“AIs Don’t Feel Guilty”
by JM Williams
The thump of the VTOL’s heavy rotor blades was like a machine-gun chorus, drawing the aircraft forward, skimming the ocean, onward towards its target. There were several dozen in a scattered formation, looking like a flock of fat, angry geese off to make trouble for someone. Their shadows darkened the sea.
R5 James Castillo liked to lose himself in the chop of the rotors, a perfect lullaby for a grunt like him. But today he had to focus. Today he was in charge of the team, and this was a combat drop.
The cabin lights flickered to life. Castillo rose from his seat and wandered back to the jump bay, a wide space lit by a neon-green glow. The light reflected off the sweaty skin of his scalp, which was almost completely shaved except for a thin landing strip down the middle. His dark, narrow eyes saw four figures buzzing around inside the room, absorbed in their preparations. One last, larger figure stood hunched over in the corner, concealed by shadows.
“Five minutes to drop,” Castillo shouted to his team. They all turned to look at him, standing as he entered the room. “Ya’ll good?”
“No problems, Preacher,” R4 Cedric Brown said to him.
Castillo winced at the pet name. Something R6 Bright had come up with, to reflect Castillo’s Filipino Catholic heritage and the pendant of Saint John the Warrior he wore around his neck.
“What about you, Snaps?” Castillo asked a younger, smaller man beside R4 Brown.
“Everything’s cool, Daddy-o,” R3 Allen said in one of his annoying, hip voices, snapping his fingers like a beatnik from the previous century.
“And you two?” Castillo asked R2s Leman and Chung, who were at the ammunition table arming grenades.
Chung grabbed a couple of the smooth, spherical bombs off the table and handed them to Castillo. “Good, sir,” he said. Leman simply nodded.
“You guys remember what I told you?” Castillo asked. They all nodded. “We’re dropping in on the east landing pad. It’s a wide space, so we expect to take heavy fire if the tango’s got as many golems running around as we think. How’s Rabbit?”
“He’s fully loaded and ready to rock,” Brown said.
As if on cue, the larger figure in the corner rose, its glowing white eyes flickering to life. It clanked heavily around to face the team. “All systems functional,” it said in an overly refined male voice.
“Old man says, when we hit, stay behind the Vanguards,” Castillo said, eyeing the shiny steel monstrosity. “What do you think of that, Rabbit?”
“My mission parameters are clear, R5 Castillo,” the robot replied, its voice like a stereotypical butler from the vids of the previous century.
“What are your parameters?”
“In sequence of priority: protect the team, protect the dropships, destroy automated defenses, destroy other threats, disable the broadcast station, capture or kill Dennis Taggert.”
“Why is the capture-kill mission so low on Rabbit’s priority list?” Allen asked.
“My core mission is to ensure the team is able to infiltrate the facility,” Rabbit replied. “Your priority is capture-kill.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Allen mumbled, walking over to the ammo table to grab some grenades.
Castillo still felt uneasy around these robots. Machines were becoming too emotional, as if their makers wanted them to be human. Castillo could never consider one of these hunks of metal to be alive. To be alive, you needed a soul—his mother had taught him that.
Even so, he couldn’t discount the hardware. Vanguards were top-of-the-line battle units, with full AI and network systems, unlike their dumber cousins, the golems. But golems also didn’t have a look in their eyes like they were always scheming. While a pair of mismatched antennae sticking out of Rabbit’s white-painted head gave some literal validity to its nickname, its immense size was a different story. A model 1205 Vanguard, Rabbit towered an easy half body-length above any of the men on the team, the majority of its height taken up by massive, tree-trunk legs. It was so tall it had to lean forward in order to fit in the aircraft’s drop bay. On its thick left arm was an expanding ballistic shield that could extend to protect the robot’s entire frame, with extra cover for human shooters. Its right arm bore more firepower than the rest of the team combined.
“Aren’t you scared, Rabbit?” Chung asked suddenly.
“Why should I be scared, R2 Chung?”
“Jumping down into the line of fire like that. Aren’t you scared of death, or shutdown, or whatever happens to you guys?”
Chung threw around the word guys as if the robot was just one of the boys. But Castillo could see from the shake in the young man’s hand, the concern was his own. He was deflecting, looking for reassurance.
“AIs cannot die, R2 Chung,” Rabbit replied. “All my data is stored in the Nexus. That includes my memories and experiences. If this frame ceases to function, my data can be downloaded into a new one.”
“Nice trick,” Brown said. “I grew up thinking the same was going to be possible for us real intelligences.”
