Conn Warwicker

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They Come From The Horizon

The alarm on my watch sounds to tell me the next lot will be arriving in thirty minutes--the last of the day thankfully. I'm mostly finished out here as it is, so I start making my way back. The glare of the distant sun burns my eyes as I walk and I can feel trickles of sweat running down my underarms. I could use a shower before they get here, but there won't be enough time, I'll just have to sweat it out.


     The dirty, rust-coloured sand crunches quietly beneath my feet as I walk, leaving shallow imprints of my boots in my wake, which will be gone by the time I get back--restored to the blank slate by the roaming wind billowing out of the huge fans all around the dome, forever being recycled, re-heated and pumped back into circulation.


     The sharp, white edges of the base loom in the distance, squatting on the horizon in solitude, a vast expanse of emptiness spreading out in every direction. Boundless, godless desert as far as the eye can see, resting quietly beneath the oceans of empty sky stained a dull grey as the sun attempts valiantly to break through the ever-present layers of dust in the atmosphere. If I squint I can almost make out the shimmering glass of the dome miles above, protecting me from the death beyond.


     Behind me, occasional flashes of light tell me that some of them are following me again, the rays of sunlight bouncing off their metal plating, lighting them up like beacons. You always get a few following you, I've found it's best to simply ignore them and they'll ignore you. It's company policy that I have to carry a gun with me at all times when I set foot outside the base, just in case, but I've never had cause to use it, they're harmless really.


     The place is billed as a “Hunting Experience”, though no self-respecting hunter would be caught dead here. It's mostly just for tourists and people with money to burn on fancies and curiosities. Generally speaking, there are only a few different sorts you get down here, which just seem to repeat over and over again--well I say “down here”, I suppose that depends on your perspective, but to me it's always felt like a place you would have to travel down to, descending through the layers of decent society until you find it rusting away at the bottom.


     The first type is the mother and kids. Usually only one or two of them are hers, the rest are the child's friends. The kids jump off the shuttle excited and full of energy and I groan inwardly because these ones are always tiresome. She's always the same as well, sure the names and faces change, but very little else, the same story always remains. She's probably in her late thirties, maybe early forties, tight clothes wrapped around a figure she probably loathes, colourful designer glasses sat atop a shiny face with one too many layers of make-up, which will have started to clump up and run in the heat by the time they finally leave. A single mother screaming “I bet your dad wouldn't let you do this!”, “Aren't I a cool mum?!” with everything she says and does. Yeah, so cool that she stands around chatting and flirting with me, telling me all about how amazing her kids are and how their father is such a bastard and how difficult it's all been, while the kids play unsupervised with the guns. Well, they're not unsupervised really, I'm there watching them, but it still gets on my nerves.


     The next type–-which is the most common by far-–is the group of young men, usually teenagers, always more money than brain cells. They saunter down here from one of the stations, full of banter and bravado, joking around and insulting each other at every opportunity, laughing at each other when they miss, shouting and high-fiving when they hit, waving the guns around as if they're harmless toys. The kind that “just wants to blow shit up” as one group so eloquently put it a few months ago. They are a nightmare. Honestly I trust the kids with the guns more than these idiots. And of course it never lives up to their expectations either, there's always someone moaning about being bored or trying to demand a discount because it wasn't what they were expecting. Well tough shit. I don't know how they are advertising it up there or what these people expect, but they can take it up with the complaints department when they get back, I'm not getting involved.


     The final most common booking is what I think we have today--the married couple. I check my wrist terminal for their names, even though I know I'll have forgotten them again as soon as I've read them. James and Louise Henderson, that's all it says, but I'm pretty sure what they're going to be like. You can tell a lot from names. I can usually guess with pretty good accuracy what any given party is going to be like, just by reading their names on the bookings timetable. Not always mind you, sometimes you get a surprise, and those are often some of the most awkward ones--a group of tourists who can barely speak any English, or a single person coming on their own, either spending the whole time trying to make endless small talk with me, or just going around in silence. I've never understood why anyone would want to come all this way to do this on their own. No, scratch that--I've never understood why anyone would come all this way to do this at all, but coming on your own must be so dull. Maybe they don't feel like they need anyone else, or they prefer their own company to that of others. Usually though I get the sense that they are just lonely and trying to fill the time. I get that. I've been down here by myself for a good few years now, and whilst the isolation can be hard at times, God knows I've never felt as lonely here as I did back home, surrounded by people.


