Ars Poetica

Ars Poetica

by David F. Shultz

The interrogation was going well. Rook’s mark quivered, sweat beads on his head, arms smudging the lead on his paper, pencil tapping, a hundred dots on the corner of the page. He’d scrawled maybe a dozen rushed lines, then nothing for the last ten minutes. He was stalling now. Time to put up, or shut up, permanently.

“Now tell me what it’s like to be a poet,” Rook said, across the barrel of her Sig Sauer P320. “Or I blow your fucking face off.”

He glanced at the door like he might run for the hall, but Rook’s partner would take him out–despite her relaxed lean on the doorframe, scrawling interrogation notes, Rook knew Camilla was ready. The guy could go for the window, risk a bullet in his spine. Most likely, he’d take his chances reading his poem. But he didn’t know how good she was.

He cleared his throat, lifted the paper to eye level, and read, “I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.”

“But it’s night—” Rook fired a shot through his forehead, splattering the wall with blood and brains. He slumped off his chair, and the sheet of paper slipped from his dead fingers, see-sawing through the air to settle on the floor. Rook walked around the table, stood over the folded body, and finished the line: “what can one see?”

“Heard that one before, huh?” Camilla said.

“Yannis Ritsos. ‘Maybe, Someday.’”

Rook picked up the paper, corner wet with blood, and scanned the lines. Word for word, the same poem. As far as she remembered it, anyway. Sometimes bugs just spit out copies of old poems. Safer than trying to fool a poet. That was one thing the machines could never do better than humans. Their poetry was shit. That was how to spot them.

Rook crumpled the paper and tossed it aside. “I’ll get the bug, then let’s go.”

Rook knelt and took out her bugpick. A segmented rod, all black, except for a terminal metallic prong. Like a magician’s wand, but good for just one trick. Rook crunched it up the dead man’s nostril and drilled through the nasal cavity. That was SOP, but if she was thinking, she could’ve used the nice, clean bullet-wound. The snake-end whirred inside his skull, deadened by brain matter and bone, while Rook wrestled the wobbling handle.

Camilla had a look of disgust. This part was supposed to be her job, but Rook didn’t mind the extraction. Beep. Bug located.

Rook yanked out the bugpick with a slurping, suction sound, along with a dangling string of brain stuff. The bug quivered on the end of the pick—blinking microchip, about the size of a thumbnail, insectoid prongs like centipede legs. A bio-synthetic cyber-critter, invisible to metal-detectors and MRI. Amazing what those little bastards could do. Rook put it in the case. Another bug, out of commission.

Some people thought the hosts were clones. Others were sure they used to be regular humans, abducted and implanted with chips that hot-wired their CNS. Technically, they were cyborgs now, human biology controlled by machine parasite. Either way, what was left of them after they got the bug out was always a braindead husk. They weren’t human anymore, if they ever were. That made policy simple. Kill the hosts, move on.

“You coulda strung him along a bit,” Camilla said. “I was hoping to get some field data.” She pocketed her notepad with a deliberate, exasperated motion, as if to say, “I’ve got a job to do too, you know.”

Always a go-getter, trying to make a good impression on command, collecting fresh data. But she’d been around long enough to know better – once a bug goes for a ctrl-v strat, they’ll stick to it until you catch them out.

That’s why source material was so coveted. Camouflage. Machines could slip by the best poets, unless they happened to know the same poem. So the machines mined archives of poets, old libraries, discarded hard-drives. Human poets studied those too, so they could spot a copy. That’s poetry 101. Know your shit. Recognise it.

“Waste of time,” was all Rook said.

It was hard to put a finger on where exactly the machine’s poems went wrong. There’s supposed to be a fabric that ties it all together. A common experience, or shared humanity, maybe, below the surface. There were no symbols to compute, so the machines had no way to fake it.

Sure, they tried. But it wasn’t just putting things in rhymes. Machines could do that. It wasn’t rhythm or lines, either, or anything you could call a form. Sestina. Villanelle. Terza Rima. Machines could play with those forms as well as they could play chess. They knew the techniques. Metaphor. Symbolism. Irony. But something was always off. To a trained ear, their poetry felt dead. Soulless.

“Let’s go,” Rook said, stepping into the darkness of the hall. Shards of light spilled through boards and a gauze of cobweb. With each creaky step, dust and mildew puffed up, along with the stink of spoor that littered the hall. Rook’s breath hung in the icy air that whistled through the old house.

They creaked down the stairs. Steps ready to give way, rotted and splintered, bending under the stress of human weight for the first time in who-knows-how-many decades. The banister wasn’t reassuring, wobbling at the slightest touch.

“I got the door,” Camilla said, walking down the front hall. The padlock and chain stood out, the only things around not dusty and decayed, a standard measure for interrogation in hostile territory. While Camilla unlocked the door, there was a creak, somewhere across the old house.

Rook and Camilla froze, snapped heads towards the source of the sound. Maybe just an animal. Rook remembered her book bag, which she’d left by the base of the stairs. It had her notebook in it. And it was gone. Shit.

“Someone’s in here,” Rook said, hushed, drawing her Sig. “And they’ve got my notebook.”

“Your notebook?”

“I left my bag by the stairs, and it’s gone.”

“Any OC?”

“A few poems.” Pretty good ones, too.

“Shee-it.”

Damn right ‘shit’. Common sense would dictate not to keep copies of original poems. They could only be used against you, and they had marginal value. Better to destroy them instead, or not write them in the first place. Rook still wrote from time to time. That’s how you sharpen your poetic sense -how you learn to catch a bug. But you were supposed to destroy those exercises. There weren’t many defensible reasons to keep original poems.

Rook scanned the area, eyes darting here and there. Door frame leading to the kitchen, out of view, living room at the far end, carpet in the hall, its corner conspicuously folded over showing the outline of a cellar door. She signalled to Camilla — look, there — and walked slowly for the cellar.

Rook spread her weight, tried to move soft, slight creaks with each step. A handle poked up, half-hidden under the carpet. If someone was down there, they could hear where she’d stopped.

Rook took a breath. Reached for the handle. Shuffling sounds came from the cellar -at least two people down there. Gunfire exploded out. Wood splintered from bullet holes.

