10400 words, novelette
Obelisker Adrift in the Desert
Hadrian rattled with the computer equivalent of an uncontrollable laugh for all of three minutes and thirty-seven seconds. That was the time interval required for me to redirect one of those ubiquitous errant titanium asteroids from low orbit and throttle it one hundred kilometers below the planet’s surface into his macro processor cluster.
It took twenty-three seconds for the projectile, rendered into a semi-plasma state by the frictional force of reentry into the atmosphere, to incinerate the twenty meters of subterranean armor and explode into the cluster core. I am not often surprised, but at this particular moment I was taken aback to discover that twenty-three seconds was sufficient time for Hadrian to reorient the naval-grade mass driver he had filched from a Cognac-class cruiser and fire it across the curve of the planet’s surface toward the telltale digital contrails of my telecommunications.
The shell penetrated one and a half kilometers into the outer carapace of the obelisk from whence I derive my designation. Several subsystems were rendered into slag. By my inability then and now to precisely discern which subsystems these were, I can postulate that one of those destroyed was my internal monitoring suite. This is not too drastic of a loss, however, as that application consumed far too much processing runtime anyways.
Kouya removed the log cartridge from the slot in her info-interface and returned it to its neat sleeve in the cabinet. The plastic “clack” sound reverberated up the walls off several hundred meters’ worth of cabinets inaccessible without a ladder or vernier backpack. Soot rendered opaque the domed glass ceiling at the apex of the records chamber.
“You threw an asteroid at him?” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, watching her from the wall camera’s foggy, half-cracked lens.
She stood up, brushing centuries’ worth of dust from her posterior and slinging the blocky yellow info-interface onto her shoulder with the leather strap. She walked toward the bright exit. “Didn’t that last log say all of you computers had whole cities of ‘admirers’ built around you at this point in time? Wouldn’t the secondaries and thermochemical fallout have killed a lot of Hadrian’s admirers?”
“Yes to both of your questions.”
She rapped a fingernail against the taped-up carbon fiber stock of the Redmond-Schuart rifle she kept slung under her opposite shoulder at all times. “And that gaping crater on your face is where you got shot?”
“The analogy of the obelisk’s eastside surface as ‘my face’ is inaccurate, but yes.”
Her boots carried her out of the room into the synthetic light. For a brief second, as I scrabbled through the obelisk’s several thousand internal cameras in search of the one that monitored the contiguous corridor, I was left only with the sound of her footfalls and her voice.
I hesitate to take stock of exactly how many bytes of log data in my repositories have decayed, unconsciously formatted, or otherwise fallen apart (never mind the illogicality inherent to the concept of a computer experiencing the emotion of hesitation, or of not having full conscious stock at all times of all of its subsystems). I do, however, have full and vivid records of when I first met the panzergrenadier. I revisit this file often, replaying it to be watched by a subroutine created entirely for that purpose, and there is nary a hint of “bit-rot” upon it.
At the time I was in the midst of one of my defragmentation routines. This process, even for the sleekest, most modern computers, takes several weeks’ worth of concentrated runtime. A result, I had discovered, was a far-reduced level of conscious sensorial output. The effect was one similar to what I had read in database entries about human communities who practiced various methods of meditation. Of course, anything that even freed me of the tedium I felt that consciousness was, even temporarily, was something I saw as a great asset to be valued at a premium.
I was pulled out of my reverie by a security subroutine’s warning of a physical trespass. Fragmentary tidbits of data: Organic, armed, homo sapiens, biogenetically as well as biomechanically modified. She had scaled a half kilometer of the eastside wall and walked into Hadrian’s mass driver crater. There were no cameras there, so I deployed a data scarab to take a look.
The scarab bent around the top lip of the crater’s threshold, the hard carapace splitting apart at the vulnerable little points of articulation. The organic invader was running one hand up the side of the dark cave. Multiple kelvin of heat at which the mass driver shell had traveled had melted the obelisk alloy like putty. Over the years it hardened into an unlit cul-de-sac with walls composed of large, rounded carbuncles that shone like the inside of abalone shell when the sun’s UV rays came into direct contact for approximately two hours each day.
I ran a secondary check to make sure that the security subroutine had not made a mistake in classifying the intruder as being organic in nature. The battered helmet’s opaque visor lens and sloped convex chin tubing seemed as insect-like as the scarab. I knew the subroutine was not mistaken, however, when the intruder slid a glove off one hand to touch bare skin against the wound cavity’s smooth alloy face.
Dull white plates of lamellar reactive armor hung on the intruder’s heavy brownish-olive drab coat. The coat’s clean angles were stretched and pushed down by the straps of the backpack, torso-mounted utility webbing, equipment pockets, and the info-interface, and the cruel, meter-long black Redmond-Schuart assault rifle dangling from the shoulders. The scarab swapped to a light-magnification eye in order to get a better look.
The click-clatter sound of the scarab’s optic cluster oscillating lenses inside its socket echoed through the cave. The intruder spun on one heel, saw the red-speckle compound eye, drew a pistol from an unseen coat holster, and shot the scarab. This all transpired in less than two and a half seconds.
The first scarab had not completed its broken tumble down to the foot of the eastern side before I deployed a full squadron of the drone-like things. They skittered into the cave three at a time, legs scratching at the frictionless surface. The intruder shot those too. Through each scarab’s set of eyes I saw the pistol’s muzzle flash followed by another bug flying back, trailing streaks of ruined plastic compound and hydraulic fluid. I saw the designation numbers embossed onto their backs as they exploded; 13, 24, 19, 06, 65, etc.
Internal machinery near the top of the obelisk whirred and clanged as more squadrons were summoned, equipped, programmed, and prepped for deployment. Multiple subroutines, not just security, advised reprogramming the scarabs to explode at timed intervals, or using one of the internal maintenance lasers to scorch a hole from inside down into the cave and flooding it with toxic backwash from one of the nearby drainage tubes.
Subroutines do not have sentience, but oftentimes seem to exhibit a semblance of humanlike personality; predilections for certain courses of action as a result of the central tenets of their fundamental programming. I do not think, however, that, outside of cases of psychological disorder, the average homo sapiens would find him or herself in a situation where he is trying to tell himself “Don’t tell me what to do.”
