Thrusting fists into his jacket pockets, Sean stepped from the bright doorway into the street and headed home.
It was half-eight and still light, the horizon glowing blue-brown towards the river as a translucent moon peered over the crumbling industrial wasteland of Lower Weston. It was darker and quieter than he had expected. There were few cars on the street and no other pedestrians. Looking cautiously at both sides of the street, Sean remembered why he hated the late shift. He began whistling softly as he wound his way between broken crates and waste sacks towards the distant glowing station tower. Yuck, he thought, as he stepped in a pile of unidentifiable yellow gunk that was leaking from the torn sacks. In the distance he heard a truck's horn sound in anger.
Like most of his co-workers, Sean lived alone in the cheap apartments across the river from the recycling plant. Twenty-eight and single, he was tall, broad-shouldered and healthy, but bored. Activating, clearing and checking a waste compactor for ten hours a day gave him too much time to think.
Ahead of him, stuck to the side of a derelict cabin, he saw a red poster covered in large white text. It was a public appeal for information by Weston police in relation to a worker who had vanished without trace at the end of his shift. A male, mid-twenties, last seen unloading a dry food consignment down by the docks. Sean remembered hearing about this on the radio. His disappearance had gone unnoticed for almost two weeks, until his landlord finally got tired of waiting for the rent and bust his door down. The depot owners claimed he had been drunk and must have fallen in the river, but the divers had never found a body.
Simon strode on, past ring fencing and wooden hoarding. He thought about food and sleep. Same old activities, same old ritual. Work, eat, sleep. A sense of purpose would be nice. He looked down at the grey dirt on his jeans and boots and sniffed, pulling his jacket more tightly shut.
Suddenly he heard a faint sound behind him, like metal against metal. It lasted only for a moment, but he could tell it was close. Leaning into the wind, he instinctively began to walk faster.
Maybe just a cleaning robot in the pipes under the sidewalk, thought Sean. Maybe just a car door. He passed the high, spiked gates of a power substation and wondered how a neighborhood he knew so well could feel so threatening at twilight. The halogen street-lamps were coming on, and he gulped as one flickered into life above his hand as he stepped under it. Get a grip, he thought to himself.
The noise happened again, and again, and became footsteps. Heavy, crunching footsteps, six yards or so behind him. Sean's eyes widened in alarm. Someone was following him. Was he going to be mugged, he wondered? Killed? He speeded his pace even further, and felt adrenalin pouring through him.
Sean looked briefly across the street. There was a car with two cars with dark figures inside, sitting motionless in shadows. He thought he briefly saw one's eyes, glowing dimly and staring straight at him. It could be a trick of the light, he thought. He looked back. The figures were still there. And the footsteps behind him drew ever closer.
He wondered if he dared risk looking back, but was scared of giving himself away. His pursuer must know he had been noticed - Sean's walking speed had increased sharply.
The noise behind him had changed. There was something else. A slight hiss or whirr that accompanied each heavy footfall. It sounded mechanical. Sean hurried on, mounting the kerb outside a gas station forecourt. The rhythmic, pounding footsteps were still gaining.
Sean felt deep inside his jacket pockets for something to hold on to. He felt for his keys, or anything that he could use as a makeshift weapon to defend himself. He realised he now had only two options: run, or fight. But where could he run? He was still more than fifteen minutes walk from the edge of the commercial district. And his shadow was still gaining ground - he might catch up anyway. He began to think he should use the initiative while he had it. At this rate he would be beaten to a pulp anyway, or even worse, have all his ID taken. There was no choice at all. It's no accident, he thought. This is happening to me for a reason.
After a few steady breaths, and thinking intently about the timing, he sprung around as he put down his right foot, and turned to face his follower. He was ready to pounce or dodge. But what he saw stopped him in his tracks. He froze in his tracks, staring up and ahead at his would-be assailant.
"Oh my..." Sean trailed off.
