Katsura Sugita's head rested lazily on his desk, his eyes closed as he tried his hardest to find some sort of sleep. The harder he tried, the more sleep eluded him, though, given the events of the day, he figured it was only appropriate. He often found it disdainful just how little death affected him these days.
As his head lay there, the door to his office clicked, creaking lowly as it swung open, another man walking in with a steaming mug of coffee in hand and a newspaper tucked under his arm. He groaned as he kicked the door closed, shaking his head with shame as he dropped the thick paper, catching it with his hand and tossing it upon the desk, just in front of Katsura, who slowly raised his head to examine the collection of stories.
"Well, we've hit a other milestone, K," the man muttered as he fell into the opposing chair, sighing in relief as he leaned back, bring his mug up to his lips, "They're calling 'em "death traps" now. Only a matter of time before some writer just crosses the gap and calls us murderers."
Sure enough, as Katsura scanned the paper, the headline stated, in massive, bold letters, right atop the front page, "MEKA Program Kills Another; Health Department Calls MEKAs "Deathtraps"".
"Well, we can't get much lower than this," Katsura muttered, emotionlessly, as he dropped the newspaper, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his eyes, tiredly, "I know what you're going to say, Jeong."
The man across from him shrugged simply, as if Katsura's words had ceased to affect him after years of repeated use, "As long as you're able to secure funding, hey, who am I to judge? I'm just here to make sure you're doing something. The fact that your research involves about a death a week should tell you just how desperate Korea is."
Jeong pulled out his phone as he nursed his mug, his eyes straining downward as he picked at the screen with his thumb, "Let's see how the Tokyo papers put it; that's always fun."
Katsura sighed, shaking his head as he leaned forward onto his desk, fiddling with a pen, "I doubt that'll be useful in any-"
"Japan's Once-Brightest Son Puts Another Youth To Death In Pursuit of Failure," Jeong muttered aloud, shrugging again, "They never speak in measured terms, do they?"
Katsura eyed him plainly, "You know, how about we just ignore headlines from now on. You're not my PR guy, anyway."
"Thank fuck for that," Jeong grinned amusedly, slipping his phone back into his pocket, picking his leg up to rest atop his knee, growing more somber as he spoke up once again, "Any progress?"
"No," Katsura spoke up, gravely, "I'm working on it."
Jeong growled as he rubbed his face, "You keep saying that. Day in, day out. I don't know how much value you place on your human subjects, but as far as I'm concerned, and as far as my government is concerned, those people are dying in the line of duty."
He groaned exhausted, shaking his head as he began to calm himself, "You sure this is the right way to proceed?"
"I'm not going to create machines that aren't piloted by humans, if that's what you mean," Katsura replied with his own slightly venomous tone from his own exhaustion, "I'm already paying penance for one crime; I'm not going to make another."
Jeong rolled his eyes as he lowered his empty mug onto the desk, reaching down to pull a cigarette from his pocket, bringing his hands and a lighter up to his mouth to light up, "I hope you're right. As long as you don't go killing more people than you're trying to save."
Katsura leaned down over his desk lowering his head onto his hands as he tried, again, to sleep, knowing that Jeong wouldn't allow him to do so. He was the government's sheepdog, brought in to ensure that Katsura, a Japanese man, was truly working toward what they were financing- a mechanized army to defend Korea and her seas. Every day, Jeong questioned "K", as he was called around here, and while the two had developed something of a friendship, Jeong had always kept a safe distance, making sure he didn't move in close enough to breed contempt. To that end, Katsura was smart enough to know, to be sure, never to let the man in on more than he needed to know.
"Your girl doing well?" Jeong questioned quietly, blowing a plume of smoke up toward the ceiling lackadaisically.
"Mhm," Katsura answered, without lifting his head.
"Good, good. My kids start school soon, themselves. Wife's busy getting all their stuff ready while I'm here fifteen hours a day," Jeong muttered, scratching at his face as he smirked childishly, "Never said I hated it though. Little rugrats."
