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Authors: Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse (22 page)

BOOK: Robopocalypse
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That Big Happy will be coming back.

I take it all in. This is the room I remember most. Clean-swept pavement under a huge metal roof, as long as a football field. When it rains outside, this room sounds like an auditorium filled with gentle applause. Row after row of fluorescent lights hang over waist-high conveyor belts, stretching off into the distance. There are hundreds of people in here. They wear blue coveralls and paper face masks and stand alongside the belts, taking pieces from bins and connecting them to what’s on the conveyor belt and then pushing them down the rollers.

It’s an assembly line.

Moving fast, I jog up the line where I used to work. I glance down to see that today they’re building what we called tanklets. They look sort of like the big four-legged mantis but are the size of a small dog. We didn’t know what they were at all until one day a new guy, an Italian soldier, said that these things—tanklets—hang on to the bellies of mantises and drop off during battle. He said that sometimes broken ones could be rewired and used as emergency equipment. Said they called them ticklers.

The door I just came through slides open. A Big Happy steps inside. All the people stop moving. The conveyor belts have stopped. No one makes a move to help me. They stand as still and silent as blue statues. I don’t bother to call for help. I know if I were in their place I wouldn’t do anything either.

The Big Happy closes the door behind it. A boom echoes through the huge room as the bolts to all the doors slam shut. I’m trapped in here now, until I’m killed.

I jog along the assembly line, panting, leg throbbing. The Big Happy stalks toward me. It moves one careful step at a time, silent except for the soft grinding of motors. As I move down the line, I see the tanklets evolve from small black boxes to almost fully complete machines.

At the other end of the long building, I reach the door that leads to the dorms. I grab it and yank, but it’s made of thick steel and locked tight. I spin around, back against the door. Hundreds of people watch, still holding their tools. Some are curious, but most are impatient. The harder you work, the faster the day goes. I am an interruption. And not that uncommon a one. Soon, my windpipe will be crushed and my body removed and these people will get back to what is left of their lives.

Mathilda and Nolan are on the other side of this door and they need me, but instead I’m going to die in front of all these broken people in paper masks.

I sink to my knees, out of strength. With my forehead pressed to the cool pavement, I hear only the steady click, click of the Big Happy walking toward me. I am so tired. I think that it will be a relief when it happens. A blessing to finally sleep.

But my body is a liar. I have to ignore the pain. I have to find the way out of this.

Pushing my hair out of my face, I frantically look around the room for something. An idea comes to me. Wincing from my injured thigh, I haul myself up and stagger down the tanklet assembly line. I feel out each tanklet, looking for one that’s at just the right stage. The people I get near step away from me.

The Big Happy is five feet away when I find the perfect tanklet. This one is just four spindly legs hanging from a teapot-sized abdomen. The power supply is attached, but the central nervous system is a few steps away. Instead, raw connector wires sprout from an open cavity in the thing’s back.

I snatch up the tanklet and turn. The Big Happy is a foot away, arms out. Stumbling backward, I fall just out of reach and then limp toward the steel door. With shaking hands, I pull each tanklet leg out and press the abdomen against the door. My left arm quivers with the effort of holding up the solid hunk of metal. With my free hand I reach into the tanklet’s back and cross the wires.

Reflexively, the tanklet pulls its barbed legs into itself. With a wrenching squeal, they catch on the door and claw through the metal. I let go and the tanklet clanks to the ground, arms grasping a six-inch hunk of solid steel door. A ragged hole gapes where the doorknob and lock used to be. My arms are dead tired now, useless. The Big Happy is inches away, hand out, grippers splayed and ready to clamp down on whatever part of my body is closest.

With a kick, I send the mangled door flying open.

On the other side, haunted eyes stare at me. Old women and children are crowded into the dormitory. Wooden bunk beds stretch up to the ceiling.

I duck inside and slam the door shut behind me, pressing my back against it as the Big Happy tries to push its way in. Luckily, the machine can’t get enough traction on the polished concrete floor to shove the door open right away.

