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Never Again

© 1999-2003 Draconus and Stratadrake of TWZ

Chapter Five: The Phoenix, Mk 2

(rough draft)

"Commander!" voiced Reed across the intercom. "Commander James!"

James shook his head and tried to ignore the call. The clock read a quarter to midnight and James's arm was aching from his duel with Mark. James wanted to get some sleep, yet something kept him wide awake.

Reed insisted. "Commander, pick up the link!"

No, James said to himself. Not tonight. Whatever it is, it can wait until morning.

"Jim!!" Reed nearly shouted across the link.

That's it. James, miffed, picked up the link and responded. "Dr. Reed Alexander, I've told you several times before, do not call me by that name; it's commander James to you! Now, what do you want!?"

There was a satisfying minute of silence heard from Reed's end.

" . . . . my apologies, Commander -- this is important."

James shook his head again. "Reed, out of the last five times you'vecalled me in the middle of the night, only one was actually important. The others could have waited. Now what is so important that you have to call me late at night like this?"

"It's about the metasoldier. --I suppose it could wait until morning -- but! I thought you'd like to be the first one to hear it speak."

James paused to decide what he should do. "You fixed the voice systems on it?"

"Right. --well, not exactly. I thought there was a malfunction in it preventing its use of voice communication. But the latest analyses said otherwise. There's nothing wrong with the voice codec. Nothing at all. Technically, the soldier could speak. But why it didn't say a single word all day . . . since there's nothing wrong with its systems, I might say it simply --"

"Reed," James interrupted, "get to the point."

"Well -- this was so simple -- after coming up empty on my analyses, I just vented, 'Why don't you speak?'. That's when it happens--"

"Reed?" James repeated.

"Okay, okay. The meta soldier wants to speak to you. Specifically, it said, 'I want to speak with Jim.' "

"What!?" James asked, shocked at the use of his nick, the name which he permited only family and close friends to call him.

"Correct. Those were its exact words."

James blinked a few times, as if to make sure he was really awake and Reed was really saying that. Then he realized why. Not counting his rude early-morning awakening by Reed, James was the only member of the command circle to not interact with the prototype that day. Mark and Reed had dictated what sort of activities the prototype was involved in: target practice, duelling, simulations, even a game of chess. In a way, James was the only person not to "see" the prototype.

James nodded. "Fine then. I'll be right down. Where are you?"

"I'm in my lab. See you then."

James arrived at Reed's lab in a few minutes. He found Reed sitting down at his station writing up his official report, and the meta soldier was standing across the room, leaning against the wall with its arms folded. James looked at the robot and then at Reed. "Reed...?"

Reed paused from his typing, then turned to face James. "Good, you're here." Reed pointed to the robot. "Go ahead, say hello."

James looked at the robot and blinked a few times. ". . . Right," he nodded. James walked over and stood about four feet from the soldier. It noticed him, and stepped away from the wall.

"Commander," the robot greeted, inquiring. "Where have you been today? I thought it was clear that I would speak with you after the experiment. Instead I was put through testing, drills, simulations, and duels. What happened?"

James blinked a few times and glanced back at Reed. He could've sworn the meta-soldier's voice sounded just like Adrius. "Reed, is it supposed to sound like that?"

The robot seemed annoyed. "Sound like what?"

Reed stood up and walked over. "I installed a generic pattern, type 2 voice codec in its systems. It seems to have . . . modified the patterns to create a different sound. Well within its capabilities...."

"I do not like being addressed in such a manner," the robot scolded.

Even Reed hadn't expected to hear something like that. James, though, found the courage to ask it a question. "Well, then . . . , what should we call you?"

"What else?" the robot retorted back, as if they already knew the answer. "Is not my name Adrius?"

Both James and Reed looked back at the metasoldier in shocked silence. "Well --" James sputtered, unable to find anything useful to say.

"There is a problem with that," Reed tried to say, but proper words failed him too. "General Adrius..."

"Yes?" the robot responded.