Rook dove into the kitchen, sliding and rolling through a loose film of dirt on the old tiles. A trail of bulletholes followed, splintered wood and swirls of dust through the floorboards, shattered tiles as bullets punched into the kitchen.

At the front door, Camilla returned fire with her Sig, a few scattered shots through the floorboards. The gunfire from below paused–were they reloading? hit? taking cover?–then return fire came for Camilla. She leapt aside as bullets whizzed past. Spears of light took her place, bursting through holes punched in the door.

Rook grabbed an M67 frag. Fuze delay 4 to 5 seconds. She always thought that was a helluva range for an explosive: “this thing’ll kill everything around it in, oh, about four or five seconds.” That second fucking matters! Oh well. She pulled the pin as she ran into the hall, grabbed the cellar handle and yanked it up just enough to see the stairs leading down, and tossed the grenade into the darkness, slamming the door after it.

She ran, gunshots banging behind, turned in time to see the cellar pop open. A hand pushing up from below. No way you’re throwing that back, Rook thought. She squeezed off a shot, blew off a couple fingers on the reaching hand. The door dropped back down, and a man screamed from the cellar.

An explosion boomed, shaking the house, knocking an avalanche of dust and cobwebs from the walls. Then it was quiet.

“You think they’re dead?” Camilla said.

“Yeah.” M67 is lethal to five meters, larger than the cellar probably was. “But we go check, anyway. And I’ve gotta get my notebook back.”

Rook opened the cellar door, shined her flashlight into the darkness. One mangled body down there, confidently out of commission. Some busted shelves. Canned goods scattered, spilling contents from shrapnel punctures. She walked into the pungent smell of tomato soup, detonated Composition B -RDX and TNT- and rat excrement. Shuffling to the far end, she kicked away loose, clanging cans, made her way past the body, scanned every inch of the cellar. No book bag.

Shelving at the end was riddled with punctures, and light spilled in from behind. A hidden room. She slid the shelving unit aside. Not a hidden room, on closer inspection. It was a tunnel. A rough incline led to open air, partly blocked by a wooden pallet, where light was falling inside and a little hill of snow had formed.

“Looks like someone escaped from here,” Rook said. “And I think they took my bag.”

“Jesus. That’s bad, Rook.”

No kidding. Rook knew as well as anyone, a notebook of OC poems would help the bugs get past the gatekeepers, infiltrate the colonies, so the spiders could come and mop up.

“They couldn’t have gotten far,” Rook said, hopefully.

Halfway down the tunnel, light glinted a few inches from the ground. She signalled ‘stop’.

“Tripwire,” Rook said, pointing. She knelt by the end of the wire, located a mound of dirt, brushed it away. A tin can, packed with explosives, nails, detonator rigged to the line. “IED. Watch your step.”

They ascended the incline, up to the daylight and snow. Whoever had escaped from here was in a hurry, not bothering to put the wooden pallet back in place. But that didn’t mean they weren’t sitting around for an ambush.

“Wait here,” Rook said. “Stay on comm. I’m taking a look from upstairs.”

Camilla nodded, and Rook traced back through the hall, the cellar, the stairs to ground, to the upper hall, the old bedroom facing West, the grime-caked window. The pallet stood in the yard. A trail of footsteps -two sets- led from the pallet through a tangle of brush and the vestige of a wooden fence at the old property line. No hostiles.

“It’s clear,” Rook said through the comm. Camilla popped up from the pallet, Mark 12 ready. “Keep your eyes open. I’ll meet you there.”

Rook joined with Camilla in the yard.

“We can track them,” Rook said. “I’ve gotta get my notebook back. But first things first.” She activated her comm. “SITREP.”

Rook comm’d back to base, explained the situation to Major Wolfe. She didn’t take it well, and Rook got an earful.

“What the hell were you doing with that many poems?”

Damned if Rook knew. Temporary stupidity? Sentimentality? Pride in her work? Or maybe it was because they meant something to her.

A few years back it wouldn’t have been that unusual to have OC poems on hand. They needed fresh ones for the interrogation questionnaires. Give a pair of poems: one written by a bug during interrogation, the other by a human. The machine can’t tell the difference between the two poems -if they could do that, they could write their own- but untrained humans can. Kind of. Better than chance, anyway. Over the course of multiple rounds a machine would average fifty percent. An untrained human would score around fifty-seven.

In those days, you didn’t need poets to interrogate the bugs, just to write the questionnaires. But for that you needed fresh poems.

“Old habit, I guess,” Rook said.

Wolfe put Rook on blast about protocol. It had been years since poets wrote poems for questionnaires. After the machines figured out their own poems were being used as test material, they started to get clever, hiding coded messages between the lines. Their own version of subtext, in a way. Some kind of numerical values were associated with different words or letters or lineation, or something–they never did crack the code–which allowed the machines to recognise their own work. The machines gamed the questionnaire. Raised their ability to detect their own poems enough that they could match the untrained humans. Rendering the questionnaire useless.

As much as Rook hated to admit it, that’s when the machines’ poems got interesting. Their coding system was an extra constraint, and it sometimes led to weird syntax and diction. A kind of flavour–machine poetry, you could call it–that was detectable to a discerning poet’s ear. The questionnaire was useless now, but trained poets could better distinguish between machine and human poetry. That made military poets an essential asset–made Rook a VIP.

Wolfe asked what the poems were about.

“Mostly metapoetry,” Rook said.

“Jesus-Christ.”

It was one of the best subjects for interrogations. Since machines didn’t know how to write poetry, they were extra shit at writing poetry about poetry. If two dozen OC metapoems got into enemy hands, poets would have to adjust their interrogation tactics, and their proficiency would drop. Like losing the queen in a chess match.

Wolfe made retreiving the notebook the top mission priority in the area. There were a couple recon teams en route, ETA eight hours, but Wolfe didn’t want to risk losing the asset in the interim. Rook and Camilla got the go-ahead to pursue.

“Find that notebook,” Wolfe said. “And don’t write any more fucking poems in hostile territory.”

