… That Flesh Is Heir To
George Pollock, Jr.
There was something out of place about her, the captain thought. Something different. He just didn't know what. He wasn't sure.
She stood at attention across a table from him in the desert-camouflage-netted military tent – the cybertent. All the computers but one were down, per SOP when a battle 'bot was being debriefed. He looked past her, past vacated tables of laptop computers and tactical screens, to the dusty white-beige bustle of soldiers in the desert camp. It was bright outside. It was always bright. He swore it was bright even at night. And it was hot, even in the cover of the tent. Being in full battle dress didn't help.
It didn't matter to her, anyway, he thought. She didn't sweat. Battle 'bots don't sweat.
She was painted in desert camouflage from her jointed, flaring legs to the triangular, hooked "pigtail" antennas standing upright atop her spherical head. Her small corporal's stripes were stenciled on her shoulders and chest. Under them were simplified American flags and the letters "U.S." Halos of black-paint overspray surrounded the markings.
He had been told she had seen combat; it was, in fact, why she had ended up here. She had scoring and chipping and pitting and nicks and scratches – and small dents – on her basically humanoid form. The damage revealed white and aqua paint. He supposed they were her civilian colors. He wondered what her patterning looked like.
And she had a bullet hole in her right shoulder. Again, part of the reason she was here.
She wasn't a standard-issue 'bot; that was clear. They were usually generic-humanoid form, and the only things that vaguely hinted at more than machinery were the two optical sensors on the front of their heads. Their "eyes." They also could communicate, but with a filtered, electronic voice that sounded like a bad speaker at a drive-through.
She, on the other hand, had a subtle, youthful female form; something like a full face; and a girl's voice when she identified herself to the officer. A teenage girl's voice. That was different, he thought.
Her upper body tapered inward from her shoulders and ended just below where a woman's breasts would be. Below that – slightly narrower than her chest – was what would be a bare midriff on a human. And beneath that – slightly wider than her torso – hung an outward-flaring component that could be mistaken for a miniskirt.
There was a serrated crease across her forehead, looking like bangs of hair. Her "pigtails" above were fixed with large screws, and a large screwhead sat where a human's navel would be. He couldn't imagine what the screw there was for.
Across the lower front of her face was a small projection that it made it seem as if she had a slightly protruding jaw. Or a nose. Or a cheek. It depended on the angle. He had discerned that already.
Her large, recessed – almost cartoonish – eyes watched him now. They had even blinked once when she entered the tent, walked toward him, come to attention and saluted him – all with a gritty rasping of her joints. And the eyes changed one moment to the next, seemingly with her silent thoughts and moods. That, too, seemed out of place. Battle 'bots weren't supposed to have moods, let alone thoughts. Machines that could disable humans probably shouldn't think too much, he had always believed.
Her "eyebrows" floated and altered amid the silence. They appeared to be black diodes that formed and re-formed instantly. Her mouth seemed to operate on the same technology: It was now a thin, flat black line, but when she identified herself, it had become a dark-aqua oval or circle, altering with each word. So she could represent speech. Again, in the voice of a girl.
Why, the captain wondered, would someone have gone to such trouble to create a "teenage" robot?
He didn't know.
He rose from his chair. "Stay at attention, Corporal," he ordered.
"Yes, sir," she replied.
He approached with a small, seemingly electronic device. "I'm going to download your records. Where's your access port?"
"In the back of my brain. There's an access door on the back of my head."
As he walked behind her, two screwheads near the top rear of her head started turning with a whirr. There was a small click, and a squarish panel swung downward, revealing the two attached set screws in its top corners. Inside her head was a small electronic panel with ports and tiny indicator lights on a rounded, bluish device that had circuitry on the surface. Her brain, he assumed.
"I'm downloading now," he warned, then pushed an extension on the small device into a port. She made no reaction. About 10 seconds later, a small green light appeared on the device.
"Completed," he said and removed the device. "Close yourself up. At ease."
"Yes, sir." She stood at ease and reached back, pushing the panel closed upward. The screwheads spun shut with another whirr.
He returned to the table, sat and inserted the device's extension into a port on a laptop in front of him. Instantly, columns of text, graphs of data and a photo popped up on the screen. She was drafted, the information said, before battle 'bot production had picked up at the start of the war.