The huge figure stopped walking immediately with a crunch. It was a cyborg. In the half-light, in a long overcoat and a hood, it could almost still pass for human. But beneath the cowl its features were set in a cold, emotionless stare, and the glinting of metal on its head and neck betrayed its true nature. Sean saw that its eyes were illuminated with the same deathly glow he had seen the car across the street. Inside its coat he could see its heavily armored body. He looked down at its robotic hands to see them clench into fists.
Just then a second cyborg stepped up behind him and struck him with the back of its heavy hydraulic arm. The blackness rushed up to meet him as he sank to the ground unconscious.
* * *
The next thing he heard was the hum. There was a warm, low vibration all around
him. He could even feel it in his fingers and toes. But his arms and legs ached,
and his head felt thick and tired. He opened his eyes slightly, squinting at
the sudden brightness, and trying hazily to remember where he was.
He was indoors. It was a large room, strongly lit from above by fluorescent tubing, empty but for a pair of surgical tables and a raised monitoring terminal. Two of the walls were adorned with computer display equipment and instrument panels. Bunches of cables stretched between cabinet racks, coiling around air conditioning ducts and over a wide doorway into an unseen room on the right. It looked to Sean like an improvised laboratory, only with some unusually high-tech gear. There was nobody around.
As he tried to scratch his neck, he realised with a gasp that he could barely move. He was tied upright into a steel frame, inside an open-fronted cubicle against one wall of the lab. His head, angled slightly downwards, was locked in position by a stiff metal collar and head-brace, The low humming sound was coming from the banks of mechanical equipment positioned on either side and behind him. He was almost naked, and scared.
His legs were spread apart, his ankles fixed in place by taut bunches of plastic fibre. Held away from his body, his arms too were restrained at wrist and shoulder. With mounting alarm, he tried to wriggle his right forearm loose, but the bonds automatically re-tensioned themselves, returning his reluctant, clawing hand to its place. Every struggle seemed to anchor him more securely into the frame.
In the adjoining control bay, figures moved quietly between terminal stations. The bay was almost dark, with only display panels illuminating their operators' expressionless faces. Lena stared fixedly at her terminal. No-one spoke - conversation was necessary. They watched, waited and prepared.
Closing his eyes, Sean tried to work out what had happened. There were holes in his memory. How long had he been knocked out, he wondered. He felt like he had been hit pretty hard - he remembered reeling and losing his footing on the kerb. It must be kidnappers, he thought to himself. He had been bundled into a vehicle and brought unconscious to this laboratory. At least they want me alive, he mused, before worrying what his captors had in mind for him.
Why me, he asked himself. I'm not rich, I'm not powerful, I'm not important.
He opened his mouth and tried to speak. "Whrrr," he mumbled, the sedation wearing off. "Wh-what's going on?" In the gleaming room beyond his chamber, the computer displays flickered imperceptibly. Blinking away the fog of sleep from his eyes, peered beyond the viewscreens for signs of life. "Hello-o?" He wasn't sure that anyone would hear him.
Yet he guessed someone knew he was conscious. From the moment he'd opened his eyes, the level of activity from the lab's systems had increased. New display panels had burst into life; Sean could see the hazy colours of what looked like an endoscope, and a split-panel screen lit up with a wireframe model of a male human. Whoever had attacked and imprisoned him must be watching.
Suddenly there was a soft hiss of hydraulics, and his chamber sprang into life. The machinery around him, retracted and dormant until now, was opening and repositioning itself closer to him. Sean flinched as the apparatus surrounded his body in a series of swift and precise movements. In the room outside, the wire mesh illustrated the process, displaying a diagram of the reconfiguring systems on all sides of his outlined frame. Whirring filled his ears as he was enclosed by surgical and electronic instruments, poised and waiting. Monitors synchronised to his pounding heartbeats. Clenching his teeth and panting, his eyes flicked around frantically as he surveyed the machinery that hovered near his bare skin.
