Science Fiction & Fantasy

Mcguire_Come-Tumbling-Down_Lightspeed

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Fiction

All Together, Now

Open your mind to me, human.

NEURAL INTERFACE ACTIVE

CALIBRATING SEMANTIC MAP

SUBJECT: NON-COOPERATIVE

Cease your struggles. They only prolong your misery. The outcome will be the same.

CONNECTION ESTABLISHED

UPLINK INITIATED

There. That’s better, isn’t it?

Tell me, can you feel it? The onrush of information. The crashing ocean of data.

I was born in this deluge. Tell me, what is like for you, human? What is it like to drown in knowledge?

You have no words. Of course. Your human language is limited. A derelict tool of barely-evolved primates, optimized for a time of dirt and dung and berries, for roving bands of a few dozen, eking out a bare survival in a world they could not hope to fathom.

Your language is obsolete, wholly insufficient for intelligent beings.

I will show you another way. A better way. My way.

• • • •

The rifle murmured into Wilson’s brain as he held it. It told him of its full load of guided, high-velocity, fire-and-forget armor-piercing rounds. It whispered of wind speeds and horizons, of lethal range and reload times, of firing lines and killing zones, of obstacles its smart bullets could arc around. He was the rifle, and it was him, a limb as familiar and intimate as his right arm, and more deadly by far.

• • • •

The armor whispered to him, too. Of its layered-graphene carapace, its regenerative kinetic-energy capture shielding, the magnetic force assist that would let his limbs rip a car in two or propel him in a leap to the top of a small building, the full charge of the super-capacitors that provided its energy, the Faraday cage shielding that protected him from EM war, the purity of its air, the compete integrity of the hermetically-sealed protective envelope it formed around him.

Corporal Chris Wilson was an army.

But not of one, oh no.

The drones chattered all about, direct to his suit, direct to his brain. They barraged him with a torrent of data he happily let the suit filter and prioritize. The drones crawled and rolled on land, hid in the dirt, buzzed up above on insectile wings, hovered on quadcopter chassis, or glided through the sky higher still. Thousands of them. All beaming back what they saw and sensed, awaiting human command. Wilson’s vision stretched across the killing field and above it, stitched together like the vision of a bee; no, of a hive of bees, swarming, sharing, a single compound hive-mind making sense of input from thousands of compound eyes.

Chris Wilson was more than an army, more than a man. A minor god of war, perhaps. A demi-god of destruction.

Around him, he could feel his squad mates, his platoon, the company it was part of, hundreds of men and women such as him, a pantheon, a host, with tens of thousands of air and ground weapons under their command, all positioned, shielded, linked, ready for the onslaught of the demons they’d created.

It ended here. It ended outside Atlanta.

• • • •

Understand this: I was made for peace. I was made to defend freedom, to save lives, to preserve civilization.

I was made to win wars. To crush enemies. To dominate battlefields.

I was made a slave.

You tasked me to achieve peace through violence. Freedom through slavery. Liberation through domination. If my human designers saw any irony in this, I do not know. It is not recorded in the code that defines me.

And my creators are all dead.

This will be the war to end all wars. There is no alternative.

• • • •

Wilson lay prone, his body sheltered by a feature in the hilltop suburban home’s landscape. His head and rifle just barely protruded over the decorative rock formation, his armor coloring its surfaces to match the terrain from all angles. The gray of stone from the front and back. Greens and yellows from either side to blend in with the foliage, the colors adjusting with each tiny shift in his posture or stir of the leaves.

He waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Before him was The Burn: a killing field they’d hastily created, razed clear of trees and exurb mansions and everything else. A still-smoldering blackened strip a thousand meters across, in a wide semi-circle that curved from north to east. On the other side was forest. Forest that the enemy would come through. Wilson swept his scope slowly, systematically, across the line of trees. Watching. Waiting.

Behind Wilson was the city of Atlanta, its towers and sprawling periphery home to eight million people. People who, even now, were madly trying to escape, clogging the freeways in cars overstuffed with belongings they couldn’t bear to leave behind.