The photo was of her with aqua "hair" and shoulders, as well as a white face. And somehow, she looked confused. As if in that one moment during induction, she had absolutely no idea why she was there.
"State your model," he began.
"Global Robotic Response Unit XJ-9," she said.
"What's your rank?" he asked – even though he had said it before. There was procedure to be followed.
"Do you have a human-interaction designation?"
"What is it?"
"Jennifer Wakeman. Also 'Jenny' or 'Jen.' "
He kept looking at the screen. "Hmm … Serial number 8-6753-0-8."
"Excuse me, sir," she said, "but it's 8-6753-0-9."
He glanced up. "I'm aware of that, XJ-9."
The eyes of confusion from the photo. "Sir …?"
"It was a test to verify the security of your programming and memory. If you had agreed with the wrong number, I'd have shut you down immediately as a security risk."
"What's your unit?" he continued.
"The 117th Heavy Armor Counter. Called the 'Wrecking Crew.' "
"Yes, sir. Major Altemus Radford, commanding."
"State the mission of the 117th."
"The mission of the 117th Heavy Armor Counter," she intoned, as if she were reciting an indoctrination – which she was – "is the neutralization of enemy heavy armored forces through unit or individual action by robotic personnel under human command. This is to be accomplished with minimal human casualties through enemy surrender or humane disabling of enemy personnel. The latter is a combat-specific exception to the First Law of Robotics, which otherwise must be observed."
He was curious. "What's 'humane disabling'?"
"Breaking an arm, for example."
"And inhumane disabling?"
"Cutting off the arm."
He thought. "If I were the enemy, Corporal, I'd hope for the humane disabling."
She nodded. He had never seen a robot do that before. "Yes, sir."
"What are your duties in the 117th?"
"Aerial reconnaissance and combat coordination with human commanders."
"You can fly?" It surprised him. Battle 'bots couldn't fly. Or so he had thought.
Another check of the screen. "You've been with the 117th for … 12 months."
"Yes, sir," she confirmed. "After four months of patrol with the 22nd Infantry."
"Hmm … Transferred when Command learned of your flying capability."
"They didn't know you could fly before that?"
"Apparently not, sir. It was ground patrol." She shrugged. He didn't know that battle 'bots could also do that.
"Just another fine day in the Army …," the captain muttered.
"Nothing, Corporal." He sighed and returned to the laptop. "AI of 87 out of 100. That's impressive. Most 'bots are programmed about 62."
"I was programmed high enough to function adequately at my high school while being able to continue to learn."
"High school?" That surprised him more than the flying. "Why would a robot go to high school?"
"My mother wanted me to develop human-interaction skills."
"Your mother?" He was just – just – beginning to wonder when her surprises would run out.
"The woman who designed and built me, sir."
He went to the screen again. "What's her name, XJ-9?"
"Where does she live?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Buckeye country," he observed. "Had a buddy who went to Ohio State."
"My mother got all her degrees there."
Studying the screen. "And it looks like she used all of them. Your weapons specs are amazing, XJ-9. You're a one-man army." He looked up. "Sorry. One-robot."
"Actually, sir, I was programmed to consider myself female. My mother had always wanted a daughter."
"Well, anyway, you're like a Swiss army knife – something for everything. Why the arsenal?"
"My mother built me to protect Earth. She figured that too much was better than too little. Especially against aliens."
He squinted. "Doesn't Skyway Patrol handle that in Earth's immediate vicinity?"
"Usually," she said. "Sometimes I was quicker."
"That doesn't surprise me. Know what we call the Skyway Patrol in the military?"
"The 'Keystone Kops.' They're self-important police, that's all. Not a full-fledged military force."
"They … do a good job, sir," she said. "Usually …"
He relaxed slightly back into his chair and laced his fingers across his waist. "XJ-9, ever hear of an alien power called the Inclusion?"
She shook her head. Another thing he didn't know robots could do. Well, if she could nod, no reason she couldn't shake her head, he thought. But how much could one robot surprise someone?
"You can thank Air Force Space Command for that," he said.
"I've … never heard of that, either, sir."
"It's just what it sounds like: the branch of the Air Force that secures the solar system's neighborhood out to Alpha Centauri. About four, five light-years."
"It's armed for war, not just intrusions. You haven't heard of the Inclusion because Space Command stopped an invasion fleet halfway between here and Alpha Cen."
"They beat an entire fleet, sir?" she asked.