Halogen lamps mounted on tiny optical probes illuminated sites around his neck, arms and chest. On either side of his head, a pair of laser sights drew glowing green circles on his sweating temples. There was a soft beeping close to his ears. He screwed up his eyes.
"Stop", he yelped, his jaw stiff with fright, "I'll do anything you want, just lemme out!" There was no reply but the distant hum of
generators. Feebly, he tried to kick his legs against the restraint cords.
"Do not attempt - to move," barked a synthetic female voice. It came from either side of him, and reverberated sharply in his brain. He flinched
in shock, but then felt relief. At least they are willing to talk, he thought. Perhaps I can negotiate.
"What's ha-happening?" he called.
"Do not attempt to move," came the voice again. It sounded like a young woman, but unnaturally leaden and overlaid with subtle harmonics that suggested it was electronically synthesised.
Try to sound calm, thought Sean. "Hey," he murmured, "where are you? What are you doing ?" The mechanical implements that were trained on his body twitched threateningly. He stared anxiously at an inert laser scalpel inches from his left shoulder. There was no reply from the control bay.
Tentatively, he wriggled his wrist again. The synthetic bonds shrunk tighter, squeezing cold and hard against his skin.
"It is not possible for you to escape," the operator's voice cooed firmly. "You have been recruited because of your physical and mental aptitude. You have no alternative option."
"Recruited? What do you want me to do?" asked Sean, straining his neck to see where the voice might be coming from.
"Your cooperation is not essential but you may become damaged if you do not acquiesce. Remain still."
"Wha?" panted Sean, feeling panic flood his thoughts again. Suddenly angry, he yelled, "I've done nothing wrong! You can't keep me here!"
"There will be no further discussion. Do not move or your conversion may not be as painless."
"Yaaagh! Gemme out..." he screamed. More harsh light burst into the cubicle from above. The equipment was initialized.
In the control bay, Lena studied panels flickering with status information. Her comrades stood, ready. She checked the readouts a final time, and, satisfied, spoke in her usual even, synthetic tone.
"Cybernetic conversion begins." There was, of course, no practical reason to say it aloud, but it was established convention to report process state to recruits. It was a small concession to the needs of the primitive organic.
At first it felt like nothing was happening. Then Sean felt a sharp sting under his ear and realised he had been injected with some chemical. A warm haze settled over his sensations and his eyelids drooped.
"No..." he tried to say.
"Physical augmentation, stage one," came the soothing reply.
The apparatus on either side of his arms activated.
Tubing and cables wrapped around his arms and plugged into him, while gleaming hydraulic units locked into place and were wired into his nerve endings. Bundles of metallic tendons fitted into his arm muscles, and were covered by rigid, intersecting titanium panels. It was a totally alien sensation, and Sean's drugged mind tried in vain to control the fresh sensations he was experiencing.
Circuitry clicked into the gaps around his mechanized muscles. It built up a network of silicon around his imprisoned arms, connecting the new mechanical systems. It wound around his finger-tips and the backs of his hands. A glowing beam darted around his wrists and forearms, crackling as it welded the components and hard casing in place, fusing man to machine.
Sean clenched his teeth. His arms and hands felt stiff and encased. "Successful initial biotechnology integration. Processing continues." The gleaming, segmented armor extended around his back, locking over his shoulder-blades. Sean arched his back as the cold metal touched it for the first time. Then he felt the cords holding his ankles tighten slightly and he knew his legs would be next.
The apparatus attached to his calves and ankles, and with a whirr began to install more cybernetics. The process was fast and executed with smooth efficiency. His thigh muscles were augmented with hydraulic tubing and circuits, which were then rapidly wired into his nervous system. Strong steel joints were installed in his knees and ankles, taking over from their weak bone and cartilage counterparts.
Tough armor snapped over the machine parts, but areas of his lower legs and feet were left untouched. Bare skin peeked out from between bunches of gray cables and gleaming armor segments. As they became bionic, his legs became heavier and more powerful, coiled with cybernetic equipment and wires.
