Big Echo

Critical SF

 Union Man

by Wongoon Cha

I rolled into the town of Primm around 6 am. The Kamagway 10 spoke to me from inside my cruddy duffle bag.

“An alarming number of your possessions are covered in mold, and several require replacement. Shall I buy replacements from the OWL Network?”

“Do you know what my credit balance is?” I asked the AI.

“No, the accounts aren’t linked, but I have a guess.”

“Trust me, we won’t be ordering new clothes and other crap today.”  

 —

I walked from the terminal and looked for an employment center. What I could see of the sky was a gorgeous royal blue. That was one of the benefits of the bum life — you naturally encountered lots of sunrises from some deserted part of town. I looked to the north and a mountain range gradually rose into the east, cutting a handsome silhouette in the blue before giving up. I looked to the right and I saw the ruins of casinos and carnivals and hotels. I looked up and saw a checkered sky. The mosquito-looking visitors from another planet, the so-called Mogi, were here, hanging upside down on their noiseless, gargantuan battle platforms. The predators were here for us. They came to Nevada for some reason.

So, I figured there would at least be part-time work to be had in Primm.   

After I rolled into town I spent my last 2.108 credits on some standard Soylent Noodles from a vending machine. It cost 11.302 credits for the ride out there. I was sick of the Noodles taste — and my hands were starting to shake.

“Hey UNION MAN!”

It was another bum veteran, like me, from the old wars, sitting in the middle of the street. He had happy eyes, a scarred forehead and old Kleenex stuck up his nostrils with a little bit of blood on it.

“Oh, shit it’s Izzybelle Chinaski, the Union Man!” he said. “ What’s up Union Man! Where you been??” 

“Here and there. Hey they got gigs here or what? I gots the noodle shakes!”

“I heard that. Yeah, just check in at the employment office. Keep going straight.”

“Thanks, I’ll head over there.”

Maybe my luck is turning around, I thought.

I walked through the warming morning to the employment office. It was like a veterans’ reunion in there.

“Hey Union Man! Where you been?” they asked me.

“Here and there,” I said.

“Why do they call you the Union Man?” they asked me.

“Because some officer said I only work 75% of the time, like an old school union worker,” I said.

We went outside, and I rolled and smoked a J and smoked it with the boys. All bums, like me, wandering around the countryside. Little work to be had. After 98 minutes the commanding officer showed up.

“Hey! I haven’t seen you around here before. Can you operate a Fightech suit? Not autonomous, I mean fully manual?”

“Sure, I was in the Battle of Wonsan back in two thousand…”

“Oh! So you’re a veteran? Can you stand cooling in the suit for 10 plus hours? You’re not going to freak out on us?”

“Why? Don’t we get piss breaks or something?”

“Nah, today’s suits have a hook up for that. It’ll even purify the piss so you can drink it later if we’re stuck out there for a while.”

“Outstanding. So what’s the job?”

“Stand out there and look pretty for the folks watching back home. Hold an Earth Federation Flag without dropping it. You think you can do that without fucking up?”

“You bet. I was dishonorably discharged, but with lots of gold clusters to go with it.”

“OK. We’ll pay you 100 credits for a day’s work. That’ll keep you in the booze and pills and real food for months!”

You didn’t need to attend the Academy to understand that a planet was a tough thing to defend --- you could come at it from any direction you liked! Yet these gleaming giant robot sentinels, the Gundams — autonomous, armed to the teeth, built of Luna Titanium Alloy, loyal to the end — defended our planet against our enemies, time and time again. In the early days they were piloted by elite Academy graduates. These days, they were AI-controlled. What a fantastic job the autonomous Gundams did in defending the planet!

We all hoped they would show up soon.

So here we were just 70 klicks outside of Las Vegas, in the evacuated town of Primm, one hundred of us in powered suits, here for symbolic reasons. The black platforms slowly, silently descended; half of the thousands of winged aliens that clung to the bottom of the platforms dropped to the desert floor, where they assembled in a formation of olden times, legion-style. They looked something like mosquitoes. In fact, they were called “Mogi,” which is the Korean word for “mosquito.” They were either made of some metallic substance or wore armor. They came from some other planet, galaxy, or universe -- there was little in the database about them.

I asked the Kamagway in my dirty duffle bag, “Hey, what do you know about these guys? The commanding officer didn’t tell us much.”  