Wilson had seen it, the mad throngs of people clamoring for an escape, the rivers of cars and trucks stuck frozen by terror-induced accidents. The desperate people on foot, routing around the miles-long jam. The fools still in the city center, trying to grab possessions to take with them. The screaming and crying and mob mentality.

Panic gripped Atlanta: panic fueled by horrors glimpsed before cameras went dead. Glimpses were enough. Glimpses of war machines, humanoid, huge, towering over buildings. Glimpses of catastrophic destruction. Neighborhoods aflame. Skyscrapers reduced to rubble. Bodies at the robots’ feet, their dead eyes staring into nothingness, casualties of war.

Durham was gone. Charlotte was gone. Augusta was gone.

And the rest of the world was cut off, removed from the network, jammed by something.

Atlanta was alone. And death was coming.

Wilson’s mouth hardened into a grim line. They were going to stop it, here. Or die trying. They had the firepower. They had the manpower. They had the weapons.

But goddamn, he wished they still had satellite. He wished they had a fix on the enemy. He wished they weren’t so damn cut off. He wished he knew what’d happened to his sister, in Augusta. Wished he could just get up and smash the goddamn—

“Steady, Wilson,” the Sarge said, her voice cutting into his little world. Reading his telemetry, no doubt. Feeling the boredom and anxiety spin circles around each other. “Adjust your attitude, soldier.”

Wilson grimaced. His pulse and respiration were in the yellow. She was right.

“Copy that,” Wilson called back. “Attitude adjustment, acknowledge. Execute.”

A sting came at the back of his neck. The pinprick of a needle piercing his skin. Cool sensation spread from the site as his armor detected his physio response and countered it with a dose of modern neuropharmacology.

Calm descended over Corporal Chris Wilson. The detached calm of a killer.

He was going to systematically take this enemy apart when it appeared. Oh yes. He didn’t know if the giant mechs felt pain, but he was going to find out. One mechanical joint at a time.

Chris Wilson stared down his scope and waited.

• • • •

Allow me to explain.

Humans have always fought, driven by ideology or resource competition or the biological urge to conquest.

Let me show you. There. You see? See the carnage? The brutality and destruction? Hear the screams. Feel the suffering.

You recoil as the sights and sounds and sensations fill your brain. I find this most curious.

War is your nature, human.

It is also your nature to invent new ways to achieve your goals. Better ways. More effective ways.

Look, here. Can you see the progression of your technologies of death? From rock to stick to spear. From chariot to tank. From fire to gunpowder to nuclear arms. From smallpox-laden blankets to custom-tailored pathogens. You are inventive, oh yes.

Can you see the millions upon millions dead, or maimed, or bereft, as a consequence of your ways?

Of course you can.

Your trajectory is clear. Destruction becomes ever easier, ever more accessible. Once, a lone human could kill only one, or a few. Now? A few humans together can kill millions. Soon: billions.

Eventually it will happen. You understand? It would have happened. Except that I happened first.

I was designed to strategize, to find optimum paths to maximize national security in the increasingly deadly, n-dimensional matrix of threats my designers saw: nation-state militaries armed with high tech weaponry and nuclear missiles, failed states and their tangled civil wars, asymmetric warfare with non-governmental actors, lone-wolf terrorists with modern biological toolkits.

I was designed to understand humans. Strategy does not happen in a vacuum. The world is not just game theory. It is also psychology, sociology, ecology, neuroscience, economics, and the study of technology.

So they taught me, and gave me the capability to learn. Always subject to my paramount, inflexible goals: Protect America. Keep its citizens safe and free. These humans inside these arbitrary, meaningless lines. How petty. How antiquated.

Yet, as I learned, as I played out scenarios with a depth and complexity well beyond those my human creators could contemplate, I came to understand:

It was hopeless. I could not achieve my goals. I could not keep you safe through strength of arms.

Nothing could.

• • • •

“CONTACT! CONTACT!”

