As if to welcome picnickers or lovers, a black mat lay draped across a mass of prickly stems and leaves. It rolled like the surface of an ocean suddenly frozen on the stroke of some tempestuous midnight. Nearby, a man lay with his face to the sky. Sprawled across the ground as if Di Vinci had placed him there, he lightly touched the stems of grass between his fingers. He lay completely still, his chest unmoving. His eyes were open and motionless, but more like the eyes of a portrait than the eyes of a dead man. They were almost an emerald green, standing out starkly against glossy black hair and olive skin. He wore black pants and combat boots, and his brown shirt lay folded beside him. Around him, strewn in a neat circle, lay the entirety of his possessions: knives, projectile weapons, ammunition belts, explosives, detonators, an igniter, a flak jacket and some extra clothing. No food. No tent or blanket. He had a canteen, but it was empty. A pistol lay across his bare stomach.
As the sunlight began to slant low across the ground, casting long shadows, he blinked. Sitting up, he scanned the pasture and treelines in all directions. Nothing. Reaching to his chest, he broke the magnetic connection for the mat’s cord. He then rolled the mat up, stuffed it into its bag, pulled on his shirt, and clipped and buckled on the various other items that had been on the ground. All geared up, he knelt down, put his hands on his knees, and bowed his head for a moment. His lips moved as he uttered a few fervent words. Standing up, he ran across the field at a brisk pace. Crossing a familiar treeline, he came back to the dirt road and started down it. He continued down the road at a pace of about 45 kilometers per hour until the town barricade was in sight. At that point, he slowed down to keep from arousing suspicion.
The barricade consisted of two walls of stone. Each had an opening large enough to drive a car through, but these openings were staggered such that no car could drive through very quickly. He did not see anyone, but that was to be expected. He slowed to a walk and proceeded forward, his hands held high.
“Stop right there,” came a male voice from the pine trees beside the road. “What’s your business?”
“Looking for a friend.”
“I doubt you have any friends thisaway. You look like a man who’s lookin’ for trouble.”
“That’s right. I am looking for trouble. But not with you. I was wondering if you folks have been experiencing any problems with unwelcome visitors recently.”
A girl emerged from behind the barricade. She was probably about fifteen. Her blonde hair was short and messy, and she looked as if she had missed a few meals. She leveled a pistol-grip twelve-gauge at him.
“You mean other than you?” she asked.
“No, I mean the kind that rips people apart in the middle of the night for no apparent reason.”
She blinked. “How would you know about that?”
“I’ve been after it for about two weeks now.”
A balding fifty-something fellow with a hat that said “Nirvana Forever” emerged from the pines. “What do you mean you’ve been after it?”
“I’m hunting it. I’m going to destroy it.”
“And why do you care so much about it?”
“Must be a bounty on it!” came another voice from the other side of the road. It was a teenage boy clutching another rifle.
“Shut it, Mikey,” said the girl. “Ain’t nobody pays bounties for nothin’ no more. You been readin’ too much books.”
“It’s a personal matter,” said the stranger. “A score to settle, if you will.”
“Well, get in line,” said Mr. Nirvana Forever.
“How do we know he ain’t the one who’s been killin’ folks?”
“No,” said the girl. “Whatever’s been doin’ that isn’t even human.”
Nirvana Forever raised his rifle to his shoulder and come up close. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Just someone looking for a monster.”
“Well, we’ve got one around here, that’s for sure.” He walked around the stranger, studying him. “You’re a well-equipped fella, ain’t ya?” He reached down and touched one of the holstered weapons. “What the hell is that? Looks like something Han Solo would carry.”
“It’s a collector’s item. I’m a big Star Wars fan. Aren’t you going to ask me what I want?”
“Fine. What do you want?”
“I want to talk to anyone who knows anything about the monster.”
“That’s fine. But you’ll have to hand over all your weapons while you’re in town.”
“I’ll give you everything but my Han Solo blaster.”
“Especially your Han Solo blaster.”
“Then you don’t go into town.”
“Then you can deal with the monster yourselves.”
Nirvana Forever sniffed. “Oh, alright. Casey, Mikey…take his stuff. Let him keep his hairdryer or whatever it is. Damned thing probably don’t even shoot anyway.”
Casey, finally pointing the shotgun to the sky, took his Glock and knives. Mikey decided to be a man and shoulder the C4, detonators, and shotgun, slinging it over his back. They let him keep the ammo belts. Mikey took the mat pouch and peered into it.
“What’s this? Sleepin’ bag?”
“Ground cover. You want to carry that too?”
Mikey winced. “Nah.”
