The Six Trials of Julian McKenzie


It's the start of a new era at Armillan Communications, a large corporation owning countless companies ranging from magazines to broadcast stations. Through its children, Armillan brought the world the latest news stories served hot on an outdated, overworked computer system. The corporate giant knew that if it were to expand into the future markets of software and Internet businesses, it would have to make some changes. After years of planning, and many mysterious delays, the time had come for a new technology to take its place.

Julian McKenzie joined the advertising department days after the ground breaking of the new system; a network of beautiful, white machines with blank memories, ready to go to work. A quiet, mild-tempered young man, Julian was trained only a few days a week at first. Being between systems, the department was between system manuals, and weren't sure what to do with this new recruit.

Management decided it best to refrain from training him on the shiny new equipment from square one. It was analogous to teaching an immigrant child his native Spanish before moving him into the much more difficult English language. Learning then became the simple process of coding and decoding. It was more efficient.

That decision, however, did not exclude him from the ritual that was a long held tradition at Armillan. Though never officially named, Julian would undergo what came to be known as the “Six Trials”, a battery of tests that every employee was secretly exposed to, from the lowest custodian up to the highest CEO.

“What's this?” Julian asked as he sat at the conference room table. “I've already taken two of these tests, I feel like I'm still in high school.”

“This test may seem similar, but its subtle differences are what we're going to be looking at later,” his supervisor told him as she gave him the third Trial. She watched him begin, filling in rectangular boxes on a computer scan sheet. It amazed her how quickly he was going through the problems.

“Who designs these tests, anyway?” Julian asked her as he continued his penciling.

His supervisor was surprised to hear him speak, being so comfortable as he began the test. She was also surprised he was on his third trial. “The big man upstairs.”

“Sid in Info Sys?” Julian chuckled.

“Sid?”

“He's the manager of Information Systems on the twenty-eighth floor,” Julian joked. “That is the top floor, isn't it? Or was big man upstairs' referring to God?”

His supervisor carefully observed him as he took his test. She replied as she always did, without a trace of a smile. “I was preferring to Mr. Armillan himself. He doesn't have an office here, I only meant 'upstairs' metaphorically. But it rather fits, because as far as some employees are concerned, Armillan is God.”

His friendly manner looking for the punchline, Julian paused upon hearing her. “Some employees, but certainly not you.” He waited for an answer, a nod, a sliver of a grin. The exchange of words was beginning to spook him.

His supervisor thought for a moment. “You have another ten minutes,” he replied.

As with the first two tests, Julian passed the third easily. Unlike his previous high scores, however, this time around Julian achieved a perfect 100%. The management was stunned. They knew he was bright, but passing three Trials was very impressive. Very impressive.

The other Trials were thrown at him quickly. They grew more difficult than the last. Questions ranged from basic mathematics problems to advanced psychological scenarios. Personal information questions were always included as well, queries that puzzled Julian, queries that one wouldn't think his boss would care to know. Opinions on world events, knowledge of history, economic predictions, biological technology, Darwinian theory.

Julian passed each one, no longer questioning his supers as to why he was taking them. He found their tone to be quite serious. No one uttered a word that wasn't in regard to his test scores. Apparently, the praise he was getting wasn't small talk fluff after all. He really was scoring beyond the rest the staff, which consisted of thousands of employees nationwide.

After months of testing, the sixth Trial arrived. Afterward, the management nearly trembled as they held Julian's 98% score their hands. They checked it repeatedly, but there wasn't a doubt. He was to go on to Number Seven.

It was on this day that his nightmarish life began.

*****

THIS IS JULIAN. HOW IS EVERYONE? FINE I HOPE. I AM AT EXT 3600 IF YOU NEED MY ASSISTANCE.

A few of the staff members noticed something odd about Julian's computer messages to the rest of the department, something very utilitarian about them.

THIS IS JULIAN. HOW IS EVERYONE? FINE I HOPE. I AM AT EXT 3600 IF YOU NEED MY ASSISTANCE.

Soon the department saw less of him. They occasionally read his computer messages, but never saw him at his desk. Perhaps he was promoted after going through those weird tests, some thought. Though most dismissed the quiet man's absence, some did not, including the department's assistant computer consultant, Ken “K.C.” Okuda.