Sean's dulled senses registered little of what was happening to him. In his mind, it felt as if his limbs had become suddenly very heavy. The chemicals being fed into his bloodstream via the intravenous catheter at his neck were keeping him conscious and alert, but masking all feelings of pain and fear. He felt as if his whole body was slipping slowly into a cool, dark pool of water.
He closed his eyes slowly as the chamber suddenly sank a bundle of dark fibers into his abdomen. Inside his body cavity, conversion devices extended and began to process him.
In the adjoining control bay, Lena noted that Sean's heart had stopped. The machine had simply bypassed it, re-routing his vascular system through a synthetic pumping unit. Neural activity was still regular.
With his internal organs mostly turned into machinery, Sean's upper chest was encased in reinforced titanium armor. Rigid panels were attached to his circuitry-covered muscles, forming a solid shell around his ribs. Next a rigid shoulder unit was lowered over his head and bolted to his neck and upper chest. It was heavy. He screwed up his eyes as a welding torch whizzed over and sprayed sparks as it bonded his mechanical torso components together and welded metal plating over his abdomen. More wiring and armor snapped into position around his hips and lower back, joining around his waist and forming a solid metal shell.
Then suddenly, silence. The storm of mechanical activity around his body ground to a halt, arrays of sensors detaching from his robotic exoskeleton. All that could be heard was the faint humming of machinery and a recurring beep from one of the monitoring terminals in the lab beyond the conversion chamber. Sean reopened his eyes slowly and tried to look down at his body. He now looked over two-thirds robotic. All of his arms, and much of his chest and legs, were covered with sinuous cybernetic connections and tough titanium armor. Numbly, he tried to flex his hands. The tubular segments of his articulated robotic fingers whirred and closed into a hard metallic fist. He felt the machine within him, humming, cool.
"Stage one complete," Lena intoned. "Neural interface and stage two."
The chamber reinitialized, and a gray-black headset was lowered slowly onto his head.
It aligned with the frame that held his upper body in place and slid smoothly down a hydraulic vertical column above him, coming to rest over his crown, brow and neck. It was mounted with electronic probes and sensors, all poised above his skin. Sean felt the cool metal against his forehead and let out a whimper.
There was a crackle of energy on either side of Sean's head and the laser crosshairs on his temples flared with intensity. Rhythmic buzzing filled his ears. His jaw slackened.
In the control room, behind the viewscreen, Lena verified that the neural interface was locked into position. Brain activity in the subject had dipped, but was stable. As she instructed the headset to complete his conversion, there was a deep, resonating hum through the laboratory complex. The cubicle glowed. as the cybernetic headgear began to read his brain patterns, then shape them.
His thoughts were suddenly not his own. His mind was awash with interference, his consciousness squeezed between alien patterns and strange knowledge. What had previously been numbness in his limbs became complete paralysis. The headset was attempting to induce artificial feelings and thoughts. In his head he saw himself, far away, as a robotic, emotionless cyborg. He couldn't tell what was real and what was delusion. He felt light-headed and sick.
Meanwhile, the gleaming technology spread over his neck and upper back. Tubing threaded out from under his chest armor and plugged into the skin under his chin and ears. His neck was enclosed by a gleaming collar of cybernetic components. An electronic vocal modulator was installed in his larynx. He realized he would sound like a robot whenever he spoke from now on. It felt uncomfortable, but even now his pain receptors remained chemically-dormant.
Then, as he tried to keep his mind occupied, to prevent it from slipping into the implanted patterns that occupied the fringes of his thoughts, he felt the neural pressure slacken for a moment. For that split-second, Sean had shut the machine thoughts out entirely - his mind had been entirely his own. As soon as he relaxed, the brainwashing progressed, but it seemed he could hold the headset's control systems at bay. What was left of Sean's organic human heart leapt in excitement. He tried to recite simple patterns: song lyrics, times tables. He concentrated as hard as he could on the act of remembering tiny details of his life up to that moment, and banished the dark thoughts of obedience and control to the edges of his mind. He knew it was his last chance.
