by Christopher Pfister
It was the taste of battle. Blood and steel, mixed with ash and dirt and sweat and fear. The taste stuck in his mouth, all those various components slowly dissolving into a homogenous sludge that would stay with him for days.
He was standing in a hole, miles from where the guns had long since fallen silent. He could still feel the heat radiating off the ground from the raw power that had slammed into the earth. He had made it this far using a combination of training, experience, and animal fear. But now that the fighting was over, he could finally stop running.
He was a big man, well-muscled, and would have been tall had he not been crammed into a hole just over half a meter wide. Low-profile ceramic armor was clamped onto his body. The armor had the cracks and patches that came with frequent use, but the Army insignias it sported were still quite clear. His name and rank—Ethan Dremmer, Sergeant—were burned into one shoulder plate, next to a pack of body-shaped marks, indicating kills. His head was hidden behind a sturdy combat helmet and a vaguely insectoid breathing mask. The mask hissed regularly as he labored to breathe, his body wanting to quit, to just collapse in the hole and be done with it. But for the moment, he had to keep moving.
He was digging. A standard-issue collapsible shovel was in his hands, moving a few kilos of dirt with each sweep, making the hole just a little deeper. He was in up to his waist. Sweat trickled down his back under the armor, making an itch between his shoulders, taunting him and his inability to scratch it.
Even with the armor changing his outline, anyone watching would have been able to tell that parts of him were not flesh and blood. One arm ended in a metal hand that was only vaguely anthropomorphic, and through the dusty visor of his mask, it was clear that parts of his face were a little too pale, a little too clean, a sign of synthetic flesh.
Behind him lay the battlefield where what remained of his world had come apart before his eyes. His squad had been in good form, but in the end, it had been “modern” weapons that had decided the outcome. The land was blasted flat, sand baked into glass. Hunks of metal that had once been vehicles now lay twisted on the ground, pinging as they cooled. The Beta unit, the supercomputer charged with caring for the world, had watched the battle through its satellite network, and its silicon brain had understood that its enemies were in range. It had run the usual algorithms, calculating the optimum strategy and ultimately powering up an automated missile base, which had ended the fight in the thorough manner that had become its signature. He could only smile bitterly, thinking about it. The designers of the Beta unit had tagged it the “Earth Defense System”, a name that would forever be remembered as the biggest misnomer in the history of mankind.
Ethan had to wonder what the original designers of the Beta unit had thought, when things had first started to go wrong. He wondered what their expressions had been when it had malfunctioned, when it had calculated that it not only had to kill its intended targets, but everything else as well. Maybe they’d tried to engage a fail-safe, tried to cut power to it, somehow. But in all likelihood they hadn’t had much chance to do anything at all. It wasn’t like anyone else in the world had.
The sun was falling low on the horizon, watching Ethan dig, his ears filled with the slow, rhythmic scraping of the shovel and the hoarseness of his breathing. Finally, the digging stopped, and he climbed out of the hole. He stood over it, looking down into that small dent he’d made in the earth, chest heaving as he caught his breath.
He hadn’t really thought about what he was doing. At a certain point his body had just said it couldn’t run any further. He couldn’t even remember when he’d started digging; only recently had his mind finally gotten past what it had seen in the battle. He’d found himself digging the hole, and had seen no reason to stop. It had given him time to think. And besides, it was something that needed to be done. What little whisper of soldier’s honor that still lingered in his metal-and-flesh body demanded it.
Something caught his eye. He looked up.
A small noise of surprise escaped him, as his hand went for his sidearm. It slid out in a fluid motion, so ingrained into him that the gun was out, the safety off, and the barrel aimed at its target before he even knew what he was doing.
As a soldier, he had been trained to think of the world in simple terms, so as to make his job that much easier. Anyone with a higher rank was Sir, anyone with a lower rank was Kid. Anyone not holding a gun was In The Way. Another very familiar term applied to what he was looking at now, just a dozen meters away: Enemy.
