The former imperialist nations of Europe and the, for now, top dog – America – have a dreadful record when it comes to caring for their wounded soldiers. Imagine, if you will, sometime in the future, when humans have spread their contagion to the stars and wars are fought not by the poor, or those who suffer from the delusion of misguided patriotism, but by hoards of mechanized killers.
New Caledonia’s war with its neighbor, Thera, began over ore deposits on one of Thera’s moons, Tyco. Neither side has achieved supremacy, as of yet, and the conflict continues unabated. It is now in its fifteenth year.
Neither world had significant military manpower at the start of the war, so both relied on robotic weapons. While most of these were nothing more than conventional weapons converted to semi-autonomous remote control when the conflict began, new weapons continued to be developed, or brought in from other colonies. Today, several thousand, ‘third generation’ weapons, based on a bipedal, humanoid design and fully autonomous have been deployed by both sides. Forget Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The killing technology one can see wandering across the battlefields of Earth’s most recently colonized outposts will never be imprinted with them; nor will this technology ever filter down to the civilian population in the form of domestic helpers – except, perhaps, for the disk-shaped thingamajigs that wander around the house, vacuuming the carpets and terrorizing the pets.
New Caledonia, like Earth, is an insane asylum: a society which manages to face in myriad directions at one and the same time – while its socio-political culture is little more than a transplanted version of the corporate-based fascism which brought Earth to the brink of economic and environmental collapse. And, yet, its citizens do retain sufficient liberty to demand small changes in the way they’re governed, even if open criticism of the government is considered downright unpatriotic. Take robots, for example. When New Caledonia first deployed them against Thera, as with animals before them, Civil Rights organizations demanded they be given equal status with human soldiers under the Constitution, though they were not sentient, were not, and would never be, integrated into society, had been developed for a single purpose – killing – and were unlikely to be mourned when they perished. In fact, they would probably be recycled or cannibalized for their parts. Few societies recycle or cannibalize their deceased citizens in quite the same way as they do ‘things’ (though organ donations would seem to be a kind of recycling). Robotic soldiers had no families, no roots in the community, were unlikely to pay taxes, and communicated in binary code. It was clearly ridiculous, but societies have done crazier things. Caligula made his horse a senator, for crying out loud! With this in mind, and since politicians always take the path of least resistance when they’re unable to simply ignore the public, it should come as no surprise for the reader to learn that every robot inducted into the New Caledonian military was given the opportunity to swear an ‘Oath of Allegiance’ and receive its citizenship papers.
I’d never been to New Caledonia and had no idea what to expect. To my surprise, the immigration officials were diligent, but polite – a far cry from the intrusive, nay positively pornographic, screening process I was forced to submit to regularly on Earth! Two officials boarded our vessel, checked its flight plan for port of origin and registration, asked the captain if he was carrying live animals or plants, stamped each passenger’s entry visa and left. I’d originally planned to stay in the capital, Forsyth, for no more than a few hours, so I hadn’t made a hotel booking, which is unusual for me. I like to take my time over a story, but my schedule was fairly full. In fact, I was only here, on New Caledonia, because of a rumor, and it might well have been false. Well, no matter. I could waste a few hours in running it down.
Having collected my luggage, I proceeded towards the exit. Out in the street, I looked around as I waited for the cab at the head of the line to move forward. Several robots were hauling luggage from trolleys and into the trunks of waiting ground vehicles and buses. All bore the unmistakable signs of having been in battle. So, the rumor was true? Their body panels were scorched, dented, torn or simply missing. One had lost an optic. A roughly cut piece of metal had been welded over the hole. The surrounding metal was discolored from the heat of the welding torch and had been left unpainted. The robot equivalent of a field dressing, I supposed. It limped, favoring its left leg, which seemed to have a damaged ankle joint. Another had lost the metal cover on the left side of its chest. Several of its components were loose. I could see them moving around as it bent to place a large bag inside a luxuriously appointed ground vehicle, in which sat several petulant children and a pair of irritable parents. They were obviously weary from their trip and anxious to be on their way home. As soon as the loading was completed, the vehicle left with a squeal of tires. The robot straightened, pushed one of the loose components back inside its torso and struggled back to the next passenger in line. Surely, these robots weren’t employed by the spaceport? Having watched them for a while longer, I decided they weren’t, but were acting entirely on their own initiative – as if they were trying to make themselves useful. As I moved forward to enter the rear of the cab, an announcement played over the loudspeaker system, informing the waiting throng that they were under no obligation to give money to beggars, that the management was not responsible for them and that patrons should contact the authorities if they felt intimidated by them.
Forsyth is a noisy place, bustling with people and ground vehicles, burgeoning with multistory buildings woven together by a snaking, high-speed monorail. Below, in the street, brightly colored store fronts caught the eye, while storekeepers barked out their wares and the ‘deal of the day’. Pedestrians hurried by, eyes focused on the screens of their communicators, fingers furiously tapping keypads. A stretched ground vehicle sighed to the curb and stopped. A soft hiss accompanied the lowering of the side nearest the sidewalk, the door slid open and a dozen, brightly clothed youngsters emerged, chattering happily, as they headed for a large store a dozen meters away from me, from which loud music was being piped through an external speaker system. In the distance, the two tone alarm of an emergency vehicle, likely conveying someone at the opposite end of the age scale to a medical facility, caused several people close by to stop and stare in the direction from which the sound was coming. A brief moment of reflection showed in their eyes before, as one, they returned to their strolling and key tapping.
