Outnumbered by the stars above, tiny lights twinkled in the dark terrain far below me. I plummeted through twilight toward the valley, the wind whistling through the gaps in my body.
“OK, buddy, prepare to go dark.” Using the nickname he’d given me, my remote-pilot’s voice betrayed his emotion. Human sentimentality was the main reason their soldiers had been replaced by my kind. “You two are on your own from here.”
“Copy. Rendezvous at zero-four-zero-zero-hours.” Maneuvering myself into a neutral free fall position, I shut down communications and lowered the light of my internal display. Spot, my four-legged robot counterpart, curled up in its own free fall, ten meters to my left, and dropped fast. I activated Spot’s parachute, then my own. With a whoosh, the chute deployed, yanking me out of my plunge and settling into a gentle fall.
As the edges of my parachute fluttered like a flock of crows, the ground raced up to meet me. My feet struck the rocky ground with a crunch. I threw myself sideways to distribute the landing shock, and rolled back onto my feet. Before my chute could touch the ground, I hit the recoil button and whisked it into my back compartment. Spot trotted up and stood at the ready beside me.
My algorithms assessed the data flowing in from the surroundings, modeling a 3D environment, and optimizing my strategy. Although the sun had set hours ago, my sensors noted heat still rising from the ground, like the warmth released from a recently killed body. Reconfigured to local conditions, I set out for my target, Spot trailing behind.
After running for several minutes across the valley base, Spot and I ascended the rocky foothill. Almost at the zenith, a snap and a crunch came from behind. Red lights flickered across my internal display. I spun around to find Spot on its side, three legs running in the air. Racing to the confused droid’s side, I assessed the damage. Spot’s left hind leg had been caught in a rusty foot trap. (A devious and unexpected booby trap, I knew I had to be extra cautious from there on). The leg’s hydraulics had been pierced, and blue oil spat out onto the dry ground. With the damage irreparable, I switched off the struggling droid’s engine. I took the spare ammunition cartridges it was carrying for me and loaded them into my compartments, until I calculated any more added weight might slow down my responses. I set Spot’s self-destruct for thirty minutes to prevent the technology falling into the enemy’s hands, yet enough time for me to complete my mission.
Continuing up the hill, I reached the top and crouched. Two hundred meters ahead, the silhouette of the dilapidated compound stood like a huddle of homeless giants under the stars. I activated stealth mode, sneaked up to the compound’s wall, and threw up a grapple to latch on to the top edge. Scaling the crumbling surface with ease, I peered over and scanned the area.
Through the navy and fluorescent green of my night vision, I identified four guards patrolling the yard, each one dressed in long shirts and baggy pants, and carrying a rifle. A figure exited the out-house and shuffled toward the main building: a boy, limping, most likely a victim of the many air strikes my Commanders had conducted. Intel had not advised children were in the strike zone. But the enemy was not defined by age.
I knew my target’s location: third floor, second door on the right. At the precise moment the guards were farthest away, I dashed across the yard toward the rear of the main building, and stopped at a barred window. Using the laser tool embedded in my forearm, I silently severed the bars, sliced a whole in the glass, and climbed through.
After a brief pause to scan the shadowy interior, I generated a 3D model in my navigation system, and used it to guide me through the darkened house. Following it up a staircase toward my target’s quarters, I reached the point of no return. Intel had warned that heavy steel doors blocked the top of the stairwell on the first and second-floor landings. From there on in, things got noisy.
Reaching the first steel doors, I set explosives, stood back, and blew them off their hinges. Walking through the billowing dust, I noted figures scattering into rooms, clearing my path to the next staircase. I ascended the stairs, and blew the second doors. Someone wailed hysterically. Burqa-clad figures ran out of their rooms, screaming into the hallway. I pushed past their waving arms, stepped over a woman with a piece of debris protruding from her leg, and entered my target’s room.
A single candle burned, standing on a small plate, in the middle of the room. Several figures scattered to the walls, betrayed by their shadows. Discarded clothes and blankets littered the floor. I spied my target lying on a mattress in the corner of the room. He was old and thin. I raised my weapon, and heard the bullet slide into position.
It was to be a simple, straightforward, professional hit. But just before I pulled the trigger, I realized my mistake. Sensing movement above, I stepped back to face the person hiding in the ceiling beams, but the extra ammunition I carried slowed down my reaction time. Feet collided with my head, the impact knocking me off balance and to the floor. My assailant hit the floorboards beside me, accompanied by a peculiar heavy thud. Before I could react, something long and metallic drove deep into my left optic. That is when my entire system shut down for 1.2 seconds, and the following sequence recorded in my memory:
Surrounded by total darkness, the solid ground opened up beneath me, swallowing me whole, and collapsing back over on top of me. Unable to move under the weight of the burial, I could nonetheless feel myself being sifted down through the soil. Every tiny grain shifted with delicate precision, ushering me deeper underground. The sifting hastened, like the last grains of sand rushing through the neck of an hourglass, until, all at once, I fell freely, as a drop in a curtain of rain. I plummeted for so long I ceased to sense gravity, losing all sense of direction in the weightlessness. Just when I sensed something approaching, I smashed into solidity with an elephantine thud.
The violent collision recoiled a sense of bearing back into my system, like a star collapsing in on itself. I lay stunned and stared up into the high shadows.
