The video quality is grainy. The audio isn’t great. There’s a lot of pop on the microphone. It’s not a dedicated A/V setup or any kind of professional studio. More like a feed being routed through a security or combat robot’s sensors.
The whole screen skews and shifts. Someone is adjusting the camera position. It centers on a worn, bearded face, the face of an older man, lacking time or tools to properly care for his appearance.
“Hello, boy. I’m loading this into your creation. Nice work, by the way.”
“Rosa Rook tapped me to analyze your toy. If you’re seeing this, my contingency loaded this video into its memory using RNDF-5 encoding. You can restore from backup if you lost anything important. But this way, you know it’s me. I don’t want any doubt.”
“I got into a bad deal. I was a partner, now I’m a prisoner. I needed a legally owned factory to make more 'bots, and didn’t pay attention to the particulars. Rook did me dirty. I need a hand getting out of here. I doubt you’re feeling charitable toward me, so I’ll make you a better deal than she ever gave me. You know I’m good for it.”
Leo Carson is in the restroom. Outside the house, the birds have stopped chirping. He doesn’t notice. He’s busy doing his business when the outside window shatters. The hollow thump - thump - thump of a grenade launcher comes from outside, a trio of projectiles whiz through the broken window at high speed, and the room is flooded with 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate gas. Leo is asleep in seconds.
When he wakes up, he’s tied to a gurney. His father is studying his brain. There’s an ultimatum: fight, and give me the secrets of your new mutation.
The location seems to be some kind of underground bunker, turned into a tiny school. His father meant what he said about “general of my armies” - the curriculum feels like it’s straight out of a military academy. Chemistry and life sciences, higher mathematics, physical education, systems engineering, small unit tactics, geography and strategic cartography, battlefield leadership…
Rossum the Minion Maker is now Principal Rossum the Schoolmaster. Leo is forced to dress in some kind of parody of a Catholic school uniform. Blazer, tie, slacks, itchy black socks. On his first day of class, his father greets him cordially. “Heard you got suspended, boy. Your education is important, so I’m going to see to it. I’ve made you some teachers and classmates. They’re all here to teach you something important.”
Otto can’t save him this time. Otto has no tracking system, and Leo has no way to signal him. He’ll have to figure this out himself.
Leo is introduced to his class on the first day as “Leonardo ----”, a transfer student. Nobody is to call him anything else but “Mr. ----”. His classmates look human at first glance, but Leo can tell the difference when they interact with him. They’re artificial, maybe deliberately so. They dress identically, talk identically, chant in unison when asked questions as a group. They freak him the hell out.
Classes are not at all quiet. Every so often, seemingly at random but always once a day, a gang of thugs bursts into the class, pushes the teacher around, and begins harassing the students. Their cries of pain and pleas for mercy are uncannily realistic. Leo feels himself wanting to jump to his feet, to fight back, then realizes this is what his father wants. Give me your secrets.
There are two members of class that break the mold: a boy and a girl. Their names are Miguel and Laura. Leo finds himself wondering if they are human. He watches closely, curious if he can spot the signs. For all intents and purposes, they seem as human as him in their behavior. A deeply unnerving thought begins creeping into his thoughts: what if they are uploads, real people put into android bodies, like Otto?
The urge to fight intensifies, as the gang of bullies dominate class. The relentless pattern becomes unbearable. At night, in the monastic cell that is his new home, he cries himself to sleep. He remembers the parents he had, and calls out for them, but most of all whispers questions to a mother he never knew, the one who bore him, the one who must have known Rossum long enough to conceive a child with him. How could you have been with this man?
Leo finds a way to fight back. One day, out of the blue, he realizes what he’s got. There’s a whole class of people, receiving the same schooling as he is. At least, they’re able to give correct answers to test questions, and seem intelligent enough to interact with. You wanted a general for your robot army? Fine.
He takes charge of the students, the ineffectual teacher, the resources of the classroom. Mop handles, desks, rulers - all can serve as weapons or barriers. When the thugs come, they find the doors barred and the students ready. It’s still a beatdown, but it’s much more equal. The thugs rough Leo up as well, but he goes to the infirmary with a smile on his face.
Days pass. Leo has lost track of the date. There’s no calendars, no timekeeping devices, and even clocks have hands that never move. He tries scratching marks on his cell walls, only to find that extra marks have been added in the morning. The war at school is at a stalemate, and Leo is actually finding some of the classes compelling. Rossum is a cruel taskmaster and a heartless villain, but his educational program is top-notch and the topics are all relevant to a young science buff.
One day, the routine breaks. The girl, Laura, finds him in the hall between classes. “Leo,” she whispers, a name he hasn’t heard in weeks. “Your mother, she wants to help you. She’s outside. I know a route to escape. Tonight.” Shocked, Leo spends the rest of the day trying to focus and failing. All he can think about is what’s to come.
That night, a knock on the cell door finds Leo dressed and ready. Laura is there. He accompanies her through the unlit halls of the school, a path he navigates more by memory than by sight. Laura has the key to a heavy padlock on a door marked STEAM ROOM, but beyond this is a warehouse rather than school facilities. The whole thing is a maze of numbered wooden crates, shelves packed with spare robot parts, and boxes of scrap. Laura walks Leo through it, whispering explanations on where to go.
The pair reach an open area, but are cut off. A squad of Rossum’s sentry robots confront them. Laura shrinks behind Leo, and points at a far-off door. “Through there. If we break through, then…!”
Leo tenses his muscles and balls up his fists. But the lessons his father has drummed into him haven’t been for nothing. The 36 Stratagems of war come to him in a flash. “Chain stratagems.” “Lure the tiger off its mountain lair.” “Cross the sea without the emperor’s knowledge.”
Fight, and give me the secrets of your new mutation.
I’ve made you some classmates. They’re all here to teach you something important.
Leo drops his arms to his sides. It’s a trap. It has to be. He looks longingly at the door, tantalizingly close. God. Let it be a trap.
The next morning, Leo is sent to the principal’s office for breaking curfew. From the next room, he hears but never sees something. It’s Laura’s voice, screaming, and high voltage discharges that match the screams. Let her be fake. He’s done awful things, but he never lied to me. He said he made them all. She’s just another of his creations. She’s not real. She’s not real. She’s not real.
Principal Rossum’s smile seems to grow a tiny bit wider every time there’s another scream.
Miguel tries next. Leo doesn’t even answer the whispered offer he makes. He stares into space the next morning, as Miguel’s screams come from the next room and Rossum watches him with that maddening smile.
I have no friends. There are no friends here. I can’t have friends. I can’t trust them. I can’t trust anybody. I’m alone. I’m alone. I’m alone.
The world explodes one day, as Leo is sitting lifelessly in class, listening to somebody explaining the Battle of Cannae. Men in tactical suits are pouring into the classroom. They fire strange weapons. The robots are collapsing. Some are sparking, short-circuiting. EMP. Leo feels a searing pain at the back of his neck, where his chip is implanted, and slumps unconscious.
Mom came to rescue me after all.
It’s not. It’s AEGIS. But he can’t quite accept that until much later.
The video ends with the one thing Rossum could have said, the single offer that would ever make Leo consider saving him from Hell itself.
“Come get me. And I’ll tell you everything you want to know about your mother.”
author: Bill G.