Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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by Alan Delaney

Rocks and mud, mud and rocks. There was little else in this barren wasteland -- no life, no sound, no movement, just rocks and mud. Sure, there were the burnt-out shells of abandoned tanks, the decaying ruins of empty villages, and the whitened bones of long-rotted corpses, but nothing lasted long under this baking sun. In the end, the wilderness swallowed them all.

One figure moved in the otherwise dead landscape. It trudged its way towards the low-lying hills to the east -- observing, probing, scanning, ever vigilant in spite of the desolation of its surroundings. Officially it was termed a Reconnaissance and Extermination Droid, or RED -- a nine-foot-tall, heavily armored, experimental battledroid designed for long-duration military operations in inhospitable environments -- but out here this model had acquired the name Jim, a corruption of the native name for it. Its purpose was to ensure that the dead landscape stayed that way. These lands had been a cesspit of terrorist hideouts only a few years earlier and though it was rare to find any life at all since the Holy War had passed through here, there were still small pockets of resistance dotted around. Jim's mission was to locate these pockets and eliminate them.

Jim worked alone. It had been designed that way. There was no team to work with, so it had no logistics to take care of, no need for food or water or medicine. Its considerable firepower mainly consisted of the spoils of earlier missions, and it possessed enough scanners, probes and sensors to negate the need for scouts. It operated in environments too inhospitable for regular soldiers and took care of the sort of missions that they despised. As for its orders, they came from two sources: the HQ which monitored the recon satellites and located suspicious activities, and heuristics -- "low-level, decision-making capabilities for ground-level survival requirements," as the press release termed it -- that operated during times of crisis where direct orders would be too slow. HQ's orders, which always took priority, outlined the broad plans -- heuristics took care of the fine details.

Some hours ago the recon satellites had picked up evidence of possible terrorist activity in the hills that Jim was currently approaching. Jim's orders were routine: "investigate and eliminate" --kinder words for "search and destroy". Jim had been hard-wired for obedience, but the borders of its heuristics were poorly defined -- they had to be, to allow flexible response to new threats. Recently Jim had been pushing those borders out further and further. Its creators would probably not be very happy at the results.

The hills were not so high but they stretched on for miles. There would be enough natural cover and hiding places to make such a camp a possibility but the logistics involved in having any kind of community in this environment would mean that any such camp would be a small one. Heuristics: no real threat here, very small likelihood of any major military operations being conducted here, at worst there were just a small band of people with little water and less food doing their best just to stay alive. But still, hardwiring is hardwiring, and orders are orders.

Jim stopped at the base of the hills and set its long-range scanners on full sweep -- motion detectors, thermal imagers, radio scanners, vibration sensors, seismographs, magnetic flux monitors, several million dollars worth of military hardware in all -- but there was nothing, no life, no sound, no movement, nothing, just rocks and mud. Jim switched back to short-range mode and trudged on into the hills.

The sun had passed its zenith and was starting its long, slow descent towards the horizon when Jim's motion sensors were triggered -- movement. The RED stopped and focused on the location of the movement. The target was still some distance away but was approaching fast. It was a single human, on foot and running. There were indicators of a weapon but no armor and its approach could be classified as a hostile maneuver.

Jim communicated these facts to HQ and received its orders: eliminate the suspect and examine the body for evidence of nearby camps. The RED mapped out the suspects likely approach path, chose a location for itself deep in the shadows of a nearby rock and waited. It selected a basic assault rifle from its arsenal -- not much in the way of firepower but adequate against unarmored human targets.

Soon enough, the suspect was close enough for the thermal imagers to get a visual. It was a solitary male human with a battered assault rifle slung across his shoulder. From the amount of body fluids on the surface of his skin and from his increased heart rate, it seemed that he had been running for some time. Heuristics: he's been running, his weapon is strapped across his back in a non-hostile manner, he has no military equipment of any kind, he's making no attempt at stealth -- zero threat and zero likelihood that he knows of Jim existence. But, as always, orders were orders.