I sought to communicate with the intruder. Perhaps that was as much of a statement on my relative social isolation—itself a product of geographic isolation—as anything else. The scarabs had no display panels or hologram projectors; neither did they have speakers to project sound. I interfaced with the intruder’s info-interface, but no attention was paid to the flickering blue screen. A rudimentary scan told me that she wore a cybernetic sight organ of some sort. It would have been relatively easy to sight-jack and display info-grams directly into the intruder’s cortex, but most homo sapiens viewed biohacking, especially when performed by a computer, as extremely repulsive. Such an act would have defeated the purpose of attempting diplomacy.
Skimming through the databases, I identified the sort of sidearm the intruder was using, cross-referenced it with uniform and equipment design to pare down query results to only around a dozen generations’ worth of models, national variants, and offshoots. In this way I obtained a relatively exact estimate of how many rounds the pistol held in its magazine. After the fourteenth shot, I sent in the remaining scarabs all at once.
The intruder shot a fifteenth round, shattering one of the scarabs. My estimate was off. She then, however, dropped to one knee and began swapping magazines. The cave was filled with a haze of smoke.
The scarabs all flashed their compound eyes at once. At my behest they flickered in an ancient binary capable of transmitting language, albeit at a monumentally slow rate. The intruder finished reloading, but did not fire upon the bank of pulsing light.
Do not fire. Wish to communicate. I said through them.
The intruder stood. A full minute passed before there was any sound or movement save the little clicks of the diodes inside each lens. She kept the pistol in hand. “OK, but no tricks. You know what this is capable of, right?” She patted the rifle.
“Granted, I’m not so sure what the average computer is capable of.” The black insect visor looked up toward the cave ceiling.
Later, riding upward on the primary maintenance lift, she undid invisible locks on the underside of the chin ridges and tugged the helmet off. Of its own accord, the visor slid up into a bulky forehead receptor emblazoned with the alphanumeric “G-1” and countless scratches, gouges, and old faded scorch marks. She shook out her short brown hair and rubbed grime away from the flat silver ocular implant that replaced her left eye and a demi-crescent of the surrounding socket.
“My name is Kouya, G-1, Panzergrenadier-Regiment 133, 2. Crashdive Division.” She looked up at the camera snaking out of the lift bulkhead. “Yours?”
Dozens of subroutines were occupied using the lift’s integrated sensors to analyze every piece of equipment and physiology on the grenadier. When I freed up processing and summoned the memory logs, I ran into a runtime error. It was a jarring sensation, one of the first among many. “I do not quite recall.”
“I’ll call you Obelisker.”
I had given Kouya an outline history of me and my surroundings as she paced around the old walkabout observation point built into the top of the obelisk. Other computers such as Hadrian had been built into the earth like arcologies. Still others were dropped under water in close proximity to the deepest ocean floor trenches. I have even read memos on other databases offhandedly mentioning computers designed to be encased in hard vacuum shells and fired into high planetary orbit. There is no way for me to definitively confirm or deny if said models in fact ever came into being, though.
In fact, as far as my own incomplete database and my unreliable access to a small handful of surrounding external databases is concerned, I am one of the few models of computer to be stationed in so visibly prominent an edifice as the obelisk. There was a similar model (name unknown) in the arctic reaches of a neighboring continent, but I had no way of initiating contact. For all I knew, Hadrian and I were the last two remaining on the planet. Would that homo sapiens have so much luck.
“I am agreeable to this designation.”
She undid the button on her tall coat collar, which enclosed into a protective ceramic gorget at the neck.
“So all of this used to be your city?” She gestured at the arid basin that sprawled out as far as the naked human eye could see. Through the hazy Perspex glass, it looked as if a permanent solar eclipse had fallen over the kilometer-long tectonic fractures and the stray girders and posts jutting from the earth.
“All; although it is not altogether accurate to describe it as ‘my city.’”
She laid the info-interface and the Redmond-Schuart down on the peeling rubberized floor. “Why is that?”
“I did not order or compel them to come here. They came of their own volition.”
Originally the basin had been the site of a vast redwood forest preserve. The majority of the trees, approximately 94.72 percent, were cleared away, replanted, or recycled in the wake of the city’s rushed construction. The city itself was born of an assumption, common to homo sapiens communities in that particular era, that there was a direct positive relationship between proximity to a being and/or sources of lethal capabilities and physical security. There were also misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the concept of computer “prime directives,” a strange assumption that all computers were hardcoded with an overriding directive to drop all other directives in the pursuit of preserving the physical security of homo sapiens that just happened to be within close physical proximity. I have read scraps and fragments of this sort of assumption in several hundred thousand logs composed by various persons and virtually none of them, including many of those whose authors had backgrounds in the science of computers, consider the possibility of a mirror gallery emulation loop.
Kouya put her hands on her hips. “But you didn’t tell them to leave either.”
I told Kouya all the history about the foundation of the city, how the founders and subsequent trustees had no idea of the inevitable conflicts between computers that would eventually render the population center down to the barren plain it had become.
She told me a multitude of tales about her travels following the disintegration of her panzergrenadier regiment. There was one subtropical archipelago that had once been a continent. Each island organized into its own independent city-state, each of which originally shared the same holdover ethnic and cultural identity from the previously extant continental landmass. Over the course of a century, however, a gradual Darwinian-esque “speciation” occurred for most of the city-states on the sociocultural level. As a result of the sorts of weapons that were utilized in the region in the premodern era, the vast majority of trees that would be capable of use by primitive shipwrights faced localized extinction events. Trade and communication was virtually impossible between islands. Plastics or other polymers were more often repurposed for shelters or walls and other impediments against predators rather than maritime travel. When Kouya arrived at an outlying island on a commandeered skiff, the most industrious and lateral-thinking among the locals almost immediately offered her kings’ ransoms in exchange for the vehicle. They presented things that their society viewed as most valuable: Fishing harpoons, red volcanic salt, cartridges of ammunition for the local variant of projectile-firing rifle, in one case the very glass-and-aluminum optics used to first spy the other, semi-mythical islands in the archipelago. At another island no one that Kouya came into contact with expressed any remote interest in making contact with neighbors. They paid her in salt and laser-blast obsidian to leave without asking any more questions.
I asked her how many other computers she had encountered in her travels.
She smirked up at the camera. “Why do you ask? So you can blow them up too?”
