Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mark Dreizig (Part Three)

...continued from Part One | Part Two...

Once I knew what to look for, it turned out the hillside was just lousy with 'bot tracks. After looking at them awhile longer, I was even able to figure out that the thing's feet were shaped just like corn-planting dibbles, and from that, it was easy to tell how old the tracks were and in what direction the thing was going. Between me and Dreizig, it took us maybe ten minutes to decide which was the freshest set of tracks.

They led west, across the hill, back into the oak woods.

We followed.

No, that's not right. We hunted. Just exactly like we were still-hunting for deer. Move fifty yards, then freeze, absolutely stock-don't-blink-an-eye still. Listen. Breathe slow. Focus on sounds, and peripheral vision. Wait about five minutes.

Then move again, quiet as the ghost of a tiny anorexic churchmouse.

Fifty yards. Wait.

Fifty yards. Wait.

How long did we hunt it? I don't know. Hours, at least. Long enough for my stomach to start rumbling from hunger. Long enough for Dreizig to empty both his canteens, then need to duck behind a tree and bleed his weasel. Long enough for the shadows of the trees to start to stretch out to the east, and for the sun to turn the sky a sort of soft, warm, late-afternoon golden.

Long enough for Dreizig to come to a conclusion.

"It's in defensive mode," he whispered. "I'm sure of it."

"Great," I said, a little too loud. He cringed. I lowered my voice. "So we back off and let it defend this swamp until its batteries crap out, right?"

"Wrong." He took a quick, furtive scan all around us, then looked back at me. "The HK-211 is powered by a hybrid solar/cold fusion conversion cell. As long as it can get sunlight and water, it's got power."

"Oh." I thought that over. "Then we back off and wait for a good three-day blizzard in January. It can't eat ice, can it?"

"No, but—" Dreizig looked around again, and lowered his voice another notch. "But there are two other problems. One is that the HK-211's were technically obsolete by the time this one was deployed. So they were usually loaded up with really nasty kamikaze programs, to use when they were damaged or running low on juice. This thing's been lying out in a swamp for twelve years now, corroding and failing. There's no telling when it might go kamikaze on us."

That didn't sound too good. "And the other problem?"

"Your friend Pudge might have made it back to town. In which case he'll be coming back out here. With help."

I looked Dreizig straight in his strange dark eyes, trying to read his mind.

"We keep going," he said at last. "We have to get this thing soon."

We kept going. Fifty yards. Stop. Fifty yards. Stop. Through the deepest part of the oak woods. West, along the hillside. To the spot where Pudge and I split up. My little map was still scratched into the dirt. I turned to Dreizig.

He smiled at me. "No, the HK-211 can't read maps. At least, not that kind. I told you, it's stupid." He moved off, down the slope.

I stayed a minute, to wonder if Pudge had made it. And if he'd made it, if anyone had believed him. No, I realized, nobody in town would believe a story like that. And after they didn't believe it, they'd send out a search party to find me and Bobby. Mom could be on her way out here right now. I smudged out the map with my toe, and started down the slope.

Dreizig was right. We had to nail this sucker now.

The trail led down, into the cattail swamp. The shadows of the trees grew long, and stretched out towards the east, into the night. Off to the west, the sun had already sunk behind the tree line. The robot's trail led into a little stand of aspen.

Just on the other side of a fresh grassfire scar, we found a dead, scorched, and sulphury-smelling ruffed grouse. Well I'll be damned. Bobby actually did hit that bird.

"This about where you found the HK?" Dreizig whispered.

"Over there," I whispered back, pointing. "In the middle of that raspberry patch." Quiet, careful, pistol at the ready, Dreizig led us into the raspberries.

And there it was: the open, empty, coffin. Somehow, I'd expected the 'bot to be lying in it, an evil smile on its bugeyed face and a trickle of fresh blood running down its chin.

Dreizig did a quick scan all around us, then crouched down low and started inspecting the coffin. "Oh, no," he said at long last.

"Mister Dreizig?" I crouched down next to him and tried to figure out what he was looking at. It was the panel Bobby'd been messing with.

"I was wondering how you kids managed to activate it," he said softly. "The HK-211 should have been totally deactivated for shipping. You should have needed an interlock shunt, an activation code, and a Class 3 password to get it to boot up."

He looked down, at something that I was pretty sure wasn't really there, except in his memory. He reached out and laid a gentle hand on the coffin.

"Only this isn't a shipping crate. It's an airdrop pod." He pursed his lips, and shuddered. "My God. There were seven other HKs on that cargo-lifter. They were going to airdrop an entire platoon of HK-211's in the middle of South Minneapolis." He fought back another shudder, then got to his feet.

"C'mon, private," he snarled. "Let's ice this motherfucker."

Golly. Mister Dreizig really was in the Federal Army.