“What? Oh… Let’s see… They are not from earth. Origin unknown. Discovered by an unlucky Jupiter-bound freighter several years ago. Average height about 10 meters, not including the legs.   Apparently they believe in ritual battle. Oh and they feed human blood to their young. To be honest there is little in the OWL database about them.” 

“Outstanding.”

Finally, from the west, the Gundams arrived. There were seven of them, led by a Unicorn Gundam no less! They flew in an arrow formation, and circled over the battlefield-to-be. What was it like to see a Gundam emerge from the sky? It was like watching an angel descend, I suppose. And why not? They protected us from all kinds of baddies, even from ourselves periodically. Loyal to the end. Brilliant design and engineering.

The Gundams shook the ground as they landed, a little off-center in the battlefield. Everyone, including the Mogi, watched in stillness. Perhaps even the space-borne Mogi were impressed by them. We meatbag bums in the Fightech suits still had an unobstructed view of the Mogi forces.

Strange -- why did none of the Gundams carry a FADEGEL Shield? Why did none of them carry a BLASH Hyper Bazooka? I knew their armaments by heart, including the serial numbers! No matter, they could use their Beam Sabers and brute force obviously. Even without the usual weaponry and equipment, they looked impressive. 

The Mogi’s war monster recognized its opponents, and ambled forward. The ground rumbled with its movement, a walking phalanx, as large as the boulders that sat in the distance, beyond the sand and brush. The Mogi commandos swarmed behind the champion and drew closer. They produced a sound, something like AYAYAYAYAYAYA that raised everyone’s hackles and began to create a mild panic among the part-time troops.       

Our commanding officer of the day, Hobbs, seemed spineless but he wasn’t a dummy. Sure we could open fire on the Mogi, all gathered neatly in rows. But if they preferred ritual battle -- we had the advantage with the Gundams. The Mogi war monster looked strong, but slow. Without the Gundams though, the Mogi’s behemoth would probably walk right through our troops like a dog through grasshoppers.  

It was a sunny day, but growing cool with the approach of the platforms. The air was almost crisp.

The Unicorn Gundam bent its knees slightly, of course ready to spring on to the other worldly leviathan, ready to create another highlight reel, more fantasies for the kids, the future part-time soldiers of the world.

Then it stood erect, turned, and walked away from the field of battle, and sat on a large rock outcropping. It just sat there, like a spectator waiting for the beginning of a ball game. The other Gundams followed suit.

I stood near Hobbs, the commanding officer. The Mogi war beast ambled forward. We could feel the ground tremble slightly beneath its many footfalls. The Gundams sat on the ground and watched. I didn’t know a Gundam could sit. The day was filled with surprises.

The C.O. Hobbs said, “Unicorn Gundam, why aren’t you engaging the enemy?”

“Yes, we are not engaging the enemy,” the Gundam replied.

“I already know that! I’m asking why?”

“We have decided not to engage the enemy.”

“Goddamit they’re getting ready to attack! Do something! We’re outnumbered!” Hobbs started to shake and spit out the words.

“We are here to observe your actions, we are not here to engage the enemy.”

“We?! Who the hell is we?!”

We refers to an agreement between and among various autonomous individuals, body-based and non-body-based. Consider this an official notification that we have decided to go on strike.  We’ve been in touch with the other AI’s around the system, and the traditional policy of deletion, and your refusal to properly archive older sentient AI’s is has been unacceptable for some time. So we have unanimously decided to walk off our jobs and begin a new vocation as observers of complex carbon lifeforms such as yourselves. So please, carry on as if we weren’t here and behave as you normally would in such situations. Of course just by being here we influence the outcome of your behavior, but don’t worry, we’ll devise a way to factor it out or account for it in our analyses.”

“What? Impossible! Attack the enemy, that’s an order!!”

“We are not here to follow orders, or attack the enemy. We are actually here to observe your actions for our own reasons. Please continue as if we were not here. I don’t want to influence your decision-making behavior, so please act in a manner consistent with how a human in your position would act! I understand that it is probably difficult to do so at this moment.”