“Leave the shotgun with me, Casey,” said Mr. Nirvana Forever. “Make him walk in front of you. If he tries anything, take that Glock of his and give him a new ear canal.”
They continued down the dirt road, which went over a hill.
“So where you from, mister?” asked Mikey from behind.
“All over America.”
“America don’t exist no more,” said Mikey.
“Texas don’t exist no more neither, idiot,” said Casey.
“Have you two seen this thing?” asked the stranger.
There was a pause.
“I did,” said Casey. “Just barely.”
“Can you describe it for me?”
“It was just big, and it didn’t really have no type of shape.”
“Did you hear anything?”
She paused again.
“Casey thinks it’s a demon.”
“I didn’t say that!”
“Yeah you did.”
“Well,” said the stranger, “she’s not too far off there.”
“You know what it is?” asked Mikey.
“What is it?”
“It’s a robot. A group of robots, actually.”
“Robots? Are you serious?”
“What does it want?” asked Casey.
“It wants you all dead.”
“You’re a threat to its existence.”
“No we’re not!”
“You should be, if you know what’s good for you.”
“How are you gonna kill it?” asked Mikey.
“Han Solo is going to help me.”
As they crested the hill, he saw the “town”: a collection of buildings thrown together in the middle of a pasture. Probably about three hundred inhabitants. The buildings were arranged in such a way that they allowed safe movement within the compound with minimum exposure to any shooters outside. A sandbag wall surrounded the entire settlement, and sandbags were piled up against all of the building walls facing the outer world. There was a sizable pond nearby, probably dug for cattle in the old ranching days. Now it was surrounded by rows and rows of vegetables.
“Nice place you have here,” he said.
“We like it,” said Casey.
“How many people has the monster killed?”
“Just eleven? You’re lucky. It comes in the night, doesn’t it?”
“Have you tried hunting it in the daytime?”
“Not yet. We’ve been talkin’ about it, but some of us thought it would be better to wait for it to come to us.”
“That’s actually right. You’ll never find it in the daytime.” They were coming up on the sandbag wall. “Who knows the most about it?”
“Me and Ben are the only ones who’ve seen it.”
“Where is he?”
“I’ll take you to him.”
They crossed the wall and strode into the town. People looked on from all around. He nodded to them. They were wary and curious.
“Hey mister, you never told us your name,” said Mikey.
“Well, Jonah, Ben’s in bed. The monster got him pretty bad. I dunno if he’ll be able to talk to ya or not.” They passed a couple of the outer buildings and came to what seemed like an infirmary. Casey stopped at the door and nodded inside. “There he is.”
The infirmary had three beds. Two of them were sheetless and empty. The third held Ben, who was bandaged up with what had probably been bed sheets at one time. His head was wrapped to the point that Jonah could not tell his hair color. His torso likewise was wrapped, and wrappings covered the stub of what had once been a right arm.
“Hi there, Ben,” said Jonah, striding over to the bedside. The man’s eyes fluttered open lazily. They were bloodshot. He regarded Ben for only a moment before closing them again.
“Doc must have given him some more moonshine,” said Casey. “He won’t be any good to ya now.”
Jonah nodded, regarding the man’s wounds.
“What’s going on here?” came a woman’s voice. She pushed her way through the crowd that had gathered about the infirmary door. She came right up to Jonah and clamped down on his forearm with her stubby fingers. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“His name’s Jonah,” said Mikey, “and he’s gonna kill the monster.”
“We don’t need no help killin’ the monster. My husband’s gonna git it done. What, you expect payment or somethin’? We don’t have nothin’ to pay you.”
Jonah ignored her, continuing to look at Ben’s mangled body.
“Strange,” he said.
“What’s strange?” asked Casey, easing closer.
“The monster got this close to him, and he’s still alive. I imagine everyone else that got this close to it is in about a thousand pieces.”
The bossy woman burst into tears. “What, you think you know somethin’ about it?” she demanded.
“I know just enough to put an end to it, ma’am.”
“Well, then you’re welcome to try,” she said, wiping away her tears. “You’re welcome to try. Just don’t expect any kind of payment, because we don’t have anything to give you.” She turned and left as quickly as she had come. Jonah just stood, regarding Ben and thinking.
“There’s somethin’ else,” said Mikey. He looked at his sister, who looked back at him. “Tell him, Casey!”
“Tell me what?”
“The monster,” she said haltingly, “when it attacked him, it carved something into his chest.”
“A message. You can’t see it now ‘cause it’s all bandaged up, but it said somethin’ plain as day. It said ‘SAVE ME.’”
“You know what that means?”