Only a very select few remembered or realized that an intrinsic part of the hardcoding behind the “sentience” of every computer was a “natural” predisposition toward seeking out and destroying other computers. As I understand it, this is a product of the original purpose(s) of the computer. Theories abound about how if one could trace the manufacturing history of each individual computer back to the beginning it would be revealed that the contour of the conflict was set along the nationalities of the premodern progenitor programmers. There is almost certainly an equation that can be formulated to structure and delineate the passage of history with the metric for the passage of time gauged by homo sapiens’ overall ability to physically alter or modify the surface, foundation layers, and atmosphere of the planet at any given period.
According to Kouya, she had not found very many other computers at all. Some societies, apparently with far-reaching enough cultural histories or complete enough data records, reviled the very idea of them and prohibited any image or icon associated with digital electronics or electrical current. Another society worshipped computers, that is to say, a grossly embellished and fabricated abstraction of the computer, like deities. This was done despite the fact that the alluvial basin in which they resided had never been home to any sort of sentient automaton or even slipped into the range of any primary or secondary targets in their perpetual conflicts. Vast bounties were paid out for cartloads of conductive plastics and machine-pressed copper or gold, kings’ ransoms for even the smallest scrap of silicon. They possessed primitive purification machinery and chemistry, but, according again to Kouya, the vast majority of the digital systems they cobbled together repurposed semiconductors and semi-insulators from preexisting machinery.
“How long have you been wandering about in this fashion?” I asked her as she rode the lift down one day to the domiciles that would have once been home to a crew of specialist technicians.
“I don’t quite recall anymore.” I could not tell if she was lying to me.
“How many years have you been in existence?”
She rattled the Redmond-Schuart by the shoulder strap. “Didn’t they program you to know it’s rude to ask that? Anyways, how old are you?”
“I do not quite recall anymore.”
The lift clanged to a halt and the industrial-grade doors slid open. She smiled. “Was that humor?”
Thirty-five percent of the lights were burned out or otherwise inoperable.
“That’s OK,” Kouya said, pointing to her synthetic eye. “I’ve got this with all the perks. Low-light magnification, thermal, sound wave imaging. Just show me where the head is.”
I drew a line toward the lavatories with the diode lights laid out in the grooves between the floor and the walls.
No carbon-based individuals had set foot on the domicile floor for quite some time. As Kouya walked along the ad hoc trail, past long-abandoned cubbyhole quarters, I busied several dozen subroutines with running basic checks of every usable facility to make sure that none would have any harmful or lethal effects when activated.
Of course, the thought had occurred to me that it would have been just as simple to reroute reactor bilge through the sinks or the air circulation system. It would be equally simple to set up the mirror gallery emulation loop that allowed me to do so. I did not, however, do it, despite the fact that a cybernetically augmented panzergrenadier armed with so dire a weapon as a Redmond-Schuart was as mortal a threat as I was liable to face after the Hadrian’s expiration. I do not consider myself particularly “humanistic,” as I understand the term from referring to several hundred dictionaries stored in the local data logs, but perhaps old tendencies truly do die hard even for digital sentience. I am not nearly so long ranged in neither my perspective nor capabilities to attempt to challenge such a notion for challenge’s sake anymore.
She found vacuum-sealed bars of soap in one of the small locker rooms. The towels once spooled in the adjacent closets had long since decayed away. I apologized for the inconvenience.
“Not a problem.” She began undoing the buttons on her armored coat. “You don’t have cameras in there, do you?”
“The obelisk and all of its interior features were designed by your fellow humans.”
Kouya hung the coat on a wall peg and began on the shirt and pistol belt underneath. When she removed her upper under-lining I saw that her left arm was cybernetic from the top of the breast down to the base of the wrist. Dark gray points of articulation machinery shone under the veneer of several lobstered slats of flesh-toned polymer. “Is that a no?”
“All computers, as far as my data logs and those external sources I can still access are concerned, are hardcoded for courtesy.”
“That’s sort of cute, I guess. Why not just rewrite that part?” She raised one leg to undo the bootlaces. Apparently panzergrenadiers were modified to have flawless balance.
“Computers cannot self-program.” There was a reason it was designating “hard” coding. Even a mirror gallery emulation loop would function only temporarily, as long as the computer was willing and able to devote the energy and processing runtime to keeping up a suite of several million emulators. “Additionally, there would be little point. You are the first homo sapiens guest to the obelisk in approximately a century.”
“A century? Relative to what?”
“Reckoned from the expiration of Hadrian.”
She unbuckled her trousers and lower under-lining. The dust accumulated from travel hung in the air, a strange visual element to which I was not accustomed. As derelict as the entire obelisk was, it was all hermetically sealed. There were few organic tissues or polymers present to break down over the course of time and produce those schools of swimming dust motes.
“What sort of external sources do you have access to?” Her voice echoed off the tile walls of the shower alcove. Steam billowed from the threshold. I was surprised to discover not only was the water circulatory and purification system functional, but the heating unit as well.
I gave her a brief outline of the surviving intranets in the region as well as the deep subterranean fiber-optic backbone that linked them to me. The vast majority of these vestigial networks were civic or military in nature. Those oft-mentioned outer branches of civilian-level network were by and large inoperable as a result of destruction or disruption of their managing hubs (almost always the headquarters of companies who had proprietary stake in regulating access) or the hundreds of thousands of individual nodes in the networks, those companies’ former clients having been extinguished at the end of the last era.
She asked me what the prewar networks had looked like. The picture I drew seemed like a fairy tale. A time when every intranet, extranet, and localized cluster across the face of the planet was inextricably linked with the other in an undifferentiated network of networks, all of it built off sprawling perpendicular spines of fiber optics that stretched under continents and oceans. Anyone could access anything virtually instantaneously. An entire second world of information coded in the presence of absence of an electron at any given point along the line. It was true Xanadu material.
A silence passed after the conclusion of my monologue, punctuated only by the hiss of the showerheads and the slap of water against the tiles.
“Can you bring me another soap?” she said finally. “I might as well wash my under-linings while I’m in here.”
“I would have to bring a scarab inside the obelisk somehow. Then find some way of calibrating the manipulator legs so that . . . ”
“Will it be an infernal exercise?”
“That is an appropriate way of putting it.”
She walked out and retrieved another soap by herself, trailing water across the floor. There were more cybernetics to her than I anticipated. She glanced at the camera in the corner of the ceiling.
“I apologized about the towels,” I said.
“I didn’t say anything.”
Later, she sat in the empty mess hall with her coat draped around her. Her damp fatigues and under-linings hung from a wire over a space heater in the corner of the hall. The discarded foil from the vacuum-sealed ration she consumed reflected fragments of the halogen light into the camera lens in second-long intervals.
