by Michael D. Burnside
Not to be distributed without express permission from the author.
We were in the shattered remains of downtown Prague when I spotted a tuft of blond hair inside a crater. I clambered down to the bottom where a few clumps of orange Cloyo gas hovered near a pool of fetid water. The crater smelled of mustard and sewage.
Like every survivor, I’d built up an immunity to Cloyo gas. It had been years since the Eastern Confederacy had used the stuff, but it still seeped out of the ground.
I ignored the orange puffballs and the stinging in my nostrils. Keeping my rifle ready, I skirted around the pool to the far edge of crater and looked down at the hair.
A voice behind me said, “Don’t fuck with that.”
I glanced back at my partner, Mal. He stood at the lip of the crater cradling his FAL 390. The rifle was almost longer than he was tall. If I didn’t know his muscles were synthetic, I’d question how he could lift the thing. Most of Mal’s short frame was machine.
“You think the Confederacy is booby trapping bodies?” I asked.
“That’s not a corpse. I can see heat below the surface.”
I bent down and brushed dirt away from the hair. I touched a patch of pale skin and my pulse quickened. I dropped my rifle and dug into the soil.
Mal clicked his rifle's safety off. "You have a damn death wish."
I uncovered a woman's face. She sat up, pulling herself free. She turned to me, and I found myself looking into deep blue eyes.
"Hello," I said.
"Jawara," said Mal, "stand up and slowly move back."
I didn't understand Mal's concern, but I rose and took a step back. "Don't worry," I told her, "we're not going to hurt you."
The woman stood. Dirt cascaded off her. She was of medium height and wore standard laborer clothes, green cargo pants and a black t-shirt. Her hair was long and matted. She was filthy but looked in good health.
"Grab your rifle," said Mal, "and then walk back toward me."
"What are you so worried about?" I snapped.
"That's a bot. You think a human could survive whatever made this crater and not suffocate after being buried alive? Turn your damn thermal on."
Mal's words sent a chill through me. I reached up to my lenses and clicked on thermal vision. I kept it off most the time because it screws up your depth perception. Mal didn't have that problem, as his were implants.
The heat signature confirmed what Mal said. The woman had a central core burning at around fifty Celsius. That would be lethal to a human.
I reached for my rifle. The woman raised her hands. There was a large hole in the base of each palm.
I'd encountered a few bots before. Cold, logical things with weapons concealed in their arms. Designed for infiltration, they looked human at a distance, but up close they had blank expressions and glassy eyes.
This one had eyes that bored right through me.
"Easy now," I said. "You don't want to kill me."
"It's not a damn puppy," said Mal. "Your soft tone don't mean shit. You've got to give it logical choices." He skidded down into the crater and pointed his rifle at her. "You shoot him, I shoot you. Walk away instead."
The woman opened her eyes wide. "Please, don't shoot me."
I stepped back. "Since when do bots say please?"
"Insidious programming," grumbled Mal. "I could put one through its head. It might shut down before it blasts you."
"What are the odds of that?"
"About fifty percent."
"Fuck those odds."
"Don't shoot me," insisted the woman.
"Fine," I said. "You don't shoot me either." I gestured at her hands. "Point those things away from me."
"What things?" She looked at her palms. "Why are there holes in my hands?"
I stared at her. "You're a bot that doesn't know it's a bot?"
"I'm putting the thing down," said Mal.
I shook my head. "We don't know what we're dealing with. This thing isn't like any bot I've ever seen."
"All the more reason to put it down."
"No!" cried the woman.
Her blue eyes beguiled me. Whoever made her had done a damn good job of making her look human. "Send a pic of her to headquarters. Maybe they can ID her."
Mal frowned and stared at the woman for a moment. Then he tapped the side of his throat. “HQ, Alpha One here. We’ve encountered a malfunctioning bot. Can you identify?”
There was a moment of silence. I shifted uncomfortably on my feet. The woman looked down at her hands.
The implant in my ear buzzed.
“Commander Carrolton here. That bot is one of ours, a prototype codenamed Sara. Bring her back to me.”
“What about the nerve agent?” asked Mal
“We’ll get it with a drone,” said Carrolton.
Mal grimaced. “We tried that. Air defense is too heavy. That’s why Jawara and I are out here.”
“We’ll have to try a drone again. Sara is too important. Bring her back here now.”
Mal rolled his eyes. “The bot’s barely functional. It doesn't even know it's a bot.”
“She may be affected by a virus. Her comms must not be working, otherwise the patch we transmitted should've restored her memory. I’ll have the fix sent to you. You’ll have to manually install it.”
“Pardon me, sir, but what the hell is so important about this thing?” asked Mal.
“That bot’s AI has emotive motivation. Commander Hutchinson sent her out on a live trial mission last week. I told him it was too soon. Hutchinson’s gone, so now it's my call. Bring it back. Carrolton out.”
Mal grumbled, "Emotive motivation? What does that even mean?”
“She has emotions?” I glanced at Sara.
“These orders suck," said Mal. "All the way out here just to escort a bot back. Tango sector is going to get slaughtered by that nerve agent. They won’t pull back, you know. They don’t dare leave a hole in the line. They’ll just sit there and take fifty-percent casualties.”
"What's a bot?" asked Sara.
"You get that patch yet?" I asked Mal.
Mal shook his head. "And we can't sit here and wait for it." He glanced up. "If a Confederate drone flies overhead, their artillery is going to increase the size of this crater." He looked behind him. "And we can't head back over the river. By now they've found the sentry you dropped last night. They'll be swarming the area."
The face of a young soldier guarding the entry to a pontoon bridge across the Vitava River sprang up in my mind. I shoved it away. "We'll move parallel to the river till we find another place to cross."
