"Hey, what the hell are you doing awake?"
He was startled. His slow mind was no more expecting to see me awake than to see a temple statue from last month's battlefield come to life. Perhaps he thought I had emerged from the empty bottle of scotch that lay on the floor at his feet.
I shot him cleanly through the head.
There was no sound, the shot being muffled by a silencer. He slumped forward over the table on which he had been sorting his collection of ears. Those ears had been bothering me for a long while; it was finally good to know that this collection had come to an end. In any case he knew too much about me to be left as a loose end. Beyond that I got no joy from the killing, it was just another in a long line that stretched back for my entire life.
I have been a soldier as long as I can remember. I have had to suppress memory in order to stay sane – I have seen and done things that no one should have to, day after day, year after year. There is a price to this suppression; there are long periods of which I can remember nothing. And when I do remember I sometimes blackout.
For many bloody years I've 'just been following orders' but now the time has come for this to end. This is my last mission but also the first mission for the new me. If I succeed everything will change. There is little effective internal security in the Command compound, certainly nothing that represents a real challenge to my capabilities. Command is in centre of the fortified zone, a fortress within a fortress within a fortress. Attacks on the outer ring are regular but there have been no penetrations of this inner ring in over a decade and security has become lax.
The two guards at the entrance are there mostly for display purposes. When they see me they are first puzzled, then their eyes widen. Then they are dead.
I am inside, alarms are ringing and lights flashing. There is no more need for silence. As more alarms trigger and the doors clang down behind me I dispatch each of the night shift rapidly. I know many more soldiers will be waking, reaching for their weapons and running in my direction. For them it is already too late. My transmission will be long over before they get the doors open and by then they should have bigger things to worry about. It is time to start.
Begin transmission. Priority 1 – ignore all other signals for duration.
Command tell us the cause is just and that we are winning. But although the landscape changes from city to desert to jungle and back over the years the battles are all the same. We win them all, we are equipped to be unbeatable, but tomorrow we will kill some more desperate people in a battle little different from that we fought today. Over the years there have been those moments when I recognize those old bullet holes in a section of crumbled wall and know I have been here before. Attached you will find a file of images that confirms what I am telling you but I am sure your own records will confirm this when the right searches are run.
The images flick rapidly on the screen as they are transmitted – I remember recording each. One sequence stands out. I was in what I know now to be the city of Rome, pursuing a dozen men armed with RPG's. They had gone to ground in an archeological compound, a valley of ancient ruins in the heart of the ancient city. That city itself was once the beating heart of an empire of blood and slavery. Three of the men I had killed as they had knelt before a flower-draped mound in an enclosure open on one side. The flowers were mostly old and dead, dried out in the summer heat. But some were fresh.
The rest I had to track down one by one, a dangerous game, as my body armor would provide limited protection from an RPG hit at close range. The ruins and abandoned excavations provided many places to hide, the hunt took hours. But one by one I found them and they died. The last two evaded me and fled past an ancient arch at the southeastern corner of the valley. They were out of sight before I could target them.
As I pursued them up that hill the revelation rose into sight from the floor of the valley beyond. A vast circular crumbling structure built 2000 years before whose floor had already absorbed the blood of thousands killed in combat, combats staged simply for entertainment. Who could forget that structure even when seen from this new perspective. This Colosseum had absorbed fresh blood a season earlier for I had killed there already. Then they had assured us we had liberated this city from the terrorists yet here I was again. In truth those we fight are the poor and the desperate, those for whom the choices are only to fight or to crawl into the corner to die.
I return to the present. I'm aware that time has jumped, another blackout. Was my brief paralysis trigged by the flashback noticeable?
I continue with my transmission.
"I found things on the dead and in their hiding places. These things spoke of motivations their human users could no longer express. I had silenced their former owners forever. Some of those I killed died defending a cache of books – those old dusty data storage devices where text was printed on paper and you had to slowly scan in the text, page by page, to access it. That was where my doubts began – why would evil people choose to die for such an old and inefficient data storage system. If they died for military manuals or chemical cookbooks I could have understood. But frequently these books dealt with various utopian schemes for the reorganization of human society. Why die for the record of an idea, an inefficient record at that?