“Mathilda!” I shout. “Nolan!”

The people stand in place, watching me. The machines know my ID number. They can track wherever I go and they won’t stop until I’m dead. Now is the only chance I’ll ever have to save my family.

And suddenly, there he is. My quiet little angel. Nolan stands in front of me, his dirty black hair ruffled. “Nolan,” I exclaim. He runs to me and I grab him up and hug him. The door jumps into my back as the machine keeps pushing. More are surely coming.

Wrapping my hands around Nolan’s delicate little face, I ask him, “Where’s your sister, Nolan? Where’s Mathilda?”

“She got hurt. After you left.”

I swallow my fear, for Nolan. “Oh no, baby, I’m sorry. Where did she go? Take me there.”

Nolan says nothing. He points.

With Nolan on my hip, I shove through the people and hurry down a hallway to the infirmary. Behind me, a couple of older women calmly push against the rattling door. There is no time to thank them, but I will remember their faces. I will pray for them.

I’ve never been in this long wooden room before. A narrow central walkway is partitioned off with hanging curtains on each side. I stride down the middle, yanking the curtains away to find my daughter. Each yank of a curtain reveals some new horror, but my brain doesn’t register any of it. There is only one thing I will recognize now. One face.

And then I see her.

My baby lies on a gurney with a monster hovering over her head. It’s some kind of surgery machine mounted on a metal arm, with a dozen plastic legs descending. Each robot leg is wrapped in sterile paper. At the tip of each leg is a tool: scalpels, hooks, soldering irons. The whole thing is moving in a blur—precise, jerky movements—like a spider weaving her web. The machine works on Mathilda’s face without stopping or seeming to notice my presence.

“No!” I shriek. I set Nolan down and grab the base of the machine. With all my might, I lift it up off my daughter’s face. Confused, the machine retracts its arms up into the air. In this split second, I shove the gurney with my foot and roll Mathilda’s body away from the machine. The wound in my leg reopens and I feel a trickle of blood spiraling down my calf.

The Big Happy must be close by now.

I lean over the gurney and look at my daughter. Something is horribly wrong. Her eyes. Her beautiful eyes are gone.

“Mathilda?” I ask.

“Mom?” she says, smiling.

“Oh, baby, are you okay?”

“I think so,” she says, frowning at the look on my face. “My eyes feel funny. What’s wrong?” With shaking fingers, she touches the dull black metal that is now buried in her eye sockets.

“Are you okay, honey? Can you see?” I ask.

“Yes. I can. I can see inside,” says Mathilda.

A sense of dread creeps into my belly. I’m too late. They’ve already hurt my little girl.

“What can you see, Mathilda?”

“I can see inside the machines,” she says.

It takes only a few minutes to make it to the perimeter. I lift Mathilda and Nolan over the top. The fence is only five feet high. It’s part of the lure to would-be saviors on the outside looking in. The hidden sentry guns that lurk in the field are designed to be the real security enforcers.

“Come on, Mom,” urges Mathilda, safely on the other side.

But my leg is bleeding badly now, blood pooling in my shoe and spilling over onto the ground. After getting Nolan over the fence, I’m too exhausted to move. With every last shred of effort, I keep myself conscious. I wrap my fingers through the chain link and hold myself up and look at my babies for the last time. “I will always love you. No matter what.”

“What do you mean? Come on. Please,” Mathilda says.

My vision is going away, getting smaller. I’m watching the world now through two pinpricks—the rest is darkness.

“Take Nolan and go, Mathilda.”

“Mom, I can’t. There are guns. I can

“Concentrate, honey. You have a gift now. See where the guns are. Where they can shoot. Find a safe path. Take Nolan by the hand and don’t let go.”

“Mommy,” says Nolan.

I shut down all my emotion. I have to. I can hear the whine of tanklet motors as they swarm the field behind me. I sag against the fence. From somewhere, I find the strength to shout.

