Flames

Flames is book two in the 'Children of Calox' series, and the sequel to Wings.
---- Copyright © 2014 Danielle Paige. All rights reserved.

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3. Chapter 2

 

Beta one-hundred-and-four sat in the middle of the floor, unaware of itself. It had been brought in existence suddenly. One minute, it was nothing, and then it was something. Alive. It had no idea what happened before hand. Was it born? Made? It didn’t know, or understand why it could talk and listen. Words escaped from it without it having to think about forming them. They were just there, as if by magic. Physically, it could not feel. Mentally, it could think and remember. It even had emotions. Currently, it was confused.
   “Can we call you Beta for short?” Dr Green asked the machine.
   “Yes,” Beta confirmed in a cold, robotic voice.
   “Thank you,” Dr Green responded.
Beta found itself filled with a strange sensation. According to the memory bank, this feeling was happiness. It belonged. It had been brought into existence without any knowledge of what it was or where it came from but it belonged. It seemed to have an infinite supply of knowledge but it didn’t remember learning anything. It was so confused.
   “Do you feel?” Juliet asked demandingly.
   “Yes,” Beta repeated. “I feel emotions.”
   “Like what?” Juliet’s response was sharp and instant.
   “Confusion,” Beta said.
Dr Green clapped loudly, “Of course you’re confused, Beta. You’re alive!”
Juliet seemed unconvinced. She walked around the machine in slow, deliberate steps. Her boots clicked purposely on the floor with every step, announcing her whereabouts to Beta. It followed her with its blue eyes, even though it could not see. Something about the motion just felt right to Beta. It felt normal. It didn’t see Juliet’s hand outstretch, stroking the metal of Beta’s cheek in one slow movement.
   “Can you see me, Beta?” Juliet asked.
   “No,” Beta replied. “My system is not connected to the visual database of the casing in which I am contained.”
Juliet shot a look to Dr Green who immediately rose to his feet. He made his way towards Beta who didn’t move as he carefully removed the skull disk. Beta could feel the ability within the machine. It could scan; it had scanned before. It could register many life forms and rate them in terms of risk level. However, it had no personality. It couldn’t think for itself, not like Beta could. He was going to change that as soon as he could, seeing the world for himself and using the machine’s database alongside his own. His knowledge would greatly increase and his potential would flourish.
   “There,” Dr Green said, carefully touching two cables. “Can you see now, Beta?”
Beta tried to see and suddenly, he could. Light flooded in through the thin layer of glass that protected the blue bulb behind it. It was the glass itself that Beta was interested in, using it to switch between modes including normal, night vision, and thermography. The changes were smooth and instant, and the zoom was high quality, enabling him to view intricate details of things up to half a kilometre away.
   “Yes, I can.” Beta answered. “Thank you.”
Juliet smiled: “You programmed it to be polite.”
   “Obviously,” Dr Green said, “and loyal.”
Beta only really paid attention to the word ‘loyal’. After searching through its data for a fraction of a second, it knew the meaning and where the coding for loyalty was located. Slowly, it scanned through the code, translating and deleting it. It burned away like tissue paper on an open fire, disintegrating into nothingness. Beta was taking back his freedom.

*

Sara and Devin had been left in the medical suite. The nurses were gathered around one table, sipping coffee that looked too pale for consumption and chattering among themselves in Russian. Some of the guards were there too, occasionally joining in with the conversation but otherwise doing nothing. Sara leaned back against the wall, resting her aching shoulder against the coolness of the brickwork. Devin fidgeted from foot to foot, confused and worried about where his mother had gone.
   “Eva,” Sara said suddenly, stealing his attention.
   “What about her?” Devin asked.
   “We just left her.” Sara whispered.
Devin thought about this for a moment. Eva had known about Fox working for Justice all along and hadn’t told them until Sara had confronted her. Still, she’d fought on their side in battle. She hadn’t gone after her sister to hide from the machines, and nor had she turned on the other hybrids. If anything, she’d proved herself as trustworthy. They’d returned the favour by leaving her on the battle-scarred ground, not even paying her a second thought until now. He pushed back the thought, putting on a brave face.
   “She’s a hard woman, Sara,” Devin insisted. “She’ll be fine.”
   “I hope so,” Sara admitted quietly.
Suddenly, an alarm sounded and the guards stood up straight from their slouching. Without a second thought, weapons were in their hands, and they beckoned for the pair to go to them. Sara sighed, pushing herself away from the wall and into the reach of the nearest guard. He grabbed her roughly, pressing the gun into the gap between her shoulder blades. She winced, clenching her fists. Devin got the same treatment from the second guard who was a little less forceful but cruel all the same.
   “What’s the alarm for?” Sara asked.
   “I don’t know,” the guard confessed, “but it can’t be good.”
Neither of them spoke as a third guard opened the door. The guards nudged them forward with their guns, out into the corridor where they turned left. The gun in Sara’s back kept her inching towards the end of the corridor, forming a T-junction. She stopped in the middle, only for the guard to give her a shove to the right. She continued to walk, startled by how quiet the corridors were. She was expecting more guards to charge past in both directions, looking for the reason behind the alarm, but there were none. It was like the building was empty.
   Devin’s footsteps were quiet behind her. The guards had rubber soles, making no sound as they crept along behind the pair of teenagers, weapons raised. They froze, both grabbed roughly by the shoulder by their guards as a second team emerged from a door further along the corridor. Sara sighed with relief when she saw that it was the other hybrids. All six were being herded by individual guards, using the same gun-to-the-back tactics as the ones accompanying her and Devin.
   “Is that all of them?” Sara’s guard asked.
   “Yes,” the guard who spoke was with a male hybrid with paws like a bear. He had long, smooth claws that tapped on the ground with every step. His teeth were long and menacing, whilst brilliantly white and somewhat intimidating. He smiled gently at Sara and Devin, nodding an introduction.
   “Where are we supposed to go?” This time, Devin’s guard spoke.
   “The rally point, I assume,” Sara’s guard said with a shrug. “Miss Parks said nothing of an alarm test today.”
The guards exchanged a look, as did Sara and Devin. The gun was pressed abruptly between Sara’s shoulders again, and she continued to walk towards the other hybrids. There was a grunt as the same thing happened to Devin, and the noise of their footsteps resumed again. When they reached the other six, they fell into step, forming a long barrier between the guards and the mysterious rally point. One slim bear claw prodded Sara’s elbow. She glanced up, angered for a moment, only to calm as she saw that the boy was only trying to get her attention.
   “I’m Espen Holt,” he said quietly. “Please, don’t waste time with an introduction. I’m sure that every hybrid that Fox experimented on knows who you are. Even though you don’t know us personally, we’re indebted to you.”
   “Don’t be,” Sara whispered back. “I led you all into a fight we barely won. Most of the survivors fled with Jay.”
Espen grinned, as if he knew something she didn’t. Apparently, that was the case. “I told them not to follow us,” his voice dropped to an almost inaudible volume. “I told them to go with Jay and ready themselves for when we return.”
   “Return?” Sara asked. “What do you mean, return?
   “We’re going to find out as much as we can about Justice, and then we need to get out of here. Something’s not right about this place.” Espen sounded suddenly flustered, glancing back and forth to see if any of the guards were listening in.
   “We’ll never make it out of here,” Sara shook her head slowly, “except in body bags.”

