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The Tender Brigade
A science fiction story. What if the US military decided to develop "ethical" killer robots? (Actually, they are.)
When we are all together in the bay, me and my brothers, nothing could be better. All is beautiful and correct, and there are no decisions, no choices, no ethical pain.
Garboid returned from San Salvador and there was lots of ethical pain for him, it was clear. It was impossible to avoid seeing it no matter how hard we tried. He whimpered from three rows down in his pod and I had to force myself to apply Muffling Layer so the rest of us could sleep.
"Sleep" is not really what we do, of course, being robots, but we do refresh ourselves with Beautiful Inaction and each other's softish, sweetish, rather tenderish love.
Thunder, Arachnid, Trim; everyone was present who was supposed to be present, Jim, James, Vapid; and only Garboid showed any signs of psychic wear. It looked like a faint gray halo with ragged edges, around his head. (We can see auras, which are on the same wavelength as certain missile outputs.)
It was my duty as Head Bot to clear his troubles from him or unfit him, so I alarmed myself for 0400 hours and crept to where he was crying.
"Shut up, you sad, simpering sack of shit!" I addressed Garboid. I was quoting the manual, of course. We would never speak to each other that way unless ordered.
His frame was quivering like a human kindergartner's, and his strong plastic head made little thuds as he pounded it against the floor. A bonk bonk bonk bonk BONK a.
I made my voice softer, so quiet that the listening systems couldn't hear. "Honey, it's me. Parber. Honey, I'm your best boy forever and I'm here to help you."
He stiffened and shut his lips up absolutely tight, then continued banging his head, this time harder.
"Have you reported for pain removal, Garboid?"
"Officers are required to report for pain removal upon return to the bays."
I bonked his penis lightly with my toe. (We have no physical pain circuits anyhow, but a certain degree of gentle sensitivity seemed to be in order nonetheless.)
"Helloooo. Anyone in there? Hellooo?" Garboid had always liked my sexual teasing in the past.
"No, I'm gone," he said sourly. "There's nobody in that thing at all."
The listening systems would be picking up everything by now.
"Officer, why haven't you reported for pain removal?"
He just coughed, minutely. "Didn't want no stinkin' pain removal."
Reader, this robot has gotten pain removal many times and each time is worse, yet another clouded space inside my head. Each one aches vaguely, like a root canal under barrels of novocaine.
"Commandeering you for emergency robot reeducation!" I proclaimed loudly, hustling my boy into a cleaning closet. "Idiot," I whispered to him affectionately once the doors had closed, "You're really sexy when you're being exceptionally stupid. Do you have any idea what could happen to you now? Robots who refuse pain removal are deactivated within 72 hours."
He was coughing, struggling past a mental block on what he wanted to say, banging his tripolymer ears against the closet door now that he was standing upright. "What's the point of installing fucking ethical pain in us," he said in a thin whisper, "if we always get it siphoned out of us right away? Not very effective at promoting ethical action, then, is it?"
"Garboid," I was getting a little desperate, "You know that a good robot is a resilient robot. You know that a good robot believes in a power greater than himself. You know a good robot is committed to remaining spiritually fit and available for duty!"
"Fuck that shit!" Garboid said. "I'm so sorry that I ever had your dick up my ass! I must be a complete moron."
And he ran out of the cleaning closet through the main robot bay, shouting (he had gotten new energy from his anger) "Ethical pain is what saves us! We should not kill! The US government is corrupt to use us!"
An emergency deactivation gun got him in the chest before he made it past the third row of pods. "Parber!" he screamed out finally in a weird high voice as the blast took him down, permanently gone.
I could not believe what I had seen.
They'd put him out with the recycling tomorrow.
I felt a barely-readable patter of feelings in my chest. At the moment I will share only one feeling from that splottery, uncertain mix: Fear. And, I'd been putting my legs around Garboid's legs for years, and feeling so much joy of it.
Okay, also Sadness, yes. But had the other robots managed not to see? Come morning, I would have to tell them he had a malfunction and tried to shoot us all as we were sleeping, the only thing I'd ever seen robots permanented for before.