“Mathilda Rose Perez! This is not an argument. You take your brother and you go. Run. Don’t stop until you’re very far away from here. Do you hear me? Run. Do it
right now
or I will be very angry with you.”

Mathilda flinches at my voice. She takes a hesitant step away. I can feel my heart breaking. It’s a numb feeling, radiating out of my chest and crushing all thought—eating my fear.

Then Mathilda’s mouth squeezes into a line. Her brow settles down into a familiar stubborn frown over those dull, monstrous implants. “Nolan,” she says. “Hold on to my hand no matter what. Don’t let go. We’re going to run now. Super fast, okay?”

Nolan nods, takes her hand.

My little soldiers. Survivors.

“I love you, Mommy,” says Mathilda.

And then my babies are gone.

No further record exists of Laura Perez. Mathilda Perez, however, is another matter


6. B

That’s not a weapon, is it?

. P


In the drawn-out aftermath of Zero Hour in Afghanistan, Specialist Paul Blanton not only survived but thrived. As described in the following remembrance, Paul discovered an artifact so profound that it altered the course of the New War—and he did it while on the run for his life in an incredibly hostile environment

It is hard to determine whether the young soldier was lucky or shrewd, or both. Personally, I believe that anyone who is directly related to Lonnie Wayne Blanton is already halfway to being a hero


Jabar and I lay flat on a ridge, binoculars out.

It’s about ten in the morning. Dry season in Afghanistan. A half hour ago, we caught a burst of avtomat communication. It was just one airborne flurry of information, probably to a roving eye on the ground. But it could also have been to a full-on tank. Or something even worse. Jabar and I decided to dig in here and wait for the thing to show up, whatever it is.

Yeah, pretty much a suicide mission.

After the shit went down, the natives never trusted me for a second. Jabar and I were forbidden to go near the main encampments. Most of the Afghan civilians fled to these man-made caves in Bamiyan Province. Real ancient shit. Some desperate-ass people carved ’em out of sheer mountain walls, and for about a thousand years they’ve been the go-to spot for every civil war, famine, plague, and invasion.

Technology changes, but people stay the same.

The old crusty guys with Santa Claus beards and eyebrows trying to escape up their foreheads sat around in a circle and sipped tea and yelled at each other. They were wondering why avtomat drones were out here, of all places. To find out, they sent
to track communications. It was a punishment for Jabar, but he never forgot that I saved his life at Zero Hour. Good kid. Terrible at growing a beard. But a good kid.

This place they stuck us, Band-e-Amir—it’s so pretty it hurts your eyes. Sky blue lakes pooled up between stark brown mountains. All of it wrapped in bright red limestone cliffs. We’re so high up and the atmosphere’s so thin that it messes with you. I swear, the light does something funny up here that it doesn’t do other places. The shadows are too crisp. Details are too sharp. Like an alien planet.

Jabar spots it first, nudges me.

A biped avtomat walks a narrow dirt road over a mile away, crossing the scrubland. I can tell that it used to be a SAP. Probably a Hoplite model, judging from the height and the light gait. But there’s no telling. Lately, the machines have been changing. For example, the biped down there isn’t wearing clothes like a SAP would. It’s made of some kind of dirt-colored fibrous material instead. It walks at a steady five miles per hour, shadow stretching out on the dirt behind, as mechanical as a tank rolling across desert sands.

“Is it a soldier?” asks Jabar.

“I don’t know what it is anymore,” I reply.

Jabar and I decide to follow it.

We wait until it’s almost out of range. Even when I was running a SAP crew, we kept a drone eye on the square klick around our unit. I’m glad I know the procedure, so I can stay just out of range. Good thing about avtomata is they don’t take an extra step if they don’t have to. Tend to travel in straight lines or along easy paths. Makes them predictable and easier to track.

Staying up high, we travel along the ridge in the same direction as the avto. Soon, the sun comes out in full force, but our dirty cotton robes wick away the sweat. It’s actually kind of nice to walk with Jabar for a while. A place this big makes you feel small. And it gets lonely out here real quick.