Katsura rolled his eyes, hidden by his downward-facing posture, thinking of how often he missed being with his own daughter. How much he regretted that his line of work included such an assortment of demons to have become more like a rogues gallery for which he constantly had to face, no matter where he lived. Such dreadful feelings he had, exacerbated ever further the longer he remained at work every day, his daughter nearly leading a life devoid of him.
While Jeong leaned his head back to rest, Katsura only perked up at the sound of the door handle turning, revealing a scrawny man, his secretary of sorts, poking his head into the office, "Eh… K? General Park is here."
Katsura's body jumped at the words, his head quickly turning up to eye the secretary, "Park?"
Jeong's eyes grew dim as he lazily turned his body toward the door, asking critically, "He's the replacement?"
The secretary shrugged, "He just showed up, spouting off that he was the new Secretary of Defense and wanted to see the MEKA program for himself. See where all the funding was going."
Katsura fell back into his chair, covering his face with both hands as he groaned, exasperatingly, "Oh fuuuck."
Realizing the sordid air he had brought along with him, the secretary quietly slipped out as Jeong turned back in his chair, dropping his cigarette to the ground and smushing it with a foot, "Well that was unexpected. I'll keep this pack with me just in case you need one."
He juggled his coat to signal his pack of cigarettes, though without seeing him, Katsura simply shook his head, "You know I don't smoke anymore."
"No, but you'll start again after this meeting," Jeong assured with a shrug, "Park's a hardass, don't you know?"
Katsura sighed heavily, "All too well…"
He went on mumbling to himself, complaining as he took to his feet and grabbed ahold of the light sweater that had been thrown on a nearby stool, walking toward the door as Jeong stood to go along as well, the handler sighing as the two made their way out the door. The two men strolled out from the small office into a massive airplane hangar that had, basically, been converted into a workshop. The entire MEKA production took place underneath this single roof, with testing taking place just outside on the tarmac. Katsura and Jeong walked through the scattered patches of workers, knowing exactly where they would find their visitor.
"Of all the military officials, they had to go with Park," Katsura complained, lowly, pulling his sweater on and stuffing his hands into its pockets.
Jeong shrugged, "Makes sense. Taking a reactive stance hasn't gotten this country all that far. No doubt the higher ups wanted to try a more proactive stance."
"Then I have no place here," Katsura shot back, vehemently.
His handler turned to him, his lips curling inward with indifference, "I'm sure that's what this meeting is to decide, as much of a surprise as it was. Knowing General Park, he'll want to find out why money and soldiers are being sent here, rather than the coast."
"I won't work for any government body that controls my aims," Katsura replied, coldly, "That's why I left my home. If Park wants to tell me what I should do, then he should spend fifteen years learning robotics instead of how to pull a trigger. This military can go fuck themselves if they think guns can prevent this."
Jeong's forehead suddenly shrunk in disdain, "I'm in the military, so shut your mouth. No point in complaining until you hear what Park has to say; who knows, maybe he'll like what you're doing here."
"They start puttin' drugs in those cigarettes?" Katsura asked with a droll tone, leaving Jeong to roll his eyes as the engineer went on, "Park's never liked me. If it isn't about my ethnicity, it's about how much funding I'm getting instead of him and his stupid nuclear arms dance."
Jeong shrugged, "Luckily, one of you have history on their side. and public opinion. I think any number of Koreans would rather take on an Omnic with their bare hands instead of launching nuclear torpedoes into their waters. Park's a brute though; you can't change his mind. Probably why they sent him, just to get you to sweat a little."
"And hurry up," Katsura shook his head, "Three years in and I'm positive these MEKA units are the way to go. But you can't rush when lives are on the line- especially Park's men."
"Well, you'd better come up with a sound argument," Jeong warned, gesturing his head forward, "There's our new supervisor."