     The Hendersons are waiting for me by the shuttle when I trudge through the doors. I tell them I'll be a few minutes and to make themselves comfortable in the waiting area. They are pretty much what I was expecting. Quite a young couple, probably only married a few years at most. He, dressed in a grey jacket and matching nylon trousers, tapping his foot as he leans back against the wall. She, in a dark blue blouse and skirt, hair tied back tightly exposing a few wrinkles on her forehead, picking at her nails nervously. Even at a glance you can see the distance between them. I swear we must have our own marriage counselling division with the amount of couples that wind up down here. “Spend more time together”, “Try an activity you can both do”, “Try something new, something exciting”. They all end up here. I'm not sure what it is that appeals to so many. It's not all that fun or even interesting really, I think for a lot of them it must be the release it offers. The ability to pick up a gun and blow something's head off, with no repercussions. The rush and satisfaction of having control over life and death, of being able to just let themselves go crazy, but in a safe, controlled environment. All the thrill and none of the guilt. Control as well, I think is a major part of it a lot of the time. These people feel trapped in relationships, in their jobs, in their lives, so many pressures and expectations. Having that gun in their hands, having the ability to pull the trigger on a whim. I suppose I can see why that might be attractive to some people. Still, I'd be surprised if many of the couples were still together. It's a short-term rush, nothing more. It's not going to fix any of the problems that led them to my door in the first place.


     I throw on another layer of deodorant and a fresh shirt, take a quick piss, and then I'm ready to take them out. They both gasp and cover their eyes as we step outside onto the glass walkway. The sun has a habit of reflecting through the dome and off the walkway right into your eyes and even with strong glasses it can be painful, though personally I'm used to it by now.


     I shepherd them to the end of the walkway and up a few steps to the platform. I started the Electromagnetic Field on my way back, but I can still only see a handful of them off in the distance, so I press a few buttons on my terminal and dial up the strength a little.  


     They both pick up their rifles from the plinth in the centre of the platform. They’re lighter than they look, but still a touch on the heavy side and the woman looks like she's going to struggle a bit. I tell her to give it a go and if it's too heavy, I'll go and get her a smaller one. She smiles nervously and thanks me. In the bright sunlight reflecting through the thick layers of glass above, she looks a little older than I'd first thought. Quite a few years older than her husband and I wonder for a moment how they got even together in the first place.


     I talk them through the safety procedures--how to use the guns safety mechanism; never point the gun at another person; always put the safety on as soon as you've finished firing; what to do in case of an emergency. I must have given this speech a thousand times, I'm pretty sure I could recite it in my sleep by now.


     I am tempted to go and get the smaller gun before we start, as she looks somewhat comical holding that big rifle in her little arms. She can't be much over five foot and I know she's going to struggle, but honestly, I can't be bothered to walk all the way back inside just yet.


     He--I've forgotten his name already. What was it? James? Jake? Never mind, I don't care. He nods along as I explain all the rules, his fingers twitching in anticipation, eyes flicking toward the brief flashes of light announcing their approach. I'm starting to get the feeling this might have been his idea, not hers.


     I can see a fair few of them off in the distance now and I've finished my lecturing, so I ask them how they want to do it. I can leave the EMF as it is and they can try picking them off from a distance, which can be quite challenging if they've never done anything like this before, or I can crank it up and draw a whole horde of them in close. They decide on the latter, which is probably for the best, I'd be surprised if either of them could hit a long distance shot.


     I increase the strength of the field three-fold and we wait. It only takes a few minutes until the horizon is littered with them, ambling toward us, drawn by the invisible forces playing havoc with their insides.