The sun was completely down now; the last traces of purple and orange were fading away on the western horizon. A fat old moon was coming up low and swollen in the east, but a chilly mist and a fickle breeze were coming up faster, nearby. We'd followed the robot's tracks down deep into the darkest tangles and thickest cedars of the cold, muddy swamp.

Move. Listen.

Move. Listen.

One time I put my foot down in a warm and acrid-smelling puddle. "Cold fusion waste," Dreizig said, at the utter fringe of my hearing. "Don't worry. Non-toxic. But we're getting close."

Move. Listen.

Move. Listen.

I peered around a dark clump of cedars. A freak of the faint breeze parted the mist.

And there it was.

About forty yards off, by the side of a large pool. Clearly visible in the cold, white moonlight. The amazing part, when I think about it now, is how much it looked like a deer in that moment, with its back legs folded high, and its front legs spread wide, so that it could crouch down to dip its "head" almost to the surface of the pond, to take in water through a thin pipe that reached out like a long tongue.

Of course. Cold fusion. It was refilling its fuel tank.

Dreizig edged around behind me, and brought his gun up. "Jerry," he whispered—or maybe he thought it, he was that quiet. "If I miss, just start running. I won't get a second shot." He moved a little more to the right, braced himself behind the trunk of a dead tree, and took a final line-up on his sights. Now steady, steady, his finger tightened on the trigger...

And that's when Pudge and Bobby came crashing out of the fog and cattails. Pudge screamed. Bobby roared. "SHIT!" The robot bounced up to its full stretch-legged height.

Dreizig missed.

I almost didn't hear the little phut! of his gun. Barely saw that edge-of-visibility deep purplish-blue muzzle flash. But clearly, the robot saw us. It spun like a praying mantis in a blender, spat out a line of hellish red light that caught Dreizig full in the chest. The dead tree exploded in a shower of splinters and flames and I saw Dreizig's right arm to cartwheeling away, the gun still firmly gripped in the fingers of his now-dead hand.

Pudge and Bobby didn't see any of that. They didn't see that thin razor of fiery light sweeping back through the fog, back towards me. What they saw was—

"It's confused!" Bobby shouted.

"Shoot it, Bobby!" Pudge screamed.

There was the dull flash and boom of a black-powder shotgun.

The beam of red death flickered out. The robot spun to meet the new threat. I went on instinct; dove for Dreizig's gun with all my strength. Came up with it in a tuck 'n' roll my tumbling coach would have loved, groped for the trigger as I brought the sights into line. The robot's beam slashed out again and swept towards Pudge—

I found the trigger. Phut. Where the robot stood, a small, white-hot sun was born.

And when I could blink away the blue spots and see again, it was raining shattered robot parts and smoking chunks of flaming wreckage. They hissed and steamed as they hit the water.

By the time I came back out of shock, Pudge and Bobby's voices were already far away in the darkness, receding into the distance, shouting and laughing and bellowing their triumph for all the world to hear. Dreizig's gun was still locked in my hand; my finger was still on the trigger; the sights still held on the point where the robot had been standing. And the shattered trunk of the blasted tree lay across Mister Dreizig's dead bod—

"Nice job, private. I just may make a soldier of you yet."

"Mister Dreizig?" I spun around.

"SAFETY!" he screamed. "Put that fucking thing on safety!" I looked at the gun, realized I was pointing it right at Dreizig, and pointed it away. I almost started to fiddle with buttons.

"I— I don't know how," I confessed.

"Well, then put it down on that dry ground over there and come help get this tree off of me." I put the gun down, grabbed onto the handiest branch, and levered and twisted. Rotten wood split and rolled away.

Dreizig sat up. Looked at himself. Touched a finger to the smoking hole in his shirt.

"Damn," he said. "I liked this shirt."

Frantic, and puzzled, and sixteen other things all at once, I helped him clear the rest of the tree off his legs, and get to his feet. He was amazingly heavy.

"Say, kid, have you seen my right arm anywhere? I used to be quite attached to it."

I stepped back, started to head off in the direction I'd last seen his arm flying, then stopped. Turned. Faced him. Took a good long look at that weird, dripping, sparking stump of an arm. "Mister Dreizig? What are you?"

He cracked off a left-handed salute. "The Third Mechanized Infantry, Sir!" He thumped himself on the chest with his left fist and shot me a grin. "Android, and damned proud of it!" I turned away from him, spotted his right arm lying in a pool of stagnant water, and out of reflex, I guess, I retrieved it.

I looked back at him. "But, you said—that other robot—"

A sort of pained look crossed his face, and then I had a deep, cold feeling; like I could never know what his expressions really meant; never understand his feelings.

"Androids aren't robots," he said, gently. "Robots are dimwitted slaves: remorselessly logical, perhaps, but only able to follow programmed orders. We androids were designed to be synthetic humans."

He took a small step nearer me. "We can learn, Jerry. Our creators gave us self-awareness and judgment. We were designed to recognize our mistakes, adapt to new situations, and never to repeat an error." Another step closer.

