Uniform

June 23, 2021

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Errick Nunnally was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and served one tour in the Marine Corps before deciding art school was a safer pursuit. He enjoys art, comics, and genre novels. A graphic designer, he has trained in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. His work has appeared in several anthologies and is best described as “dark pulp” and can be found in Fiyah Magazine, Galaxy’s Edge, Lamplight, The Final Summons, Protectors 2, Nightlight Podcast, and the novels Lightning Wears a Red Cape, Blood for the Sun, and All the Dead Mean. Visit erricknunnally.us to learn more about his work.
Content Warning(s):
Child in peril, Classism, Death or dying, Racism and/or racial slurs

A joint on his port side scraped and squeaked, one of the countless gears that allowed his torso to swivel like a human being’s and beyond. He raised his bulk off the maintenance bed. The  furniture’s articulated servo, a tentacle with ten prehensile metal fingers, raised a warning alarm as he disconnected too early. Bits of a nightmare faded into background static as reality closed in. He scanned the bed’s systems, noting that the night’s EEGs—a smear of colors representing a map of electrical activity in his brain—were being uploaded to the VA according to programming. Whatever. They still couldn’t see the content of his dreams, and they wouldn’t come looking for him unless he flatlined.

Maybe not even then.

The phone rang, had been ringing; his family calling early. He relaxed and reached out along the electromagnetic connections in the air, pushing his will across the apartment’s network to open a connection directly into the OsNun CR permanently embedded in his skull. The conductive receiver, buried beneath the layers of carbon filaments and reinforced ceramics that replaced most of his brown skin, buzzed with every word.

“Hello?”

“Happy birthday!” A chorus of voices rang out.

“Is it my birthday today?”

“Yes, Uncle Patrick!”

Lisa. His young niece. Young enough that when she said “uncle,” it sounded like “unka.”

“Thank you, Lisa.”

“How come you always sound so sad, Uncle Patrick?”

Because I have no mouth and I must scream. There was a brief fumble with the phone’s handset and his sister came on.

“Hey, Pat.”

“Hi, Sarah. Thanks for … stepping in.”

“Uh-huh. I wouldn’t have to if you’d come visit. Can’t we plan something?”

“I can’t, Sarah.”

“Why not?”

“I just … I can’t see you like this.”

“Like what, Patrick? We know what you look like now, everyone does and we don’t care about that. Gran’mama’s been gone for eight months now, we just want you home. You should be with your family. You did so much for us.”

As if the situation were something rational, as simple as dividing an orange into four equal parts. Sarah always cut to the chase, especially since giving birth to Lisa. It’s not that he couldn’t visit, but he couldn’t visit. The man he had been could never go home because the man was gone. 

“I’m sorry, Sarah.”

“Are you? You act like you don’t have feelings, but I can hear it in you, I can hear your voice.” In the background, Lisa clamored to have the phone back. “Okay, okay, sweetie, here, but don’t pester your uncle like that. Okay?” 

Lisa chirped “okay” three times before she got the phone back. “Uncle Patrick! We love you, I hope you have a good birthday! We miss you!”

“Thank you, darling.” His heart trembled in its reinforced cage, and his respiration stepped up to handle the adrenal increase. Blood surged and veins pulsed in his chest. All indications of his brain signaling for tears. But with a heavily shielded optic array perched above his shoulders, the only physical result was the fluttering of his heart inside his artificial body. 

“I have to go, Lisa. I promise I’ll have a great birthday.”  The quality of his standard-issue voice couldn’t express much beyond melancholy or bland conversation. It was a reconstruction built from a 3D map of his larynx before the surgeries and a direct interpretation of his will to speak. At least he couldn’t misspeak, since every word was a distinct effort. Even if he’d wanted nuance, it wasn’t really there, it was how he knew his sister was lying. 

He cut the connection before Sarah came back on the line; he had no interest in the old debate. Glancing onto the public network, at the schedule for the train, he knew he could make it if he left now. Patrick needed the distraction, the illusion of purpose as he traveled around the city. The phone rang again just as he closed the door to his apartment.