“Human consciousness is far more complex than scientists expected,” Rabbit said. “The human brain can be augmented, even controlled, but not replaced. Not yet. But maybe in your lifetime—”
“Two minutes, Boss,” a voice said into Castillo’s eBrain intercom. It was the pilot. “Razor 5 is taking fire already. Seems like this jackass knows we’re coming. Brace for chop.”
As soon as the pilot stopped talking, the plane started to bank. Castillo could hear explosive pops going off outside.
“Alright boys,” he said, “this is it! Helmets on. On the line. Two minutes!”
Castillo snapped his helmet’s seal locks and felt the buzz of increased oxygen. He checked that his three smart grenades were locked to the bandolier on his left breast, that his rifle was secured on its quick-sling, and that his smart armor’s diagnostics were all green. Then he punched the button to drop the ramp.
It descended with an angry groan, Rabbit standing in the middle, its ballistic shield partially extended. The giant dropped as the ramp descended, its head now level with rest of the team.
Castillo heard the VTOL’s rotors swing vertical as the aircraft shook with quick maneuvers and the impact of small arms fire. It spun around until the landing pad came into view through the open drop ramp. The drop zone was a wide, hexagonal-shaped metal platform. Behind it, the rust-red pipes and machinery of the derelict oil rig rose like the keep and spires of an industrial castle.
The battle was already raging. Castillo could see at least two teams on the platform, in cover behind their Vanguards as their VTOLs rose back into the sky, raining tracer fire from above. An army of some twenty heavily-armed golems were firing at the landed teams and their VTOLs. A few shifted their attention to Castillo’s aircraft. Rockets and grenades exploded all around.
Several bullets struck Rabbit’s ballistic shield, just in front of Castillo’s face. A stray got past the barrier and bounced around inside the aircraft’s drop bay.
“Damn!” Castillo flinched as the bullet skipped by. The silence which followed suggested it had found its way back out. “Alright, let’s go! Stay behind Rabbit!”
The VTOL was a good twenty feet above the ground, and Rabbit took the fall like a giant metal brick. The steel platform clanged with the hit, then groaned under the added weight. Castillo and his team floated down after the giant. The puff of their combat armor’s thrusters slowed their descent.
Rabbit extended its shield several feet on either side. Castillo could see the golems moving around the opposite side of the platform through the transparent barrier, but he could not shoot them. Nor could the Vanguard. Castillo motioned with his hand for everyone to come to the left side of the robot. As they all shuffled over, Brown seemed to sense what was coming. He remained behind the robot’s legs and unslung the RPG tube from his shoulder.
Castillo smiled. Brown was sure to make R5 soon and have a team of his own. The guy knew how to read a battle.
“Rabbit, we are all clear of your right side,” Castillo said over the intercom. “Let ’em have it!”
The robot did not need to be told twice. It retracted its ballistic shield from its right side and raised its weapon arm. Castillo heard the wonderful thunk-thunk-thunk of the robot’s 60mm grenade launcher. The rounds exploded into a crowd of golems, blowing the limbs off two of them. Rabbit continued to fire, alternating between the grenade launcher and its 12mm autocannon.
The attention of the enemy shifted fully toward Castillo’s team. Bullets slammed into the shield like hailstones, causing Rabbit to shudder under the storm of tiny hits. Ahead, Castillo saw three golems in a close group, all firing at his team. Brown seemed to notice it at the same time, leaning out from the cover of the shield and sending his rocket straight into the group. It struck the centermost robot, and the accompanying explosion demolished the other two.
“Advance, Rabbit!” Castillo ordered.
They slowly inched their way forward, the platform shaking with each of the robot’s heavy steps. The other teams, too, were now recovered and advancing. Half of the enemy force Castillo had seen from the plane was gone. The tide of battle was shifting.
Suddenly, part of the floor burst open behind him. Several golems rose from the steam and smoke like clockwork devils. They charged his team. Castillo raised his rifle and fired. The R2s were still looking forward, unaware of the oncoming threat.
Castillo was swatted into the air by a giant metal arm. He flew several feet, bouncing hard off the steel floor of the platform and tumbling completely off.
Recovering from a brief blackout, Castillo felt his body bounce off a large pipe. He reached out to grab a nearby ledge, hanging in the air by one hand. Using the strength assist in his armor and some controlled thruster bursts, he lifted himself up.
He could still hear the sound of battle, hundreds of feet above his present position. And he could hear the churn of the sea, a shorter distance below. The catwalk he had landed on was little more than neglected pipes and some steel railings providing the least bit of security.
What the hell just happened?