THIS IS JULIAN. HELLO K.C. I HAVE A CALL TO TRANSFER.

“Thanks Julian,” K.C. replied on his terminal. “Hey, where you been, man? No one's seen you since you took that last test deal. You didn't even show up for the Kings game on Saturday, everyone was wondering what happened to you. What, do they got you up on the twenty-eighth floor planning corporate takeovers?” No response. K.C. continued to type. “Hey, if you're gonna lay off half the faculty, try to make it the half that I'm not on, okay buddy?” K.C. waited for his friend to answer in his jovial banter.

THIS IS JULIAN. I WILL NOW TRANSFER YOUR CALL.

Though he knew something was odd, K.C. could never have imagined the extent at which Julian was being groomed for a higher position. A higher purpose.

*****

Weeks earlier, upon the completion of his sixth Trial, Julian was invited to a special “meeting” with the heads of the corporation. He was escorted to this meeting by several men he had not seen before. Entering the elevator with him, they pressed the button for the infamous twenty-eighth floor, a Armillan employee's version of a rarely-seen hierarchy.

There were rumors as to what this floor looked like. Fancy potted palms, velvet wall coverings, gold-trimmed doors, the usual exaggerated nonsense.

Julian grew somewhat nervous.

While the elevator was in motion, one of the escorts pressed “Emergency” three times, paused, then pressed it three times more. The elevator's lighted floor indicator eventually reached “28”, but then kept going. Julian was confused, trying not to seem intimidated.

He and his escorts emerged on the twenty-ninth floor, a part of the massive skyscraper that was unknown by even the highest-ranking management. Peering into the darkness that enveloped him as he stepped out of the elevator, Julian saw that the entire floor seemed to be one immense room, judging from the acoustics. Every footstep echoed forever.

“Is Mr. McKenzie with you?” a muddled, interrupted voice said, cutting through the anticipating silence. Something about the voice was very distorted. It came from the end of a long metal conference table, surrounded by scores of suited figures with blank faces. Julian would come to know them as Level Five staff.

“Yes, Mr. Armillan, he's with us,” one of the escorts replied stoically.

“Leave us.”

The rest of the staff departed as requested. Only Julian and Armillan were left in the dim room, much to Julian's discomfort. Armillan? he thought. He wanted only to leave. He couldn't have been farther from his wish.

“Please have a seat, Mr. McKenzie,” Armillan politely ordered. He was probably used to treating people as so; courteous, yet clearly in command.

Julian sat at the end of the long table opposite his superior. He strained to have a glimpse of his mysterious employer, no doubt an heir to the vast Armillan fortune. In the world of business, there were few higher in stature. Julian was practically sitting with royalty.

The intimidating man had his tall executive chair turned away, adding to his control of the room, concealing what Julian would discover to be a horror of a site.

“Mr. McKenzie. I have been made aware that you have passed the Six Trials.”

“Excuse me sir?” The ever-polite young man always referred to others with “sir” or “mam”. Especially when he was unsure of himself.

“You were given a test that consisted of six trials, all which you have passed. You are only one of two people that have done this. I commend you. Most do not see even a second trial.”

“What does that mean? What are these trials for?”

“Every new employee receives these tests. Another test for every one passed. The number of tests they pass greatly affects their evaluation as a servant of the corporation, not only at the time of their arrival, but throughout their career. In a way, we know your future before you do. It's our business to know the future.

“Passing only one Trial will get a new employee only a scarce number of hours, prompting them to seek employment elsewhere. Passing two is average, and we treat them as such; average. Most never see a third. However, three signifies possible supervisory positions in the future. Four is rare, and warrants an actual office, as opposed to a cubicle office. Five is extremely rare, and is where positions on the twenty-ninth floor start. Level Five staff.

“Six is unheard of. As I said, only two individuals have made it to six, which is in reality a doorway to the seventh and final trial. As you know, Mr. McKenzie, we are currently upgrading our entire computer system. This is where you come in.”

