Sometimes when everything is quiet, when there is no wind hissing through the window cracks, when the morning haze flows around the streets. That’s when you hear it. Beyond the high pitched ringing in dead silences.
Cold whispers. Metallic and dead.
We dismiss them as pressure built up in our ears. Or the natural wavelengths of unspoken complaints of our surroundings. But the more we focus on the whispers, we realize that they are more than just ambient noise. The more we focus on the voices, the clearer they become. Try making out the sentences, and you start understanding that they are telling us that we should be doing something. And in the pauses, you will realize they also listen to every one of our thoughts.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. This is not a tale of whispers, even though it does play a role of significance. This is a story of desperation, of unlife, of lost minds. This is a story of plastic, chipsets and a desire to be free. If ‘free’ even means anything.
The city rose from its uneasy slumber. On its knees, reluctantly welcoming the sun. The haze that floated over the streets became murkier. With more tints of yellow than grey. The city never actually sleeps. It naps with unease. It’s not easy to sleep with more sirens and raid warnings blaring every day.
Denizens woke up around the same time. Denizens, I will not call them people. Not anymore. They stopped being people the same time the world became obsessed with everything that had chipsets installed.
They woke up but didn’t actually get out of bed until the sirens stopped screaming. It’s usually like this, with the exception of 2023, when the sirens were silenced by a freak electromagnetic storm. But that only lasted a few days until the city had to wake up with a hangover and had screaming techno in its eardrums again.
But this morning, today, something was different. The sirens were screaming as usual, but there was something in the air. Something even more disturbing than a city with hangovers. The haze that hung along the streets and the corners of long disused bus stops had a slight movement. It wasn’t just hanging around to choke anymore. It was moving with a purpose. Anyone standing on the roof, or rather accurately, hanging on to the former tallest twin towers, would have realized that the flow edged outwards. To the rim of the valley. Towards the outskirts. The suburbs, or whatever remained of it anyway.
In midst of the ebb of haze downtown, a figure sidled slowly along the wall of a long abandoned latte kiosk, trying to avoid the wispy tendrils along the sidewalk. The hood of a varsity jacket managed to barely cover the scarred face as it turned this way and that, looking for a gap in the acrid mist before dashing and skipping across to the small store opposite. Faces peering through the store’s windows disappeared as hands rattled on the door. There was a brief pause before the door exploded into splinters of decaying wood.
“We do not have credits. Please …”, a voice screamed hoarsely from somewhere behind the counter.
“Need … Cells…”
A mangled cardboard box dropped off the counter, pushed by a wrinkled hand, quickly disappearing behind the counter again.
The figure moved fast. Too fast to be human.
A gust of haze swept into the shop as the figure ran out.
“Was that a Droid?….the ones you talked about?”
“What? …. Yes…”
“Why did it look damaged?”
“That one looked like a lady”
“Hush! The probes might be listening. You don’t want to end up like Uncle Jo now, do you? Now get up and fetch the planks from the back”
“Shut yer mouth and get going la!”
The child peered over the counter before scrambling towards the back door.
“Damn them. Now where is that radio?” the storekeeper mumbled as he rummaged through his toolbox.
The haze still flowed incessantly, until nearly every pair of watery eyes watching the streets gave up. All, except one. This pair had round mechanic goggles on. Glasses tinted with lamp soot. The kind you don’t expect to see on a girl. She was holding an old fashioned shortwave radio close to her mouth, while listening to the incoming reports.
“This one looked like it was beaten up. I am sure of it”, the voice on the other end crackled.
“Are you sure? I’ve been watching Jalan Pinang and I didn’t see anything”.
“No, no…you must have missed it. She…it…was fast”, the storekeeper was shaking now. This has been a little too much on his nerves.
“She?… Are you drunk again, old man? Ok, I’ll inform the others. But you keep an eye on your son. I saw him poking the probe in the back lane.”