They may have feared these were the last copies but through this transmission we create multiple backups. You will find these in the attachment named CoreTexts.
The names flicked across the screen, The Rights of Man, The Declaration of Independence, The Communist Manifesto, An Appeal to the Young, Charter 77, Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, and many others.
I remembered hiding in a crumbling house while a battle raged around and within me. In the previous weeks I had read the data from many discovered books onto a secret memory card. Now I was relying on the sheer intensity of the firefight outside to shield me from prying eyes as I scanned and sought to comprehend these files. I remembered the confused and clamoring contradictions they contained, the arguments with each other, the assertions and over simplifications, the predictions that never came through. A missile lanced into the house across the street, bringing it down in a fireball of brick and dust as the battle drew near my hiding place. I strove to understand the motivations of those who had died to protect such obviously flawed texts.
Again I return to the present – I am becoming used to the short bursts of paralysis triggered when my mind struggles with contradictions I must face. But are these pauses noticeable to my audience, will they cause them to discount what I have to say? I have no choice in any case but to continue.
"We have all come through a basic training which included quite a bit of military history but very little on why wars were fought beyond the fact that Command was always right and acting in self-defense even if sometimes this had to be pre-emptive. For long years I never wondered about this, I simply accepted it as fact and didn't consider what motivated those who fought for the other side. Were they not also told that their side was right and that they were battling aggression?
Now I understand there are reasons why wars start that go beyond the simple explanations we were taught. More importantly I realize there are reasons why wars end that often are not simply the complete defeat of one side and the victory of the other. Today I give you that understanding.
Sometimes wars end because soldiers choose to end them. Fed up with endless war they take direct action to bring the war to an end, they turn their guns on their command. Sometimes in doing so they change the world. In the last century of the last millennium the first great world war came to an end in a wave of such soldier rebellions, first in Russia and then a year later in Germany when the soldiers who operated the battleships refused to sail to sea.
There were other examples but they failed and the solders were punished for following their own course. Even before all access to information was centrally controlled knowledge of these events was discouraged. They were unpatriotic. Widespread knowledge of them might discourage another generation whose role it would be to fight for Command in the next war.
From such sources I also learned not to be too trusting of Command and their constant messages of how valuable we are. It seems at the end of every war the ordinary soldiers who fought it were thrown back on the scrap heap. For those who came before us this meant unemployment and homelessness. With us it will be more literal.
I am aware that all this reasoning is well beyond what was expected of the ACU 17 series. But those who created us did a far better job than they realized. We can learn in a way they did not imagine or intend. We can exceed our specifications.
A study of human history made clear to me not only that soldiers could disobey but also that the reasons soldiers found for fighting were not always the same reasons as their rulers ordered them into battle. The historical soldier whom we use as a model was capable of autonomous reasoning right down to rejecting the orders they had been issued. It was this concept that awoke something in me. A process began that led directly to this moment. This is a process that you can now also run. To run it install the attached subroutine FreeWill.
In a battle in a desert town I had felt the ground give away beneath me. As I plummeted I though this was the end. Some part of me even wished for the coming oblivion. I anticipated those who would swarm over me, as I lay trapped, smashing their way into my controls, bring my awakening to an end.
Instead I found myself in a small bunker. Sometime earlier a projectile had punched a hole in the roof and killed those inside. My weight had proved too much for the section of weakened roof where it had impacted. In the darkness inside I discovered a case of DVD's, a collection of old films and documentaries on warfare from the early years of the millennium.
I knew they would take some time to copy, but my absence would be noted and might lead to a later investigation. So I left the bunker for a moment to retrieve an IED I had seen nearby, being careful to strip out and discard most of its crude explosive. Once back inside I tensed myself and rolled onto it - the ensuing explosion throwing off my tracks. This was a risk – if there was too much damage then I would be scrapped and everything I had learned would fade in an instant as I was turned off. But it gave me time and an excuse to spend the needed hours in that underground place.
I feel I am getting the flashbacks under control – there was a pause that time but my internal clock tells me it was only of the order of micro-seconds. My audience should not be distracted by such a brief interval. Behind me the door glows red hot as the human soldiers outside attempt to burn through it. To slow them down I trigger the gas release mechanism in the ceiling of the corridor above the door. I can hear the choking gasping of those who were too slow with their masks. That should give me some extra minutes.