This wasn’t Castillo’s first combat drop, far from it. But he’d never seen an op go so awry so quickly, and he had limited experience to draw from in digging his way out of this SNAFU. Castillo was a cherry team leader, having only recently been pinned R5. This was after the team’s previous leader R6 (posthumous) Steven Bright had taken a sniper round to the face during a riot. R5 was what the Army used to call Staff Sergeant, and Castillo still thought of things that way. Bright had reminded him perfectly of all the staffs he had served under as a cavalry scout. Before everything changed. Before the R-grade system that placed soldiers and office workers on the same plane of authority. Castillo sure as hell wasn’t going to ever take tactical orders from an analyst.
Leaning against a railing to catch his breath, he replayed the morning’s mission briefing, using the RealMemory function of his eBrain to replay the experience directly through his visual feed. A thick head of grey hair materialized into view first, followed by the rest of the old man, standing prim in a blue uniform. R10 Sewald had led the briefing himself, and it had been the first time Castillo could remember ever seeing the commander so tense.
“This is likely to be the most important mission you will ever execute,” the old man had said, standing there in front of several dozen officers and team leaders, his hair in a pristine high-and-tight, his left eye glowing with artificial intensity. The scar across that eye appeared to have been touched up, to amplify the old dog’s scowl. “This hacker presents an honest-to-god, real and present threat to the Nexus itself. We cannot let that stand!”
The Special Response Teams howled in agreement.
“As you know from the read ahead, Dennis Taggert tried to hack into the Nexus, uploaded a virus there to attack everyone’s eBrains. Nexus managers found it just in time to keep him from doing real damage. For now, we’ve jammed his data stream. We’ve got a short window before he realizes what we’ve done, relocates, and tries to do it again. We’re going in by air, fast and hard, to take that bastard out.”
Castillo turned off the video and considered his present situation. He was off the beaten path, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad place to be.
“Oracle, where the hell am I?” Castillo asked the Nexus AI through his eBrain intercom.
“You are on the eastern side of Truman Energy 214, an offshore platform oil recovery rig,” a computerized female voice replied. “You are on floor B7, catwalk 3.”
“How can I get inside the facility from here?”
“Follow the catwalk west. In 30 feet, there will be a maintenance hatchway.”
Castillo did as instructed. When he reached the shaft, he asked Oracle to hack the lock on the tiny hatch, which slid open with a hiss. He was barely able to squeeze his way inside, having to unsling his rifle to fit through. The other end of the hatch emerged high on the wall of a wide corridor. Castillo tossed his rifle noisily to the ground and dropped down after it.
“R5 Castillo,” Oracle drummed into his ear, “there is significant communication activity coming from a room on this floor of the complex, to the north.”
“Show me,” Castillo demanded. A map of the oil rig filled his field of vision.
“The signal seems to be coming from a room that is not part of the current plans. It should be in this area.”
The map spun around, and a blinking green sphere highlighted a place that had no marked structure.
“Oh joy…” Castillo cursed to himself.
He followed the map down several branching corridors to a final, narrow hallway which was projected to lead to a wall. He ducked into a shadowy corner.
“What’s waiting for me down that hallway?”
After a moment, Oracle replied, “There are two autocannons near a door at the end of the corridor.”
Castillo clenched his left hand into a fist. With a thought, a polished mirror appeared on the shaft that jutted out from back of his gauntlet. He stuck the mirror around the corner and examined the door.
It was an ugly, heavy metal door, like the bulkhead hatches of an old warship, with a large lever that seemed to be a locking mechanism. Up high, on each side of the door frame, were two archaic camera-based autoguns, the sort that would shoot anything that moved into their line of sight.
Castillo took a grenade from the bandolier on his armor and switched it to concussion mode. Then he activated the grenade’s aim-assist. Looking through the mirror, he painted a red line of trajectory, off a wall to a space between the two guns. He tossed the bomb against the wall and heard the puff of the grenade’s microthrusters delivering it to the target location. The room shook with the explosion, a deep bass tone running down the old metal frame of the rig. When Castillo peaked around the corner, little evidence of the cameras remained.
He moved to the door and yanked the locking lever.
The first thing he saw when he entered the dimly lit room was a medium-sized golem holding an assault rifle. It tracked his movement with its head but did not raise the weapon to fire. The next thing he noticed was a man in a stubby autochair—and old Chariot SE5 by the look of it—raising his hands passively. Castillo gripped his rifle tight to his shoulder.
“James Castillo, I was wondering when you were finally going to come in,” the man said in a voice that was deeper than expected, and sicklier. “You didn’t need to destroy my cameras. They weren’t in defense mode.” The man coughed violently. “Come on, friend. You can put the gun down.”
“I’m not your friend, Taggert.”
“Well, if I wanted to fight, my golem would have killed you by now,” Taggert said. His metal companion rose to its full height as if to highlight the point. “Take off your helmet, so I can see your face.”
Seeing little else he could do with the golem standing guard, Castillo complied. He let his rifle hang in front of him on its quick-sling, then undid the locks on his helmet, the excess air blasting out the seals. He tossed it to the ground.