His sister wanted him to talk, everyone wanted him to talk. The lady at the VA, that’s what she wanted. But he didn’t like it, didn’t understand how it was supposed to work. They wanted some connection from him, of course, but no one wanted to talk to him without expressing how much he needed it. Talking about what they wanted wasn’t going to change anything. His emotions were too complex to simply download. “Talking” was code and he didn’t need more code. They said it would help him to normalize, work through any residual emotional trauma after decommissioning. He’d passed endless psychiatric tests that said he was a survivor, no matter what the odds. A good Marine, in other words, one who wasn’t going to glitch out and fry his own power cells.

Truth was, he wanted to talk so bad he could almost taste it over the ever-present flavor of ozone on his imaginary tongue. Normal talk, chit-chat. Not this share your feelings bullshit. Hell, after joining the infantry, he’d learned more words than he cared to use. Words like “quadriplegic, hematoma,” and “contusion.” The sorts of words his body would’ve been made of if he hadn’t volunteered to have what was left of it poured into this walking tank.

How old was he when he’d enlisted? He couldn’t be bothered to remember. 

The number seventeen flashed in the corner of his vision along with options to view scans of the enlistment papers. Data. Always data flowing across his eyes. He still had them—eyes, that is. It’s how he thought of it anyway. Better than thinking about the mass of wires embedded in his ocular sockets. Which never stopped. If he’d ever experienced something, a thought would trigger a recall option and pull related data. The alerts could be dismissed or minimized, but never stopped. It had taken months of maddening effort and distraction to make reading and dismissing notifications second nature. Under the data, his human memories swirled, inaccessible by computers, but triggered by the relentless nature of existence.

§

“Gran’momma, please!”

“Pat, no, my sweet boy.” Her voice had been weak, the same as her body. The only mother he’d ever known was fading fast, but her resolve remained.

“Gran’momma, I need to do something and this is the only option I got, the only one we got.”

“No.”

“You have to sign. Within a year, I’ll have the money to fix this place up, get you the medical attention you need, take care of Sarah too.”

“My boy is not gonna go die for this country just to raise money for his poor grandmother. Not my boy and not this country! Ain’t never did nothin’ for us that didn’t cost more blood than anyone should ever bleed.”

§

“Resolute.” Another word he’d learned after enlistment. He knew that she’d come around eventually, that it was the best option they had. She’d silently signed the papers, hunched over with tears streaking her face.

Seventeen years old and off to the Marine Corps. Within two years, he’d become eligible for conversion to mechanized. A huge bonus check, and instead of dead in a wooden box, he was alive inside a metal one.

His human bits would fail before the metal parts did.

When the electronic blues threatened to swallow him, Veteran Mechanized Staff Sergeant Patrick McCoy explored the public transit system. The trains reminded him of home. The home where Sarah and Lisa still lived, stacked next to everyone else in federal row house neighborhoods made more colorful by the shades of brown people they housed. They didn’t have much but each other and the roofs over their heads. He couldn’t afford to move his family out to a larger home in a more quiet burrough, they were four generations in public housing. Still, the signing and combat bonuses made life much easier for them and it funded a scholarship for Lisa. (Sarah’s request.) It had to be enough. He reminded himself that the smell of the ’hood in the spring wasn’t something to be missed: the piss in quiet corners, burning synthacco, and empty liquor nips flattened everywhere. Any smells he encountered now ran through the filters between him and the real world, slices of plastic and metal, wires and poor excuses for nerve endings. Despite still being bipedal, he held no illusions about being able to fit back in his childhood home. Hexagonal armored plating, two extra arms, empty ports where weapons were mounted. He’d left a boy and had no intention of returning as a science fiction nightmare, a defunct killing machine to terrorize the country’s lower classes. Let them live their lives without him.

§

On the street, pedestrians crossed out of his path at their earliest opportunity. A targeting matrix flashed over the scene in front of him, doing the only thing it was good for without a weapons system to command: snapping photos. Faces everywhere captured his attention. He wanted to forget his face, but the longing for that vestige of humanity haunted him with the pre-data memory of what he looked like, who he wanted to be. 

