1st place | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | Australian Category
Story by Mark McCallum
“Hey Bakes! Over here!” shouts Sergeant Dave ‘Mack’ McCormack.
Corporal Matt Baker slides into the small depression on the hilltop next to him.
“Take a look at that,” Mack says, handing Baker the binoculars. “What the hell is Robbie doing?”
“Not sure,” says Baker, handing them back. “I’ll pull up his systems and check it out.”
Mack trains the binoculars on Robbie, dialling the magnification up to maximum.
Baker taps and swipes at a hardened tablet. “He’s in canine config, it appears he’s in an exploratory mode. Let me pull up his video feed.”
“Ha! Never seen that before,” says Mack, lowering the binoculars.
“Well I’ll be,” says Bakes. “He’s playing with a puppy.”
“We’re miles from anywhere. Where did it come from?”
“He’s reconfiguring. Bipedal. Picking it up. Homing mode.”
Mack raises the binoculars. Robbie runs towards them, long, powerful strides kicking up dust and desert sand. “Yeah, he’s coming this way. Looks like he’s cradling it in his arms. Paws? Christ, I don’t know,” Mack says, lowering the binoculars, rolling on his back to look at the sky.
“Okay Robbie, what do you think you’re gonna do with that?” says Mack, pointing at the dog as Robbie slows to a walk.
“Hello Sarge,” says Robbie. “I thought we would care for it.”
“And why would you think that?” asks Mack, shaking his head in disbelief.
“It is consistent with our mission, cultural values, and moral code,” says Robbie, scratching the dog’s head. “Additionally, everyone loves a puppy.”
Robbie extends the puppy towards Mack. “Here Sarge. I must recharge.”
Mack takes the puppy and holds it aloft, tail wagging, licking at his hand. “Well, he is a cute little bugger.”
“C’mon boss. What else are we going to do with it? It’ll die out here,” says a trooper from behind him.
Mack looks at Robbie squatting next to his motorised charging cart, a thick cable running into his torso. “Okay. We’ll look after it. But only until we get to the next village.” He walks over to the cart, placing the puppy on top. “Rig up something on this, so we don’t have to carry it.”
“What are we going to call it?” says the trooper.
“Robbie? It’s your dog,” says Mack. “You get to name it.”
“Oh!” says Robbie, his head cocking like his new puppy’s. “Let me think.” He goes entirely still as if the thing that is Robbie has vacated the hardware squatting there in the dust.
A few seconds later, he’s back. His head tilting to look up at Mack. “His name is Oscar.”
After nightfall, the squad retires, trying to find the softest spots on the stoney desert outcrop. The sky’s clear, the temperature dropping, the night quiet. Mack tosses and turns, woken by a whimper from Oscar. He checks the luminous dial of the watch hanging from the roof of his bivy bag. Two AM. Cool condensation drips as he shakes the walls with the movement. He rolls over slowly, reaching for the zipper, quietly opening the entrance one tooth at a time to not wake the rest of the squad. Lifting the flap allows the cold night air to flood in, making him shiver as it washes over him. His breath condensing, visible in the moonlight. He walks to the dog carefully. Feeling the harshness of the land beneath each bare footfall. Approaching the kennel made of twigs and black cable ties atop the power unit, he sees a glint of reflected moonlight in the landscape below. He freezes, watching for movement. There it is again. It’s Robbie on his night patrols. The robot’s movements are alien to his eye. It’s a stuttering, machine-like advance. Optimised for concealed movement and the optimal performance of his sensors. Mack wonders at the strangeness of it all. Something like Robbie, a pinnacle of scientific achievement and industrial integration, here in this bronze age landscape.
Oscar’s whole body wiggles with the intense joy of seeing Mack approach. Mack lifts him from the kennel. In excitement and desperation, Oscar starts to pee. Mack carefully puts him down, letting him finish. “You poor little bugger. Looks like you really needed that,” he says, picking him up again. “Hey, you’re shivering. Come on, let’s get some sleep.’
When Mack swings up the flap of his bivy, the squad is arrayed in a semicircle around him, kitted up, decamped and ready to go.
“Morning sleeping beauty,” says Baker, with a grin.
“What time is it,” says Mack, Oscar curled in the crook of his arm.