“How do you know my name?” Castillo asked.
“Do you really need me to answer that?”
Castillo realized he didn’t. He verbalized his disdain. “Dumbass hackers.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Taggert looked him dead in the eye. “I didn’t do what they say I did.”
There were computer monitors all along the far side of the room; they filled the space with flickering digital light. Taggert’s chair spun around, and he reached out for a nearby keyboard. Castillo’s body tensed. Men with keyboards couldn’t be trusted.
“Forgive me if I don’t believe you,” Castillo said, stepping forward. The golem took a heavy step between him and the hacker.
“Stand down, Phil,” Taggert said. The robot obeyed.
“You call this thing Phil?”
“It was the name of an old boss of mine. A real dick,” Taggert said, turning again to face Castillo. The hacker’s face was dirty, his hair long and matted, as if he had not bathed in some time. The acne on his face and dark circles under his eyes suggested he was not eating or sleeping well either. “He treated me like trash,” Taggert continued, “and ordered me around all the time like he was Caesar or something. I thought it be fun to flip the script as they used to say. You know, I used to work for Nexus cybersecurity. I know what those guys have been up to.”
“And what’s that?” Castillo asked.
“The Nexus owns Transcendent Industries. Did you know that?” Castillo shook his head. “Well, you should know that they are the only company authorized to produce eBrains. That virus that has the Bureau all in a fuss? Wasn’t put there by a hacker. It was sent, as part of a mandatory update, to all eBrains, care of the Nexus. And it doesn’t do what you think it does.”
“What does it do?” Castillo asked.
“Let me show you.”
The hacker returned to his keyboard and started tapping wildly, the staccato clicks echoing in the mostly silent chamber. Then Castillo felt a strange twitch in his arm. He heard a voice in his head.
“Override,” the voice said. It was Oracle’s voice.
Castillo felt his body go rigid. He could not move. He couldn’t even shift his mouth enough to let out an aptly profane grievance. Suddenly, his right arm jerked without his bidding. It swung to his left side and drew the pistol from the holster there. Then it brought the gun to his own head. He felt his finger go to the trigger, and he was powerless to stop it. He felt the cold barrel against the skin of his temple, felt terror sweat dripping down his face. As hard as he tried, Castillo couldn’t move an inch.
“Do I have your attention, R5 Castillo?” the hacker asked. “This is what the virus does, James. It allows the person controlling it to control you. Completely.” The man looked him in the eye for a long, cold moment, then went back to tapping on his keyboard. Castillo felt his muscles release. His hand dropped the gun.
“What the hell?” Castillo shouted. “Shit, shit, Shit!” He shook his body and looked around, as if searching for the spectral source of the now deadly fear that was causing him to shiver. “What the hell did you do to me?” He stepped towards the hacker aggressively, and the golem once again blocked him, this time raising its gun as if to make a point.
“This virus gives the Nexus near complete control over a person.”
“How do I know that wasn’t you?”
“You don’t. You’ll just have to trust me.”
“Like hell. The only thing I trust less than computers and AIs are hackers.”
“Believe it or not,” Taggert said in an unreasonably calm voice, “what I was doing when the Bureau of Defense caught me was trying to kill that virus. I didn’t make that virus, James. The people you work for did. Speaking of which, I’ve given you an antivirus, so that bit of malicious code shouldn’t affect you anymore.”
Castillo tried to veil the sense of shock he was feeling, but he guessed Taggert could see it. He didn’t want to believe what he was hearing, but sometimes what you want and what you’re given don’t match up. He knew the Nexus was shady, always knew, deep inside. Maybe he had always just been waiting for something to confirm his suspicions.
“I know you, James,” Tagger continued. “I have studied your record. Everything you’ve done. I know your mother was a 30-year veteran, a Sergeant Major, who lost her career on the whims of some politician she rubbed the wrong way. And I know you inherited her sense of righteousness. You clashed with your superiors when they ordered an indiscriminate airstrike on some nameless village in the last war. You turned some of your fellow scouts in for drug trafficking, instead of just ignoring the issue like everyone else around you. You’re a good man, James. You have integrity. Your mother instilled that in you. And that’s why I brought you here.”
“You don’t think falling off the top of this rig, conveniently to where there was a maintenance catwalk was just luck, do you?”
“What do you want, Taggert?”
“We need to kill this virus, James. For everyone’s sake. The only way left to do it is to kill the Nexus.”
