Debatable Space – Extract #2

This is an extract from somewhere round about the middle section of the book.

If you haven’t read it yet, there’s also Extract #1, from the very beginning…

 

Flanagan

Six robots stand on a hilltop and look down at the rolling green hills of Cambria and breathe in fresh tangy air. The sound of birds is shrill and lovely in the sky. The sun beats down, and the robots sweat, and feel the heat as pleasure. A two headed push-me-pull-you stag wanders in front of them, and one of its heads flicks a curious glance at them. But the stag has no fear of humanoid creatures. Only humans are hunted on this planet.

I look around at my home planet and I feel a surge of pleasure that cannot be described. The here-ness, now-ness, mine-ness, the truth of the place overwhelm me. This is a land my people created, with centuries of hard toil and bleak dangerous existence. They died in dust storms, they were consumed in random solar flares that poured deadly radiation into every inch of the planet. They bombed the planet’s core to release its icy heart, and used its melted water to create a planet-wide system of waterways. They carefully nurtured Earth-born seeds and sperm and grew fields and orchards and meadows, and filled them with rabbits, badgers, stags, dogs, butterflies, and a whole host of other flora and fauna. And solar panels in orbit around Cambria’s sun provided limitless power to fuel this work.

I look at my fellow Doppelganger Robots. We are an imposing group. Each of us (apart from Harry) is seven foot or more in height, heavily muscled, beautiful, graceful, god-like. Alliea DR is black, with fiery eyes, and a slender waist that is dwarfed by perfect breasts and bulging thighs. Lena DR is coffee coloured, deadly thin, with long white hair that sails in the wind. Jamie DR is shaven-bald, white, with his huge arms bare and tattooed, but despite his muscle-bound physique he moves with the grace of a leopard. Brandon is cool, lean, clad in black, with black staring eyes. And I – I am built like a gladiator.

We are all of us (apart from Harry) variations on the same theme. We are comic book wish fulfilment fantasies made real, par for the course for Doppelganger Robots. And our style options were, frankly, limited. There was a wide stock of out-of-service DRs available to us to hack into, and we took the least garish ones.

But entertainingly, Harry DR stands a foot shorter than the rest of us, and has a beard, and fake-glasses and spindly frame. He is a Boffin DR, a different fantasy – wish fulfilment for an Earth-bound Jock who wants to experience the perverse thrill of being a weedy geek. But despite his slight physique, Harry DR has the same enhanced strength as all Doppelganger Robots. We can run faster, punch harder, and withstand more physical pain and stress than any human born.

Today, we go to war.

Lena

It’s been four hours since we escaped from the warehouse where the DR bodies were stored, and every moment has been sheer bliss. Apart from my brief visit to the planet Wild West, I’ve been in free space for over a hundred years. It’s wonderful to, once again, smell flowers and cow shit, and have a skin which changes temperature as the sun goes in and out of clouds. I feel alive.

Curiously, though, I feel disengaged from the enterprise of which I am, notionally, the leader. Flanagan defers to me constantly, but I just murmur, ‘Up to you.’ I feel intoxicated by life and by the newness of my oh-so-perfect body. And liberated, too, by the lack of fear. If this body is destroyed, I can hack into another one. If a tooth falls out, I can will it to grow back. For the duration of my stay on this planet, I am invulnerable, immortal, self renewing.

On my return to the Quantum Beacon, however, I face certain death; curiously, that doesn’t perturb me.

After activating the six DRs in the warehouse, we worked hard on the next stage of our – Flanagan’s – plan. The other DRs in storage were neutralised and de-brained; it will take weeks of work to restore them to working order. Then we packed a truck with missiles, guns, body armour, and camera-bots. There was no security to contend with inside the warehouse because, of course, in the normal course of things only Earth computers can access the interior of such places. No one expected that the system could be breached via a conquered Quantum Beacon that allowed us to hack into the Cambrian mainframe.

We did have to fight our way out however. It was a short sharp shock experience for the four DR guards, who found themselves outgunned and totally taken by surprise. Their heads were blown off their bodies, causing immediate deactivation of the DR-Human link.

In a stolen truck, we screeched a route through the city outskirts and parked near the top of the highest hill we could find. And now, Brandon opens up the boxes and releases the camera-bots. Flanagan dials an all-sets-to-be-activated telephone number and the ringtone on every mobile phone on the planet beeps, or hums, or sings, or plays piano or guitar or orchestra. We have just phoned the entire planet….

And, when every human being on Cambria switches on his vid-phone, he or she sees Flanagan and the rest of us standing on a hilltop, in a deliberately iconic and dangerous pose. ‘We are your liberators,’ Flanagan says earnestly into the camera, and I feel a prickle of excitement run down my spine.

Flanagan speaks eloquently. But my mind is not on his mission, or his passion, or his eloquence. I am obsessed by the heat on my brow, the smells in my nostrils, and my ultimate sense of power. I have the body I always dreamed of, the body of a warrior-woman-queen-goddess. There’s only so much you can do with flesh and a human genetic heritage; I always feel my real body is a pale imitation of the dream which inspires it.