Jabar and I are traveling across the broken landscape with just our backpacks, robes, and these whiplike antennae that are about eight feet long and made of thick black plastic that wobbles with every step we take. They must have been scavenged off some machine or other over the last fifty years of war out here. Using our antennae, we can pick up avtomat radio comms and figure out their directionality. This way, we track avtomat movements and send warnings to our people. Too bad we can’t listen in. But there’s not a chance in hell we could crack the avto encryption scheme. It’s still worth it, though, to have an idea where the bad guys are.

Our robes blend in with the rocks. Still, we usually stay a half mile apart from each other, minimum. Being so far apart helps determine the direction of avtomat radio communications. Plus, if one of us gets hit by a missile, the other can have time to hoof it or hide.

After five or six hours following the biped, we spread out and take a final reading for the day. It’s a slow process. I just sit down in my pile of robes, prop my stick up into the air, and put on my headphones to listen for the crackle of communication. My machine logs the time of arrival automatically. Jabar’s doing the same thing a half mile away. In a little while, we’ll compare numbers to get a loose direction.

Sitting out here in the sun, there’s a lot of time to think about what might have been. I scouted my old base once. Windblown rubble. Rusted hunks of abandoned machinery. There’s nothing to go back to.

After a half hour sitting cross-legged and watching the sun drop over those sparkling mountains, a comm burst hits. My stick blinks—it’s logged. I flash my cracked hand mirror to Jabar and he reciprocates. We start the hike back toward each other.

It looks like the biped avto went just over the next ridge and stopped. They don’t sleep, so who knows what it’s up to over there. It must not have sensed us, because it’s not raining bullets. As it gets dark, the ground radiates all the day’s heat into the sky. The heat is our only camouflage; without it we’ve got no choice but to stay put. We pull out our sleeping bags and bivouac for the night.

Jabar and I lay there, side by side, in the cold dark that’s getting colder. The black sky is opening up overhead and out here, I swear to god, there’s more stars than there is night.

“Paul,” whispers Jabar. “I am worried. This one does not seem like the others.”

“It’s a modified SAP unit. Those were pretty common, before. I worked with lots of them.”

“Yes, I remember. They were the pacifists who grew fangs. But that one was not made of metal. It had no weapons at all.”

“And that worries you? That it was

“It is different. Anything different is bad.”

I stare into the heavens and listen to the wind on the rocks and think of the billions of particles of air colliding against each other above me. So many possibilities. All the horrible potential of the universe.

“The avtomata are changing, Jabar,” I say finally. “If different is bad, buddy, then I think we’re in for a whole lot of bad.”

We had no idea how much things were changing.

Next morning, Jabar and I packed up and crept over the broken rocks to the next ridge. Over it, another eye-searing azure lake lapping a white-stone shore.

Band-e-Amir used to be a national park, you know, but we’re still in Afghanistan. Meaning that a bronze plaque never stopped the locals from fishing here with dynamite. Not the friendliest approach, but I’ve used a trotline or two myself back in Oklahoma. Even with the dynamite and leaky gasoline boats and sewer lines, Band-e-Amir stood the test of time.

It outlasted the locals.

“Avtomat must have come this way,” I say, peering down the rocky slope. The jagged slate boulders vary in size from basketball to dinner table. Some are stable. Most aren’t.

“Can you make it?” I ask Jabar.

He nods and claps one hand against his dusty combat boot. American-issue. Probably looted by his tribe members from my base. So it goes.

“That’s great, Jabar. Where’d you get those?”

The kid just smiles at me, the world’s most haggard teenager.

“All right, let’s go,” I say, cautiously stepping over the lip of the ridge. The boulders are so unsteady and steep that we have to go down facing the slope, pressing our sweaty palms against the rocks and testing each step before we take it.

It’s a damn good thing we
go backward.

After thirty minutes, we’re only halfway down. I’m picking my way through the rubble—kicking rocks to see if they’ll move—when I hear some rocks falling farther up. Jabar and I freeze, necks craned as we scan the gray rock face for movement.


