Sometimes I feel as if I’ve spent an awful lot of this war lying in rusty, blood-tainted water. Maybe that’s just what all wars are: a whole lot of terrified running around, falling over and praying for it all to be over. Sure meshes with my experience. The hunt for octals never seemed to end. We’d spend a day wiping out another village and receive orders to move on to the next. It’s one of the benefits of rank, I guess, to be filled in on a bit more of the plan than us at the bottom. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t. Watching the lieutenant receiving the next update in our mission plans makes me suspect it’s just another burden. All I want to be able to believe is that someone else is planning this war, because from my eye line all we’re doing is eradicating the countryside and everything in it.
We are somewhat depleted as a force. It’s unavoidable but we also haven’t been reinforced since that little shitshow a month ago where our own damn arobot took out a quarter of the squad. Friendly fire. These arobots are great to have in a firefight, as long as they’re on your side. As we trudge cross-country to our next mission I’ve settled into a long stride that never quite puts me in front of our remaining arobot. We had five to begin with, now we’re down to the one that didn’t go mad, kill its teammates or get ground under the teeth of an octal tank. Out here you bond in confusingly deep and intimate ways with your fellow soldiers, but with enough space that when they die you don’t go immediately to pieces – all that pain and grief can be stored up for when we finally get out of here. It’s not that you don’t bond with arobots – of course you do: slap a smiley face on a toaster and you’ll greet it good morning and thank it for burning your bread – it’s that they don’t seem to bond back. I know they aren’t people, but neither are cats or cars and I like both of mine well enough. Trust them… Well, I’m walking behind it aren’t I? I’d been calling this one “Clock” for a while. It needs a name, otherwise it’s just “that arobot over there” which is fuck all use in a fight. Anyway, “Clock”, from how it looks around, just stops and then its head clicks round in a full circuit with – I swear – twelve stops in all. Drove me crazy until I actually counted because the pattern was familiar yet seemed out of place on the neck of a humanoid robot. The other arobots didn’t do that, or at least not the same way. They might come out of a factory somewhere back home, but mould isn’t the same.
Following Clock turned out to be a good call on my part. Great thing about the arobots is that they don’t get tired, their attention doesn’t fade after six hours clumping across broken fields and over fucked up hedges. They’re just on all the time. So even though I didn’t spot the octals lurking in the copse ahead, I sure noticed the arobot react. I hit the ground with a yell, at approximately the same time one of the octal velocity weapons turned the top of the lieutenant into a bloody rainbow arching backwards for a hundred metres before fading into nothing. I like to think it was my strangled scream that saved most of our lives. We were in a bad place, caught while crossing the most open part of the field. Not that we’d had much of a choice since artillery had torn up every scrap of cover for the last half mile, covering the whole area with hedgerow turned into sharp chaff. Those same thorns and spikes of wood now stabbed me in every part of my body as I lay as flat as possible.
All the while, Clock, our last remaining arobot was moving. It’s genuinely difficult to grasp how their mission priorities work. They have the barest trace of interest in preserving human life, the mission is the thing. Although the lives of their squadmates are quite high up on the list, given that we’re often useful in accomplishing the mission. They also develop preferences and “habits”, yet more terminology that makes you feel like they’re people. Machines have protocols and logic gates, people have favourite colours and hobbies. Clock likes things to happen in a certain order, and it takes badly to other factors messing up that order. Much like its baffling choice of wearing a tartan shawl around it’s shoulders underneath the pack and armour, that preference is something the rest of the squad had wisely not fucked about with. There were plenty of stories about arobots going wild when command started restricting their habits and preferences. They both follow orders perfectly and are simply too lethal to impose whimsical orders on about what colours are acceptable in the field.
That shawl of Clock’s whirled and whipped about as the arobot charged the octals. Not a suicidal cavalry charge, it was a lot more acrobatic than that. I guess Clock had already figured out all the firing trajectories that the octals had from the little cluster of trees and was just moving between them, but from the ground it looked like dancing. We figured out what it was up to and started laying down some cover, pumping incineration fire into the copse ahead. That stopped when Clock – midway through something between a pirouette and flinging a spear – very precisely turned its head back to us at a weird sardonic angle, like “really?”, as if we were screwing up its plan. We made awkward eye contact with each other. It’s hard to shrug when you’re pressed into mud and brambles. So we just watched Clock do whatever it had decided to do. Oh, and checked all the other directions we could have been vulnerable from – we’re not bad soldiers, but arobots do have a weird effect on a squad, making you feel both indestructible and very, very fragile at the same time.
Clock reached the copse, despite the remaining octals focusing all their attention on him. Velocity spray arced around him, evaporating the ground it struck into columns of fading light. It had killed at least half a dozen just on the way across the field between us with unerring aim even as Clock tumbled and twisted. The octals obviously knew it would be all over once the arobot got its hands on them. I was relieved to see it didn’t individually decapitate them. I wasn’t ready for another fight with an arobot and I doubted there were enough left of us to survive that, especially after seeing Clock go into action. It had never done anything like that before, that combination of graceful balletic movement. The longer they survived, the weirder they got. But Clock just shot them all, left them smoking in the woods, then gestured impatiently for us to catch up.
Just behind the copse (or what was left of it) was a pristine octal half-track. Basically a jeep with caterpillar tracks. I mean, they’d have been tracks if it weren’t octal. The slippery, rubbery loop that wound around the wheels wasn’t what we’d have built but it did the same thing. Clock was already in the driving seat, one fist plunged into the weird biological interface the octals had instead of a wheel. We all piled in, grateful for the opportunity to pluck thorns from our clothing and skin. With a ticking scan around us, Clock drove us out of there. A somewhat worrying thought arose: with the lieutenant now dead, had the arobot decided it was our commanding officer? And was that an arobot preference I even remotely wanted to challenge?