“I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”
Samantha the Operating System, ‘Her’, Spike Jonze, 2013
“Boomer was a good MARCBOT. Those goddamn Mahdi Army scum took him from this world far too early.”
red_one_foxtrot commenting on Reddit, 2013
Mike Powell awoke blurry-eyed to a dimly lit room that was almost unbearably hot. Grunting disagreeably, he rolled over and peeled the sheet from his torso. It was heavy with sweat.
“Jesus, how fucking hot is it?” he asked hoarsely of the dark room.
“It is thirty-seven degrees Celsius. Good morning Mike.”
It was a female voice, soft yet remote. He glanced at the figure seated by his bed.
“Kate, I thought we agreed to speak in American. And you know it creeps me out when you watch me sleep.”
“You’re not asleep, Mike. You’re awake. And the United States adopted the Celsius scale in late 2017 after a…”
Mike cut her short with a flapping palm as he wiped his eyes with his other hand.
“Yeah, yeah, alright. Quit your yapping.”
After showering Mike returned to his bunk to get dressed. Most of the others were up and about, the room now buzzing with a muted chatter. As he laced his boots his eyes fell on the bed next to his, its sheets fresh and crisp, undisturbed by sleep. He had liked Murphy. Not the brightest, but a good kid. There were rumours he hadn’t come out too badly from the raid, just a nick in the shoulder. That he was discharged due to what the docs called ‘emotional distress’. That his bot had taken one in the head and that was why he charged the outpost like a lunatic. Just rumours, Powell thought to himself as he made his way to the canteen. Kate followed behind him.
“How are you feeling Mike?”
“I’m just fine Kate. I’m eating.”
There was a short pause.
“You’re not worried about today’s mission? It’s perfectly…”
He cut her off, “I’ve been on plenty of ‘em Kate, and I’m still here. Like I said, I’m fine.”
“Okay Mike. I’m going to go for my tune-up before we leave. I’ll be back shortly.”
He didn’t respond. Kate got up and walked towards the exit. A few other bots were heading that way too. Mike finished his meagre breakfast and left the table.
There were approximately two thousand troops in Camp Obama, the largest US navy camp in Djibouti, and one of the largest in Eastern Africa. Three hundred of these were classed as special operations servicemen. The other two hundred and ninety-nine of these had bots just like Kate. The Synthetic Humanoid Engine had been in service for three years now. It was listed in official Armed Forces literature as ‘equipment’, and in its current incarnation took the form of a female android. The men responded better to female bots. It was equipped with an array of weapons, and its AI was unlike anything that had been seen before. President Winfrey had described the SHE as ‘the greatest military breakthrough since the AK-47.’
Kate was Mike’s second. He had only had his first for a month when a roadside bomb in Kandahar had hit the jeep he was travelling in. It had taken eight hours of surgery to remove the shrapnel from his back and arms. He hadn’t named his first, but by the time he was back in service and was issued a second, the directive was to assign your bot a name. The psychs had informed the top brass that it was ‘conducive to developing a trust system’. Mike had a soft spot for Katharine Hepburn movies, and when he was greeted upon his arrival for duty at Camp Obama by his very own ‘African Queen’ protectress, he thought it was appropriate.
Mike left the camp at midday with his unit, each man flanked in the back of the truck by his bot. Some chatted idly to them: checked on the weather and the sports results back home, had e-mails and Facebook posts read out, that kind of thing. Mike sat quietly, sweating through his fatigues under the Kevlar vest. He winced as the bumps in the road jarred his lower back. The dull pain that had been with him since Kandahar was worse than usual today. He closed his eyes and blocked out the fluttering voices of the bots. His mind drifted back to a training exercise from the academy. They had been split into teams and had to disassemble a live bot. It was supposed to convey the idea to the men that the SHE was just nuts and bolts. Just a machine.
The Captain calmly recapped the orders as the truck neared its objective. There was a camp a few miles to the east. Satellites had picked up possible insurgent activity there, but this had to be confirmed by ground troops before a strike could be authorised. The plan was to head to a nearby ridge and scope out the camp from afar. All fairly routine. The truck slowed to a crawl as it climbed the hill leading to the ridge.
The Cap turned to his bot,
“Satellite pick up anything new, Lucy?”
The bot hesitated as its neural pathways shimmered behind its faceplate.
“Nothing new from HQ, Sir. We are a go for mission.”
The Captain nodded as the truck slowed to a stop.
