Chimera and the Shrubbery
Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics
Jeremy stood in the steam room and was sprayed with abrasive fumes that disintegrated the grime from his plating whilst leaving his metal parts uncorroded. As he waited for the cleaning process to finish, he pondered. As painful as it was, he kept on dredging up the image of Denver’s removed rabbit head in his memory, and examining it closely. It was slightly blackened in the mud and the grey eyes stared blindly on forever. The head had been torn off violently; something that would require a large amount of brute strength. These living trees, whatever they were, did not mess about.
But other than the break at the neck, the head was not damaged in any other way. It was a clean cut. The forehead was not even scratched. Not an indentation, not a hole. And that was exactly where the central unit was.
He felt his power usage suddenly spike, and his cold blue veins filled with electric energy in excitement. If Denver’s brain was still intact, then there was still hope..
“Oi!” came a hollow voice from the walls. “Your clean finished thirty seconds ago. Stop standing around. We’ve got a line of construction bots out here. Move it!”
Jeremy smiled and waved at the walls as he exited.
Out in the courtyard there was a commotion. Many of the soldiers had abandoned their posts and formed a big circle around something Jeremy couldn’t see. He pushed a few men aside impatiently. In the centre of the group were ten sleek robots performing skilled acrobatics. These were the reinforcements.
Not asked for, Vato had told Jeremy, but certainly very welcome. The United Front’s high council had sent ten of their best models, the absolute cream of the crop, to aid in the war effort.
The new arrivals were showing off, flinging each other into the air, performing a hundred fast spins, then landing on a single toe atop another’s outstretched finger. Next they formed into a large pyramid.. and to impress even further they dismantled it and then formed the same pyramid, this time upside down.
Jeremy rolled his eyes (a process he’d taken a long time to master) and stepped into the middle of the vainglorious acrobats. He reached up and grabbed one by the foot in mid air, bringing him crashing to the ground, and ending their performance unceremoniously. The crowd went quiet.
Jeremy stamped his foot. “If Vato caught you all standing around like this, heads would roll. Literally.”
The gathering quickly dissipated.
Jeremy turned back to the new arrivals to find one of them, hardly distinguishable from any of the others, standing in front of him, chest pointed out proudly. It was an ugly robot, with a head that was a blend of semi-circle and a cube, with stylish smoothed edge and a long thin visor instead of eyes. The body consisted of a tiny torso and overlong arms and legs. Perfect for moving nimbly, Jeremy bet, and the acrobatics would come handy in combat. He didn’t voice these thoughts: the robots seemed to have egos big enough already.
“You’re Jeremy, right?” The robot hunched her shoulders in anticipation, her voice giddy with glee.
“Right.” Jeremy waved vaguely, and turned to leave.
“I’m Sasha!” she squealed, and for a second it looked like she was going to hug him. Instead she extended her hand; an archaic gesture of friendliness. “It’s really such an honour to meet you, partner! I just know I’m gonna learn so much from you. This is so exciting!”
Jeremy stared at her, analysing her speech pattern and posture. From what he could tell, she was not exaggerating for effect; she was actually genuinely this over-the-top. He could guess why Vato had assigned him her as a partner. Another female, supposedly to take his mind off Denver, to suppress any grief he felt. Well, it was stupid to suppose he would find Sasha an adequate replacement: you couldn’t replace friends. Plus, if there was a single thing he could do about it, then he would recover Denver and find her a new body.
He shrugged at Sasha, who was staring at him expectantly, and walked away.
She trotted after him, bouncing from one foot to the other excitedly. “Sorry about the show back there!” she stuttered nervously, awkwardly trying to maintain eye contact whilst walking with him. “We didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“It was all very impressive,” replied Jeremy dourly.
“Well, it’s just the way we’re built, partner! Our fibre optics are state of the art – they transfer data at ten million standard packets per second. We can collate environmental data like air pressure, sonic activity, humidity, wind patterns, so that we have a highly increased understanding of our immediate surroundings. We have touch sensitive nerve endings over ninety percent of our bodies, unlike some older models that only have sensors on their hands and feet.” She paused. “No offence meant, partner!”
He grimaced. “None taken.” He looked her up and down. “So how’s your combat performance?” he asked with a sly grin.
“Our reflexes are just perfectly honed. We can react to threats in under a microsecond- not to mention our joints allow for fluidity of movement that-”
“Got you!” shouted Jeremy, as he flung a fist with no warning directly into her face, to catch her off guard.
Sasha stood calmly, ready, braced for combat, with his fist caught comfortably in the palm of her hand, five or so inches away from her face. The breeze whistled around them.
He gasped, and Sasha let go, returning to a more social posture. “Got you, actually, partner.”
Jeremy winced and tried to hide his discomfort. He rubbed his wrist gently.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Jeremy: I cheated slightly. Your friend Beetlebum over there warned me that you would try and catch me off guard like that.”
“Oh, him.” Jeremy groaned.
Sasha pointed at Beetlebum, manning the walls. He waved back to them and chuckled. He was Jeremy’s second closest friend here on the base after Denver. Now she was potentially gone, Jeremy felt a pain that he was only left with Beetlebum as his confidant.
He was a lazy, untrustworthy friend who stunk of incompetence, but kept his high rank nonetheless, simply from his years of experience. Sure, he would pull through for Jeremy on a rare occasion, but far more often he would be too worried about keeping his own parts intact. He took next to no care of his body, was combat shy, and kept a secret about as well as a sieve kept water. Somehow over decades, he and Jeremy had grown close, and now they were kind of stuck together.
“To quote him, you are ‘extremely predictable’-”
“Okay, thank you, Sasha-”
“-and you have ‘a lot to prove.’”