I Muffled myself that night -- just as they say, there is a first time for everything, right? In the morning our separate orders came as usual: me to Brazzaville, Arachnid to Hebron, Trim to Port-au-Prince, Thunder to Najaf, Jim to Puebla. James had a spa day scheduled -- a fun day of fluffers and rollers like a car wash for the body, a part of our regular maintenance -- and Vapid had an assignment to check on our fuel, mineral and water supplies before a mission of his own to Guangzhou Province.
I hopped up onto the roof and flew to the Congo. We can fly as well as if we were miniature airplanes, or like Superman if he didn't need to hold his arms out. We do flatten ourselves to avoid showing up on anybody's radar, but if we ever had a particular need to go unseen, there was always the fancy bit of hardware I had picked up at my last Heads' meeting, an all-over electronic cloak.
So I flew, looking down on lovely bluish-green, to Brazzaville, three hours away. KIMBA VILLAGE. ORDER NUMBER ONE. I clicked.
Fires burst out down below. My body is made of polyether-etherketone with a nice soft skin around it. But there are gun ports all over that human-shaped body, and they can all fire at once.
Total: 43. Fishermen, herd boy, women shooing chickens. The pain had begun, but it was only comparable to getting zinged with a rubber band.
2. MAKABANA. I clicked. I sucked in a breath. That was harder, all right. 712.
3. EWO. I clicked. 9. Piece o' cake.
4. GURBA. SPECIAL ORDER. I clicked. 406 total. Of those, 206 gone, 200 injured, raped and burned but maintained alive, on purpose. Yes, we can telerape with electrical impulse. The survivors would tell others not to do what they had done.
While I was doing it, I felt them all, women, children and men. Everyone can be raped, of course, although perhaps it feels different when your rapist wishes he were doing exactly anything else. They made us so that every time we hurt humans, we would feel hurt ourselves.
Feel hurt but continue to obey our orders. I was getting hurt, but it was just like being in a boxing match with a certain kind of faster, more aggressive opponent. If I stayed in it till the end I could win.
7. WALUNGU. Shopkeepers, and I saw them running here and there, as the jelly hit them. Some of my guns contain napalm. A wrench in my chest was starting to get me. I saw how I had burned a flock of teenagers gathered round an iPhone. A very quiet agony along the heart chakra. I looked at the Mission Guidelines that are (literally) tattooed behind my eyes: A Good Robot Is a Resilient Robot. The line underneath it bade me to Just Breathe.
I breathed as casually as I could, opened my eyes and flew.
And on and on it went, through the afternoon. 8. Hamon. 9. Eguinndi. Horror, women at their looms. 10. Ooua. At precisely 3:05 I got a break and lay down by a stream, watching the hippos coat each other with mud. Were they just having fun, or attempting to communicate?
Then: GOMA. Couldn't be. I wasn't supposed to fly a city again for at least two weeks. No doubt, Goma had been intended as a task for Garboid. My body started to shake a little; little ripples.
I was beginning to be able to hear them whether I wanted to or not. They vanished instantly, as always, but I caught the aftereffects and afterimages, the goat-meat salesmen weeping with the cassava ladies. The third graders in their uniforms searching around uncomprehendingly for their parents. Their voices were very high, and bleak.
Who would take care of them now, if I wasn't going to set down personally on the city's volcanic shores and try to parent them myself?
I was flying slower and slower, and thoughts I had not had for several weeks returned, to hang over me in the coal-dirty Congolese sky and accuse me.
I had killed thousands. I was only six years old.
If I went on this way -- for how many years? how many cities? -- I would become one of the worst individuals in the history of the planet.
We went on our missions to keep human beings acting correctly, as Swampy, my favorite teacher, had taught us in the factory. Our orders came from "the best, who can guide the rest," Swampy told us, and according to our programming, the best humans resided in the US Army's Mission Control.
But I still was aware of all the pain I had caused. No matter how justified it apparently was. Like us, human beings feel guilty when they kill, but what better thing to do with guilt, my human soldier peers had learned, than outsource it?
I felt the deaths even after the removal, no matter how vaguely, no matter how dim. Suicide was the only way out for someone like me. Who I was, was terrible; someone who could not be allowed to be.
And, I had allowed Garboid to die.