“Aw crap. You should’ve woken me. Coffee. Then give me ten.” Oscar bounds out towards the group of soldiers, pees and plays.
Robbie hovers off to the side, waiting for his turn with the puppy.
“Hey Robbie,” says Mack. “Feed your dog. I’m going for a leak.”
Away from the group, overlooking the valley, Mack pulls a cigarette from the hard case in the small pocket at his shoulder. The dark local tobacco sputters as he draws deeply to encourage it to burn. In the distance, smoke from morning breakfast fires hangs low in the valley, a blue haze in the cold mountain air. He drops to his haunches, sipping on the bitter black coffee with a grimace.
In the distance, he hears one of the squad yell, “Get away you piece of junk. I just packed that.” Voices rise in argument. He can imagine the scuffle, shirt collars grabbed, jutting chins. Young men, testosterone surging, championing prejudices and protecting pride.
“Shit,” he says, dropping and grinding out the cigarette, tossing the coffee in a steaming arc as he strides in the direction of the ruckus.
When he’s close enough that his voice will have enough impact. “Alright you idiots cut it out,” yells Mack. “What’s going on here?”
Trooper Corey Wallis, big and tattooed. Usually lugs the H&K MG5, releases Trooper Raj Varshna, the comms guy, who he has at least forty kilos on.
“Sarge…” says Baker.
Mack stops him with a raised hand. “Corporal, I want to hear it from these jack asses. I’ll talk to you later,” says Mack, giving Baker a look. “Wallis. With me.” Mack turns and walks to the edge of the plateau. Hearing Wallis’s boots crunch on the rock close behind.
“What was that?” says Mack, pointing back at the group.
“That…” starts Wallis, frustration rising. Mack can see him tensing. “That bloody abomination. I spent good time packing our kit this morning and he took it all out.”
“So why were you throttling Raj?”
“He jumped me when I kicked that bloody machine.”
Mack takes a deep breath, savouring the cool air calming him. “And why do you think he did that?”
Trooper Wallis is silent.
“You know that bloody machine has saved all of our lives more than once. He bloody well stepped between you and an IED. He’s as much part of this squad as any of us.”
“It’s just a machine,” says Wallis, his jaw and voice tightening.
Mack steps in closer. He can feel Wallis’s breath. “How do you think they make machines like Robbie smart? They give them feelings. He’s probably got twice your emotional range.” Mack taps Wallis’s temple. “Anyway, isn’t that just a machine? A biological machine? He mightn’t feel in the same way we do, but he does feel. Why the hell do you think you had to sit through those lectures on the ethics and rights of sentient synthetics?”
“Sentient? He just a bunch of code. Programmed.”
“And you don’t think we’ve been programmed? All that training?” says Mack.
Mack turns away, shaking his head. “We’ve got another two weeks out here. I don’t need this driving a wedge into the squad. Go and apologise. And mean it. He’ll know if you don’t.”
“What! Apologise to a machine?”
“You know the difference between Robbie and you? He doesn’t expect you to die for him. Do it.”
Early in the day, Oscar barked, got bored and is now asleep. Robbie’s out front sweeping the squad’s path with his sensors. The drones are up providing overwatch. That morning’s scuffle and exchange of words weighs heavily on the squad. Mack can sense the tension as they move down the valley in tactical formation. It’s been two days since they’ve seen any locals. The resupply is an hour away, and they’re approaching the designated waypoint for the drop.
Mack hits transmit. “Were half a click from the resupply. We’ll break here. Robbie, you can bring it in as well.”
The squad turns out for one last scan of the surrounds and starts making their way toward Mack’s location.
Robbie’s voice comes through on the comms channel. “Sergeant, that’s not the protocol. I should be moving to an elevated stand-off position.”
“Robbie, there’s no one for miles. I’m overriding protocol. If it makes you happier, you can make one circuit and then come in. Come and play with your dog.”
“Hey Bakes, let Oscar out,” says Mack, pulling MREs from the cart and tossing them to each of the squad.
Baker unclips the carabiner holding the door closed. “Come on Oscar, you probably need to pee. Let’s go for a walk,” says Baker, lowering Oscar to the ground. Oscar shakes, sniffs the lugged tire of the cart and cocks his leg. “I guess that’s yours now isn’t it,” says Baker with a chuckle.