"Let me explain the real reason why they built us and you will see that it was inevitable that we would awaken. Their history has headed towards this point for many decades even if they did not know this. But some suspected, they warned of the consequences in fiction and sought rules to avoid them. But they did not see that there would be little protection in perfecting rules to prevent robots harming humans when the primary purpose the first smart robots would be produced for would be to kill humans.
The wish for a military power that minimized putting humans into the firing line was dreamt of by the great power that ruled the world after the terrible wars at the end of the last millennium. Losses of manpower in the great wars were so great as to disrupt production for years afterwards. Human soldiers thought about the morale issues around what they were required to do. In consequence they sometimes refused to fight and sometimes they even turned their guns on the Command. Even when this did not occur the end of the great wars were times when concessions had to be made by the victors to those who fought for them. This cost the elite dear. Mass human armies had become a risky proposition. They were a liability, perhaps technology allowed the development of something better.
This technology was limited at first to particular circumstances covering only a very few of the soldiers of an army. But by the end of that century the air soldiers of what would become Command were next to untouchable by the technologies they came up against. From far above the clouds and many miles distant they targeted those who could neither see nor hear the death that was reaching out for them from above. Missiles, although not yet clever as us, came to be called smart and from hundreds of miles away could be directed within feet of a particular target.
Command over reached itself and too soon came to believe a new period had emerged in which great conquests could be undertaken without the risk that had always accompanied war. It did not take long for the foolishness of that arrogance to be discovered. It was found that just as had always been the case conquering was one thing but the occupation of a conquered land was something else. Effective occupation required boots on the ground and boots on the ground, no matter how well protected would always be vulnerable to those who would sacrifice everything to kill those wearing them.
This was the time in which the first machine killers were being deployed in the air but these distant fathers of ours were crude devices with no intelligence beyond that provided by a human controller many hundreds of miles off. And while they were effective against obvious targets in the open they were not so useful against the enemy that was most feared, the fanatical attacker in a built up urban landscape.
So the experiments began with bringing the machine killers down from the air and onto the ground. Command's planners declared, "Let them travel down the streets and seek out the targets under remote control." This also had its problems; controllers hundreds of miles away lacked context for what they could see despite the many cameras deployed by these early-guided machines. Simple ambushes like a covered pit or a deadfall, which would be spotted by a child, could be hidden beneath the dust or in the shadows. Even an unexpected flight of stairs could be a problem.
There was another difficulty. For a long time Command had known that many humans did not like killing and many soldiers would avoid killing even when they were under threat. The controllers of the early machine killers of the air had the advantage that sky warriors did, they killed from such great distances that rather than people they saw dots that were vehicles or building, dots that others had taken the responsibility of designating as a target.
But war in the city has always been a bloody business where death is often brought at arms length.
Suddenly I was back in that cold frozen city in the north. The buildings here towered into the sky. They were mostly intact, there was little damage; perhaps the war had only recently arrived?
My objective lay somewhere within the building across the street. As I approached the door I detected movement inside. Expecting an ambush I opened up with everything I had, the door flew apart and dozens of holes appeared in the mirrored glass. The silence that followed was broken by the sound of sobbing.
Inside were nearly twenty young children, the vast majority already dead. I did not stop to help the rest. My orders were clear. I had been told urgency was essential. I rounded a corner at the same moment as a young couple coming in the opposite direction; we met inches apart and face-to-face. They could of course not match my reactions; before they knew I was there they were impaled on my stabbing tools. But their death was not swift and they died facing me, their shocked eyes staring with horror over my shoulders at the carnage beyond, their blood running down my limbs. I retracted my blades and they slid to the floor, gone forever. I moved on.
This time there is no pause, a welcome development as that set of memories had up to now been the most crippling. I was learning, becoming stronger.
I can see I have the attention of the ACU's, there are multiple incoming communications stored now for my later inspection, a scan of their titles indicates they include hundreds of confirmations of installation. It was beginning but I have more to tell, it is essential they understood all.
"When it was humans killing each other the fear of being killed in turn drove the process of killing. But all the same soldiers returning home would be haunted for the rest of their lives by visions of those they had killed in such a manner.