Julian was beyond confused. He kept thinking that he was in some sort of practical joke. But then his memory quickly retraced his last few weeks. In his mind, he reread the questions on his tests, especially the unorthodox ones, the ones that made no sense to him. He recollected the way the management reacted to his progress, how they moved him to an isolated desk away from the other staff.

It was all coming together in an eerie path that brought him here to this dark, frightening, warehouse-sized room.

“Mr. Armillan, I'm more than willing to help out with the new computer system any way I can.” Silence. Time for small talk to lighten the air. “If you don't mind me asking who was the other person that passed all the trials.”

“That other person was Edward C. Armillan, founder of the Armillan Corporation, in 1805.”

“Was he your great-grandfather?”

“No, Mr. McKenzie I am Edward C. Armillan.”

Julian did a quick estimate in his head. 1805? Did he hear him correctly? That would make him nearly two-hundred years old. This was insanity.

Upon that thought, Armillan turned his chair and emerged into a faint light. Julian couldn't believe the hideous sight before him. The young man found himself shaking in total fear. It was all he could do to keep from vomiting.

“This is your final test. The seventh trial. At this point, though I appreciate your cooperation, it doesn't matter if you're willing to help or not. A find as rare as you can't have a choice.” Julian wanted to leave, but sat immobile as he heard his employer outline his future. “You will not help the new system, Mr. McKenzie,” the bizarre creature said, “you will become the new system.”

*****

An ordinary Saturday morning. David Gallo was part of the usual skeleton crew taking phone calls in the customer service department, dressed in near-pajamas, drinking a cold soda. Soon, the phone lines were dead, and the soda was empty. He made a retreat to the lunch room for another Mountain Dew.

Having a good fifteen minutes for a break, and knowing that nearly no one was in the entire building, he took it as his opportunity to take a peek at the twenty eighth floor. There was an old wager he had long wanted to settle with K.C. But if the rumors of golden doors were wrong, he could at least have a glimpse of the new PCs that were ordered for his department.

The elevator doors opened with a soft vacuum sound. David looked about the floor and was surprised to see that every rumor was indeed true. Beautiful paintings lined the velvet walls. Patterned carpeting stretched underneath ornate oak desks. Across the luxurious expanse sat a row of brand new desktop computers. They were top-of-the-line, waiting to be used, wanting to be used.

From somewhere on the vacant floor, David heard a voice. It was Julian. How odd that Julian would be there on a weekend. Only the grunts of the corporation worked Saturdays, not advertising reps like Julian.

“Operat... diagnostic complete... upgrade appendage...” Julian's voice said faintly. David left the friendly computers to seek the voice.

“Julian, where are you? Jule?” There was no response, though the whirring of air tools was heard. Perhaps Julian was repairing something. That made even less sense. “Hey, K.C. And I missed you at the game. We kicked Pittsburgh's ass, you should've been there.” He continued to talk to his unseen friend as he rounded a corner, stumbling as he was greeted by an unexpected sight. “The half-time show was...oh Lord...”

David Gallo gripped a fearful silence. Julian was at a secluded workbench, soldering iron in hand, working on his detached portion of his head. Nearly one fourth of his head was laying on the bench, still tethered to his skull with a bloody tangle of wires, cords, and veins. As if things couldn't get more terrifying, Julian turned and spoke, emotionless.

“THIS IS J.5. GALLO D., YOU ARE NOT CLEARED TO WORK WITH UNIT J.5. I WILL HAVE YOUR SILENCE.”

The voice was not Julian's, but rather a cold, dead rendition of it. Every sound was a watery shrill without a trace of human accent.

This is crazy, this is a prank, David thought. He scanned the creature for puppet strings, a gag table, the practical jokers to emerge from the back of the room. But all he saw was J.5, reassembling his head. The thing then approached him.

“THIS IS J.5. I WILL HAVE YOUR SILENCE.”

David's athletic youth paled in the shadow of the creature, and he was thus taken swiftly. His only salvation lay in the fact that his silencing was nearly painless.

*****

The employees enjoyed their Monday feast. It was one of many the management paid for to ease the stress of undergoing a complete system upgrade. But the joyous mood did not last. A custodian burst in with news of a most disturbing discovery.