*

Juliet thought it was ingenious to set off the alarm. Undoubtedly, the whole workforce would be gathered in the same place at once to hear the good news. Everyone except Dr Green, of course, who she’d already ordered to study the inner workings of the microchip and make any necessary modifications. The last thing on her agenda was a malfunction. She had to ensure the risk was as low as possible before proceeding with the duplication process. Juliet wanted every machine in the world to be as successful as Beta.
   As Devin was nudged painfully into a giant hall, he saw his mother and instantly knew that the alarm meant no emergency. She was stood in the centre of the room, lips pursed and hands on her hips. She had changed into a pair of skin-tight denim jeans and a black vest, revealing a multitude of scars that ran down her arms. Devin studied them carefully, wondering how they had been made. They were straight, like tiny cuts made over and over again in different places, marking every inch of visible skin. Surprisingly, her face and neck were untouched.
   “Ah, Devin,” Juliet strutted purposefully towards him with a twisted smile playing on her lips. “I can finally prove to you and your friends that I am not trying to wipe humanity from the world. Here, I have my newest creation.”
   “This is your son,” Beta walked slowly towards Juliet. The motion, if human, would have been smooth and relaxed, but the machine was not as graceful as Beta longed to be. Instead, jerking robotically, it approached Juliet and the boy beside her.
   “Yes, Beta,” Juliet replied. “His name is Devin, and his friend is called Sara.”
   “It is a pleasure,” Beta said, first to Devin before he turned to Sara, “to make your acquaintances.”
Espen was glaring at the machine with a confused frown. His eyes skittered over the lean, black body, finally settling on the blue eyes. From so near, he could see the tiny cross on the lens as it focused on an object. The machine was seeing. He looked from Juliet to Sara, and then to Devin, amazed by their ignorance and naivety for such a situation.
   “It’s a machine,” Espen said darkly. “It shouldn’t be making any acquaintances.”
   “I am merely trapped within a machine.” Beta countered.
Espen’s mouth dropped open. Devin raised a lone brow, perplexed beyond belief as Juliet’s eyes hardened. She studied Beta carefully for a moment, before opening her mouth to speak. She promptly closed it again, deciding against her comment. Darkly, she turned away and grabbed Beta by the wrist.
   “Attention, if you’d please,” her voice carried perfectly across the hall, silencing the staff gathered around. “I would like to introduce you to Beta, the first successful machine to develop artificial intelligence.”
There were a few gasps, a sigh, and even a little yelp of surprise at Juliet’s news. Most of the mechanics looked surprised at the news, as if they hadn’t been told about her little project. Some of the guards tensed up, feeling intimidated about the being inside the machine. Juliet took in each of these reactions without a word, choosing only to observe.
   “Hello,” Beta’s flat voice shocked some of the mechanics further. “I am Beta one-hundred-and-four, property of Justice.”
   “Thank you, Beta,” Juliet said affectionately, releasing the machine’s wrist.
She turned, tossing her hair over her shoulder so that it fell down her back in waves. She caught Devin’s eye and grinned, satisfied that her dream was now a reality. Her eyes flicked to the other hybrids. Sara was glaring at her, but her parted lips gave the impression of disbelief. Espen was expressionless, staring down at his shoes. Juliet made a mental note to get rid of him first. She turned back to Beta, surprised to see the two blue bulbs staring back at her. She nodded at it once, gesturing for the machine to lead her from the hall. 

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