"Destroyed it, actually. The Inclusion begged for surrender. Turns out their ego was bigger than their muscle. Way bigger. Diplomats handled the rest."
"People don't hear about a lot about things like the Inclusion because Space Command takes care of them before they become problems," the officer said. "In comparison, Skyway Patrol just writes traffic tickets."
She nodded in acknowledgement.
He leaned forward back and sighed. "Corporal, let's talk about why you're here today. Sit down."
"Yes, sir." She grabbed a nearby chair with the gritty rasping that the captain remembered from her entrance. She placed the chair across the table from him and sat.
He began again: "You were declared missing in action by the 117th after this morning's operation, XJ-9. Tell me what happened."
"Yes," she answered, then entered the recital tone of before: "The 117th was ordered to engage enemy heavy armor reported amassing in Area 757-4. The operation began at 0715 hours. It was successful, with nine enemy armor destroyed. There was heavy human resistance, which retreated. The number of enemy wounded was undetermined. Major Altemus Radford was wounded in action and evacuated. He was the only U.S. casualty, as the rest of the action was carried out by robotic personnel. The operation ended at 1007 hours."
He tapped some computer keys. "You've neglected to mention human fatalities, Corporal."
Slowly, the robot's expression turned somber. It was interesting to see, the officer thought. "There … was … a human fatality during the operation, sir. An … enemy combatant ..."
"Killed by you, XJ-9," he noted quietly.
She said nothing.
"I want a reply, Corporal."
"Yes, sir," she answered softly. "I killed the enemy combatant."
"One of our patrols conducted mop-up afterward in Area 757-4. You were found in the ruins of a house. You were crouched over, rocking back and forth. You seemed disoriented."
"That's accurate, sir."
"Were you malfunctioning?"
"Then you should have been able to locate the 117th with your GPS after the operation. Was it working?"
"It was working," she said. "I … knew where the 117th was …"
"Then why were you in that house afterward, away from the 117th?"
"I … was collecting myself, sir."
"Seems unnecessary for a robot, XJ-9."
"I have an emotion chip, sir."
He grunted – the acknowledgement of an unexpected obstacle. "Well, that complicates things. Battle 'bots don't have them. Didn't they detect it during your induction?"
"I … remember someone saying they should check for it. But someone else said not to bother. He said that based on my activation date, I was probably too …" Her tone turned depressed. "… primitive … to have one … So they sent me down the line."
He lowered his head, shook it slightly and sighed. "Damn …," he mumbled in quiet disgust, "another fine day in the Army …"
She frowned. "Pardon me, sir, but what does that mean?"
He faced her again. "Never mind, Corporal. So your … mother … had installed an emotion chip?"
"Are you saying you were reacting emotionally after today's operation when our patrol found you?"
A pause. "I've never … killed … a human before, sir."
"It goes against the First Law of Robotics," she said, almost apologetically.
Now he intoned: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
She raised an "eyebrow." "With all due respect, sir, I'm impressed."
He smiled. Only a little. "I was in ROTC at MIT, XJ-9. Robotics was freshman-year stuff."
She had never heard so many letters used individually in a single sentence. She wasn't quite sure what he had just said, but it sounded as if he knew what he was saying. "Yes, sir," she said. It seemed the safest thing.
"By the way," he said, "ever wonder whom the Laws of Robotics serve, XJ-9?"
"Well …," she considered, "… they're meant for robots."
"They're meant for robots to follow," he replied, "but they're meant to serve the interests of humans. And if it's in some humans' interest to have robots hurt other humans, they'll alter the laws. That's where that combat exception came from, XJ-9. It still limits robots' actions, but it doesn't exist because robots benefit from it. It's meant to advance some people's purposes. Those people think, 'Stop enemy humans. Just don't maim or kill them. That way, we won't feel guilty.'
"By the way," he continued, "did you know humans have something like the First Law?"
"What is it?"
" 'Thou shalt not kill.' "
She looked puzzled. "But … people do …"
"Yes, we do."
He sighed. "The 'law' is an ideal. Humans aren't. Far from it, in fact. We make excuses. It doesn't make it right, though."
She thought. "I still did kill a human …"
"Why did you kill the enemy combatant today, Corporal?"
"I was protecting Major Radford. He had been shot."
"Describe the situation."
