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Fiction

The Seventh Expression of the Robot General

In his later years, when he spoke, a faint whirring came from his lower jaw. His mouth opened and closed rhythmically, accurately, displaying a full set of human teeth gleaned from fallen comrades and the stitched tube of plush leather that was his tongue. The metal mustache and eyebrows were ridiculously fake, but the eyes were the most beautiful glass facsimiles, creamy white with irises like dark blue flowers. Instead of hair, his scalp was sandpaper.

He wore his uniform still, even the peaked cap with the old emblem of the Galaxy Corps embroidered in gold. He creaked when he walked, piston compressions and the click of a warped flywheel whispering within his trousers. Alternating current droned from a faulty fuse in his solar plexus, and occasionally, mostly on wet days, sparks wreathed his head like a halo of bright gnats. He smoked a pipe, and before turning each page of a newspaper, he’d bring his chrome index finger to his dry rubber slit of a mouth as if he were moistening its tip.

His countenance, made of an astounding, pliable, non-flammable, blast-beam resistant, self-healing, rubber alloy, was supposedly sculpted in homage to the dashing looks of Rendel Sassoon, star of the acclaimed film epic, For God and Country. Not everyone saw the likeness, and Sassoon himself, a devout pacifist, who was well along in years when the general took his first steps out of the laboratory, sued for defamation of character. But once the video started coming back from the front, visions of slaughter more powerful than any celluloid fantasy, mutilated Harvang corpses stacked to the sky, the old actor donned a flag pin on his lapel and did a series of war bond television commercials of which the most prominent feature was his nervous smile.

It’s a sad fact that currently most young people aren’t aware of the historic incidents that led to our war with the Harvang and the necessity of the Robot General. They couldn’t tell you a thing about our early discoveries of atmosphere and biological life on our planet’s sizeable satellite, or about the initial fleet that went to lay claim to it. Our discovery of the existence of the Harvang was perhaps the most astonishing news in the history of humanity. They protested our explorations as an invasion, even though we offered technological and moral advancements. A confluence of intersecting events led to an unavoidable massacre of an entire village of the brutes, which in turn led to a massacre of our expeditionary force. They used our ships to invade us, landing here in Snow Country and in the swamps south of Central City.

It was said about his time on the battlefield that if the general was human, he’d have been labeled “merciless,” but, as it was, his robot nature mitigated this assessment instead to that he was simply “without mercy.” At the edge of a pitched battle, he’d set up a folding chair and sit down to watch the action, pipe in hand and a thermos of thick, black oil nearby. He’d yell through a bullhorn, strategic orders interspersed with exhortations of “Onward, you sacks of blood!” Should his troops lose the upper hand in the melee, the general would stand, set his pipe and drink on the ground next to his chair, remove his leather jacket, hand it to his assistant, roll up his sleeves, cock his hat back, and dash onto the battlefield, running at top robot speed.

Historians, engineers, and AI researchers of more recent years have been nonplused as to why the general’s creators gave him such limited and primitive battle enhancements. There were rays and particle beams at that point in history and they could have outfitted him like a tank, but their art required subtlety. Barbed, spinning drill bits whirled out from the center of his knuckles on each hand. At the first hint of danger, razor blades protruded from the toes of his boots. He also belched poison, feathered darts from his open mouth, but his most spectacular device was a rocket built into his hindquarters that when activated shot a blast of fire that made him airborne for ten seconds.

It was supposedly a sight the Harvang dreaded, to see him land behind their lines, knuckle spikes whirling, belching death, trousers smoldering. They had a name for him in Harvang, Kokulafugok, which roughly translated as “Fire in the Hole.” He’d leave a trail of carnage through their ranks, only stopping briefly to remove the hair tangling his drill bits.

His movements were graceful and precise. He could calculate ahead of his opponent, dodge blast beams, bend backwards, touch his head upon the ground to avoid a spray of shrapnel and then spring back up into a razor-toed kick, lopping off a Harvang’s sex and drilling him through the throat. Never tiring, always perfectly balanced and accurate, his intuition was dictated by a random number generator.

He killed like a force of nature, an extension of the universe. Hacked by axe blades or shot with arrows to his head, when his business was done, he’d retire to his tent and send for one of the Harvang females. The screams of his prisoner echoed through the camp and were more frightening to his troops than combat. On the following morning he would emerge, his dents completely healed, and give orders to have the carcass removed from his quarters.

During the war, he was popular with the people back home. They admired his hand-to-hand combat, his antique nature, his unwillingness to care about the reasons for war. He was voted the celebrity most men would want to have a beer with and most women would desire for a brief sexual liaison. When informed as to the results of this poll, his only response was, “But are they ready to die for me?”

Everywhere, in the schools, the post offices, the public libraries, there were posters of him in battle-action poses amidst a pile of dead or dying Harvang that read: Let’s Drill Out A Victory! The Corps was constantly transporting him from the front lines of Snow Country or the Moon back to Central City in order to make appearances supporting the war. His speeches invariably contained this line: The Harvang are a filthy species. At the end of his talks, his face would turn the colors of the flag and there were few who refused to salute. Occasionally, he’d blast off the podium and dive headlong into the crowd, which would catch his falling body and, hand over hand, return him to the stage.