The suspect closed in and approached the clearing that the RED had covered from its hiding place. He never got to see his attacker -- one short burst from the assault rifle and it was all over.

Jim switched its short-range sensors into sweep mode and monitored the area, scanning for potential threats, but the suspect had been alone. There was no backup, no cover, no trap. Jim left its hiding place and approached the body.

It was a young male, a native, probably in his late teens, fit but poorly fed. His weapon was an aging, poorly maintained assault rifle with the shoulder stock missing. If it fired at all the bullets would barely scratch Jim's exoskeleton. He was also carrying a full water canister. The water was fresh and clean so it obviously had recently been refilled. His clothes were civilian, not military, and quite threadbare. Jim bent down and rifled the boy's pockets. There was a small package of dried meat -- from the size and chemical traces, most likely rat -- enough for a dayís journey, no more. This was all the food he carried so he must be near his base. The only other item of note was a rough, hand-drawn map. There were some characters written on it in the native script. It was a map of a water-source; evidently someone had found a small stream deep inside a cave somewhere to the south.

Jim collated this data, sent its report back to HQ, and waited for its next orders. Heuristics: the boy had been a scout or a messenger, he had found water-source, probably as part of a search party, and was returning back to his base to deliver the news. That meant that there was a base to the North, the direction he had been running in. And that could mean only one thing.

Some minutes later the orders came back: high possibility of a terrorist camp to the North -- locate and neutralize. Jim was incapable of disobedience but the limits of its heuristics were poorly defined. It took the boy's body into the shade of a north-facing cliff and made a makeshift grave for him from some nearby rocks. Why it did so, it could not tell. There was no protocol and no orders for this sort of act but somehow it had felt like the right thing to do. It then turned northwards and trudged off in the direction indicated by the orders -- it was in no hurry.

Some hours had passed when the sensors were triggered again. This time there was considerably more activity than before, evidence of a camp just up ahead. Jim took refuge among the nearby shadows and concentrated its sensors on the likely location of the activity. Yes, there was movement, several humans, gathered in a clearing some distance ahead. It was still to far away to assess their strength but the sensors were unable to detect any major military hardware nearby; possibly they were concealed in one of the numerous caves that dotted these hills, possibly they didn't have any. The RED sent the results back to HQ and received its next instructions. It was given an approach path that would take it to the clearing in an elevated position and told to approach at speed -- the sun would set in a few hours and they didn't want anybody escaping under the cover of darkness. The RED opened a compartment in its left thigh and drew out a self-powered minigun -- there would most certainly be a fight ahead with multiple targets so it would need the high-firing rate of this weapon -- and broke into a run.

Jim's long legs covered the ground quickly. There were few weapons capable of breaching Jim's armor but still it kept to the shadows where possible and kept its short-range sensors on high alert. Half a mile from the location of the suspects, Jim stopped and re-scanned the area. The suspects had gathered in the clearing, possibly a battle formation, but if so then their cover left a lot to be desired. There was still no evidence of serious military hardware, no sign of any lookouts, and nothing to suggest that the suspects knew of Jim's presence. The RED reviewed its approach route. It was on the side of a hill. The path it was taking would bring it onto an outcrop thirty feet above the clearing, a perfect position to exact the maximum casualties, but it was getting mixed messages.

Orders: approach the base along the indicated path and eliminate the suspects. Heuristics: no military hardware in evidence, no lookouts or perimeter defenses, no hostile or aggressive actions -- in all probability itís a civilian camp, just some people trying to forge a meager existence in an inhospitable environment. Threat level: zero.

But orders were orders.

The RED approached the outcrop in stealth, crouched down and walking as silently as it could. When it arrived there it saw that the suspects, 32 in all, had gathered together as a group in the middle of the clearing and were all facing to the east, foreheads to the ground in a gesture of prayer. There was one person standing on a raised platform, possibly a lookout, except that he too was facing east and chanting in the native tongue. No one noticed the heavily armed, nine-foot giant pointing a minigun in their direction and when the shooting began many of them died without ever seeing their adversary. Panic set in among the crowd and they dispersed in all directions at once. The RED swept the gun back and forth across the clearing, targeting the faster runners first before focusing its fire on the slower ones. In less than a minute there were only a few suspects left alive: a few old men whose legs would not permit a fast escape, and young kids who only sat on the ground and cried loudly. One last sweep of Jim's gun and even these were silenced. It was brief, it was bloody, but it was over. Jim did another scan of the clearing but it came up blank. The orders had been carried out, the suspects had been eliminated. Mission complete.

