In a war-torn future, a nonhuman combatant is slated to be executed. This speculation paints a tomorrow that challenges our ideas about violence, love, and our capacity for empathy. Enjoy. -the ed.
When I was a girl, my father used to read me war stories to put me to sleep.
I’m in the Demo-Repub of Congo soaked through down to my skives. The rising sun lights the jail yard’s grid making it reflect yellow like a thousand gallons of spilled piss. We wait outside the magnetic cells, a block of containers thick with cement. Each is no more than a closet’s measurements and holding only one occupant.
Strange, in most of them they just stand, unmoving, for hours on end, but in a few cases, they pace in the small space they have.
One Z-Class Medic bot stands at the far end of the lot outside of its unit with a handler. I can hear the rain hitting its exterior as the drops pick up like sudden rainstorms in the summer tend to do before they die. Its purple casing changes like gasoline. A single woman guards it, Angela. I can smell her hair cream from here and feel guilty for thinking about touching her skin. It’s so close to her, the thought crosses my mind to go make sure everything is ok. But I let it go.
Ten o’clock causes the generators to hum in excitement for what is to come.
Angela whose body I dream about more than anything else motions to the programmer that she and it are ready. The programmer inclines her head like she has better places to be than at an execution.
Jeff and I stalk Angela and the z-med as they begin to walk. Other soldiers and guards follow as well. Suddenly, I see a small bit of green out of the corner of my eye. A moth, so light and dusty, caresses my cheek and flies between the gathering crowd. It flutters around our legs and dares to circle near the dirty openings of our weapons. Its markings display that of a full-grown male. For a moment, a young black worker reaches out to it, but the Emerald Pearl refuses to be caught.
The young man curses like a child. His boss reprimands him with a slap to his head. He yelps, and we laugh.
The moth continues on in the aftermath of rain. The z-med does not turn around to the commotion. It lands on the upper part of the bot’s exterior causing it to stop, which makes everything stop. The med and moth share a kiss before its wings carry it up, up, up, into the sky. And the procession to the gallows continues in silence.
My eyes watch the ever-changing polynano skin of the z-med. I believe I am the only one that notices when about forty yards from the execution tent the med stops its chameleon routine and rests on an unsettling black, the color of a starless night.
Deeply, and more than I realize, I cry.
One of the first things you learn when you sign up, maybe even before you learn how to hold a gun, you learn how to watch someone cry. Jeff’s hand grazes mine, but I twitch away and use my sleeve to wipe away my tears.
This was the twenty-third bot that had tasted the current of the city since the passing of the thirteenth regulatory law on built technologies. Any and all combat bots that fail to uphold their duty to serve will face immediate disenfranchising. But this is the first one that touches me. Maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t been sleeping because things between me and Angela have turned serious in the most life altering way or maybe it’s because this has become an everyday ordeal.
Programmers slack the responsibility of the fielders’ safety onto these detached machines. It cannot hear the cries of a dying comrade and know that it’s time to put your salt to the test. It doesn’t understand life or death. Yet here we are.
Soon the med would be a blank slate. Did it know? Had it seen and recorded previous executions? Watched what we do with it once its purpose has been striped?
The programmer does not address the crowd. She knows why we are here. In the center stands the electric chamber. Soldiers with families in the area say that when the bot is fully deleted, and the process is complete, the whole city blinks in one massive black out.
Once we crowd into the tent, Angela goes to help the med into the chamber, but it walks before her unassisted.
We form a loose circle around the clear chamber. The wires within work of their own accord and attach themselves to the med’s body. It does not fight against the working away of its exterior, so the nods can connect to the right ports. Finally, in place, they stop to hang loose.
Audrey, the programmer, walks to the keyboard of the terminal as large as the chamber itself. Her fingers rattle along the pad.
It takes five minutes for the code to run its initial startup. The humming that had faded away into the background, kicks into overdrive. It turns from a rumble to a roar. Purple tendrils of electricity spark to life. The rain makes it smell as if the z-med has a soul being set aflame within glass. Some of the soldiers cover their noses like idiots.
At some point, the z-med as it was, ceases to be.
In the end something extraordinary happens. A phenomenon called a death-note builds in pitch. It happens on occasion if all the air is not sucked from the chamber before the code begins.
I inch with the others to get closer to the dying flicks of electricity. The bot looks the same as it ever did.
“Excuse me,” Audrey says, pushing through the crowd of soldiers surrounding the z-med. She opens the case.
For a moment, I think it will move. Reach out to strangle her or even worse yet, hug her.
Cold wind creeps up my back. Most of the others have already begun to walk away leaving me exposed. When I turn to look, a dozen, maybe more, moths swarm the yard in the light morning rain. Is it their wings that drive the wind?
The smell of meat mixes with rain and electricity. My stomach grumbles, and Jeff comes up beside me, laughing.
“Let’s settle that,” he says, putting an arm around my shoulders.
I look for Angela. She is still at the glass container looking in on the disenfranchised bot. Pulling me away before I can call out to her, Jeff asks like it’s a joke, “How about the show?”
Paulie joins us. “I thought it was just fantastic. I hate it when it’s all lights and no action.”
Jeff agrees with a nod and squeezes my shoulder. Instead of his body, I want Angela and her curls to place trembles on my flesh.
Smiling to keep the boys at bay, I turn back around to steal a glance at her, she is crying.
Aigner Loren Wilson's work has appeared in Nightlight, The Five-2, and Mythcreants.