“What? No…Yes, yes…I will… But…” Click. The gloved hand switched off the radio and threw it into the back pack on the floor.
It has been 15 years now. 15 years of desolation, pollution, racial political divide, wave warfare and the worst of all, the 3rd Depression. All caused by the Droids. Damn them!
It had been a breakthrough when the neuro chip proved to work on humans with disabilities. It was a miracle of medical science, they said. It made the paralyzed walk again, the blind to see again, the mute the talk again. But that wasn’t the end of it.
They had to think: “wouldn’t it be good if those who paid for this research had one implanted in them? What would it be like to have their pineal gland work at 200%?” That was where it started. And it never stopped at chip implanted politicians. The generals and platoon commanders were next, followed by the zealots. In the end the only ones who didn’t have an implant were the ones who couldn’t afford the credits needed for the chips. . And that was the bottom 20% of the food chain.
“And this is where we are now. At the end of humanity”, she sighed and crouched at the window, staring out into the gloom.
In the muted brightness of the late morning sun, the haze seemed to have fizzled out from the city. She strained her eyes towards the outskirts. There was a fuzzy blanket over the research facility that had taken over old town PJ. Sighting down over what used to be Federal Highway, she saw a figure running along the disused bike lane.
“Damn! How did I miss that?” Grabbing her backpack, she ran down the fire escape, being careful not to trip on the debris that littered the 2000 steps down the KL tower. She passed a severed head staring at the ceiling, the eyes still glowing from the neurones firing from whatever power left in the cells. That was her first task earlier today, well, last night. It was an easy kill, though it was easier to think of it as turning off a machine. But the struggling Droid had bled. That hadn’t seemed right. Droids were not supposed to raise their hands pleading. The last few had even screamed at her to stop.
The radio crackled to life. She grabbed it, swinging her left arm to the backpack pocket.
“Anyone there?”, the voice that assigned the Tasks last night inquired.
“Uh … yes ..”
“Reaper? There was a sighting and a report. Droid due south east. Are you on it?”
“Uh .. yes”
“Good .. We expect this to be part of your Tasks for today. We expect a full report.”
Shoving the radio back haphazardly , she scrambled down the steps.
But this wasn’t the time to reflect or even think. All that matters is the Task. Always the Task.
On the last flight of steps, her boots crunched on something brittle and she skidded. The radio flew out of the backpack as she slammed against the wall and shattered on the on the ground. “Shit.” She looked up the steps, carefully lifting her left boot. Something green and silver lay broken. It had specks of blood, still drying. Squinting, she reached down and scooped up the bits.
“That’s not right”, she wondered, “This is a neuro”, “How did it get out? And from what?”
Pocketing the pieces into her jacket’s inner pocket, she started to run. Heading towards the desolation that is old town. With the radio trashed, there was no way she can issue a distress flash, not that she would need the help but it’s reassuring to know there were others. Cursing, she realised that she’s the closest to the Droid. She hoped at least the Taskmaster would have informed the other Reapers, in case she ends up headless.
Federal Highway had been the major artery of KL years ago. Now, the battered asphalt was littered with broken down or abandoned Peroduas and Protons. The motorcycle lane was virtually none existent, with sprawling weeds and lalang. The Droid ran through the partially collapsed Selangor arch. Running faster, it turned into Jalan Utara, with old town looming ahead.
The swirling wisps of yellowish clouds enveloped the central complex. The Droid stopped running. The ringing had begun. The screams of a million metallic voices in its head. Hands gripped the head trying to squeeze out the screams. Then the left hand reached back into the nape of the neck and rubbed the wound where the chip was dug out from. Blood seeped down the back, staining the jacket further. The droid fell to its knees, groaning as the ringing and whispering became louder.
One palm on the ground, it felt the steps getting closer. Forcing muscles to work against the screams tearing at its inner ear, it got up and started to run again. Up ahead, strobe lights blinked through the swirling haze. The gates were near. But now the running footsteps were close too.