The two rounded a final corner, revealing the rotund-shaped, robust machine that stood in the middle of this workspace. Its legs stood still, the shape of them resulting from three years of engineering, figuring where weight would be distributed. Its two arms ending in cannons, and its most important feature- a bulbous window sitting prominently at the front of its blue body, where the pilot was to be during operation.
This was Katsura's MEKA- Mobile Exo-Force of the Korean Army. Designed for one thing: to repel the omnics that continued to rise out from the ocean, seeking out the destruction of Korea itself.
General Park was circling the machine, staring at its every nook and cranny, his eyes squinted in examination as his hands held each other behind his back. Katsura stood at the perimeter of the workspace, in view of the general's aides, while Jeong approached the muscular man, saluting as Park noticed the two newcomers from the corner of his eyes, rising up and staring right at Katsura.
"Sugita?" his voice rumbled deeply, escaping past the sneer of his face.
"Would you care to explain why this program of yours has done less than nothing for this conflict, yet you continue to kill off my soldiers?" Park's face grimaced, "I believe the number was in the hundreds?"
Katsura turned to Jeong, who remained saluting as he spoke up, "Sir, as Sugita's overseer, I can assure you-"
"No," Park ordered, causing Jeong to jump in surprise, "I want to hear it from the Jjokbari himself."
Katsura's eyes dipped low, having grown accustomed to such derogatory terms in his time here. It didn't faze him, though he was deep in thought as he subtly tried to work up an explanation in his mind that would get this man off his back; being a surprise inspection, he had no idea, and no time to come up with a presentation or anything- he'd always been slow on his wit, rather choosing to prepare, and over-prepare, when possible.
He shrugged as he stepped toward the General, passing Jeong and his saluting arm, before approaching the curving shell of the MEKA unit, looking into the transparent window that housed the cockpit, "I never allowed any soldier in here that wasn't aware of the risks. Every last one of them understood them, and chose to die for their country in the pursuit of-"
"Oh, spare me the patriotism, Jjokbari; we both know you're only here because those goons back home wanted you gone," Park scoffed.
Katsura gave him a sidelong glance, a steady anger brimming within him as his body turned to face him, "What you see, here, is the result of years of tireless labor and engineering; the perfect machine, capable of winning this war. It's an AI-integrated vehicle, able to keep pace with any omnic that opposes it; it writes millions of lines of code in mere seconds, allowing it to think as fast as, if not faster, than the omnics were facing from the South China Sea."
Unimpressed, Park eyed him cynically, "So why the holdup if these are going to "win" this war?"
Katsura lowered his shoulders, rubbing his arm, "Because, when I was asked to come here to build them, I made it clear, under one single stipulation- there had to be a human being piloting these things. You give a machine total freedom to roam and think for itself, that's what gets you wars like this one in the first place."
He paused for a moment, thinking over his next words carefully, "Unfortunately, every time we put a pilot into one of these MEKAs, the machines don't exactly…cooperate."
Park's eyes narrowed, disdainfully, "So you're-"
"Doing my job? Yes," Katsura answered, "As long as your government keeps me busy and financed- They understand what's going on here. They know what's on the line. They know what these things can do…if we get them right."
Park grumbled, eyeing Jeong with a slight rolling of the eyes, "Oh, put that hand down!"
Jeong obeyed immediately, whipping his arm down and to his side before slouching, only slightly, as Park returned his attention to Katsura, "So what's the issue with the pilots? By my last count, two hundred and nineteen soldiers- my soldiers- have died at your direction. Sugita, you'd better explain that! That one back in January- the- the corporal! He hadn't much of anything left to examine by the coroner!"
As though subtly making a swipe in retaliation, Katsura replied evenly, "Corporal Chun Dae volunteered after we had made a breakthrough regarding the positronic differentiator, January 4th. He had been training for months to pilot the MEKA; he was not under my direction. He was one of our best; lasted longer than Sonu Tohyon, twenty-three, and Sargeant Pom-"
"What are you trying to prove, Jjokbari? Because if you think you value these men's lives more than I do, you're sorely mistaken," Park growled with a festering anger as if he were prepared to return outside his uniform.
