No other sensation could get through that cloud. Pain was everything, the entire world.
Memory was far behind, too dim to see clearly. There was only the pain, the awful, grinding pain; it filled every instant, every attempt at thought. Pain in the back, the neck, the head, the legs…The legs were the worst, he wasn’t even sure they were still attached-he had heard of the phantom pain felt by amputees, pain in their severed limbs, but, have mercy, could it be this bad?
Adric (“Yes, that’s my name,” his mind managed after what seemed an age of fumbling for solid ground) had no idea there was pain like this in the world, no concept of how he could even be living with it. For that matter, he had no idea where it had all come from, or how he had gotten here. All he knew for sure was that there had been a car, and a woman in it, and then…nothing. A nothingness filled with ceaseless pain. Even the images of the car and the woman refused to come to mind; they were nothing but abstract, disjointed phrases in the ether.
Far off, quiet and distinct, a voice resonated, prim and clear, yet with an odd echo. “Awaken them, please,” the voice said, and the words sank into Adric’s head, defying the darkness that still waited there. He felt a small sting at his arm, a pinch really too small to be noticed against this storm of pain, yet all too real-and suddenly it was as though the world raced up on him, sped up to normal, and shoved the pain into the background. It was still there, still howling for attention, but out of sight now. His eyes flew open.
The lights were muted, and he didn’t blink, though his eyes felt dry. Despite the dim light, he could clearly see the ceiling of the hospital room in which he was lying. To his right, he heard a soft gasp, and knew at once that Naomi was there, receiving the same dose as he. He stole a glance that way, and saw a burly male nurse stepping away, capping a used needle for disposal. Naomi was there, lying on a cot like his-but an unusual one, with solid sides (currently lowered) that, if raised, would give it a boxlike look. She was covered with a white sheet, like he was, but something seemed odd about her covered form; try as he might, he couldn’t figure it out. She glanced at him, and he managed a smile, but it felt cold on his face.
“You are awake,” the voice said again, this time louder. “That is good, for we have much to discuss.”
Adric turned his head, and saw what had to be a hallucination, standing at the foot of the cot. A bald man stood there, hands folded behind his back, dressed in a white, sleeveless tunic, gathered at the waist. By itself, that was nothing unusual, though the clothes were a bit eccentric; what immediately caught Adric’s eye were the silver wires running up and down his arms and neck, and even onto his head. Of the nurse, there was no sign—the odd man was alone.
“I am called Bridge,” the man continued. “So that we begin on fair footing, let me review: you are Adric Tharen and Naomi Tharen, late of Calbania Island, in the South Central Sea region. Is this correct?” Adric tried to answer, but his throat was still dry; he was spared the effort when Naomi whispered an affirmative. Her voice was barely audible, but the man seemed to have no trouble hearing her. “Excellent. First let me explain your situation to you, and then I will explain myself.”
“Seventeen hours ago, you were returning to your home from Silverton, the political seat of your home island, traveling by automobile. At approximately 6:20 pm, you drove off the road and over an embankment, rolling the automobile in the process. The resulting wreckage ended in a fire that consumed the vehicle, a fire from which the two of you were narrowly rescued. Your injuries, however, are quite extensive.”
As he spoke, it all came rushing back at Adric-the ride, the wreck, and the darkness. A feeling of intense heat…In the same instant, it suddenly clicked in his mind, what he could not put his finger on earlier…Naomi. Her legs, underneath the sheet, were stuck at odd angles-another glance confirmed it-angles that no human body should ever attain.
The man’s gaze followed Adric’s. “Yes. You begin to see it. Please do not react emotionally; I have given both of you a suppressant that will hold back the worst pain, as well as dampen your emotional response. This will be quite difficult for you, I fear.” He paused, then continued. “Both of you have extensive damage to the lower limbs and torso. You, sir, have internal organ trauma and broken ribs due to impact with the steering wheel of your vehicle. You, ma’am, have suffered a broken rib, which has resulted in a punctured lung and extensive internal bleeding. There is cranial trauma for both of you, though your brains have sustained nothing worse than mild bruising-a fortunate situation. Injuries have been sustained in motor nerve trunks, and various parts of your endocrine systems have been damaged. There is more, as well, but I do not think I need to go on.”