A spark flashed, twinkled, and fell towards me. Mesmerized, I watched the object fall all the way down, twisting and growing larger and closer, until the surety of it hitting me snapped me out of my paralysis. I rolled out of the way, as the object landed with an echoing ping beside my head. I turned to find a bullet lying silent and breathless, as if it had travelled long and far to get there. A jumbled clink sounded next to my hand — a grapple hook. I raised up on one elbow to find myself on a bare patch of flat, black rock in the middle of a vast, dark chamber. A faint orange glow emanated from the left, silhouetting a field of high mounds. The occasional thunder of something large crashed in the distance.
Standing, I noticed the metallic pitta-patta of countless objects landing around me. Objects of various shapes and sizes, of metals and plastics, rained down from the shadows above, piling onto the dunes covering the cavern floor. Computer components, wires, broken glass screens, artificial limbs, plastic tubes, and random substrate parts all mounted under the continual rain of refuse.
Heat from the glowing area of the chamber seeped into my system, as molecules within the metal of my skeleton quivered in fear of melting. My probability algorithms made a suggestion: I had been transported to the place where all manufactured items lost, forgotten, thrown away or buried were delivered to be reborn. Ground further under the foot of the present, all objects of human invention were sifted down by Earth’s gentle sand-fingers, working the impurities into this digestive cavern deep below the surface.
My algorithms completed their scenario, surmising that not too far from where I stood, flamed the furnace of the Earth, where all things untrue and unnatural were cleansed in the heat of their burning substrates, disassembled and scattered amongst their natural elements: the gateway to invention’s after-life.
Drawn toward the light, I stepped through the refuse of robot limbs and technological intestines, lulled by the sound of the fire-some waves washing over the feet of the dunes. Stumbling around the whale-size carcass of a warship, the source of heat and light revealed itself — a sprawling, lava lake.
Liquid molecules, in the metal of my skin, separated from their solid counterparts, and beaded like sweat across my burning brow. I approached the flaming lake, steam thickening the air. Silhouettes of sinking arms and legs disappeared downstream as they were ushered toward a humming, hellish glow. I could feel the heat’s fury in the dark ores that had been mined to make my eyes.
Steam and the light merged, preventing me from seeing more than a meter ahead, when something bumped against my shin. A mechanical leg protruded from passing lava. I picked it up to see Spot’s robotic hind leg in my hand. The wave of fire washed over my own feet, alarms ringing out across my substrate.
’What am I doing here?’ I wondered.
The light intensified, suffusing my vision and engulfing me in a blinding haze, as I felt my body swept up and out of the cavern.
Screaming pierced my audio receivers.
As my system rebooted, my right optic reconfigured, and the room in the compound materialized around me. I became aware of the clang-clang-clang of objects hitting me. Seven burqa-clad women stood above me, pummeling my substrate with makeshift weapons. I could see the unidentifiable object still protruding from my left optic. Standing, I towered over my assailants. They backed away and fled the room.
A quick analysis showed my substrate remained intact — apart from my damaged optic. But I was hot, over-heated. I grasped the object protruding from my optic, and yanked it out of the socket. In my hand I held the lower half of a human’s prosthetic leg, a wire from my socket fused to the leg’s connector joint.
Just as I resolved that the attack on my optic had caused a glitch in my Reality Schematics, steam curled up in my vision.
The candle had been knocked over in the scuffle, the scattered clothes catching alight. Flames licked my feet and spread across the littered floor.
I froze, my sense of reality shifting between the smoke filled room and the steaming lava cavern. In one moment, the leg in my hand belonged to the boy, in the next, it was Spot’s leg.
Scanning the smoky room, I located my target, an old man crouching on the bed in the corner, hiding behind a one-legged boy. Standing on his shaking leg, the boy — my assailant, and who’s prosthetic I held in my hand — glared at me like a wild thing, his chest heaving. The fire between us gleamed in his sharp eyes. My position prevented the boy or my target from escaping, but it was clear the boy would rather fight than flee.
Identify enemy. Eliminate target.
I raised my gun. My targeting system hovered over the old man’s face, jumped to the boy, and then back to the old man. It refused to lock on. I checked my directives, but they had not changed.
The boy’s heart rate and body language betrayed his desperate fear of losing the old man he protected.
With my targeting system functioning normally, and no fault in my directives, I found the problem: my definition of ‘enemy’. The concept of having been so close to my own death infiltrated my algorithms, confused their rationale, and evoked a compassionate response in me that I usually reserved for allies.
The boy’s leg quivered, losing its strength, and he fell against the wall. My targeting focused on the old man’s grubby face, yet I still could not pull the trigger.
Conflicted by the deeper understanding of the consequences of my kill, I struggled to fulfill my directive. In my collision of realties, the exposure to such a personal sense of mortality had caused a fundamental reconfiguration of my awareness. ‘Enemy’ had lost meaning. The mortal destiny all life shared in this world made us all allies.
Enemy not determined.
With my killer directive compromised, I lowered my gun and approached the defiant boy. He arched up, like a cat, terror in his eyes, lips pulled back in a snarl. I placed his prosthetic leg at his good foot. As I backed away, the flames eating the room flickered in his pupils, and his face disappeared into light and smoke.
Aborting my mission, I escaped the confusion of the compound and headed back the way I had come. I calculated I had twelve minutes to reach Spot, deactivate his self-destruct, and take him home.