     I pick a couple off myself just to show them how it’s done, and partly because, well...why the hell not? I line the shot up slowly, staring down the scope until its head is directly in my sights. The trigger is soft, easy to pull--almost inviting--and the gun barely makes a noise, just a dull clunk as the recoil pushes back on me. I watch down the sight as its head explodes in a cloud of shrapnel and sparks. It stumbles around helplessly for a second or so, before falling, twitching as parts of its body try obstinately to continue functioning.


     A few minutes later there are enough of them heading toward the platform for me to give the go ahead. He immediately fires off three shots, missing with every one. His face reddens and he tries again, clipping one slightly on the leg, though not even enough to alter its gait. His arms are shaking as he holds the rifle and he grits his teeth, muttering under his breath as he tries to line up another shot. I'll have to keep my eye on him.


     She, on the other hand looks somewhat lost and unsure what to do. I point out one of the nearest ones, just a few metres out from our vantage point and suggest she tries for that one. Her arms are shaky as well, but this is from the weight of the rifle. She pulls the trigger. I did warn them about the recoil, but she's not prepared for it and the shock sends her stumbling back a step, almost losing her footing as the gun slips from her hands. She apologises profusely, cheeks red with embarrassment. I tell her its fine, we'll have another go, though I feel a twinge of guilt that I didn't go and get her the lighter gun to begin with.


     I help her with the grip this time to avoid the same thing happening again and this time the shot vibrates through her shoulder, but doesn't move her. It takes her a good few shots before she hits anything, sending sparks and metal flying into the air.


     The effort is making her short of breath and I watch as a bead of sweat trickles down her throat and loses itself in the rise and full of her chest. I look away quickly, watching as her husband fires another shot way off target. I offer to fetch her a lighter gun, but she says it's okay, she's had enough already. I'm not surprised, she hasn't looked comfortable since the moment she stepped foot here. Her husband is still firing away behind her, face drawn tight in concentration as he finally scores a direct hit to the head, pumping his fist in celebration as his victim collapses silently to the dirt.


     As we watch, she asks me about the history of this place, how it got to become what it is today. I can tell she's not really interested, it's just small talk to pass the time, but it's part of my job so I oblige.


     Most people know about “The Recall” as the press dubbed it at the time, it was hard to miss it, plastered across every news outlet for weeks. It was the first time since mechs had become common, household items, that there had been any major problems, and the anti-robotics campaigners had an absolute field day with it, citing it as proof that no good could come of “playing God”. Every day there was some poor sap from one of the major tech companies paraded out for an interview or a question panel, trying to defend themselves against the relentless howling of the protesters. Even years later, no-one is quite sure whether it was a malfunction or a virus that caused all the problems--although I'm sure the high-ups must know and simply haven't told anyone.


     Tens of thousands of the machines all across the world went from simple appliances who cleaned and served and did all the menial tasks humanity couldn't be bothered to do any more, to dangerous machines, lashing out, attacking people, animals and property. In total there were only a handful of deaths recorded, and anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand injuries, depending on which news source you believed, but it was enough to cause panic. The campaigners had been shouting for years that the technology was dangerous, that the smarter, faster and stronger we made the robots, the more likely they would turn against us in the end. But people didn't listen--they were fun, they were exciting, they would do all your household tasks and leave you with more spare time, and they weren't even all that expensive really. So they invited them into their homes, with trepidation at first, but as the technology advanced and more and better models were released, they became a part of everyday life, wherever you turned. So when it appeared that the campaigners had been right all along, there was outcry. The tech companies issued emergency shut-down updates and recalled every last unit, until the problem could be identified and resolved, but the damage was done, the public was scared of them now and over a decade later we are barely beginning to see a trickle of mechs making their way back into society.


     The biggest of the manufacturers was the first to go, haemorrhaging money as investors pulled out and revenue ground to a halt, fighting off lawsuits left, right and centre. More followed swiftly after. The whole robotics industry went from one of the most cutting edge, richest industries in the world, to bust in a matter of months. It was astonishing the speed at which it all fell apart. There was no money left to fix the problems, or develop new machines, they couldn't even sell many of the units for parts because the equipment was all so specialised, they were good for nothing but scrap.