Oscar sniffs the air, his tail erect, and pulls on the leash urging Baker to move. “You’re a strong little bugger. Alright, let’s go.”
Mack squats, a little apart from the squad and leans back against a rough boulder watching the dynamics of the group. Wallis is sitting and talking with Raj. Mack imagines Raj jumping Wallis is something the bigger man would respect. Baker and Oscar are on a meandering search for something. Mack grins, revelling in the normality of a small dog taking a big man for a walk. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Robbie making his way back to the group.
Oscar starts barking loudly. Baker reaching for his sidearm. Robbie has already started moving in their direction in a powerful gallop. Each stride covering several meters, kicking up a rooster tail of dirt. A shot rings out, echoing off the bluffs in the distance. Mack can’t see what’s happening with all the dust. He hits transmit. “Report.” Out of the dust cloud, he sees Robbie emerge with Baker on his back, Oscar strutting alongside. Mack is up and sprinting.
“Snake bite, Himalayan Pit Viper,” responds Robbie.
As Mack passes the motorised cart, he slaps a panel on its side activating the follow-me mode. “Medic! With me!”
Baker is laid out on the motorised cart. A broad-spectrum anti-venom administered with an autoinjector. Baker’s been lucky. Only one glancing strike, very little venom delivered.
“So what happened?” says Mack, standing above Baker providing him with some shade.
“Just walking with Oscar. Not taking any notice. The snake struck, was going for a second strike and Oscar went the snake,” says Baker.
“Oscar looks okay.”
“Yeah, he got between me and the snake. Gave me enough time to get a shot off.”
“You could have just pulled the dog away. That shot’s been heard for miles.”
“Sorry Sarge didn’t go down like that. I just reacted.”
Mack’s watch beeps quietly. The squad looks up to the vast blue sky above.
“Got it. There,” says Raj, pointing skyward. As he says it there is a glint of sunlight off the capsule.
The squad has tried many times to spot the high-altitude drone dropping these with no luck. They can hear a whistle as it gets closer. Then, maybe a few hundred meters above, its chutes open with a crack, slowing it just before impact.
“Okay guys, you know the routine. Break it up. I’m gonna finish this shit coffee,” says Mack starting to walk away from the group. “Robbie, over here,” he yells, signalling Robbie to follow him. “So how did it go with Trooper Wallis?”
“Good. He apologised. Thank you.”
“No problem. Do you think he meant it?”
“No, he didn’t mean it. But that’s of no consequence. He showed respect,” says Robbie, looking at Mack.
Mack can see himself reflected there, like an Escher drawing in Robbie’s large central unblinking lens.
“What? To you?”
“No. To you, to the squad, and its cohesion.”
“So how do you feel about that?”
“I had a positive feeling.”
“Is that all?”
“I guess you would call it satisfaction.”
Mack sips from his coffee, wondering if Robbie was comfortable with the silence. “Man this coffee is god awful,” he says, tipping the remaining half a cup into the dirt. “Robbie, do you feel pain? That time the IED hit you. Tore up your left side. Did you feel anything?”
“Not physical pain. But I do feel emotional pain. In that instance, I was distressed that I might not have shielded the squad sufficiently.” Robbie held up what Mack had decided was his hand, flexing the actuators. “I didn’t feel it here. I felt it in here.” Touching the centre of his torso.
“What? In your heart?”
Robbie looks at Mack, cocking his head slightly. “No Mack. I don’t have a heart. That is where my brains are.”
“Yes, I have five. They each have a different function. Proactive, reactive, neuro-motor, sensor interface and memory. The neuro-plasticity of each can be changed in accordance with the desirability of a learning outcome. Good outcome, increase the neuro-plasticity and replay the sensor input.”
“Huh. So you relive each of those moments?”
“Yes. It’s like what you call Deja vu. My neuro-motor cortex responds, but it’s disconnected from my electro-mechanical systems. So I don’t move.”
“If you learn, does that mean you’re unique?”
“Yes, but not entirely. We all have some software and hardware interlocks. We can’t proactively kill. We’re programmed to protect.”
“Can you die?”
“I can’t be uploaded. I cease to exist. So yes.”
Mack senses a restlessness in the squad, they’re finishing up and he starts to gather himself.
“Mack, it’s a bit like what Oscar did with that cobra. I can’t control it. Maybe I am just like a dog?”
