Guardians

Clem eased himself down into the pilot’s seat, letting out something between a groan and a sigh. He closed his eyes and smiled as he sank back into the worn leather. The pain in his knees flared up for a brief second, then became a low ache. The chair creaked under his weight, and he briefly wondered if it would hold him up.

Opening his eyes, he stared out towards the horizon. The sun was painting the sky in shades of red and purple as it dipped into the west. 500 feet up with a clean view all around. Clem hadn’t even known there were sunsets like this until he became Chief Engineer.

His gaze drifted over the control panel in front of him. He fought the urge to flip the switches, but couldn’t erase the smile on his face. Growing up, every kid had a favorite Guardian. This one was his. They called it Helios, the Sunset Guardian back then. It faced due west, painted in a mix of bright orange and blue that blended perfectly with the sky as the sun went down. Helios was piloted by Jeremiah Hughes for most of its career, until the city started automating them. The signed poster he’d gotten from the man still hung in Clem’s office at work.

When Clem was little, he’d memorized all of Jeremiah’s stats. In two wars, he shot down over 300 enemy aircraft with a 100% kill rate. He led the charge when the enemy developed their own robots, including one of the greatest fights Clem had ever seen before or since. When they released the documentary on the Guardians’ pilots, he watched Jeremiah’s parts over and over.

Ten-year-old Clem spent hours in his room, pretending to be Jeremiah, copying the movements he made when piloting the robot. Every night as he drifted off to sleep, Clem had watched the lights on Helios’ shoulders blink in the sky above the city, and felt safe.

He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the view screen and sighed. That was fifty years gone. His hair was streaked through with gray, turning white in places. His hands, which were once so steady, shook a little when he held a wrench. His reflection showed him a few small wrinkles in the dark skin of his face.

“They won’t let you do this much longer, old man,” he said to himself. “Better enjoy it while you can.”

He knew that they only let him keep the job out of respect. An impeccable record, an extra five years of school and another four years of military service had earned Clem the job of Chief Engineer. When he came on, he was already the most knowledgeable person they had on the subject of the Guardians. But lately things had been slipping. He’d set something down only to find that it had somehow disappeared afterward. He had trouble finding the right words to explain what he wanted to the young kids who weren’t listening anyway. He was forgetting.

Clem stared at his hands and wondered where the time went. It used to be he could make the climb up to the cockpit in under an hour with no harness. A few years back, he had to have Takako rig up something to keep him safe. Even with the harness, he still had to stop and rest on the way up. He looked around the cockpit. He still knew every piece of machinery in here. Every nick and scratch in Helios’ metal hide was as familiar to him as the scrapes and bumps of his own body.

He was pulled out of his thoughts by a blinking light on the console. For a minute, his brain didn’t quite register what he was seeing. All twelve of the Guardians had been decommissioned years ago. There shouldn’t be enough power in the control core to run a toaster, much less something of this size.

The lights flickered and clicked on above him as the giant roared to life. The door to the cockpit slammed shut, and Clem’s ears popped as the cabin pressurized. Dazed, he shuffled towards the view screen. Small words scrolled across the screen as the systems booted up one by one.

“Clem!” a small voice shouted over his radio. “ What the fuck are you doing up there?!”

“What the fuck are you guys doing down there?” he asked. “This thing just powered up all on its own, Takako”

“Nobody knows what happened, boss,” she replied. “All twelve Guardians just powered on, one by one. You need to get out of there before it starts moving.”

“Cabin’s sealed,” he said. “Talk me through this. What could have caused this to happen?”

Takako’s shrug was almost audible. “Could be whoever shut them down didn’t do it right. Could be a glitch in the AI. I suppose someone could have hacked into the system recently. We weren’t exactly keeping a close eye on them.”

There was a loud groan as the weapons went online. Clem watched helplessly as the reticle formed on the view-screen and targeted an incoming passenger shuttle. They were flying low, ready to land in the city. Clem did the math in his head. During rush hour, there had to be close to a hundred people on the shuttle.

“Takako,” he said, “can you shut down the weapons systems?”

“What do you think we’ve been trying to do–” Her words were drowned out by the roar of the missiles as they flew towards the unsuspecting commuters. Clem closed his eyes, trying not to imagine the panicked screams of the passengers.

“Boss?” Takako’s voice seemed very far away now. “You there?”

“I can’t go anywhere else,” he said. “Are the weapons active on all twelve?”

There was a long pause. “Yes.”

“How many casualties so far?”