She was beautiful, in the same way that a lioness was. A lithe, humanoid body, with flesh that was a mesh of black fibers, tough as any body armor. The only exception was her head, built to look disturbingly human, right down to the soft, pale skin. Raven-black hair, tied into a thick braid, fell down to her waist. Sharp eyes stared at him, meeting his as he noticed her.
The official designation for things like her was “Galatean”, though there were more than enough slang terms to describe that race. They were AIs, artificially intelligent, sentient computers mounted in nanotechnological bodies that defied human science with their strength and speed. Supposedly, the first ones had been designed by humans, but once they’d become sentient they’d made their escape from captivity in human labs, hiding out in dark corners until the war between them and the humans had started.
This was the sort of thing the Beta unit had originally been constructed to kill. Only a computer could keep up with the Galateans, the generals had reasoned back at the beginning of the war. We’ll use an AI to fight AIs. No one had thought that humanity was just repeating the same mistake, making yet another thinking computer. Everyone was too scared of the first generation of AIs. No one had known what the Galateans wanted or thought; in fact, no one knew what drove them even now. Rather than try and deal with their wayward creations, the governments of the world had elected to simply eradicate them. It had sounded like a good idea, before the world had burned.
Now, the Beta unit was a malfunctioning killing machine, and humanity was fighting a war with both its Earth Defense System and the Galateans, who had responded to humanity’s hostility with hostility of their own. Neither side seemed terribly inclined to talk things out instead of fighting, so the responsibility of fighting the Enemy had fallen on simple soldiers. Like Ethan.
He recalled dropping his rifle to the ground before starting to dig the hole. In his mind, he calculated how far the weapon was from him. Probably not more than five or six meters. Under the circumstances, it might as well have been five or six kilometers. Writing off that gun, he leveled his pistol at her, aimed square at her center of mass. A long black shape she’d been holding leveled at him at the exact same time.
Ethan felt his heart drop into his stomach. If she hadn’t been armed, he might have had a chance. He might have been able to fire before she could close the distance, buying himself a life expectancy that went beyond a few seconds. But now she had a gun too. That silenced all doubt. He was screwed.
Galateans preferred hand-to-hand combat, but they were also crack shots. Their weapons, like the one she was holding right now, were effectively small railguns that could rip through a tank’s armor and bull’s-eye the man inside. His gun, on the other hand, was a lowly 11 mm pistol, useful against a human in armor, but not so much against the Enemy. The best he could hope for was a lucky shot through something vital, something that would paralyze her for a few hours before her regenerative abilities kicked in and resuscitated her. Meanwhile, her reflexes were such that in the time between when he fired and when he hit, she would squeeze off a shot that would blow him in half.
The world seemed to stop. They both had each other in their sights. Each was looking at the thing they had been trained to call Enemy, trained to hate and kill. And yet, as one second went by, and another and another, neither fired.
In a flash, he saw his life ending. Any moment now, he was going to be dead. He’d be just another shattered corpse, another shattered form slowly decaying in the radioactive wasteland of the battlefield. All the years of fighting, all the years of struggling to survive, just for this. Put down like a dog, not able to defend himself from a single Enemy.
All told, it was the best he could have hoped for, the way the world was now. Living from day to day, scraping out a living with men who were borderline cannibals already. Watching a few more of his friends get picked off every time they engaged the Enemy. Hearing regular reports about the Earth Defense System, about which cities it had destroyed this week. Thinking about his family, which had died in a nuclear fire years ago. Cowering in caves, constantly watching the sky, knowing that any day a missile or a laser would get dropped on him, squashing him like a bug. Everyone in his unit had known this wasn’t a war they could win. The genocidal Beta unit took away all hope. In this war, it was really just a question of what would get you first: the Beta unit, or the Enemy.
His gun came down. It hung loosely in his fingers for a moment before falling, clattering to the ground at his feet.
“You know what,” he began, amazed he hadn’t already been shot, “go ahead.”