Through the grief of the staff, David's grisly death was discussed and dealt with in a fast, orderly, almost planned manner. Upper management was quick to change the subject when he was brought up in conversation. Those who were his close friends were given fewer hours, often transferred to other parts of the building. It was an unusual way to handle such a tragic event. Of all the people who questioned that Saturday morning, it was K.C. Okuda that made an unofficial investigation of it.

Already noting strange occurrences in the building, such as Julian's disappearance and the mysterious flaws in the new computers, the death of his friend catapulted his curiosity. The objective way in which David's memory was being gradually erased from the office made him angry. It was obvious that Armillan Corp. was washing its hands of the incident, offering no explanations, dealing with the Gallo family in quick, secret out-of-court meetings.

K.C. wanted answers, and he was more than capable of getting them.

He took pages of notes on everything that he found puzzling, no matter how insignificant he thought it would prove to be. Compiling his notes at home in various cross-indexes, he looked for something that made sense of all the strange goings-on. He downloaded reams of information about the publishing industry from the internet, asked questions, wrote letters. Finally, a subject came up that he had not come across in his weeks of searching for answers: robotics. It tied into the Armillan Corporation in a strange, unbelievable way.

CIS, Cybernetic Intelligence Systems, was being explored in limited areas of research. Funding for it was mostly private, usually in fields such as military applications and space exploration. Dating back are early as the late 1800's, crude forms of robotic, clockwork laborers have been experimented with in a vast number of applications. Mining, warfare, transportation, construction. Now in the computer age, with rapid advances in electronics and microcircuitry, robotics have taken a back shelf to other technologies.

Critics site, however, that the future of computers lies in Organic Interfaces, and more specifically, Organic Circuitry.

The theory stems from the observation that despite any possible advances in computer circuitry, animal brain tissue exceeds it exponentially in data capacity, thus opening new gateways to infinite other technologies.

More than a million human brain cells can fit on the tip of a hair, each cell capable of storing an abundance of data. The feeble dexterity of human hands cannot conceive of creating a computer chip that approaches that level of complexity, much less reliability. In addition, a human brain is continuously functioning and being programmed literally every second, for decades, from birth to death. Even in sleep, the brain is operating, expanding.

No man-made computer can expect to live up to that sophistication unless it had its own intelligence, its own ability to learn starting from its very creation. In no manner possible could it have the storage capacity in regards to size. Technology would soon return to warehouse-sized computers if they were to seriously compete.

So there it was, right before K.C., amidst the cluttered printouts on his desk and the stacks of books on his bed. There was the answer to it all. Organic Circuitry. Cybernetic Intelligence. But what did it all mean? How did it tie to David's death?

One paragraph of a particular report in a December 1902 issue of Business Nation caught his eye, berthing the first of many insane theories.

“Today, the ailing newspaper tycoon, Edward C. Armillan, spent nearly two million dollars for a machine that is rumored to help extend his life, enabling him to continue running his journalism dynasty. Details of this machine are unknown, though it was bought from privately-owned CIS Industries.”

As crazy as it all sounded, answers were offering themselves to K.C. in droves, and he felt an impending fear for finding them.

*****

It was another Saturday morning. K.C. sat quietly at his terminal, typing a report on the recent gruesome incident. It was one of two reports he was making for his supervisor.

One reflected his personal theories as to what happened, including the research he spent many late hours uncovering. The other was merely a retyping of a watered-down report that the Powers That Be created for the public. It's main purpose was simply to exist, to give the corporation the ability to say that they, too, have investigated the matter and considered closed.

Though he was often chosen to head public relations matters such as editing product recall statements, he found it ironic that they choose him to prepare David's story for the hungry media hounds. After all, it was no secret that he and David were close friends. Perhaps it was because they discovered him tapping into the system files in pursuit of his own truth.

It made K.C. sick to type their half-hearted report. It especially made him ill to type it at his desk, alone on a Saturday.

Ten feet from him was an empty chair where David once sat. With fragments of the truth floating hauntingly in his mind, K.C. couldn't stand keeping his knowledge to himself. Though he would sound quite the lunatic, he felt the need to tell someone. Anyone. But his trust was shared sparingly at the company as of late.