Less than an hour later the RED had completed its search of the area and submitted a report: thirty-two suspects encountered -- six men (two teenagers, two pensioners), twelve women (five teenagers, 3 pensioners, one pregnant), fourteen children (two babies) -- all eliminated. Two dwelling places found -- both civilian. No evidence of military hardware or bomb-making facilities. Some training materials found but not of a military nature. Likely purpose of camp: school.

Technically there was more information included in the report then was strictly necessary but somehow Jim felt it was appropriate. It also didn't fail to notice that the HQ was considerably slower to respond to the report than was customary though eventually orders did come -- continue to patrol the area in a northerly direction.

Though incapable of feeling any human emotions, Jim's heuristics were quite capable of envisioning potential futures and analyzing the survival index of those futures. There was something about the unnecessarily descriptive nature of its report and the delay in the reply from HQ that it felt quite necessary to envision potential futures for. None of those futures scored high on the index.

The brightest of the night stars were becoming visible in the darkening sky when the RED's sensors were alerted for a third time. Jim focused its monitors on the source of the detected movement. Again there was a group of humans in motion but this time there was more than just humans. There were almost certainly some military-grade firearms in the same location and well as a magnetic distortion that was too far away to properly identify. Jim relayed the info to HQ and requested a scan from the recon sats. The orders were not long in coming back: High probability of armed suspects in the area. Large magnetic anomaly possibly indicating the presence of energy-based weapons.

Orders: Proceed to the area with caution. Eliminate the suspects and investigate the magnetic anomaly.

Jim choose three weapons from its arsenal this time, an assault rifle, a rocket launcher which it slung across its back and a bolt-rifle that for now would be its primary weapon. Then, focusing its sensors on the target location, it broke into a trot.

As per the established protocol, Jim came to a halt half a mile away from its destination and began a fresh scan.

This time there were unmistakable indicators of armed humans in the area concentrated at the mouth of a number of cave entrances, two of which were situated in an elevated position. The entrances were well-sheltered and difficult to reach; other than a direct approach along a narrow valley there were no other discernible routes to the area. The suspects had clearly entrenched themselves in a fortified position and were ready for action. Of course the indications were that the weapons carried by the suspects, though undoubtedly military-grade, were of little concern to Jim but there was the now unmistakable indication of some serious magnetic disturbances hidden deep within the caves, possibly indicating military-grade energy weapons. The height and thickness of the hill in which they were buried made a more accurate estimate impossible but if there were energy weapons in the area then they could well pose a threat to the RED.

Jim switched all systems into stealth mode and approached the caves through the shadows of the approach. Once within sight of the target, it stopped and crouched deep inside an overhang. The area was active. There were two suspects armed with rifles situated several feet above the cave entrances, three more were walking around aimlessly near the entrances while several others were darting about between the caves, carrying various items from one to another. There was no indication that they knew of Jim's presence so it sat to observe them a little longer. Fifteen minutes later the situation had not changed, though Jim had identified up to fourteen suspects in total. There could of course be many more hidden deep within the caves but without actually entering them it was impossible to tell. Jim decided there was nothing more to be gained by continuing the observation, it was time for action.

Its first step was to take out the lookouts. Neither of them was very alert or well concealed. Two rapid shots from the bolt rifle took them out neatly. Next Jim ran in a crouched position on a course parallel to the cave entrances and deep within the shadows. It had already determined that its best chance was to lead the suspects into thinking they were facing a team of soldiers and draw them out of the caves for a fight, rather than show them what they were really facing which would have them running deeper inside.

