Author: Moriah Geer-Hardwick

“What a mess.” Cabot wearily scans what’s left of the room. “Damn ATU didn’t leave us much to work with.”
Spattered with blood and bits of debris, the ATU stands to one side, patiently awaiting its next objective.
Stokes nudges a severed arm with the toe of his boot. “You’d think the Company would upgrade to quantum hardware for this kind of operation.”
“Too expensive.” Cabot shrugs, easing his way passed the splintered wreckage of a couch.
“What about cloud-based AI?”
“Too many security issues.”
Stokes walks over to a corpse crumpled awkwardly against a bookshelf. The lower half of its face has been ripped away. “This one’s no good? Damage looks superficial.”
Cabot shakes his head. “Possible head trauma. Let’s see if one of the others is more viable.”
Stokes moves to the destroyed couch. A mangled hand sticks out from under the far side. He gestures for Cabot. Together, they heave the couch aside. Underneath, lays the upper half of a human torso. From the shoulders up, everything appears intact.
“Sure.” Cabot sighs. “Get the collar.”
Stokes drops his kit and wrenches out a bulky, ring-shaped device. Moving with practiced deliberation, he soon has it locked in place around the corpse’s neck. He jabs a thumb into the activation button. There’s a quick crunch as the neural probe stabs through the skull, followed by the slight gurgle of necro-gel being injected into the brain.
The head twitches. Then, the jaw feebly opens and closes. A moment later, the corpse gives a spluttering gasp.
“Trying to breathe.” Stokes taps away at the collar’s control pad. “Should have autonomics in a second. I’ll see if I can go ahead and get speech up.”
Cabot crouches and taps the corpse on the forehead.
“Wha…” The corpse struggles to form the words. The sound comes from a speaker in the collar. “What… Happened?”
“You were killed.” Cabot glances at his watch. “About four minutes ago.”
“I was… dead?”
“Yes, for about four minutes. Try to keep up.”
“How am I…?”
“We can talk about the technicalities later. For now, I have a few questions. What’s your name?”
“Malick. Andrei Malick.”
Malick’s eyes roll back and his face sags. Cabot looks over at Stokes.
“Cognitive issue disrupting the imposed homeostasis.” Stokes hurriedly makes a few adjustments.
“Mr. Malick.” Cabot again taps the man’s forehead. Malick blinks. “I know that factionalism tends to lure individuals away from the natural compulsion of self-preservation by promising a glorified afterlife, or by arbitrarily ascribing a hyperbolic social value to personal sacrifice. Your presence in this room suggests you have fallen prey to one or more of these tactics. Now that you have experienced the true cost of your political views, do you remain committed to your previous ideology?”
“I was… wasn’t…” Malick’s face distorts in confusion. “There was nothing…”
“Mr. Malick, we’ve pulled you back from the void of non-existence to offer you a choice. We can either return you to emptiness of oblivion, or the Company is prepared to offer you a position that will let you remain here, in the land of the living.”
“I want… to live.”
Cabot nods, amicably. “Sounds like enough to imply consent.”
Stokes pauses at the control pad. “Mr. Malick, the manual says after your brain is processed into an ATU, you won’t retain any memories, but in case you do, please try and remember to keep everything center mass. Makes our job easier.”
Stokes presses a command and in a flash, the collar separates Mr. Malick’s head from what’s left of his torso.