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Jun. 17, 2014

Fighting the Machines

by Daniel Wilson

Click to enlarge images
Tune in to SciFri this Friday, June 20, 2014 to hear author Daniel H. Wilson chat about Robogenesis.
 
 
There was no way to win this war and we all knew it, but we marched anyway.
 
I shove my checkerboard scarf deeper into my parka and hold my breath.
 
Kneeling on the ice-kissed turf, I brace against a tree and press the ice-cold rims of binocular-enhanced goggles against my face. The situation has well and truly gone to shit here in the godforsaken woods of western Alaska.
 
The New War started when a thinking machine we call Big Rob turned our tools against us. In the madness of Zero Hour, some of us in Oklahoma found refuge with the Osage Nation. We survivors fell back to the rural town of Gray Horse and counted our lucky stars. But the machines evolved. Over months and years they crossed the Great Plains, slithered through the waving grass, and climbed our stone bluffs.
 
So we fought then. And we fight now.
 
Our bullets are chasing each other through black tree branches, tracers streaking like falling stars. The last lines of our walking tanks are arrayed defensively, spotlights glowing bright in the twilight, each four-legged hulk a pool of light spaced a half klick from its brothers and hunkered down to provide cover for ground forces. Dark enemy fire is whining out of the woods like mosquitoes. Most of their rounds are a flesh-burrowing variety called pluggers, but waves of exploding crawlers called stumpers are also skittering toward us.
 
Letting the goggles flop on my neck, I get moving. My collar radio is hissing with cavalry calls from squads scattered over the rough countryside. Scrambling low through the trees, I ignore the clipped cries for help and head toward Beta squad. There are no reinforcements. There is nothing left now but metal and snow and blood.
 
“Come in, Lonnie,” I pant into my radio. “You there?”

“Go ahead,” comes the reply.

The voice is measured and calm. It belongs to Lonnie Wayne Blanton, an old cowboy who happens to be our general. The man is important to me. He saved my life and put me on the right path and now I’m trying to figure out how in the hell to tell him that it was all for nothing.
 
“All squads pinned down. Things are royally fucked. Moving to support Beta.”
 
“Roger,” says Lonnie. A pause. “Hold on. Long as you can.”

“Thank you,” I radio back. “Thank you for everything.”

We made it this far only by reverse-engineering the enemy’s weapons. Gray Horse Army was able to march to within a thousand-mile perimeter of Big Rob. We left our blood splashed in the woods and we kept on marching. We broke the five-hundred- mile perimeter over the screaming of fallen soldiers. And here at the one-hundred-mile perimeter our force has splintered and broken and now we have lost everything.
 
All we have left to fight for now is each other.
 
Ducking stray fire, I close in on Beta squad’s position. The soldiers are back to back at the edge of a clearing. Most are lost in the dusky light, but I see right away that my brainboy Carl is on his ass. The engineer is whimpering and clawing and kicking his way backward through the snow.
 
“Carl,” I shout. “On your feet.”
 
I lean for him and he keeps moaning and struggling. He is under my command, but my soldier won’t look at me and he won’t take my hand and I can’t figure out why until I notice his eyes.
 
Not where he’s looking. But where he won’t look.
 
Something black crawling low and fast on too many legs. And another one. They’re starting to come up from under the snow by the dozens.
 
Too late.
 
I don’t feel the pincers at first. Just this strong pressure on the base of my neck. I’m in a hydraulic-powered bear hug. I spin around in the slushy snow but there’s nobody behind me.
 
Whatever-it-is has climbed up my back and got a good hold. My knees sag with the lurching weight of it. Crooked black feelers reach around my chest and my spine is on fire as the thing decides to dig in, a bundle of squirming razor blades. This is a whole new hell I’ve never felt before.
 
Shit shit shit—what is this that it hurts so damn much?
 
Carl’s got his frost-plated rifle up, training it on me. The gun strap hangs stiff and crusty in the arctic breeze. Around us, my soldiers are screaming and dancing in tight, panicked circles, trying to shake off their own monsters. Some are running. But me and the engineer are having our own little moment here.
 
“Carl,” I wheeze. “No.”
 
My voice sounds hollow from the pain of whatever has gotten between my shoulder blades. Judging from Carl’s blank face, I figure that I’m not in a very happy spot. No, sir. That is a full-on nega-tory.
 