A long moment passed, and still no shot came. She didn’t move. She was so still that he wondered if something had gone wrong, if she’d blown a circuit or something. But then she twitched, her head tilting to one side, giving him a piercing gaze. Then she did something he hadn’t been expecting. She spoke.
He blinked. He’d known the Enemy could speak. It was just that none of them had asked him a question before.
He searched for words, wondering why she didn’t just get it over with. “I’m tired,” he answered, finally. He wanted to say more, but couldn’t think of anything else. Those two words about summed it up.
“What were you doing?”
Another surprise, and another blink. Why hadn’t she fired yet? “Digging,” Ethan answered, his voice flat. At the blank stare he received from her in response, he elaborated. “Making a grave,” he said. “For my teammates.”
She kept staring at him for another long moment. Any second now, he thought. Those guns shoot so fast, I won’t even have time to see the muzzle flash.
But even as he watched, the gun was lowered. It shrank and snapped shut, retracting into the compact form used for traveling. The Galatean slid it behind the small of her back, snapping it into place on her body.
“Continue,” she said, quietly.
Ethan stared at her. He quickly forced down the glimmer of hope he’d felt when she lowered her weapon. Galateans didn’t think like humans. She probably just wanted something to watch while she organized her thoughts, wanted one more story to throw in her memory bank before she took him out. Besides, it wasn’t like she needed the gun. Even at this distance, she could reach him all too quickly.
He took his eyes off her for a moment, glancing down at the hole he’d dug. It looked deep enough. Indeed, he’d been about to call it quits, just before he’d seen her.
He reached into a pocket of his field kit. Metal jangled, and his hand re-emerged, clutching a half-dozen sets of dog tags. Some of them were charred black, others outright melted, rendered into nothing more than metallic lumps. They had still fared better than their owners, who had been blasted into ash by the spectacular heat of the missile strike that had ended the battle.
Ethan had been lucky so far. When the first strike of missiles had fallen, he’d happened to be behind a rock, which had protected him from most of the blast. Then he’d managed to find a hole to crawl in and seal off before the coup de grace strike had come. Over his radio, he’d heard the rest of his team dying. Counting his squad and the others that had been here, there had been over thirty other men out on the battlefield, and not one of them had been able to make it to cover in time. These six dog tags were all he’d been able to find, pulling them from what was left of the soldiers’ bodies as he’d limped away from the baked and radioactive battlefield. Looking at the tags now, Ethan’s eye caught the lieutenant’s tag. The el-tee had been a jerk; Ethan was pretty sure they were bred that way. But he’d been a nice enough guy. He hadn’t deserved this. None of them had. Ethan clenched his fist around the tags; if the boys were getting an officer to take them down to hell, their lieutenant would be good company. But they should have had their sergeant. The one who watched over them, the one who made sure the lieutenant’s “tactics” didn’t get them all killed. The one who’d been screaming at them as the missiles fell, telling them to find a rock, a hole, anything that could keep them safe. Instead, their sarge was burying the bits of them that hadn’t melted.
He opened his fist over the hole, dropping the dog tags down into it. They flopped unceremoniously onto the bottom, with one last clink of metal.
“Is that all?”
Ethan looked up, back to the Galatean. She hadn’t moved yet, still standing on a rock a dozen meters from him. He swallowed and answered.
“I see,” she answered, almost before he’d finished talking. She went quiet for a moment. “May I may make an addition?”
Ethan felt his shoulders sag. “Go ahead.” At least she let me put them in the ground, he thought.
She moved with blinding speed, seeming to flicker from one spot to another, without bothering with the intervening space. In an eyeblink, she was next to him. Ethan stiffened, waiting for the blow.
She did not seem to even be looking at him. She looked into her hand, at something he couldn’t see. With a jerk of her wrist, she tossed the contents into the hole, atop the dog tags.
Ethan could not help looking. Down in the hole, next to the dog tags, was a pair of squarish objects, neither much larger than a thumbnail. Even though they were also burned from the battle, he recognized them instantly. Neural matrices. The so-called “soul circuit”; a microprocessor chip that lay at the core of each Galatean. It was what gave them the ability to think, what gave them independence… it was their life.