They tracked the trail. Footsteps through snow, broken thickets here and there, stomping through brush between buildings. They took their time around corners, anywhere with blocked FOV, avoiding exposed areas. Slower, but better than dead in an ambush. They didn’t follow directly, cutting away on side streets, intercepting the trail where it was safe. They lost it a couple times, but circled until they reestablished.

“Sorry about the notebook,” Camilla said. “I guess it’s my fault,”

How was that? Well, maybe. She did miss the cellar in the sweep. But this was Rook’s fuck-up more than anyone. She’d left her notebook for a bug to snag–why the hell’d she have to leave her bag at the bottom of the stairs?–and Rook was supposed to be the mentor.

“It’s not your fault,” Rook said. “Anyway, they left a nice trail for us. We’ll get it back.”

Rook didn’t mind this part of the city. It was easy to imagine what it was like before – that the traffic lights still worked, there were people in these snow-cloaked cars, that trees hadn’t invaded the streets, or vines hadn’t crawled across the bricks. It was probably the way they left the traffic. Not like what was left of New York, or any of the small towns from here to there, cars smashed up in all-different angles, up on the sidewalk or half-inside storefronts. On some of the streets here–not all of them, but ones like this–it was like everyone just sort of calmly parked and walked off to die. Sure, it was a ghost city. But it almost felt like it was ready to wake up.

Rook didn’t sense that their marks knew where they were going, taking a zig-zagging route through the city. Running scared. Maybe trying to lose a tail, if they thought they had one. And maybe by now they thought they’d lost it. Rook traced the footsteps into an old convenience store, just as the sun was setting.

“You think they’ve got friends in there?” Camilla said.

“Maybe,” Rook said. “Could be a rally point.”

She scanned the area for a suitable nest. Spotted a long row of old houses and storefronts, two-stories, semi-detached across the whole block, with a clear view to the store. An old rusted fire escape led to the second level, stretched across the length of the back alley.

“I’ll set up there,” she said, pointing. “You close in on their position, keep an eye on any exit points.”

Rook stayed out of line of sight of the old convenience store, took a side street to the back alley, up the fire escape, in through an old window. Somewhere in the darkness, a startled animal scurried away.

Rook crossed the old house to a room with a street-facing window, about a block from the convenience store, but still a clear view across the street. She set the tripod in the darkness away from the window, attached her Remington 700 -7.62mm, fitted the scope. Focus check. Parallax adjustment. Good to go. She eyed the convenience store in the reticle, 10x magnification.

A man stood inside the moonlit glass frontage, occluded by one row of empty metal shelves, his jaw showing, the rest of his head out of view. A shot to the heart was available. He’d live for 8 to 10 seconds. His hands were moving a lot, like he was talking to someone. Rook slid the reticle to follow his gaze. A woman sat in a chair, mostly hidden behind a table, shoulders and head visible. The human head is about 7 inches, but an instant killing shot has to hit the right part of the brain -a narrow band, 2 inches, running from earlobe to earlobe. The target wasn’t moving. Easy shot, when it was time to take it.

Camilla’s voice came through the comm. “There’s a side exit into an alley. I’m positioned South of there.”

“Got at least two inside,” Rook said. “Sit tight. Checking for other targets.”

She swept the storefront, looking for motion, any signs of life. A couple bulky cloth shapes on one of the tables, maybe backpacks. Empty shelves, lining most of the store, except the desk by the front entrance. A flicker of motion. Rook centered the reticle. A third figure–faint outline in the dark–screwed around in front of indistinct, twisted metal, like balled up rebar and sheets of steel.

“Three targets,” Rook said. “Might be more I can’t see. But I wanna move fast.” They weren’t going to get a better chance than now. And Rook didn’t want to be around when enemy backup arrived.

“What’s the plan?”

“Just make sure no one gets out the side exit. I’ll try to pick ’em all off, but no guarantees -except the first one.” She had a clear view of the street, and the whole glass front of the store, for that matter. It almost wasn’t fair.

Rook eyed the snow drifting over the street, leafless vines trembling, branches shaking on a dead tree on the corner, and roughly gauged the wind at 16KPH. Then she eyeballed the slope to the target, about 10 degrees, range multiplier of .98. Distance, about 180 meters.

She’d go for the one in the back first. Didn’t want to risk him going out of sight. Then she’d move for the targets closer to the window. Hopefully take them out before they realised they were under fire.

She aimed for the mark in the shadows. Breathed in. Breathed out. Held her breath at the end of exhalation, the natural respiratory pause, an 8 to 10 second window without any rising or falling of the chest. She fired and followed through, watched a bursting silhouette crumple out of view, and swung to the next target.

The man behind the shelves sprinted for the side door, and Rook led him by a third of a meter. She fired.

She saw the effects in her mind first. The direction of the lead core of the bullet is unaffected by glass, even if hits at an angle of 45 degrees, and the shattered glass will explode in a cone like a shotgun blast. Rook watched these effects almost exactly as expected, her mark peppered with glass fragments. But she’d misjudged the lead, missed the shot, and the man stumbled for the side door, out of view behind some shelving. Rook squeezed off a blind shot, punching a hole through the shelving, then swung back for the third target.

An unexpected flash caught her attention. Metal unfurled in a red glare of LEDs, reached out from the back of the room. A spider. Shit. An uncanny flurry of metal limbs flashed across the street, like it was scurrying in fast-forward, starlight glinting from metal edges, lights blinking on sensor nodules.

Rook grabbed her gun and dove for the floor, below the sightline of the window.

A flash of white blotted out the whole room, and a booming crack split the air. Rook blinked as white faded to black, rubbed her eyes until she could see the faint outlines of the room. Two laser-holes had burned through the walls, edged with glowing orange circles of ember. There was another sound behind the ringing in Rook’s ears – Camilla, through the comm.

“-the hell was that? Rook? Was that a laser cannon?”

“Run,” Rook said to Camilla through the comm.

“What about the-”

“-run,” she screamed. “There’s a spider!”

Rook detached the tripod, crawled to the window, peered through to the street, where the spider should be. But wasn’t. Shit. Shit shit. She scoped the street.

The spider’s trail lead through the snow, up and over the cars on the street, about ten meters East, and stopped at a wall. She looked up. There it was, scrambling along the roofs across the street, legs like pistons, punching through here and there, as it marched across the high ground. Towards Camilla.