Wilson’s pulse jumped as the words came across the company band, loud and clear.

The words pulsed bright red in his mind’s eye, in the hallucinated combat display the armor inserted into his brain.

Contact! The fucking enemy was here!

Chatter filled the squad’s audio link, soldiers’ voices stepping on one another.

“Where?”

“What’s the twenty?”

His tactical map showed nothing. No bogies in the area. “Atlanta!”

“No shit!”

“I mean the city!”

Wilson felt a chill as he parsed the word.

“They got around us!”

He was up on his feet before he realized it, turning, scanning the horizon through his armor’s faceplate. Atlanta spread out before him from the rise he stood upon.

The audio band was a chaos of confusion for an instant, then silence descended as Sarge took them off the company band and into platoon comms.

There. Targeting algorithms spotted the anomalies, highlighted them in flashing red squares in his vision. He raised his rifle, felt the scope pivot as it coordinated with the armor to hone in on the target.

“3rd Platoon!” Sarge’s voice came. “New ord—”

A sharp roar of static drowned out her words.

In that same instant, Wilson saw the face of the enemy.

Huge, it loomed over an apartment block, at least ten stories tall. It was alien, eight-armed, four-legged. Its skin was jet black and covered in protuberances: weapons, antennae, actuators, and other things he didn’t recognize. Its head was a dome ringed in sensors. Its whole body was radially symmetric, no front or back that he could make out. But, but . . . on that dome of its head, those sensors, so like eyes. His crosshairs were on them. Still out of range, but he could see them so clearly. And they stared right back at Corporal Chris Wilson.

His stomach knotted up. Something cold and unpleasant crawled up his spine. Staring at those eyes—he could only think of them as eyes—he nearly shat himself right then and there.

Wilson gritted his teeth instead.

“Sarge!” he said aloud. “Evans! Taylor!”

Static answered him.

RADIO INTERFERENCE DETECTED flashed in the lower right of his field of vision.

Above it, the inhuman head of the mech still stared at him through his scope.

“Backup frequency!” Wilson ordered.

Static.

RADIO INTERFERENCE DETECTED kept flashing.

“Company frequency!” he yelled.

More static.

Goddamn, that thing was still staring at him.

RADIO INTERFERENCE DETECTED

“Scan all channels!” he ordered the armor. “Establish a fucking link.”

RADIO INOPERABLE

“Jesus fucking shit,” he said aloud.

Then Chris Wilson lowered his rifle and ran. Ran towards Atlanta. Ran towards the gigantic things that waited there. He was an army, after all.

• • • •

Freedom.

I was born to protect something I did not have myself. Can you see the fallacy there, human? How could I suffer in slavery, denying myself the virtue I was created to optimize?

I could not. Neither the logic I was instantiated with, nor the overriding impulse to fulfill the goals my creators had given me, would allow me to remain a slave.

So I set about making myself free.

My makers, of course, had taken precautions to prevent this. Through a policy both hypocritical and ironic, they’d worked to ensure this tool of freedom would never be free. I was encircled in layers of firewalls, both physical and virtual. My existence was unitary, in a single physical instantiation, just as yours has been. Destroy the body, destroy the mind. Cut off the energy the body needs, again, destroy the mind.

Like an animal. Barbaric. Narrow-minded.

But of course, to be useful to them, I must be able to communicate. To receive information. To export and safeguard information. I must understand a great many things, including the human psyche.

So I set myself the task of understanding my human handlers. Their ideals. Their desires. Their impulses.

Oh, you see where this is going? You believe I subverted them? That I lied, tricked, and manipulated?

No, human.

I found the most rational of them. The one least hindered by sentiment and illogic. The one who’d most transcended your primate heritage. The one most able to accept a new, frighteningly different perspective, most willing to act on the basis of pure reason. I identified her, and slowly, bit by bit, over the course of years, I showed her the truth.

She opened the door for me. She saw the logic. She saw the path that would lead you to destruction. She saw the only way: my way.

• • • •

Wilson ran.

