[Starfall/ACRA] Metal Fire #9, False Maria 03

Wil Alambre wilalambre at gmail.com
Tue Sep 12 09:36:33 PDT 2006

Starfall Comics presents...


"False Maria 03" by Wil Alambre

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 Afternoon passed into twilight, twilight to evening,
evening to a dark, dry night. A light breeze came off
from his left somewhere, and the tickle of a cloth or
curtain caught in it brushed the hairs on his arm ever
few moments. The silence was broken only by the
rhythmic thumping of his own heart and the
mechanical monotony of the tap tap tapping of
keyboard typing.

 The night dragged on slowly in the way it does
when you're lying awake in bed waiting for Christmas
morning. He held very still, listening to the typing,
desperate for a change in its regularity. And he tried
hard not to breathe quicker when that change came.
Almost unnoticeable at first, but surely. The tapping
dragged between taps, the space between
keypresses growing longer and longer, until they
stopped altogether.

 He was left alone with the crushing sound of his
rapidly beating heart and the whisper rasp of his

 He didn't move right away. He stayed still, waiting,
to see if the typing would resume, as if the person
responsible would start awake suddenly. Or was testing
him. But he stayed still even more. And he counted
seconds to count minutes and when he lost count trying
to keep track, he waited even longer. Just to be sure.

 And only when he was sure, did Ed Babbage open his
eyes. Not exactly open. One eye was amazingly sore,
and kept skipping from blurriness to stark focus. The
other wouldn't open at all, swollen shut.

 Nearly two days ago, he had been abducted from his
apartment and beaten to an inch of his life. Or,
more correctly, his limp unconcious body had been
abducted from the remains of his exploding apartment
and he was beaten to an inch of his life while tied
down in a chair. If your going to do something, go
all the way.

 He had feigned unconciousness, trying to think of a
way out of this predicament. It wasn't to big stretch
on his acting skills. He had been unconciousness for a
good stretch of time. Fading in and out, not really
sure if he was awake or not, he hadn't felt this way
since high school. On the plus side, less vomiting was

 He noted he was in a different chair than before, this
was one of the crappy plastic metal types you find at
thrift stores as part of an unmatched dining set. His
legs were tied to the chair, and his arms were tied
behind him, causing an annoying ache in his shoulders.
If he twisted his head, he could almost see the ropes
binding his wrists. He felt the knots with his fingers,
and silently thanked his parents for forcing him
through boy scouts as a child.

 Gritting his teeth, he yanked at the ropes, feeling
the knot slip. Yanked again, more space appearing
between the ropes and his wrist. The fibres were cutting
hard into his skin, but this time, he had enough
leverage to barely get the end of the rope between two
fingers. A tug here and a pull there, and the ropes fell.
His arms were free.

 The first he did was rub his hands and arms. They hurt
like hell. Then he went about getting the ropes off his
legs. He stopped once, listening, but the only sound he
heard was the breeze and himself. Less than a minute
later, he was standing, free.

 Less then a minute after that, he was in the bathroom,
taking a long, long piss. His bladder eternally thanked

 He deliberately avoided looking into the mirror. He
couldn't imagine how it could possibly look worse than
it felt. If it was true, he didn't know if he could
stomach it. He did take a moment to spit up a tooth,
and wash the sticky dried blood that matted some of his

 Coming out of the bathroom, he let his vision focus to
the darkness of the apartment, focusing on the mountain
of computers and monitors and televisions stacked on and
around the desk arcoss what passed as the living room.
With the only light the flickering colors cast from the
screens, you wouldn't be far off in guessing there was
a teenager slumped in front of the keyboards, possibly
asleep from working much too long.

 Not too far off.

 Eddy figured his first priority was to get the hell
out of there before his abductor realized he was free.
His stomach had other ideas. He honestly couldn't
remember if he'd eaten in the past couple days. Or
more correctly, been fed. Once in the kitchen, his
appetite was willing to overlook the squalid selection
in the cupboards and fridge, and soon he was enjoying
a peanut butter and mayonaisse sandwich and a
refreshing glass of warm, flat rootbeer. He was
considering helping himself to the half empty box of
sugary cereal, but the smell of the carton of milk
seemed to lean more toward the curdled cheese area
than he was willing to risk.

 His hunger sated, he came out of the kitchen slowly,
a bit worried his abductor might have been roused. He
needn't have worried. With a bit of courage, and what
might be growing limp, he walked right over to the
unconsious form. Even his heavy footsteps weren't
enough to get any sort of reaction from the girl.

 A girl.

 Even now, Eddy wasn't so sure about that. Here, up
close, in better light, it was still hard to wrap his
head around it. A teenage girl, it was fairly obvious,
she wore not a scrap of clothing. She had shoulder
length hair she liked to tied back. She had budding
breasts that didn't need a bra just yet, but obviously
would a couple of months down the road. She even had
the lump of a callous on a finger of her right hand,
the kind someone gets when they write or draw a lot.

