling in her slumber.

“We’ll never end up like that,” he whispered.

#

“We gotta speed this up,” Sol murmured over the soldering workbench.

“Where can? Stick to the plan lah,” Kit said.

“Screw the plan. They augmented Jenn.”

“Shit. Sorry to hear that. Is it bad?”

”Just a hand monitor and a spinal tripwire. I’ll need you to ask Jason if he can do something about it.”

“Sure, but the plan, cannot wait ah? Are you doing this for personal reasons now?”

“It doesn’t matter why I’m doing it as long as it happens. Just help me speed things up. Skip extended hours if you have to.”

“No way, bro. They’ll put me in confinement if I don’t show up.”

“Just do something. Please.”

Men rode the boom of technology. They did not, however, take into account what would happen when it passed its tipping point. Technology got so cheap that just about anybody had the ability to craft electronic weapons, and when alternative fuel became a feasible reality, factions started settling their differences through homing IEDs.

Major corporations got hit as well. Computer policing couldn’t keep up with the internet underground, and pretty soon, hackers made everything accessible online. Financial records, personal information, you name it. As long as it was connected to the internet, it was free for all.

Corporations started fighting back, physically. China started the first huge push for anti-personnel robotics, and the world soon followed suit. Mass raids and destroying of electronics slowly phased out its availability to the public. The common people would be left scavenging for survival. Those who succumbed found their way into the ranks of the remaining corporations.

When all was said and done, the victors took the reins and created a world of monopoly. In Malaysia, one such group was the Malaya Corp, named after the homeland’s separation from the east coast. As an employee for the corporation, Sol carried privileges that were otherwise unattainable. They included having a shack—equipped with air purifiers—for a home, and being able to roam about with less harassment from the authorities.

Of course, he had corporate responsibilities to bear as well. That meant putting in  extra hours over his seventy-hour work week, just so he didn’t get labelled as unproductive.

This little autonomy was the exact loophole that Sol wanted to exploit. He wanted to show the world that major corporations were prone to bleeding too. If this plan worked, perhaps he could spark a rebellion to take back what has been lost—their freedom.

“Just chill bro,” Kit’s voice snapped Sol back to reality. “I’ll handle it. You know I always got your back right?”

“Yeah.” Sol smiled. If there was anyone he trusted with his life, it’d have to be Kit.

#

Sol’s heels kept bouncing on the pavement as he looked at his watch. The minute hand seemed to move faster than he wanted it to. Seven more minutes before his floor manager would raise questions about his extra-long cigarette break. As he stubbed his third cigarette on the wall, he saw Kit’s head stick out the corridor, beckoning him to go in.

Sol scampered into the tunnel. “You got it?”

“Yeah. Later you take exit seven to go home. Eight o’clock. Don’t go early, don’t go late.” He handed Sol a gadget as big as his forearm. It was the particle-accelerator Kit was telling him about. He knew someone from tech—well, Kit knew everyone—that had access to it. Its material made it invisible to scanners, making it more practical than the knife. The only problem was its cumbersome stature.

Sol stuck it in the back of his pants, hidden by his oversized jacket. Sweat drenched through his extra layers, but that was the only idea he could come up with. Bags weren’t allowed at work.

“I can only get you out of here, but after that, you take care of yourself,” Kit said. “Don’t test power, even at home. It’s loud. Later you attract attention for nothing. You studied the floor plans?”

Sol nodded.

“Use this key card for access… It’s a one way trip bro. Once you reach floor forty-eight, you got limited time before everyone notice you. You sure you want to do this ah?”

“Yeah. Hey, thank you. I owe you one.”

Kit gave Sol a long embrace before Sol waddled back to his workstation. He hoped that nobody would brush up against him and notice the extra bulk in his back. He spent the day standing straighter than usual, that by the time his shift was up, his back felt as though it was cemented in place.

After clocking out, Sol filed in with the rest of the crew to be searched. When he arrived at the gate, Sol’s hands were a trembling mess of sweat. If this guard was the insider Kit arranged for, he didn’t show any sign of being one. He waved his metal hand over Sol while checking the display on his goggles. Most guards had augmentations done, and this one was two procedures away from having a full exoskeleton. Before Sol knew what was happening, he was pinned against the wall by the exact hydraulic arms that scanned him earlier.

Bukak kaki. Tangan atas.” The guard tapped precisely on the piece.

He knows I’m packing. There was a mix-up. This isn’t the guy. Sol’s heart sank as he remembered how they threw his father into a four feet square cell just for threatening Malaya Corp’s asset—Sol’s mother. He thought about not seeing Jenn ever again and it stung.

You tau, kalau I nak bunuh you skarang, berapa senang?

“I-I don’t speak Malay,” Sol said, and it was true. Education didn’t exist anymore, and a child’s knowledge consisted of what a parent had to pass down. Technical know-how came on the job, which was so specialised that employees wouldn’t be able to find a job elsewhere. Sol’s parents spoke English, but he understood a smidgeon of Malay to know that bunuh meant kill.

