• Kai flapped his wings as he looked at the landscape far below him. The fir trees waved their branches in the cool breeze as the birds and insects sang their early morning song. Kai closed his eyes and let the wind brush against his face as he glided through the sky. He flapped his wings again, and a sudden soft mechanical creaking sound met his ears. He opened his eyes and sighed. He knew he should have oiled his wings earlier before flying out on patrol, but he was so impatient to get outside and into the air that he decided to put it off until later.
    His synthetic eyes went back to scanning the landscape. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so he angled his wings downward and lowered his altitude so he could drift just above the trees. He loved the artificial feeling of the wind rushing past his wings that the nerve-simulators inside them produced, and that, plus the real feeling of being able to fly freely when few others could, gave him the sense that he could completely escape from the rest of the world whenever he wanted to. He took a deep breath and smiled.
    The wind rushing past him blew his hair into his eyes, so he raised a hand to push it out of the way.
    The sound of static suddenly filled his right ear. He sighed.
    What do they want...? he thought impatiently, even though he had a pretty good idea of what it was. The static turned into the voice of a young woman.
    "Good morning, Colonel!" it said in his ear. "Where are you? We've been looking for ya all morning!"
    Kai landed on one of the topmost branches of a tall tree to lessen the sound of the wind.
    "Good morning, Lieutenant," he said, pardoning the casual tone in which she spoke to her superior officer. "I've been out patrolling the area today." He spoke in a loud enough voice for the tiny receiver in his ear to pick up. The voice in his ear laughed.
    "That's your excuse every day, Colonel!"
    He smiled. So she saw through that, did she? But then again, he didn't make it very difficult. He could easily assign patrol duty to one of his subordinates, yet he flew off early every morning, only to return during the busiest part of the day, when everyone else was about to lose their minds trying to run Headquarters without him.
    "Oh, Colonel, we've received an e-mail containing a mission assignment earlier. You know that laboratory a few miles up the road from HQ? Well, the government's revoked their operating permit. We're supposed to go shut them down."
    That took Kai by surprise. He often flew over that laboratory on his "patrol" outings, and he so rarely saw people in the vacinity that he wondered if it was still being used at all.
    "I'll be returning to Headquartes shortly, Lieutenant," Kai said.
    "All right! See ya soon!" she replied. "Lt. Alamine, out!"
    He waited for the static in his ear to die out before letting go of the tree branch that he was holding onto and lifting off.
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    Kai lighted down on the rough walkway leading up to the front doors of Headquarters and folded his wings. The path was covered in fallen pine needles from the numerous surrounding trees, and their scent was especially heavy today.
    As he approached the front door, a red light lit up above it.
    "Colonel Kaian L. Edwards," he said, announcing his name in a loud, clear voice. The light faded and turned green, and the front doors slid open with a whoosh! A blast of warm, stagnant air met him at the doorway as he walked in.
    "It's hot in here!" he complained loudly, pushing his hair out of his face.
    "We'll have someone open some windows, Sir!" a secretary called as she ran past him, trying to catch a mobile-coffee-machine that continued to hover just beyond her reach.
    He said,"Thanks," but she had already disappeared around a corner.
    As he walked down the hallway to his office, he received several polite "Good morning"s. Everyone seemed to be in a much better mood than he was, and it was beginning to irritate him.
    "Gahh!! Am I the only one who thinks it's so hot in here?!" he said to himself, frustrated. He undid the buttons on the front of his uniform jacket. "I can't be the only one in here with a low mechanical body-percentage!"
    He turned into his office and found one of his subordinates, Major Hexyl, sitting at his computer desk. Hexyl glanced up.
    "Oh, Colonel! I just grew to Level 71 earlier! I didn't think this day would ever come!"
    "Congratulations," Kai laughed. Hexyl was always able to change Kai's mood for the better. Maybe it was because they were so similar. Like their shared love for online games. Kai made a mental note to work on leveling up his own character later.
    "But you need to get off my computer now. We're supposed to leave on that assignment soon. Oh, and could you open a window? I'm burning up," Kai said.