A new recitation started: "The enemy combatant had wounded Major Altemus with a shot through his left leg, and the major fell. I was immediately above and saw the enemy targeting the major for the kill. The enemy was behind the remains of a wall of the house where …"
She fell silent. She looked lost. Maybe even scared.
"Go on," the captain said.
"It was … the house where they found me later, sir. The enemy recovered the man's body during their retreat."
"All right. Continue."
"I flew down to cover the major."
"Cover him? Couldn't you have just flown him out of there?"
"There wasn't any time … even for a robot …" She sounded apologetic, pleading.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because the instant I covered the major, the enemy fired. I had already raised my right arm to put down suppressive fire, so the front of my right shoulder took his shot."
He studied the shoulder and pointed at the hole he had noticed there before. "Is that it there?"
She glanced down. "That's right."
"I've haven't seen your back. Did the shot go through?"
"No, sir. The bullet hit a component inside and was deflected. It's still in my shoulder."
"That happens to humans, too."
"I've learned that …," she said quietly.
The laptop was consulted again. "You're stocked with a lot of weapons, XJ-9. A lot. And the most lethal aren't approved for human combat." He glanced back at her. "Which weapon did you use?"
And he then discerned on her face what, on a human, would be considered a look of shame. She lifted her right arm, almost reluctantly, with the gritty rasping. Her hand – circular with four stubby fingers – withdrew quickly with a whirr. Then a click. Then another click. And another whirr.
From her wrist rose a harpoon. "It's used for retrieving objects in certain situations," she explained, "and for securing myself to a position, if necessary. I could use it for rappelling, but I have a grappling hook – and I can fly, anyway, so I really don't need to rappel a lot."
What the officer saw was a slim metal shaft with a single barb at the end. A mean hook, and vicious. On the barb and the shaft were smears of deep red-brown – glistening, gooey streaks starting to harden. The captain was fairly certain what the streaks were. He had seen them before.
"And it's on a retractable cable," she said plainly. The innocence of the statement didn't seem to register with her.
"Uh-huh," he said thoughtfully. "First of all, Corporal, clean that weapon ASAP."
He went down her weapons list. "And that's not approved for human combat, XJ-9."
"I'm … aware of that, sir."
"Then why did you choose it?"
"I didn't … choose it …"
She fidgeted in her chair. My God, he thought, was there any human quirk this 'bot didn't have?
"I didn't think about it," she said. "There was no time. I just … reacted … and the harpoon came out … and I fired … I just … did …"
He paused. "Where did you hit him?"
He imagined. "Ugh …"
"His head and shoulders were the only parts of his body above the wall, sir."
"That's a reasonable scenario, XJ-9."
Her eyes closed slowly, then opened just as slowly. "Sir … I only meant to protect the major."
"And you did," he noted. "Command advised us that Major Radford was evacuated safely to the field hospital at Camp McIntyre. His surgery was successful, and he's expected to recover fully." He leaned slightly nearer to her. "Your actions today are worthy of commendation, Corporal. Valor in the face of the enemy."
"He didn't have a face …," she whispered.
"The enemy. Not after I hit him …"
"Well … I suppose not."
"Request permission to speak freely, sir."
He waved a hand slightly. "Granted."
"I don't understand why some weapons are prohibited to robots when humans use things like them."
"The … only guess I have, Corporal, is that … humans fully realize their effects. Even if they choose to use them. I guess the thinking is that robots would just use them without considering the consequences."
He saw her growing offense. "Some robots," he clarified. "Depending on their AI. And that's why the First Law exists, anyway. It's a backstop. A safety net for robots. And a last shield for humans."
She was silent and looked at the ground. Without paying attention, she withdrew the harpoon with the whirr from before. Then the same click as before. The click again. The whirr again, and her hand reappeared and locked in place.
"I don't think the shield worked when I killed him today, sir," she said quietly.
"Maybe," he answered. "But you saved the major."
"And killed someone to do it."
He sat back. He sighed again, and the sound had an air of exasperation. "Welcome to war, XJ-9. Sometimes you kill someone to save someone. It happens a lot. Don't try to make sense of it.
"But … your confusion," he continued, "makes me think you're more than just a robot now. Your AI is impressive. Your mother did good work, Corporal."
She faced him again. "She's … always … helped me … when I needed it … sir …"
"And the emotion chip is helping you. And changing you. Humans are emotional. The more emotions you experience, the more you'll understand humans. Even the bad ones, and believe me, there are a lot out there. Unfortunately."