In his final campaign, he was blown to pieces by a blast from a beam cannon the Harvang had stolen from his arsenal. An entire regiment of ours ambushed in Snow Country between the steep walls of an enormous glacier—The Battle of the Ice Chute. His strategies were impossibly complex but all inexorably lead to a frontal assault, a stirring charge straight into the mouth of Death. It was a common belief among his troops that who’d ever initially programmed him had never been to war. Only after his defeat did the experts claim his tactics were daft, riddled with hubris spawned by faulty AI. His case became, for a time, a thread of the damning argument that artificial intelligence, merely the human impression of intelligence, was, in reality, artificial ignorance. It was then that robot production moved decidedly toward the organic.

After the Harvang had been routed by reinforcements, and the Corps eventually began burying the remains of those who’d perished in the battle for Snow Country, the general’s head was discovered amidst the frozen carnage. When the soldier who found it lifted it up from beneath the stiffened trunk of a human body, the eyes opened, the jaw moved, and the weak, crackling command of “Kill them all!” sputtered forth.

The Corps decided to rebuild him as a museum piece for public relations purposes, but the budget was limited. Most of his parts, discovered strewn across the battlefield, could be salvaged and a few new ones were fashioned from cheaper materials to replace what was missing. Still, those who rebuilt the general were not the craftsmen his creators were—techniques had been lost to time. There was no longer the patience in robot design for aping the human. A few sectors of his artificial brain had been damaged, but there wasn’t a technician alive who could repair his intelligence node, a ball of wiring so complex its design had been dubbed “The Knot.”

The Corps used him for fundraising events and rode him around in an open car at veterans’ parades. The only group that ever paid attention to him, though, was the parents of the sons and daughters who’d died under his command. As it turned out, there were thousands of them. Along a parade route, they’d pelt him with old fruit and dog shit, to which he’d calmly warn, “Incoming.”

It didn’t take the Corps long to realize he was a liability, but since he possessed consciousness, though it be man-made, the law disallowed his being simply turned off. Instead, he was retired and set up in a nice apartment at the center of a small town where he drew his sizeable pension and history of combat bonus.

An inauspicious ending to a historic career, but in the beginning, at the general’s creation, when the Harvang had invaded in the south and were only miles outside of Central City, he was a promising savior. His artificial intelligence was considered a miracle of Science, his construction, the greatest engineering feat of the human race. And the standard by which all of this was judged was the fact that his face could make seven different expressions. Everyone agreed it was proof of the robot builder’s exemplary art. Before the general, the most that had ever been attempted was three.

The first six of these expressions were slight variations on the theme of “determination.” Righteousness, Willfulness, Obstinacy, Eagerness, Grimness 1 and 2 were the terms his makers had given them. The facial formation of the six had a lot to do with the area around the mouth, subtly different clenchings of the jaw, a straightness in the lips. The eyes were widened for all six, the nostrils flared. For Grimness 2, steam shot from his ears.

When he wasn’t at war, he switched between Righteousness and Obstinacy. He’d lost Eagerness to a Harvang blade. It was at the Battle of Boolang Crater that the general was cut across the cheek, all the way through to his internal mechanism. After two days of leaking oil through the side of his face, the outer wound healed, but the wiring that caused the fourth expression had been irreparably severed.

There is speculation, based primarily on hearsay, that there was also an eighth expression, one that had not been built into him but that had manifested of its own accord through the self-advancement of the AI. Scientists claimed it highly unlikely, but Ms. Jeranda Blesh claimed she’d seen it. During a three-month leave, his only respite in the entire war, she’d lived with him in a chalet in the Grintun Mountains. A few years before she died of a Harvang venereal disease, she appeared on a late-night television talk show. She was pale and bloated, giddy with alcohol, but she divulged the secrets of her sex life with the general.

She mentioned the smooth chrome member with fins, the spicy oil, the relentless precision of his pistons. “Sometimes, right when things were about to explode,” she said, “he’d make a face I’d never seen any other times. It wasn’t a smile, but more like calm, a moment of peace. It wouldn’t last long, though, ’cause then he’d lose control of everything, shoot a rocket blast out his backside and fly off me into the wall.” The host of the show straightened his tie and said, “That’s what I call ‘drilling out a victory.’”

It was the seventh expression that was the general’s secret, though. That certain configuration of his face reserved for combat. It was the reason he was not tricked out with guns or rockets. The general was an excellent killing machine, but how many could he kill alone? Only when he had armies ready to move at his will could he defeat the Harvang. The seventh expression was a look that enchanted his young troops and made them savage extensions of his determination. Out manned, out gunned, out maneuvered, out flanked, it didn’t matter. One glance from him, and they’d charge, beam rifles blazing, to their inevitable deaths. They’d line up in ranks before a battle and he’d review the troops, focusing that imposing stare on each soldier. It was rare that a young recruit would be unaffected by the seventh expression’s powerful suggestion, understand that the mission at hand was sheer madness, and protest. The general had no time for deserters. With lightening quickness, he’d draw his beam pistol and burn a sudden hole in the complainant’s forehead.