     Eventually they cut a joint deal with the UN who were in the process of funding a new military base and training facility out here, with the idea of eventually turning it into a research post and even potentially another human colony to rival Luna City, though that was decades down the line. No-one was quite sure what they wanted with the mechs, but they were willing to pay for them, so no-one questioned it and they were shipped out, thousands upon thousands of them.


     What they were used for in the intervening years is anyone's guess, but by the time the project hit the ropes and the military abandoned the base, many of them had been re-activated and were wandering around the planet aimlessly, their solar-powered batteries meaning they would just keep on going for hundreds of years if they didn't break down beforehand.


     That's where I come into the picture. I was head-hunted by a small bio-tech firm called AstraSol a few years ago--a start-up company formed by several employees of the now defunct giants who ruled the market previously. The role they offered me, at the time sounded very exciting. Essentially, they were in the process of designing a system which could terraform large portions of the Martian landscape and they were looking for a handful of people to send out there as a kind of landing party to conduct research and tests on the environment and the system they were designing. It also offered the opportunity to work on other smaller side projects--such as looking after the dome itself and making sure it was in good order and wasn't going to collapse on us, as well as looking at the old mechs that were abandoned up there and running tests on them to try and determine what went wrong first time around. Myself, I was always sceptical of the kind of limitless potential being bandied about when they first hit the shelves. Though the technology was incredibly fascinating--and still is--it needs limitations. Progress without limits is dangerous, the future becomes too much of an unknown. We simply have no idea how the technology could evolve over time without a firm hand guiding it, or what the simple dream of robotics could lead to.


     Nevertheless, it was a dream come true to begin with, I couldn't have asked for more, but as with everything, things never quite go to plan. Funding problems and copyright lawsuits among other things meant our budget was cut dramatically, and the other four who came out with me buggered off back to Earth to take other jobs, but I stayed, doing what little research I could. Eventually they told me they had taken on a contract with a travel agent and they were going to be offering tourists the chance to fly out here from the stations and hunt the useless old mechs that were still wandering around, to try and bring in a bit more money, so my duties were going to change somewhat--half my time was going to be to continue with the research projects and the other to act as a kind of chaperone or tour-guide. No extra money of course. Honestly, I don't know why I've stayed as long as I have. I could get another more interesting job on Earth or one of the stations, but I suppose I've grown accustomed to the isolation down here and when I really think about the possibility to going back to civilisation, it fills me with a dread I don't truly understand. Of course I don't tell her this part, no-one wants to know about my boring personal situation. I just put on my company smile and pretend I love nothing more than showing them how to blow the heads off old robots. As if this was all I'd envisaged when I'd completed my Master's degree.


     In the end, they don't stay very long. After thirty minutes or so, he seems to have got whatever it was he wanted out of it, and she's happy to call it a day as well. Seems like a waste of time and money to me, but who am I to argue? It's not my money.


     I see them off to the shuttle, then head briskly toward my room to finally take that shower. Although, I know I should clear up all the mess outside first, or I'll just have to go out again later and get myself all sweaty again. I groan and head back outside to start up the lander--they call it a lander to make it sound interesting I think, it's more of a glorified golf cart really. It does have a kind of high-powered vacuum at the front though, which is designed to clear debris, so it picks up all the loose bits of metal and wiring easily, though the largest parts--the torsos and the legs--I usually have to haul up into the back.


     As the lander bounces along, sucking up all the remains of the afternoon's fun, a twinkle of light catches my eye off in the distance. There are still quite a few mechs shuffling around, some making their way back to wherever they came from, others just milling around by the platform, but there is something odd about this one, something about the way it's moving that makes me pause. It appears to walk in one direction and then suddenly stop and crouch down for a few seconds, before moving on and repeating the process, seemingly at random, as if it's looking for something. I can almost feel the cool touch of the shower's water calling me back to the base as I sit, blistering away in the dry heat, but I can't bring myself to leave--not just yet.


