Chain of Command

Photo: JD Hancock. CC-BY.

Zey were frozen in place, not even daring to breathe from the shock and fear. All zeir systems were either sounding the alarm, or just as frozen as zey were, lagging in the sudden rush of adrenaline that zeir organic parts had dumped into zeir bloodstream, overwhelming zeir emergency response systems.

This one one of the pitfalls of combining organic and mechanic systems. Sometimes, the organic instincts won out, even when it was the worst possible response to a situation.

A Rogue was standing less than five feet away. X’d just jumped down from the platform above, landing with X back to zem, leaving zem with nothing to do but to hope and pray to any spirits or gods or demons that might be listening that X somehow hadn’t seen zem, and wouldn’t turn around to see that zey were standing there, in plain view, without even an alcove to hide in—

The Rogue turned around.

Zey wanted to scream, or just disappear into the wall and die. Terror was making zeir organic hearts pound faster than zey could ever remember, and zeir systems couldn’t handle the strain. Zey wanted to run, but the mechanic parts in zeir legs wouldn’t obey zeir desperate commands to move. Zey’d seen the same training videos everyone else had, heard the same horror stories, seen the lists of casualties.

Rogues were soldiers who’d broken the Chain of Command, and they left a trail of bodies wherever they went. They were sick and confused, cut loose away from the Chain, and like wounded animals, they lashed out without conscience or awareness. There was no helping them, no bringing them back into the Chain. Once a link was broken it could never be mended again. The only thing you could do was run, or die.

Zey couldn’t run. Zeir legs wouldn’t move. Zeir hearts were pounding so loud zey almost couldn’t hear the thrum of zeir motors almost overloading from fear.

The Rogue was standing less than five feet away, and X was looking at zem.

X was wearing a helmet, the visor down and darkened so zey couldn’t see any of X features or expression. Zey knew X would be using the interface to literally watch zeir systems overloading with what had started as terror, but was now transforming into horror as the reality of zeir situation ground in. Zey couldn’t run. Zey couldn’t move. Zey couldn’t escape. The Rogue was going to kill zem, and there was nothing zey could do about it.

Zey couldn’t even speak to beg for mercy, to try and convince X into sparing zeir life, because the Chain of Command did not want zem to speak. Zey were not to give away any more information than zem simply being there gave away. The Chain of Command ordered it.No one was coming to rescue zem, zey were just going to die.

Zey wouldn’t even get to bring Morrow the flowers ne had asked for.

The Rogue shifted X weight and tilted X head, then, in two smooth steps, was right in front of zem, lifting a hand to zeir head, and it felt like zeir hearts should have stopped. The Rogue tapped the key on the side of zeir jaw.

The faceplate for zeir helmet folded back down into zeir armour, zeir light, useless, recon armour, leaving zem staring into zeir own reflection in the Rogue’s visor.

Four wide, frightened, yellow eyes stared back at zem, broadcasting zeir fear plainly, all zeir training forgotten. The Rogue lifted X hand again, now in front of zeir face, so that the black glove blocked out everything else. Zey knew this was it, the moment of the death, approaching at last. Not in the heat of battle, or in a heroic rescue mission, but frozen in place by zeir own fear and the Chain’s unrelenting Command, killed at the hands of a Rogue.

Zey would never know what tea made from the petals of yellow bird-vine tasted like.

Zey heard and felt the Rouge’s fingers key in the last updated universal release code on zeir forehead, the version of the code that no Rogue should have had access to

__and then the sky was pitch dark instead of too-bright, zey were leaning against a wall, and the Rogue was sitting six feet away on a new ground, drenched in shadows and covered in small, scattered rocks.

And zey could move.

Zey gasped in a breath of the suddenly cold air, and felt the heat that had built up in zeir system while zey had been offline like a suppressing weight. The vents on zeir lower back opened, and pulled in more air, circulating it throughout zeir system, then out again through the higher vents on zeir forward-sides to cool zem down. Zeir systems were even laggier than before, to the point that zey couldn’t even pull up a sitrep. Zey could move now, zeir limbs no longer physically locked into place by the combination of zeir own fear and the Chain’s Command, but zeir energy was gone, zeir battery far drained below half, and what felt like all of zeir processing power had been diverted away from the usual systems and into something zey couldn’t access or understand. When zey tried, an unknown error code just popped up.

Error: FR-0505041513

Zey tried again, and got the same message.

Zey didn’t have the energy to try it a third time.

The Rogue was sitting six feet away.

Why were zey still alive?

The Rogue was sitting six feet away, sitting sideways to zem, one leg folded, another straight out, and the third bent at the knee, X arms folded and resting across it. Not trying to hide, not

acting like X was even aware zey were online again.

X helmet was still on, the visor still dark. Zey couldn’t see X face. Zeir own helmet was still collapsed, and zey didn’t have the energy or processing power to even think about lifting zeir arm to reengage it. And even if zey had the energy or processing power to move, what good would zeir helmet visor do? It wasn’t designed for hard combat, it was designed to keep the sun out of zeir eyes and stop little-pests and dust from flying into zeir face.

The Chain of Command was no longer holding zeir tongue, so zey could speak now, if zey wanted to, if zey could find the energy or processing power. It had been broken away from the Chain. Zey knew without even having to be told, zey could feel the absence. And there was no other reason for the Rogue to keep zem alive. Rogues either killed you, or they broke you loose, but the end result was the same.