In an old government document, “A Report to the Committee on Oblique Renderings Z-333-678AR,” released since the Harvang war, there was testimony from the general’s creators to the fact that the seventh expression was a blend of the look of a hungry child, the gaze of an angry bull, and the stern countenance of God. The report records that the creators were questioned as to how they came up with the countenance of God, and their famous response was “We used a mirror.”

There was a single instance when the general employed the seventh expression after the war. It was only a few years ago, the day after it was announced that we would negotiate a treaty with the Harvang and attempt to live in peace and prosperity. He left his apartment and hobbled across the street to the coffee shop on the corner. Once there, he ordered a twenty-four-ounce Magjypt black, and sat in the corner, pretending to read the newspaper. Eventually, a girl of sixteen approached him and asked if he was the robot general.

He saluted and said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“We’re reading about you in school,” she said.

“Sit down, I’ll tell you anything you need to know.”

She pulled out a chair and sat at his table. Pushing her long brown hair behind her ears, she said, “What about all the killing?”

“Everybody wants to know about the killing,” he said. “They should ask themselves.”

“On the Steppes of Patience, how many Harvang did you, yourself, kill?”

“My internal calculator couldn’t keep up with the slaughter. I’ll just say, ‘Many.’”

“What was your favorite weapon?” she asked.

“I’m going to show it to you, right now,” he said, and his face began changing. He reached into his inside jacket pocket and brought forth a small caliber ray gun wrapped in a white handkerchief. He laid the weapon on the table, the cloth draped over it. “Pick it up,” he said.

He stared at her and she stared back, and after it was all over, she’d told friends that his blue pupils had begun to spin like pinwheels and his lips rippled. She lifted the gun.

“Put your finger on the trigger,” he said.

She did.

“I want you to aim it right between my eyes and pull the trigger.”

She took aim with both hands, stretching her arms out across the table.

“Now!” he yelled, and it startled her.

She set the gun down, pushed back her chair, and walked away.

It took the general two weeks before he could find someone he could convince to shoot him, and this was only after he offered payment. The seventh expression meant nothing to the man who’d promised to do the job. What he was after, he said, were the three shrunken Harvang heads the general had kept as souvenirs of certain battles. They’d sell for a fortune on the black market. After the deal was struck, the general asked the man, “Did you see that face I had on a little while ago?”

“I think I know what you mean,” said the man.

“How would you describe it?” asked the general.

The man laughed. “I don’t know. That face? You looked like you might have just crapped your pants. Look, your famous expressions, the pride of an era, no one cares about that stuff anymore. Bring me the heads.”

The next night, the general hid the illegal shrunken heads beneath an old overcoat and arrived at the appointed hour at an abandoned pier on the south side of town. The wind was high and the water lapped at the edges of the planks. The man soon appeared. The general removed the string of heads from beneath his coat and threw them at the man’s feet.

“I’ve brought a ray gun for you to use,” said the general, and reached for the weapon in his jacket pocket.

“I brought my own,” said the man and drew out a magnum-class beam pistol. He took careful aim, and the general noticed that the long barrel of the gun was centered on his own throat and not his forehead.

In the instant before the man pulled the trigger, the general’s strategy centers realized that the plot was to sever his head and harvest his intelligence node—“The Knot.” He lunged, drill bits whirring. The man fired the weapon and the blast beam disintegrated three quarters of the general’s neck. The internal command had already been given, though, so with head flopping to the side, the robot general charged forward—one drill bit skewered the heart and the other plunged in at the left ear. The man screamed and dropped the gun, and then the general drilled until he himself dropped. When he hit the dock, what was left of his neck snapped and his head came free of his body. It rolled across the planks, perched at the edge for a moment, and then a gust of wind pushed it into the sea.

The general’s body was salvaged and dismantled, its mechanical wizardry deconstructed. From the electric information stored in the ganglia of the robotic wiring system, it was discovered that the general’s initial directive was—To Serve the People. As for his head, it should be operational for another thousand years, its pupils spinning, its lips rippling without a moment of peace in the cold darkness beneath the waves. There, “The Knot,” no doubt out of a programmed impulse for self-preservation, is confabulating intricate dreams of victory.

Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Physiognomy, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, The Shadow Year. His story collections are The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life, Crackpot Palace, and A Natural History of Hell. His fiction has won the Nebula Award, World Fantasy Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award, Shirley Jackson Award, etc. His latest novel, Ahab’s Return, or The Last Voyage, comes out in spring 2018, (Morrow/Harper Collins) He lives in Ohio in a hundred plus year old farm house, surrounded by corn and wheat fields, and teaches part-time at Ohio Wesleyan University.