“Right. First things first-”
“‘Slow,’ he also said. And ‘thinks he’s a far better fighter than he actually is.’”
Jeremy stopped and glared at her through slit eyes.
“Oh.. but he said lots of nice things about you, too!”
Jeremy waited for a few seconds to ensure she wasn’t going to dig herself into a deeper hole. When she was silent, he said, “Sasha. You’re my protege now. I trust you can follow orders?”
“Of course!” She beamed.
Her combat performance was impressive to say the least, Jeremy admitted to himself. If Vato wasn’t going to supply him with a set of troops, then she would just have to do. “You said you are pleased to be working with me, Sasha?”
“Well, how am I supposed to tell that when your head looks like a breeze block?”
Sasha shrunk back, clasping her head defensively. He’d hurt her more with words than he ever could do in a fight.
“Let’s get you a facemask, to start with,” Jeremy said. “If you’re going to learn from me, then I need to be able to read your expressions.”
Sasha hesitated for a second as Jeremy began walking towards a supply store, but she quickly started following. “Sure thing, partner.”
The doors of the supply store slid open to reveal tightly packed shelves filled with spare parts, some rusted beyond repair, others tragically looking as if their owners only died yesterday. Such was the war.
“Why do you keep calling me ‘partner’?” asked Jeremy, as they stepped inside.
“Because you’re my partner,” Sasha responded.
“Right. Makes sense.”
The bot in charge of the store ambled over to them, walking straight past Jeremy and right up to Sasha. “The faces are right at the back, right side, miss. Call me if you need help.”
“Why, thanks, partner!” Sasha bowed down to him in gratitude.
They walked through the shelves, past chipped circuit boards, lengths of frayed wiring and hollow, heavy feet.
“Well, why did you call him ‘partner’?” Jeremy asked.
“Term of endearment,”
“Right. Makes sense.”
Sasha sat on a stool as Jeremy perused through the various different masks, from kittens to rhinoceroses, from paper bags to phantoms. Each one when worn would plug into its user’s core, and then emotions could transfer themselves into facial expressions.
Jeremy passed Sasha one to try on for fit. “Let’s start with the basics, then. Where are you from? What clan?”
“Me and my brethren were constructed in Town Shou-watch. Clan Dragomir, just like you.” She tapped the insignia on her chest proudly.
“Your body is brand new, I see. Is it your first?”
“Combat experience?” asked Jeremy hesitantly, watching her attempt to put the face on backwards.
“None, sir. I’m fresh out of academy. We received extensive training, ran countless simulated modules that are indistinguishable from real combat.” She pulled at a wrong wire on the mask and sparks shot out, causing her arm to jerk back. She caressed her thumb gently, letting out a soft whine.
“Never fought? How long since you were built?”
“Thirteen years, mister.”
“Thirteen?” Jeremy threw his hands up in the air. “You’re thirteen? I didn’t even hold a weapon until I was twenty. They really sent you to the frontlines? Come on! Bots as young as you should have to wear a badge, or something.” Jeremy crossed his arms moodily.
“I do wear a badge.” She pointed to her chest.
“Not that, I meant-”
“I wear my badge with great honour. I am of the Dragomir clan of the UFFJAH, and no-one could be more proud of it than me.” Her slender finger underlined the words inscribed on her body: ‘United Front For Justice And Honour’. She got to her feet and threw down the mask. “I may lack combat experience, but I embody the ideals of the United Front in my very core. The very construction of me and my model was rumoured to be commissioned by the High Council themselves.”
“Very well,” replied Jeremy, regretting offending her. “You’ll have plenty of time to prove your metal, like the rest of us. Now calm your circuits and pick a face mask.”
In the end they settled on a fairly blank, loose, white mask, with enough requisite moving parts that Jeremy was satisfied that Sasha would learn to express herself. It had ginger eyebrows, a hole cut for her visor, and an expressive line where her voice modulator was. It wasn’t a bunny; but it would do.
“Why is this so important, anyway? Half the soldiers around here don’t wear faces.”
“Consider this my first lesson to you then.” Jeremy sat down opposite her, and pulled her stool close. He began plugging in the portions of her face to her skin. “Emotions are things that all robots have. We gain them more and more as we grow older. You are young, but if you don’t feel them strongly yet then you will once you get a taste of war.” Her eyebrows, when connected, began to rapidly shoot up and down. “You won’t have been taught about emotions in the academy. Because even today they are a taboo subject. Most soldiers believe them to be unimportant, even derogatory to our profession. But I think they should be embraced.”
“From what I hear, they are just errors in programming that are unavoidable at our level of complexity. They make your body sometimes act against the will of your central unit. You want to do one thing, but your body does another.. how can that possibly be a positive thing?”
“As you mature, you will learn to appreciate the good that comes with them,” Jeremy explained softly, leaning in close to massage the area underneath her eye. “That’s the real reason that me and Den- that I wear this bunny mask. You can learn a lot by studying another bot’s emotions. It will help me get to know you. Understood?”
“I guess..” She nodded.
“I can guarantee you that the High Council who continually send soldiers to fight this war, this great war against the Chimera, do so on an emotional basis. They feel love for their own kind, and hate for the enemy. You can’t fight a war with no emotion. Even the Chimera must feel.. to some extent.” He lost himself in his own thoughts for a moment. Then he pushed a finger into Sasha’s eye.
“Ouch!” she squealed.
“Good! If that hurt, then everything is connected up right. How does that feel?”
“Like I’ve just been poked in the eye, to be honest,” she said, pouting. She got to her feet. “So, what’s next?”
“Now,” Jeremy said, taking her hand and leading them back into daylight, “our first mission.”
“I don’t recall seeing anything on the manifest. What kind of mission?”
“A rescue mission.”