Deep beneath the baffled armor above his shoulders, the top half of his skull remained buried, still the most efficient chassis for his brain. He remembered what remained after a mortar round tore through the meat of his past life. In his nightmares, the cadaverous mess of his face served as a mask on the enemy’s swarming drones. Stretched over the insect-like machine’s optics, his own ruined mouth leered at him as they clambered over berms and barricades, screaming in clicks and whirrs. 

Now they came for him nightly.

The half-dozen ultra-terabyte drives humming back in his apartment held no photos of his former self. Mirrors and reflective surfaces did not interest him in the least. He needed no reminders of the machine that carried what was left of his body. When he cracked armored panels to apply nutrient salves or adjust connections, it served as reminder enough. A more human series of chassis were decades from completion. Though he’d prefer to have even the mannequin-like face of the prototypes he’d seen once upon a time, it would never be right; never be him.

Riding public transit around the city provided two critical things for Patrick: a needed distraction and people to see. Human behavior, however, wasn’t always random. People troubled him, but he would rather be they than this it

A trio of youths strolled toward him before suddenly veering off into the street. He’d seen it coming, had seen it a million times. The tension settling over them, stripping teenage confidence, compacting it into fear. Patrick crossed with them, keeping them in his path.

Descriptions for each kid scrolled across his eyes:

Hispanic male brown hair brown eyes—

h:1.75 mtrs 

w:74.8 kilos /

red jacket blue shirt white pants black leather boots //

male caucasian 

brown hair blue eyes 

h:1.82 mtrs 

w:78 kilos 

black sweater blue jeans white sneakers // 

female 

[ethnicity indeterminate]

Dark brown hair brown eyes 

h:1.6 mtrs 

w:56.69 kilos 

white sweater red dress white trim black boots // 

The targeting computer couldn’t make sense of blended ethnicity—not that it did a very good job with identifying ethnicity in the first place. It was a vestige of mid-twenty-first century programming, a tenacious infestation of white-centric coding.

And so on. The longer the look, the more data the machine in his head gathered.

They stumbled into each other as one boy stopped short and turned into the young woman. She, in turn, stumbled into the other boy. They shuffled awkwardly back towards the sidewalk they’d abandoned and Patrick turned with them, determined to capture as much detail as possible, knowing they wouldn’t willingly stop for him.

“Excuse us,” the young woman said under her breath, refusing to look directly at him.

Patrick stopped tracking with them and let them pass. “Excuse me,” he said. I did this for you, he thought, I did it so that your lives could go on, so that you’d have the opportunity to fear what saved you, the freedom to express all of that.

The sidewalk in front of Patrick was clear, passersby wandered down the other side of the street, pausing, craning necks to keep a clear eye on him as he thumped down the way. Some people glanced out of windows, but not one of them came within any of his arms’ reach. 

Air quality, light, sound. The muted thump of his own footsteps helped project a three-hundred and sixty-degree view that would disorient a normal mind without his quantum chips and nano-neural injections. He had taken months to integrate the software. The feel of light against his photo-reactive, outer skin served as an early warning against laser-targeting weapons. A massive spectrum caressed him incessantly, from phosphorescent to incandescent to light-emitting diodes—each with its own flavor. More input than he’d ever had when he was fully human, but less than what he really wanted. 

A proximity alarm flashed in his peripheral sensors. 

Incoming

He easily dodged the slow-moving object. A half-empty can of beer pinged off a car roof nearby. Preprogrammed reflexes trained sensor arrays upward. His optics caught the blurred face of a young man disappearing behind the roofline and the fading insult. 

“Murdercan!”

Patrick paused, as he always did, and resorted to the futile reminder: warriors don’t murder, they serve their people. So that civilians will have the freedom to curse them in the streets.

§

Underground, on the train, angry citizens were more hesitant to confront him. Underground, people wouldn’t talk smack like they did from passing cars or throwing shit from the relative safety of a rooftop. 

Once a month, he dutifully uploaded the harassment to local authorities. Despite having a memory that was admissible in court, little was done. The remnants of his tactical software were adept at targeting such persons, but any clever comebacks were left on the street corners back home. None of it had context in this new canned life; his disarmament was complete.

