All 231 knew of his new assignment was that he hadn’t received it yet. His orders so far were to report to the Command facility early in the morning hours. When he arrived at the heavy security door, it immediately cycled open. Behind the door stood an Officer of the corporation. 231 snapped to attention. Without a word, the Officer turned and walked down the hall. Automatically, 231 followed.
The two wound through the halls of the complex, deeper than 231 had ever been. He risked a sideways flick of his eyes when they passed the darkened window of a laboratory. The shadowed outline of a cloning vat was all he saw.
The Officer turned to a closed door and pushed it open. Inside was a conference room, furnished with long, dark table encircled by high-backed office chairs. 231’s arm instinctively moved to salute when he saw the Coordinator seated at the end of the table. He held the pose as the Coordinator nodded to the Officer, who left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Despite the opulence of the room, despite the fact that he had been left alone with a high official of Tower Defensive Laboratories, and despite his presence having been personally requested, the Goliath could not shake the feeling that 223 was somewhere, watching him.
The nerves hit him all at once, and 231 nearly stammered. “Milord, reporting as ordered.”
The Coordinator removed a brushed silver lighter from his interior pocket, and with it, a cigarette. “You were impressive on New Corinth.” He lit the end and breathed deep, sighing in satisfaction. “Killed a tank, then killed your squadmate. Very good work. Were you tempted? To rape the girl?”
231’s face never registered the sickening wave that rippled through his stomach. He answered sharply, and honestly, “Milord, I was not.” He stared dead ahead, as protocol dictated.
From the corner of his eye, 231 could see the Coordinator staring at him, could hear the lighter flicking open and closed. Finally, the human spoke. “You’re up for a bodyguard assignment, two-three-one. A very important one. But I need the right soldier for the job.”
231’s eyes barely narrowed in thought. The right soldier? He was here under-
“Which is why you’ll be given the choice whether to take the job or not.” The Coordinator paused deliberately. Then, he snickered. “This may be the only chance you’ll get to say no to a human.”
231 was thinking it as he said it. He tried to imagine what it would be like, and couldn’t. The only reason he could disobey a human was for the safety of that human, or in order to obey Tower directives. The words of the protocol shaped his life, down to his thoughts.
They were giving him the chance to choose.
He realized the Coordinator had stood, and was tapping a code into the viewscreen. “But you should understand, we’ll be sending her out with or without you. God only knows what could happen if you’re not with her.” The official tapped the last number in the sequence, and the screen lit.
On the screen, visible only by the virtue of the nightvision camera, was a young girl, asleep in bed. Her hair trailed over her eyes, which were clenched shut tightly. Her body, under the blankets, was curled into a ball. Even quiet and still, she did not look peaceful.
She’s gotta be bio 10, 231 thought, before he remembered that humans had only one age. Bio and chrono 10, then.
“She has an important job of her own, two-three-one, ” the Coordinator said. “And some of it may take her outside the Radius.”
Why send a 10-year-old girl outside Tower’s sphere of influence alone? What could be worth sending a human child into separatist territory? 231 had no idea, but he did not question that Tower could, and would.
Ashes trailed from the Coordinator’s hand, and smoke from his nostrils. “Make your choice, Goliath.”
This, he knew, was his one chance to say no to a Tower official. Likely the only one in his life.
“Milord, I request the honor of this assignment.”
The Coordinator smiled and lit another cigarette. “Good boy.”