He remembered there had been three of the Enemy, when the battle had first been joined. So, those two…
“Your friends?” he asked, before he could stop himself.
“We were not friends,” she answered, again almost cutting him off. “But they were here with me.”
She looked at him unblinkingly. Her eyes were a light violet, he noticed. They also had the surreal appearance of all nanomachine-forged eyes: they appeared misty, clouds swirling aimlessly across their surfaces.
He blinked, looking away from her. His eyes trailed to her arm, and he noticed she was wearing a metallic bracer, looking like it was made out of solid mercury, corkscrewing around her right forearm. In its surface, his distorted reflection looked back at him. He wondered why he hadn’t seen it earlier. Probably because my eyes were on the gun, he thought.
“Just a minute…” he said. “I think I should say something.”
“What?” she asked, again instantly.
“Just… just wait a minute. I promise not to… do anything. I just need to give my guys the right send-off.” He blinked, feeling his eyes going wet. Part of him wished she’d just get it over with, the other part knew that if she was giving him the chance, he might as well do this right.
He crossed his hands in front of him, lowering his head. “I’m sorry it had to end this way,” he said, quietly. “We’ve all had to bury friends before. It’s how wars go. We all knew we’d be here, eventually. I’m just sorry I was too cowardly to face it like you did. But I know… I know you’re in a better place now, guys. You don’t have to be afraid, anymore. You don’t have to hurt. It’s over.” He thought hard for anything more to say, keeping his breathing slow and even, despite the prickling on the back of his neck that he knew was her eyes.
“Did you want to say anything?” he asked her, without looking.
Ethan blinked, half-turning to look at her out the corner of his eye. “Because it’s what you do.”
“Because… because it’s your last chance to say goodbye to them.”
“They cannot hear you.”
Ethan took a breath and let it out slowly. A part of him was nodding quietly in response to what she’d said. A part of him knew she was right. He tried not to listen. His chest felt tight; an old injury must have opened, he thought absently.
“It’s just how we do things, all right?” he said, getting annoyed, both with her attitude and her habit of answering him almost before he was done talking.
“I do not understand.”
“You don’t have to.” He waited a moment, then finally picked up his shovel and started picking up the dirt, dumping it back into the hole. The Galatean just stood there the whole time, staring at him with unblinking eyes. When Ethan had finally filled the hole in and stamped the dirt firm again, he looked back at her.
“All right,” he said. “Thank you,” he added on, after a moment.
“For letting me do that.” He let out a slow breath. “So are you gonna do it or what?”
He looked at her incredulously. “Finish me off.”
She tilted her head, birdlike. “We are on differing sides,” she said, quietly. “What do you think?” she asked, taking a step towards him. “Shall I kill you?”
A quiet, metallic moan made Ethan look down. He felt his chest tighten again. Her hand was changing, even as he watched. Fingers stretched, growing long and thin, taking on razor edges, becoming vicious claws. He was reminded that a common nickname for the Galateans was ‘shifters’, after their ability to change their physical shape at will.
“I don’t have much choice, do I?” he asked, bitterly.
“I can make it quick.” Her claws came up slowly, sunlight glinting off the metallic surface of her bracer. The razor edges touched against Ethan’s neck, not cutting but very, very close. Ethan forgot to breathe.
“As I understand it,” she said, her attention on her own claws, “if one wants to die, one does not need the help of others.” At that, she took her claws away from him. As he watched, they flowed, changing back into fingers. She clenched her newly-reformed fist, turning away from him.
She stood at the edge of the grave, looking down at the dirt, staring so intently he was fairly sure she could see right through the intervening earth and down to the buried dog tags and microchips.
“Goodbye,” she said, not to Ethan.
Ethan was staring at her, incredulous. After a few moments, he found his voice again. “Why?” he asked without thinking.
“What you said earlier,” she said, not looking at him. “I’m tired.” The words came out of her mouth, but in his voice. “I understand,” she said, switching back to her own voice. “I wanted to see your burial practice. Besides, you are interesting.”