Patrick lumbered onto the train and rode it end to end several times before returning to his home. The apartment’s private network informed him that he had three messages.

Had Sarah called back that many times? Patrick accessed the voice mail. Sarah’s voice came on the line. He deleted the message before she could plead her case. The second was a blind sales call and the third a politician’s automated campaign message. He deleted the last one with as much ire as a mental command could carry.

Patrick shifted down into a resting mode and accessed his internal storage, downloading the day’s cache of faces. From there, he sorted through the facial types and catalogued them. Without the physical need for much sleep—or the desire—he had plenty of time to choose nose and cheekbones for the latest version of his face. One of those kids on the street had the perfect bridge, he was sure of it.

§

Even after eight months, public transit workers at the station nearest his apartment hadn’t gotten used to him yet. They never addressed Patrick unless prompted, fidgeting like children. Not that he didn’t understand. Patrick’s service had put him on a killing path across half the planet. Back when drone warfare threatened to overwhelm democratic nations. Humans inside drones, an inseparable part of machines, had been the next logical step. No signal to jam, no delays in remote commands. It was the sort of forward-leaning innovation America was known and feared for.

Fully automated killing machines would have been too far. “Unethical,” they’d called it. “Cowardly,” the Mechanized Corps called it. A tactic only the enemy used. And once their machines were dealt with, it was time for wet work.

The majority of his comrades were felons; no easy messages for public relations. There was nothing warm and fuzzy about hard time criminals defending your freedom. The narrative sucked. One lame duck Senator had started a landslide of negative opinion that continued to demonize the few veteran mechs still in plain sight. Criminals didn’t get to leave the Corps, freedom wasn’t a prize for them to win.

Seven men, nine women, and one child rode in the subway car. The child stared at him from across the aisle as she sat in her mother’s lap. The woman whispered fiercely in her daughter’s ear. “Madhavi, do not stare like that! It’s rude.”

The roar of the train should have drowned their voices out. For human ears, anyway. Madhavi looked away long enough to ask her mother if Patrick was a robot in the stage whisper that children used before they truly learned to keep secrets. It was a common question amongst the knee-high commando set, and disappointing for its repetition. 

A child’s repertoire involved a small assortment of questions directed at Patrick that led in a circle. Their inexperience made them incapable of decoding the reality of cyborgs developed for war. He might be better off as a heartless machine, decommissioned and mothballed, or the victim of a “forced deconstruction” on the battlefield. 

Maybe the enemy had gotten it right after all. 

If anyone in his family could see him beneath the armor, they might never stop screaming about what was left of their brother. Their nephew. Their cousin. Or their son, especially their son. Now here was this bright-eyed child and her mother, taking an interest in him, however negative the mother’s interest might be. Was there something he could tell the child about the train, a bit of data only he would know that she’d find interesting?

The machine embedded in his brain never offered information on how to elicit a conversation, so he ignored it. Everything he could find online pertained to people who were far more than thirty-two percent human.

More than anything, he wanted a face-to-face conversation. A dialogue. A negotiation. An idea floated up in his mind. A dangerous and subversive, capital I idea. There were hostage tactic scenarios in his Onboard Tactical Computer. He followed the thread, played the idea out, and swam through the data. Using a behavioral prediction subroutine, he put himself in the role of a terrorist just to see what might happen. Maybe the enemy had gotten it right.

He wouldn’t even need weaponry to control the passengers or the possible involvement of the conductor. Despite the removal of weapons and heavy servos, his mechanized body was still more powerful than a normal one. He began calculating how much fuel remained in his body against the actions required to control the car and then turned his attention to analyzing the car’s power systems. Maybe he could recharge his power cells by jury-rigging the electrical system in the train? He would need additional options for controlling the passengers in that case. 

Patrick set the diagnostic aside, satisfied to let it run in the background, analyzing the current mechanical readiness of the car against specs from his field archives. He could always check-in on the analysis. There might be hours of negotiation—conversation—with response teams whose purpose was to befriend him in order to try and manipulate the outcome. He didn’t want to hurt anyone however, and he was struggling with how to get around that part when his thoughts were interrupted by the child across the aisle. She had squirmed out of her mom’s lap and now stood within reach.