“It’s coming in your direction,” Rook said. “Get out of view before it knows you’re there.”

“Too late,” Camilla said. Rook could hear the rushing wind of Camilla sprinting for her life. “I took out a target in the alley.”

Just like the plan. But they hadn’t known there was a spider in there. It would use sonic triangulation to locate the source of the gunfire. Now it knew there were at least two targets – or one-point-something targets, depending on the estimated probability that it hit something with its laser cannon. And it was hunting for its next target: Camilla.

Spiders were smarter, stronger, faster. They could take out entire recon teams. They had superior weapons. Superior aim, armour, mobility, tactics. With mechanical efficiency, the spider would scour the block until it eradicated the threat – the one-point-something remaining human targets.

Rook couldn’t take it out with one shot. Even if she punctured the hull, there wasn’t anything like a critical component or a brain. The whole thing was a distributed architecture with graceful degradation. Extra brains in its legs, so it could keep going despite serious damage. Rook centered the spidery metal in the reticle. She couldn’t take it out, but maybe she could get it off Camilla’s tail.

She aimed for the base of spider leg, where it thickened and met the body, ending in a large groove, two seams of metal exposing an inch of mechanical innards. She fired. Watched the spider stagger. Slightly off-kilter, until its algorithms adjusted for the damage. But that wasn’t the point. In the spider’s mind, one-point-something targets were two again.

Rook dove to the floor, rolled aside. A laser blasted through the room, shattering the window and burning another hole through the far wall.

They were playing chess now, her and the spider, and it was deciding its next move. What piece to capture. Rook pictured the board. The spider was a knight, jumping up on roofs, clearing obstacles on its way to her back rank. The third bug was a pawn, somewhere around the store – maybe she’d hidden behind the desk where she was sitting, maybe she’d run. Camilla was South of the bug’s position. Camilla might’ve deserved to be a bishop–she’d been training long enough to earn that honour–but right now she felt to Rook like an overextended pawn.

Rook stayed low. Didn’t need to look, anyway. She could hear the spider on the street, charging in her direction, like a handful of coins banging around inside a steel drum, echoing off old storefronts, growing louder until it was almost painful. Then there was a pneumatic hiss and scraped metal, and sudden silence, hanging ominously in the air. A crash on the roof, floorboards rumbling. It was right on top of her position.

A thin white line sliced through the ceiling to the floor -the beam of a plasma torch- brightening the hall like daylight, sizzling and crackling as it traced along the length of the house. Rook could feel the heat. Orange and blue flames flickered along the torched edges of the boards.

There was splintering wood in the attic, planks torn away -the spider tearing its way through the roof.

She had to distract it, maybe mess with its sensors to buy herself some time. Rook grabbed an M18 smoke grenade, pulled the pin, and tossed it into the hall, where it clunked, bounced, and rolled, green smoke billowing. There was a risk of fire from the M18, and a risk of oxygen deprivation in enclosed spaces, but worth it. The heat of the canister and the smoke cover should affect the spider’s sensors.

Pawns are one point. Knights are three. Rook considered herself five, at least. But the bug still had her notebook, and the spider knew it. That meant the last bug wasn’t a pawn, after all. It was a queen, en prise.

“I need you to go back for the last bug,” Rook said through the comm.

“You crazy?”

“The spider’s on my position,” Rook said. “But it’s trying to protect the notebook. You’ve gotta flush out the bug. But don’t kill it. Let it run.”

“Alright,” Camilla said, but she didn’t sound so convinced. “On my way.”

The spider crashed down into a room somewhere in the house, then marched into the hall. Thick green smoke blocked everything but the floor, where Rook was laying low. She took an M84 stun grenade. Fuse delay of 1 to 2 seconds. Pulled the pin and threw it into the hall. Metal clanged on metal -she’d hit the damn spider with it!- then it blew. 170 decibel blast, 8 million candela flash. It would fuck with the spider’s sensors, maybe not as much as it would affect a person, but enough for Rook to move.

She sprinted for the open window, lowered herself down on the outside. Green smoke plumed out from the window above, black smoke from holes in the house. Rook looked down and mentally braced herself for the three meter fall below her dangling feet, then dropped. An unsettling feeling, falling for so long. She hit the ground, instinctively bending her knees and rolling, but it was a heavy impact.

She limped for the front door of the building, pushed her way inside, for the relative safety of the burning building. The place looked like an old diner, tables and chairs and booths around the room. Flames flickered where the plasma torch had burned down to the first level. Black smoke crept into the room. Normally, one avoids running into burning buildings, but Rook needed the sensor cover – she’d be an easy target on the open street. The spider was above, stomping and torching its way through the second level.

Sounds of gunfire outside. Hard to pinpoint, with the echo, but it had to be Camilla. Rook moved for the window, looked past the metal grating that spanned its length, down the street. From the convenience store in the distance, a woman burst out of the door–the bug from behind the desk–hunting rifle awkwardly swinging in one hand, a book bag in the other. Rook’s bag.

“Take a couple shots,” Rook said to Camilla. “But don’t hit her. Then take cover.”

Camilla popped out from the beside the store, fired two shots, then disappeared back in the alley. The spider’s laser cannon cracked the air, blasted through Camilla’s cover. Super-heated brick exploded, leaving a crumbling crater in the convenience store wall. The bug leapt to the street, crushing a car, then scrambled for Camilla’s position.

“You better move,” Rook said. “Fast.”

Rook stepped into the front door frame and levelled her rifle. The spider was shrinking in the reticle. Rook didn’t fire, swung over to the bug instead. Aimed for the bug’s hunting rifle. Fired. The weapon spun out of the bug’s hand, and she stumbled.

Rook didn’t wait around to see the spider’s reaction, sprinted instead for the back of the house, into the black smoke, dropped to her knees and crawled for the door into the back alley. She winced at the crack of the laser cannon, felt the heat pass just over her. The house creaked and groaned. It could come down any second. Coughing, seeing nothing but black, she felt her way to the back door. Pushed it open to the alley, and fell out into breathable air, with a house-sized cover of smoke and fire between her and the spider.