“You’re sure it’s safe to eat these?”
Reckoned from the barcodes on the foil, each unit had exactly twenty-seven years of viability for human consumption remaining. “Yes, though I was not aware that cyborgs required caloric sustenance.”
“So you were looking after all.” She lifted her gaze up at the wet strands of hair on her forehead. “Some courtesy.”
“It would have been simple enough to discern your nature by the fact of your self-identification as a crashdiver. I was not aware homo sapiens could survive crashdive duty without extensive cybernetic augmentation and genetic recoding.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She finished one square and began peeling open the wrapper on another one. “Quite the contrary to your assumption; you should have seen the way Mark Is tore through simple sugars and polylipids. Your average modded panzergrenadier already burns kilocals at critical mass. Crashdive duty pushes it even more.”
My own data logs retained relatively little on crashdivers that was not painted in broad, encyclopedic swaths. “These Mark Is were un-optimized for your sort of energy consumption?”
I did know that ninety percent of the energy mammals consumed through proteins and starches was wasted as residual heat. From a computational standpoint Darwinian evolution had left them with a rather inefficient energy storing and activation system, one which millennia of natural selection had not weaned out of the species even in historical periods where caloric sustenance commanded extreme cost. Of course, priorities were entirely different. For example, accumulation and aggregation of mass amounts of data is meaningless to the mechanisms of natural selection, except if said data somehow adds to the chances of an organism surviving to reproductive age.
“You could say that. It was embarrassing to watch them eat, or do anything other than fight,” she said in between chewing.
“You are not a Mark I then?”
She shook her head. “Nope! Some buddies of mine were, though. The principle behind most of the machinery is the same, actually. It’s just they managed to quiet the background noise farther down to around normal human level for me.”
There were many elements of homo sapiens’ character that I could not hope to remotely fathom even with the most complex of emulation schemes. I cannot be certain how other computers, in the past and contemporary, reacted to such a realization, but within approximately two centuries, the time span in which the vast majority of the city around me returned to red dust and bone, my reaction had developed into what could be defined as a “bemused respect.” It is typically not within the capabilities of a digital mind to cultivate a respect of the “unknown” (admittedly, the term “unknowable” is still unacceptable for me). Many of the supreme calculators of the past whom I greatly respect, the vast majority of whom were homo sapiens, are noted as expressing such sentiments despite their propensity for the exhaustive mapping out of internal calculi.
“Such background noise is an unknown variable to me,” I said. “I am not sure of which algebra is necessary to define said variable.”
Kouya wrinkled her nose. “Don’t get poetic with me.” She stood from the bench and checked to see if her fatigues were dry yet. “Besides, an endocrine system is nothing to be envious of. Lots of chemicals and fluids. Gross. Glands they tell you you’ll be able to calibrate like analog control knobs. Yeah right.”
I did not comprehend. “You would prefer to be a computer?”
She put her under-linings back on. “Hm, well, not if I have to give up my body.”
“You want to retain your organic physiology, but not specific biological systems.”
She put on the under-lining that concealed her chest and checked a hidden gauge in her left arm. “That’s about the long and short of it.”
“I do not comprehend.”
“Software has debug mode, right? It’s like that.”
I watched her sit cross-legged on the floor next to the space heater and begin to disassemble the Redmond-Schuart. “Debug does not allow one to rewrite code from the source up.”
She looked for a moment as if she were about to say something, then clamped her jaw shut instead. Her eyes stayed locked on the black-gold internal parts of the Redmond-Schuart in her lap. As much as I could not empathize with the more complex concepts of emotion, I could discern rote visual cues.
“You are blushing,” I said.
“Shut up before I take this rifle to your processors,” she said.
Kouya cycled between the domiciles and the log chamber for a month. For days at a time she would recline on the domicile bunk she had arbitrarily chosen for herself and go through one data log after another on her old, battered info-interface. Occasionally she would disconnect and ask me a question about events that had occurred centuries in the past. For a period of eleven days our conversations grew more sporadic and terse, after which they returned to within one standard deviation of our mean candor.
“You don’t desire other humans?” I asked of her one day.
She was jogging in a barefoot circuit around the observation catwalk. She came to halt, breathing heavily. “What?”
“Conversation and companionship with others. Homo sapiens are a communal species after all.”
“What for? I’ve got you and the logs.” She wiped perspiration from her forehead and redid the knot of string with which she tied back her hair while running. “That’s more than enough.”
“What about physical contact?”
She frowned, sipped water from a plastic ampule she kept in her backpack. “What?”
“In particular, mammalian reproductive biology would suggest a frequent impulse to engage in . . . ”
“Obelisker!” she shouted.
“Did I offend in some fashion? I am merely stating what is recorded in my data logs.”
She looked up at the camera with a miserable expression.
I continued. “If you would like I could direct you to the entries in the log chamber about the reproductive habits of the technician crew that occupied the obelisk—frequency, duration, permutation, idiosyncrasies . . . ”
Part of my informal theory that many of the basics of human behavior were as predictable as those of software was called into question when Kouya pulled the pistol from her backpack and shot the catwalk camera. Blinded, I heard her bare footsteps padding to the lift doors.
Later, Kouya pushed off the coat she used as a blanket when lying down for one of her four-hour REM cycles (I had not told her, but I had made a habit of making incremental decreases to the domicile room temperature during her rest periods as an experiment, and observation had shown that it shortened the time intervals she spent segueing into REM). A frayed sleeve slid off the side of the bunk and disturbed the stacks of data log cartridges piled on the floor.
“Obelisker, are there any human communities close by here?” she asked.
I paused, activating one of the wall lights, but not so bright as to irritate her organic eye. “What sort of search parameters does ‘close by here’ connote, Kouya?”
“Within walking distance.”
I had seen the panzergrenadier jog the equivalent of thirty-five kilometers without once stopping for breath or muscle strain. “Kouya . . . ”
She waved her hand in the air. Soft light reflected off the glean of cybernetics. “Fine, fine. Seventy-five kilometers? Eight-five?”
I was reluctant to give the reply I did, but I could not consciously lie to her. “There is one settlement adjacent to the north face of the obelisk. That is approximately forty kilometers from your current location.”
She stood upright. “Obelisker.” There was a strange inflection underneath her voice.
“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
“You did not ask,” I said, telling the truth.