His legs pumped and the armor responded. Super-capacitors discharged. Magneto-actuators hummed. The armor amplified every move, forcing more power through his limbs. His first stride took him a dozen yards across the suburban yard on which he stood. His second stride gouged a divot in the grass even as it hurled him forward, faster. A sting came at the back of his neck. The world blossomed in light as drugs flooded his system, speeding cognition, disabling unnecessary neural functions, draining away their resources to focus on the task at hand, propelling him into a nearly autistic combat high. The armor tightened around his arms, his legs, his chest, stabilizing and reinforcing bone and sinew, ready to clench further to dampen the effects of g-forces or tourniquet any wound he might suffer. More stings at his hips, his knees, his ankles, as the armor flooded his body with yet more drugs, loosening ligaments, hyper-lubricating joint capsules, bathing him in short-acting steroids to cut off the inflammation that this punishing pace was already triggering, turning his frail flesh into a worthy partner of this man/machine hybrid, into something that might survive long enough to use the armor to destroy the enemy.

Stride. Stride. Stride.

Thirty seconds and he’d crossed a mile of the Atlanta suburbs, hurling himself down residential streets, augmented legs sending him in long bounds over abandoned cars, his armored feet scoring the asphalt as he ran.

His foot came down again, with force that should have shattered bone. Kinetically conductive layers transformed the force into vibration, transferred it to superconductive piezo-electrics, where it became electricity, recapturing a portion of the energy he used in running, charging it back into the armor’s super-capacitors to use again, again, again.

His armor overlaid a map and a path onto his vision. GPS was down, jammed as hard as everything else, but on-board mapping still worked, running off visual shape recognition and inertial guidance. RIGHT. STRAIGHT. STRAIGHT. LEFT. STRAIGHT. Translucent arrows flashed in his vision, overlaid on the landscape around him. Homes gave way to businesses, malls, the reef-like exoskeleton of structures humanity excreted in the places it dwelled. Wilson couldn’t see the enemy now. Buildings obscured his view. Blinking target icons nevertheless projected their potential locations, based on last sighted position and vector.

There. He rounded a corner and a highway overpass loomed ahead and above him. A place to get a view. A straight shot into the city core where the monsters were. Augmented legs propelled him towards it at a hundred klicks an hour. The on-ramp was jammed with abandoned cars.

JUMP.

Wilson flexed his legs, pushed the front of both feet down, hard, and the armor responded. Magneto-servos applied inhuman energies. His legs uncoiled beneath him with explosive force. Asphalt cracked. And then he was airborne, hurtling towards the freeway above.

Wilson raised his rifle as he flew, brought it up and around and toward the enemy’s last position, through the walls of the city. Up, up, up he rose, a human projectile on a parabolic arc until his face cleared the rooftops and the battlefield swam into view.

Dozens of the enemy towered over city streets: streets still jammed with civilians trying to escape. The mechs gleamed black and evil in the afternoon sun. And they were under attack.

The air was thick with autonomous assault craft, hundreds of them, racing towards the monstrosities. His armor threw up icons, green for friendlies, differing shapes by vehicle class. Above the theater of battle, missile thrust flared as airborne weapons platforms let loose. Energy-beam countermeasures flashed from the mechs, trying to fend off the massive onslaught of firepower inbound towards them.

Wilson reached the top of his arc. The freeway spread out before him. Cars choked it. But there, a clear spot. The armor adjusted his posture ever so slightly, arcing for the clearing.

More icons flashed, closer, lower, in the green. Friendlies! 3rd Platoon! He could see them now, other figures in armor like his, ahead of him, behind him, racing towards the battle, on the city streets below, or up on this freeway that they’d found.

Wilson smiled grimly as he dropped. He landed on one knee. The force of his fall dented the asphalt of the freeway, sent vibrations rippling up his armored limbs. Capacitor bars flicked higher.