Lena's voice boomed in the chamber: "Do not fight. Concede." She failed to hide a note of concern in her voice. From the many conversions she had supervised, she knew that this was the most delicate stage in the whole process. Everything depended on Sean's thought patterns entering a neutral, receptive state, in order for the physical interface to be created without inducing spinal shock and eventually brain death. A precise calibration of chemical relaxants and directed electromagnetic alteration was required for the host to become receptive. Slowly, carefully, she eased up an intensity control on the control desk in front of her.
The power began to build again. The chamber hummed more loudly and glowed ever brighter. As the signal was boosted, the mental disturbance that Sean was experiencing began to enclose him again. It was only a shifting magnetic field formed by the headset probes, but to Sean it felt like wisps of resignation and acceptance were swirling around the very core of his being.
He opened his mouth to speak. His jaw felt stiff.
"Please," he said, and was surprised to hear the electronically-distorted, clipped robotic tones that came out of his mouth. "Please-stop."
Something inside him swelled momentarily and then died. He was resigned to what he was becoming. The machine was too powerful for him. He couldn't fight it any more.
Gaining ground quickly, the headset flushed away the last traces of protest or resistance from his mind. Then, it sent a high-energy burst of a carrier signal into his mind. His brain involuntarily responded with a weak echo. The headset repeated the signal, pausing between attempts to assess the level of compliance. On the fourth attempt, Sean's brainwaves began to register a clear, wavering carrier signal matching the one generated by the headset. He knew his attempt at fighting back had failed. His will was no longer entirely his own. He felt relaxed, prepared.
A thick reflective visor slid slowly down from the front of the helmet and bounced two red laser beams directly into his eyes, cutting off his vision of the world outside the chamber. He didn't flinch as the beams formed images at the back of his retina. He was ready to receive the final stage of his cybernetic conversion. Suddenly all he could see was luminous colored blocks and grids, as if his vision was being recalibrated. He didn't understand it, at least not yet, but it felt correct.
Momentarily blinded, and with his bodily sensations dulled, only the whirring and hissing around his head told him the chamber was still operating. Enhanced audio receptors fitted to the sides of his head, plugging into and covering his ears. A thick, woven bundle of cables plugged into the back of his neck, at the base of his skull. The breach formed an access port into Sean's brain, and through it the machine began to interface with his cerebellum.
"Neural conversion commencing."
It took only seconds. Control implants and auxiliary processors were fitted directly into his brain cavity via the neck port, and metal began to coat his temples, his forehead and the sides of his jaw. The computer was integrating itself into him. His optic nerves were turned into data-bearing wires and his retinas became electronic visual sensors, relaying data into his cortex.
Lengths of tubing and wires connected the gleaming segments as they covered his skin, and tiny welding torches fused them together. The visor retracted. His eyes were cold and metallic, no longer showing any emotion. Under the cybernetic headgear, the last haven of his humanity - his brain - was being adapted and restructured by the tiny devices as they prepared to take control of him.
The machine was in his thoughts now. It was a part of his being. He belonged to it, depended on it. Its analysis complete, the machine now understood how his mind worked better than Sean ever could have. It knew which parts of his cerebrum to plug into and precisely how to stimulate and program them. A network of tiny data-carrying fibres wired up his brain, connecting the implanted microcircuitry modules.
This is my purpose, he realized dimly. I am part of the machine.
Then the cybernetic control systems pre-empted his human consciousness. Neural connections were bypassed and re-routed through electronic components. Sean's faltering central executive gave way to the invading cybernetic control systems. He shuddered his last and was instantly reinitialized as a cyborg.
Everything began again. His upgraded eyes glowed with an unearthly green-gray light.
"Unit K7A-301 online - full host control attained" barked the new cyborg Sean in a hard monotone.