"That's why she wanted me to interact with humans …," XJ-9 said thoughtfully.
He thought. "Let me ask you: Ever been mad? Angry?"
She knew you didn't lie to an officer. "Yes."
"Enough to hurt someone?"
"I asked you a question, Corporal," he reminded.
She sighed. He had given up being surprised about something like that with her at this point. Maybe all her "human" qualities came from her emotion chip, not her CPU. He didn't know.
"Yes, sir," she finally said. "I've been angry enough to hurt someone."
"And did you?"
A whisper. "Yes … a lot of people …"
"Oh …" She lifted her face to the tent's roof and gazed there. "Aliens … rogue robots …"
"Beings whom humans fear. Ever notice that?"
Her head lowered, and she had a puzzled look. "No, sir, I never thought of that …"
"Don't harm humans; that's the First Law. But it doesn't mention aliens or rogue robots." He shrugged. "Because it's in humans' interest to stop aliens – most of them – and rogue robots. Humans wrote the First Law, XJ-9. For their own ends. Not robots'."
He ended the aside. "So you have hurt humans, Corporal?"
A nod. "Yes."
"Tell me about it."
"Um … there were … bullies … who were picking on a friend of mine named Sheldon …" She paused. "Bad people like that …"
"Why were they 'bad'?"
"They were usually hurting other people. Or trying to. And they wouldn't stop."
"Why did you think hurting them was the answer?"
"Well … sometimes … my emotion chip overrides my safeguards."
"Welcome to the human race, XJ-9." It was serious facetiousness.
"There was this one time," she offered. "A guy got me dirty when I was going to a party. I chased him into an alley."
He squinted in confusion. "You go to parties?"
"I was in high school. We had parties."
"Huh. Go on."
"I cornered him in the alley and … threatened to hurt him … sir." A moment. "Bad …," she finished.
"I thought better of it."
"Glad to hear it, XJ-9. But let's take it a step further now: Were you angry enough then to kill the man?"
She glanced away.
He kept going: "Ever looked at a human – or an alien – and were so angry, you imagined wiping out their life without hesitation?"
She focused on the floor.
"And have you ever," he concluded,"actually … truly … enjoyed the thought …?"
She looked up again, and he saw in her eyes the previous mist – the only way he could describe it – of shame.
"Yes, sir …," she replied, softly, coldly. "I've … wanted … to kill." She paused.
"Gladly," she added simply.
He felt strangely gratified. "Tell me about it."
"When … I approached the guy in the alley … I started swinging one of my mallet weapons. They're as big as oil drums … And I kept smashing a wall as I got near him. He was on the ground and … whimpering … And I remember … clearly … an image I had … in my mind …" She drifted off.
"… Of … the mallet hitting him on the top of his head … His head being crushed down … into his body … and his brain … spurting out from under the mallet … and … hitting the walls …"
Neither spoke for a moment. The captain finally cleared his throat. "You … um … have a very … vivid … imagination, XJ-9 …"
"I didn't kill him, sir," she said.
"What changed you mind?"
"I realized … at the last moment … I'm not a killer. Not then."
"There were other times?"
"There was … a guy who dated my mom for a while. I thought he was going to hurt her. I found out he wasn't, but I thought he was."
"So what happened?" he asked.
"I confronted him at a restaurant where he took my mom and pinned him against a wall. And all I saw … was my hatred for him. Not him. My hatred … like a real thing."
She blinked. "I was going to kill him … sir …" She raised her rasping right arm with the hand extended flat. Then she lowered it slowly, as if splitting a board. "I was going to split him right down the middle … with a buzzsaw …
"I was going to do it …" she ended.
"Well," the officer huffed in mock surprise, "so much for you and the First Law, XJ-9." He crossed his arms. "What stopped you that time?"
"My mom turned me off with an emergency key."
"It's a fail-safe."
"Only if you have the key."
"True," she conceded.
He was curious. "What happened to the guy your mother was dating?"
"He dumped her on the spot. Said our family was too crazy for him."
Her eyes half-closed, and her shoulders sagged. "Yes, sir …"
"Tell me: Were you angry that your mother stopped you?"
"No … I knew she was right to stop me. I was out of control. I'm surprised the guy didn't file charges."
"Probably just wanted to get as far away from you as possible."
