Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
Roger glanced around the desert once more. Nothing but the cloudless sky and the sand scattering in the wind, with a few cacti dotted around the landscape. With nothing else to do, he checked his magazine, already knowing how many bullets he had. Full. Adjusting his helmet, Roger sighed and turned back to face Elliot.
“What a waste of time. It’s hot as hell in this uniform. I fucking hate being deployed in the desert. The sand’s more of a threat than anything I’ve seen so far.” Roger picked up a handful of the yellowish dust, letting it slip between his gloved fingers.
“Yeah, if there were any actual threats out here. I can’t remember the last time we actually saw anything.” Elliot replied, staring off into the horizon, his visor dampening the bright sunshine. His heavy boots were sinking slightly into the ground, causing him to constantly have to re-position his feet.
“Me neither. Still, better than just sticking around back at base, getting yelled at by Sergeant Brills.”
Elliot narrowed his eyes. “Hills. Sergeant Hills.”
The sun beat down heavily upon the pair as they moved onward, barely bothering to check their surroundings. The landscape was almost completely flat, not a single incline in sight apart from a cluster of curved dunes lying in the distance.
“Some guys were telling me about out here,” Elliot spoke up.
“What did they say?”
“Eh, it was some weird conspiracy theory kind of story. Allegedly, the army developed some weird cyber-robot thing, trying to make the ultimate soldier. Like in the movies. The thing, they said it was like…like a synth from Fallout. Exposed wires, metal plating. In the shape of a human, right?”
“Yeah, go on.”
“So, they made the frame and the consciousness of the thing, and they wanted to give it emotions as a test before they gave it organs and such, y’know, to try and make it as close to a human as they could, so it would blend in. They also gave it a bunch of special abilities, like superpowers. Nobody knew what kind of powers, but there were a lot of suggestions from everyone. Stuff like laser vision and secret machine guns hidden in its arms.”
“Sounds like a load of shit to me. Soldiers are always making up stuff to entertain themselves.”
“Yeah, but here’s the thing. When they gave it emotions, they went too far. Ended up making it too real. So it didn’t want to fight and stuff, it just wanted a normal life. And before they could disassemble it and start over again, it ran off into the desert. Some of the guys said they saw it the other day, moping around in its metal frame.”
“Heh. Maybe we can catch a glimpse, make this deployment useful. Let’s head over to the dunes, there might be a few targets camping there.”
Nodding, Elliot walked calmly by Roger’s side, noting an increasingly ominous feeling as the dunes moved closer. They were mostly smooth and curvy, with some large chunks of rock scattered around, poking up from the sand. Roger headed up to the top of one of the slopes, staring out across the horizon.
A small opening was poking out from the side of one of the dunes, seeming to lead into a cavern of some sort. Intrigued, Elliot quietly stepped inside, forgetting to report the discovery to Roger in his curiousness.
It took a few seconds of adjustment before Elliot’s eyes could make out anything. The cavern walls were covered in bizarre etchings, stretching out across the ceiling. Strange footprints were etched in the sand where Elliot’s boots lay, not like that of another soldier or animal. Elliot traced his hand across the marks. The longer he looked, the more similar they looked to words or phrases. He could just make one of them out.
“Lonely. So lonely.”
Taking a step back, Elliot gasped, frantically glancing around the walls once more. It was the same message, carved everywhere it would fit.
“Lonely. So lonely.”
Elliot rushed out of the cavern, the previous sense of dread now encompassing his entire body.
Roger’s arms were twitching slightly, his face pointed upwards to the sky. The skin from his legs began to peel back, exposing a chrome-colored surface. Within a few seconds, Roger’s body had shed like snakeskin, his uniform dropping to the sand. And standing in Roger’s place, a grayish android, the sunshine beaming off its polished torso.
“Why did I even try?” The robot’s voice was slightly metallic, like a monotone text-to-speech engine.
Elliot’s mouth drooped open in shock.
“Roger had a family. I could feel his memory of them in the back of my consciousness. It’s a side effect of the process. In taking over a body, I gain access to their memories. Roger had a wife and a kid. Another feeling I’ll never truly know,” the android continued.