“What’s your position?” Rook said.

“A block East.” She could hear that Camilla was running fast, breathing hard.

Rook edged around the complex to get a better view of the street. The spider was missing. The bug was way in the distance, still running, still holding the bag.

“Head back to the street,” Rook said. “Threaten the bug.”

Rook raised her rifle, scanned for the spider, followed its trail — collapsed car roofs and circular snowprints — to the base of an old hotel. She slid the reticle up the side of the building, saw the spider, five stories and climbing, taking the high ground. Rook aimed for its laser cannon, fired, and ducked back behind the alley.

She heard two gunshots from Camilla. Peeking around the corner, Rook saw the spider stop and swing its sensors and weapons for the street. It fired a machinegun burst in Camilla’s direction, with the rapid cracks of supersonic bullets, the lagging thump-thump-thump of the report.

“You hit?” Rook asked.

“I’m good.”

Rook fired at the spider’s mass. Ran behind cover and hit the deck. Machine gun rounds punched through the house, peppering the street, with explosions of shattered pavement. Rook crawled from the corner and fired a quick shot in the spider’s direction, then rolled back behind cover.

“Looks like the spider’s retreating,” Camilla said.

“It’s protecting the notebook,” Rook said. “Keep up the pressure.”

Two more rifle shots from the distance. Return fire from the machinegun. A burst of cracking and thumping.

“You alright?” Rook said.

Nothing.

“Camilla? You good?”

Oh, Christ. Rook sprinted through the back alley, East, for Camilla’s last position. A dull pain throbbed in her ankle, masked by adrenaline. Something was wrecked in the fall, but she could still run on it.

Rook leaned from the alley, glanced into the street. The bug-woman was almost out of view, about to turn around a bend three blocks in the distance. Rook aimed for her calf. The shot obliterated the limb below the knee, and the bug fell forward, one boot flying off to the side.

Rook ducked behind the wall as the spider scurried out of view. Rook was sure the notebook was its top priority. It would stay near the injured bug, maybe circle the area defensively.

Rook grabbed her last M67 grenade, pulled the pin and chucked it behind the alley, as far as she could throw. With a bounce and a roll it was maybe 30 meters away. She sprinted across to street, towards Camilla. The grenade exploded off in the distance, hopefully throwing the spider off her trail.

Camilla was lying by a brick wall, color gone from her face, eyes closed. Looked like she passed out holding her leg. Blood from her thigh soaked into the snow.

“You still with me?” Rook said.

She shook Camilla by the shoulder. No response. Still breathing, though. Weak pulse.

Rook grabbed the medkit from her bag. Scissored away Camilla’s pant leg. It was a mess underneath. Rook grabbed a tube of medsalve, squirted the whole thing over the wound in big glistening globs. Slapped on a bandage roll, wrapped it five times around Camilla’s thigh. Now she had to get the hell out of there.

She put her gear in her drag bag, then hoisted Camilla in a fireman’s carry. Don’t die on me, she thought. There were a few larger buildings nearby. An old apartment complex. But the spider could follow anywhere, if it was going to, so no point in hiding. Move, was the plan. Get as far as you can as fast as you can.

Rook ran, wincing from the pain in her ankle, way worse with the extra weight of a body bouncing on her shoulders. She cleared the apartment complex, an old strip mall, a park, the ruins of an old church overgrown with vines through its spires and what was left of its stained-glass windows, a downhill stretch of road for six blocks, and finally made it to the old highway.

If the spider was still coming for them, it was taking its time. Hopefully, it had escorted the bug, instead of hunting human targets. The snow was falling heavy now, and it would cover their tracks.

Rook dragged Camilla under the on-ramp, then comm’ed command.

“I’m gonna need a med-evac,” she said. She knew support was coming into the area, and hopefully they were close. Command confirmed the med-evac order, took their position.

The bug still had Rook’s notebook. But at least she was alive, and maybe Camilla would make it, too.

The evac team took them out of the conflict zone to a temporary base of operations, what used to be a grocery store. Cables criss-crossed and sagged across the room. With sensor cloaks draped all along the main walls, it looked like the whole place was inside a giant garbage bag. Metal shelves had been pushed aside, rearranged to make a mission room, an office for Major Wolfe, barracks with a dozen cots, storage for vehicles and gear, and an infirmary, where Camilla was in treatment. Rook was planning on checking on her, but had to meet with Major Wolfe first.

She got a grilling from the major, had to explain what happened, especially the lost notebook. And how many OC poems the bugs had nabbed.

Overall, the operation had been a failure. Five bugs down, total, but it wasn’t worth it. Camilla was out of commission. And worse, from a strategic point of view, they’d snagged Rook’s note book. It was a disaster, really. If a bug used her poems to infiltrate a colony, they could wipe it off the map. And it would be Rook’s fault. Thousands of lives were at stake. There were recon teams on it, but with the lead the bug had, and the spider escort, there was no guarantee for success.

“Let me back in the field,” Rook said. “I can help track them.”

“Not a fucking chance,” Wolfe said. “For one thing, you’re the only poet in this AO not lying in a stretcher. But more important, we’ve got to consider the possibility that we won’t recover your notebook. And the only other copy of those poems is in your head. We need you to make copies, as a contingency.”

Rook got her orders. Stay put–don’t die–try to remember the poems from the notebook, and write them down so they can be taught to other poets, just in case the machines got them into their corpus. If Rook was the prideful type, she might’ve seen that as a plus. Poets everywhere would have to learn her poems, under threat of getting nuked.

Rook went to see Camilla. She was lying on a stretcher, plugged in to an IV, out cold. Heart-rate monitor beeping steadily. The bullet had grazed her thigh, took out a big chunk. Missed the bone and the femoral artery. She’d lost a lot of blood. If Rook had gotten there any later, she might not have made it. But she was going to be okay.

Camilla was a few years younger than Rook, and was something like the younger sister she’d never had. She’d been found with some survivors from a town called Brampton, in Ontario. A few stragglers made their way to Rook’s colony. 87 humans, 4 bugs.