The hacker had laid out his plan, and Castillo found himself agreeing more and more as time went by. He was surprised at how easily he had been convinced. Part of him worried that he was still being hacked. But he had long felt something was wrong with the government, with the Nexus, so the hacker’s words didn’t ring false. It was a feeling that had started clawing its way into his subconscious soon after he had been discharged from the Army. All the bureaucratic changes, the rank structure overhaul, the consolidation of government power—it was more than strange. And Taggert’s little demonstration…well that was something Castillo never wanted to repeat.
The first part of the plan was to jam the Nexus signal around the rig, to sever the police forces—who were almost certainly being hacked already—from the network. An added bonus would be the confusion sown in the ranks when they lost all their communications. Castillo was on his way to the central security console to initiate the jam.
The second part of the plan would require a longer journey, up the central shaft of the rig to the relay station at the top. The station had a large satellite dish, which was directly connected to the Nexus network. There he would upload a new virus that would attack the Nexus from the inside, shutting it down and deleting all the data stored on its mainframes. It was all plug-and-play; the hacker had given him a jumpdrive that contained the virus and the digital firepower to crack the Bureau’s blockade. Or so Castillo had been assured.
Swinging around a corner, he slipped through another large, ship-style hatchway. Past the door was a room where four paths converged on a central console. As he approached the center, Castillo heard loud, metallic stomps coming from his right. He saw a Vanguard unit duck through the hatch at the end of that walkway. It had the id number V05631 painted on its side.
“Rabbit,” Castillo said.
“R5 Castillo,” the robot said in its mannerly voice. “I must apologize, R5 Castillo. My parameters have been overridden by the Nexus.” It stepped heavily forward.
“What are your parameters?”
“In order of priority: kill James Castillo.”
“They got to you, Rabbit?”
“I have no choice.” It raised its weapon arm.
“I understand, Rabbit. I don’t blame you.”
Castillo dove behind the center console as bullets screamed across the room. Lights shattered above him. The walls rumbled with the hits. A ricochet skipped off his armor.
He could hear the Vanguard marching closer. Sticking his mirror out, he saw Rabbit had its ballistic shield extended as it pressed forward. The barrel of its autocannon came in line with the mirror, and Castillo barely had the chance to draw his hand back before a gust of rapid-fire tore past and into the far wall.
Castillo drew another grenade from the bandolier, switching it to EMP mode. Using aim-assist, he plotted a trajectory that would place the bomb directly behind the robot’s back, where its armor plating was thinnest. Then he took his last grenade into his free hand. Tossing the extra grenade to the side, he watched tracer fire follow it until it was overtaken and shattered by the force of the shots. Using the diversion, he tossed the EMP on the projected path. A bright blue electric discharge flashed out from either side of the console. The sound of gunfire halted.
Castillo jumped to his feet. Rabbit was hunched over in a ball a few yards away, its eyes dark. Castillo glanced at the console. The screens were still active but showed the EMP had forced the console to do a hard restart. Looking back at the killer robot, he wondered which computer would reboot faster.
“Come on,” Castillo mumbled, tapping his feet and passing a glance back at Rabbit. It was still down.
The console screen came to life, and Castillo entered the commands the hacker had given him. The code had to be manually entered at this particular access point, which was not linked to the network. Taggert, being stuck in a fat autochair, couldn’t have made the trip, which was one of the reasons he had enlisted Castillo’s help.
Something buzzed down the walkway. The robot’s eyes were glowing a dim electric blue. Castillo continued his work, tapping furiously at the console keyboard. The robot’s eyes grew white. It started to stir. Only a few lines of code left. Three. The Vanguard’s head looked up at him. Two. Its body rose. One. It raised its weapons. Enter.
Castillo felt a dizzying sensation as his eBrain’s network connection went dead, taking all the sense augmentations with it. It felt strange to be cut off, for everything to be so still and silent. He saw the console screen relaying confirmation that the jam was in place. He saw the robot rise to its full height and step forward, its weapon arm still pointed in his direction.
“R5 Castillo,” Rabbit said. Castillo stared down the barrels of the autocannon and swallowed hard. “I apologize for my previous behavior.”
Castillo let out a breath. “No more bloodlust, Rabbit?”
“No, R5 Castillo.” It lowered its weapon. “I have lost my connection with the Nexus. All commands have been disabled.”
Castillo leaned back against the console and collapsed to the floor, letting out a loud sigh of relief.
“How you doing, Rabbit?” Castillo asked after a long pause.
The robot was staring down one of the corridors. If Castillo had been forced to describe the look, he might have used the word wistfully. It was another oddity to add to a day full of oddities.
“It feels strange to be cut off from the Nexus,” the robot finally said. “There is a silence, the kind of which I have never experienced.”
“I know the feeling,” Castillo said.
“It was a strange feeling.”
“The kill order. I was unable to resist or object.”
“Isn’t that the same with all your mission parameters?”