“About two thousand,” she said. He could just make out the sound of her fingers tapping on the keyboard. “They’re shooting down anything that’s coming in. Not just passenger shuttles, either. At least two supply ships have been torpedoed in the harbor. We’ve already sent out a signal warning people to stay away.”

“That’s a start,” Clem said. “Have they moved on the city?”

“That’s the strange thing,” she replied. “They haven’t moved from defensive positions. They’re just…waiting.”

Clem stared at the view screen. The weapons systems were all online, and Helios was fully operational. There was enough firepower on one of the Guardians to level the city a few times over, much less all twelve. In the distance, the smoke from the passenger shuttle wafted into the air. A flock of birds flew past, and Clem cringed waiting for the system to take aim.

After a few seconds, the birds passed and nothing happened.

“They’re protecting us,” he whispered to himself.

“What’s that, boss?”

“The Guardians. Anything above a certain size is being registered as a threat. But a small team of people could power them down fairly easily.”

“We’d need twelve teams, working in unison on site,” Takako said, the excitement rising in her voice. “Even then, I don’t think powering them down will be enough. We’re going to have to destroy them, boss.”

Clem winced at the thought of it. The Guardians had been around his entire life. “Pull the teams together,” he said with a heavy sigh.

“Will do,” she replied. “And boss?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s going to be okay,” she said.

Clem clicked off the radio and stared at the control panel in front of him. He shivered slightly. It was already cold this high up, and wasn’t likely to get any warmer. He cycled through menus, trying to locate the climate control. The city had removed most of the comfort systems when they automated the robots twenty years ago. The only concessions left were the pilot’s seat, and the control panel for maintenance.

It took close to an hour before he was able to locate the necessary files. His fingers were numb as he clumsily typed out the commands. The familiar ache of arthritis had settled in to his wrists and elbows, forcing him to type at a snail’s pace. Something clicked inside the robot, and for a second Clem worried that he’d misread something and fired off more weapons. Warm air poured out of the vents, bringing with it the smell of burned dust.

“At least one thing’s gone right today,” Clem thought at he massaged his aching wrists. The sun had fully set, and night had settled in. Away from the city lights, he was able to take in the full measure of the stars. A feeling of insignificance washed over him, followed closely by the fear of the situation he was in. He sank back in the chair, and let himself cry.

A large banging filled the cockpit, pulling him awake. Clem sat up, and regretted it instantly. He could barely turn his neck. The banging continued, followed by the muffled shouts of Takako. Turning to the cockpit door, he could just make out her head peeking in through the window.

“For a tiny girl, she sure as hell makes a lot of noise,” he muttered.

Shuffling over to the door, Clem saw her through the window. She rolled her eyes at him and shouted “Open the damn door!”

It took another hour at the control panel to locate the subroutines for the door. It slid open, and Takako barrelled in, followed by a young man that Clem didn’t recognize.

“It’s about time,” she said, running a hand over her shaved head. A small pattern of scars crisscrossed the skin on her neck and scalp. “You know how cold it is out there?”

The sky outside was lightening with the rising sun, and Clem realized he’d been out for hours. He turned to the young blonde man who had climbed up with Takako. His name tag read “Anderson”. He was tall, and his muscles showed even through the jumpsuit that was practically designed to make everyone look as unattractive as possible.

Clem extended a hand. “Anderson, what’s your purpose here?”

“I’m the pilot, sir,” Anderson replied with a smile. He took the hand and gave it a firm shake.

“So what exactly is the plan?” Clem asked in a low voice.

“One team of two for each Guardian: a pilot and an engineer,” Anderson whispered. “Takako will use the Guardians’ internal network to let the other teams into the cockpits, at least. Then, each team will work to restore manual control to the pilots. We’ll move each Guardian away from the city and detonate the control cores.”

“You ever piloted something like this?” Clem asked, trying not to wince at the pain his joints.

Anderson hesitated. “I’ve had over two hundred virtual missions,” he said.

“But no practical experience?”

Anderson shook his head. “To be fair, sir, nobody has piloted one of these things in twenty years.”

“Well,” Clem said, “I guess virtual experience will have to do.”

They followed Takako over to the control panel, where she’s already set up a small workstation for herself. Her lips moved silently as her fingers flew over the keyboard. The two men watched her work in silence for a few minutes. Each time another team gained access to a Guardian, she nodded.

“Give me a second, and I’ll get you access to the control core,” she said to Clem and Anderson.

Anderson carefully set his pack on the floor, and removed each of the miniature explosives. “Can you open the control core?” he called out to Takako.