That was back when they were still using questionnaires. So what was it, eight, nine years they’d been working together? After Camilla had seen how the bugs work, she wanted to take up poetry. They shared that in common. A drive for poetry. But Camilla’s drive was rooted in pragmatism, and Rook’s was just something she’d always had. But Rook had been her mentor since.

“A poem is a bullet,” Rook had said. “You got two targets. The heart, and the head. But before you take a shot – ” that’s when she handed Camilla her syllabus. Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer. Yeats, Wordsworth, Blake. Dickinson, Whitman, Stevens. Et al. And Camilla had given a look that Rook never forgot, halfway between incredulity and smelling a shit.

“You expect me to read all that?”

“That’s how you learn how to aim.”

When Camilla woke a couple hours later, Rook was at her side, writing down some of the poems she’d lost, as well as she could remember them. Camilla blinked a few times, looking confused, then her wide eyes were darting here and there. Rook was just happy to see she’d pulled out of it.

“Good to see you awake.”

Then she explained what happened, how they made it out of the AO.

“Thanks,” Camilla said, then dropped her head back on the stretcher.

“Don’t mention it,” Rook said. “And the doc tells me your leg’ll be fine. Nothing a little medsalve can’t fix.”

“Word on your notebook?”

“Nothing yet.”

Camilla seemed groggy.

“When you’re ready,” Rook said, handing Camilla a tablet with reproductions of some of the lost notebook poems, “there’s some poems here you should learn.”

Eight days later a request came in for a poet, a simple interrogation. Rook was the only poet in the AO. She needed an observer, and Camilla was insistent that she come along. Major Wolfe authorised the excursion. Rook and Camilla were heading back into the field.

They took the dirt bikes. Electric engines hummed along the highway. It had warmed since their run-in with the spider. Temperature just above freezing, and all the snow had melted, but it was cold with the rushing wind. The ride was mostly smooth, occasional stops to hoist and slide the bikes over rusted-cars-turned-barricades.

They made their way into the city, maybe eight blocks north and a couple west of the highway. They found Captain Bloom, the one who’d requested a poet, standing in front of an old storefront that had been boarded up with plywood.

“The cavalry has arrived,” Rook said, stepping off the bike and booting the kickstand. “You called for a poet?”

“We got a mess here,” Bloom said.

He led her and Camilla into the building. The door screeched on rusted hinges into a dusty room, and Rook shined her flashlight into the darkness. The whole place was lined with books. A bookstore. A goddamn bookstore.

“We don’t have time for all this,” Rook said. “Just fuckin’ burn it.”

“It ain’t that simple.”

“Why not?”

“Check the back room,” he said, making his way across the old store. Rook and Camilla followed.

They passed the poetry section. The dust was unsettled here, and books were misaligned. Someone had been reading them, maybe taken a few. Hopefully nothing rare.

The rare stuff was the most valuable, of course. Limited runs, small press chapbooks, that kind of thing. Most of it was garbage, but it was written by humans, and that’s what mattered. Machines always sought it out, found it searching ruins of the old cities, bookstores and libraries, added it to their corpus and destroyed the original, so poets wouldn’t know it was just ctrl-v when they spit it out. They covered a lot of the standard themes–love and hate, birth and death, sex and violence–and their common symbolic-associates – flowers and skulls and roses. Lots of cliché shit. There was no point interrogating on those themes anymore, because if the mark was a bug, they probably had a ctrl-v ready. That’s one of the fundamentals of poetry. Fuck clichés. Keep it interesting.

Captain Bloom pulled aside a curtain to the backroom. There was a light on the table, shining on a makeshift living space. A few sleeping bags, backpacks, rations. And two prisoners against the wall, ankles tied to chair legs, hands tied at the wrist behind their backs, squinting against the flashlight in their eyes.

“Christ,” Rook said. “You found them in here?”

“Suspicious, I know. My gut tells me they’re bugs. I’d say just ice ’em and quit wasting our time here. But there’s the protocol, right?”

Some people say its a waste of time, trying to sort the bugs from the stragglers. And if you make one mistake, let a single bug in your colony, it’s goodnight. The machines save the nukes for the big colonies, waiting on word from a bug. And if not the nukes, there were always the spiders.

“Weapons?” Rook said.

“Couple hunting rifles,” Bloom said.

Typical for stragglers. Hunting rifles were the easiest weapons to come by in these parts, and it made sense to carry protection, from humans and bugs.

Some colonies just didn’t fuck around with stragglers. What’s the point, especially if you don’t have a poet? Just shoot them on sight, eliminate the potential threat. You look after your own. Why risk it all for a stranger? That was the thinking, anyway.

But some colonies decided it was worth the risk. Not everyone could think like kill-or-be-killed survivalists. Hell, Rook thought, if everyone did that, we’d be doing the machine’s work for ’em, blasting each other away until there was nothing left. But we aren’t all like that. Some of us are looking for our common humanity. That’s our strength. That’s why the military started training poets. And that’s why we’ll beat the machines. One day.

“Depending on how many of these books they’ve read,” Rook said, “it might take a while to sort this out.”

“I was worried about that,” Bloom said. “But I guess it’s your problem now, right?” He laughed.

“Right.”

Bloom said he’d update Rook with word on the notebook, or hostiles in the area, then he left her to it. He was here for recon, to find ‘that god-damn-notebook’ as he put it, not dicking around with poets. Rook turned her attention to the two marks, tied in their chairs against the wall. She had work to do.

They didn’t look like fighters. The girl had a bunch of tattoos and short, spiked black hair, distinctly non-military. The guy was lanky and unshaven, but not quite sporting a beard.

Sure, there was a chance they were humans. How many survivors were out there, Rook often wondered. You could get a rough sense of it, ranging around, finding signs of life, and every now and then, stragglers. Of course there was no way to know for sure. The smart colonies stayed under the radar. The not-so-smart ones. Well. They were as easy to find by humans as the machines, so they didn’t tend to last long. Rook pegged the number at a few million survivors, globally. That was mostly extrapolation, maybe a dose of wishful thinking. Were these two human? Rook would find out, one way or another.

The punk girl had an unusual face, with striking eyes, deep blue-green pools. Some people say the eyes are the window to the soul. If it was that easy, Rook would be out of a job.