Carl lets go of his rifle entirely and the strap catches on his forearm. He stumbles away, gun dangling. Wipes his eyes with shaking fingers, tendons streaking the backs of his hands. His complicated engineering helmet falls off and thunks into the snow, just an empty bowl.
 
“Lark,” he says. “Ah, Lark, I’m sorry.” He’s crying. I could give a shit.
 
I’m being flayed alive, straining and groaning against black spider legs gripping my body, doing drunken pirouettes in the slush. Knotty black arms are slicing into the meat of my thighs, sprouting smaller feelers like barbs. Others grip my biceps, elbows, forearms, and dammit, even my fingers.
 
I am in command but I am most definitely not in control. Some of my soldiers are still thrashing in the shadows. Some aren’t. The wounded are crawling and hobbling away as fast as they can, coiled black shapes slicing toward them like scorpions.
 
Dammit, I’m sorry, Lonnie.
 
Carl has hightailed it. Left his ostrich-legged tall-walker behind—the scavenged two-legged mount is collapsed on its side, its jerry-rigged saddle nosed into the snow and long legs splayed out awkwardly. The soldier has gone and left all of us unlucky dancers behind.
 
My legs are wrapped too tight now to struggle. A motor grinds as I push against it, reaching back with my arm. I feel a freezing fist-size plate of metal hunkered in the soft spot at the base of my neck. Not good.
 
The machine snaps my arm back into place.
 
Can’t say I’m real sure of what happens next. I got a lot of experience breaking down whatever hardware Big Rob left on the battlefield, though. After a while, you get a feel for how the machines think. How they use and reuse all those bits and pieces.
 
So I imagine my guess is pretty accurate.
 
I hear a neat click and feel a sharp sting at the base of my neck. Watch the vapor of my last breath evaporate as the parasite on my back jerks and severs my spinal column with a flat, sharpened piece of metal mounted to its head region. My arms and legs go numb, so much dead meat. But I don’t fall, because the machine’s arms and legs are there to hold me up.
 
And I don’t die.
 
Some kind of cap must fit over the nub of my spine, interfacing with the bundle of nerves there. This is a mobile surgery station leeched onto my neck and digging into my brain. Humming and throbbing and exploring, it’s clipping veins and nerves and whatever else. Keeping oxygen in my blood, circulating it.
 
I’m spitting cherry syrup into the snow.
 
Lonnie Wayne Blanton, my commander, says that this late in the war you can’t let anything the enemy does surprise you. He says Big Rob cooks up a brand-new nightmare every day and he’s one hell of a chef. Yet here I am. Surprised, again.
 
The machine is really digging in now. As it works, my eyes and ears start blurring and ringing. I wonder if the scorpion can see what I see. Hear what I hear.
 
I’m hallucinating in the snow.
 
A god-size orange line of smoke roils across the pale sky. It’s real pretty. Smaller streams fall from it, pouring down like water from drain spouts. Some of the streams disappear behind the trees, others are even farther away. But one of them twists down and drops straight at me. Into my head.
 
A line of communication.
 
Big Rob has got me. The thinking machine called Archos R-14 is driving the pulsing thing on my back. A few dozen klicks from here, the architect of the New War has dug itself into a hole where that fat orange column of radio transmission starts. It’s pulling all our strings.
 
I watch as my dead arms unsling my rifle. Tendons in my neck creak as the machine twists my head, sweeps my vision across the clearing. I’m alone now and I think I’m hunting.
 
In the growing twilight, I spot dozens of other orange umbilical cords just like mine. They fall out of the sky and through grasping branches. As I lurch forward out of the clearing, the other lines drift alongside me and keep pace.
 
All of us are being dragged in the same direction.
 
We’re a ragged front line of dark shapes, hundreds strong, shambling through the woods toward the remnants of Gray Horse Army. The world begins to fade in and out as my cooling body slogs between the trees. The last thing I remember thinking is that I hope Lonnie Wayne doesn’t see me like this. And if he does, well, I hope he puts me down quick.
 

Excerpted from Robogenesis by Daniel H. Wilson Copyright © 2014 by Daniel H. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


 
About the author
Daniel H. Wilson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He earned a B.S. in computer science from the University of Tulsa and a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He is the author of  Robopocalypse, Amped, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Where's My Jetpack?, How to Build a Robot Army, The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame, and Bro-Jitsu: The Martial Art of Sibling Smackdown. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
 
Author photo by Anna Camille
About Daniel Wilson

Daniel H. Wilson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He earned a B.S. in computer science from the University of Tulsa and a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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