Now, I inhabit my own dream.

And in the background of my self-loving, self glorifying hymn to myself, I dimly register Flanagan’s words:

‘I am one of you. A citizen of this planet. This is a revolution. We will throw off our shackles. We will be free. All you have to do is….

Do nothing. Whether you are on the surface, or dwelling in your underground cavern, stop what you are doing, and focus on the doing of nothing. Sit down, if you can. Eat, if you have food, but chew silently. Do not speak, do not listen if a DR speaks to you. Do not obey instructions from a DR. If you are shot and lie bleeding and dying on the ground, do not whimper or groan. Die silently, die like a human, die proud.

This is our only weapon. We withdraw our servitude. We refuse to be slaves. We will die, rather than be slaves. Keep your eyes on this screen. Die proud. ‘

Yeah, what a really great plan. Everyone dies.

Harry

This is so humiliating. Everyone else has a great bod, and I’m stuck in this fucking geek physique. I have pimples. My knees knock. I have a nervous twitch.

This is the battle of a lifetime, and it’s being filmed. They’ll be releasing DVs of this for centuries to come. And I look like a prat. And I’ve got a nervous twitch!

I want to growl with rage, but I can’t even do that. It comes out as…nerdy whine.

ARRRGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHaaaaaaagh!

Lena

‘Good speech, Flanagan,’ I say.

‘It was, wasn’t it?’

‘Your projection was good too.’

‘Was I charismatic?’

‘I think you got the point across.’

‘I guess I’m pretty damn gorgeous aren’t I?’

I look at him. Despite myself, I feel a swamp of pleasure in my groin.

‘It’s not real. You’re a phoney, a cliché hunk. Ersatz.’

‘Yeah, but you’re hot for me.’

‘I could be, in other circumstances. Like, er.’ I’ve lost it. Flanagan DR beams at me. Arrogant bastard.

I point at the horizon. Enemy forces are clustering.

‘We’ve got no chance, you know. Why don’t we just run away?’

‘Keep your voice down. We’re on camera.’

I glare arrogantly at the camera. Flanagan looks imperious.

All around the world, on his say-so, people die.

Brandon

‘Take your position, Brandon.’

‘Aye aye, cap’n,’ I say.

All hell breaks loose.

The DR army have encircled the hill. Gun ‘copters fly above us and missiles rain down. But hidden in the trees, operated by Alliea, we have an automated ack-ack machine that laser spots all incoming missiles and creates an impervious shield above our heads. Alliea’s job is to run from location to location with the ack-ack machine so they cannot ever target where the missiles are coming from.

On the top of the hill, we stare down at the huge army assembled against us….

And then we charge them. They aren’t expecting this. The DR soldiers are heavily armed of course and have clear super-perspex shields to protect them against enemy fire. But on this planet, no one ever fights one on one. No one duels. No one, in fact, ever actually fights. For a hundred years the DR oppressors have presided over a planet full of sheep.

Now, six wolves have entered the fray.

We fight in pairs, Harry is by my side, in his preposterous geek body. We have laser guns and grenades, and as we sprint down the hill we hurl grenades like children tossing water bombs on a sunny summer’s day.

The first rank of DR robots explode. We use the laser guns to blow off heads, but all the while we keep rolling and ducking and weaving and using our shields to block laser blasts. You need to get the right angle to deflect the light blast; there’s a knack to it. The enemy DRs have no such knack. They hold their shields in front of their faces and we blast straight through and blow out their cybernetic brains.

Then we’re through the first rank and the DRs are clustered round us like stooks in a wheat field. They really have no idea. We crouch down low, and slice hamstrings with our short bladed swords taken from the training armoury. Our blades penetrate eyes, gouge out brains, lop off limbs. The DRs are phenomenally strong, but so are we. They are phenomenally fast, but so are we. And they are incompetent fighters, graceless, stupid, inexperienced. And we are a pirate crew.

We are un-stoppable. We rip the heart out of the enemy’s army, then we stand triumphant. Alliea, meanwhile, is still raining missiles on the disorganised ground troops. The gun ‘copters are whirling around in confusion, till one crunches into another and both plunge to earth.

Then a laser gun hits me in the head. I just have time to register the leering triumphant face of my killer before I……………………………………………………

………………………………………………………………………………………………

………become her.

The DR who killed me is a blonde white-skinned female with an exaggeratedly muscular upper torso and a shaven head. She’s a Dyke DR without a doubt, but I’m not complaining. And now, through her eyes, I get to watch myself die; I see the head of my Brandon DR body explode in a hail of artificially grown blood and brain.

Then the new ‘Brandon Dyke DR’ resumes the battle. My fellow soldiers assume I’m still on their side, and are stunned when I turn my guns on them and start killing them with lethal laser sweeps. And as I kill, I sing:

‘I can’t get no-o, sat-is-faction. I can’t get no-o, sati-is-faction. I can’t get no-o, sat-is-faction.’ No doubt there are other verses of this bluesy dirge available, but I stick to singing the memorable first line, over and over, with exaggerated lipsynch.