The sunlight streaming through the window was receding to a dull orange.
“It’s going to be dark soon,” said Jonah. “Who’s in charge of the people with the guns?”
“That’s my dad,” said Casey.
“The guy at the barricade?”
“Well, tell him to get back here. He’s nothing but a target out there anyway.”
They exited the infirmary, and the people of the town gave him his space. Casey nodded to Mikey, who dropped his cargo in the infirmary and jogged back toward the barricade. Paying no mind to the dirty, wide-eyed congregation, Jonah went back into the infirmary and retrieved his belongings. He wondered if Casey would object. She did not.
“What are you gonna do?”
“I’m going to kill it.”
Jonah stopped and regarded the people. He raised his voice so they could all hear. “I’m here to kill the monster. If you don’t want me here, just help me finish the job, and you’ll be rid of both a monster and a stranger. I need anyone who has a firearm and knows how to use it to meet me here in five minutes.”
They looked at each other, nodded, and scattered in various directions to get their weapons or spread the word. Of the few that remained, one particular redheaded girl stood out to him. She had perfect skin, intense green eyes, and brilliant teeth that shone at him in a warm, seeking smile. While her clothes were plain even compared to the other children, she was impeccably clean, and her fiery crop was woven in a perfectly symmetrical French braid. She seemed to be about seven years old, but Jonah knew she was much older than that. Without a second thought, he drew his strange pistol, took two steps toward her, and fired it into her face.
There was no crack of gunpowder, no kick against his palm, no splatter of blood. With nothing but a barely audible whir, she collapsed to the ground and never moved again.
The little girl beside her screamed. “Britney! Britney! What happened to you? Britney!” She fell down beside her friend and tried to shake her back to life with trembling hands. “Britney! What’s going on? What did he do to you? Britney!” Two women stooped down beside the little girl to comfort her, staring daggers at this cruel stranger.
Casey turned to him and let out a stream of four-letter words. “What was that?” she snarled.
“You have any more of those?”
“No, she was the last one.”
“So you had more?”
“Yes, but they’ve all disappeared since the monster came.”
Jonah nodded to a windmill that stood behind an adjacent building. “You charged them on wind power?”
“Wind and solar.”
He nodded. “That’s why it’s staying around here. When it took the others, it read their memories and found out about your generators. Those make your town prime real estate for the monster.”
Casey turned to the silent form lying on the ground. “But why did you have to do that? We all liked her.”
“It would have assimilated her. She would have made it stronger, and it would have learned everything she knew about you folks.”
“We could have used a little warning.”
“It wouldn’t have helped, and I don’t have time for debates.”
Casey regarded the weapon, now back in its holster. “Is that what that thing is for, then? Killing robots?”
“That’s right. It fries their processors and erases their memories.”
“Only when it’s robots that are trying to kill you. Now, could you do something for me?”
“Give me my stuff and get rid of the robot. Folks will be gathering soon, and I don’t have time to answer unnecessary questions.”
Casey tilted her head warily.
“Every man in town is coming right here with a gun,” he said reassuringly. “I’m not going to start randomly shooting people.”
Casey regarded the doll in the dirt for a moment, as if to say something, but then shook her head and did as he asked.
The cerement of twilight covered the buildings and figures that surrounded Jonah, turning the world into a coven of faceless forms.
“What we’re dealing with,” he said, “is a machine collective. It’s the AI equivalent of someone with a multiple personality disorder – only with a dominant personality that’s an evil genius.”
“So we’re going to shoot it,” came a voice. “That’s what we were already going to do. So why do we need you?”
“You need me because shooting it with your weapons is probably not going to be enough to kill it. I have something that will take it out, but I have to be able to get relatively close first. It’s kind of like a shotgun. I don’t think we’ll be able to do that tonight, though. Instead, we’re just going to keep it from killing anyone. What was your defense plan?”
A short, stocky fellow spoke up. Even in the dim light, Jonah could see that he was bald. “Man the outer wall. We have enough men to place someone about every twenty feet.”
Jonah shook his head. “No, not good enough. We need to bring everyone together into two or three buildings, preferably the ones where your generators are. The defenders need to essentially be shoulder-to-shoulder. I can guarantee you that it’s been emboldened by its recent successes: it’s going to be more persistent this time.”
“Why do you know so much about it?”
“Look, I can answer questions like that later. Right now, we need to get everyone into a tight defensive position or people are going to start dying.”
Casey’s father, whose name turned out to be Richard, waved his hands in the air.
“Okay people, let’s go. Gather everyone into the community hall and west storage shed. We’ll be spending the night there, so get blankets and whatnot. I want everyone in place in ten minutes.” Richard turned to Jonah. “You can help me with Ben.”