Lena gave a tight-lipped smile and set Sean's core program to download. His computerized brain performed self-diagnostics and absorbed the data that began to flood in. Meanwhile most of the probes and surgical tools detached from his body and retreated into the walls of the cubicle. Their role in the conversion was complete; they could wait, dormant until the next subject was presented.
"Program loaded: initializing," said Sean. He was ruled by logic and obedience now: the human part of his mind was still alive and awake, but completely subjugated to the influence of the dominant cybernetic part. His knowledge and memories of his life were preserved, off-line in organic storage.
The remainder of the conversion devices retracted and the cable bundle detached from the back of his neck. It left a circular, ridged access port for future upgrades and programming. The headset which had brainwashed him lifted off his metal-enclosed cranium.
Then the bonds around his now-robotic wrists and ankles were released. With a click, the fibrous restraints uncoiled and folded away into the walls of the conversion chamber. Freed from his imprisonment, Sean lifted his head stiffly and stood motionless, his optical circuits scanning the lab for activity.
Lena made a few final checks on Sean's physical condition. The beginnings of tissue regeneration were detectable, but there were no signs of rejection; his organics were responding well to the foreign material. His electro-neural patterns were stable. Satisfied, she brought him up to full activation.
Sean leaned back slightly and then stepped out of the conversion chamber. His mechanical joints hissed and purred as his strode smoothly into the center of the lab. He looked dead ahead, keeping his head level. Hydraulic pistons slid evenly back and forth inside his arms and legs with each precise step. Then he stopped and turned to face the door into the adjoining control room.
Lena stood from her desk, walked around to the door and out into the glaring light of the lab. She was also a cyborg. In her late twenties, originally brunette, with a mild expression but cold eyes. But she was still more human than Sean: only her left arm and her forehead and left eye showed evidence of cybernetic parts. She approached Sean and examined him as he stood still.
He was slightly taller than he had been as a basic human, and much heavier, weighed down by the gun-gray metal that encased him. His robotic arms hung lifelessly at his sides. He was poised, ready. The brain implants monitored his environment and waited for instructions.
"Designation?" asked Lena, staring up at the tubes and electronic cables wired into Sean's head.
"Unit K-seven-alpha, three-zero-one," replied Sean in his hollow, robot-like voice.
"Legacy familiar designation?"
"Welcome to Progress, Sean," said Lena proudly. "I am Lena, unit K-four-gamma. What is your registration class?"
"Light infantry, reconnaissance and infiltration." Sean's head turned slightly as Lena began to walk around him.
"You are operating in restricted mode," she pronounced firmly. "Your organic neural systems are yet to fully adapt. Direct control will be released after your conditioning is complete. Your meat brain is only cooperating because obediance is currently being electronically induced to by your implants. But soon it will comply willingly, and then you will belong to us. Acknowledge."
"It is understood," Sean said.
Lena looked at him. He had been an excellent acquisition, she thought to herself. Moving slowly behind him, she inspected the hard metal armor covering his back and the machinery in his legs. There was further work that could be done, of course, but it was safer to get the major prosthesis out of the way now and schedule refinements for later. His conversion had been basic but effective.
"You are in service as of now. At this point you will obey only my instructions, transmitted verbally or electronically."
"Affirmative," said the huge cyborg. Its eyes scanned the laboratory complex in which they stood. It felt like home.
"Sean, we need more like you," she said, looking up from his metallic body to stare at his impassive face.
Sean nodded sharply. He understood. He knew this was only the beginning.
* * *
At the entrance to a dark alley near Lower Weston's far northern harbor, Sean stood half in shadow and waited. He was wearing a long gray coat that hid most of his converted body. Only the cybernetics on his head and his glowing, artificial eyes betrayed his mechanical nature. Reaching up, he pulled his hood on, casting a dark shadow over his features.
He scanned the surrounding roads and buildings for life signs. He had been programmed to search for healthy individuals for possible recruitment. His processors calculated that at least four candidate humans would enter physical range over the next half-hour.
He could wait. It was inevitable, after all.