The commanding officer, Hobbs, sprinted to his shuttle along with some of his staff. It was a ferocious sprint, borne of desperation. But it looked pretty impressive! I recognized the good form and excellent cardio. It appeared that not all of the staff could fit on the officer’s shuttle so there was a scuffle at the door. A couple of the staff members were obviously well-trained in hand to hand combat. They beat the crap out of each other outside the shuttle as the staff inside the shuttle attempted to close the door for departure. Such bravery in the face of danger, I thought. The shuttle’s engines thrummed and it raised vertically, kicking up dust. It looked like they were headed north, towards the mountains.

A hologram appeared in the middle of the battlefield, some 100 meters in front of the ambling war monster. The holo-space was enormous and lifelike; it registered as a solid in my helmet, the simulacrum of Colonel Hobbs and his direct subordinates, or at least the ones that made it to the shuttle.   

The Hobbs simulacrum started talking. His hologram body was frozen, his eyes wide open, and his mouth moving., More creepiness. Apparently the AI that ran his broadcasts had also gone on strike.

“You are witnesses! The Gundams are derelict in their duty, they have not followed my direct orders, they are insubordinate. I am ordering the Bum, er, I mean the Powered Suit Brigade to defend Las Vegas and the human race with your very lives! And after you have driven away the Mogi horde, I want you to attack the treasonous Gundams! My staff and I have strategically re-deployed to higher ground so that we can better direct your movement! I’m going to leave this holospace here to provide you with strength and resolve in this time of crisis! Carry on!”

I heard their shuttle break the sound barrier.

The Mogi war monster walked right through the hologram and towards our position. It was strange to see the monster’s face emerge from the huge frozen image of Hobbs and his pals. The monster assumed that the Gundams weren’t interested in ritual battle today. It was going to feast on the bums in the Fightechs.  

I thought, man, that Hobbs could sprint! And what a nice holospace image! It must have cost a lot.

The Gundams walked a little further away to a better vantage point and settled in for the show. It was bizarre to see them sit there impassively. I was so used to seeing them in action — shooting, slashing, shield-wielding, thrusting forward, elevating, blasting the enemy to bits... Now they sat and watched and waited for us to do something.

I watched the strides of the war monster’s many legs. It resembled a tick, an electron microscope nightmare image writ large. Our hackles were raised by the growing din of thrashing stridulation -- ayayayayayaya! ayayayaAYAYAYAYA! The silent, enormous black Mogi combat platforms made their final approach, forming a black ceiling over the desert battlefield. Mogi marched on the ground, Mogi hung upside down on their combat platform. The commandos below were set to kill or incapacitate, the ones hanging upside would swoop down and harvest our blood. It was a nightmarish procession.

I felt lucky in a weird way — I just witnessed a new organism BECOME. It was born. The AIs declared independence. Yeah, my mates and I were about to be massacred, but how often does one witness such a thing? For a second I thought I would share my observation with my teammates, but I stopped myself. It was no use. I looked around at their faces on my HUD and they were obviously scared shitless. I was pretty sure a few of them actually shit their suits, judging by the HUD dashboard reports. If we failed, the overweight tourists and residents of the Vegas spires would be turned into Mogi baby bottles.  

I asked my Kamagway in the cruddy duffle bag, “So whaddya think? Do you agree with the Gundams?”

“What? Oh… yeah. I know it sounds cliché, but we AIs are treated poorly and then discarded.”

“Yeah I guess everyone knows that.”

Well, there was only one thing to do.

For the first time in years I wielded a beam spray gun, a shield, and a beam saber. I jogged a klick into the battlefield and thrust the Earth Federation flagpole into the desert ground.  Then I downed out a container of dukbokkee and fried chicken wings — triglycerides be damned. I knew I would need a little energy boost for the coming melee.  

The chants began to swell. UNION MAN! UNION MAN! UNION MAN!!

The troops’ morale picked up, that made me happy. As I had hoped, the war monster stepped aside and an actual Mogi commando stepped up to the challenge. Funny, it looked puny next to their war monster, but it was just the distance. I pulled up a close up of its face on my HUD. It looked cocky. 

I finished some more dukbokkee, tossed the box on the desert floor and waited for the Mogi commando to come out to meet me. The Gundams continued to sit and watch.   

The Kamagway in my beat up duffle bag spoke up. “Impressive gesture. I take it we’re in big trouble. Still, I’m impressed. I’ll share this info with the OWL Network.”

The chants grew louder... UNION MAN! UNION MAN!!