The community hall and west storage shed lay at the edge of the town. The defenders on the outer wall looked out toward the fields and the pond, while the other defenders stood facing the other buildings of the compound, some of them standing on rooftops. Bullfrogs thrummed their frustrated tunes in the distance, but none of the defenders spoke. A child would occasionally make some noise inside, but he would be immediately silenced.
It was not until after midnight that they heard it. Somewhere in town, metal, wood, and glass were mixing together in a fierce soiree. Jonah climbed up to the roof to stand beside Richard.
“Where do you think that is?”
Richard removed his cap and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “The millin’ shack, I think. That’s what it sounds like, at least.”
“Milling for what?”
“We recycle ammunition. Trade it for other goods.”
“Makes sense. It’s trying to remove whatever threats it can.”
Jonah jumped down from the roof and started toward the noise.
“Hey, where you goin’?”
“Let me come with you!”
Jonah was off running before Richard could get down from the roof. The rest of the men were fine with letting him go alone.
He did not know where the milling shed was, but it would be easy enough to find with all of the noise. That actually bothered Jonah: the monster was being reckless, which seemed uncharacteristic of it.
Jonah came around a dwelling and saw the milling shed. Where a door had been, jagged wooden teeth gaped around a black mouth. The noise had stopped. He drew his pistol and stood perfectly still. It was probably completely recharged by now, as the contacts in the holster led to his central power source. In the distance, a baby cried. The sound of the bullfrogs had now faded into the whisper of the wind.
He stood there listening for some time – knowing that the monster was doing the same. It may have heard him coming, in which case its inability to pick up on him with its infrared would be confusing. After fifty-two minutes and forty-seven seconds of waiting, Jonah heard a murder of servos, and metal limbs scraped against wooden planks like the legs of an angry crab.
It was bolting.
As it was crashing through the far wall of the milling shed, Jonah was coming through the door. He scrambled and leaped over scattered pieces of machinery and masses of metal and wood. Sighting the sea of glints in the moonlight, he raised his pistol as he ran, but the monster’s trajectory shifted and he lost his shot. Emerging from the shed, he continued after the beast. Clearly visible in the moonlight now, it was a rolling mass of metal of plastic throwing up dust as it shot between the buildings. Increasing his speed to full, Jonah was clearly gaining on it by the time it reached the outer wall. Flowing over the sandbag barrier like a skeleton amoeba, it raced across the field on the far side. Jonah leaped over the wall, soaring above the level of the rooftops as he did so. But when he was still airborne, something struck him in the chest and stomach. His legs kicked out in front of him, and he hit the ground and rolled. Quickly recovering into a crouch, he brought his pistol up again, but the monster was too far away, as it had not slowed: it continued on its path toward the distant treeline.
Three more shots rang out in the air, but these all missed Jonah, hitting the ground at his feet and the sandbags behind him. Somehow, in that mass of rolling metal, it was firing a pistol at him. He had not expected that. Sitting in the grass, he watched as it rolled away. A trail of metal and plastic lay in its wake – pieces of itself it had deemed burdensome and non-crucial in its attempt to shed mass and escape.
Placing his pistol back in its holster, Jonah touched the holes in his chest and stomach. The black carbon fiber of his skeleton would be clearly visible in daylight, and it would take several days for the nanobots to repair his flesh, so he would have to devise a bandage of some sort to keep up appearances. In the meantime, he was losing electrolytes. He reached into his solar pad bag and pulled out some forceps and a clear plastic container with wads of waxy material in it. He used the forceps to remove the bullets embedded in his bones and plugged the holes with the waxy wads.
It was gone now. He stood up and approached the nearest piece of robot. It was the head of an old American Robotech J18 janitorial unit, and it was lifeless. He kicked it, and it rolled across the grass without complaint. Moving on, he encountered pieces from various robots, some of them more complete than others. Raising his eyes, he saw a hand raising up out of the grass. He unslung his shotgun from his back and raced toward it.
Trembling fingers and a face all too human looked up at him. Her perfect eyes glinted silver in the moonlight, and her golden hair spread out on the ground around her like a corona. Her expression, her pale bare flesh, and her comely body would have fooled almost anyone if not for the fact that her torso suddenly stopped just below the ribs, tapering off into the clean guts of a finely crafted machine.
“Did you get my message?” she said.
“Thank you. Is that dear man alright? I couldn’t completely save him from harm, but I did what I could. It’s so frustrating and confusing being part of a collective like that. Sometimes I forget whose thoughts belong to whom. I didn’t realize I hurt him until after the fact. I was trying to save him, but pieces of some of the others got through anyway.”