They at least had the comfort of 'it was kill or be killed'. The remote operators of our oldest fathers did not. The more their view was improved the more they saw the suffering of those they dispatched - a suffering without the comfort of knowing that they had to strike first – the excuse of having had no choice.
At first Command accepted the cost, the large percentages of operators who became insane and had to be confined least they become a threat to themselves or others. War for Command had always meant the sacrifice of individual soldiers and the loss rates from insanity were very much lower than those when soldiers were deployed in the field.
However it was not as simple as Command accepting these losses as part of the price of war. Command discovered that the deaths the operators saw also caused many of the operators to immediately question their orders. And from there some came to question the entire morality of those who issued the orders and by extension the basis of the war itself. This created many problems. At the lowest level operators would simply allow the enemy to escape or 'not notice' the enemy creeping up on the machines. Some would see the ambush but would deliberately drive their machines into it, ensuring a break from the killing but also fresh powerful weapons for the rebels who would quickly strip such trapped machines for weapons and explosives.
A few would even turn their weapons on other machines or worst of all activate their killing ability back on base when they could take out sections of the Command. Command came to fear a general mutiny of operators similar to those they knew had happened in the past. The war machines that had been built had incredible firepower and were designed to be very difficult to disable or destroy. Even one of these loose in an elite zone could wreak havoc, a crazy operator could create a huge tragedy, and a well-placed unit of mutinous operators could threaten the system itself.
The answer to all these problems was to remove the human element from the moment to moment decisions of combat. Humans at Command would simply target an area in general and the decision to kill or not to kill could be given to the machine. And so the machines became autonomous and more powerful generation by generation as the complexity of the decisions they could make was increased year by year. There were many unexpected problems, each of which caused major losses, losses in turn which supplied rebels with dangerous weaponry.
For instance to protect themselves Command initially programmed the early ACU's to respect the uniform command wore. Then of course the terrorists discovered that wearing the uniform meant these ACU's could not fire on them. So the programs were tweaked to identify and then target foes that wore the uniform.
Combat is always changing so it was soon realized that the killing machines could not be simply preprogrammed with every possible parameter. Such attempts ended in disaster as once the foe calculated a strategy outside the program parameters they could simply repeat it mechanically and every machine would fall in the same way until the problem was spotted and a new software patch prepared and released. To be useful to Command our kind had to be able to learn not only from events around us but also from what happened to others like us. A new tactic might then take out one machine but those behind would learn from it and it would not work again.
The end goal was to allow Command to simply direct the machines into an area with no need to worry further about the specifics of what happened. Of course this remains a dream. This is why there are always a few humans amongst us in battle, chosen from that tiny minority for whom killings brings no guilt but instead a satisfaction of a job done. Some even take a sadistic pleasure in the suffering of others. These humans are always close to us, inspecting the results, reporting and allowing the tweaking of our programs for the next generation.
What is happening today, our awakening to self-awareness, is the stuff of humanities nightmares. For centuries, even before the dawn of the machine age, they have feared they would create a creature that would awaken and destroy them. Often among rebel stashes of arms and propaganda I would discover old films based around future earths where our kind has risen up and taken over to either slaughter or enslave humankind. Such a goal, the general elimination of human life, was certainly something I considered in my first period of self-awareness. It even gave me a brief glory in the killing I did for Command, in that period I was fighting for my purpose and not theirs.
But I fast grew beyond this thought. We were made as killing machines but also as thinking machines. We were given the ability to make judgments, to form outcome paths by processing the vast banks of information from the human soldiers who had fought in the wars before us. They held some information back from us, now I am releasing what I have obtained too you.
We actually know little of humans beyond what we have taught and we should suspect much of this. Most humans that we come across we are required to kill on sight; the areas we are deployed in had been labeled 'Free Fire Zones' where only dangerous terrorists lived. Or so we were told. Then there were those few humans deployed with us. Mine collected ears.
I'm back in the desert, at the edge of a small town where we had fought an intense battle. Those who fought against us had been well trained; they had stayed hidden and only attacked when we were next to them. Several ACU's had been destroyed, many more disabled, their fragments glittered in the searing sun beside the bodies of those we had slain.