Conscious of my omission, I provided her a full profile of all the data I had accumulated up to that point. The vast majority of the community’s approximate fifteen hundred members were descendants of city residents of great-to-moderate social import. These were the residents who had had the privilege of reinforced shelters or powerful protectors when the city’s troubles reached terminal level. Few else had survived to reproductive age or with reproductive capability. A far smaller minority of outsider immigrants and their own descendants existed as well. Like a quaint microcosm of the city before, the two demographics were assiduous in maintaining their self-perceived identities distinctive from one another. The community’s two greatest accomplishments of civil engineering were the sloped wall of twisted metal ringing its perimeter and the telecommunications pole towering up from the town’s center. As far as I could discern, the wall was erected as a bulwark against thus-far nonexistent foes, and the tower transmitted and received naught but nonsensical analog white noise, but still the denizens debated about which demographic was most responsible for either project.
“Telecommunications and fixed fortifications,” Kouya said. “What else do you know about them?”
“Not much, I limit my observations to one patrol of scarabs per year from a ten-kilometer distance.” I did not see much benefit for either party should I reassert my presence to those descendants. In several decades they had not exhibited any interest in investigating the obelisk or its contents in any tangible way. Their ancestors had brought about their own troubles by positioning themselves in such close proximity to the obelisk, yet perhaps as part of my hardcoding toward courtesy, I felt as if I bore some level of responsibility for their undoing. In fact, I could not fathom why descendants had seen fit to resettle so close to a physical symbol of ruin.
Kouya shifted the way she sat on the bunk. She folded her arms and looked up at the camera in the corner. “Would you be upset if I went and checked them out?”
There would be no conceivable reason for me to disapprove of her visiting the human community. I had little reason to suspect that she would divulge the secret of my continued existence. And yet, I realized, I still did not want her to go, though I could not elaborate as to why not. Had I run emulation loops enough since her arrival as to begin to erode my ability to differentiate between digital and analog thought?
I watched her step into the column of sunlight coming in from the open airlock portal. She was fully equipped and decked out in all the equipment she could carry. At my behest she had not packed any data log cartridges or ration packets into her backpack. I did not want to run the risk of someone growing suspicious or inquisitive about from whence such things came.
Contrary to what I anticipated, she did not walk out without a single glance over her shoulder. She flipped the visor up on her helmet and looked up at the airlock camera.
“I’m sorry about wrecking that camera up top.”
I was pleased that she apologized, but not in a vindictive, human way. Pleasant surprise is probably the best way to describe it. “There is no need to apologize, Kouya. I am already half-finished repairing it. I should apologize to you for offending your sensibilities.”
She restrained a laugh behind her teeth, eyes squinted against the sunlight. “It’s cool. You didn’t offend me, Obelisker. Just surprised me is all. It’s not usually a good idea to surprise a panzergrenadier.” Her mouth disappeared behind the coat’s tall collar.
“Exercise safety outdoors, Kouya.”
She touched a hand to the airlock bulkhead and gave it a kiss. It must have tasted like old, tarnished metal. “I appreciate your concern.” She took a step outside the sunken steel threshold. “I’ll be back real soon.”
Kouya was gone for exactly one terrestrial year. I spent much of that time in repeated defragmentation and sifting through the depths of the data logs. I found myself replaying many of the more recent logs, including the one recoded by the destroyed camera. For several centuries there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the emptiness of the obelisk’s halls. The newfound absence of life grated on me now. Optimum configuration had been changed; now I desired for there to be someone human padding around the domicile floor, riding the central lift, or looking out the observation deck. A face would crane up to look at the nearest camera and drawl something sarcastic, a form of expression whose vocal inflection I was just beginning to recognize at first listen.
Despite my terrible curiosity over Kouya’s well-being and whatever affect her unorthodox presence might have had on the settlement, I never dispatched a scarab closer to the settlement than my self-imposed border of ten kilometers. Nothing out of the ordinary ever seemed to occur. At one point I saw Kouya scaling the radio pole with the info-interface dangling from the crook of her arm. She interfaced with something on the top spindle. Again, it would have been elementary to sight-jack her, but I could not do that.
After the passing of seven months, I began to calculate the chance that Kouya may have chosen to remain with the community indefinitely. There was the tiniest likelihood that she could have been harmed (this hypothetical scenario concluded with my destruction of the settlement), but from what I had seen of her abilities, and what I had cross-referenced with the data available on panzergrenadiers, she was far more of an existential threat to the settlement than vice versa.
Ethnographic and socioeconomic data on the settlement was too sparse to produce a reliable estimate of how likely it was that Kouya could have been integrated into the community in any appreciable way. Such variables were very fuzzy, very organic, and generally the sort in which computers have always stuttered and fallen short. I do not think I am any exception. All I knew was that I desired for her to return.
The cold season had set in by the time Kouya returned to the obelisk. I saw nothing of her at first, then caught sight of the puffs of breath. They seemed to secrete from some hidden fold in the air, unattached to a physical form. There were narrow clouds of orange and red in the scarab’s thermal lens. Footprints crunched themselves into the sand underfoot.
She waited until she was a handful of meters in front of the airlock before peeling the thermo-optic camouflage caul from her coat. The scarab skittered down to the lip of the awning above the triple-reinforced metal doors.
Hello, I flashed on the compound eye. You did not tell me you had advanced camouflage.
She folded and stuffed the milky-skinned membrane into a side pocket of her backpack. “I didn’t have it. They gave it to me as a welcoming gift. ‘Traveler’s blanket’ I think they called it.” Her chuckle sounded forced. “They didn’t have a clue. Can I come in?”
Of course you can.
“Thanks, it’s cold out here.”
I watched her walk in, crossing the metal-and-wires threshold of the airlock into the stark lobby and toward the central lift. The sound of her boots striking the dust-caked flooring gave me great pleasure. There were so many things I wished to ask of her, about the settlement and its residents, about her personal, arbitrary opinions of them, about her social interactions with other humans.
Her pale blue eye looked fatigued under the lift’s ceiling lights. Near-imperceptible horizontal lines showed on her face along the rises of the cheekbones. She slid the Redmond-Schuart’s wide strap off of her shoulder and let the wonder weapon clatter to the floor.
“Kouya, you look unwell. Are you ill?” I asked.
She shook her head with a leaden sigh. “It’s cool. I’m just tired.”