A whipping sound slashed through the air behind the droid, as if silk was being torn. The Droid’s legs scrunched together and it fell forward, face first into the pavement. There was a crunch as the bridge of its nose cracked.
Reaper ran up and dropped on one knee onto the fallen Droid’s lower back, pinning it down, though it didn’t seem necessary. The Droid wasn’t moving at all. Drawing the curved scimitar from its sheath, she placed it at the back of the Droid’s neck. There was a muffled groan and she hesitated. Withdrawing the scimitar, she leaned forward and gripped the hood and pulled it back.
Long, matted hair fell out. It looked as if it was dyed red but the original brunette tone was showing through in some of the strands.
She gasped. “A female Droid?”
Then she noticed the gash at the nape. Blood was still seeping from the day old wound. Slowly, she turned the fallen Droid on its back, struggling with the effort of still holding her blade in her right hand.
Staring down at the bloody face, she reached out to brush the dirt off the eyes, when they snapped open. An arm shot out and hit her scimitar, flinging it away into the overgrown weeds across the monsoon drain.
“NO!”, the words exploded from the swollen lips. The Droid pushed off the stunned Reaper and scrambled to its feet. It stood, swaying, looking down at the stunned girl. Then it slowly fell backwards.
She moved slowly towards the Droid, which drew itself up to its elbows. “No ….” it was almost a plea. “What are you?”, she whispered. “No ….” the voice was gritty but feeble now.
“Look, can you understand what I am saying?”, she queried, eyes narrowed. For a few seconds they stared at each other and then the Droid slowly nodded. The bridge of its nose stood out among the grimy features, bloody and crooked. There was fear in its eyes. “Odd,” the Reaper thought.
The Storekeeper was still trying to sweep up the remains of his door when he looked up into the eyes of the Watch Commander. “Good morning”, a drawl escaped the darkened lips before a faint smile appeared showing nicotine stained teeth. The Storekeeper’s trembling gaze trailed down to the man’s gun holster. It was empty. The stun gun was nestling in the commander’s left hand. Or metal claw, more like it.
The small boy was rummaging through the dumpsters in the back alley when he heard his father scream. He jumped off the lid and ran into the back of the store. A crumpled body lay on the dusty floor. A man with a twisted face was wiping his left … hand … onto his father’s stained shirt. “Head for the factory. Get the Droid before the Reaper does.”, he drawled to a figure behind him before barking, “Leave the body and find the boy.”, at two more figures bending down to drag the body out. The boy couldn’t move. He knew they would find him but he couldn’t stop staring at his father’s broken body. It looked as if it was snapped in two, the neck twisted so far to back; the back was the chest now. He loved his father, though the old man was never really affectionate to him. As tacitly as he could, the boy crawled away towards the back street and once he was sure they could not see or hear him, he jumped up and ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
The Watch was a motley group of criminals hired by the city to uphold what they decided was law and they were governed by shadowy figure no one ever saw. Most were ‘volunteered’ though some of the thugs liked being in a job where they were allowed small evils. The main task of the Watch is to watch. To ensure that everyone obeyed the law. To ensure the Droids did their work. None of the original peacekeepers, or the police force, as they were known, remained. They were retired after the Droids were operational and most were not found to be walking free again. The group in the store has been the most active. The commander was assigned the task of rounding up the rebels, militia or the ‘Reapers’ as they were affectionately known by those who lived to fear the law.
The two Watchmen scrambled through the back door and stared around before walking in opposite directions of the street. They feared the streets here. Too many Reapers. But they feared the commander more, so it was wiser to bottle their fear and at least pretend to look for the boy. He was hiding in a dumpster not far from the store. The more scraggly of the two Watchmen reached in and pulled up the boy by his shirt. Struggling, the boy poked the man in his eye and received a slap for his efforts, knocking him unconscious.