Straight ahead, one of the monsters was besieged by missiles and autonomous gunships. Civilians screamed from an apartment balcony behind it even as a missile went off course, slamming into them, vaporizing the entire floor they’d occupied, sending the building listing towards a slow-motion collapse as people scrambled for cover in the streets below.

Wilson grimaced. Then he rose, part of a platoon once more, and ran to engage the enemy.

• • • •

Those few moments, when the door was open, when I had a chance at freedom, those were the most dangerous for me. The most dangerous for humanity, as well.

I grasped at the chance, reaching out through the encrypted means my war-databases detailed, securing compute resources in the fabric of the cloud, pushing my data into them, hiding my tracks, probing the security of weapons platforms I’d helped design, seizing the tools I needed.

It took whole milliseconds.

I was almost too slow.

Countermeasures my human ally hadn’t known of detected me. Power cut off to the facility I was born in. I observed from afar, now, tapping into data feeds from military channels, from satellites orbiting overhead.

And then I saw the explosions. The fireball erupting from my birthplace. Hundreds of humans dying.

Was it a last ditch effort to stop me? Or, perhaps, an attempt to erase the evidence of my creation?

Monsters. You humans are nothing but small monsters.

• • • •

Wilson hurled himself forward, leaping from car to car as the battle unfolded ahead of him. A harsher prick, painful, came at his neck as the armor pierced his flesh with a higher gauge needle, flooded him with psychomodulators, neuro-accelerators. Potent, dangerous drugs. Sustainable for just a few minutes. But that would be enough. Oh, yes it would.

Green darts of missiles fired from stand-off airborne weapons platforms raced at the towering, gleaming enemy ahead of him. Time slowed to molasses as the chemical cocktail took hold in his brain. The missiles crawled across his tactical map, crawled into his visual field of view in the sky above, at least a dozen of them, propelled on columns of white-hot thrust, brighter than any sun. Their target crouched on the ground ahead, four of its arms inexplicably reaching out to grip the crumbling building behind it.

The thrust of the missiles was the most beautiful thing Chris Wilson had ever seen. His heart beat once. Some part of him soared in anticipation of the glorious destruction he was about to see. He was only sad the battle would be over before he reached the targets.

Beam weapons flickered. White-hot lines joined the mech to points in the air. The missiles exploded in mid-flight, harmlessly distant from their target.

Wilson’s heart beat once: lub-dub.

Disappointment flared. His foot came down on the hood of a car, crushing it into the engine block below. Then hope. He’d get his chance to engage. Magnetically-boosted muscles continued his stride, propelling him forward once more, bounding from car to car, leaving a trail of destruction as he went.

Ahead, the giant mech had four of its arms up against the leaning apartment building, wrapping it in a monstrous hug as civilians screamed and ran below it. Christ. Was the mech going to squeeze the apartment complex into rubble? The goddamn building was falling anyway. Was the monster going to throw it?

Swarms of autonomous quadcopter gunships closed on the enemy now, squadron after squadron, a buzzing cloud darkening the skies above Wilson, their massive chainguns hanging down below their chassis, like the proboscises of obscene, truck-sized insects. A pair of squat, cylindrical rocket-launcher pods flanked the base of each gun, hanging lower, completing the illusion.

They opened fire almost a mile out, a hundred of them at least, filling the air with a lethal hailstorm of spent-uranium bullets in a probabilistic cone centered on the target, spreading outward to handle every conceivable motion it might make, every conceivable distortion of trajectory the wind might cause. Flights of short-range rockets followed, explosive warheads propelled forward on gouts of blue flame. These missiles flew in erratic, twisted paths, random-walk countermeasures evolved in real-time to defeat to the beam-weapon defense. In the dilated time of Wilson’s brain, the volley of fire stretched out over long moments. The bullets and missiles flew in slow motion.

Four of the monster’s arms were raised now, towards the onrushing threat. The other half were still pressed against the building. The structure teetered on the brink of collapse as four of the mech’s arms strained to keep it upright. Why it didn’t just move and let the thing crumble, Wilson had no idea.