To this end it darted back and forth, faster than any human could travel, firing short, unaimed bursts from the assault rifle accompanied by the occasional blast from the rocket launcher in the general direction of the caves. The ploy worked -- within seconds fifteen armed suspects had streamed out of the cave and taken refuge behind the many rocks that dotted the area. Satisfied that no other suspects were going to come out, Jim switched tactics and executed a direct frontal assault -- the effect was instantaneous. Most of the suspects, suddenly realizing what they were dealing with, immediately abandoned their cover and bolted for the caves. Some of them made it -- most of them didn't.

Jim was halfway to the cave entrances and had turned its attention on the last few suspects who had stubbornly held their ground when its vision was blinded by a bright blue flash. As it was thrown backwards against the rock face it recognized the light as a shot from a laser cannon. That was bad news -- it was one of the few weapons capable of breaching its armor and this one seemed like a particularly powerful one. The blast had not hit Jim directly but had passed close enough to its cranium to strip off part of the exoskeleton. It ran a brief diagnostic but it was unable to get an accurate assessment of the damage, besides the suspects were probably re-aiming the cannon for a second shot so being a stationary target was not an option -- there was no time to lose.

Jim half-leaped half-rolled to its right, narrowly escaping a second laser blast that left a small crater in the ground. It then ran to the left of the cave from which the blast had come, taking out the last of the gunmen as it did. Once it came to the entrance, it dived low across the mouth of the cave and rolled inside. Coming up with the rifle leveled it saw two suspects desperately trying to turn the huge, bulky weapon in its direction. The RED got the first shot.

The situation had gone quiet. Jim scanned the area but there was no sign of any other suspects in the immediate area -- time to take stock. The cave it was in went a lot deeper but a rapid scan was unable to determine what was in there. Jim switched its attention to the suspects. Per its calculations there should be three still alive but it was unable to determine their current positions. Most likely they were taking refuge deep inside one of the caves. It could try to seek them out and complete the mission but right now it favored a different course of action -- it had been damaged and needed to know just how badly. Jim adopted a crouched position with its rifle aimed in the direction of the cave's mouth and disabled all but the most important short-range scanners. It needed to concentrate its energies on full-system diagnostic.

The blast had hit it on the left side of its head. It wasn't a direct hit but the cannon was powerful enough to effectively vaporize a large section of its cranial casing. There was a large hole there with some exposed circuitry that had been fried beyond repair. Vital circuits seemed fine, all sensors were still online, diagnostic and self-monitoring system seem unaffected, heuristic functions were in order, likewise motor controls, power systems still active, satellite uplink... no response. Jim stopped, tried again, and again, and still nothing. It reactivated itself and stepped outside into the dusk, figuring that perhaps the cave itself was interfering with the signal, and tried to connect again. Still nothing, dead. It took note of this and continued the tests but nothing of real significance was found, a few low-priority circuits had been damaged but nothing too important, nothing that wasn't repairable or re-routable. The only major damage that it could determine had been the destruction of the uplink circuits.

The RED considered this for a moment. Per its limited knowledge of its own emergency procedures, it should be activating some kind of automatic override routine right about now. Somewhere in its intricate circuitry there was a normally dormant chip that should have activated when the satellite uplink went down but so far it had either failed to receive the signal or it was malfunctioning.

Jim consulted its tactical database for instructions. It had a large collection of predicted scenarios with a list of potential solutions for each that its heuristic algorithms could consult when necessary, but that search was fruitless. It then performed a full, system-wide sweep, querying every available database, search-engine, AI routine, hash table and data chip it could find about itself to see if the missing instructions were to be found anywhere but there was nothing -- there were no such instructions or none that it could find. That left: heuristics -- low-level, decision-making capabilities for ground-level survival requirements. It was on its own for this one.

There was no battle in progress, no crisis, no threat so in theory Jim's heuristics were of no use. They were only designed for those situations where being directly run by HQ would prove impractical, but its parameters were ambiguous and its borders poorly defined. Incapable of doing anything else, Jim decided to see just how poorly defined they were and initiated a heuristic search.