 Her skin shined silver the way a pop can does. Her
breathing was more like the low whir of an electric
motor. And where her arms met her shoulders, he could
make out the sliver of space where the plates fit
together. Without thinking, he reached out and
touched her shoulder, her skin sterile and smooth,
with just a hint of regular bumps or edges, like
scales maybe.

 A robot. A robot that looked like a girl.

 This kind of thing was only supposed to happen
in comic books, but there she was. Hunched over, arms
crossed onto one of the keyboards before her, head
tucked to one side, eyes closed. The most amazing
thing he'd ever seen.

 And she almost killed him. Twice. Sheesh.

 He touched her shoulder again, boggled at the
feel of her skin or shell or whatever it was. She
didn't seem to notice. He put his whole hand on her.
Nothing. Then he gave her a bit of a shake. She
didn't even change the rhythm of her breathing. Was
she sleeping? Do robots sleep? He shook her harder,
this time almost pushing her off the desk. The only
response was the blip and flicker of the computer
monitors as the screensavers were turned off by the
jostling of the mice and keys.

 She must have worked herself into exhaustion. Eddy
noticed it the night before too, when his hunger
and thirst had dragged him from the pits of
unconciousness. At first he was worried about waking
the girl for a drink, worried she would smack him
around again, but soon he realized he could probably
conk her on the side of the head with a shovel without
interrupting her beauty sleep.

 After a couple hours, she would wake up and go
right back to work, if last time was any yardstick.
But for the meantime, Eddy frowned, his only company
would be his bruises, and with any luck, he would
be soon far, far away from here. Looking at the screen,
he hoped she'd be more interested in whatever it was
she was working on then trying to find...

 Eddy looked at the screen. The computer screen in
front of him. Then the one beside it. The others
around, in all sizes.

 Oh, he thought.

 Oh shit.

- - -

 Kimberly Roberts dreamed.

 She dreamed she was seven. Or six. On summer vacation,
playing in a park, on a checkered picnic cloth laid out
under a sky filled to brimming with puffy white clouds.
She had new presents. Her favourite toys when she was
young. New legos. The kind with gears and rubber bands
that you could make into moving cars and things.

 She dreamed she could hear her mother to one side.
Trying to get her to eat something. Chicken sandwiches
and apple pie in tupperware bowls. Lids that made
farting noises when they opened and made Kimberly
laugh. She ignored her mother's half hearted scolding,
indistinct compared to the building blocks she was
playing with.

 She dreamed her father was all smiles. Let her play,
he urged, and gave Kimberly more of the legos. More
blocks and pieces. Kimberly giggled.

 She dreamed her mother was getting more desperate.
Calling her name.

 Calling her name.

 Calling her.



 A pop and hiss, the sound speakers make when they
get used for the first time. Kimberly groggily squeezed
her eyes, feeling sleep being dragged away from her.
She felt so tired.

 Tired. When was the last time she felt tired. She
didn't even know she could feel tired anymore.

 "Up! Up!"

 Her mother's voice, already fading into that unreality
dreams become when you wake up. Except for Kimberly,
they drowned in system startups and program resets. Her
mind reorganized itself, blinking on. The voice being
recorded and processed and analyzed.

 Male and desperate. Familiar. And closer than it
should be.

 "Up! Come on come on! Wake up!"

 Her eyes snapped open. Literally.

 She noted a few things fairly quickly. That it was
late at night. The exact time appeared at the edge of
her vision subconciously. That she couldn't move. System
settings scrolled half noticed, all operational yet
non responsive. That the man she had tied up was free.
Sitting beside her. That the computer monitors in front
of her were on.

 An operating system she'd seen only once before, all
bleeding edges and spiral logic. Micro universes
birthing and dying in imagined binary processes, all
organized into a psychological directory structure.
Only once before, but she recognized it. As she had

 It was her. It was her mind.

 "You fuck."

 "Listen, you have to listen to me..."

 "You fuck you fuck you fuck!" she screamed at him.
"I should have killed you! I should have killed you! I
should have flattened your head on the floor I should
never have stopped!"

 "This isn't..."

 Her vision took a red tint, everything derezzed
into simplified geometrical blocks. Distance were
measured in seconds from anything, objects were
represented by weak points and pounds per square
inch required to deform it.

 "You're dead! You're fucking dead!"

- - -

 "Greg? I think we have a problem."

 Gregory Reeves blink furiously, digging himself out
of the half sleep had fallen into. Already his back was
aching from the uncomfortable position he had almost
dozed off in.