"No, ..." Reed tried saying again. "Not you. The general . . . is dead."

"You are kidding me," the robot said back, as if in disbelief.

"Reed?" James asked. "Is something wrong?"

Reed shook his head, muttering "I don't know. But I believe we should take the metasoldier down the medical wing and show him the general."

The robot turned to the door. "Very well. I know the way...."

"Hold on!" Reed shouted back as he noticed the metasoldier leaving the room. "You can't just walk off, you don't have clearance!"

"-- I'll go with him," James said to Reed. "You stay here and keep working on that report. HQ wants your latest results tomorrow or else --"

James heard the sound of the lab door closing. He looked in that direction, but the robot had already left. "Hey -- !" James ran to the door, opened it in a hurry, and rushed out to find their robot.

James turned to look down the hall. But to his great relief, the robot was standing there, leaning up against the near wall. It must have been waiting for him.

"What do you mean when you say that 'Adrius' is . . . dead? What happened?"

James sighed. "There was a problem during the experiment. Adrius died from complete synaptic failure...."

"Brain death," the robot noted. "What caused it?"

James shrugged. "I don't know. One minute Adrius is lying on the bed during the procedure, and the next -- full trauma team, stabilizer and zapper, but he's dead. It sounds suspicious but Sarah can't pin down anything other than natural causes."

"Really...," the metasoldier responded, mutedly.

"I can get you in to the medical wing, and can show you the general's body."

The robot nodded and stood up away from the wall, ready to go. James led the way.

A few minutes of corridor navigation later, James used his command ID to unlock and open the door to their medical wing. "Lights -- low," James spoke out loud, and in response a bank of blue-tinted lights flicked on, illuminating the medical wing in a dim, vivid blue.

James looked around. "Now where is it . . . ?" He walked over to a terminal and hit a few keys, bringing it out of standby. The monitor flickered on to the same dim intensity as the lights, and James began searching the computer for something. "Here we are . . . ," James muttered to himself. Then, he walked over to a wall and opened one of the drawers in it. It was the mortuary wall, or "dead zone" as some called it. James unfolded some wheeled struts from underneath the drawer, flipped the sides down to change it from drawer to shelf, and brought it out to its full length. Adrius's body, still in uniform, was on it, wrapped in medical plastic for preservation.

The robot walked over and stood on the other side of the shelf. It looked down at Adrius's body long and hard.

"There he is," James introduced.

The robot did not respond; instead it remained there looking over the corpse in silence.

James pulled over a chair from one of the stations and sat down. He wanted to ask the robot what it was thinking -- that is, if it was truly thinking about something -- but James couldn't figure out how to properly phrase the question. So, he inquired of the robot the way one would ask that sort of question to any other: "What's on your mind?"

The robot shook its head. "Has it really been a week?" It asked, examining the medical tag identifying the corpse's name, age, date and time of death. "I seem to recall dozing off during the experiment. And then I wake up like -- ? -- " The robot shrugged. "Seven days later...."

James nodded. Sitting down on a chair must've been a mistake, for he was feeling tired again. James looked at the robot, still pondering over Adrius's dead body, and decided he would give his eyes a rest.

Then, the next thing he knew . . . .

"Jim!" Someone was holding him by the shoulders and calling out his name. "Jim?"

"Mhhm . . . wha -- ?" James muttered, trying to give an answer.

"Jim?? Wake up!" Ordered the voice. Not any voice, however; it was a familiar voice, someone he knew. The voice seemed to echo with authority and worry.

A name flew by James's memory. Suddenly he recognized it and pried himself awake. "Sarah!? What --"

Sarah released her grip from James's shoulders and stood back, relieved -- almost smiling. "Morning, sleepyhead..."

James yawned and stretched. "What -- time is it?"

"Six o-clock," Sarah responded. "I was coming in to ste up for today, when I noticed the door left open. I thought, oh no, someone probably broke in. But then I find you sleeping here, Adrius's body out of the cabinet, and --" Sarah pointed to the robot, still near Adrius's dead body, but now leaning against the wall, relaxed. "-- that robot there. What happened?"