He uncrossed his arms, leaned forward, rested them on the table and interlaced his fingers. "All this having been said, Corporal," he said, "I want to note something."
She straightened in the chair and listened.
"You might have been justified in killing a man to protect your mother," he said. "Might. And only if the threat were proven real. But nothing would have justified killing a guy in an alley just for getting you dirty. Nothing."
"I know, sir."
"But you beat back the urge to do that. And you're a better human being than a lot, XJ-9."
Her eyes narrowed. "How?"
"A lot of humans would have gotten so angry, they would have killed a guy who got them dirty. Or to get their pocket change. Or because they cut them off in traffic. You showed you're better than that."
"I'm … not sure how to take that, sir. I still felt a desire to kill both the guys I told you about."
"That's a human failing, XJ-9. And overcoming it is a human strength. You have both. You've wanted to kill, are ashamed of that, then you kill someone in legitimate combat in a war. If that's not human, I don't know what is. Sad to say."
"Request permission to speak freely again, sir," she said.
"Have … you … ever killed someone … in combat?"
Now the captain was silent. Then: "Yes. And I've been involved in some tragedies."
"Sometimes, Corporal, the innocent don't get out of the way fast enough."
She took in his meaning. "Do you … regret that … sir?"
"Those deaths, yes. Always."
"Do those memories ever go away?"
"The combat ones don't. And the ones involving the innocent shouldn't. If they did, humans would be the machines, XJ-9."
She thought. "Wasn't the man I … killed … innocent … too …?"
"Maybe. As a civilian. But maybe he was a petty criminal as a civilian. I don't know. But he was a soldier in combat. He knew where he was and what he was doing, and he knew the risks. He wasn't innocent about any of that.
Then he pointed at her. "And neither are you at this point, XJ-9."
She nodded. "I know, sir."
Back to the laptop. "This wasn't your first combat operation, was it, Corporal?"
"No. It was …" She counted. "… my fourth."
"Were any of those with the 22nd?"
"No. They were all with the 117th."
"And you were airborne during those?"
"Ever see a human kill another in combat?"
"Yes …" It was a whisper.
"But only from the air?"
"… Yes …" It was like a confession.
"It's different on the ground, XJ-9."
"I know that, sir … now …"
"After you killed that man," he said, "what did you feel?"
"Scared," she answered. "Confused."
"Sounds pretty human to me."
"I mean … after I killed him … I didn't know who … or what … I was …"
"Combat changes you."
She had no response.
"The first rule of combat," he said – and it was his turn to sound indoctrinated – "is to get them before they get you. And you did, Corporal. Whether you like it or not."
"But …," she started – sounding with just the one word as if she was struggling with her thoughts – "he … wasn't trying to get me … He was trying to get … the major …"
"So if you had left the major alone, you wouldn't have had to kill the enemy?"
"Wait … no …"
"Well, you certainly wouldn't have the enemy's blood on your hands, then."
He shrugged. "Just the major's."
She retreated into the chair. And looked horrified.
"See why that's a worthless argument, XJ-9?"
She said nothing.
"And yet," he went on, "you're a better human being than a lot. Still."
"Sir …?" The word was tentative, as if she were afraid that just saying it would provoke another emotional attack.
"Some people would have saved their own asses before his. You didn't."
She calmed some, and her head lowered. "This … hurts so much … sir … I just wish … it would … go away …"
"If you could erase all my bad memories, Corporal," he said quietly, "let me know. I'd pay you good money for that."
Her silence drew on noticeably. She sat up and lifted her head with deliberate slowness, and her eyes seemed charged with realization. She turned them to his own.
"Erase …?" she said, as if she had never heard of such a thing until that moment.
"Yeeess …?" He suspected – upon hearing how she said the word – that he knew where she was heading. He immediately regretted using the term.
"I could … erase … all this …" It sounded like a revelation to her.
"Yes, you could," he observed, trying to regain the high ground, "but then you'd be a true robot. Where all your problems can just be magically deleted."
The semblance of shame returned. "That's … not what I meant, sir …"
"But that would be the result, XJ-9."
"It's just … I can't be the same as I was … if I remember killing someone. I know I can't …"
"What would you be, then?"
She thought more than a moment. "Different …," she said. "… Forever …"
"Good," he replied.
The captain clicked the computer's keys again. "From what I can tell from your civilian record," he said, mostly to the screen, "you're one of those hometown superheroes, aren't you?"