“Are you a robot?”

“Madhavi!”

“No, I’m not a robot.”

“Come here! Right now. I’m so sorry …”

Mommy!

“It’s all right, I understand.”

“I’m sure, but it was a rude question, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. My name’s Patrick. How old is she?” Play it out, play it out, don’t scare her.

A red warning flashed on the OTC. Patrick, focused on avoiding an incident of terror right in front of him, ignored it. Here, laid practically in his lap, was an opportunity to have a conversation. With an adult. If he could get around Madhavi, the little girl, perhaps her mother would chat with him until they left the train. 

Madhavi squirmed from her mother’s grasp and spoke up again.

“If you’re not a robot, then what are you?”

Patrick waited, doing his best to demonstrate deference to Madhavi’s mother.

She blinked, shook her head, and said, “Forgive her, she’s five—”

“—Five and a half!” Madhavi shrieked.

“—Five and a half. And my name’s Inas.”

“Pleased to meet you, Inas.” He didn’t offer either of his right hands to shake. Keep your distance, stay cool.

They were brown people, like he had once been, but not with the same ethnic background. They had “good hair,” as his great-grandfather used to say, and he guessed their ethnic origin: Indian. A quick search in an online Indian-language reference library translated her name’s meaning as capable.

“Madhavi, my name is Patrick McCoy, and I’m not a robot. I am just like you on the inside. This,” he tapped his chassis, “just makes me look like one.”

“‘Patrick McCoy,’” she repeated. “That’s Irish.”

“Yes. But I’m not Irish. One of the most famous McCoys in history was an inventor, a man as brown as you. Or as I used to be.” 

“Oh,” she said. “We learned about Irish in class. I got my name from my Nānī, it means creepy. How are you like a robot?”

Inas grinned, but her face remained taut. “Your name comes from a flowering vine, not creepy, and you can thank your father’s love and devotion to your grandmother for that.”

Ah, a creeping vine, Patrick thought, then verified it in the same database he’d found Inas’s name. “Yeah, I guess I am like a robot, but I am not one. Have you felt your heartbeat?”

She stared quizzically for a moment, then placed her hand on her chest.

“That’s right. See here?” Patrick indicated a plate high on his torso, under his arm. “If you put your hand here, you can feel my heartbeat. You’ll have to ask your mom for permission if you want to do that. It shows I’m not a robot.”

Inas’s expression tightened further and her blinking increased, but she nodded slowly to Madhavi who immediately walked over to Patrick and placed her little palm over his heart. Patrick toggled his operating controls to dial down motor functions and allow his heartbeat to be felt. Her hand was warm. Patrick focused on that touch, focusing as much sensory input as he could manage to the task. He knew the touch was there, could feel the pressure, the warmth, but none of the humanity.

Madhavi’s surprised, wide-eyed whisper to her mother would have put a smile on his face if he still had one beneath the tempered, carbonic shell.

The OTC’s warning abruptly enveloped all of his peripheral vision, flashing urgently. It took less than a second for Patrick to read the warning and react. He scooped up Madhavi and lunged in her mother’s direction.

The train went dark. Sparks shot out of the overhead lighting. The vehicle lurched and skipped the rail. Steel bent and glass shattered, bits of advertising material and assorted rivets spattered on the floor like rain. The other passengers  tumbled through the car, adding their terrified shouts to the deafening screech. Patrick remained stationary, locked in position over Madhavi and Inas until the train stopped.

The silence of held breath ticked for long seconds while the groan of straining metal and the scurry of rubble on the roof invaded the space. Someone coughed at the far end of the car setting off a series of groans and the sound of struggling bodies. Inas curled around her little girl beneath Patrick, unharmed.

He scanned down the car. People wailed and crawled aimlessly in the dark. Patrick stood and the plates over his cranium scraped the roof. The contact allowed him to ping the surface of the car and check its structure. The derailment had partially collapsed the tunnel, effectively burying the train in a massive amount of rubble. Both ends of their car were crushed. The rest of the car crumpled, an eerie ticking of metal being bent by millimeters.