    "Sure, no problem," Hexyl said, rolling backwards in the chair and hitting a button on the wall without even turning around. All the windows on the wall opened. "I keep forgetting that you're so sensitive to things like temperature and such, Colonel."
    "I'm not sensitive, everyone else just isn't!"
    Hexyl laughed. "It's because, unlike you, most bio-mechanical people are more mechanical than they are bio, Colonel 11%-mecha!"
    "Hey!" Kai said, and he flexed his metal wings defensively.
    "Yeah, and without those, you'd be, what, 3%?" he laughed again. Hexyl himself was about 78%-mecha, having synthetic nerves all throughout his body, and completely mechanical arms and legs (which would normally be connected to organic nerves), as well as the standard cardio and respiratory aids that were so small that they didn't count for much percentage-wise. Those in the military usually had fairly high percentages compared to the average citizen, since the military gave them discounts, which made buying more possible. Kai, on the other hand, only had his synthetic eyes and his wings, as well as the tiny internal machinery that every other person had as well. And the only reason he was able to get those wings (which were so expensive that he realized he should probably be taking better care of them than he did) was because his father had been in the military as well, and, having achieved a fairly high rank, was able to pull some strings. So, four years ago, on his eighteenth birthday, Kai was fitted with the newly-developed Silver Eagle flight-enabling wings. He had already enlisted in the military (on his father's request; Kai didn't really feel that he himself was cut out to be a soldier, but he knew it was what his dad really wanted. Plus, because of his dad's influence, he was able to land Kai a decent position early on.). Since he had already joined, there wasn't a fear of giving an average citizen a newly-developed piece of machinery to play with. He got them from the military to use for the military.
    Kai turned around as he heard someone else enter the room, a young woman of about 20, with dark hair tied up in a ponytail by a large ribbon on the back of her head. Lieutenant Corrine Alamine.
    She handed Kai the documents she was holding.
    "Those are the papers you and the person who's running the lab will have to sign," she said, handing him a pen. He scratched his signature on them and handed them back to her. "Okay then!"
    "Are we ready to leave yet?" Kai asked. Technically, he didn't actually have to accompany whomever delivered the message to the lab, but everyone knew he'd be very angry if he wasn't told about a field mission and was left out of it. So, on assignments such as this, it was tradition for him to lead a small group of his closest subordinates and go off on the mission personally. This gave him a good image in the eyes of the higher-ups who were away from Headquarters, but everyone who was there knew he just wanted an excuse to get out of the office.
    "Knox should be here any minute now. He's out getting the car ready," Lt. Alamine said. As if on cue, Lt. Knox walked into the room, wiping his nose with a tissue.
    "We can leave whenever you're ready, Colonel," Knox said, sounding congested. He blew his nose in his tissue.
    "You really don't sound good," Alamine said, looking concerned.
    "It's just a cold," he replied. "I'll be fine."
    "You know," Hexyl broke in,"you wouldn't have to worry about getting sick so often if you had a higher mecha-percentage. I can give you the name of my doctor. He's very good with respiratory-mechanizing." He added the last bit as Knox burst into a fit of coughs.
    "No thanks, I'm fine!" Knox choked out. Knox had a mecha-percentage of 31%, not much higher than that of the colonel's. However, Knox didn't have all of the standard tiny internal machinery, since he was slightly older than the others. At the time Knox had been mechanized when he was in his teens, the now standard equipment hadn't become standard yet. Hexyl often blamed Knox's shortage of internal machinery as the cause of him getting sick all the time, but Knox wasn't sure. He couldn't remember ever being sick as a child.
    "Well, if everyone's ready, let's go!" Kai said, leading the way outside to the hovercar waiting for them.
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    It took them about 30 minutes to reach the lab, which was a lot longer than they had expected. The car's automatic navigator kept getting confused because of the terrain between HQ and the lab, which was covered in fir trees, rocks, and streams. The hovercar wasn't programmed to traverse over rough landscape, so it didn't seem to enjoy the non-existant road to the laboratory.