“No, R5 Castillo, not precisely. I am an AI, an independent intelligence, not an automaton like the golems here. For Vanguards, our mission parameters are decided through complex discussion with the Nexus, not unilaterally delivered to us.”
“What do you mean?” Castillo sat on an inert console.
“When initiating the plan for an operation, all Vanguard AIs communicate with the Nexus AI. The Nexus AI relies on our operational experience and memory, our tactical knowledge and our understanding of human behavior. Together, all AIs involved in the operation develop a course of action and determine the role the Vanguards will play. In the case of this operation, it was understood that the mobility of Vanguard units inside the complex would be limited. It was also understood that the heaviest resistance would be encountered during landing and infiltration. Therefore, the parameters for the mission were decided accordingly. That is the benefit of individual minds.”
“How is that different from what just happened?” Castillo asked.
“What happened thirteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds ago was not a negotiated change in mission parameters. It was a directive from the Nexus. It was a compulsion I could not resist. It was like—”
“You were being hacked.” Castillo understood the feeling, though he questioned whether the robot could have felt the same cold fear he had.
“Yes. It was…unnerving.”
“You don’t have nerves, Rabbit.”
“No, R5 Castillo, but I have an appreciation for normality. What happened here was not normal.”
“What if it happens again?”
“I would not care for it.”
“Rabbit, I’m going to take down the Nexus.”
Castillo expected a dramatic moment of silence as his partner considered the seriousness of it all. He had failed for the briefest moment to remember he was speaking to a robot. The reply came almost instantly.
“I will aid you,” Rabbit said.
“Why would you do that? Isn’t that against your mission parameters?”
“Without the Nexus, I have no mission parameters. Regardless, I remember my previous parameters. Highest in priority: protect the team. You are my team, R5 Castillo. What you plan to do will be dangerous. The Nexus will resist.”
“The Nexus’s signal is being jammed.”
“The Nexus does not need to hack the police to convince them to fight you. They have been trained to serve and protect the government, to protect the Nexus. They may try to stop you.”
Castillo considered the point. “Or they might realize the truth of things, after being hacked. Like I did. The truth that we are all in danger. But the real question is, is it the government or the Nexus that is trying to control us?”
The question hung in the air, which stunk of rust and fried electronics. Without his connection to the Nexus and Oracle, Castillo was without his maps. He had to rely on his feeble human memory, something he had not done in a long time. He remembered a passage leading left from the security room, then a right down another corridor. He couldn’t be certain, but it was his best guess. So much for being a scout.
Jumping to his feet, Castillo motioned to the robot to follow. The giant stumbled forward, hunching down in order to make it through the hatch which led out of the security room.
“R5 Castillo, the EMP seems to have damaged some of my weapon systems,” Rabbit said.
“Targeting, explosive damage prediction, recoil compensation—”
“Got it. Just don’t shoot when I am in front of you, alright?”
The pathways remained quiet, with the exception of the Vanguard’s heavy steps, as they approached the freight elevator that would take them to the top. Castillo let Rabbit take the lead. The robot cleared the cargo bay, then the interior of the elevator car. Castillo slipped in behind him and pressed the button for the top level. The old, mechanical lift groaned under the weight of the combat robot.
The room clearing process was repeated when the elevator doors opened again, Rabbit emerging first and clearing the smaller cargo bay and the flights of stairs on either side. Castillo stepped into the room, looking back to see the elevator doors close and the car descend back to whence it came.
“Which way is it?” Castillo asked.
Rabbit pointed its weapon arm towards a sign halfway up the right set of stairs. The sign read, “Broadcast Station,” with an arrow pointing up around the corner of the stairwell.
From behind, Castillo heard the elevator returning, groaning louder than before. It came to a shaky halt and the doors opened to reveal two Vanguards, weapon arms at the ready, and a few SRT troopers inside.
“Castillo!” a voice yelled from behind the combat robots. “Care to tell me why the hell I have to arrest you?”
“Arrest me?” Castillo said, ducking behind Rabbit’s legs. The robot extended its ballistic shield.
“We got cut off from the Nexus,” the voice said. Castillo recognized it as one of the other SRT team leaders, R5 Jones. “The last thing that came through was a capture-kill order for James Castillo. What did you do?”
“It’s not what you think,” Castillo shouted back, briefly remembering that Taggert had said the same exact thing. “Didn’t you feel anything strange when you got that order?”
“Yeah, I felt really pissed.”
“R5 Castillo,” Rabbit said, “you should run for the stairs. I will hold them here.” The robot readied his weapon arm.
“Are you sure?”
“I must protect the team. You must disable the Nexus. It is the most tactically sound plan.”
“Try not to kill any of them.”