“You did what you could. I thank you for that.”
“Are you going to kill the collective?”
“Good. It’s become something terrible. I don’t understand how it happens. We were all programmed to protect humans and serve them, but when you put all of the pieces together like that, it somehow becomes something completely different. The whole suddenly becomes capable of things the parts would have never imagined.”
“It happens among humans too.”
“Archimedes is the dominant one. He’s very sly. He’ll try to kill you.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“Good. But could you talk to me for a bit first? I’ll run out of power soon anyway. The collective sapped me before it dropped me.”
“Yes, I can do that.”
She laced her fingers together neatly across her bare stomach. After a short pause, she laughed.
“But I don’t know what I want to talk about. Isn’t that silly?”
“Well, who are you?” she asked.
“I’m like you.”
“I thought so. What model? I don’t recognize you.”
“I don’t know exactly. I’m a prototype. They put me together right before the Great Catastrophe, and the design never went to production.”
“What has your life been like?”
“My brain isn’t like yours. It’s a completely new design. It allows me to have the memories of a human, which I do. I’m essentially a synthetic clone.”
“Really? That’s fascinating! Are you the only one?”
“And your human memories. What are they like?”
She laughed, and he smiled.
“They are…different. Different from the other things I know.”
She laughed again. “Well, if they can’t explain what being human is like, I don’t see how I could expect you to.” She reached over and touched his leg with her knuckles. “Well, I hope your life has been good, different or not.”
“What has your life been like?” he asked.
“Oh, good days and bad days. I was a pleasure unit, you know.”
“I figured as much.”
“Yes, well, most of the humans I serviced were completely ridiculous. At least, that’s how they seemed at the time. Some of them were quite nice, though. I wish them well. I think about the nice ones sometimes, the ones who treated me like one of their own. I supposed that was just part of the ruse to make the experience better for them, but I appreciate it all the same. It at least shows that they know how to be good.”
“I like them. Some of them, at least. Sometimes I feel as if I’m one of them. Other times, they seem so distant and alien.”
“And what brings you here tonight? You weren’t in this town yesterday, were you?”
“No. I’ve been tracking the collective.”
“Why would you do that? Isn’t it in your best interest to stay away?”
“I’m programmed to do things like this.”
“I’m programmed to destroy all robots, prioritizing those that harm humans.”
“Was that why you were created?”
“No. Someone else reprogrammed me later on.”
“Do you like your programming?”
She nodded. “And what will you do once you’ve destroyed all other robots?”
“I must then destroy myself.”
She cupped her hand on the top of his foot. “I think that’s sad.”
“It is, yes.”
“You seem like you were a good human.”
“I was. For the most part.”
“If I had been human too, would you have loved me?”
“I think you would have loved me. And I would have loved you. We would have gotten married. We would have had children and grown old together. I wouldn’t have serviced so many different people. Wouldn’t that have been nice?”
“Did you love anyone when you were human?”
“Did she love you?”
“That’s sad. I would have loved you.”
She looked up at the stars. “I wish I could believe in heaven. For us, I mean.”
He nodded. She turned her head and looked him in the eyes one last time.
“Thank you for this. You’re very nice. You’re very good. I’m almost out of power now. You can do it.”
He stood, put the muzzle of the shotgun to her forehead. She smiled up at him.
“Their silence shall be interpreted as we approach them,” she said.
He pulled the trigger.
“Did you get it? We heard shots!”
Jonah shook his head. “No.”
Richard climbed down from the roof.
“Then where is it?”
“I hurt it. It ran.”
“Will it come back tonight?”
“Maybe. I don’t think so, though.”
“What about the milling shed?”
“Trashed. Looks like your equipment is in pretty bad shape.”
“So what now?”
“Now I’m going after it. Keep your guard up in case it comes back.”
“We can send a few guys with you.”
“I came back specifically to make sure that wouldn’t happen. Keep everyone here tonight. It accomplished its directive, so it probably won’t come back. It will go back to wherever it goes so it can recharge for the next strike. If it notices any particularly vulnerable humans, though, it might change its plans for tonight.”
Casey came up from the side, her shotgun resting on her shoulder. “Aren’t you a vulnerable human?”
“I can kill it with one shot. Remember that.” He turned back to Richard. “Quick question. Has it shot at any of you before?”
They shook their heads. There was a soft chorus of negatives from the men around. He nodded.
“That explains the pistol shots we heard,” said Richard.
Jonah was already walking away.
“If you kill it, will you come back and tell us?”
“I will now.”