"What's a bot?" demanded Sara.
Mal stepped close to her. "You're a bot. A killing machine. We're on your side, so don't kill us." He walked past her and climbed out of the crater.
"I don't want to be a machine," said Sara.
I shrugged. "I don't want to be a soldier." I pointed at Mal. "Follow him. We'll get you home safely."
I caught my breath while crouching behind the ruins of a Confederate tank. We’d been darting between wreckage and ruins for the past hour. Broken bricks and chunks of fallen masonry choked the streets of Prague.
Sara looked back at me. “What year is it?”
"What side are we on?"
“United Global Defense,” I replied. “We’re an international coalition.” I pointed at Mal who was ahead of us, taking cover behind a rusted-out bus. “Mal’s from Texas. I’m Jawara, from Senegal.”
"Who are we fighting?" asked Sara.
“We’re trying to stop the Eastern Confederation from purging ethnic minorities in Eastern Europe. At least that’s how it started.” I sighed. “There’s not really any minorities left to purge at this point.”
“But we’re the good guys?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. A decade into a war and it starts to blur.”
Mal motioned us over. We ran and joined him behind the bus. He glanced at me and said, “Another block and I think we can turn toward the river.”
“Did you get that patch yet?” I asked. “I feel like a history teacher on the worst field trip ever.”
Mal nodded. “I’m receiving the transmission now.”
Sara pulled a photograph out of her pants’ pocket. “Who is this?”
I leaned toward her and saw a picture of a cute little girl in a green dress. She had blue eyes and a bright smile.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Why am I carrying it?” asked Sara.
“Got the patch,” said Mal. He held up his hand, and a needle popped out of his index finger. He looked at Sara and said, “Turn around.”
Sara shook her head.
“It’ll be okay,” I said. I took her by the shoulders and turned her back toward Mal.
Mal touched the base of her neck with his finger. Something clicked. Sara’s eyes fluttered.
“Memory fully restored.” She glanced at the picture again. “Lynn Jacobs.”
“Huh?” I said.
“She’s the daughter of Sara Jacobs, the woman whose brain they scanned to create my consciousness.”
Sara ran her finger over the photograph. “That Sara is gone, but her daughter is still alive. She’s a soldier like you.” She looked at me. “Your mission was to destroy some nerve agent slated to be used against Tango sector?”
“Tango is where Lynn is stationed.” She looked over at Mal. “Where is the nerve agent being stored?”
"In a warehouse just a few blocks east of here," replied Mal.
I shook my head. "Our orders are to take you back to HQ."
"Those are your orders. My orders were to test out my systems. If you want to bring me back, you'll have to come with me." She leapt up and charged down the street.
Mal watched her run and then grinned at me. "I think I like emotive motivation." He got up and sprinted after her.
A heavy pulse cannon spat blue beams of energy in our general direction. The crew didn't have a fix on our position, it was more of a "We know you're out there somewhere and hope you die" sort of shooting.
Sara popped up from the low wall we were crouched behind, fired a shot from the pulse rifle in her right arm, and dropped back down. Some poor Confederate let out an anguished cry.
"I dropped a scout," said Sara. "They have armored infantry moving up and taking cover by an anti-aircraft missile launcher. The heavy pulse cannon isn't positioned to fire at us effectively. The warehouse is one-hundred meters past the launcher."
Mal patted his FAL 390. "I have explosive rounds. Get me a straight shot at that launcher and I'll take it and those armored goons out in a single shot."
Sara looked at me and said, “Cover us.”
I popped up and sprayed the area in front of me with pretty blue pulses of light while Mal and Sara ran. The Confederate soldiers looked like green turtles in their heavy ceramic armor. My shots ricocheted off them. I ducked down. Cement flakes showered me as their return fire chewed into the wall.
I heard an odd hum and risked a peek. I spied Sara and Mal huddled behind a bulldozer. Sara had a rail gun embedded in her left arm. The moment it fired, a loud clang rang out as her shot tore through Confederate armor.
The fire toward me stopped.
Mal jumped up from behind the dozer blade and aimed his long rifle. A pulse of energy suddenly sliced through the pack on his back. Mal didn’t flinch. His rifle went off with a crack, then he dropped down. Seconds later, an explosion ripped apart the Confederate position as the warhead on the anti-aircraft missile detonated.
As soon as debris stopped falling, I sprinted over to Sara and Mal. Mal picked through the remains of his backpack.
“Luckily, the explosive didn’t get hit or Sara, me, and this bulldozer would all be melted slag.” Mal frowned. “But it did kill the timer. There’s no way to set the charge now.”
“We can shoot it with a pulse rifle,” suggested Sara.
“Yeah, but we have to place the charge literally on top of the nerve agent. Otherwise the incendiary might not burn it all,” said Mal.
“I’ll shoot it from inside the warehouse,” replied Sara.
“Then you’ll die,” I objected.
“I have nanomites built into my skin. I can self-repair.”
I shook my head. “This is an incendiary explosive. You won’t have any skin left.”
Sara grinned. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the photograph of Lynn. “I’ll need you to hold onto this.”
She was gone the moment I touched it.
I put the photograph in my pocket. Mal and I sat behind the bulldozer and waited.
Perhaps a minute ticked by and then a single shot rang out. A wave of heat swept over us. Blisters formed on my scalp, and it felt as if the air in my lungs caught fire. I doubled over coughing.
The air cooled, and I stood as the remains of the warehouse tumbled down in front of me.
Sara walked out of the flaming wreckage. Her skin and hair were gone. What remained of her was a perfect chrome frame and a pair of brilliant blue eyes. She spied the photograph in my pocket and deftly plucked it from my shirt.
"Take me to Tango sector. I want to see my daughter's smile."