James shook his head. "I fell asleep? -- " he yawned again. "Sorry," he said as he stood up, somewhat groggily.

Sarah asked again. "What happened last night? You do have quarters of your own to sleep in, you know."

"Yeah," James said, stretching again. "I know. But, Reed called in late last night demanding I come down to his lab. The metasoldier is speaking now, and it asked what happened. When we told it that Adrius was dead, it wanted to be down here to see for itself . . . ."

Sarah looked back at the robot inquisitively. The robot returned her glance with a nod. "That is correct."

"Moreover," James rememered. "The robot seems to think it's supposed to be Adrius."

The metasoldier looked back, perhaps to object to that statement. But then it glanced again at Adrius's body, shook its head, and remained silent.

"Riiiiiiiight," Sarah jested back. "But anyway. Since you're up, you may as well head down to the rec for some breakfast." Sarah motioned to the door. "And take that robot with you."

The robot nodded and stepped away from the wall. James walked to the door, then waited for the robot to follow, and they left the room together as Sarah folded up the shelf holding Adrius's body and put it back into the cabinet.

James, meanwhile, had thought of the perfect title for the robot. They would call it "Adrius" ... Mark Two.

Perhaps it was the robot's -- "Adrius"s -- ability and willingness to speak; or maybe a sense of identity, it having seen the late general Adrius in the medical wing that night; or simply just its continuing adjustment to their base environment; but whatever the reason, the Adrius robot seemed a bit friendlier today. James kept an eye on it as he picked up his breakfast in their cafeteria and recreation hall (called "rec" for short), watching how the robot made some conversation with some of the other early-bird crewmen. The other soldiers appeared uncomfortable next to the robot, avoiding eye contact except for the occasional, suspicious glance, and refusing other common greeting gestures such as handshakes. Adrius (Mk2), however, seemed to have expected such a cold welcome, and did not appear offended.

Slowly, one by one, the rest of their base personnel began to filter in for breakfast. Meanwhile, the Adrius robot seemed to be telling a story to the crew. It was one of the late general's well-known war stories, a one-on-one battle between him and one of the Sharii elite soldiers, known only as the Shadow Elite. Intriguingly, and even more oddly, was the way in which the Adrius robot told the story from a first-person viewpoint, as if it was the one involved in the Sharii War and fighting a Shadow Elite.

James couldn't help noticing how the Adrius robot's constructio nresembled the late Adrius's combat mecha. The old general had always preferred cyborg armor suits to the full-blown combat mecha, but even he had had a combat mecha given him from HQ. The blue and silver plated armor, the jump engine, the aerofoils, clearly this robot's construction was made with that old mecha in mind. Even so, the way the Adrius robot resembled an actual combat mecha -- and the late Adrius's mecha in particular -- struck James rather interestingly. If he squinted, James could almost visualize the late Adrius himself among there relating old war stories.

James had just finished his pancake-and-eggs breakfast when unexpectedly, the southwestern defense turrets sprang into action and opened fire, the distinctive sounds of railgun firings penetrating and echoing throughout the room and reverberating throughout the hallways. The base alarm sounded. "Raider alert! Southwest zone, approaching fast! All Group A Infantry pilots report to their mecha for action. Repeat -- raiders on the southwest zone, all Group A pilots report for action at once!"

The room became a seeming mess of flying plates, silverware, and fleeting fotsteps as everyone in the room scattered. Whatever pilots were in the rec scrambled through the north exit, the quickest route to their garages. Others, those on the maintenance and medical teams, hurried out through the south exit towards their respective positions. Members of the command staff left through the south exit too, following the quickest route to Ops.

But James, knowing full well the usefulness of his desk job in a situation like this, casually walked out of the hall, heading to Ops in no hurry at all. Their base had survived many attacks by Raiders before, and 'Group A' was always the first group they summoned to duty. Even if it was more than a light hit-and-run attack, James knew they had enough early warning to afford some extra minutes.