Memang tak guna orang macam you. Baik kau mati je,” and the guard swung a mechanised boot at Sol, shooing him off.

Sol stumbled away and sped off, not allowing himself time to breathe until he reached the KTM station. He wasn’t sure if it was paranoia, but every pair of eyes that found his looked suspicious, and Sol couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.
He gave security mechs a wide berth, and kept to himself at the corner of the train. It zoomed past the shanties built beside the tracks, with children running amongst them. The air in the train was purified, but out there, the children were fated to a toxic cocktail for the rest of their short lives.

Soon, I’ll show them that they can escape this life, Sol thought, as he ran his fingers on the small of his back.

#

Sol looked up at the fifty-story building that was Malaya Corp. The time has come. The hardest thing was leaving without saying goodbye to Jenn, but she had extended hours to attend to. There was no backing down anyway, now that the wheels have been set in motion. He walked into Malaya Corp and flashed his card.

“Welcome, employee number three-four-two-three-three. Please step into the booth for flash examination.”

Sol stepped in, ready for martyrdom should the need arise.

“Complete. Have a nice day.”

He walked into the elevator and pressed 48. Breathing was hard and came in shorter spurts, with adrenaline threatening to take over. Sol touched his back for reassurance. He had studied the blueprints leading to this day, so when the doors opened to floor 48, Sol knew exactly how to navigate the maze in the least amount of time.

A brisk walk transitioned into a run when the mechs began noticing his path. Sol barely reached the door labelled ‘CEO’ before the alarm sounded. Pumped from a mixture of aggression and fear, he scanned his card and shoved the door open.

“Ah, Sol. I was expecting—“

The door bounced so hard that it flew back shut, as Sol rammed Dagney into the wall and stuck the gun under his chin.

“How do you know my name?” Sol expected to see fear, but instead, all he got from the CEO was a smirk.

“Very good, Sol. You show drive, I’ll give you that.”

“Shut up. How do you know my name?”

“Surely, you’d think we’d have a retinal scan before you even made it past the lobby? But that’s not the point. We’ve known about you for some time now. If you’d just give me a second to explain—“

Sol shook Dagney’s collar. “You’ve got nothing of interest to me, pig.”

“Even if it meant that Jenn set you up?” His grin turned up at the corners. “Do you really think Jenn works during her extended hours? She’s just sniffing out other potential insurgents. Like you.”

Lies.

Mechs burst through the door and advanced on Sol, but Dagney waved them off. “Whatever we did to your loved ones was strictly business. It was nothing personal, really. Which is why I’m offering you a choice.”

Sol hesitated, so Dagney went on.

“We also know about your little… party. Rest assured, your play at guerilla warfare is futile. Help us stamp out the resistance however, and we’ll make sure you’ll be adequately compensated. I’d take this chance if I were you. After all, you aren’t the first kid to pull off a stunt like this, and will definitely not be the last.”

“If you know so much, why don’t you kill us all then? Why bother with my help?”

Dagney tutted, “Such a basic mindset, I wonder how you got on our naughty list in the first place. Let’s just say that we’re looking for more… holistic methods of control. What we did to your father was brutish, to be sure.”

Sol recalled how they dragged his father out of the house, not before he carved out his mother’s heart, the only humanity she had left.

“Not as brutish as this.” Sol pulled the trigger and closed his eyes, expecting a spray of gore. Nothing happened. Sol pressed it again, and again. It can’t be. Did I spoil the gun? Am I handling it correctly?

Dagney clenched his jaw. “Bad decision, Sol, but I’m willing to overlook that. Take it as your final offer, if you will. Give us your friends, whichever ones you think you have, because we know for a fact that Jenn and Kit aren’t.”

No, it couldn’t be. They wouldn’t.

“Do you really think it’s that easy to get a gun unnoticed, Sol? You think we haven’t thought of that? You think you can change the world? You? Open your eyes, Sol. Even if you get out of here alive, you have no one to go back to. You don’t understand. We own you. We control everything.”

No one to go back to. Sol felt his world crumble.

Now, all that we ask is for you to point these… terrorists out, and we’ll do the rest,” Dagney said.

“Never,” Sol said, but his resolute wore thin. He thought about everyone he ever trusted. Were they all in on it too?

Dagney reached out for the gun, and Sol gripped it harder at first, then let go. “That’s it. Just cooperate, and you’ll be back with your friends soon enough. I know it’s a lot to take in, but we’ll make it worth your while. You won’t have to work extended hours anymore, for starters.”

Sol barely remembered following Dagney into processing, and having a mod inserted into his arm. He did, however, remember being compliant. He didn’t know how much time had passed since processing, but it was a montage of events before he found himself being escorted by Dagney out the lobby.

“I knew you showed drive. Here,” he handed the gun to Sol. “A token for your troubles.”

#

Sol opened the door to his house and saw Jenn seated at the table. When she saw the glow in his forearm, she nodded and smiled.

That night, Sol cried himself to sleep, not because he was about to betray what he stood for, but because he realised that he was now closer to his real friends, even if that meant playing the bad guy.

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