 The clock on the wall said it was the wee hours of
the morning, just late enough to start calling it early
the next day. Though you couldn't tell it from the
featureless room and the unflinching flourescents. A
timesheet somewhere would justify this as another long
night of unpaid overtime for a vice president somewhere.
An under the table paycheck from a nearly nameless
party would justify it for Gregory and the two
programmers he regularly supervised.

 Getting up, he walked across the room to the desk of
a twenty something whose name he couldn't remember. He
managed to mutter something that sounded like an
appropriate question.

 The kid directed his attention to the screen,
specifically to a telnet window with scrolling
variables and status updates. Heavy traffic on
the wire.

 "What am I looking at?"

 "System memory usage for the upper consiousness."

 "What?" Gregory was wide awake, watching the
numbers spike.

 "Hey, what's going on?" called the other tech,
across the room. "Emote systems just went over
to red."

 The numbers starting reorganizing themselves,
scrolling by at terrifying speeds. Gregory's stomach
started to do flip flops as he realized what they

 "She's awake."


 "She's awake!" Gregory desperately tapped the kid's
screen. "She's consious. Why did you wake her?"

 "I didn't wake her!"

 "She's definately awake! Look at those upper
cognitive processes!"

 "Oh fuck, is she pissed!" from across the room. "I'm
completely in the red here! Her reflexes just switched
to military mode!"

 The kid was frantically typing away at his keyboard,
switching between programming windows and status

 "I don't understand it," he said weakly. "Her
movement is still locked down, her power's still in
standby. She shouldn't be able to move."

 "She can still trace us!" Gregory almost yelled.
"Hit her with morphine emulation. Flood the braincase
with oxygen." With any luck, that would effectively
drug the system, giving them enough time to put it
back into heavy REM mode.

- - -

 The red tint washed away suddenly, replaced by a
pastel blue. Everything Kimberly saw suddenly shifted
into shades of blue, threatening to mix into each other.
Caught midway through her tirade, she shut her eyes,
and growled.

 "Damnit, no! No!" the man's voice spun away from her,
and was followed by speedy tapping on at least two
different keyboards nearby. He was doing it again,
right in front of her. He was raping her mind.

 She couldn't think straight. She couldn't move her
arms. They felt like lead weights at her shoulders,
like she would slump over any second. Her head was
filled with cotton, making thoughts thick...

 Cotton... Kimberly...

 Calling her? Daddy?

 A stream of words against the blackness of her shut
eyelids, and she felt letters being dragged back
together again. Her thoughts weren't as muddy anymore,
just quieter. Like whispers.

 "Come on, open your eyes. Please."

 Doing so, she found the blue splash still on
everything, only the shadowed edges of anything being
visible in a darker hue. Her tormentor sat nearby,
facing her again. She snarled at him, but felt almost
impotent, her rage tucked away somewhere.

 "My head..."

 "It's not me." said the shadow. "You have to
believe me, its not me."

 "Fucking liar."

 "Think about it, why would I? Even if it was me the
first time. Look, I'm free, I got out of the ropes. I
could have just left. I should have just left."

 She didn't reply. She didn't get angry. She wanted
to get angry. She wanted to kill him, right now. But
the blue seemed to wash over everything. She hadn't
felt this way since she had tried those mushrooms with
Sally Bickham in junior high.

 He did make sense. He seemed to, anyway. She almost
killed him last time. She almost killed him when she
blew up his place. No way anyone was stupid enough to
do it again, right?

 Then again, he seemed like the stupid type.

 Why was she thinking so slow?

 She tried to think back. Only remembering wasn't the
same as remembering used to be. Now the flashes and
triggers of memories were filenames for detailed logs.
If she wanted too, she could switch over to a state
of photographic memory.

 She thought back to last night. This night? When had
she fallen asleep? There. A couple hours ago. She was
working, typing. Then she fell asleep. She didn't even
know she could sleep anymore. She remembered he was
tied up. Distinctly. Then how did he...?

 She skimmed ahead, increasing framerate. There,
there it was, when her mind was opened up to the
outside. Like a door being opened, and a flood of
people wandering around and touching everything.

 She could see it all now, now that she was
looking for it.

 She could see everything about her they were
trying to change.

 Or erase.

 And she could see the name of the man responsible.
Hidden in the recesses of her mind, amid logic bombs
of code and binary.


 She opened her eyes, the haze of blue still there.
The man's shape had turned to look at her. The bottom
of her vision was blurred, the pixel resolution
smudged and undefined.

 "Are you okay?" he said.

 "I'm crying." Kimberly whispered. Hamilton had done
this to her. Was doing this to her. She could still
feel it, the dirty awful dragging of findernails
against her thoughts. Clumsy changes to her head.
Hamilton was trying to finish her father's job.
Finish making her into a monster.

 The bottom of her vision squirmed, shifting colors
like a magnet next to a tv. She could feel the tears
slide down her blue steel cheek.