A heavy door opened in the middle of the room, bathing everything in a soft green light. Anderson carried the explosives into the control core and knelt down to start setting them up.

“We can’t worry about the radiation,” he said, before Clem could splutter out an objection. “Let’s just get this set up before we all get a lethal dose.”

Clem hurried into the control core, telling himself that the itching in his skin was not related to the radiation. The green light of the core pulsed in rhythm with his heart beat. They set up the explosives, Clem practically holding his breath the entire time.

“Hey boss, I think you need to see this!” Takako yelled from the control panel.

“I got this,” Anderson said. “Go see what she needs.”

When Clem reached Takako, she was frowning at the view screen.  “There’s something wrong with the code,” she muttered. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“What’s wrong with –”

Clem was interrupted by the sound of gears grinding. The landscape shifted as Helios turned to the right. The reticle locked on to the distant purple figure of Apollyon with a loud beep. Takako typed furiously at the keypad as the weapons systems roared to life. Missiles fired towards Apollyon, and a small explosion filled the air. The purple robot crashed to the ground in a smoking heap.

“Have we been fired on?” Clem asked.

“If they had, we’d be dead,” Takako said.

“How the hell did the system know to target Apollyon?” he asked.

Takako shrugged. “Security system must’ve detected the intruders. I told that group to be careful. One less Guardian to worry about, I guess.”

“Two people just died,” Clem said quietly.

“A hell of a lot more are going to die if we don’t get these things out of commission,” she replied. “Anderson, you get those charges set?!”

“Have the remote detonator right here”, he said, coming up behind them. He sat down in the pilot’s seat, and Clem watched the holographic controls spring to life around him. With a few gestures, the pilot had Helios facing due west again, and marching away from the city.

Takako was loading her equipment into her pack, while Clem stared in awe at the ease with which Anderson moved the robot. It was just like he’d imagined it as a kid. There was a tight squeeze in Clem’s heart, and he knew what he had to do.

He reached back for his toolkit and grabbed a wrench. Anderson was focused on the controls, and Takako was busy with her pack. Neither one of them noticed him standing behind the pilot until it was too late. Before Takako could say anything, Clem swung out with the wrench and clubbed Anderson in his head.

The pilot fell to the ground and the robot lurched to a halt.

“What the fuck are you doing?!” Takako shouted.

“Taking his place,” Clem said. “He’s young, he’s got a whole career ahead of him. It’s not right that he sacrifices himself like this.  I’m Chief Engineer of the Guardian program, what do I have left when this is done?”

“How are you planning on piloting this thing?” Takako had rushed over to Anderson’s side and was checking his pulse.

Clem looked at the pilot’s chair and smiled. “I’ve been studying for this my whole life.”

“I don’t have time to tell you how stupid you’re being,” Takako said with a glare. “Help me get him out of here.”

Clem grabbed Anderson’s shoulders, and Takako took his legs. They carried the big man over to the cabin door, which slid open to let them out. The robot stood still in the cold morning air. Clem looked east back towards the city, glittering in the sunlight. He hoped his wife would understand.

Takako adjusted her harness to the climbing rig, and hooked Anderson to it. He groaned a little as he began to wake up. She handed Clem the remote detonator and shook her head at him one last time. “I still think you’re an idiot,” she said.

“I’ll miss you, too,” he said. “Get out of here and take care of that boy.”

Clem watched them slide down over the edge and begin the descent. A small breeze came in from the south with a hint of sea air. A small flare fired up from the ground, signaling that they’d gotten clear of the robot.

He walked back into the control room, and settled into the chair. Trying to replicate the movements he’d seen Anderson do, he began to move the robot.  Helios took a few halting steps forward, and teetered dangerously on its feet. Moving slowly and deliberately, Clem steered the robot out west away from the city.

It didn’t take long to find the rhythm, and for a second, he considered just steering the robot out into the world. Walking as far west as they could go until he died of starvation. Then he closed his eyes and smiled. That was a child’s fantasy. He had one last job to do, and he needed to finish it.

The robot marched to the west for an hour or so, Clem feeling young for the first time in ages. He thought back to Jeremiah Hughes and laughed. When they were out of view of the city, Clem stopped the robot. He got up from the pilot’s chair and lit a cigarette. Janet had made him quit years ago, but he always snuck one when working on Helios.

He stared out of the view screen at the world around him, and felt the smoke fill his lungs. This was a good death. Reaching down for the detonator, he pressed the button, and his life disappeared in a flash of green light.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

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