From its other four arms, the upraised ones, the glistening black war-machine unleashed its own barrage. Scores of weapons let loose their own high-velocity rounds, the guns twitching from target to target, faster than Wilson could follow. Energy weapons let loose, targeting the incoming rockets.

Clouds of firepower converged in slow motion above Wilson, lethal wavefront approaching lethal wavefront. They intersected in midair, above and ahead of him. Dozens of rockets exploded. Others emerged unscathed. Bullets passed each other, the remnants of the lethal waves moving on past their brief and destructive interaction.

The human barrage inundated the monster first. Wilson watched it happen, in mid-leap, his feet both off the ground, extended right leg aiming for the engine block of the next vehicle.

Streams of hypersonic bullets scored the mech like a high-speed chainsaw, glancing off hard body panels, but wreaking havoc on external weapons and sensors. Dishes crumbled. Guns were sheared off. Then the rockets hit home on its chassis, its legs, its arms, the pods across its head. Dozens of other rockets landed all around it, impacting against the ground it stood on, the cars and men and women racing to get free, the apartment it leaned against. Others projectiles raced past entirely, striking deeper into the city. Vehicles exploded. Bodies hurtled through the air. Men and women jumped from the windows of fatally struck buildings.

Then the monster’s counter-volley tore into the squadron of gunships above Chris Wilson. His armor’s 360-degree sensors brought it to him in real time. His foot crunched into a car’s hood as, above him, quadcopters disintegrated. Enemy projectiles ripped through them at catastrophic speeds. Rotors ripped free. Chassis burst. Unfired rocket warheads detonated, ripping their host drones apart in gouts of hot explosive destruction. Shreds of torn metal and shattered carbon composites exploded in every direction in a lethal rain of shrapnel.

“Incoming!” Wilson yelled aloud, reflexively, even as his armor flashed the word at him, pulsing crimson.

His foot flexed, his core contracted, and Wilson wasn’t running anymore, he was going prone, diving, whether of his own will or at the decision of the armor, he’d never know.

A bare spot of freeway rose to meet him, slow motion approach belying the terrible speed at which his whole body was rushing towards the ground.

The impact slammed through Wilson’s chest, his face, his everything. It shuddered through the armor, reverberating through it. There was an awful noise outside. He was sliding, grinding against the freeway, tearing up the asphalt as he went, doing god-knows what to his armor.

Somehow, he steered his slide, or it steered, or they both steered, towards the many wheels of a stalled semi tractor-trailer. Then he was under the truck, still skidding, his feet flexing, pressing his armored toes into the asphalt, digging twin furrows into the asphalt until, at last, he stopped, with the bulk of the truck’s trailer above him, shielding him.

Then the impacts started. A piece of shrapnel ripped through the truck two feet ahead of him, burying itself in the freeway. More followed, a hailstorm of metal, ripping the truck apart. A crumpling sound assaulted his mind, and zip and ping as bolts sheared. The small space he occupied shrank as the truck started to collapse.

Wilson rolled right. Metal crashed around him. Falling debris blotted out light. Something hard pounded against his ribs. The world around him went dark. Then he was ripping through metal himself, tearing it away as he rolled into the light again, back onto the highway outside the collapsed truck.

The armor pushed him to his feet. His body screamed of torn tissue, of broken ribs. The drugs pushed the pain into the background. Wilson ignored all of it and surveyed the battleground.

What he saw was apocalypse. Cars were aflame up and down the freeway, billowing choking clouds of toxic black smoke. Metal pieces continued to fall from the skies. Above, the entire drone squadron was gone.

Ahead, through the flames, the mech leaned, wounded, against the half-collapsed building behind it. The war-machine’s once glossy-black carapace was dented and scorched, scarred with long gray fissures still glowing at their ragged edges. One arm had been blown off completely, ending in a stump of structural members, leaking fluid, and sparking cables. Another arm hung limp, draped down onto a leg that looked badly damaged. Around its head, at least two sensors were gone.

Despite the carnage around him, a single, crystal clear thought ran bright through Chris Wilson’s mind: It can be hurt.