"I guess … you could say that …"
"Corporal, did you learn today how easy it is to kill a human being?"
A pause. "Yes, sir. I did."
"If you erase that memory, you'll forget that."
"So the next time you'd want to smash in a man's head in an alley because he got you dirty, you wouldn't remember what a human slaughtered by you looked like. And you wouldn't care while you were doing it."
To the extent it could, her face looked squeamish at the image.
"Don't you think," he continued, "the local superhero should always know how easy it is to kill a human?
Then his tone became one of presenting the answer to an ultimately challenging puzzle.
"So she can avoid it …?"
And he saw on her face a new expression, as he could only suppose it looked like on a robot. One of being stuck at a crossroads. A place where she had to make a choice but couldn't see what the paths ahead were like. And that there was nothing on the horizon – no features, no landmarks – to favor what direction she should take.
Her silence lasted. The officer feared she was stuck in a processing loop.
"XJ-9," he prodded.
She started and blinked. "Sir?"
"I'll leave it to you whether to erase your memory of today's operation. It'll always be only your decision, anyway."
Her eyes lowered. "I understand," she whispered. "Thank you, sir."
He closed the laptop. "We're done here," he said and stood. She followed immediately, with her gritty rasping, and stood at attention.
"Get back to the 117th, Corporal." It was an order couched in a statement. "Say your GPS was disrupted near the end of the operation and you ended up here. That last part is true, anyway."
"I'll do that."
"And that while you were here, you got some bearings." He paused. "I hope that's true, in one sense."
She smiled. A little. "It is, sir. Thank you."
"A bit of advice before you go, XJ-9."
"No matter how deep your doubts are," he said – and his words' utter weight of authority shocked her – "do not desert. Under any circumstances. Your AI is high enough that you can be court-martialed. And as far as I know, no battle 'bot has ever been court-martialed. You do not want to be the first. Is that clear?"
"Very clear, sir," she answered. "My mother is proud of me. I don't want to ever lose that."
He nodded. "Very good. Good luck, Corporal Wakeman."
Her tone became cautiously softer. "Thank you again, sir."
His tone became official. "Dismissed."
She offered a gritty, rasping salute, which he returned silently. Upon that, she wheeled about precisely and headed for the door. Gritting and rasping.
"Corporal!" he called.
She stopped and turned. With the attendant noises. Her eyes showed her surprise. "Sir …?"
He smiled. Only a little. "When you get back to the 117th …," he started -- but then drew a deep breath. "For the love of God, Jenny! Get yourself lubricated!"
It confused her for a moment, but she finally closed her eyes and nodded.
"I'll do that, sir," she said. And smiled. A little.
"Dismissed," he repeated.
Another turn, and she exited the tent. Through the netting, he saw her walk to the sandy open area just outside. She stopped and looked up. Her head bobbed around, and her body spun partly to the left, then to the right. He assumed she was locating the 117th.
Finally, the swiveling ceased. And more so than merely registering map coordinates, she seemed intensely focused. As if she knew exactly then, without reservation, what direction she would choose from there on out.
Two tapered wings emerged from her back. The officer couldn't imagine where she stored them. The wings had long, slightly curved elements at the ends, parallel to her body. From the back of her waist arose two smaller triangular elements that, when deployed, looked to him like a swallow's tail.
With a whirr, her twin "pigtails" reversed their orientation. Tapered nozzles appeared at what now were the rears of the antennas. In the same instant, narrow, bright blue jets of flame – plasma, he guessed – shot from the nozzles.
She crouched, and a brilliant, explosive shaft of white light struck the ground. And he wasn't sure where that had come from, either. From the impact point, smaller radial shafts of light shot out, capped by tiny star-seeming bursts of energy. The rays and bursts stopped just short of the tent and disappeared. Still, he was glad he was inside.
A sudden white-beige bloom of sand and dust blossomed from where she had stood. The captain waited until the flower wilted some before walking out. He looked at the sky, but even as a tiny, vanishing speck, she wasn't there. Gone. Impressive speed, he thought.
And he hoped she would find peace.
He looked back down at the camp and soldiers. He sighed a final time and headed off. He hoped he wouldn't find war too much longer.
"My Life as a Teenage Robot," its characters and situations are copyright of their respective owners. Story copyright 2008 by George Pollock, Jr.