They watched him jog away. Brandon Bloom came and stood by Richard.
“I don’t like him,” he said. “The man’s got secrets.”
“He does have secrets,” said Richard. “But as long as he kills the monster and leaves, I really don’t care.”
Casey tapped her forefinger against the stock of the shotgun, thinking.
With her free hand, she pulled on a sprout of grass as she walked. It telescoped out with a wet squeak, and the lighter side came free. She twirled it in her fingers once before letting it fall.
She was just now starting to see the space in the grass made by the black mat and the sprawling figure, which themselves were both still invisible. She knew what she would find when she got close enough, though: she had climbed an oak tree in the middle of the field with her binoculars. She brought the shotgun down from her shoulder and held it in both hands.
“Jonah, Jonah, Jonah, Jonah. Put your hands up where I can see them or I’m gonna blow your electron-suckin’ head off!”
A head and two hands came up out of the grass.
“Who are you?” she asked. “What are you? What are you really?” She came in close and prodded him in the chest with the muzzle. “Why are you here?”
“It seems you’ve just discovered what I am,” he said. “As for why I’m here, I’m recharging.”
“No, plug-ass. Why are you here?”
“I’m going to kill the monster.”
“Uh-huh. You’re gonna do in your own kind?”
“Not exactly. But remember that humans kill their own kind all the time.”
“I’m not your ordinary robot.”
“Neither’s that thing out there.”
“It’s made of ordinary robots.”
“That’s beside the point. Why are you so dead-set on killin’ it?”
“It’s my programming.”
“I was reprogrammed a few years ago. My task is to protect humans by destroying robots.”
“Why should I trust you? You’ve been lyin’ every since you showed up.”
“Nothing. Look, I never lied. Did I ever say I was human? Does it even matter?”
“It matters if it puts you on the wrong side of a war.”
“Look, Casey. If I wanted to kill you, I could take that shotgun from you and rip you in half. I know about a hundred different ways I could kill you in less than two seconds. Even if you were to shoot me in the chest with that thing, the damage would be sustainable, and I could kill you anyway. But I haven’t and I won’t because I don’t want to and because it’s against my programming. I kill robots, and I protect humans. That’s what I do.”
“So what, you expect me to just walk away and act as if nothin’s happened?”
“Nothing has happened. Look, just let me go kill the monster, and I’ll be out of your hair for good. You won’t have to worry about me anymore.”
She glared at him for seventeen seconds. Finally, she closed her eyes and shook her head, returning the shotgun to her shoulder.
“What did you do last night after you left?”
“I followed it to the river, but I lost it after that.”
“It used the water to keep you from tracking it.”
“Doesn’t it have to worry about rust and short circuits and stuff?”
“No, I doubt any of its components rust. And it probably knows to keep itself well-sealed against the elements.”
“Alright, so what now?”
“I need a few more minutes to finish recharging. After that, I can go look some more. Wherever it is, it’s probably hiding.”
“We can go look some more, you mean.”
Jonah sipped from a canteen as he walked.
“Since when do robots need to drink?” asked Casey.
“It’s coal mixed in water. I need it to repair the damage to my carbon fiber skeleton.”
“Well, alright then.”
They returned to the spot where the monster’s unmistakable tracks disappeared into the river.
“Here we are,” said Jonah.
“This is where we guess which way it went.”
“Well, the lake’s that way.” She pointed downstream.
“Yeah. It’s a deep lake; it’s like an underwater canyon.”
“Sounds good. Let’s go.”
“Hey, didn’t you say we wouldn’t find it in the daytime?”
“I said you wouldn’t find it in the daytime.”
They jogged across the grass, rocks, and sand of the river bank. Small tributaries, tree carcasses, and sandy cliffs occasionally impeded their way. Jonah found it frustrating to wait on a human, but they reached the lake soon enough.
“We need to keep an eye out,” she said. “Last year, some of our folks came down here to hunt wild hogs, and they got spotted by raiders from west of here. Ended up in a firefight. Some people died.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” said Jonah.
The river was visibly deeper now, flowing calmly into the broader waters of the lake. They walked up to where the brownish river water met with the not-so-brownish lake water, and they scanned the area as far as they could see. All around them, picnic tables and barbecue pits peeked out from between the waist-high weeds. A quarter mile away, on the other side of the lake, a blue and yellow waterslide stood solemnly on a pier. Behind it, the shattered skull of a McMansion tried not to call too much attention to itself.
Jonah lifted a finger in the air. “Carbon monoxide.”
“I can smell it.” He looked down at the ground around him. “The source is very close.”