Katsura returned a fierce glance, "This isn't a game. Not to me. Everybody who crawled into these things, I take every bit of responsibility for their status. Those who survive with severe injuries, and especially those who die because I fucked up."
Unimpressed, Park muttered, "What is it, exactly, you keep fucking up?"
"From what we can all tell, the AIs don't take favorably to being piloted, it seems," Katsura admitted blandly, still downtrodden from his last statement, "While we start each session off of a clean slate, the AI's programming writes so fast that, regardless of what we do, they inevitably come to the conclusion that, much like a parasite within our own bodies, they don't want them in there any longer."
He eyed a nearby computer, "We keep all of the data servers on-site, that is, not within the MEKA unit, but there's only so much we can do to make them slow enough for our pilots to manage, yet fast enough to compete with these omnics."
Katsura's eyes shut mournfully, his mind wandering back to the last test they had concluded, just the day before. He could see, so clearly, the MEKA stepping in circles as the pilot took it around- everything was working so perfectly. When instructed to exit, however, the pilot stared out the window, panicked, the hatch refusing to open. Katsura heard the quick, heavy stomping as the pilot cried out, kicking the hatch as best he could, knowing full well what was happening. In the quickest of seconds, as Katsura's team of programmers tried desperately to override the MEKA's AI, the machine drew back its lengthy, slender arm before shooting it back toward itself, smashing the clear glass that protected the pilot as its claw mangled the pilot's face, sending blood flying out from the MEKA unit until, finally, the machine paused.
The scientist bowed his head, respectfully, "This is our last obstacle. and I've lost too many men and women to stop now."
General Park scoffed, shaking his head, "Sounds like a case where they would have all been better off doing something useful to end this war, not helping a madman get his kicks. Of all the solutions, I'm appalled that you manage to be the 'solution' that receives the most funds. Obviously, my predecessor didn't share much before his untimely death, but surely, he was insane to think that having soldiers die, here, was worth more than dying, heroically, out there."
Jeong turned to Katsura, worriedly, knowing what the scientist would say next. What he would have to say. It was a desperate tactic that he had been forced to use time and time again whenever he encountered his doubters, and General Park was the most belligerent of them all. Despite that, however, his timing was impeccable:
Park shook his head, turning toward his two aides, "I can't believe this. What makes this Jjokbari so special in the eyes of the government?"
Katsura's head lowered ever so subtly, his eyes just barely peering up toward the general as his voice escaped him, carrying the unmistakable air of venom as he spoke up, quietly.
"Because, the omnics you're fighting? I built them. I know them. and I know what it will take to defeat them."
"Well, that went better than I could have expected," Jeong yammered absently as he followed Katsuta back into his office, "I was expecting blood though, so…"
Katsura shook his head as he reached for his coat, hanging freely from a rack, "Just because he didn't end the project right then and there doesn't mean it won't be his first order of business when he gets back to Seoul. You said yourself the other day, we're only continuing along because the ruling faction is behind us. Take that away-"
Jeong laughed, gravelly, as he pulled out his cigarettes, "Thank god we haven't encountered an election year. Boy, we'd be fucked, huh?"
Katsura's eyes narrowed, his head turning slowly up toward his handler, "We?"
"Shut up; don't take it as having any meaning," Jeong groaned, earning a light smile from the scientist across the room, "You've got me invested. So what?"
Katsura's grin only grew at the man's insistence, turning away to hide his face as Jeong asked somberly, "You headin' out?"
"Sixteen hours and an undressing in front of every one of my subordinates? Yes, I'm heading home," Katsura complained as he fumbled in his pocket, looked down toward it as he so, confusedly, "Damn, I forgot the grocery list."
His head fell backward as he groaned, his eyes shut tightly, giving Jeong another chuckle, "Makes you miss the old lady more, huh?"