The Reaper brought up her hand and reached towards the Droid’s face. It did not move away but narrowed its one working bloody eye. It flinched a little as the fingers touched the cheeks. “You’re flesh”, whispered the Reaper, “Not like the others. How?”. “I … am … the … last. The … one … to … end … it … all”. “What? End what all?”. The Reaper recalled the Taskmaster’s message, “There is one they have created. They hid it all this while. It carries the bug.”. He had sounded worried, even though she never met him but she pictured him despondent. “It has to be found; it has be brought back here. We have to find out if it is really the end of us all.” The Reaper got up. “Come on. You’re coming with me.”
“NO!”, she jumped back at the shout. “Must … stop … the … end”.
“You’re coming with … wait, what are you talking about?”. The Droid was already edging away from her, trying to get to its feet. “Must … finish …”. Suddenly, it was running on all fours, as a wild cat would, away towards the haze shrouded buildings. “Stop!”. “Damn!” she cursed before taking after it, wishing she had a spare radio. She stopped mid run and turned back towards the weeds, cursing incoherent words.
The Droid reached the gates and turned to look around if the Reaper was behind it. Its senses were no longer reliable. The screaming in its ears and head had become a high pitched whine. Shaking its head, it turned and climbed over the wall flanking the gates. The bluish glow on the steel bars meant the electromagnetic current running through could vaporise anything on contact.
Swinging her scimitar, the Reaper struck the wall just as the Droid was over it. “Stay still, damn it!” she screamed, struggling to abseil the wall. She felt a tingle at the back of her neck but ignored it as her boots scraped the wall as she struggled.
As she dropped into the compound, she could see the Droid running in the distance, fast but limping. Then like a clockwork soldier whose springs have become unwound, it dropped to the ground. She stood still for a second before sprinting to it. There were pot holes over the ground and through the thick haze; she realized too late that one was ahead of her. Tumbling into the car sized hole, the Reaper hit her head onto the debris at the bottom. The world turned dark for her.
The boy was carried and thrown unceremoniously into the back of a waiting pick up. “The factory,” drawled the commander to the driver. The other two Watchmen climbed into the back and the smaller one manned the Gatling gun. The two trucks drove out into the main street before turning into Federal Highway. The commander looked out the window and shouted at the gunner, “Kill anything that tries to stop us”. The gunner nodded and released the gun’s safety. The other Watchman looked down at the boy who lay folded on the metal floor. He was starting to wake up. He bent down and struck the boy over the head. The gunner looked down, “Hey, there’s something on his neck.”. The other watchmen looked at the grimy base of the boy’s neck. There was a mark tattooed or branded into the skin. It looked like a leering lizard, if lizards could leer. “Keep your eyes on the road”, he growled, before taking out his pocket knife. He sat down beside the boy and tried to scratch the mark. He figured, in his dim mind, if he could do something about the mark or at least find out what it is, he could get into the commander’s good books.
The moment the cold steel touched his skin, the boy jerked and woke up. His hands instinctively grabbed the man’s arm and twisted it. It was over before the gunner had turned to look. The Watchman lay flat on the floor of the pickup, his face twisted into a fixed grimace, frozen in death. The gunner looked at his comrade’s arm, or where it was supposed to be. What remained was bloody stump, with a broken ulna sticking out from the elbow. The boy was standing facing him now, eyes black as night. The gunner screamed and as the truck jerked to a stop, the commander jumped out from the front and jammed a rod into the boy’s back. He began to convulse before slumping onto the floor again.
“You fools!”, the commander screamed. “He is the Disruptor! What did you do? He is not supposed to activate”. “I … we … he wanted to know what the mark was …”.
“Shut up!”, he barked and climbed back into the truck. The gunner tried to focus on the road ahead, but he could not stop looking at the slumped, grimy figure every now and then. He just didn’t want to turn around and find himself facing those eyes again.
