When we left the city, there had been seventy-three of us. Now we were nineteen.
And the armadogs were closing in.
The armadogs were silent stalkers. They didn’t howl or bark like their biological counterparts, and unless they were close, you couldn’t hear them. Their big, spongy footpads absorbed sound on both grass and dirt. They communicated with each other and their controllers via Service-Web, and humans had never had access to Service-Web. Why would we need or want to know all the mundane details that kept our workers working?
Darcy fell into step beside me. “Jimmy says they’re less than four hundred meters behind,” she said. “We need to find a place we can defend, Shelia.”
I glanced at her face, a pale smudge in the grey, early-morning light. The bandage around her head was seeping blood again. But no time now to stop and change it.
“How much firepower do we have left?” I asked, not breaking the fast trot we had been moving at most of the night.
“Two flame pistols still have a charge. And one scrambler, but it’s low. A few grenades. We have tons of bullets, but well, you know…”
Yes, I knew. Bullets rarely stopped an armadog. “Be on the lookout for a place to take cover. And tell Jimmy to let me know when they’re within two hundred meters.” Then we would have to make a stand regardless.
Darcy gave a quick nod, then fell back with the others.
Sunrise pinking the sky behind, I led my rag-tag group, now made up of mostly civilians, through the scrubby, near-desert growth, our destination an abandoned missile silo less than five kilometers to the west. If we could reach it, we still had a chance. Jimmy knew the codes, could get us inside. And we could do what had to be done: take down Service-Web. It was our only hope, humanity’s only hope.
But we couldn’t outrun the armadogs. And with our limited firepower, chances were slim we could take down this latest pack sent against us.
“Two hundred meters and closing!” Jimmy yelled.
Scanning the empty terrain, I ran faster, scuffing feet and panting sobs tagging my heels. Have to find…shelter. And my eyes zeroed in on a rocky outcrop ahead and to the left. Not much, but it would have to do.
“One hundred meters!”
I veered toward the rocks. “This way!”
I focused on the outcrop, the sand and scrub blurring into a wash of browns and dull greens.
A scream sliced the air behind me. It was abruptly silenced, and another took its place. And another. Panicked bodies pushed against me.
I lengthened my stride, pumped my arms. Almost…almost…Took four more running steps—there!—then swung around. “Behind the rocks.” I moved to the side and motioned for the civilians to hurry. “Now!”
When the last person had stumbled by and dropped behind the outcrop, I looked back.
The rising sun glinted off the armadogs’ metal carapaces in a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. There were—ohmygod—twelve of them busy tearing apart bodies. I’d seen this behavior before and knew that as soon as they had reduced the three stragglers to no more than strips of bloody meat and bones, they would attack.
Jimmy and Darcy, each with a flame pistol, fell to each side of me. Mark, balancing the bulky scrambler on one beefy shoulder, stepped up on the outcrop and patted my shoulder, all in one fluid motion. My eyes briefly met Darcy’s, then Jimmy’s. Those few seconds of contact said all there was to say.
As one, twelve blood-smeared snouts rose from the carnage and turned toward our small group. Then, with unusual slowness, they loped through the sandy dirt in our direction. No hurry now. Their controllers knew it was as good as over. Too many of them, too few of us.
And we had been so close. In less than an hour, we would have reached…
I turned to Jimmy, held out my hand. “Give me your weapon.”
His puzzled eyes met mine. “What the hell, Sheila?”
“Give me your weapon.”
“I’m better with it than you. You can’t—”
“I said, give me your weapon. Now, Sergeant.”
Jimmy slapped the flame pistol in my hand. “Yes, ma’am.”
I checked the charge: twenty-five percent. Enough…hopefully.
“Captain…Sheila?” Jimmy’s fingers brushed my cheek. “You’re not…what are you…”
I met his anxious gaze. “I’m going to give you some time, Sargent. Make the most of it. Get to that silo.”
I stepped away from his familiar touch, turned my back.
Voices called my name. Hands grabbed at me. I shook them off. “You have your orders!”
Pulling a grenade from my vest, I strode toward the armadogs. I yanked the pin, hurled the missile in their direction. I lobbed another, lower. Boom-boom! One armadog’s front legs blew apart, and it dropped to the ground, its back legs peddling ineffectually. I threw three grenades in quick succession into their midst, blowing up a confusion of flying sand and metal parts.
Then, they were around me.
I raised the flame pistol, aimed at the closest armadog, pulled the trigger. Fire burst out in a long arc, incinerating its head. Blue and green sparks danced. I turned to another, shot wildly, the flame raking its body. I swept higher, got the head. I leveled the pistol on another, and—
Felt a hard tug on my left hand, glanced down to see my wrist in an armadog’s mouth. With my right, I trained the flame-pistol on it, but before I could pull the trigger, it gave a vicious yank and ripped off my hand.
I was too shocked to pull the trigger. Where blood, bone, and strings of gristle should be, instead were a nest of torn wires. I was…I was…
And the armadog knew it too. Orange eyes brightening, it backed off.
It knew, as I now knew: like them, I was a construct. That’s how their controllers had known where we were, where to deploy the packs. I was a plant. They could track me.
My life, all of it, had been a lie. No parents, no brother. Lies. Only a program.
But why in God’s name did it hurt so bad? AIs couldn’t feel betrayal, couldn’t feel loss, couldn’t feel sadness.
Then why did I feel like I was dying inside?
As one, the remaining armadogs stilled, orange eyes pulsing.
I knew what was happening: new orders. I was now of no consequence; but the others, the civilians, and Darcy, Mark, and Jimmy—a flash of memories, Jimmy’s crooked smile, soft lips, and calloused hands—were.
The armadogs’ eyes swung westward, to the small knot of people disappearing over the far horizon. And they were on the move.
As was I.
I fell in among them, weaving my way to the center of the pack. They ignored me; to the armadogs, I was one of them. And I was. But so much more.
I waited until my friends turned to fire before I made my move, waited until I saw the shock and disbelief, and hesitation in Jimmy’s eyes, before I turned the flame pistol on myself. Inside the roar of fire, I heard the hundreds of bullets that covered my upper body and the last four grenades exploding, saw armadog pieces flying through the air. Then I was flying too, coming apart.
Through a haze of smoke and sparks and static, I saw Jimmy’s face. He was crying. Why was he crying?
I tried to speak but had no voice.
Over his shoulder, I saw Mark and Darcy, the civilians. But no armadogs.
Jimmy stroked my cheek, ran a finger over my lips, then gently closed my eyes.
A shower of lights flooded my brain.
And I saw no more.
©️2020 KT Workman