    After switching over to manual steering several times, they finally arrived at the lab. Being capable of flying, Kai found the car to be more trouble than it was worth, but without it, it would have taken the others much longer to get around.
    The hovercar settled on the walkway leading to the lab's doors, and the four of them walked up to the entrance. Kai didn't see a voice recognition light above the door, and for a second, he was confused, but Lt. Alamine found a button on the wall that, when pushed, slid the doors open. They walked inside, and Kai smiled.
    "They have nice air conditioning in here," he said happily. The others quietly laughed at him.
    I bet these people have low percentages, too, Kai thought.
    Kai led them as they walked up to the front desk, but the smiling receptionist who greeted them made him really not want to do this. He handed the papers to Major Hexyl and stepped to the side. He tried to tune out Hexyl's and the receptionist's voices as he told her that they were being shut down. She didn't seem to understand, and kept saying, "But we have our government permit," (to which Hexyl would try to explain calmly, "Yes, but it's been revoked." wink , and then she would sit there for a moment in silence, then blink and smile, "But we have our government permit. They approved our research."
    Kai sighed and turned around to face the receptionist. Hexyl was leaning on the desk, looking frustrated.
    She's cute, but I think she could use a tune-up upstairs..., Kai thought. He walked forward and tried to make it as clear as possible.
    "The government wants you to stop researching whatever it is that you're researching. I understand you had permission, but you don't anymore. This lab is being shut down," he said, looking her straight in the eyes. She blinked.
    "Master Aeron is not going to like this," she said. "I'll call him so you can explain this to him in person." She picked up a phone.
    "And who is 'Master Aeron'?" Kai asked, frustrated that this was taking so long. The receptionist gaped at him as if he were the stupid one, then went back to making her phone call.
    "He'll be here in a few moments," she said, hanging up after a few seconds. (Why couldn't we just talk to him over the phone?! Kai thought angrily.) "Please have a seat over there."
    "I'm going outside for a minute for some fresh air," Kai said while the others sat down on the chairs against the wall that the receptionist had pointed to.
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    Kai breathed a sigh of relief as he glided over the lab's roof. He didn't like leaving the others like that, but he had to get out of there.
    As he flew overhead, Kai saw that the lab was built right against a vertical rock face, and it was possible that part of it was built into that cliff, which would make the lab much larger than it appeared. He landed lightly on the almost-completely-flat roof and looked around. Sure enough, his sharp eyes noticed an odd rectangular seam in the rock that met the back of the building. Anyone without enhanced eyes and who wasn't looking for anything would never have noticed it. It was a hidden doorway.
    Kai looked around for a way to open the door, but didn't see anything that looked like it would help. Disappointed, he fell against the door and was surprised when the portion he fell on sunk in like a button, and the door swung open.
    Beyond the door was a deep, dark, narrow stairwell. Kai tentatively walked down the first few stairs, and his eyes switched to night-vision to accommodate for the darkness. He pushed the door closed behind him and proceeded down the long flight of stairs.
    He wasn't sure of how long he walked, but he was sure that the others would be missing him now. Finally, the stairs leveled out into flat ground. The only thing in the small corridor was another door at the far end. He walked over to it and pushed it open.
    Kai gasped in surprise at the strange room in front of him. It was rather large with a low ceiling, and it was completely circular, so it gave the feeling of being inside a large disc. It was very damp and dark, but there were lights lining the room at intervals along the floor, so the walls were partially illuminated and looked shiny for some reason. A single lab table was right in the center, as far as possible from all the lights, and even though it was very large, the size of the room made it appear tiny. There was no one else here.
    Kai quietly closed the door and walked over to the lab table. The top of it was very clean, and there were neat stacks of paper and tools and other equipment lined up on it. Even with everything on the desk, as well as a sink laid into it, there still seemed to be enough room for someone to sit, or even lie down, on.