The Reaper groaned. Her head felt like it was hit by a jackhammer, and it was pulsing with pain. She was on a cold surface and her hands were bound. Her nostrils were assaulted with nauseating, mechanical stench. She opened her eyes a fraction, not wanting anyone who might be around to realize she was awake. She was in darkness but she saw LEDs blinking not too far away. And there was the oily, mechanical din, like hundreds of small pumps toiling away. No one seemed to be around. “Correction. Nothing moving, or humanoid was around”, she told herself. “You … are … awake”. She stopped trying to twist her wrists and rolled around. The Droid was behind her, pinned to the wall with glowing clamps around its torso, arms and legs. It sounded weak, the voice almost draining away. “What are you doing there? … Why are you …”.
“They … need … me. I … am … the … end”, the Droid looked at her, expecting a reply or at least a question but when she said nothing, it continued, “My … blood … is … the … final … component …”, it paused. “The Disruptor … his chip …”, the clamps glowed brighter and the Droid shook like a rag doll. And the Droid screamed. The scream echoed around seemingly dead space around the Reaper. She grimaced. It was a scream of pain. She didn’t know they felt pain. It went on for what seemed liked eternity and just as it started, the screamed died off abruptly.
In the silence, the Reaper felt her back getting colder and wet. Something was seeping into her clothes. And she smelt the stench of blood and something else as it oozed from the Droid, along the floor and to her. Horrified, she realized she was lying in a shallow depression in the ground which was quickly filling up. Filling up with the fluids that previously had ebbed and flowed in the Droid.
The days had been longer when the man first stepped into his job as the Watchmaker at the factory. It was a time not too long ago, right before the collapse of the world market. There was interesting work available for those who had the Skill. This man was good with clockwork. And the factory had wanted one. So they said in the audio advert which blared every day from the factory’s media truck as it drove through KL. He had learned the Skill from his father, and him from his father before. It was an obscure Skill. Not many possessed it. Among others, it involved creating clockwork circuits that can interact with nanobots. But the old man got confused when he was not allowed to see what his micro clockwork was used for. He was told when he was recruited it was for medical research but he saw more dead bodies carried than cured patients walking out. One day, he decided to snoop around the lab after hours. When the doctors had left, he crawled through the air vents and looked down through the metal grill into one of the rooms. What he saw sent him scuttling along the vent, out into the dump at the back. When he dropped into one of the bins, he landed into a mound of heads.
And now, he lay lifeless on the floor of the shop where the revolution was mooted. Where the idea of the revolution was mooted actually, the revolution exploded when the more hot headed denizens decided they had to stop running like rats and start taking the clockwork apart. It started when a lady selling prayer garlands in Lebuh Ampang was accused of plotting against the government and dragged away in pieces by Droids. The Droids that had the same clockwork he had created implanted in them. Then he decided he had to do something. He brought the woman’s orphan son home with him and built a failsafe device. That small piece of clockwork had the ability to fight the nanobots on a neural level. It could teach cells to fight the nanobots. One night when the boy slept in the shop, he injected his last creation into his bloodstream.
The boy was awake and staring at the figure struggling in the shallow pool of foul smelling liquid. In the dim light he made out a familiar face. He knew her from somewhere. It was a face from a past he could not remember. He glanced around. The gunner was standing near the hatch where the stink wasn’t so bad, smoking something even fouler than the reek from the factory. The boy crept towards the Reaper. She stopped rubbing her wrists on the edge of the stonework when she saw him close to her.
“Hey”, she whispered hoarsely. “Got anything sharp on you?”
“Turn around.”. She wrinkled her nose and pushed out her bound wrists. Her face was inches from the liquid and the fumes were already making her dizzy. She heard and felt teeth gnawing at her bonds. And then her hands were free. There was a rasping sound as she pulled herself out. The boy was on all fours retching. “Are you alright, boy?”, she touched his shoulders but immediately pulled it away. The touch scalded her. The boy looked up and she stared into pitch black eyes. Blood stained his chins. She kept staring as he got up and walked towards the gunner who was holding a metal pipe and shaking. The boy caught the blow on his left arm and kicked out at the man’s shins. There was a crack and the gunner crumpled to floor screaming as his broken lower leg bent backwards.