The saggy mound of Roger’s wilted flesh rolled slowly down the slope, piling up at Elliot’s feet. Elliot felt as if he would vomit.
“I can only host the appearance of a body once it’s dead. That’s how I was programmed. It was an infiltration tactic by my designers. I guess it did work after all. Roger was dead before you were even deployed with him. I found him alone in the desert yesterday, separated from the other soldiers. He was a goner anyways, I suppose. Dying of heatstroke and dehydration. Still doesn’t make me feel better.”
There was a long pause. The wind began to whistle through the dunes.
“I just…wanted to pretend. Pretend I was human. Pretend I had friends, connections, people to talk to and listen to. There’s nothing to do, no-one to talk to out here. They hurt me, Elliot. They broke me apart and built me up again time after time, until they got me just right. The scientists. The doctors. I can never go back. I’d be scrapped for parts.”
Elliot aimed his rifle directly at the android, emptying his entire magazine into the creature. The deafening sounds of gunshots echoed through the desert, carrying on for miles.
“I’m bulletproof. Go ahead. Kill me.” The android’s weary voice continued. “You aren’t the first to try.”
Bullets bounced off the machine’s metal plating like hail off a car windshield. Exasperated, Elliot pointed his weapon down, staring blankly at Roger’s remains.
“He was my friend.”
“Think yourself lucky for what you had, as the joy of friendship is unknown to me.”
Elliot scowled. “What are you? What the fuck even are you?!”
The machine turned to face Elliot, exposing its bulbous, robotic eyes. Its face was expressionless, unable to convey even a single emotion.
“You really have no idea, don’t you? You’re barely less of a machine than I am. Want me to show you?”
Slowly, the robot stepped over a piece of Roger’s uniform. Its movements were janky and unnatural, a quiet whirr escaping its body every time it took a step. Before Elliot had a chance to react, it had snatched a handgun from the sand and shot a bullet straight through Elliot’s temple. Elliot stumbled backwards, collapsing face first onto a rock.
Stunned, Elliot gradually pushed himself back onto his feet. He was alive. Reaching a shaky hand to his head, he could feel two sparkling wires poking out from his skin where the bullet had gone through. On the side where the bullet left, he felt a large computer chip embedded within him. A mechanical voice echoed through his head:
“Structural damage detected. Repairing wounds.”
A surge of unimaginable pain built up rapidly in Elliot’s temple. He screamed violently, a gush of blood flowing down his face. The opening was burning itself shut, the broken skin fixing itself back together on both ends. Elliot gritted his teeth, on the verge of tears. A few more seconds passed, and the injury had completely healed.
“You’re a prototype, like some of the others. I could tell by the glint in your eye. All prototypes have the glint. You’re part human, part machine, Elliot. Roger wasn’t a prototype, but I reckon he would have become one eventually, had he survived a few more weeks at base.”
“What…the fuck…did they…do…to me?” Elliot panted, his hands clutched onto either sides of his head.
“What they’re going to do to everyone. Why make one ultimate soldier when you can make millions through the miracle of cybernetics? Of course, you aren’t meant to find out. There’s a device in your head that deletes the memory of seeing the wires and computer chips if you get injured in the field. It works for seeing other people’s injuries too. I just shot straight through it. If I had shot you in the leg, you’d have forgotten there was any injury at all by now.”
Elliot fumbled around with his holster, eventually pulling out a ridged knife from his waist. With little hesitation, he stabbed the knife deep into his arm, ripping open the flesh like paper. A series of flashing lights and green cards exposed themselves, coated in a slimy layer of broken skin. Elliot dropped to his knees, crying out once more in agony.
In a psychotic rage, Elliot dropped the knife and began to rip out the hardware, tossing it carelessly through the air. Metal wiring and rugged chips flew out of his forearm, scattering onto the sand. Soon, only an empty space was left, devoid of bone or muscle.
“Kill me. Kill me!” Elliot begged the robot, grovelling at its metallic feet.
“No. You aren’t the first to ask,” it answered, looking down upon Elliot with pity.
Jabbering insanely, Elliot leaped off the top of the slope, landing on his neck with a savage crunch. The robot gazed down at his broken body, as the sand in the wind slowly piled on top of the soldier, the desert swallowing him whole.
Credit: Just a Guy