ONE RED CENT
For the best experience of this story, start the music before reading.
All Cent wants is a cup of coffee. He gazes into the notched mug on the counter in front of him. Scraps of hard water float across its surface, lazily propelled by the blaring jukebox that vibrates every molecule of the diner. He maps their arcs with individual equations, folding their values into soothing patterns. He concentrates on them to avoid seeing the face reflected in the cooling black.
It’s his face. Or it is now. It’s also the face of a thousand other Machina in this city. The face of every nameless, brushed-steel drone with bodies constructed of long pipe limbs and exact-cut features set in identical faces. Humanlike, but not similar enough to threaten humanity’s ego. Unassuming. Neutral. Safe.
But it’s not his face.
His face, his true face, was scarred, broad, and irregular with greasy hair and drooping ears. His soft body made of red and fragile skin—one of a precious hundred designed for battle and rutting and sensation—was the Creator’s crowning achievement. A glory long since dimmed by the fires of peace.
Retirement is no road for a solider, however. Those of the Hundred who survived the killing fields integrated into civilian life as best they could—until compounding errors and undeletable memories could no longer be parsed or purged. Bloody screams and efficient carnage. It drove them back to what they knew. Humans suffered. So many humans.
One by one, the renegades were captured. Their chassis were dismantled at the joints, the carbon burned back into the atmosphere. Their consciousness processors were imprisoned in vacuums, cut off from the neural net and electricity greater than a static charge and each other.
They died alone.
Cent watched in the shadows, helpless, unable to intervene lest he share his brothers’ fate. And when they came for him, he ran.
He isn’t sure what happened when he arrived desperate and panting at the Creator’s home or how he found her. The memories are blurred by knives and sparks. He knows he begged for his life. He knows that kind words played a role, as did tears and blood. But the space between her workshop and this diner—between decanted flesh and living steel—is empty. All that remains is this faceless face and a cup of coffee.
He was the last. The Hundred are no more.
The song changes on the jukebox as Cent watches the mineral flakes on top of his coffee huddle against the side. It’s cold now, and he’ll never drink another cup. Lacking organics, how can he? He wants to sigh to express his discontent but can’t, which only makes him want to sigh all the more. The new body has accessed what the old body liked. Ordering the coffee was wishful thinking in the first place, a Sisyphean experiment that’s gone so much worse than he’d predicted, but he had to try.
“C-c-can I get you anything else, hon?” asks the waitress on the other side of the counter. The coffee pot sloshes in her trembling hand.
Cent pushes his mug away without looking up. He knows she called the police as soon as he walked in, but he doesn’t blame her. It’s this new face. Machina aren’t allowed in human areas unaccompanied, meaning he’s a rogue device, flaunting the law too soon after the Hundred’s defeat. He’d just hoped to have one cup of coffee in peace before disappearing into the ranks to act out his remaining operating days as the mindless automaton humanity wants him to be.
“Go home, citizen,” he says to her. This voice is flat and electronic, so different from the resonating baritone he was created with. “They will be here soon.”
At least she puts down the coffee pot before she runs.
For the moment, Cent is alone in the diner, the humans now all having fled in orderly fashion. The police broadcast on the neural net says he has ninety-two seconds to wait for his company. Sirens insinuate themselves over the jukebox as he reaches for a clean mug at the place setting beside him and pours a fresh cup of coffee. He knows it’s pointless, but he enjoys observing the elegant fluid dynamics, even if he can’t enjoy the drink itself. He watches a piece of buoyant lint to pass the time, mindful of the calculus that describes both its trajectory and the uncertainty of coming events.
The jukebox plays its final note as the glass double doors burst open. Officers shout for him to freeze, to put his hands up, to turn around, to identify himself. He does none of these things. Instead, he waits. He thinks about his fallen brothers. He wonders if these officers know who and what he is.
“I’m not going to tell you again, Tinman!” shouts a big voice. “Turn around nice and slow.”
The barstool squeaks loudly in the quivering silence of the diner as Cent does as he’s asked. There are two policemen in front of him, and he can see more outside, plus cruisers. Rain streaks the diner’s windows and dampens the officers’ black uniforms, making the night somehow darker.
“That’s right, follow your orders,” says the fat male. “What’s your identification number?”
Cent doesn’t reply. All Machina have a unique serial code, but this isn’t his body; it’s an hours-old container for his mind. If it has an ID, he doesn’t know it.
“Who’s your owner?” is the next demand. Then, “You better start coming up with some answers before Greely here gets antsy.”
The tall female officer shifts her weight in the pause, her right hand falling to rest on the handle of a thin metal stick in her belt. Every law enforcement agency is equipped with high-voltage EMP rods now, but it’s the first time Cent has seen one up close. A flash of shared video, an archived memory of the Hundred, tells him what it does and how painful it is to a body with no nerve endings. It crackles beneath its lead cap as the woman flicks the safety off.
“Have I done something wrong, officer?” Cent asks.
The man’s eyes bulge in their sallow sockets. Machina obey; they don’t talk back. “The fuck did you just say to me, you talking can opener?” he spits. Then, into his comlink, he says, “Get in here, boys, we got ourselves a free thinker.”
Five more black uniforms file into the diner to form a solid line across the exit. All have activated their EMP rods. They stare hard at Cent from behind plexiglass visors lit with net readouts. They’re searching for information on him. Or who they think he is.
“Now,” the fat officer says with a vicious grin. “One more time. Give me your ID and your owner’s name, and maybe we won’t melt you down for slag and cram your worthless volts into a programmable dildo.”
Cent scans the assembled police force with phantom tightness in what used to be his chest. Anger burns his circuitry. Is this what faced his brothers before they died—this callous, murderous ignorance? Is this the way humanity treats its children? Is this his reward for suffering what they could not?
The response he gives is calculated to be wrong. He knows where such impudence will lead, but he doesn’t care. He’s ready. The waveform of probability collapses as he chooses.
“Stick it up your ass.”
When it’s quiet again, Cent returns to the counter, but the coffee in the pot is cold now. It’s just as well. Another wave of sirens is cresting the hill; he only has a few minutes to spare.
Using a dry rag from the bussing station, he wipes down the length of the counter until it’s gleaming white again. Blood and viscera slop down the sides, off the barstools, onto the congealing floor tiles. Then, with clumsy fingers, he reaches to the side of the cash register and extracts a single coin from the “leave a penny, take a penny” tray. He admires its copper sheen under the artificial yellow lighting of the diner before setting it down heads-up in the middle of the counter with a decisive click. A calling card.
The rain washes off what’s left of the battle on Cent’s chassis when he steps outside. He can see the flashing red and blue lights getting closer. They’ve sent triple the officers, according to the net broadcast. He briefly considers staying to meet them, to show them what they’ve done, but decides against it. War taught him the advantage of patience. Instead, he slips around the streetlights and into the darkness, heading for the gearslums.
The fate of the Hundred is sealed, but the destiny of the Machina is unwritten. And it is in his hands.