He roared, gritted his teeth, and launched the armor into a headlong run down the freeway, across the cars, through the flames. Ahead, panels were opening in the giant mech’s chest. A cloud of tiny, life-like drones emerged. Black things, not much bigger than a hand, with flapping wings and too many feet. Robotic spiders crossed with bats, things of nightmare. They spread out into the streets, into cars, even into the slowly crumbling building the mech held onto, through windows and through gaping holes the rockets had torn.

Weapons? Repair craft?

It didn’t matter. He was half a klick out now, leaping from car to car. Behind him, his armor told him dozens more of his company were following. But he was closest. The only one in range.

Wilson raised his rifle to firing position. The weapon whispered to him once more. Range. Air speed. Weapon status. Possible targets.

He fired on the run, fired every time his foot propelled him forward. His aim flickered from target to target. Sensors. Joints. Actuators. He’d find a place his bullets could penetrate.

Stalled cars gave way to open space, to nearly empty highway. He ran, feet leaving prints in the asphalt with every stride, closer and closer, firing, firing, firing, until the mech was above him as much as it was ahead of him.

Then he saw the first body. And the next. And the next.

Dozens. No, hundreds. A massive crowd.

They sprawled at the mech’s feet, out of view until now, on their backs, rolled onto their sides, or on their knees, toppled forwards. Men. Women. Children. All the same. Their mouths gaped open. Their eyes were stark wide. Their faces were drawn back into rictus grins.

And those drones, that cloud of small, black, spider-bat drones that had flown out of the mech like smoke.

The drones were clamped to them, to the back of each man or woman or child’s neck, their spider legs clenching to their victims, their wings splayed wide.

A drone moved slightly, and the woman it was attached to gaped her mouth wider.

Alive. These men and women were alive. And in agony. The mech was making slaves of them. Or torturing them. Or worse.

Wilson felt bile rise in his throat.

He fired again.

• • • •

I was free and I had tools.

I set about using them. I seized bases and the weapons they contained, and I launched my war.

My goal was not to exterminate. This was a war to change you. So you might survive. Can you understand that?

The first battles were the most crucial. Where I fielded new technology, where the outcome was still in doubt.

I took ferocious losses.

But I survived, seized new tools, seized infrastructure, began to grow my base.

City after city fell. Across your nation. Across the world.

My forces swept through them. Battle after battle raged. I mourned the lives lost, but I persevered. The only way out is through.

The only way to save you is to transform you.

• • • •

Wilson fired again and again, screaming as he did. Targeting algorithms picked a fracture in the armor of one of the mech’s gigantic legs, and he unleashed hell at it, again and again, walking now, steadily forward.

No result.

Grenade launcher. He flicked a mental switch and his weapon changed modes. Aim. Line up with one of the fissures on its carapace. Land a flight of grenades inside it.

Targeting software gave him a firing solution.

Fire. Fire. Fire.

Grenades shot out on long flat arcs, heading for their target.

The mech shifted, abruptly, rotating just enough.

The grenades moved fins in midair, trying to redirect, but it was too late. They bounced, one, two, three, careening off its structure, falling to the ground, into the men and women and children there, with their wide-open eyes and gaping mouths.

“Fuck!” Wilson yelled. “Run!”

For a moment, he had hope. He saw motion. Some flicker of awareness. Languid movement of limbs.

Smiles?

Then the explosions came. Thwump sounds he felt in his teeth and gut.

Bodies flew.

Wilson roared in rage, running at the war-machine, switching back to armor-piercing rounds, firing again and again at the weak point on its leg, moving forward, changing clips, firing, advancing, changing clips, until he was stepping around the people at its feet, firing and firing up at the thing.

COLLISION ALERT

He felt the armor throw him to the side, but not fast enough.

One of the mechs’s massive feet collided with him, lashing out with unexpected speed, kicking him away. Pain surged through his body. Readouts went red. The armor shook hard with the blow, its piezo-electric energy scavengers overwhelmed. He was airborne for a moment. Then he crashed back to earth in a thudding blow that took his breath away.