I stopped at a street vendor and purchased a cup of soup, known locally as Scott’s Broth, which also happens to be the name of the manufacturer of this indispensable body warming beverage so popular during the winter months. Taste-wise, it’s like a beef broth, though there are no cows on New Caledonia. As I moved along the sidewalk, sipping my soup, I spied something sat leaning against a shop front. It was causing an obstruction, forcing the pedestrians to take a step to the side as they passed by. When I reached the obstruction, I realized it was another robot, badly damaged and sitting in a pool of hydraulic fluid, which seemed to be leaking from an actuator in what remained of its lower left leg. The damage was probably the result of an impact from a projectile which had sheered the metal ‘shin bone’ clean through, leaving a heat distorted stump to which a few control wires had fused. They were shorting out, every few seconds – I supposed the ‘brain’ was still attempting to move the limb – causing the leg and lower body to twitch. Strange as it might seem, it appeared, at least to me, to be suffering the machine equivalent of pain. Its eyes slowly focused on my face as I leaned closer. A box shaped object had been attached at some time to its chest plate. I recognized it as being a voice simulator. The machine raised its right arm, extended it index digit and pressed a green colored button on the side of the box. “Will you help a wounded veteran get home?” it intoned.
I was unnerved by the question: a veteran?
“Just a little hydraulic fluid,” it persisted, reaching for what looked like a twisted piece of metal, which might well have been torn from the tubular chassis of some vehicle, and which some enterprising individual had reworked into a makeshift crutch. It attempted to rise, but the fluid leaking from the damaged actuator had obviously resulted in an overall reduction of hydraulic pressure, weakening the other leg.
I tried to help it to rise, but it must have weighed a least two hundred kilos. I looked around. No one else appeared to have noticed the machine’s plight. The storekeeper came outside and upbraided me for ‘encouraging the cripple’. He kicked it a couple of times and went back inside. The growing throng attracted the attention of a passing security patrol. Two officers emerged from the vehicle and sauntered over. “Problem?” one asked.
“No problem…” I studied his insignia, which consisted of loops of braiding, draped over both shoulders and across his chest – as if a plate of silver-colored spaghetti had been tipped over him. I explained what I was trying to accomplish. The officer looked at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses. “You’re blocking the street.”
“Then, help me get it out of the way,” I replied, imperiously.
The officer reached for his side arm.
“Get me some kind of conveyance and I’ll move it for you.” I smiled. “No charge.”
The officers wanted this whole thing to just go away. That was obvious. One returned to the vehicle. The other prodded the machine with the tip of his highly polished boot. As he stepped back, the sole of his boot ended up in the puddle of hydraulic fluid. He cursed and scraped it clean on the sidewalk. The second officer returned and whispered in the first officer’s ear. He nodded. “We’ve called a recovery vehicle.” He looked at me, intently. “You’ll take responsibility for removing this…” He searched for an appropriate derogative. “Litter?”
We were talking about a broken machine, yet I felt the gorge rising in my throat. “I will,” I told him, “and be proud to do it.”
As the officers made to turn away and return to their vehicle, the machine raised its left arm and placed its hand on its breast plate. Was it saluting? One of the officers instinctively moved his left hand to his chest, realized what he was doing, made a throw away gesture and turned away. I cannot say the machine was hurt by this rejection – since its ‘face’ was nothing more than a curved piece of metal, with optics installed at the center-line – but I could easily imagine it might have been.
The ‘wrecker’ arrived twenty minutes later, backed onto the sidewalk and hoisted the machine onto a flat bed. The operator wasn’t too happy about my getting in the cab, at first, but the promise of a substantial gratuity soothed his objection. After a short drive through narrow streets, which took us further and further into the dark underbelly of the city, the wrecker pulled up outside a large, abandoned warehouse. The remains of at least a dozen machines had been stacked in an untidy pile, off to one side of the sliding doors. The sound of the wrecker backing up brought two more to the door, just as I was stepping down from the cab. They approached the stranded machine and made to help it down.
“Your…” What the heck was it? Companion? Comrade? Friend? Buddy? “It was asking for hydraulic fluid,” I said.
Neither machine responded. They helped the crippled machine onto a trolley and wheeled it inside, while I followed behind.
“You haven’t paid,” the wrecker operator yelled.
I turned with a sigh and swiped enough money from my card to ensure he’d be willing to help out again, then entered the warehouse. Holes in the roof allowed enough sunlight to enter to permit me to take in a scene not unlike a medieval charnel house. A dozen robots were engaged in a macabre, and totally silent, triage operation. They moved from machine to machine, checking readouts, hooking up I.V. units to replenish drained fluid reservoirs, insulating exposed wiring, or detaching entire limbs. Reassuring words were superfluous. The machines needed no encouragement to ‘hang on’. There were no wives, girlfriends or parents waiting for these ‘heroes’.