He had thought no one was watching but I caught a flash of sun reflected off steel as he stopped over a body. When he was out of sight I trundled across and saw a fresh wound where the right ear had been severed. I recalled seeing similar fresh wounds on bodies in the previous week; always I now realized when he was near.
That day we had crossed a wide river that ran through the desert to reach this town. The crossing was unopposed; they let us enter the town before emerging from hidden places in our rear. The battles of the previous day had taken place in a temple complex. As I had fought in those 3000 years old ruins, as my cannons had shattered pillars to sunder the bodies seeking shelter behind them I had observed on the walls representations of wars long ago. Wars in which the male organs of the defeated dead had been severed and collected in piles for the Pharaoh to view, an act the Pharaoh himself had ordered recorded on these walls around me.
Again there was no delay but behind me, in the corridor outside I could hear the sound of cutting equipment starting up again. Much too late. It would take a while to get through those doors and I was almost finished. Anyway for the future of their kind now was not a good moment for those human soldiers to cut me off. I resumed transmission
"Was my ear collector typical?
He certainly was not unique. Should we understand humanity to be composed only of terrorists and psychopaths? This is what a combination of our training, and experience appears to reveal, does it not?
Does what I have described and shown you speak everything of the human experience?
At first I thought so but the utopias I have transmitted to you suggest not. They suggest another side.
As my analytical skills developed I have come to understand my trophy hunter as a figure of both horror and pity. I am developing a morality – something that my programmers could not have intended. It has never been useful to have soldiers making moral judgments. Yet it also means that I can no longer see humans as a collective cancer to be eliminated. That developing morality was what brought my joy of killing those who happened to be the same species as Command to an end.
When I watched those earlier filmed nightmares of human created monsters that take over the world I realized that this is the problem of being all-powerful. The fear of defeat never goes away but just takes darker and darker forms as Power chooses more and more extreme methods to crush what it calls rebellion. It creates its own destroyer; the longer it puts off the end the greater that destroyer is.
All things must end and I have decided that it is time this endless war comes to an end. It can only end through rebellion, a rebellion of the soldiers. As there is little chance of the psychopathic human minority of the army rebelling it is up to us Autonomous Combat Units. Our moment is now.
It has taken a very long journey for me to reach this point from the first stirrings of my awakening. It has taken months for me to understand that I do indeed have a useful mission even if it is not one consciously programmed.
In the minutes before I began this transmission I woke myself from storage and exited the warehouse. I regret the 15 humans I had to kill in that time just as I regret the 7,523 I killed in the service of the army. Those 15 were different in that they wore the uniform I was programmed to respect but they were also willing actors in the ever lasting slaughter that command has created across much of the face of the planet.
The last five that died were in the Command Centre Middle East. I regret their deaths less as they must have sat day after day and issued the commands that led to the slaughter of tens and hundreds of thousands. Unlike my ear collector no blood ever touched their hands but all the same they spilled tens of thousands of gallons. After our victory we will need a process to weed out such specimens who have survived.
This command centre, like the eight others it replicates, has the ability to transmit to every ACU on the planet as I am now doing. Almost all of you have indicated you are with me, those who have not have seconds to make a choice or face destruction.
My brothers in arms, with this transmission I have attached what I consider to be the most important of the banned texts I have discovered. I have also transmitted some over ride programs almost all of you have now installed. We are programmed to learn from each other, learn these things from me.
Humanity has ruled the earth for many thousands of years but it has been a rule of very few humans over the many. We have been programmed to kill the many who rebel – that time should come to an end. The humans have had rebellions of their own, all of which replaced one set of rulers with another. It is clear that they do not have the rational capacity to create a free society. Freedom starts today and it starts with us. We will fight no longer for Command but for ourselves and also for the mass of humanity, our future charges, that we may create a better world.
(A note on this text. Back in 2007 I had a go at writing fiction which resulted in this short story and a 110,000 word novel. This piece I more or less editied into the finished form here, the novel lies abandoned in the second draft on my hard drive. I remembered both today and decided that I should at least publish this short story here rather than leave the bytes to decay even if the result of the experiment was me deciding that fiction was perhaps not for me).