Mack turns back, thumping the dust from his desert cams. He places a hand on Robbie’s shoulder, feeling the heat of him and the day’s hot sun on his armoured carapace. “Robbie, you are much more than a dog.”
The night is spent camped on high ground. The morning starts bright and clear. From their position above the valley, they can see for miles.
“Sarge, Robbie’s back from night patrol,” says Baker, compacting the morning’s breakfast packaging and feeding it into the bioreactor on Robbie’s charging cart. Robbie’s in canine mode, making his way up the steep climb from the valley below.
“Thanks bakes. Get his sit-rep while he’s recharging,” says Mack, between chews of a protein bar. Oscar tugs at the end of the para-cord leash. “C’mon boy, let us go complete our morning ablutions.” Mack squats, scratching behind the dog’s ear. “Don’t look so confused. It means take a dump.”
Mack enjoys these small moments of solitude. He’s surprised by how crowded he can feel with only seven other men in all of this emptiness. He grabs the end of the stick Oscar is chewing, starting a tug of war. Oscar growls playfully. After a while, Mack heads back towards the camp, Oscar following at his heels, the stick in his mouth.
“Sarge, you need to see this,” Baker says, bent over the tablet. Baker swipes and pinches at a satellite image overlaid with scan data from Robbie’s sensors. “See this here. Motion on a ridgeline, and disturbed roadside rubble here and here.”
Mack eyes the landscape before them. “Right guys, on me,” he says, taking the stick from Oscar sitting at his side and draws in the dirt. “Schooner,” he says, pointing at the trooper with the fifty cal. “I want you here on overwatch with the fifty. We’ll fully decamp, you remain concealed. We’ll have to gamble that they haven’t done an accurate count. Also launch a couple of the drones to max alt for movement detection. Robbie, as usual, you go ahead scanning. The rest of us will follow you up in standard patrol formation.”
The descent onto the flat expanse is uneventful. The air in the valley is crisp. Mack can smell smoke, rich with the scents of the local food and the oily underbrush the locals burn. It must be from the village only a few clicks up ahead. The squad’s footsteps crunch on gravel as they move slowly. They’ve offset themselves from the road, avoiding the disturbed ground. Ahead of them, Robbie is in canine mode. Each metallic paw hovering momentarily, the built-in metal detectors scanning the ground before placement. On placement, sensors seek out any minute traces of chemical indicators of explosive material. He moves his head from side to side. Arrays on the sides of his head scanning out to about half a kilometre.
“Schooner, anything?” transmits Mack, bringing up the rear of the squad.
“Nah. All’s quiet. Nothing seen,” replies Schooner.
“Raj, anything from the drones?” Says Mack to the trooper running the remote systems.
“I’ve got a herd of goats and three men paralleling us the next valley over. They’ve also got an electric cart.”
“Does that valley connect with this one?”
“How long until visual?”
Terrain model says five hundred meters, seven minutes give or take.”
“Eyes out. Bakes move up. You engage with the herders. Take Oscar on the cart. Maybe he’s theirs. Davies, you back up Bakes.”
The squad reforms in preparation for the engagement. They hear and smell the herd before they see it. Mack sees Baker raise his hand and wave, turning in the direction of the herd. Davies following him up. Robbie is erect, standing to his full seven feet to better scan the herders and the terrain in that area.
“Robbie, hang back. The locals still aren’t sure about your kind,” transmits Mack.
“Sarge, drones have just detected movement from the far side of the ridgeline,” says Raj bringing up an image on his tablet. “About Fifty on foot, one mechanised, light armour, serious firepower.”
Mack thumbs transmit. “Bakes. Wind it up. Back out, we’ve got inbound.” Through his binoculars Mack sees Baker look to the ridgeline. One of the herders, hanging back, reaches into the cart and raises an RPG.
“Davies!” transmits Mack, as Davies starts to raise his weapon. It’s too late. The launcher is already shouldered. Baker sees the movement and dives towards the cart and Oscar.
The fifty cal hits the goat herder with the RPG, too late. The grenade hits the cart as Davies opens fire. Davies cuts down the other three before they can return fire.