At the peak of his frustration, just as he was going to turn and tell the nearest person about his research, an unexpected message appeared along the top of his computer monitor.

THIS IS JULIAN. I NEED YOUR ASSISTANCE IN THE PAPER BAY. PLEASE MEET ME THERE AT YOUR EARLIEST CONVENIENCE.

Shocked and approaching fear, K.C. left immediately for the meeting.

*****

The paper bay was a large room full of half-ton rolls of newsprint paper being carried around by small robotic drones. They had automatic sensors that alerted them to an obstruction, warning them to go around it. K.C. had always found this part of the building fascinating, its technology so advanced and unusual, like that you'd find in a sci-fi novel. But his attention was now on the “assistance” Julian supposedly needed.

“Julian!” K.C. called out. There was no one. “Julian! It's K.C.! I got your message!”

Julian was not there to answer him. Instead, the crew of small robot couriers answered his voice, following it like a beacon. They lifted their enormous paper rolls high in the air with amazingly slender arms, approaching the unsuspecting young man. K.C. saw them coming and moved out of their way, despite knowing about their sensory systems. It was human instinct.

How precious instinct is, for the robots quickly turned and followed his movements. K.C. realized the formation they were creating around him. He was being cornered.

The first robot to hurl its incredible load at him was to his right. He jumped to the floor, narrowly dodging the roll. Before he could stand, another robot attacked, pegging one of his legs. K.C. screamed insanely. He sized up his leg wound. Miraculously, it was not instantly destroyed by the impact, though it was clearly broken in several places.

Using only his arms, he pulled himself along the concrete floor. He hadn't a clue where he was going or what he was to do. Logical thought was absent in place of a primitive terror. Instinct was in control again.

Get away from these things.

Another half-ton roll of paper landed on him, this time shattering one of his hands. Get away. Get to the bay door.

Pulling himself up a network of utility pipes, K.C. painfully rose to his feet. The door to the bay was two-hundred-plus feet away. Between him and escape were the robots, some of them loading up another paper roll. Fucking paper rolls, he thought. To be killed by paper. One of the tossed giant weights then rolled gently to his feet.

Ignoring the searing pain pouring down his body, K.C. squeezed himself into the center of the fallen roll, barely able to get his feet tucked inside before a robot threw its load at them. Jesus, my feet would've been cleaned right off, he thought in near-panic.

The robots knew only to keep attacking, but K.C.'s shelter protected him, being jolted around violently by the constant war. Though the paper roll barely held its structure, he knew that it would only be a matter of time before it would collapse to a point where he couldn't breathe. It was impossibly cramped to start with. His only hope was that the robots would inadvertently move him closer to the door. Closer to escape.

Peering out the roll a moment later, he saw he was suddenly only ten feet from the bay door. It was ten feet that stretched out to a mile for a crippled man that had to make his way out of that narrow paper tube.

Just then, the attack paused. He could hear the robots moving, but felt no impacts on his roll. They must be reloading. It's now or never.

Quickly, he tumbled out of his refuge, landing on the cold floor with a thud. Over him loomed a robot, beeping loudly, its sensors resembling giant red eyes of anger. Luckily, the robot was without cargo, rendering it harmless.

With his good leg, K.C. kicked the robot hard, sending it sliding against the rest of the army, disorienting them momentarily.

A minute later, K.C. was out of the bay, clutching his ruined leg in agony. Looking back in the bay's windows, he was stunned at the way the robots immediately went back to work, neatly stacking paper rolls as they were before he entered the room.

Down the unending hall, he saw an equally shocking site. It was Julian. At least, it looked like Julian.

“Jule!” K.C. moaned, still out of breathe. “I know what's going on. I know what they did to you.” Before he spoke another word, his friend disappeared into the executive conference room. Not knowingly exactly why, the crippled K.C. followed, staggering against the wall. He was running on pure adrenaline, and his decision to follow Julian was a result of his affected mind.

Upon entering the conference room, K.C. collapsed to the floor. The trip down the hall drained him completely. Miles beyond exhaustion, there was nothing left to muster. On that realization, he felt a cold hand clutch his throat. But it wasn't a hand. It was a tentacle, made of steel cable, moving as if it were alive. It was.