    A sudden sound from the direction of the door made him freeze. Someone was about to come in the room. In a panic, Kai looked around, but the only thing in the room was the table. He looked down and his heart leapt as he saw that there were several large cabinets made into the bottom part of the table, probably for storage. He grabbed one of the handles and wrenched it open, then quickly climbed in and pulled the door almost closed so he could still see out from the sliver. He was glad that there wasn't much in this particular cabinet, and that this table was so big that he could actually fit inside one of the cabinets along with its regular occupants, which, he was also greatful for, didn't include glassware.
    As the door into the room opened, Kai realized how ridiculous he was being. He was in the miltary, yet he had snuck into a lab that he was supposed to shut down, and was now smashed up inside a cabinet with his metal wings wrapped awkwardly around him, hiding from those he was supposed to deliver the message to. However, he felt that this was the right thing to be doing.
    A young man in a lab coat walked through the door and toward the table. He didn't seem happy. Kai pulled the cabinet door closed, and his heart pounded against his ribcage as he prayed that the scientist didn't open the door.
    Kai could hear the scientist through the cabinet.
    "This is not good," the scientist said, sounding sad.
    Kai heard the room's door open again, and more footsteps came toward the table. Kai opened the door a sliver again and peeked out, his heart still pounding. (He was very greatful for his cardio aids, because he felt that his heart would have already burst a while ago without them.)
    The man Kai saw took him by such a surprise that he almost fell against the door, but he caught himself just in time. The newcomer was so white that he appeared to be surrounded in an aura that illuminated the space around him. He wore long, flowing white robes that fell gracefully around his feet on the floor. His hair was the same color and poured down his back past his waist. He held himself in a way a king would, and the scientist standing across from him seemed to cower in his presence, even though he looked like the least-menacing person Kai had ever seen. Somehow, Kai figured that this was "Master Aeron."
    "Will you finish in time?" Aeron asked. His voice was calm.
    "I'm afraid not, Sir," the scientist said softly. "We won't be able to finish."
    "What a shame," Aeron said sadly. He turned around and walked toward the door. The scientist followed after a few minutes.
    Kai's heart pounded harder than ever. He was alone now. He waited a few more minutes inside the cabinet, straining his ears for any sound of approaching footsteps. When he was sure that no one was coming, he climbed out of the cabinet and looked around the room, relieved beyond words that he hadn't been caught. He knew he should leave the lab as soon as possible. (He was fairly certain that the others had left without him, as he often gave them permission to leave ahead of him once an assignment had been completed.) However, the shininess of the walls captivated him, and he wanted a closer look before he left. He stepped toward the part of the wall near the door, but before he could get too close, an earsplitting scream tore through the roon, seeming to come from inside the wall itself. Kai panicked.
    "What was that?! There's no one in here!" he said to himself. He looked frantically around the room from where he stood and confirmed that this was true.
    He suddenly heard hurried footsteps coming down the stairs, but before he had time to back away from the door, it was flung open. The young scientist stopped and stared dumbfounded at Kai.
    "How did you...?"the scientist began, but behind him, guards poured into the room from the staircase. Kai felt the need to hide that he was with the military, so he turned around as fast as he could and moved toward the dark center of the room, but he had a feeling that his uniform had already betrayed him. But when the guards raised their weapons and started firing at Kai, it seemed that they either didn't realize that he was in the military, or didn't care. He spread his wings behind him to act as a shield and cover his back as he ran the opposite direction from the attacking guards. He could feel the stings of the rays ricocheting off his metal wings, and he silently cursed himself for having turned up their synthetic nerves to the highest sensitivity.
    He had drawn his own plasmagun and was blindly firing behind him. He cringed as he heard the ray collide with one of the guards, followed by a horrible cry of pain. Kai had never been forced to shoot anyone before; he realized that he had never been a true soldier, had never known what it was about. Because of his father, he had had it easy, achieved a high rank without the work, and was able to stay at HQ with a desk job. But now he had killed someone. He couldn't take it. He was done.