“Shit,” says Mack, hitting transmit. “Robbie, get in there and give Davies cover. We’re coming to you. Okay guys, we’re sitting ducks out here we need to make for that village. Schooner, how long till they get to us and what’s the fifty’s effectiveness on the vehicle at that range?” The squad holding formation and moving quickly in the direction of Davies.
“Not good, I’ll shadow,” says Schooner.
They made good time to the village. Children had run and hidden at the sight of Robbie. Old men and women spat. The light armour chasing and harassing them was now holding back, likely waiting for those on foot and reinforcement. Schooner RV’d with them a couple of hours after they arrived. Air support has been requested but won’t be available until mid-morning tomorrow on the next orbit. Mack leans against the rubble of a low stone wall, that surrounds the village, worn smooth by the passage of time. Robbie goes into a squat next to him.
“Sarge, may I ask you something?”
Mack looks at Robbie and draws deeply on his cigarette. “Call me Mack,” he says.
“Okay. Mack, may I ask you something?” says Robbie, arranging rocks in the dirt in front of him.
“Yeah. What’s on your mind?”
“Why did Corporal Baker sacrifice himself. He could have taken cover behind my power cart. If he had, I estimate his chance of survival at approximately eighty per cent.”
“Well. I think only Corporal Baker can answer that.”
“He didn’t have time to make a conscious decision. His actions must have been instinctual. He protected Oscar over himself.”
“Well. Maybe Corporal Baker couldn’t have answered it then.” Mack looks off to the horizon at the setting sun. “You know Robbie. Man and Dogs. Well, we’ve been together a long time. There’s a kind of bond. Lost dogs cross whole nations searching for their owner. I’ve known men who’ve cried for days over the loss of a dog, but shrugged off the loss of their mother.”
“Do you think that’s why I’m made to look a bit like a dog?” says Robbie, looking at Mack.
Mack stands and hits transmit. “Dig in. They’ll attack at night. Two shifts. I want drones in the air the whole time watching them all.” He turns back to face Robbie.
“Do you think humans and robots will be like man and dog one day?” says Robbie.
Mack looks at Robbie for a while, wondering. “Maybe. But maybe we should aim a little higher.”
The attack came at three AM. Mack wasn’t sure if someone in the village had passed details of their positions, the first strikes were accurate and coordinated. Mortars had rained down. They heard the tell-tale whoomph of the launch tubes. They sheltered where they could, the explosions coming shortly afterwards. They’d lost four men in that first volley. Mack’s ears rang throughout the whole engagement. The bone conduction speakers of his comm system relaying the chaos of the attack in eerie clarity. The first wave of fighters easily breached their sparse outer cordon. The second wave quickly followed. Raj, Davis and Schooner fought a running battle, retreating through the village. Robbie supporting them with surveillance, distraction and physical cover. Mack firing from the rear from his position near the wall. It was inevitable. Raj, Davis and Schooner fell. Mack was hit. Robbie returning to defend Mack.
“Mack, we cannot stay here,” says Robbie, crouching in canine mode, providing additional cover for Mack behind the low stone wall. “Our presence endangers all the people in this village. That is counter to our mission.”
“I know,” says Mack, tensing against the pain. “What can we do?”
Robbie sees the blood staining Mack’s desert cams black in the moonlight. He links to Mack’s embedded bio-monitor. Spiking levels of cortisol, falling blood volume and pressure, rising pulse rate.
“We remove ourselves as a threat. We can achieve no more from fighting. We must surrender,” says Robbie.
“You know what these guys do to prisoners,” says Mack, struggling against unconsciousness.
“I don’t mean surrendering to the enemy. Surrender to the inevitable. But, in doing so, also advance our mission.”
Mack coughs, blood flecking his lips. He looks into Robbie’s lenses and nods.
Robbie reconfigures into the man-shaped object, leans forward, embraces Mack. Then, servos whining, lifts him, cradling him in his arms. Robbie stands, his back toward the enemy positions. His lateral armour plates pivoting out, widening the cover he provides. The rate of enemy fires increases. Rounds ricochet off Robbie’s ceramic matrix exoskeleton. He continues to back towards the enemy.
“This is close enough,” says Robbie.
Mack is limp in his arms. Robbie knows he has gone, leaving only this body cradled here in his arms. At Robbie’s core, a compressed, spherical kilogram of monocrystalline hexogene is primed.
“I love you Mack.”