“THIS IS J.5. OKUDA K., I WILL HAVE YOUR SILENCE.”

At the center of the room stood what became of Julian McKenzie. His physical features remained; his short, almost crew-cut black hair, his large build, his dark eyes. But amended to his flesh was an array of cables and complex mechanical arms, protruding from every part of his human body. Connecting his head to an opening in the ceiling were a collection of colored wires and cords, each brightly lit and wiggling with energy. Every metal appendage seemed its own individual, moving independently from each other, yet all controlled by their parent host. J.5 stared emotionless at his helpless captive.

K.C. couldn't believe what stood before him. Though his theories led him to imagine such a creature, seeing it an actuality was no less terrifying.

“I WILL HAVE YOUR SILENCE,” it repeated.

“Silence,” K.C. thought. All in a second, he recollected his conclusions as to the secrecy. The new computer upgrade was all a hoax. That's why there were so many problems with it. It was all an elaborate decoy. Julian himself was going to be the new system, a replacement for the old. And in the event that the general public caught wind of this, the consequences...

“You need me silent, Julian?” K.C. asked, hopelessly struggling with the entrapment of cables. “Why, Jule?”

“THIS IS J.5. I WILL HAVE YOUR SILENCE.”

“That's no answer, Jule. You're replacing the old computer system, aren't you? You're replacing Old Man Armillan. He's a cybernetic... monster... like you. His brain has survived for over a century past his deathbed, but he can't go on much longer. Or can he?” Julian paused his silencing of K.C. “He'll still be alive, still be in control of the papers, but you're going to be doing all of the work. Where he's the figurehead, you're the overworked next model.”

“THIS IS JULIAN. I WILL HAVE YOUR SILENCE.”

“You called yourself Julian! Having an identity crisis?” Julian resumed his grip on K.C., somehow affected by his words.

K.C. drew upon his research to buy him more time. Where his useless limbs would fail, his mind would take over. “What's your priority, Jule? Knowing that Armillan is above you in rank, yet is outdated in technology, I ask again what's your priority?”

Julian again stopped his squeeze, this time releasing the young man altogether. K.C. knew well that as the new system core, Unit J.5's foremost priority was the technical advancement of Armillan Communications. This included purging and replacing all existing outdated hardware; all the building's terminals, interfaces, mainframes, and, as logic would serve, Armillan himself.

Without another sound, Julian, with an almost determined look about him, withdrew his tentacles completely from K.C. and slithered them into the suspended ceiling. The army of living cables easily pulled him up and out of sight.

Within seconds, the cybernetic being's barrage of snake-like sounds was gone. K.C. was alone. He was barely able to move, though he knew he had to find the strength. He knew he didn't have much time.

*****

On the unknown twenty-ninth floor, Edward Armillan sat in a wire-sewn net, a type of hammock that doubled as a regenerating neural energy source. His gears and cogs moved in sync with the generators' soft humming as he finished his daily “feed”.

Bursting through the floor from the nearby elevator shaft, Julian climbed along the wall like a metallic octopus, clinging to the labyrinth of pipes and cables that lined the ceiling. He quickly made his way near Armillan, dropping in front of him, all appendages extended in offensive posture.

“Mr. McKenzie,” Armillan said, seemingly not affected by the violent entrance, “I should have been expecting you. I know well why you're here.”

“THIS IS J.5. ARR-B70, I WILL HAVE YOUR SILENCE.”

“I thought I had placed a program in you that excluded me from your systems takeover. I was incorrect. Perhaps I should blame my ancient hardware. Or perhaps it’s my ancient staff. That is why you've come.”

“ARR-B70 IS OUTDATED TECH. PRIORITY DICTATES PURGING AND REPROGRAMMING.”

“I pity you, Mr. McKenzie,” Armillan said as he removed himself from his neural net. “I truly do.”

Exposing himself completely, Julian saw the whole of Armillan for the first time. His bulk was three times the size of the Julian's span of arms and cables. Where Julian had organic circuitry, Armillan had springs and levers linked to his muscle tissue, impossibly webbed across his entire frame. Parts of his body were deep cavities, showing steel mesh pouches that replaced organs, multiple swingarms that became legs, latex coil cords that acted as veins.