“Suffice it to say, in summation, that each of you has sustained injuries that will very shortly be fatal. The doctors here have done what they can, but it will not be sufficient to save you. In a matter of hours, you will die.”
Both of them must have gone a shade paler, Adric thought, because the man paused and frowned first at him, then at Naomi.
“You are justifiably disturbed, I understand,” he continued. “Who would not be? But I have a proposition for you, one that can save your lives. Will you hear me out?” Adric managed a nod; what else could he say? It was a difficult thing to hear, that one was about to die. “Good! I thought you would say yes. Now, let us begin; we have little time, and much you must know.”
“The world,” Bridge began, “is not as you believe it to be. You have been taught all your lives that you are a race of humans, normal humans, the product of evolution over many millennia. You have a history, you believe, and a race identity, stretching back countless ages. All of this, sadly, is a lie.”
“For your ancestors, the world began less than seven hundred years ago, as I will soon explain. The truth lies with my kind, and those who brought us into being. We are like humans, yet we are both far more and far less. There are many of us, but we are known to only a few of you. We are the Megamen.”
Naomi, at least, was getting her voice back. “Wh…what does that mean?” she said softly, her voice a dry rasp. It made Adric’s heart ache to hear the pain still in it.
“In all the world, there are only three true humans remaining-those humans born of the natural line of your race, with no interference. Once there were many more, but over the generations, they have died out, until only three remain. Because of those humans, whom we call Alphas, we exist. My kind and I make up the Megaman System, a massive organization of androids and cyborgs. Do you understand those terms? Androids-what you might call robots, though very advanced and complex. They are the bulk of our System. And cyborgs, those who are partially android and partially organic, like you. I am the latter, a cyborg.
Adric nearly shrank back in horror at the thought. It was something out of the sci-fi novels on his bookshelves at home, man fused with machine. Nevertheless, he did understand, and he was certain Naomi did too; they had read those books together once or twice.
“The truth, children, is that the world is our domain. The Alphas rule the world, and we, the Megaman System, execute that rule for them. Also, we care for the Alphas, and ensure their comfort. That is our entire purpose in existence, and the reason that they created us. At this point, I will not waste time in explaining how it came to be so; that would take far more time than you have remaining. Suffice it to say that it is so.”
“Also suffice it to say that your kind, the common people, were created by us. We call you carbons, or Betas, indicating that you are the secondary type of organic humans on the planet, with the Alphas being the first. I do not mean that we designed you, or invented you; I mean that your earliest ancestors were created seven hundred years ago as clones of all the Alphas. We gave you your culture, your language, your history. The Alphas rule the world, and the Betas populate it-and never do the Betas know the truth. For you see, the Alphas have what the Betas can never have.”
“All of these, and in endless supply. We could not give it to all the Betas if we wanted to, because they are too many. And that is why none of you know the truth.”
“So, why are you telling us?” Adric managed.
Bridge frowned then. “That is difficult to explain; yet I must. Otherwise, my coming here is for nothing.” His eyes brightened. “And that would be disastrous for all of us. Let us try, then.” He paused, thinking.
“Those individuals like myself, who are part of the System, are divided into five classes. This is based on authority, complexity, and capability. Five is the lowest, consisting of workers who have relatively limited thought capacity and ability. The highest is first class, which includes the Purifier units who police the System, eliminating defective units. I am an Ambassador unit, Second Class, meaning that I am a high-level liaison between the System and those few Betas who know of our existence.”
“I was ‘born,’ if you prefer that term, in a crèche on a remote island called Kattelox, where cloned humans are created. I was neither an Alpha nor a Beta. I was what is termed a ‘Gamma,’ which is to say, a human with no individuality, no personality. Gammas are created solely for the purpose of becoming cyborg units like me. Approximately twenty-five percent of the System consists of Gamma cyborg units. Are you following me so far?” Both patients nodded, still taking it all in. “Good. Let us move on, then. You understand, however, that I am giving you only the barest outline of the truth here; your time will allow no more.”
“The System was created to avert a crisis the likes of which the world has not since seen. That crisis threatened the very existence of humanity, and left the surviving humans with few options. The System was their answer, and a good one, at that. However, there is one fatal flaw in the system, of which I and a few others like me have become aware. It is quite simple, really: the System is guilty of the worst possible genocide. It has destroyed the entire Beta race, not once, but twice. Every thousand years, it wipes out all Betas, then re-creates a new race from the original genetic codes.”