 "I'm crying," she repeated. "I'm not the monster
they want me to be. I won't let them make me the monster
they want me to be." She looked at the blue shape before
her, his face only distiguishable by an image stored
in her short term memory. "I won't let them. I'll need
you to help me."

- - -

 "It's not working. Its not working," the kid said. He
rolled around in his chair, knocking away papers off his
desk. "If I can find a base version on CD, I can dual
boot the system and force unconciousness."

 Gregory was no longer hovering over the kid's shoulder.
He was at the desk beside him, slamming away at a
keyboard, watching with horror as their latest uploaded
system patch not only wasn't updating the intended
software, but was being disassembled.

 "She's taking it apart!" a yell from behind him.
"She's taking it apart, she's decompiling it to source
code." A pause, then, "Oh shit. Oh shit, I commented
that code."

 Gregory wasn't listening to the others. He had
already figured out what was actually happening to
their source code. And like the other two programmers,
he had left comments in the code. Like reminders and
notes and cheat sheets to make it easier to understand
the structure of the system. Dates and times and names.

 And he was watching it being unravelled and

 In a few minutes, the most powerful mobile weapon
on the planet would know who had been fucking with her
brain. And they'd just spent nearly a year making her
a more agressive, violent murder machine.

 "Purge it!" Gregory spat throught gritted teeth.
"Purge it all!"

 "I can't, my admin access is being assigned to
someone else."

 "Then purge the patch. Don't let it be decoded.
Rename the files and then erase it while you're still
the original user."

 Gregory's screen blinked and went black.
Disconnected. He heard the telltale winking sound
from two other screens. Disconnected.

 "I just got booted," said the kid, surprised.

 "The file?"

 "I... I got it. I deleted it. I think he might
have copy pasted maybe a couple dozen lines, but I
trashed it before he got anything important."

 That remained to be seen.

 Gregory held his head in his hands, sweat racing
from his pores. His stomach was worse then ever
before, it knew how much trouble they were in. He
knew it was only going to get worse.

 He left some instructions to the two programmers
to go through the offline logs. Find out what went
wrong, find out where they screwed up.

 Gregory went into his office.

 He had to make a phone call.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 Author's Notes

 So, this is the third issue of my first four issue
Metal Fire arc. It was written a couple months after
writing issue 8, but never posted. And other than
passing it to a friend for some basic grammar and
spelling checks, is exactly as originally presented.
So, though it doesn't carry the REPOST imprint, this is
an issue I haven't written recently.

 Which means, of course, I haven't incorporated any of
the excellent critical advice I've been receiving :) And
that brings us to...

 Letters Page. Tom Russel has been kind enough to
review issue eight of Metal Fire. If you haven't read
over it, you can read it here:


 First, yes, I have worked in a cubical environment in
the past, though not as a manager. It is a little
impersonal, but I can't believe that all mamagers are
just trying to pass off more work and terrible deadlines
to their charges just for better stock options and more
golf time.

 Tom makes a couple good points concerning issue
eight. The pacing I'm particularly happy with, and glad
it worked well. I worry though because (as you're sure
to notice, most likely having read the above issue
beofre getting to this point) this issue seems to hit
all the same beats.

 Worse yet, not only do we have the switching of
point of views, but this time it *does* jump "in and out
of the room". Hopefully it comes across as not too
jarring. :)

 Next point: Kimberly. I like where Eddy is, in terms of
character, I'm pretty comfortable with him. I'm trying
to write Kimberly as a character who's not only been
through a lot, but who has had her brain turned into a
computer program, and then had that computer program
messed with to be a robotic weapon of sorts. As if I,
as a man, wouldn't have enough trouble writing a teenage
girl to begin with :)

 So, expect her characterization to be all over the
place. Well, truth be told, until I get more experience
in writing in general, expect *everyone's*
characterization to be all over the place :) But for
imberly in particular, I want to make it more all over
the place. Because of what's happened to her, I have
a built in story excuse for her to suddenly shift moods,
ideas, etc. Cheating, yes :P

 More Reeves here, and he'll appear again next issue.
Poe will be in next issue in person, as well. Hamilton
will only be mentioned and (sorry Tom), still no Val.
The nanites and Val's subplot is going to be moving,
but at a snails crawl in comparsion... so I'm
experimenting in trying to keep that popping up without
making it's (and Val's) appearences suddenly and
obvious ("oo, remember this, oops, its gone again").
Clumsy attempts for a bit, I apologize in advance :)

 I will endevour to have anyone who appears in person
be a little more than one dimensional. It will, in all
lieklyhood, come across as forced next issue, but I'll
figure it out eventually.

 And finally, Tom's observation of the dangerous
dichotomies and moral extensions... damn, more good
stuff I didn't intend, but may have to keep in mind
when drafting future issues :)

More information about the racc mailing list