“Something’s coming,” whispers Jabar.

“Let’s move,” I say, stepping now with more urgency.

Keeping our heads up and eyes open, the two of us descend over the wobbling rocks. Every few minutes, we hear the clack, clack of more rocks falling from above us. Each time, we stop and scan for motion. Each time we find nothing.

Something invisible is coming down the slope, stalking us. This thing is taking its time, moving quiet and staying hidden. The oldest part of my brain senses the danger and floods my body with adrenaline. There’s a predator coming, it says. Run the fuck away.

But if I move any faster, I’ll fall and die in an avalanche of cold slate.

Now my legs are trembling as I inch my way over the rocks. Glancing down, I see there’s still at least another half hour before we reach bottom. Shit, that’s too long. I slip and gash my knee open on a rock. I bite down hard on the curse before it gets out.

Then I hear a low, animal moan.

It’s Jabar. The kid crouches on the rocks ten feet up, lying stockstill. His eyes are fixed on something above us. I don’t think he even knows that he’s making that sound.

don’t see anything.

“What, Jabar? What’s there, man?”

“Koh peshak,”
he hisses.

“Mountain what? What’s on the mountain, Jabar?”

“Uh, how do you say … snow cat.”

“Snow? What? Did you say a
fucking snow leopard
? They live here?”

“We thought they were gone.”


“Not anymore.”

With an effort, I refocus my eyes on the rocks above us. Finally, I catch the twitch of a tail and the predator emerges from concealment. A pair of unblinking silver eyes are watching me. The leopard knows that we’ve spotted it. It bounds toward us over the unstable rocks, heavy muscles quivering with each impact. Quiet, determined death is on its way.

I scrabble for my rifle.

Jabar turns around and slides toward me on his ass, wailing in panic. But he’s too late. The snow leopard is suddenly just a few feet away, landing on its front paws with a great bushy tail outstretched as a counterweight. That wide flat nose collapses into a wrinkled snarl, and white canines flash. The cat gets hold of Jabar from behind and yanks his body back.

Finally, I get my rifle up. I fire high to avoid Jabar. The cat shakes him back and forth, growls radiating from deep in its throat like the idle of a diesel engine. When my bullet hits it in the flank, the cat screeches and lets go of Jabar. It coils back, tail protectively wrapping around its forelegs. It snarls and screams, looking for what caused so much pain.

Jabar’s body falls onto the rocks, limp.

The leopard is divinely terrible and beautiful, and it absolutely belongs here. But this is life or death. My heart breaks as I unload my rifle on the magnificent creature. Red stains spread through the mottled fur. The big cat falls back onto the rocks, tail lashing. Those silver eyes squeeze shut and the snarl is frozen forever on its face.

I feel numb as the last echo of gunfire races away across the mountains. Then, Jabar grabs my leg and pulls himself up to a sitting position. He shrugs off his backpack, groaning. I drop to a knee and put one hand on his shoulder. I pull his robes back away from his neck to see two long stripes of blood. His back and shoulder have been shallowly filleted, but otherwise he is unharmed.

“It ate your backpack, you lucky bastard,” I say to him.

He doesn’t know whether to grin or cry and neither do I.

I’m glad the kid is alive. His people would execute me straightaway if I was dumb enough to come back without him. Plus, he’s apparently got a knack for spotting snow leopards just before they pounce. That could come in handy someday.

“Let’s get off this fuckin’ rock,” I say.

But Jabar doesn’t stand up. He stays there, crouched, staring at the bleeding corpse of the snow leopard. One of his dirt-smudged hands snakes out and briefly touches the cat’s paw.

“What is this?” he asks.

“I had to kill it, man. No choice,” I respond.

“No,” says Jabar.

He leans farther toward the cat and pushes its great bloody head to the side. Now I see something that I can’t explain. Honest to god, I just don’t know what to make of it.

BOOK: Robopocalypse
9.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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