“Alright ladies, let’s make this quick. In and out and home in time fo-”
A deafening explosion ripped through the truck before he could finish. Mike was thrown to the floor as gleaming rays of sunshine flooded in through a smoking hole where the Captain had been sitting. Wiping his face, Mike’s hand came away soaked in the Cap’s blood. Lucy’s limp, headless body lay writhing and twitching across his legs. The rocket had turned the front half of the truck into a mangled wreck of body parts and circuitry. Gunfire sprayed the panels of the truck, filling the air with miniscule cylinders of sunlight. Mike felt a flashing pain in his leg, and as he turned to crawl towards the back of the truck he felt himself being lifted off the floor. A split second later he was barrelled out of the back and thrown roughly behind a jagged rock, the dense air loaded with the sound of bullets striking metal.
Before he had time to register what had happened, a figure landed with a thud beside him, its back to the rock. He turned to see Kate’s half-melted faceplate, her eyes as still and lifeless as ever. Her body was covered with dents and small holes.
“I can’t walk. My leg…” he started to say. Kate said nothing, but stood and lifted him over her shoulder. She sprinted away from the truck, a hail of bullets shadowing her down the hill that they had rolled up just moments before. Mike, his leg bleeding freely and his head being jolted violently, just had time to look back and survey the scene of the wrecked, flaming truck and the scattered bodies of his comrades, before he lost consciousness.
When Mike woke up the first thing he was aware of was how much his leg, and his head, hurt. The second thing he realised was that he was outside, and it was dark. Clusters of brilliant white stars came slowly into view as he blinked groggily.
“Where am I?” he just about managed to whisper, his own voice barely recognisable.
A soft reply came from above his head,
“You are seventeen point three miles from Camp Obama, Mike. It is currently ten thirty-one p.m.”
He looked up to see a twisted face in the moonlight, its blinking lights now clearly visible, its body leaking fluid.
“What happened to the rest…”
“Mike, we don’t have much time. I’ve done what I can with your leg but you’ll bleed out before long. There are still insurgents looking for us, and I’m too badly damaged to carry you back.”
He glanced down at his thigh to see a blood-soaked shirt wrapped tightly around it. His head felt light and he was having difficulty focusing his eyes.
“Can you call…get a chopper…”
“My communication system has been damaged, I can’t contact the base.”
Mike laughed softly to himself, delirious with pain and fatigue.
“Well that’s that, then. We can’t be taken alive, so you know what to…”
“Mike, I’m going back alone. They’ll send a chopper.”
Mike’s vision was becoming blurry again.
“It’s too far. You’ll never…” he trailed off.
Kate crouched beside him and put her hand on his chest.
“The chopper will be here, Mike. Just stay alive.”
His breath was shallow as he looked up at her.
“I never told you about my first.”
“No, you didn’t. But I’ve read the file.”
Mike stared at the crescent moon that lit the arid landscape, his eyelids quivering.
“Docs said she saved me. Rolled herself right around me in a millisecond and took the brunt of the blast.”
“She did her job, Mike.”
He reached out and took her hand, riddled with bullet holes and covered in an oily residue.
“I blamed her” he said, and laughed again. He fixed his eyes on the flickering lights that shone from beneath her gnarled visage. His grip became limp as his eyes began to close.
“I blamed her” he whispered again, but Kate didn’t hear him. She was sprinting noiselessly across the sand, her feet kicking up mounds of gold that shimmered under the light of the waxing moon.
When Mike woke he couldn’t open his eyes to the white light that seemed to envelop him. He felt as if he were floating through the air. Slowly he came to his senses, as a white-coated figure approached him.
“Good afternoon, Lieutenant. Good to have you back.”
Mike looked down at his leg, relieved to find it was still there.
“Chopper got to you just in time Sir. You were pretty close.”
Mike’s throat burned as he tried to speak, his voice a harsh croak, “Kate?”
The doctor looked puzzled for a moment, then smiled.
“Ah yes, your bot. We couldn’t believe she made it to the base. Nearly twenty miles, and most of her systems had completely crashed. It’s a miracle she made it.”
Mike shifted in the bed and lifted his head, his body still lethargic and weak.
“She…she made it?” he asked breathlessly.
The doctor’s smile faltered a little.
“Well, she made it here with your co-ordinates, but the damage was…well, you know…” he trailed off.
Mike lay back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling.
“Can I…see her?”
The doctor fidgeted with his clipboard.
“Well, I’m afraid she’s been…dismantled at this stage Lieutenant.”
He offered a weak smile.
“Well, you get some rest Sir. You’ve earned it. You’ll be issued with a new bot when you’re up and about, don’t you worry.”
As the doctor floated away across the room, Mike slowly turned his head to stare out the window. The midday sun shone down remorselessly from a cloudless sky, the dunes in the distance obscured by the shimmering haze of the desert heat. As his heavy eyelids closed and he drifted into a deep sleep, Mike wondered to himself exactly how hot it was today.