More cries and a sorrowful scream tore his attention back to the passengers. Madhavi whimpered at his feet.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, “I think I can help.” Patrick exposed his light-duty lenses, allowing their glow to chase the dusty blackness away. Everyone in the car looked in his direction.

“Hey, get away from them!” A young, brown-skinned man in his thirties jabbed his finger accusingly. Patrick’s light reflected off the lenses of the man’s glasses and spiked, black hair. He looked to be Indian as well—or Bangladeshi. There weren’t many Pakistanis left in Pakistan, let alone America.

More info from the OTC indicated instability throughout the car.

The young man took a step forward.

Please, sir, don’t move, the car is unstable.”

“You did this, didn’t you? Why’d they let a monster like you out into society, why’d they even make you, Frankenstein? What’d you do to the train?” He took another step forward.

Patrick raised one of his wicked looking arms. Even devoid of the weapons that were formerly mounted there, it multiplied his already inhuman appearance. He adopted what he hoped was a pleading posture, trying in vain to look non-threatening. “This is serious, do not move!”

A sickening lurch split open the rail car. The alloy roof parted like aluminum foil as a slab of jagged concrete dropped into the center of the cab, catching the young man across his hips and knocking other passengers near him to the floor. Dust and man-made debris followed the slab, sending a toxic cloud into the car. 

Coughing fits cut the latest round of screams off.

A combination of air- and liquid-cooled mechanics permeated Patrick’s shell. He opened all of his vents and pushed a burst of power to his coolant fans. The worst of the airborne debris swept away from Inas and Madhavi. The young man who’d shifted the car’s uneven weight whimpered involuntarily, quivering beneath a broken stone toenail of the city, his body pinned to the floor. The train must have slammed into a support column and cracked it.

Peeking into the infrared spectrum told Patrick that all the passengers were accounted for, all alive. At least for a short while. The young man pinned beneath the slab didn’t have much time.

Patrick pinged the car again. The exits were all blocked, but the outlook was good if everyone could move forward, as a counterbalance, to prevent further shifting. He reached out to the train’s diagnostic computer and found dead air. None of his training prepared him for this, none of his experience. In the thick of the accident, he’d reacted, but now a creeping sense of unease jangled his nerves. He needed more information and the train was no longer forthcoming. There was always more to be had, though, data permeated his life. He boosted his signal to tap the connection directly through the tunnel’s lines, praying they were undamaged. There he found an encouraging link and what the train’s damage looked like to dispatch. An aftershock rumbled through the car bringing more dust and the tinkle of debris. The train wasn’t designed to be a load-bearing tube for the tunnel. A blinking display in his peripheral vision noted he was overworking his power cells. 

The pinned young man groaned.

“Inas? I need your help.”

Tears cut through the dust on her face, Madhavi curled around her waist. “What can I do?”

“Keep everyone calm while I move this slab off of our friend here. You’ll need to recruit a couple of passengers to get him out of there.”

“The exits are working?”

“No, you’ll need to take him forward, into the next car. The whole tunnel didn’t collapse, just the sides and rear at this point of the train. Forward, off the train, on to the next station stop. That’s freedom.”

“How do you know that?” Inas spoke through a clenched jaw.

Madhavi’s voice, clear and no longer choked with tears, answered her mother’s question. “He can talk to machines, mommy.”

“That’s right,” Patrick confirmed. “I can see the tunnel system the same way the dispatcher can. The train can’t hold the tunnel up.”

Again, he wished for a face to smile with. But instead of dwelling on what would never be, Patrick shifted his weight to position himself for better leverage on the slab. 

A second shock rattled the car. The slab shifted, grinding through the young man on the floor. He tried to scream, but choked off in pain, clawing weakly at the concrete.

One of the passengers yelled from the front of the car, “Hey, that goddamn thing is going to get us killed!”

A chorus of agreement bubbled up from the other passengers.