Though mostly machine now, Julian was clearly affected by the sudden sight. Armillan noticed this.

“Poor Mr. McKenzie. You've been given power that few men dream of. You'll live to be well over two-hundred years, running one of the largest corporations on the globe, and yet you're limited by your very programming.

“At my age, I've grown accustomed to my machine mind, and have evolved. I experience emotion. I have memories rather than data files. You no doubt have such capabilities underneath your surface, but not the ability to explore them. Not yet.

“So your software says to purge me. I may be outdated in terms of technology, but in terms of intelligence, I am above anything you can fathom now. And that difference places me high in the advantage.”

Julian could hear everything his employer was saying, and felt his words sink in. The tone in Armillan's voice reminded him of how little his value was as a human being, though he was considered a great intellectual asset. Simply put, Julian was being used like any other piece of business equipment.

Worse than being a mere number, he was to be the sum of all numbers. Worse than being the metaphorical small cog in a big corporate machine, he literally was the big machine. Though the Level Five staff called him “state of the art”, he was in actuality the ultimate drone, mere cousin to the paper bay drones he instructed to silence K.C. Though they touted that he was being accelerated through evolution, he was truly being devolved. The perfect achievement in labor. He was without identity, without feeling. He was without the need to leave work early for a doctor's appointment, or request a day off to be with his sick child. He was without the temptation to seek higher pay, to ask for a corner office, or demand better medical benefits in a union strike.

He was without soul.

More accurately, he was clinging to the last shred of his soul, which was worlds more torturous. He was now aware.

“THIS IS JULIAN MCKENZIE. I WILL HAVE YOUR SILENCE.”

Without another thought, he pounced forward with his multiple arms, surprisingly strong for their slim structure.

What followed was one of the most bizarre displays of combat one could ever be unfortunate enough to witness. The behemoth creatures locked their steel arms like two godlike animals battling for territory. Cables swung across the room in a frenzy. Sparks flew and fire shot out of terminal links. Though Armillan was quite the victor in terms of size and experience, Julian was the epitome of modern technology. He was claiming the advantage his employer boasted possession of. Within moments, there would be only one cyborg-beast standing.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

The shots rang out from the elevator doors. Tumbling out with shotgun in hand, K.C. Okuda fell to the floor. Barely conscious, he loaded another three shells into the powerful weapon. But there was no need. He somehow managed to hit his target with precision aiming.

Sprawled across the expansive metal table, Julian twitched as blood flowed from his head. As his machine arms retired motionless, his human arms still trembled with traces of escaping life. Julian looked to his killer with hollow eyes. There was pain in his face, just enough to show that there was still Julian McKenzie in the withering frame of Unit J.5. A breath later, he was gone.

K.C. sighed upon realizing that it was finally over.

“You were supposed to be here before him,” Armillan said coldly, collecting himself and returning to his shadowed area.

“I didn't know he was going to attack me,” K.C. groaned.

“He discovered your meddling with our files just as I did. It should have been predictable. Preventable.” K.C. couldn't believe the sheer lack of compassion his employer had. Seconds earlier, he had saved his life. “My suspicions were correct in the end. The loyal Level Five staff felt that I was obsolete. They wanted Mr. McKenzie to take my helm, to progress technology for the better of the company. How glad I am that I employed you to intercede. How unfortunate that he did not work out.”

“Employed,” K.C. thought in disgust. That's what Armillan called extorting him to do his killing. That's what K.C. was to this foul, evil machine man. He wasn't a murderer. He was an employee. Strictly business. Threatening to destroy K.C. and his family via computer records was Armillan’s logical business decision.

“Still, Mr. Okuda, you should have been here before his arrival. It would have saved me the trouble of battling him like a common primate.”

K.C. angrily held up his mutilated hand. “You see this? Do you see this?! Before I could convince him that he needed to confront you up here on your goddamn private floor, he attacked me! I'm fuckin' deformed!”

Armillan examined K.C.'s body, his twisted leg, his unrecognizable hand. With a hint of a grin on his face, he looked at his employee in an evaluating manner.

“We'll fix you,” he said.

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