The guy started blathering about where they’d come from. A small colony living in the sewers. Said they were infiltrated by a bug, then attacked by spiders. These two had escaped together. They’d camped in the book store, trying to learn poetry, to learn to spot a bug. So they said. But there was no reason to believe any of it.

“Let me stop you right there,” Rook said. “Every bug I’ve ever met has had some elaborate story. Family. Friends. Memories. Maybe they even believed it.”

“So a bug can actually think it’s a human?” the punk said.

It was a weird thing to consider, and Rook didn’t know quite how to look at it. The machines had mechanical approximations of beliefs and thoughts, and for the sake of conversational utility, it made sense to talk about how they ‘think’. But they weren’t the same thing. Something was missing.

“Maybe,” Rook said. “Kind of.”

“Then how do you know you’re not a bug?”

“Because I know poetry.” That was definitive. The bugs could never learn how to do it. And if they could, someday, well, maybe on that day they deserved to be called human after all.

“How ’bout you prove it?”

“That’s not how this works,” Rook said.

“Why not?”

“Because I have this.” Rook lifted her Sig. “And you’re tied to chairs.”

“If you’re not bugs,” the guy said, “you’ve got nothing to lose.”

“Nothing to gain either,” Rook said.

“We can help you find the notebook,” the punk said.

“How the hell do you know about that?”

“From the captain,” she said. “He was asking about a stolen notebook. We can help you find it.”

Captain Bloom must’ve taken the opportunity to interrogate these two – he was sent here looking for the notebook, after all. So much for poets being in charge of interrogations. Rook told herself she’d report him later, but for now, she had to figure out what to do with these two.

“So where’s the notebook?” Rook said.

“Prove you’re not bugs first,” she said.

The field poet is expected to perform several tasks other than extracting bugs. One of the most important is gaining information on the enemy, and interrogating their poetry. So these two presented an opportunity, whether they were telling the truth about the notebook, or whether they were bugs.

“Alright,” Rook said. “How you wanna do this?”

“We’ll write it together,” she said. “A collaborative poem, take turns writing lines.”

Rook agreed, Camilla got the tablet out, and they untied the prisoners arms. Then they passed the tablet around, writing a line each time, until there were eight lines on the screen.

we build these bridges of smoke

but who will climb first

to our castles in the sky

where dreams and nightmares wail

and beat against the frozen walls

remembering for the first time

the cored husk of the earth

echoing the silence of the dead

Rook didn’t know quite what to make of it. Two lines of poetry had never been enough to spot a bug. They could easily be snipped from some long-forgotten book that nobody read. And their value was further diluted by the nature of the exercise, playing off of each other’s themes and diction and syntax and lack of punctuation. But for all that, it seemed to satisfy the punk girl, who read it over, nodded approvingly, and passed it back to Rook, introducing herself as Simone, and the guy as Ben.

Then she launched into an explanation of the bugs, things her colony had learned about them. The chips didn’t have any communication signals, since that would’ve made them too easy to detect, so they had to work as independent agents. The machines gave the bugs different drives, depending on the mission. Sort of like the biological urge of hunger, but geared to accomplish objectives other than food acquisition: infiltrate a human colony, gather information, learn about poetry. Steal a notebook.

Since they couldn’t communicate with the bugs, the machines had to program them to go to collection points. That was an urge, too, pushing the bugs towards rendezvous points. When their mission is complete, bugs instinctively seek out the collection point.

“That’s where your notebook is headed,” Simone said. “To a collection point. North of here, about two hundred klicks.”

Valuable information, if it was true. But Rook wasn’t convinced these two weren’t bugs. She’d always needed more than two lines to make a judgment.

Rook gave them a notebook and a pencil each, told them they had to write a poem on what it means to be a poet. They’d been cooped up in here trying to learn the art, so they must have some thoughts on it. Enough to write a poem, anyway.

“I’m giving you the opportunity to save your lives,” Rook said. “Tell me what it’s like to be a poet, or I blow your face off.”

She set a timer and left them to it.

Bugs gave a perfect imitation of a human under these circumstances. Quick bursts of writing, stretches of nervous tapping, agitated shuffling, shifting expressions between concern, focus, fear. Rook would have to wait for the finished product to make her assessment.

Gunfire erupted in the distance. Rifle blasts, laserclaps, the cracking-and-thumping of machinegun bursts. Then Captain Bloom came through the comm.

“Said I’d update you if we ran into trouble,” Bloom said. “Thought you should know, we got spiders out here.”

Spiders, he had said. Plural. Rook asked how many.

“Three of ’em,” Bloom said. “Circling our position.”

As much as Rook had confidence in Bloom and his troops, there was no way they were winning this fight.

“We’ll give you firing support,” Rook said. “You need our help.” Blunt, but true. They were outmatched.

“That’s a negative,” Bloom said. “We got orders to secure your retreat, at all costs. Whatever is in your head must be important.” There was a hint of anger in Bloom’s voice, and resignation, but he understood the stakes. Rook’s strategic value was greater than Bloom and his troops. She had to get out of there.

“Time to go,” Rook said to Camilla.

Camilla put away her notebook and grabbed her rifle.

“You can’t leave us here,” Simone said. “If the spiders come through we’re fucking dead.”

Rook went over to the two marks, grabbed the half-finished poems from their hands and skimmed them. Nothing definitively inhuman. It would have to do.

Rook untied them.

“Help me move the desk,” Simone said when she was out of the chair.

“What for?” Rook said.

“For something Bloom missed,” she said, grinding the desk across the wood floor, “when he searched for weapons.”

Rook and Camilla helped Simone slide the desk over. Then she pried off two loose floorboards, revealing a hidden compartment underneath. And an RPG.

“You can use that?” Rook said.

“Yeah,” she said, taking the weapon. “Why you think I’ve got it?”

“What about you?” Rook turned to the guy. “You got any tricks up your sleeve?”

“I’m pretty good with a hunting rifle.”

Hunting rifle wouldn’t do shit against a spider. That guy was as good as a pylon. But an RPG was a different story.

“Let’s go,” Rook said.

The four of them ran through the bookstore out the front to the two waiting dirtbikes.

