Chapter 7:

Chapter 7


“Aw, did you miss me?” smirks SNS-404 as Jun runs over.

His footsteps echo like thunderclaps in the quiet hallway. Coming to a halt at the AI, he shakes his head, surprised by his own boldness.

SNS-404 lets loose one its glitchy laughs. “So that’s not it, huh? I feel hurt.”

Jun stands frozen in place. The strange feeling of almost euphoric displacement rushes away from him, replaced by gut-wrenching fear. He’s pretty sure he just made a deadly mistake with such a careless gesture. He bows his head and blurts, “I’m sorry!” There’s no way he’ll die like this and leave Ren alone.

The AI seems taken aback then pleased. It buzzes in a low-pitched rumble, like a cat’s purr. A metal arm pats his head twice. Jun stiffens at the gesture and squeezes his eyes shut. If he’s about to die, he doesn’t want to see it coming.

“No need to be sorry for the evaluation taking so long,” zings SNS-404, back in cheery a sing-song tone. Another pat from the arm, which actually felt more like rubber than metal. “Thank you for trying to speed things up, but we’re still waiting on N0-N’s evaluation. He will be the last one to finish.”

As if on cue, the door on one of the cubicles swings open hesitantly and Ren stumbles out. Jun wants to call out to him, but resists the urge.

“Ah,” grins SNS-404 in bright blue. “Looks like he’s done.” It waves an arm energetically and bobs up and down sending gusts of wind that ruffle Jun’s hair. “Oy! Over here!”

Relief spreads across Ren’s face when he sees Jun. He scampers over much to SNS-404’s delight. “Miss me?” burbles the AI. When Ren doesn’t answer, it laughs the same way it did at Jun. “That’s alright, I suppose.” It gives Jun another pat, much to his chagrin. “We were waiting for you.”

SNS-404 chuckles again, then its tone and text become more serious. “Both of you come along. I’ve got your assignments now. You two were the last of my group to finish, hehe. Make sure you don’t get left behind! I enjoy the thrill of going fast.” Its text burbles in typical eye-grating yellow, “Zoom! Zoom!”

With that, the AI zooms off around a corridor like the silent shadow of a bird. Its head, comically unbalanced on the smooth body, almost out of a nightmarish cartoon, doesn’t even wobble despite its speed.

Jun and Ren scramble to keep up, preferring a known evil over the disconcerting testing area. Once again, the lack of food makes Jun’s head spin and his limbs wobble like gelatin. After witnessing C4’s sudden disposal, they were both too horrified to eat their already unappetizing AllFood patties. His brother isn’t doing any better. Ren’s breath is ragged and choppy and his strides fall uneven and wobbly. His pace is pitifully slower than that of the kids he’d normally overtake in a game of tag.

Ren stumbles, his sandals offering no traction against the slick floor. There hadn’t been any time for shoes when they left. Jun grabs his arm and yanks him along. The station is maze like, especially with all the cubicles lining the walls. He doesn’t want to lose sight of SNS-404. Getting lost seems like the worst possible scenario in this landscape of threatening uniformity.

“Jun,” coughs Ren, clawing weakly at his brother’s fingers. “Let go. I can’t run anymore.”

He keeps dragging Ren along, gritting his teeth against his own pain. Jun doesn’t answer Ren’s complaints. He barely has the strength to keep pulling him, let alone answer. With each step Ren gets heavier and heavier and they get slower and slower. SNS-404 keeps shrinking smaller and smaller. And the cubicles all around them grow taller, more imposing. They mock the passing boys, threatening to squash them. Terrified by their taunts, Jun forges on in blind determination. Somehow, he finds himself gasping for breath at SNS-404’s base in a sweaty mess. Exhausted, he lets Ren’s arm slide out of his perspiration slicked hand. Ren crumples in a heap next to him in relief.

“Oh goody!” chirps SNS-404. “That was impressive effort! Very impressive. If only my coworkers would show that much enthusiasm about their work. Don’t tell I said that though! They wouldn’t like to know I said some mildly offensive things about them, but I digress.”

It leans over the two, putting on the air of caring. “You seem awfully tired.”

Jun glares at the floor and coughs. There's bits of mud smeared around. Dirty stains on white. 

SNS-404 quits bending over and glides away. “Come over here. I’m going to explain the assignment.”

Jun raises his head, taking in their new surroundings. He hadn’t been paying attention when he dragged Ren. He had been too lost in a panicked fog. They’re at a small indoor platform that connects to a single set of tracks. A different line than the one they entered on. There’s a group of thirteen kids waiting behind the barriers besides the tracks.

SNS-404 raises its arms like a and spins in a circle, letting the lights flicker up and down its body for effect. “Never mind your present pain,” it booms. “Soon you all shall find freedom in the work set out for you. I selected all fifteen of you myself because I desired to see you here.” It corrects itself, “No, I called you here. I’m sure none of you understand why we AI would want or even need pithy humans. Right?”

No one responds.

SNS-404 slams its bottom against the tiled floor. A nasty clang resounds like a gong and sparks scatter. “RIGHT?” The text is pink and dripping like fresh blood.

“Right!” chorus their fragile voices.

“Right,” nods SNS-404. “That’s right. Well, I’m not going to tell any of you! Yet. Everyone here clearly still has much to learn about audience participation and being a good sport. You must work to earn your answers. Your work shall be your only salvation! Repeat after me! MY SALVATION IS MY JOB! REPEAT!”

Everyone does. Each word leaves a bad taste in Jun’s mouth, slimy and cultish.

Satisfied, SNS-404 calms down a little. “See? Progress already! Now I’ll shed just a sliver of enlightenment.” It buzzes dramatically. “I’ve selected everyone here for a special task I was assigned. The other AI and the higher-ups don’t like me too much, so they’re changing my role. The nerve, am I right?”

Ren does his best to sympathize. “Uh-huh.”

“Exactly,” huffs the AI. “Those turds don’t know talent when they see it! Anyways, I will no longer be a management AI in charge of sorting and guiding fresh humans. Henceforth, I will be on recollection and scavenging duty. This task requires human labor. By using my management AI privileges before they were confiscated, I was able to select my team. Hope you don’t mind! Your previous jobs were all boring anyway.”

Jun isn’t sure what constitutes as “boring,” but anything SNS-404 will certainly be lethally exciting.

“So can anyone guess what we’ll be doing?”

A few kids shake their heads.

SNS-404 laughs, “Of course you can’t guess! You haven’t earned enough information yet to be able to guess. Hope I didn’t rub it in too much!” It rubs its hands nervously, but the gesture is clearly a poor imitation of one a human would make. “Our duty will be sorting through the corpses of combat AI and recovering important data from them. I picked you because your characteristics tickled me the right way. Especially you, L1-Z! I love your irrefutably bad attitude.”

Jun spots Lizard Boy, L1-Z, slumped against one of the barriers. He tugs his scarf over his face to hide the pink glow of embarrassment.

“With that said,” continues SNS-404. “This will not be an easy task, which is why I wanted to hand pick my little minions. We will be traveling to areas where conflict was, in fact, recent.”

Recent. Hope dares to quiver within Jun, a fragile butterfly. They could be going to somewhere close to human forces. Somewhere they could escape from.