Katsura sighed, returning his glare back to his empty hand, "No, it's just Hana's birthday this weekend and I like to, at least, pretend I'm around more often to remember these things. She always enjoys teasing me about forgetting stuff. Pretty quick for a fifteen year old, I'd think."
"Ah," Jeong nodded, thinking of his own kids, "I think mine were still crawling around at that age; I honestly don't know. Since this thing started; it's screwed up everybody's minds, I guess."
Katsura turned toward the door, "Well, I'd like to try my best at not missing out on my daughter just because of work. Just because my career is made on ruined lives, I'd like to think there's at least one I'm not ending."
He sighed a final time before pulling open the door, "See you tomorrow?"
"Eh, Park's sidekick told me to stop up there tomorrow, so I'll probably be gone," Jeong complained, taking an extended swig of his cigarette as he rolled his eyes, "Probably just to get my take on everything. Get some dirt on you, maybe."
Turning toward his handler, Katsura eyed him worriedly, though Jeong only grinned, shrugging as he reached up to hold his cigarette, "If I didn't believe in this, I wouldn't be around. Trust me; I haven't seen anything we haven't reported."
Katsura sighed, relieved, turning back to the door, "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," Jeong replied, taking a seat in his chair in front of the desk, "Say hi to the kid for me. I'll hang out here a bit longer before sending everyone home. You have any ideas for tomorrow?"
"No," Katsura shook his head, "I'll think of something. We'll just have to work with the AI operators, see what they can do; maybe lowering the thresholds and seeing how agile they can be."
His eyes lowered to the ground, sadly, "Sung-Min, the boy who died the other week… I realized today that his death- It didn't affect me like they used to."
A pain shot through his chest as he admitted to Jeong the fact he couldn't even admit to himself just a few hours earlier, "I've never felt so inhuman."
Jeong shrugged, looking away in his seat as he brought his feet up onto the desk, "All the better to get into those MEKA's minds, I suppose."
Not receiving the reassurance he was expecting, Katsura gripped the wooden door, frustrated in himself. His lips pulled together tightly as he took a step out of the office, only stopped in his tracks by the voice of Jeong, who spoke up, lowly, but sincerely.
"If I didn't think you could do this, I wouldn't have let my son get into one of your contraptions."
Katsura felt his feet go numb for a moment, his grip along the door tightening for a brief second before it slid down it, falling to his side, "How's he doing, anyway?"
"Still nothing but a heartbeat," Jeong answered, "Perk of being a military child- he's spared no expense. When I get back, we're all going to see him, cut his hair and everything. You should see him sometime."
Katsura quickly evaded giving an answer as he replied, "I don't think-"
"He'd be happy to know his superior came to see him," Jeong interrupted, "He always thought it was cool you were building mechs like the ones he idolized growin' up. That wasn't the term he used- 'badass' or something, I dunno. First day he was chosen, he was like a child at Christmas."
Katsura's eyes fell, his hand tugging at the knob of the door, "Childhood heroes are never what you think they are."
"Maybe not," Jeong shrugged, pulling his arm up to his face for another lazy swig of his cigarette, sighing deeply as smoke flew from is nostrils, "Still made him happier than I'd ever seen."
Taken hold by the tense silence, Katsura bit his lip as he remained by the door, staring down at the floor beneath his feet, concentrating on nothing in particular, lest his mind grow to become enclosed by the time he returned home. Jeong seemed to notice something wrong with the air, his head shaking as he leaned forward to to find the bottle of scotch he'd left on the table the other day.
"Anyway, you don't need any more musings from an old pup like me. Get on home," Jeong offered with a smile, his voice an octave higher as he clutched the ornate bottle beneath the small office table, "See you at some point, K. Park'll come around."
"I hope so," came a reply as Katsura gave a solemn nod, bowing his shoulders low before turning to leave, "See you soon. Good luck."
"Eh, heh heh," Jeong chortled, "When've I ever had that?"