Glittering white smoke pillared above the streets from ZX2 “dazzle” grenades, cascades of radiation thrown against reflective gas. Perfect sensor cover across a dozen meters. There were intermittent machine gun bursts, rifle shots, laser blasts.

Rook could see just two troops, but the rest would be similarly positioned in the surrounding blocks, keeping behind the dozen or so screens, while spiders scrambled for an unobstructed side view. Soldiers pivoted to stay behind cover, keeping sure to watch their flanks. This was a game of geometry, and the spiders were better.

Two blocks down, a four-story brick building crumbled with a crash and an enormous cloud of dust after taking one-too-many laser blasts.

“Don’t anyone take a shot,” Rook said. “As soon as we do, the spiders’ll be on us.”

Rook hopped on one bike, Simone behind, and Camilla and Ben took the other.

Rook asked Bloom for the escape route.

“There’s an old subway,” Bloom said. “Two blocks Southeast. But they got us boxed in, and one of ’em is covering the East. They don’t want us going anywhere.”

One of Bloom’s soldiers moved for the East street, one pace too slow pivoting around a dazzle-pillar, and got clipped with laser blast on his shoulder, detaching his arm and most of his neck.

The machines had a secure perimeter. No hole through. Unless they made one.

“I’m gonna draw it out,” Rook said. “When you see it come around, hit it with the RPG, and be ready to move. I’ll meet you down here.”

Rook clanged up the fire escape by the book shop, two stories, set her Remington 700 near the ledge on its tripod. Scanned the battlefield. The spiders were strafing, not closing yet, still probing defenses, sizing up the enemy, counting threats based on return fire. Towards the West, one spider was crab-walking behind the cover of abandoned cars and smoke pillars, punching machine gun rounds through the smoke before it disappeared behind an old apartment building. Rook did her own geometry, looked for sight lines, read the battlefield angles. If she shot this one, it would call for a flank from the East. The spider emerged from the other side of the building, and Rook aimed for its laser cannon.

It was moving fast, maybe twice a human sprint, a distance of about 800 meters. Rook took a four-meter lead on the target. She fired. No time to wait to see if it hit. She leaped, rolled for line-of-sight-coverage behind a smoke pillar, midway between her and the spider. Machinegun rounds cracked past. But the real return fire would come from the flanking spider.

Rook faced East, heart pounding. The spider crawled its way around an old hotel, six stories up. Rook was exposed as it rounded the corner above. No cover.

There was gunfire from the street, and the trail of an RPG rocket. The explosion blasted the spider, knocked it from the building with a rain of debris.

The spider cratered into the pavement. Like an animal on its back, legs kicking. Rook aimed, saw its exposed underbelly. She emptied the rest of the magazine, four shots aimed at the leg-brains. Reloaded another five-clip mag, unloaded another five shots. Repeat. Halfway through the third clip, the last of its legs stopped twitching.

Rook ran down the fire escape to the street.

Ben had been shredded by machinegun fire, lying in a pool of blood. Simone and Camilla were on one of the bikes, engine already humming. Rook hopped on her bike, then they sped off for the East. A block East, a block South, and towards the old subway entrance.

The sounds of battle deadened as they walked the bikes into the old subway system. Then they rode North in the tunnels. A few dozen kilometers, maybe, exiting somewhere with a lot of trees. Rook comm’d a SITREP, then they rode for the thin line of the raised highway in the distance, stopping at the on-ramps.

“We’re going North,” Camilla said to Rook.

“It’s South back to base,” Rook said. “You’re not thinking of going for the notebook, are you?”

“Forget the notebook,” Camilla said. “I always thought, if we could just understand each other’s poetry, we could stop the killing. But humans can’t see humanity in machines, and machines can’t see themselves in humans. Not yet, anyway.”

What the hell was she talking about? But Rook didn’t say anything, just stared, waited for an explanation.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you-”

“-and maybe someday,” Rook said, recognising the line, and finished the verse, “from a different direction, we’ll meet.”

“You call them bugs,” Simone said. “We call them people.”

“Goodbye, Rook,” Camilla said. “Thanks for everything.” Then she rode for the on-ramp North, with Simone seated behind.

They were bugs. Both of them.

Rook rode up the on-ramp in pursuit, stopped when the highway straightened out, assembled her Remington. She watched them in the scope, reticle hovering on Simone’s shrinking torso. Camilla must have slipped past the questionnaire all those years ago, and Rook had been training her ever since. So Camilla was more than a bug. She was a professionally trained poet now, working for the machines. But Rook’s trigger finger still hesitated. Maybe because Camilla was a friend. Maybe because of something she’d said, or the way she rode so casually into the distance.

Rook pulled the trigger in her mind, imagined the two bodies fall from the bike, skidding and bouncing across the highway and coming to rest. One bullet, two bugs out of commission.

Rook breathed, her finger floating on the cold edge of the trigger. Muscle memory wrestling with emotion. Nothing she could sort out while her target shrank in the scope. She couldn’t kill Camilla. But she couldn’t let her go, either. Not if she was a bug.

And what would she tell command? That she’d let two bugs escape, because one of them was her friend? Was she, though, really? It was a convincing act. But that sure as hell wasn’t enough for command. No, that wouldn’t do.

She’d tell command she’d missed.

Rook lifted the rifle, fired a shot into the air, one-two-three, a second shot, watched the bike in the distance. It didn’t waver. But Camilla’s arm extended out. A wave, goodbye.

Camilla wasn’t dead. But Rook’s friend was gone now, regardless. She pushed the emotion aside, robotically disassembled her rifle, then took out her tablet. Rook loaded the joint poem she’d written in the bookstore, her and Camilla, Simone and Ben. It was more obvious now why two lines had been enough for them. They were exchanging coded messages in front of Rook’s eyes. A kind of poetry of their own, a bug poetry, invisible to her own sensibilities. It would provide some data for analysis, at least. If Rook could only remember which lines were hers.

______________

David F. Shultz writes speculative fiction and poetry from Toronto, ON, where he is lead editor at tdotSpec. His over fifty published works have appeared in venues such as Star*Line, Abyss & Apex, and Dreams & Nightmares. Find him on Twitter as @davidfshultz; his author webpage is:  www.davidfshultz.com

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