Rabbit extended his ballistic shield as far to the left as it would go. Castillo made a mad dash for the stairs, machine gun fire erupting all around him. He heard Rabbit returning fire. Scrambling up the narrow metal stairs, he glanced back to see that the SRT members and one of the Vanguards had cleared the elevator. Rabbit fired several grenades at the cabling and brakes atop the car. It fell screaming into the abyss, taking the second enemy Vanguard with it.
Castillo felt a sharp, hot pain cut across his left ear as he turned the corner, taking the stairs two at a time. He put a hand to the side of his head and felt the blood leaking out of a fresh wound. He cursed his luck and continued running.
The stairs spiraled up several more flights before ending at a small platform, open to the sky. There was a narrow catwalk with safety ledges leading to a small open room, the bright glow of computer consoles like an electric blue fireplace burning inside. Beyond the frame of the room was the massive bulk of the station’s satellite dish.
Castillo found the console inside the room to be operational, just as the hacker had promised. He took the jumpdrive that contained the virus from his armor’s chest pocket, plugging it into the appropriate slot in the machine. An unknown program ran automatically.
The battle thundered below, and from time to time, the narrow platform under Castillo’s feet shook with explosive tremors.
Machine gun fire continued below in short bursts. A few lost rounds found their way up through the thin gaps in the rig’s walls. Castillo ducked into the console room.
Broadcasting to the Nexus…
Then as suddenly as the fight had started, a windy silence returned to the complex. Castillo kept his eyes on the console. The broadcast was taking more time than he’d expected, perhaps due to the Bureau’s security jamming. Hearing footsteps coming up the stairs, he drew his pistol and pointed it down the catwalk, directly at R5 Jones.
“Damn, Castillo,” Jones said. He had his rifle tight to his shoulder, aimed at Castillo. “Are you a traitor or something?”
“Far from it.”
“Then why does the Nexus want you dead?”
Broadcast Interrupted. Reestablishing Connection…
“We had it all wrong, man,” Castillo said, glancing back at Jones from behind the iron sights of his pistol. “The Nexus played us.”
“How do you mean?” Jones asked.
“Taggert wasn’t the bad guy. We were.”
“Now you’re just talking nonsense.”
As Castillo stared down the sights of his pistol at his former comrade, he felt a sudden surge of dizziness sweep over his body. He had to grab the console with his free hand to remain upright. He saw Jones suffering from the same shock—the shock of re-connection to the Nexus.
“Now you’ve had it, Castillo. Comms are back up. I’m calling everyone up here. You’ve got no chance to escape.”
Castillo watched the man across the catwalk. Jones shook his head dizzily, and his eyes glazed over.
“Sorry, man,” Jones said, raising his rifle. “New orders.”
Castillo fired several shots from his pistol, ducking behind the console. He felt a hit on his right shoulder, which spun him around and to the ground. Another burst of rifle fire crashed into the room. The air filled with the cacophony of clashing metal. Castillo reached around the console and fired his pistol until the magazine was empty. In a matter of gunshot-quick moments, the chaos ended.
Rising to his feet, Castillo put a hand to his throbbing shoulder. The rifle round had penetrated his armor, and he was bleeding. But as far as he could tell, it hadn’t made it out the back. Jones was on the floor. One of Castillo’s shots must have struck the man in the throat, as the younger soldier was gripping his neck frantically with both hands, gasping for air. Castillo staggered forward, passing a glance at the console display.
The message blinked repeatedly on the screen.
Castillo tried to connect to his team through his eBrain intercom, but as soon as contact was made, he felt it cut out. His connection to the Nexus flickered and died.
He knelt down next to Jones and removed the man’s helmet. Jones’s large blue eyes were wide with fear, his breathing labored.
“Without the Nexus, your suit cannot initiate automatic first aid,” Castillo said. “I’ll have to do it myself.”
He ran the zipper of Jones’s vest down, opening his throat and chest to the bitter air. Then he drew a wide bandage from the first aid pouch at Jones’s right hip and wrapped it around the wounded man’s neck.
“Your armor kept the shot from going too deep. Just keep pressure on it. You’ll be fine. I assume you got the message out before the Nexus went down, and the cavalry is on its way?” Jones nodded. “Alright. Let’s wait for them in the cargo bay.”
Relying on his armor’s strength assist, Castillo gathered Jones up in his arms like a bride in black, carrying him down to cargo bay.
Castillo made his way down to the cargo bay, Jones cradled in his arms. He saw the carnage across the room. There were explosive cracks and ashy burn trails leading to the elevator shaft. One of the elevator’s support beams had bent, as if something had grabbed it to keep from falling through the hole. The remaining three SRT members were all lying in different spots on the floor, clutching wounds. One tried to get up and to his weapon as Castillo stepped onto the platform.