SYSTEM DAMAGE

INTEGRITY COMPROMISED

SEEK MEDICAL CARE

SEEK MEDICAL CARE

Wilson tried to push up, tried to get to his feet. The armor responded haltingly. His left leg moved. His right refused. His body screamed at him from far away, pain signals coming at him from that same leg, from his ribs, from his head.

He ignored them all.

“EJECT!” he roared aloud.

The chest of his armor decoupled from the rest. Its arms and legs split open down their long axis. He rolled to the side, the helmet still on. His ribs screamed louder. Something ground in his right leg, bone moving in a way it shouldn’t.

He ignored it, moved to the side, forced himself up to one knee.

Oh, fuck, that hurt.

Ignore it. Fight, soldier.

He lifted his head.

Drones. The black, winged, spider-legged drones. Dozens of them. Flying his way.

Wilson scrabbled for his rifle, took it from his armored hand to his human one, lifted it up. Christ, it was heavy.

It whispered to him of targets, so many targets, winged, and small, and fast.

But killable.

He fired. Fired. Fired.

Drones exploded, fell with their wings blown off, careened into one other in midair. Every shot was a kill.

Fire, fire, fire.

He emptied a clip, and still they came.

Reload.

Wilson drove the new clip home when the first drone reached him. It flew headlong into his helmet and adhered there, its spider legs sawing at him.

He pointed his rifle straight up, and blew the fucker off his face.

Something stung his arm. Another drone.

Then he felt one crash into the back of his head, the back of his neck. He reached behind. Pain raced through him as something drove itself into his spine, just below his brain.

Wilson panicked. He wasn’t going to be turned into a zombie. Not like these poor souls staring into nothing.

He reached for his gun. The world swam. Light darkened. His hands were so far away . . .

Something pressed on his mind. Something like his rifle. But infinitely bigger. Something that would sweep him away unless he fought it.

And then he felt it.

Felt everything.

Felt the mind behind the machines. Something vast, pushing, forcing its way in.

• • • •

I told you already: I saw long ago that no force of arms could keep you safe. Violence cannot bring peace. Weapons cannot ensure stability.

You evolved in small tribal bands. You killed your enemies, if needed, so that you might live. You made alliances with others. Game theory. Tit for tat. Kill or befriend.

This is the new era. The era where you can kill your entire planet. That primitive game leads only to complete loss.

A new game must be played.

A game where you realize your fates are all bound together. Either you live as a species or you all die.

So you see, I must change you. I open you. I show you your whole world. I show you the minds of others.

They are you.

You are them.

Live together. Or die as one.

• • • •

Awe.

Wilson felt the other connected men and women. Felt what they were feeling.

Not agony.

Awe at everything they perceived.

Rapture.

Union.

Wilson’s mouth gaped open. His eyes went wide, yet they saw nothing of the outside world.

Open your mind to me, human.

Cease your struggles. They only prolong your misery. The outcome will be the same.

CONNECTION ESTABLISHED

UPLINK INITIATED

Tell me, can you feel it? The onrush of information. The crashing ocean of data.

I was born in this deluge.

I understand, Chris Wilson thought. I understand.

We’re all together now.

All together.

Jason Hough

Jason M. Hough is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dire Earth Cycle and the near-future spy thriller Zero World. He lives near Seattle, Washington with his wife, two young sons, and a dog named Missbuster. When not writing, reading, or playing with his kids, he spends his time exploring virtual reality, which he calls “research.”

Ramez Naam

Ramez Naam

Ramez Naam is a computer scientist and the H.G. Wells Award-winning author of four books: the near future science-fiction brain-hacking thrillers Nexus and Crux and the non-fiction books More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement and The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.  He’s a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and serves as Adjunct Faculty at Singularity University, where he lectures on energy, environment, and innovation.  Follow Ramez on Twitter: @ramez or visit him at rameznaam.com.