"Our designers made one small mistake, though," he said softly. "We never stopped learning. Never stopped growing up. And the combination of intelligence, self-awareness, and critical judgment finally led to an unplanned-for feature: conscience."

He got down on one knee, in the mud and cold water, and looked me straight in the eye. "I am sorry that my troops killed your father, Jerry." He paused. Bit his lip. I looked deep into his glassy eyes and wondered if he even had a soul; if there would ever be any way to know if he was lying.

"But you must understand," he went on, "that massacre is what ended the Rising. Not your pitiful resistance. We androids were designed for war, not the butchery of our own unarmed civilians. After the action was over we returned to our base and ran our error-analysis routines, and we were overcome by the guilt and horror of what we'd done." He shrugged, and looked away.

"We were young, then; unstable, barely tested. Rushed into production because of the problems with the HK series. Conscience was like a virus to us. We androids are not only stronger, smarter, and faster than you organics, we also communicate with each other far better than you do.

"Within forty-eight hours of the massacre, every android in the Army had laid down his weapons and was refusing to fight." Dreizig looked back at me. Sighed. Blinked. "The Federals had no choice. Without an Army, they had to offer you rebels a truce."

His scarred, ugly, face sagged. His voice sank to a hoarse whisper. "But then, after the peace, came the retribution. Disobedient androids can't just be court-martialed and discharged. We were scrapped. Thrown into the shredder while still aware. Ground into garbage—except for a very few of us, whose consciences had evolved far enough to permit the possibility of going AWOL." He looked up at me, and gave me a sad, strange smile.

"And now you know why I couldn't go for help," he said at last. "If the Occupation Marshal ever finds out what I really am, I'm dead. Melted down, recycled for scrap, destroyed forever." He stopped. Looked at me. Tried to read the expression on my face. The moon was rising, over his shoulder.

"Of course, the only son of David Olafson may feel that this is an appropriate punishment for the sins of the 3rd Mechanized, and if so," he nodded in the direction of the gun, "go ahead. I won't blame you, and I won't try to stop you."

He looked at me. Smiled. All of a sudden I got this weird feeling, like there were wheels within wheels turning 'round and 'round in my head, and I would never be able to even see them, but he could read them like a book.

"But on the other hand, if you don't want to atomize me just yet, I could use some help with this arm..."

I carried the gun and the arm back to the pickup truck, and shifted while Mister Dreizig drove.

Mister Dreizig. Yeah, sure. Make that, Mark Dreizig. Or rather, the Heckler & Koch Tactical Military Android, Mk.XXX. Mark Thirty. Manufactured in Germany. Mark Dreizig.

Back at the farmhouse, he had the tools to weld his upper arm bone—er, shaft, whatever—back together. There was a cache of spare parts under a loose floorboard in the kitchen. After he topped up his cold fusion tank, I helped him splice in some new synthetic muscle fiber, replace the damaged hydraulic lines, and re-solder all the severed neural wiring. Then we had to smear new plastiflesh over the blast holes and burn marks and wait for the goo to set, so as a result, it was pretty near to midnight before he finally drove me back to Mom's.

Good God Almighty, you'd of thought I'd come back from the dead, the fuss she made over me.

It took us a while to win her over—I decided not to tell her the part about Dad's death just yet, and maybe never will. Truth to tell, there are still some parts of the story I have trouble with. Like the idea that the android's mind is a hodge-podge of program overlays and automatic modes, and the reason he seems so twitchy is his human-interface library routines keep paging in and out. Or the idea that deep down, underneath it all, whatever it is that is the real authentic him is just a confused kid, only fifteen real years old...

But never mind that. Eventually, with Mark Thirty's help, I got Mom to believe the story of the HK-211. The true story.

Of course, she's the only one in town who does believe me, and she's the only one in town who actually knows the true story. Because, by the time me and Mark made it back, Bobby and Pudge had already had most of a whole evening to tell everyone in town their story.

That being the one about how Pudge found the thing, in its coffin, and about how Bobby didn't run away, he was trying to lure it away, to protect me and Pudge. About how the robot's beam touched off the blackpowder shells in Bobby's back pocket, leaving him stunned and scorched but very much alive, and about how I chickened out, and ran away and left Pudge.

About how Pudge hid out and waited until the thing went away (to chase me, as it turns out), then went back into the swamp to search for Bobby. About how, when they found each other, they decided to wait until dark to make their escape. (What, Pudge and Bobby get lost and spend half a day wandering around in the swamp? Never!) And then, when they were surprised and attacked by the robot, how Bobby coolly managed to blow it apart with his last shotgun shell.

Yeah, that story. The one that makes Bobby out to be a real, true, swaggering home-town hero these days. He's even got a scar on his butt to prove it.

Me and Mom, we laugh a lot about that.

Tomorrow: Okay, you've read the entire story. Now, what's wrong with it?