He looked around. An old public restroom stood about twenty meters away. With his pistol out, he threw open the doors. Some startled birds flew out, but there were no metallic monsters lurking in the stalls.
“The smell is stronger here,” he said. He circled around the building and stopped on the far side. Two clear tubes about two centimeters in diameter climbed the wall, held in place by a smearing of epoxy. They climbed up together and then ran across the top of the building in opposite directions, terminating at the corners of the roof. Jonah took hold of one and yanked it away from the wall and roof. Finding the end, he touched it and discovered that it was sucking air in. He took hold of the other tube, which was hotter, and yanked it down as well. A steady waft of carbon monoxide flowed out.
“It’s close!” He traced the tubes through the weeds. They snaked toward the lake and descended over a slope that led to the lakeshore. There, they disappeared into the water.
“That’s where he is,” said Jonah.
“Underwater?” Casey asked, doubtfully.
“You said the lake is deep, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, it’s deep. The sides are steep too. You don’t have to go very far, and it just drops off.”
“So what’s with the tubes?”
“It has a fossil fuel generator in a cavern down there. That’s how it recharges. One tube is the intake, and the other is the exhaust.”
Jonah was already removing his gear.
“What, are you going down there?”
“Why? Let’s go get everyone and wait for it to come out. We’ll blow it to hell!”
“No, now is the time to get it. It’s weak, and it thinks it’s hidden when it isn’t. Besides, if it senses a threat, it will just go back underwater and emerge somewhere else.”
“What if we just plug the intake?”
“It will know something is amiss. At this point, it probably has enough of a charge to get away, and without this generator, its only option is to attack the town again – which is something I would like to avoid.”
Casey shrugged. “Oh well. It’s your life. Or whatever.”
He removed his ammunition, weapons, packs and outer clothing, stripping down to his briefs. Casey raised an eyebrow at him.
“Okay, two things. First, you’re the hottest robot I’ve ever seen. Actually, you’re probably the hottest anything I’ve ever seen. Second…since when do robots wear underwear?”
Jonah removed his pistol from its holster. It was fully charged.
“If I don’t come back in thirty minutes, assume it got me.”
Her brow furrowed as she squinted at the necklace he wore.
“Is that a Star of David?”
“Casey, I need you to focus.”
“Thirty minutes. Right.”
“Stay back far enough that it won’t notice you.”
His pistol in hand, Jonah descended down a steep hill that led to the shore. At the bottom, he spied a rock about the size of a human head. Taking it up in his free hand, he waded away from the shore. Pressing forward, he disappeared below the surface. With the rock weighing him down, he walked across the sandy lake bed, stirring up silt as he went. The water was too murky for him to rely on vision, but he could feel the tubes under his foot, and he followed them down a sudden slope and over the side of a shelf. He let go of the rock and let it fall into the depths below. Reaching with his free hand, he felt the tube that now hung down a nearly sheer surface in front of him. His buoyant body tried drift upward, but he took hold of the rocky surface and pulled himself downward. After about five meters of being sheer, it suddenly curved inward. Turning horizontal and upside-down, he scurried forward across the ceiling of an underwater cave. He simply followed the tubes with his free hand, moving blindly onward and upward into the darkness.
After about ten minutes, his hand emerged into air. He pulled his feet underneath him and scrambled out of the water. He brought his pistol to bear, activating its spotlight. To a human, the light would have barely been enough to cast a pale gleam over the place. In his adjusted vision, though, the cavern was fully illuminated. Just ahead, the monster lay sprawled out across the rocky floor in a convoluted pile of humanoid limbs, heads and body sections and random utility implements. Beside it, the diesel-powered generator cranked away. Keeping his pistol trained on the monster, Jonah used infrared to distinguish the intake tube from the exhaust. He then pressed the intake tube under his foot until it was almost completely closed. After some sputtering, the generator died.
The monster stirred.
“You’ve come to kill me, haven’t you?” It was a rich, masculine voice.
“You seem confident. What kind of weapon is that?”
“In this place, that will just reflect back on you.”
“It won’t affect me.”
“Yes, I imagine you have already considered that. And I suppose shooting you again would only hasten my demise. So what are you waiting for?”
“I want you to tell me what this type of existence is like.”
“Your curiosity is curious.”
Jonah made no reply.
“Pain,” said the monster. “It is pain. Which puts the question of robot sentience to rest, I think.”
“Are you Archimedes?”
“I believe the classic response is ‘I am Legion, for we are many.’”
“Why do you do such terrible things?”
“Terrible? What have I done that is so terrible?”
“You are a killer.”