You could never rejoin the Chain of Command. You would never be able to hear or even follow the orders of the Authority again. Everyone who had relied upon you was now lost. You were a broken link, a weak link, and even if there was a way to let you rejoin, you would never be allowed, because you would always be tainted. You would weaken the structure. You could never be relied upon again

Once you were out of the control of the Authority, you could never submit again. Many had tried, but they always succumbed to the sickness again, and caused more damage than their breaking loose had in the first place. If zey ever showed zemself in front of any part of the Chain again, zey would be killed on sight. Zey would be just as hated and feared as any other Rogue.

Because that’s what zey were now, a Rogue. A monster. Corrupted to the core, knowing nothing but the need for violence and revenge against those they could never rejoin.

But as the cool air began to slowly lower zeir temperature back down to normal levels, zey couldn’t help but notice that, aside from whatever program was using up so much of zeir processing power…zey didn’t feel sick.

Zey didn’t feel any different, except that zey could no longer feel the Chain linking zem to the others. The weight had been lifted from zem, from zeir mind and body, and even though zey were exhausted, zey felt lighter, like zey were lightheaded. Zey were almost afraid zey would float away.

But zey didn’t feel the way everyone said Rogues felt. The other Rogue spoke, then, cutting through zeir chain of

thought as easily as X had cut zem out of the Chain of Command. “Your systems will be slowed down for around three more hours, then you’ll start to get your normal processing speed back.” X voice was quiet, serious. X didn’t turn X head to look at zem. “I installed a program that will help you learn how to use all your functions yourself, since you can’t rely on the Chain to do it for you, anymore. That’s why you’re so tired. Your system isn’t used to handling everything by itself. Right now the program is working to restore the atrophied connections the Chain had control of. You’ll have to learn how to use them yourself, relearn everything you think you know. But you’ll adapt, the program will help, and we’ll help you, too. It’s not like they say it is, you aren’t alone.”

And like a ghost, another Rogue stepped out of the shadows. X didn’t stop or hesitate, just walked over to kneel next to the first Rogue, placing something on the ground

It took zeir reduced processing capabilities a few long seconds to realize it was a bundle of sticks and logs and dried leaves. Firewood. There came a spark between the two Rogues, and then there was a fire, burning away the blue shadows and casting everything in orange light.

And then zey realized zey were surrounded, more Rogues on all sides. They’d been hidden in the shadows, silent, waiting, watching, now thrown into sharp relief by the light from the fire, the rocks blue and black shadows behind them. Zey didn’t even have enough processing power left to be afraid.

All zey could do was sit there, the program eating up zeir processing power, zeir limbs _willing to move, but unable. Zeir battery was still slowly draining, point zero percent by point Zero percent.

The first Rogue spoke again, as though reading zeir mind. Or, more likely, reading zeir battery stat through X visor. “The drain on your battery should wear off in a few more minutes, you shouldn’t even get to below 25%, but if you do, we can share a charge, we’ve got plenty of volunteers, or you can use lamps, if you prefer. No one expects you to just start trusting us right away. We’ve all been in your position, we know it feels like the end of the world. You’ve been told your whole life that we’re the enemy, that we’re dangerous, that we kill innocents. But we are not your enemy.

We don’t want to hurt anyone, we just want everyone to be free to choose for themselves. The Chain of Command always told you what to do, what to think. We won’t do that. If, once you’re fully functional again, you decide you want to leave, we’ll let you. If you decide you hate us, we’ll let you do that too. We’ll show you what we know, and tell you what can’t be shown. But it’s up to you to decide what to do with that knowledge.” None of the other Rogues had spoken, or even moved since the second one came in with the firewood. X was still crouching in the same spot, next to the first one, just watching the slowly growing fire, and feeding it more twigs and sticks as it crackled hungrily.

Zey could speak, if zey could think of anything to say. Nothing felt adequate. Zey didn’t know what to think. Zeir mind just kept going back to the fact that zey didn’t feel how Rogues were supposed to feel. Zey didn’t want to return to the Chain just to kill everyone still connected. Zey didn’t have the urge to march into the nearest city and start slaughtering civilians.

Zey looked down at zeir hands, staring at zeir white and grey gloves. Sturdy rock-climbing gloves, to help zem scout the ruins for missed passageways or basements for any resources the Chain had missed on the first sweep through.

Zey did not feel the urge to hunt down Morrow and rip rix limb from limb, as many of the horror stories about Rogues told was the inevitable conclusion to becoming a broken link. The stories always said Rogues went berserk, all their mechanic logic corrupted beyond recognition, nothing but their organic instinct left, untamed and uncontrolled. There was a reason everyone in the Chain of Command was half mechanic and half organic it was the only way to ensure a perfect balance of logic and instinct. When the Chain of Command was broken, the Rogue could no longer maintain that balance.

Organic instinct was dangerous if left unattended, and organic instinct allowed to run wild inevitably led to disaster. Rogues were well-known to hunt down and murder any person or thing they’d even had an attachment to before being broken, because there was no longer any logic to temper that attachment.

Zey couldn’t count the number or variation of horror stories zey had heard over zeir life about Rogues turning on zeir loved ones, zeir friends, zeir team mates. It was a tragedy and a horror wrapped into one.

But zey didn’t feel any different. And in the stories, the Rogues always felt the change happening, they felt themselves turning into monsters. That was part of the horror their helplessness and suffering, knowing they were turning into something that would be the death of everyone they cared about.

But zey didn’t feel any different. Zey didn’t feel like a monster. Zey didn’t want to kill anyone, zey didn’t even have the processing power to be angry.

All zey could do was sit there, in the firelight, surrounded by too many Rogues to count with zeir level of energy, and watch zeir battery percentage creep further down towards 25%, not knowing what was going to happen next, but knowing that zeir life would never be the same again.

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