    Panicking, he now thought only of escaping, but his legs refused to listen to him and he nearly fell. Within seconds, the guards drew in, surrounding him. He spread his wings in one swift motion, the sharp edges slicing upwards. Blood rained down. He pushed his way through, heart pounding and head spinning. He didn't have a clear image of his surroundings, but kept stumbling forward as fast as he could. Pain shot through him, though he had no memory of really being injured.
    He found a doorway in front of him; somehow he had made it back to the other side of the room. Unhindered, he climbed the stairs, shaking violently.
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    "Colonel, please tell us what happened! You just disappeared! We thought you may have already returned to HQ ahead of us, but when we got back, you weren't here! And when we called back at the lab, they said you had left after delivering the message. And you had your receiver turned off, too! We couldn't find you anywhere! And then you stumble in like this! What happened?! Say something!" Lt. Alamine sounded close to tears. She, Hexyl, and Knox were gathered around Kai as he sat on a table in the repair room of HQ, having his metal wings worked on by a doctor. Kai hadn't said a word since returning, and just shook his head whenever someone tried talking to him.
    He didn't know how long they stayed with him, but eventually, he found himself alone. Finally thinking clearly, he looked around the room, realizing where he was. He took a shaky breath. He didn't want to be here. He wanted to leave, to just fly away from it all and never look back. But he at least wanted to see this through first.
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    Kai landed on the lab's roof, bathed in moonlight. He easily found the hidden door in the rock wall and went down the stairs.
    He found the underground lab room exactly how it had looked when he had first entered it. Strange, but no stranger than the fact that no one had tried to stop him from entering. Had they really listened and already be evacuated?
    Kai went straight to one of the walls and examined it. The whole perimeter of the room was made of darkened glass. This explained the shininess. He stepped closer and peered into the wall.
    "What...?" he said, stepping back. He walked along the circular wall, looking through at different points.
    Beyond the wall were smaller rooms, which formed a complete circle around the large lab room Kai was currently standing in. This underground lab was truely massive.
    The rooms beyond the glass were dark, and Kai switched his eyes to thermal sensors to to see if he could pick up anything inside. He gasped when he realized what it was.
    Each little room appeared to be a miniature hospital room, and in each bed was a person, either covered in bandages, missing limbs, wired to medical machines, or unconscious with unseeable problems. But these people weren't the guards of the building; some were young children, others were old women and men. They appeared to be normal citizens. And, Kai realized thanks to his heat-sensing eyes, that every one of these people was 0%-mecha. There was no foreign metal in any of them.
    Across the room from the door Kai had entered from, a second door that he hadn't noticed before opened, and the man with the long white hair entered the room. He didn't seem surprised at all to see Kai standing there. The man stopped a few yards away from Kai and smiled.
    "Good evening," he said in a pleasant voice. Kai just stood there, unsure of what to say. The man laughed. "Well, you can't honestly say that you didn't think we'd at least have security cameras! Everyone in the building knows you're here. And that's all right."
    Kai felt like a complete idiot. I'm really not cut out for this job at all, he thought.
    "Anyway," the man continued. "I'm called Aeron. I'm in charge of this laboratory."
    "No, you're not," Kai said. "This lab was shut down."
    Aeron smiled, his eyes closed.
    "The government doesn't really want this lab shut down," he said sadly.
    "Uh, yes they do!" Kai shot back. "And what were you doing with these people anyway?!" He gestured to the glass walls. "What, did you kidnap them and do experiments, or just torture them?!"
    "Of course not," Aeron said calmly. "They're all volunteers for our study. We're keeping a close eye on all of them, and we're helping them. They're in good hands."
    "Then why does it look like you've stripped them of all their mechanical parts?" Kai asked.
    "We didn't 'strip' them of anything. Most of them were never mechanized to begin with, and that's why they came to us. That's part of our study. In fact, it seems our hypothesis was correct, and that's why the government wants to stop our research."
    "...What?" Kai asked. It didn't make sense.
    "Let's start from the beginning. In this world, almost everyone, be they rich or poor, is mechanized to some degree when they reach a certain age. Correct?"
    "Correct," Kai answered.
    "Why is this?" Aeron asked.