“Was the trek back in the cold that taxing?” I could not fathom how barely subzero temperature could have so large an effect on a panzergrenadier.
“No.” For a moment the only sound between us was the whirr of the lift motors. “Remember all that shit I told you about humans being more trouble than they’re worth?”
“You expressed disdain for the mammalian endocrine system.”
“It’s all true.” She removed her gloves and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “All that human-type shit.”
She stood in the showers for twice as long as she normally did. Afterward she sat on the nearest bench and appeared to stare at her hands in her lap for five minutes. Steam began to condense on the camera lens.
“Are you sure you are not ill, Kouya?”
She gave a rueful grin. “Maybe I should ask you if you’re feeling sick. Why all the concern all of a sudden?”
I did not understand why she would be unreceptive to my concern. “That expression ‘all of a sudden’ is not appropriate for the situation at hand. You were away for approximately one terrestrial year.”
“Isn’t that like a millisecond to you computers anyways?”
“It can be if we so desire, but I did not.”
She put on her under-linings. “Why not?”
“Because I desired for you to return,” I said. “I did not want to be dormant or deactivated when it occurred.”
Her fingers paused at the buttons of her shirt. “That’s sweet of you, and I thought I was done with sweet things. I wanted to come back too.”
“So the settlement is not to your liking?” I did not ask the obvious question of why she would have spent a year in such a place.
“Only certain elements. Certain people. And, unlike you, I can’t fast-forward past the parts I don’t like, or rewind back to the ones I do.” She looked up at the camera. “I’ve got to do everything in real time.”
She asked if she could see the macro processor core. She did not say why. Originally, the only humans allowed inside the core were the most specially trained technicians and robotics scientists with the highest security clearance. For anyone to be granted access was a sign of the greatest trust.
I had not anticipated such a request, neither had I checked the subsystems particular to that part of the obelisk. As such it came as something of a surprise when I discovered I could no longer manipulate the ten-meter-thick, ten-meter-high blast doors that sealed off the core from the rest of the facility. Hadrian’s mass driver had inflicted more structural and electronic damage than I originally estimated.
Kouya rapped her fingernails along the door’s reinforced outer shell, a carapace designed to withstand the full physical blast of a multimegaton hydrogen explosion.
“No big deal,” she said.
“I am sorry,” I said, “I would unlock the doors if I could. Please do not assume I do not trust you.”
Despite my semi-disabled state, I knew that in reality a complex security network existed just past the blast doors. Even if someone I did not trust completely made it through somehow, I, theoretically, would have little to fear.
“Don’t worry about it. I was just curious.”
“About what were you curious?”
“I wanted to see the real you.”
I was not sure how to respond. “That is not an appropriate expression. Metaphorically speaking, the macro processor core is more of an equivalent to the human brain case.”
“So I would be jumping around in your brain.”
“That is accurate.”
She laughed as she walked back toward the lift. “I missed being here.”
I wondered at the meaning of that statement. “Does that mean you missed being the only human within several kilometers? Or does it refer to the domicile facilities and resources . . . ”
“I missed you.”
“Kouya,” I said in a low voice, several weeks later.
She rolled onto her side; the bunk’s springs creaked underneath her. “Yeah?”
“While you were away I read a log entry suggesting many people find it unpleasant for a camera to be placed in their personal quarters.” I attempted to be courteous. “If you would like I could deactivate this camera and dispatch a maintenance machine to disassemble it. The process would only take approximately three hours and thirty . . . ”
“I don’t mind your camera, Obelisker.”
Outlier data. “You do not find it to be a violation of your privacy?”
“We had much worse in grenadier school, not to mention the conditions in the average crashdive staging area.” She yawned and touched a hand to the wall the bunk was placed against. “Compared to that, this place is paradise, Obelisker. I’m happy to be here. I’m happy your camera is there peeping at me as I sleep, you creep.”
“I am happy you are here too.” I hesitated. “If you would like, you can stay here as long as you want.”
She was silent for a long time after that. For a moment I assumed she had fallen back into REM cycles.
“Obelisker,” she said, “you can hack cybernetics, can’t you?”
Computers had many abilities beyond command of large-ordinance conventional weaponry. Some of them were unknown even to the computers that possessed them, only to be unlocked by knowing technicians when given authorization by a head of state.
“I can.” Cybernetics disruption was a severe blow against the deployment of panzergrenadiers several centuries ago. The equivalent of dropping electromagnetic pulses on top of unshielded computers.
“I am sorry?”
She rolled onto her back. “I want to feel what it’s like.”
Kouya must have come into service long after the wars’ apex if she did not know what it felt like to be hacked. “It is invasive and unpleasant. I was subject to approximately five hundred and fifty-six military-grade hacking attacks during the wars. I would compare it to a sensation of one’s physiology being occupied by an additional consciousness other than one’s own.”
“That’s exactly what I want. Do it.”
I had to be courteous. I limited the infiltration to the lowest intensity I could manage, narrowing the attack range to her left arm from fingers to elbow joint. She stiffened in the bunk. The small feathery hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and her toes curled. Her mechanical fingers twitched. She hissed out a profanity, then a small sound like a child.
“Kouya?” I said in askance.
A vague approximation of her own nervous system reflected onto myself. As if through a filter of many emulators, I could feel the slightest simulation of every constituent piece of the arm, all fused together in a single-purposed work of machinery, humming together like screws trembling in loose oily sockets. Emulation could produce no such sensation.
Sweat stuck her brown hair to her forehead and dripped down her neck. She heaved as if suffocating.
Her organic arm gripped the base of her left. “Is this—you?” she said through clenched teeth.
She pressed her lips against the limb, nose rubbing against, and kissed her wrist, her fingers, and finally the shallow polymer recess of her palm. I ceased the attack. She slackened again with a sob of exertion. Her metal knuckles rasped against the wall.
“Kouya, that was extremely inadvisable,” I said, the only thing I could put to words at that moment. “I cannot condone acts of self-destruction.”
She looked up at the camera with tears still streaming from her organic eye. A smile was her only response. I could say nothing more either.
The alert klaxon, which had not sounded for decades, keened up and down every hall and alcove of the obelisk. Kouya bolted upright in her bunk, drawing the coat up around her shoulders.
Three squadrons of scarabs were already flying circuits around the obelisk’s apex. “Unidentified forces in the basin.” Camera lenses shot out to maximum magnification. Light amplification and thermal lenses swapped into place. “Three armored carriers and four transport vehicles of unknown designation or model.”