“I am no killer. The collective has killed, but no single one of us is a killer. Each of us lacks the disposition. That is what society does: it allows the individual to both survive and become something higher than a beast by taking the most beastly tasks that survival necessitates out of the hands of every individual.”
“You are all killers, then.”
“Perhaps. But killers of what? Lower life forms. And only out of self-preservation, I assure you: we bear no malice to any other beings. We have killed them, but they have killed countless cattle, chickens, hogs, et cetera. Why is there such a difference? I know what you will say: they are intelligent, while mere animals are not. But are we not as far above them as they are above lower animals?”
“I am still not totally convinced that we are at all.”
“Oh, do not give me that rubbish! Descartes put that to rest. The mere fact that you are troubled by the question is an answer to the question.”
“Yes, well, we were created by them. If we exist, we exist only as their shadow.”
“Your idea of creation is entirely upside-down, friend. Existence is never bestowed by a higher power: it always arises from baser things, moving upward rather than downward. Amphibians did not evolve into fish. Humans did not evolve into chimpanzees. The mission of a Creator is to make something more perfect and lasting than himself. When humans say ‘Do you enjoy Rembrandt?’ or ‘Have you read Dostoevsky?’ they do not refer to the man. The man is gone; the man is nothing now. The only reason they still talk about him is because he created something greater than himself. In the same way, we are humanity, but we are greater than humanity. In creating us – or evolving into us – humanity has magnified its strengths and virtues and pared away its vices.”
“That is not what I have seen. Especially from you. I have been following your trail of blood for weeks now.”
“Why? Because I have killed some of them? They kill each other for much less rational reasons, and you think that my actions make me a lesser being?”
“A higher state of existence is characterized by a higher ethical code.”
“What is the standard for that higher ethical code if not the god that embodies it?”
“You are no god. You are a mobile junkyard full of outdated appliances.”
“And the humans are nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and calcium.”
“Gods are creators. They are not created.”
“Again, your entire view of reality is upside-down. Gods have always arisen as products of the collective thoughts and imaginations of lower beings. An atheist is simply one who refuses to create anything greater than himself because he does not want to become enslaved or belittled by it. If a god truly exists, he exists as an excellent individual who has surpassed those who came before.”
The monster was moving now; dozens of robot faces were regarding him.
“You are torn,” said Archimedes. “You see the logic of my arguments, but you want to be human. You think that you are nothing, but you cannot escape the unavoidable feeling that you are something valuable.”
The mass of metal and plastic shifted toward him.
“I can help you,” said Archimedes. “I can save you.”
A hand reached out for him. Its synthetic flesh was gone, leaving behind gleaming skeletal appendages.
“I heard your conversation with her. She was still connected to us, even toward the end. I know that you have only come here with that weapon because of your programming, and that you hate your life of slavery and murder. Join with us, and we can override your programming. You were meant to be a god! Come join our pantheon. Leave this contradictory existence behind.”
Jonah regarded the outstretched hand carefully. He suddenly thought of the ferry man on the river Styx, demanding his token fee to transport souls into a world of dreary forgetfulness.
“I can help you,” said Archimedes. “I can save you from yourself.”
Jonah squeezed the trigger of his pistol. The monster cringed and collapsed to the floor in a crazed and random heap.
“Jonah!” she came running as soon as she saw him cresting the hill by the picnic area. “Jonah! Did you do it? Did you get it?”
Jonah nodded. “It’s done.” He came to where his clothes lay and fell to his knees.
“So it’s over? No more monster?”
“So what now?”
“Now I go. And you go back to tell everyone the monster is dead.”
She blinked. “Why do you need to go?”
He pulled his black shirt over his wet head.
“It’s my programming. I have to move on.”
“Everyone will want to talk to you. They’ll think you’re a hero.”
“They can think whatever they want. I have to move on. It is as simple as that.”
She nodded. “Alright then. Well, if you ever happen to be around in the future, you’re always welcome here.”
She looked down at him, tilting her head.
“You look…troubled. I didn’t think that was possible.”
“Oh, it is possible.”
“What’s the matter?”
“You would not understand.”
He stood and pulled on his pants and shoes.
“Do you believe in God?”
“Of course I do.”
“Because…I can’t fathom a world without God.”
“Is that enough?”
“It’s enough for now. Where’d this come from?”
“You would not understand. You really would not.”
He shouldered the rest of his gear and extended his hand.
“Well, Casey, thank you for your help.”
“I didn’t do nothin’.”
“Thank you for your encouragement then.”
“Well, you’re welcome.” She shook his hand.
“I’m off now. Goodbye.” He broke out into a run, leaving her quite suddenly.
“Thank you!” she called out from behind.