I aim a laser at a DR – and just in time, I notice his lips are moving: ‘I can’t get no-o, sat-is-faction. I can’t get no-o, sat-is-faction.’ I don’t recognise the body, but I realise instantly this is one of my team. The laser beam goes to the side; an enemy DR vanishes in light and splattered flesh.

The DRs should have body armour, of course, like human soldiers do. But they are so inherently strong that it makes them complacent. No human has ever challenged them, or fought them. They have been all powerful gods of their world for all these years.

And now we’re making cybernetic mincemeat out of them.

The battle continues. After a while, it becomes a massacre. I change bodies four times, until I finally do a head count and realise there are five DRs left.

Only Lena has her original body intact. I feel a shiver of respect. The rest of us have been killed and killed again. But each time the killer blow was struck, Kalen at her control pad switched our connection point from one DR to another. Flanagan has software that allows us to over-ride an existing DR user – we can, in effect, kick the fucker’s mind out and send it back to Earth.

And by this means, we hope to conquer an entire planet. There are six of us; but we have unlimited ‘lives’. Each time we die, we are reincarnated seconds later, in the body of a neighbouring DR.

This, we feel, narrows the odds.

At the bottom of the hill, we rejoin Alliea. She has suffered badly in the defence of the hill, despite the ack-ack computer’s sterling work. One arm has been blown off her. She is blind in one eye. Blood oozes from the stump of her left leg, and she is using a sword as a crutch.

‘Just a flesh wound,’ she mumbles, and we all dutifully laugh.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ says Flanagan.

Alliea

We are part of a vast DR patrol sweeping through the underground regions, in the city known as Cardiff. From her control panel, Kalen had flipped us into six new DR bodies. We have different bodies, different weapons, but we have no way of telling who is really who beneath the DR frame.

And so, blindly marching with our fellow DR warriors, we find ourselves confronted by a mass rebellion of slaves. Acting on Flanagan’s advice, the citizens of Cardiff have sat themselves down on the streets, gazing at the battle being enacted on their video phones. As we approach and bark orders at them, the Cambrians refuse to move, and ignore orders barked at them by the increasingly hysterical DR officers.

Eventually the commanding officers loses patience. ‘Fire at will!’ he screams, and I long to raise my plasma gun and blow his head off. But I’m too far away, I can’t get a clean shot, and I don’t know who is friend and who is foe.

Blindly following orders, the DRs raise their combat pulse guns and fire into the seated crowds of passive protests. No one moves. A hail of pulse bursts rips apart limbs and shredded flesh. Dozens die within seconds.

But no one cries out. The crowd is still and fearless, the dying people swallow their death rattles. More pulse bursts are fired. Hundreds die now. Blood washes under the haunches and arses of the seated multitude. No one complains, or screams, or even glances up.

The massacre continues, as we desperately try to tell friend from foe so that we can coordinate our counter-attack. I see a man’s head shouting wildly, and eventually identify his words: ‘There is a house in New Orleans.’ He is singing, not shouting.

I move closer. I memorise the features of his DR body; black hair, a pony tail, black tunic, bare arms, a dragon tattoo. ‘They call the Rising Sun,’ I sing out, and he turns and sees me. He winks. He scans me up and down, memorising my features. ‘Lena?’ he mouths at me. ‘Alliea’, I mouth back. ‘Hot,’ he mouths at me.

We move together, walking shoulder to shoulder. ‘Love me tender, love me do,’ someone sings. But who? We can’t see.

‘IT’S BEEN THE RUIN OF MANY A POOR GIRL!!’ I scream and the DRs around me look blank. So I turn my gun on them and blow off five heads.

‘AND ME, O GOD, FOR ONE!’ screams Flanagan DR, as I duck and roll out of the way of a laser blast. Flanagan too fires.

‘I HATE THESE FUCKING SONGS!’ a DR screams at me, and just in time I avert the laser beam.

‘Brandon?’

‘Yes!!!!’ I memorise his appearance. He fires his rocket launcher at me and blows up the DR bodies behind.

‘…satisfaction. And I try, and I try and I try and try!’ sings a bloodied limbless corpse on the ground. Then a DR nearby jerks and stands differently. ‘I can’t get no, dah dah dum’, she sings. One of us. Lena or Harry, can’t tell which.

And so the counterattack begins…it’s another remorseless, pitched, bloody battle. I long for the short swords, the elegance and beauty of their blades. But we have to use guns and fists and feet. It is awkward clumsy fighting. I have my head blown off at least 7 times. But each time Kalen is there with the pickup, and I start again with a new body.

When the bloodbath is over, six of us stand intact and bleeding. We turn and look.

The streets of Cardiff are strewn with corpses, as the sun sets. The light of a hundred thousand video phones flickers, eerie and sad.

But a few hundred Cambrians remain alive, picking themselves off the ground, soaked in blood and brain. They stand, in a series of staggering waves, and they stare at us.

And when all the survivors are on their feet, they bow, low, and respectful. We raise our fists in triumph. They cheer.

Kalen flips us out, and the DR bodies crumple to the ground, inert, mindless, dead.

Flanagan

‘Where the fuck is Lena?’

 

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