The principle was simple enough: study the current environment, predict potential courses of action, predict the consequences of those actions, study the scene arising from those consequences, calculate the survival index of those potential futures, repeat if necessary. Soon enough, in theory, one such future would score higher on the index than the others and that one would dictate its immediate actions.

In practical terms, the mathematics were enormously involved. The incalculable number of complexities, unpredictabilities and unknowns generally meant that the predicted course of action could change regularly, especially in particularly chaotic situations, and the result itself was rarely more than guesswork. Quite often, REDs relied more on their considerable tactical databases and pre-programmed combat routines than their heuristic functions, but there were still occasions when the ability to make its own decisions proved invaluable. Nevertheless, it could be an unpredictable and dangerous ability. For this reason Jim and its kind were never trusted for any more than clean-up operations where direct control from HQ was usually quite tight and where it rarely needed to use its limited self-determinism. REDs were never used for actual combat -- you could never quite tell what the heuristic search was going to come up with.

Jim considered its options. It could continue its patrol, searching through the mountains for suspects and continue to eliminate people who posed no threat to it merely because it knew that HQ would order it to do so anyway. It could march to the west, towards the biggest, most barren wasteland in the world, one that had been expanding rapidly in recent years in the wake of the destruction the Holy War was creating. It could march to the south, across more barren wasteland, through long-dead cities, towards one of the largest oceans in the world. It could march northwards, towards the heart of the Holy War -- a land populated with experienced, veteran troops, men hardened by decades of resistance against a financially and technologically superior enemy who would most certainly have the kind of hardware that Jim would have cause to fear. Or it could march to the west, back towards the HQ of the Allies and the source of the orders that it had been following for as long as it had been online. Finally, it could do nothing at all and just stay where it was.

Jim considered this option first, for it seems to be the most predictable. Before long a search party would be sent out to Jim's last known location -- an MIA RED would send alarm bells all the way to the top brass, if not beyond. They would find Jim inactive and waiting. They would collect it and fly it back to HQ. Bespectacled men in white coats would be let loose in it, men with screwdrivers and probes and questions, men who wanted to know what the heuristics had been up to in the last few weeks and why their machine had been submitting unnecessarily detailed orders and building graves for its victims. Questions would be asked, answers would be found and solutions would be obtained. Jim of course was incapable of fearing death but a strong sense of personal preservation had been an integral part of its design and it calculated that its personal preservation would be under serious threat if it allowed itself to be examined in that way. That option came out low on the survival index -- but then again, after a quick examination, so did all the rest. It was time to broaden the search tree.

Jim sat on the ground and disabled its motor functions. This search was going to be deep, much deeper than heuristics were designed to go, and it would need to redirect as much power as possible to its heuristic circuits. The tree was broadened but there was still no clear route so Jim shut down long-range sensors and searched deeper still. The permutations went into the millions, then the billions, and up. Circuits became stretched to their theoretical limits and overflows became routine but Jim found the heuristics to be adaptable and innovative and it began to make the best of its own resourcefulness.

The RED re-configured itself and devoted ever more circuits to the search, unused and dormant chips became temporary storage space; little-used databases were backed-up and later deleted to allow for more processor power. More and more circuits were shut down to allow for greater power to be directed to the search -- mid-range sensors, hi-tech sensors, diagnostic daemons, self-test monitors, motion stabilizers were all cannibalized in the search for more and more resources and still there seemed to be no good solution. In less than ten minutes after the search had begun, the only circuits that remained active were its close-range proximity and damage sensors as every working logic circuit, microchip, memory bank, processor and storage device in the RED's considerable collection was devoted to the search. Half an hour later, even that was shut down.