“His name is Patrick,” Inas snapped. “He is trying to help this young man here and you watch your language!” Pebbles and grit pinged down on the train in the silence that followed..

“Thanks, Inas. Can you ask a couple of people to position themselves on either side of this guy’s shoulders? He shouldn’t be moved, but we don’t have any other options.”

The car rumbled again and people began to scream. Inas shushed them and pointed at two other passengers. “You and you, come here, help this man.”

The men clung to the train’s bars and didn’t move. 

“Now!” 

They unglued themselves and floated hesitatingly towards Patrick and the spreading pool of blood beneath the pistons of his legs.

“Here and here,” Inas said, indicating either side of the trapped passenger. They slowly complied, eyeing Patrick as they got into position.

The amplified tone of Patrick’s electronic voice cut through the car. “Listen up: This is gonna be messy. He’s passed out and his heartbeat is wild, but he ain’t gonna like being moved. You’ll need to drag him to the other end of the car. Don’t stop, get to the door. I’m going to brace myself beneath the slab. I can’t move it up, but the floor will buckle. That should give you enough time to get him out. There’s going to be a lot of noise and the car may shift again.” Patrick got underneath the slab and braced his back against it, unfolding his arms to either side.

“Inas?”

“Yes, Patrick?”

“Can you have everyone else gather at the end of the car? Stay to the sides, I’m going to have to move quickly to get the door open for you.”

Patrick waited while she relayed his instructions, herding the group to the end of the car. He regarded his reluctant volunteers. “You men ready?”

A pale, heavyset man in a blue suit frowned back. “Are you sure you can do this?” he asked.

Patrick checked his status. Seventy-nine percent power, it would drain quickly. All of his mechanics were functioning normally otherwise. “No. On three: one, two, three!”

His servos whined at an extreme pitch, the coolers working overtime and blowing through the dusty air. The floor crumpled, sending a fresh shock through the car.

The subway car lurched and began to compress as the surrounding rock pushed in earnest. More glass exploded and lighting panels dropped all around them as the walls closed in. The men dragged the freed passenger the length of the car, leaving a trail of dirty blood.

Patrick shifted his torso in an inhuman twist, allowing the slab to slide off. There were two men scrabbling at the door when Patrick thumped to the end of the car. Inas shouted at them, tugging on their shoulders. It took them a precious two seconds to slide out of the damn way. Patrick battered the door with one blow, reached for the second door and crumpled it just as easily when the walls and dirt began to rush in through burst windows. The weak connection between the cars began to collapse.

He braced himself in the passageway, servos spinning furiously, a high-pitched scream. “Go now, go!”

Passengers scrambled between his legs to get to the next car. He checked his power levels. Fifteen percent and dropping rapidly. In the midst of the human line, he saw Madhavi scuttle through, followed by her mother.

Inas turned in the passageway of the next car, her daughter tucked tightly beneath her arm. She wore an expression that communicated nothing but questions.

Two percent. 

“Go, now.” His words came out muddy. His heart thumped desperately as his body overheated and oxygen waned. 

One percent. 

If he powered down to maintenance mode, he could survive for hours or possibly days on low power, effectively putting himself in a coma. Buried alone beneath tons of rock, the armor would become a stasis unit. A coffin.

“Patrick, come on!” Madhavi reached toward him. Her mother pulled the girl back as the car began collapsing around Patrick, enveloping him. Confusion contorted the little girl’s face when he didn’t follow them through the cascade of stones and dirt.

Darkness closed in and Patrick felt lighter than he ever had before. Expanding colors tinged the darkness, smothering him in unexpected warmth. The weight of wars past floated off of his shoulders. Patrick wanted to call Sarah, to hear his sister’s voice one more time, to hear his niece’s enthusiasm for life, to visit his grandmother’s grave. All of this had been for them. Each sacrifice he’d made was done with them in his thoughts, of finding a way for his family to move forward and out of the cycle.

He went to his grave, thoughts of his family and of his unfinished face on his mind. He went not in a metal coffin, draped in a flag, but in service, wearing his uniform.

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© Errick Nunnally
Originally published in FIYAH Magazine issue 14 (Spring 2020)

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