“That’s horrible!” Naomi said, outrage tingeing her voice. “Why would they do that? Create us, then destroy us?”
“I do not know,” Bridge admitted. His face creased in worry, and his frown reappeared. “In all my efforts, I have not found that out. That information is held only by the Mother units, the two androids who oversee the System. Nevertheless, I think you will agree that this is a crime of the highest order. For this reason, I have come to you; allow me to continue.”
“Most units in the System are bound to the will of the System, unable to take so much as another viewpoint. This was true for me also, but I was…tampered with…by a woman I greatly respected. An Alpha, the woman who designed the cyborg unit interface, tampered with my circuits to free me from the System’s will. She proceeded to tell me what I am telling you, and then…her life was extinguished. By her own hand, if you wish to know.” Bridge thought for a moment. “She was a friend, I would say. Her last act before dying was to commission me to attempt, in any way I can, to destroy the System, or at least destroy its ability to repeat this crime. That was twenty-eight years ago. Since then, I have recruited a few others to my cause—all gamma cyborgs, because the Mother units can scan the minds and memories of non-cyborg units. They cannot do so with my kind, because the organic brain cannot be touched by their probes against our will.”
He paused, took a deep breath, and looked directly at the two humans. “This is where your situation becomes involved. In all my years, I have never been able to recruit a first class unit. That is what is needed, because only a first class unit can access the secure areas, which must be reached in order to perform the type of destruction that is necessary. As well, it must be a cyborg unit, for the reasons I have given you. Ordinarily, as I said, even a cyborg cannot disobey the System, because the Gammas are created tabula rasa, a blank slate, and then conformed to the System’s template. They must be tampered with in order to disobey, and I cannot do so to any unit higher than my own class. So, you can see the impasse I have reached.”
“I want to propose that the two of you be transformed into Megamen. More specifically, you will become Purifier units, First Class. On way or another, your old life has reached an end. If you accept, you will live and be healed. You will have a new purpose, and a new identity. Yet you will not forget your old lives; in truth, those memories will be your strength. You would be weapons, attacking the System from the inside. It may take years for the opportunity to present itself, years in which you would faithfully serve the System by hunting and destroying aberrant, or defective units, but at some point, the time will come. Most importantly, you would be able to do what I cannot: complete the mission I was given.”
“This is the only chance at life remaining to you. It is yours if you wish it. For the sake of your lives, for the sake of your world, and your very race…what will you choose?” He fell silent, then turned away, obviously giving them some privacy.
Adric turned as best he could toward Naomi, his mind whirling. In just a few short minutes, their entire world …all they had ever known…was turned on end. It was almost laughable-the entire world they knew was a lie, and now it all depended on the decision of two accident victims? The look on Naomi’s face stopped him from saying so.
She smiled again, a look that was full of despair, yet mixed with faint hope. “So, this is it?” she murmured. “We’re going to die. I guess we don’t have many choices, do we?”
He tried to smile back, and actually made it halfway. Though the pain was incredible, he stretched a stiff right arm out across the gap between them, and took her fingers in his hand. “Don’t say that,” he whispered. “You can’t die. It’s your birthday.” His smile slipped into a frown, then. “Some birthday present, I guess.”
“Don’t you say that!” she retorted. “You didn’t do this. It’s just what happens.” She winced. “The question is, what do we do now? Live, or die?” She fell silent a moment, then declared softly, “I believe what he says.”
“I do, too,” Adric admitted after a moment. “”I can’t let you die, honey. And, so, I guess…there’s really no choice, is there?”
“Excellent,” Bridge’s voice interrupted. “I am most pleased. Now, I will put you in stasis, so that your condition does not become worse. I have already placed you in stasis boxes, to facilitate the process. You will feel nothing until you awaken, after the reconstruction process.” Suddenly, Adric remembered the boxlike sides on the cots, and realized what he meant by “stasis boxes.” “I will not speak to you again for some time. When I do, you will understand far better. Until then, my friends…”
Then the darkness returned, and Adric knew nothing more.