     Off in the distance the mech seems to have completed whatever task it was doing and is heading off at some pace away from me. My curiosity peaked, I roll the lander over toward the spot of ground it had been searching, but all I can find are more scattered pieces of circuit boards and wire that I haven't cleaned up yet. What could it have been doing with this lot? I have on a few occasions come across some of the more advanced models out here and found them to be patched up with older looking parts that didn't belong. It's possible the later ones might have a kind of self-repair functionality built in that allows them to cannibalise spare parts from broken machines to repair themselves, though I've never been able to confirm it, and no-one at the company has ever had much to say on the matter.


     By now it's disappeared over the dip in the horizon, but I've come this far, I want to see if my suspicions are correct after all. I drive for at least twenty minutes, heading into the distant eye of the setting sun, following the shallow tracks it's left in the dirt, before I come across something unexpected. A small metal shack, sitting completely alone in the emptiness surrounding it. The metal has been long since rusted with exposure to the sun and the recycled oxygen being pumped around the dome, but I can still just about make out the faded emblem painted on the side. This was set up by the military and must have been sitting out here all this time, though quite how I've never managed to stumble across it before is a mystery. I've never seen it on any of the maps provided to me, so maybe the company doesn't even know it exists, or perhaps simply didn't care enough about a tiny old shack to mark it in any way.


     The tracks end at the door, so I hop off the lander and make my way over. I hesitate for a moment by the door, almost overcome by the sudden urge to knock, but it only lasts for the moment and I push the door open. It squeaks painfully on its rusty hinges as it swings open. There’s only one room and it's fairly small and almost totally bare, except for the mech standing over by the opposite wall, watching me silently, its orange eyes glowing dimly as they follow my every movement.


     “What...what are you doing here?” I ask, surprised and somewhat angry with myself to find my voice is a little shaky, almost as if I were afraid of this walking calculator.


     The mech doesn't say a thing, but continues to watch me, no sign of anything in its blank, metallic face.


     “What are you doing here?” I ask again, more forcefully. “What have you got there?” I notice something in its hands.


     At first I think it's holding a few scraps of metal it must have picked up from outside, but as I take a step closer I realise it's something more. It's a tiny, metal figurine, shaped almost like a person, with a head and two little arms and legs, all seemingly made from bits of scrap, held together with wires. And there are more behind it on the floor--four of them lined up like little dolls. The largest is no more than a foot tall, the smallest would fit easily in the palm of my hand.


     “Is this what you were doing?” I ask, more to myself than the mech.


     I reach out and pick up the closest one. The attention to detail is really quite amazing, each hand has 5 tiny fingers and the proportions of everything are mostly perfect. What sends a shiver down my spine though is the face. It has little dabs of paint or oil or something, to make the shape of eyes and a mouth. The damn thing has painted a smiley face on it.


     The mech lets out an agitated whining sound and tries to take the figurine back.


     “Did you make these?” I ask, handing it back and watching as the mech places it gently back down in its place, almost like a child neatly arranging their toys.


     I blow out a breath of hot air and look into the mech's flickering eyes. Although I know I'm just looking at a series of coloured LEDs, wired into a high-tech processor and a million other tiny components, all working industriously together to create the façade of consciousness...the look it gives me...I swear to God...


     I unclip the gun from my belt and level it at the mech's head. Finally it speaks.


     I'm taken aback by its voice. It's nothing like the stilted, mechanical voices of the other mechs I've heard wandering this place. It sounds almost human, with only the slightest hint of a voice synthesiser lurking anywhere in the background.


     “Please,” it says, glancing down at its little toys, as if afraid I was going to destroy them.


     I hesitate for a moment, a heartbeat, then pull the trigger, closing my eyes as bits of metal and plastic explode in a sea of shrapnel around me and it slumps to the ground, twitching and sparking as its internal systems fail.


     As I'm about to leave, I pause and pick up the little figurine the mech had been holding. It's still cradling it in its lifeless fingers, so I have to extract it carefully so as not to damage it. I turn it over in my hands, its cool metal soothing the trembling in my fingers, easing a little of the heat building up beneath my skin.


     Then I jump back in the lander and head for the base. The sun will be setting soon, and I could really use a drink. I'll shower tomorrow.

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