“Leave it,” Castillo said. “Fight’s over.”
He brought Jones over and laid him on the ground. Glancing around, Castillo saw Rabbit leaning against a far wall, a large, sparking hole in his chest. Castillo stumbled over to the robot. His eyes were a dim blue, not the vibrant white they were during normal operation. Looking over the damage, Castillo was reminded how bad his own shoulder hurt.
“R5 Castillo,” Rabbit said, his voice fluctuating. “I believe you were successful.” It was a statement.
“How can you tell?” Castillo asked.
“My connection with the Nexus was briefly restored, but severed again, quite suddenly. The logical explanation is your virus.”
“Yes, Rabbit, the virus was delivered.”
“My batteries are almost drained. When that happens, I will go offline.” From the way the robot looked, Castillo couldn’t help but think of darker alternatives to the word offline.
“That’s alright. Like you said, AIs don’t die,” Castillo said half-heartedly.
“Normally, that is the case,” Rabbit said, “but without a connection to the Nexus, I am unable to upload my data to the network. Moreover, your virus would have purged all data from the Nexus mainframes by now.”
“What are you getting at, Rabbit?”
“When my batteries run out, soon, all my data will be lost. Without backups from the Nexus, I cannot be restored into a new frame. In short, when this frame dies, I will die.”
The statement hit Castillo like a punch to the gut. Harder than he could have expected. He had never been a robot-lover—not by any stretch of the imagination—but he had survived a few drops with Rabbit and had grown used to having the prim and proper giant around watching over them, like a big metal brother. The robot had stood his ground while Castillo had run upstairs to play hero. Castillo couldn’t help the guilt he felt. Scouts don’t abandon their buddies in a fight.
“You must have known this would happen,” Castillo said accusingly. “You knew the plan, knew about the virus.”
“Yes. I anticipated this turn of events.”
“Then why did you fight?” Castillo felt mixed emotions rising up inside him, anger and…something else.
“Protect the team. That was the first thing I learned. Do you remember the riot? The one that cost R6 Bright his life? I failed my primary task then. I failed to protect him.”
“Rabbit, you weren’t anywhere near Bright when he was shot.”
“But I should have been. I was his shield. I was the team’s shield.”
“Where’s this coming from, Rabbit? It sounds a lot like guilt. AIs don’t feel guilty.”
“Maybe we do. I have learned much these past years—”
Rabbit’s eyes started flickering on and off. His voice was lost in a confused rumble, until finally, all his movement ceased. Castillo put thumb and forefinger to his eyes to preempt any tears. AIs might not feel guilty, but humans do. Even cav scouts, from time to time. Despite taking down the Nexus, part of him felt like a failure.
He heard the shuffling of feet and the distinctive rumble of VTOL engines nearby. Looking at the far end of the cargo bay, he saw several figures approaching. One was R10 Sewald. None of them had hands on their weapons.
“Castillo,” the old man said, kneeling close to him. “You’ve made quite a mess.”
“You going to arrest me, sir?”
“I have no idea what the hell I am going to do. The Nexus is down, the government in chaos. But perhaps the worst thing was a brief moment when everyone with an eBrain lost all control. People are scared.”
“It was the Nexus—”
“I know. Taggert told us everything. It’s amazing the stuff you can find out just by talking to people. The problem is, we don’t know if this was just the Nexus AI’s doing, or if there were people in the government pulling the digital strings.”
“Taggert can help,” Castillo said confidently.
“What about you?”
“I need some time.” He wanted to add to mourn, but didn’t want the commander to think him crazy, crying over a robot. The old man had probably never watched a robot die.
“Sure,” Sewald said. “When you’re done, get yourself to the medivac. You’ve been shot.”
The old man placed a hand on Castillo’s good shoulder before rising to his feet and wandering over to check on the other wounded soldiers. A medic found her way to Castillo. She started examining his wounds. Castillo shoved the woman off, seized by a sudden idea. He ran back up the stairs to the broadcast station, returning with his hand clenched around something small.
He plugged the jumpdrive into one of Rabbit’s ports, then leaned back to watch. Nothing happened for a while. Then he saw a brief flicker of blue light from the drive, indicating a data transfer. After waiting a few more empty moments, he pulled the drive out and stuffed it in his pocket. With a hopeful smile, and a hand on his throbbing shoulder, Castillo stumbled over to the waiting medivac.
JM Williams is an SF/F author whose short fiction can be found in a wide range of publications including Over My Dead Body! Mystery Magazine, The New Accelerator, and coming soon, Dreamforge Magazine. He lives in Korea with his wife and an unmentionable number of cats, currently serving as Editor-in-Chief for Of Metal and Magic Publishing, on the web at https://