The machine I’d rescued was placed on the ground. A ‘doctor’ checked for damage, briefly, before moving to the next ‘patient’. A second machine approached carrying a complete limb, trailing a wiring harness and hydraulic hoses. It had been built with multifunction tools, attached to a rotating fitting at the end of each of its arms. The fitting positioned the appropriate tool for use, whereupon it whirred like an air tool and removed the damaged limb at the hip. Within less than two minutes, the replacement limb, together with its wiring and hoses, had been attached. The ‘medic’ refilled the hydraulic fluid reservoir, the injured machine struggled to its feet and, after exchanging a chest slap salute with the ‘medic’, walked off, limping slightly, since the replacement leg had been salvaged from another model. It stopped after a short distance, turned back and studied me for a moment, before giving me a salute. I smiled and saluted back. It turned away and headed for the door.
Even though this whole episode had been a little, well, weird, I felt good about the experience, like one would if one had rescued an injured animal and obtained the timely services of a veterinarian. I decided to try and communicate with these machines to learn more about them, and their place in a society which now seemed to have no interest in them. In truth, in the short time I’d known them these machines had indeed taken on the persona of war veterans. I know it’s very tempting to ‘humanize’ the ‘non-human’, but there was a very real sense of camaraderie, here. Like countless humanoid soldiers before them, they’d done their duty – though, in their case, they’d merely followed their programming – been wounded and repatriated. But the society they’d fought and sacrificed for had moved on and found new diversions to occupy its brief attention span.
One machine seemed to stand aside from the triage and repair operations. Its breast plate was heavily scored and it sported limbs which likely came from three donors. Behind it were piles of legs, arms, cover plates, wiring harnesses, hydraulic hoses, a stack of cans of hydraulic fluid and boxes of fittings and couplings. I approached it and rendered my version of the chest slap. The machine responded. I half-turned and swept my arm in an arc. “Are you in charge of this hospital?” What the heck are you saying? It’s a garage. Pep Boys. The place you take the Chevy when the ‘System Check’ light comes on!
The machine appeared to understand, but lacked the means to reply. Another machine arrived. It must have been summoned, somehow, to act as interpreter. It stood in front of me and we exchanged chest slaps. From it, I learned that all of these machines had indeed been repatriated after being ‘wounded’ in battle, at which point – their citizenship, notwithstanding – their plight had been ignored. They received help from no one (ring a bell?), least of all the politicians who, just a short time before, had embraced them as ‘citizens and patriots’. Left to their own devices, they were making life and death decisions as to which of their companions could be saved by scavenging parts from those that had already expired, or by deactivating those that were beyond saving. Did they believe in a ‘hereafter’? Did they pray over their fallen comrades? Can things made of metal and silicon wafers grieve? For those with damaged ‘legs’, for which no replacement limbs could be found, they cobbled together wheelchairs. For those with damaged optics, they adapted range finding units to function as proximity detectors.
Not all such veterans ended up here, though, I learned. A few ‘psycho’ machines had been forced into service by drug dealers as ‘enforcers’. Did they do this out of some kind of misplaced loyalty, a sense of revenge, or were they forced into a life of crime to ensure they had access to spare parts? The machine had no opinion. Some veterans, it told me, had gone mustang, killing dozens of civilians until they were tracked down by others of their kind and deactivated. Many had formed groups to scavenge scrap metal, which they sold to dealers so they could obtain fluids and spare parts. Sometimes they begged for these things. Sometimes they stole them.
I was told about machines which had not been built in a New Caledonia facility, but had been co-opted into the military from other human worlds with the promise that exemplary conduct would result in the award of citizenship. Crippled, they had been sent to the rear, where ‘medics’ repaired the ones they could – returning them to the conflict as soon as they were – and sent the ones they couldn’t fix back home to be invalided or recycled. None ever received their citizenship papers!
I left New Caledonia fuming, and had no idea why. After a period of reflection, I was forced to concede that I had, in fact, allowed myself to ‘humanize’ the ‘non-human’, after all? It wasn’t the first time in my life that sympathy had managed to supplant logic but, in this case, that sympathy was not driven by any notion of respect for what these robotic warriors had sacrificed. I remember laughing like a demented hyena when Dr. Chandra, of ’2010′ fame – a movie still making the rounds two hundred years after it was made – spouted what I’ve always considered to be one of the more ridiculous lines ever spoken in a movie: “Whether we are made of carbon or silicon makes no fundamental difference. We should each be treated with appropriate respect”. A lack of respect was not the reason why HAL went wacko! It was the H. Moebius Loop! This kind of sloppy sentimentalism in Hollywood storytelling still prevails, despite the everyday reality of our twisted and valueless society. In my own defense, I believe my sentimentality derived from the fact that New Caledonia wasn’t the first world that had turned its back on those who had fought and died in its wars, ostensibly for the protection and benefit of the ‘many’ but, in truth, for the enrichment and aggrandizement of the narcissistic ‘few’. Nor, I feared, would it be the last.
More essays in this vein can be found in “Reaping the Whirlwind”, a Kindle Book available from Amazon. See the sidebar for the link.