    "Because... it strengthens the body," Kai said, aware of how lame his answer was.
    "And when someone gets sick or injures a limb...?"
    "That organ or limb is usually removed and more mechanized parts replace it, which fixes the problem."
    "So we just keep buying more and more mechanical parts to replace our failed organic ones. Correct?" Aeron asked.
    "Correct," Kai answered.
    "And from whom do we buy these parts?"
    "We buy them... directly from the government," Kai answered.
    "Yes, I think you get it now," Aeron said. "What we're doing here is studying medicine, and how the body heals itself and fends off infections. The government's been telling us to throw out whatever doesn't work, in order to get us to buy more machinery from them. But the more we become mechanized, the fewer organic parts we have to fend off diseases. We'll be more susceptable to sickness in the future, and our organic parts will heal slower and slower. It'll just keep continuing, and we'll have to keep buying more and more machinery from the government, when really, we don't need it."
    "So that's why the government wanted to shut down the lab," Kai said.
    "Yes," Aeron replied. "People with low or no mechanical percentages who had been sick or injured volunteered for our study, and after years, we were so close to publishing our findings. But the government doesn't want the public to find out. At first, they thought our study would be beneficial to humanity, which it is. But then they realized that it wouldn't be beneficial to them themselves. If our findings get out, people may try to stop bio-mechanism, which would take away a large chunk of the government's income. They want to stop that from happening."
    "But people have a right to know..." Kai said.
    "What can we do, though? It would be going against the government to let this get out," Aeron said. Kai could see him looking at his military uniform.
    "I... don't know," Kai replied. "Maybe I could..."
    Just then, the door Aeron had entered from opened, and the young scientist Kai had seen earlier ran into the room.
    "Master Aeron!" he panted. "You've got to see this! Hurry!"
    Kai and Aeron ran after him into the room he had just come from. It appeared to be the security room; there were many monitors displaying different parts of the lab lining the walls.
    "Look!" the scientist said, pointing to a particular monitor. "We're surrounded! It happened within seconds!"
    "What?!" Kai gasped. The monitor showed the front of the building, and just yards away was a line of military hovercars, tanks, and helicoptors. Kai could see Major Hexyl in the front, with Lieutenants Alamine and Knox right behid him.
    Kai quickly turned on his ear piece.
    "Major, stop!" he yelled, but he didn't get an answer. He changed the frequency to Alamine's and then Knox's, yelling for them to stop, too, but it seemed that they had all turned off their receivers. Had they all been given orders to do so?
    "We have to get out of here!" Kai yelled. After going through the frequency dial twice with no response, he pulled open the door they had come in from, though there were others to choose from.
    "They've given the order to attack!" the scientist said, still in front of the monitor.
    "It looks like we didn't leave soon enough," Aeron said.
    "Come on, let's go!" Kai said, pulling the other two out of the room, but a huge explosion shook the earth around them, shattering the glass walls and throwing the three of them off their feet. Kai quickly spread his wings to shield them from the debris.
    "We have to make it to the stairs!" Kai said, pulling Aeron and the scientist to their feet while using his wings to deflect the falling chunks of ceiling.
    "What about everyone else in here? They never even issued an evacuation before they started this attack!" the scientist said.
    Kai's stomach fell. He couldn't just abandon everyone, but he knew there were only seconds before the building came down.
    "Here, take this!" the scientist said. He reached into his pocket and handed Kai a compact disc. "Our research is saved on here. This is what the government wants to eliminate. Everyone who knows of this research is in here, but if you can get this out, our work will be saved."
    Another explosion shook the building, causing larger chunks to rain down. Kai tried to pull Aeron and the scientist across the room toward the staircase that ran inside the rock wall up to the roof, but they were unable to stay on their feet, and they weren't even half-way. The lights around the perimeter of the room flashed and sparked violently. The three of them were thrown off their feet again, and Kai landed roughly on his stomach. He quickly extended one metal wing over his hand that clutched the disc, and the other over the fallen scientist and Aeron, then he closed his eyes as the building collapsed around them.