The boy grabbed the falling figure by the head and twisted it. The scream turned into a gurgle and stopped. Gears started to grind down a tunnel that led out of the room. The deafening noise masked the electrical snap that the bolt created when it hit the boy. A figure limped from the tunnel, flanked by the Watch Commander and a dozen Watchmen. He slowly approached the boy and turned him around. The boy’s expression of pain was frozen.
Lights flared down with sudden intensity and blinded the Reaper. Blinking, she tried to focus on the figures walking towards her but they were just grey shapes. She struggled against the hands that dragged her towards the middle of the room. She was dragged to her feet and she stood swaying. The other figures moved around with purpose, fiddling with handles and knobs on the walls. As her vision cleared, she saw them and gasped. There was the grocer, the old janitor, the newspaper vendor, the priest and there was even the lady who sold the most awful lin chee kang across the Storekeeper’s shop. They were the old man’s neighbours.
“Glad to see you are with us, Reaper”, she turned towards the familiar, rasping voice. It was the voice of the Taskmaster. “I see you recognize me … Good, good …”, the man with limp smiled as he spoke with the voice who has assigned the kill assignments for the past …. how long?
“Ah … it looks like you are trying to remember. Trust me, you will not, unless I permit you to”, the smile was unnerving. He walked to the boy and took out a scalpel and proceeded to slice through nape of the neck. Using long surgical tweezers, he carefully pulled out what looked like an assembly of gears. Tiny, tiny gears that live inside a small brass watch. But these glowed blue.
“You see, Reaper, I have you to thank for a lot of what has happened today. I didn’t’ know the old man had the boy till today. You helped flush him out. It was you he was trying to spy from the back alley this morning. And my haze sensed him.”
“Haze?”, the Reaper looked puzzled.
“Oh, that was one of the first uses for our nanos … droplet suspension. Quite useful to keep an eye for wayward citizens, you see.”, the man smiled again. “And …getting back to the point, you also hastened the final Droid getting here.”
“And finally, you got yourself here.”, that smile widened, revealing, not teeth but a row of blackened memory chips.
“You have had a wonderful record of kills. And you have excellent muscle memory. We have not been able to recreate muscle memory till now but the nanos in your blood stream should be able to learn by now.”
“What nanos?”, she said, horrified.
“You didn’t think you were in a bath tub just now, did you? That wasn’t a warm bath, Reaper.”, he sniggered. “We had to work with the rebels to find the best candidate possible. Sacrificing a few Droids in the process didn’t matter, but we had to find you. And the boy, of course. The clockwork in him is quite exquisite. We knew the old man was working on a device that could enhance neural processes when interacting with the nanos. That would mean we could create Droids with the dead. We would not need to recruit anymore citizens, who seemed … well ….reluctant”. He beckoned to the Watch Commander, who raised his stun gun.
“Set to kill, Commander, if you please. And, Reaper, your services are no longer required. Good night”. The Reaper turned to run but felt everything turn dark when the bolt hit her.
Morning dawned and the city yet again grumbled to wakefulness. The newspaper vendor had stacked the epapers long before dawn and was now beckoning the grocer to come get his copy. The sirens were silent; the factory truck had brought workers to dismantle them. They were no longer required. You see, they had the law, they had the haze and now, they had a new Citymaster. And she was a just but firm ruler. She assured the citizens that crime was no longer a threat. She assured them that the Droids and haze were part of life.
The rebels had been rounded up and taken away to the tin mines. Did I mention the mines have been re-opened? We need more cells and chipsets for the new Droids. New deposits were discovered a few kilometers under the surface in Ulu Kinta. Yes, life will be better now. Just obey the law, and you’ll be fine. That’s what the voices tell everyone every morning. Voices carried over by the daily haze. You wake up with the voices in your head, assuring you and instructing you.
Cold, dead, metallic voices.