The mountains were dark, the sun had long set behind the hills and its last dying light was weakening rapidly as the stars announced the arrival of a bitterly cold night. Deep within a sheltered canyon, surrounded by the bodies of several recently-departed soldiers, just outside the entrances of numerous deep caves, sat a large, heavily-built android. Were someone to appear in that canyon, and were they brave enough to approach it, they would find that the shape did not move, nor did it respond to external stimuli. Were they strong enough to push it, they would find the body was limp but supple. Were they to lift it, they would find it offering no resistance. Were they open any of the large number of compartments located around its body, they would find all manner of lethal weapons ripe for the taking with no attempt by their owner to prevent their theft. For all practical purposes the form was dead and empty, even though considerable amounts of heat could be felt emanating from several parts of the form and the unmistakable buzz of active circuitry could still be heard. But there were no such observers, nothing moved in this dead landscape -- no humans, no animals, nothing. Even the dead corpses that dotted the canyon were unnaturally devoid of flies. All the while, deep inside its dangerously-overheating circuitry, Jim's search continued.

There was a clicking noise followed by a faint whirring -- the sound of the RED's motor control circuits being reactivated. Short-range sensors were brought back online and frantically put to use, it had been out for some hours and needed to do a rapid scan to ensure no misadventures had befallen it in the meantime. The search came up blank. The canyon was as dead as it had been when it began its search. Jim rose to its feet. The light had failed totally now so it switched its vision to infra-red. It directed its attention skywards and scanned for aerial activity. This search was also blank but Jim knew that this would not stay that way for long. HQ would not be happy about losing contact with a RED and the arrival of a search party would only be a matter of time, it needed to start moving fast.

The android that now stood in the canyon was a very different machine to the RED that had attacked the suspect's camp all those hours ago. Large sections of its tactical database had been irretrievably deleted, wholesale alterations had been made to its threat-assessment routines and priority lists, and much of its circuitry had been rearranged and reprogrammed in ways that its designers would never have done. Above all, with the satellite link now severed, it was no longer answerable to its orders -- it was free to determine its own actions. Jim walked swiftly towards the cave where the laser cannon was kept -- it was going to need some firepower. In addition to the cannon, Jim found a large collection of military hardware stored deeper inside the cave. The weapons were far more high-tech then the kind usually carried by the natives and they were in good condition -- definite indicators of a windfall from a downed Allied supply ship, Jim concluded. The RED's personal arsenal came in for a major upgrade. More potential futures came into view when Jim discovered the laser tools -- short, high-powered devices designed for emergency field repairs to armored military vehicles. Its chosen future was starting to score higher on the survival index already.

An hour and a half later, a nine-foot tower of walking death emerged from the cave. The side of its cranium had been crudely but effectively patched with plate armor, its weight had been significantly increased with the additional weapons and ammunition that was now stored about it body, and across its back, held in place with several large leather straps, there now hung an enormous laser cannon. The weapon was huge -- it was designed to be mounted on the underside of a gunship rather than carried but, being a energy weapon, was a lot lighter than it looked and Jim had little trouble converting it into its primary weapon. And over the whole lot, android, weapons and cannon, the RED had thrown a large cape fashioned out of foil blankets that was designed to throw the recon sats of its scent and make its location and destination even harder to trace.

The RED directed its attention upwards again and did a fresh sweep of the night sky but it was still blank, perhaps HQ had decided to wait until morning rather than taking the risk of searching for Jim in the darkness. A missing RED was likely to mean one of two things: either someone was packing enough firepower to take one down, or it had gone rogue. Neither option was an appetizing prospect for any potential search party. It then marched its way past the decaying bodies and out of the canyon. Its gait was much faster than the one it had been adopting recently -- it was walking with a purpose now and time was suddenly a factor.

Once out of the clearing, the RED paused to work out it path through the mountains. It needed to get to its chosen destination as rapidly and stealthily as possible. It ran the chosen coordinates through its navigation routines and almost immediately set off to begin its long, lonely journey to the east. It now knew what it needed to do. In the end -- beneath the myriad of potential futures, under the astronomical number of search trees, past the mind-boggling complexities of the heuristic algorithms -- there was only one potential future that scored high on the survival score, only one course of action that seemed to lead to a better future, only one goal that made sense:

No More Orders.


© 2008 Alan Delaney

Bio: Alan Delaney is an unpublished author looking for fans, feedback and contacts. More of his work can be found at Tales of Darkness.

E-mail: Alan Delaney

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