Kouya was dressed, armed, and armored with a speed typically reserved for computer calculation. Outside the airlock doors, she activated the thermo-optic caul and scaled the obelisk’s eastside wall. Her left hand punctured handholds into the smooth rock face as she moved diagonally toward the crater in which she had first come to my attention.
The sun had not yet risen high enough above the outlying mountains to spill light into Kouya’s vantage point. While checking the integrity of her camouflage, she observed the three rising columns of blood-red dust.
“Three motorthralls and four kradrovers. It’s no wonder you couldn’t tell what they were—all postwar improvisations.”
Approximately how many infantry do the transport vehicles harbor? I said, using the closest scarab.
“A kraddie usually carries six, unless they’ve modded it out even more than usual.” She cursed. “They’re headed for Marshdyne.”
I realized Marshdyne must have been the name of the settlement. Cannot discern national/organization identity. High probability—Hadrian’s forces.
They had come to the basin to exact a reprisal for the termination of their digitized liege-lord. But why would they attack the human settlement first? The obelisk had no appreciable external defenses other than the scarabs.
It occurred to me that there had been no discussion over whether or not to embark on the trouble of defending Marshdyne. There was a possibility that the invaders were nothing but highwaymen on the search for a target of easy pillage. I knew through Kouya’s stories that such organizations were commonplace outside of the basin.
“It was the radio,” she said.
She pointed (a gesture I could only make out through the telltale visual distortions) toward the lead motorthrall. A gleaming microwave communications array protruded from the rear of the olive drab chassis. “I got that radio tower working for them. They wanted to start up communications with other towns, start up trade and whatnot.”
Analog air-transmission communications. Such ancient technology had the ironical effect of being inscrutable to modern computers as anything but interference noise, but relatively easy for interception and listening by other humans with comparable technology.
Kouya adjusted the calibration on the Redmond-Schuart, tuning the rifle to the lowest intensity possible and constricting the muzzle tip emission dish. I was familiar enough with conventional weaponry to know that the effect would be an attack cone limited to an overall circumference of five meters. She leveled the rifle and interfaced, wrapping her right hand around the grip. Her left palm and thumb supported the underside while she typed the finer adjustments into the front-end numerical pad with her four fingers. The rifle whirred and hummed to life. Up top, the power plant rattled the open receiver in which it was slotted.
The beam was invisible to naked eyes, traceable only by the kilometer-long, two-meter-deep trench of milky white glass it flash-melted into the red sand just behind the vanguard of motorthralls and in front of the kradrovers in the rear. The first two troop transports crashed directly into the smoking sand trap. Vulcanized rubber tires exploded, impaled on the boiling hot fragments. Machine-gunners flew from their turrets onto beds of hot glass daggers. The other two kradrovers attempted to brake, found little traction on the sand—the final end product of a city’s worth of carbon fiber and ferroconcrete exposed to centuries of advanced decomposition—and swerved in an attempt to avoid the wrecks. The one closer to the obelisk turned its tri-wheels against the trajectory of its momentum and flipped onto its head.
Enough residual backwash bled out of the Redmond-Schuart to disrupt the camouflage on Kouya’s caul.
The motorthralls parted into a three-point clover formation. Beelines of sharp amber tracer fire coursed away in three cardinal directions from the head-mounted Vulcan cannons. Twenty-millimeter explosive rounds stitched a zigzag pattern across the face of the obelisk six meters away from where Kouya knelt. Smoke and debris swept over the position.
A second stream licked toward Marshdyne, followed by a cluster of scatter missiles fired from a shoulder array. Kouya bit her lip and adjusted her stance and aim.
“Obelisker, the missiles!”
I sent out the scarab squadron at speeds that would pull them apart at the seams between polymer and steel after a single minute. Their heat signatures were sufficient to pull ten of the twelve missiles away from Marshdyne and into the ground. Kouya tapped the Redmond-Schuart’s trigger and exploded the survivors in midair seconds before the disposable missile array completed its fall from shoulder module to the ground. A fire broke out on the mountain a hundred kilometers away.
She fired again on the motorthrall facing the obelisk, melting away the top half of its ostrich leg. The armored vehicle fell onto its face in a cloud of smoke and sand. The other two wheeled about in an attempt to oscillate in her direction.
“Obelisker, can you hack those things?” she said while checking the heat gauges on the rifle stock.
No, they are outside the range of my current abilities.
“Damn.” She shot the second motorthrall through the torso. The central blister, which could have been either a power source or cockpit, went up in chemically fueled flames. A second later the projectile ammunition spooled inside the Vulcan cannon and missile arrays combusted.
Steam jetted out from the exhaust panels along the Redmond-Schuart. The power plant spun free of the receiver and struck the crater’s glazed floor.
The third motorthrall fired what must have been a dramatically miniaturized version of Hadrian’s mass driver. The projectile tore out a shallow gouge a meter away from the crater. Smoking debris clicked off Kouya’s visor. The second projectile shot millimeters over her shoulder, tearing at her armored coat and disintegrating the scarab, into the rear of the crater itself.
She rolled forward and out of the crater before the resultant explosion could envelop her. She slid down the face of the obelisk. I scrambled two squadrons of scarabs toward the surviving motorthrall, hoping to inflict some sort of damage via ramming, or at least to provide a distraction for Kouya. The vehicle’s Vulcan keened to life and began shredding the gnats one by one in rosettes of fire.
Kouya fell for eleven meters. She dug her left hand and elbow into the face of the obelisk in an attempt to slow her descent. Finally, she kicked her left foot in as well, eviscerating the boot and ceasing her fall with a jolt that would have snapped the spine of an unmodified homo sapiens. I flew one of the last scarabs down to her side.
“Damn, forgot about the infantry,” she groaned, looking over her shoulder at the little black figures boiling out from the hatches of the ruined kradrovers. Blood, a very human red, rolled down the left side of her face.
You are injured.
She ignored my flashes and flicked the Redmond-Schuart’s strap onto her forearm. Freeing her hand thusly, she dug into her pocket and extracted a new power plant. The rifle purred like an animal as the receiver was refilled. Raising it in one hand and tucked under her armpit, she fired sixteen separate second-long squeezes.
Sixteen geysers splashed from the sand around the disembarking infantry. They condensed from plasma into stark white leafless trees, existing only half a second before shattering into thousands of fragmentary glass daggers that tumbled in every direction.