He did not believe what he was hearing. “What?”
“Many times, I have wondered if this is a war I can win,” she said, still in her calm almost-monotone. “Fighting on two fronts, against enemies that hate me for existing. One of whom is willing to burn the world if it means victory. This is not a conflict I will survive,” she said, finally turning her head to look at him. “It is interesting to see a human that also understands that.”
“So you’re not going to kill me?”
“That should be apparent.”
“So… now what?” he asked, spreading his arms helplessly. “We go our separate ways, maybe meet on some other battlefield some other day, and blow the hell out of each other then?”
“That sounds reasonable.”
He didn’t know if she was joking or not. She was so stone-faced, he couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
He swallowed, and knelt down, picking up his sidearm, and re-holstering it. He took the chance to pick his discarded rifle up off the ground as well. He wiped off some of the dust and strapped the gun over his back, only then thinking that now he had a weapon that could potentially bring her down. The thought didn’t last long; aside from not wanting to push his luck, he honestly couldn’t think of how bringing down one more Enemy would make any difference. He kept his eye on her, wondering if she was thinking the same thing. She was giving no indication of what was going through her mind; she had been following his movements with her eyes, but otherwise had not moved.
He wondered if she was waiting for something. He knew what she’d meant, saying he shouldn’t need help if he wanted to die. His pistol might not work well on her, but if he put it to his own temple…
Hell, half the guys in his unit went that way. One day they realized they weren’t going to see the end of the war, and decided that if they were going out it wouldn’t be at the hands of the Enemy. Ethan’s hand rested on his gun, feeling its cold, reassuring grip under his fingers. It would be so easy…
No. He took his hand off of his gun. Not here. Not where he’d just rot on top of the boys’ grave. But he had to wonder, if he did it… maybe this Galatean would go and bury him. After all, he would have been “interesting”.
He stared at her, still feeling a little dazed. There was no telling what she’d do. Besides, even if she would give him a decent send-off, he still couldn’t go through with it. Not now. Maybe in a few days, when all this finally hit him. But not here, not with all the boys watching their sarge stare down the Enemy.
He turned, about to walk away, when he stopped. He looked back to her, tentatively taking a step towards her. Carefully, he reached up, popping the seals on his helmet, lifting it up off his head and pulling his breathing mask down around his neck. He squinted in the sunlight, and the air burned his lungs. The artificial patches of skin on his face felt a little tight, like they didn’t quite fit.
“My name’s Ethan,” he said, extending his hand towards her.
She stared at his hand. From what he knew, she understood the gesture; likely she was just scanning him to see if there was some trick. He didn’t blame her; he was expecting those claws to reappear any second now. Finally, though, she took his hand in a deceptively strong grip. Her hand was cold as ice. His dirty face was reflected in her bracer, as he tried to smile.
“What’s yours?” he asked her.
She looked at him, not answering. Ethan guessed that if she wasn’t instantly saying something, then she really had to think hard about it.
“Gamma-Phi 7826,” she answered, matter-of-factly. “But,” she continued, before he could say anything, “we also take human names. Mine is Dayna.”
Ethan let go of her hand, and she moved again, so quickly there was a rush of air filling the space she had just occupied. In less than a heartbeat, she was gone.
Ethan stared at the blank ground she had stood upon, the wind already erasing her footprints from the soil. Coughing in the dust-laden air, he strapped his mask and helmet back on. It grated on his skin, the sand and grit having already settled down onto his face.
He started walking away, in what he hoped was the opposite direction she’d taken. He had to admit that a part of himself wondered where she was going, but the soldier in him was still too strong to let him even consider going after her.
An addendum, he thought. Guys, I envy you for not having to be afraid any more. But today I met someone who, just for a moment, made me think that maybe we don’t all have to end up like you did today. It’s probably nothing, but… bear with me, and let a crazy fool have his little glimmer of hope.
I’m sure I’ll learn better, soon enough.