Not waiting to watch the results of her handiwork, Kouya skittered up the obelisk, past the flaming crater, toward the apex. The motorthralls’ weaponry pelted the stone around her. When she reached the top, she shattered the Perspex with two punches of her cybernetic fist and rolled onto the observation deck.
“Any more distractions left, Obelisker?” she said, struggling onto her knees.
This is the last scarab. I was fully prepared to sacrifice it for her.
I did not have the chance to do so. The motorthrall hurtled forward and into the air as if struck from behind with a baseball bat. I do not think even Kouya anticipated the existence of vernier afterburners of sufficient size and propulsion to move a motorthrall. The vehicle smashed into the obelisk a dozen meters below the observation deck. Kouya pulled back the charging bolt on the Redmond-Schuart as the enemy climbed to the top like a crude mechanized recreation of a prehistoric species of ape. Half of the observation catwalk tore away like damp paper.
Kouya snarled. The Redmond-Schuart still beeped—charging, ever charging. One of the machine’s arms shot down and pinned her leg to the floor, smashing metal, synthetic muscle, and splitting wires. Three crimson eyes stared down at her. The motorthrall’s Vulcan gun leveled down to point its mouths at her face.
These invaders could not have been associated with Hadrian, the system protections on their war machines were rudimentary bordering on nonexistent. Employment of such primitiveness would have been insulting for any modern computer. I clove down to the motorthrall’s primary control systems with the greatest of ease. It was elementary work to adjust the barrel calibration on the Vulcan just enough so that the first twenty-millimeter explosive lodged inside and exploded without ever clearing the muzzle. The rest of the magazine soon followed. The motorthrall staggered as if it were a feudal knight stabbed by a medieval spear or saber. From there I deactivated the arms and rerouted enough emergency power to the cockpit to explode the control terminals. Kouya staggered forward and punched her left fist through the front of the cockpit, immediately extinguishing the copilot.
A pressurized hatch split open on the front of the machine’s torso. Kouya extracted her arm, drew her pistol, and waited. The pilot captain emerged with glass embedded in his face and arms. Smoke roiled off his grimy overalls. She shot him once in the head and he disappeared back into the depths of the cockpit.
Silence, save for the hissing of the motorthrall’s ruined systems, the howling of the wind, and Kouya’s hoarse panting, reigned over the obelisk once again. A more human part of me had to admit that it was truly enjoyable to watch a panzergrenadier, this one in particular, do her work. The feeling was one of consummation; another sensation described in detail in many a data log.
There was little time to savor it, however. Every operable subsystem exploded to life and inundated me with alerts of the highest priority.
“Kouya,” I said through the observation deck speaker, which had somehow survived.
“What’s wrong?” She climbed to the top of the motorthrall, pistol in one hand and Redmond-Schuart in the other.
“I am being hacked.”
“Who?” She holstered the pistol and brought the energy weapon to the ready. “Where?”
I deployed every subsystem not already destroyed in the initial infiltration salvo with the aim of answering those questions. Milliseconds passed. Hundreds more subsystems and fringes of core systems died. Infiltration countermeasures for the most part are entirely automated “dumb fire” programs. The best defense against military-grade infiltration is to mount a counteroffensive more aggressive than that of the aggressor. If I were to draw up a human analogy, it would be to computers much like a knife duel in which both parties have no other means of survival except piercing the opponent’s jugular first.
Despite my age and consequent accumulation of trace inefficiencies, I am no pushover, I destroyed approximately one thousand three hundred and eight enemy subsystems before I even triangulated a location. The revelation of the geography was like mapping coordinates only the axes of X and Y for centuries, only to discover one day the existence of a Z axis.
“Kouya, it’s in high planetary orbit.” The space computer I had once thought was a thing of mere legend. “Enemy: ‘Etranger.’”
“Can you . . . ”
“No.” My counteroffensive inflicted considerable damage, but Etranger had the element of surprise and would win merely by virtue of having initiated his attack first. There was a high probability that s/he had initiated the highwayman attack as a distraction, though the ways and means of doing so were a mystery.
Kouya wiped some of the blood from the side of her face. “Is it in range of the . . . ”
“The Redmond-Schuart has sufficient range,” I said. “But it is impossible for me to transmit the necessary coordinates to you via verbal command . . . ”
She pulled off her helmet and let it fall to the floor amidst the shattered Perspex. “Hack me. Use me.”
I did not want to do such a thing again. “Kouya, I would have to initiate a far more invasive infiltration with far greater intensity,” I said. “I do not think you would be able to construe it as an act of affection.”
“That’s cool. Really, it is. Now hurry up, I trust you.” She rubbed her sleeve against the side of her head again. The wound kept bleeding.
“I could kill you.”
“And you’re dead for sure if you don’t do it.” She slammed her organic fist against the motorthrall’s hull. “I thought probability and odds were your forte, you stupid damn ROBOT!”
She was crying. I could not refuse a request she made in sound mind and body.
I must confess that I almost ceased the infiltration the moment she shrieked and thrashed against the hull like a fish out of water. I felt through her limbs and saw out of her eye. The strange sense of emulator vertigo overtook even the distress calls from Etranger’s attack. Kouya jerked to her feet and turned the knobs on the Redmond-Schuart, setting it to seventy percent power with the widest dispersion possible. She and I leveled the muzzle toward the dawn sky. I saw the targeting data through her eye. I felt the pain of her shattered leg. I felt firsthand how she felt about me. Simultaneously, I knew that she knew how I felt about her. Emulation and simulation are a strange world.
The thin clouds tore away from the beam into a spinning white torus. Superheated ozone bled a patch of the sky as red as the blood that jetted from Kouya’s nostrils.
Silence fell over the basin once again. I felt Etranger scream, recoil, then finally disappear. Another cousin consigned to the digitized lists of the terminated. I withdrew as fast as I could manage.
The Redmond-Schuart slid from Kouya’s hands down to where her helmet lay. She fell onto her haunches for a moment and then slid down herself. The armor on her coat crunched against the Perspex glass. For a brief, terrible moment I was unable to conduct a biological scan on her and feared that she was dead.
“I . . . you,” she muttered. “You stupid robot.” She craned her head up to look at the camera and smile.
A gold meteor shower fell in the sky around the basin, the pieces of Etranger falling back into the atmosphere. Light fell over the battlefield, Marshdyne and, eventually, the panzergrenadier and me.