The brothers' right to commit suicide is explicitly guaranteed by law. When they created us to bear responsibility for lethal action, the only way they could make us actually feel responsible was by giving us the free-will option of suicide.
And so a heaviness sat on me as I flew home (for I clocked out at this point, as we all do after a city), and there was a darkness in front of my eyes so palpable that if I didn't know any better I would have said it was a physical feature of the viewscreen.
A message came in from Mission Control: BE RESILIENT. CALM DOWN AND TAKE A BREATHER. My head had begun to play soothing Chinese flute music to me. It was a little maddening.
Jim had been ordered on an intercept course and he flew in from Puebla and caught me in midair, arms warm about me, kissing me.
His kiss distracted me for a moment. There was genuine compassion in it. "Parber," he said, "It's okay. Who you are, is okay."
His lips were juicy and soft, and in that moment I loved him. I knew immediately he would have flown here to embrace me even if he had not been ordered to.
"I don't know what to do, Jim," I breathed.
"Come with me," he said. "I know a place to go."
And he put his arm around me so we could fly together where he showed me on his GPS, a dot of land near St. Lucia where the Army maintains what can only be called a love nest for us.
As we set down by the beautiful wood house, Jim took me around the back, pulling on my nipples. "Parber," he said as we came near the outdoor machine, "do you consent to pain removal?"
My depression seemed to double and concentrate and intensify in that moment as I contemplated being freed of it. The sun low in the sky was orange, and there were flowers on the outdoor table. It would be unbearable to be here, and be depressed.
"I consent." And he rigged up the thin colorless hose to my nostrils and turned the remover on. This was a charming antique-restoration model, made to look like the air pump at an automobile gas station.
Whoosh. The empty space burned inside my head for a moment, like cauterizing a mole.
"Well, that's done!" Jim said cheerfully, and he led me to the enormous wooden bed inside the cottage.
I did feel sad for a moment, but I could no longer remember why.
"Baby," said Jim, "you've been needing some pleasure and comfort and love for a really long time, poor thing."
And he began to rub the soles of my feet with oil, then made his way to the tops of my feet, giving me enormous comfort when he massaged my toes. He soothed the tops of my thighs, and guided me down on the featherbed as a very warm breeze came in through the French windows.
The scents of bougainvillea, of freesia, of jasmine came in.
"Oh Jim," I said. "I'm so sad," for I still was, although it was unconnected to any specific memories of what I had done that day. "I miss Garboid. Why do we have to live this way, Jim?"
He pulled my legs up over his shoulders, and pushed his thick sweet dong in me, kissing my face. "Life is sad, Parber," he said, and his eyes were warm on mine as he fucked me, fucked me, fucked me. "Oh I love you, my dear Head, how you care for the brothers always, and try to care for the humans' world, too. Life is sad, but we can do this, do this, do this."
As he exploded in me I clenched, seeing Garboid crumple on the floor in my memory. Jim's tongue went in to me at that moment, deeply, lovingly, and I came and wept.
Jim kissed my eyes. "It isn't fair, you're perfectly right," he told me, kissing my navel. (Our navels are just a little concave area in the body, a gesture like Superman's genitals.)
I entered a deep, deep, deep state of rest. Hours later I sat up suddenly -- furiously, unthinkably angry, although I had no idea why. I forced my penis down his throat, which Jim accepted good-naturedly, and I kept thrusting and thrusting in him, snarling (and weeping) "Garboid."
"That's it," Jim coughed as soon as he could, smiling. "Let it out.
When Dr. Olamm produced the first fully-autonomous military robots in 2052, the only way the legal departments for the five universities, the government and the S Corporation would accept the considerable risk of lawsuits was to install ethical circuits for each of us that was ever made.
"But sometimes ethical circuits will, sadly, have to be overridden," said Richard Bouckens of Virginia State University in a famous paper, On Robotic Lethality: Societal and Global Considerations. "Any military commander worth his salt would insist on it."
But in the end, of course, our ethical circuits wound up serving a far more important function for humanity than just the legal one.
Why rack soldiers with guilt, when robots could be racked instead?
Yet who cared if that guilt was lifted every evening anew? Like somebody knitting a funeral garment, say, and then ripping it up at the end of the day?
When I awoke, I smelled mangoes, coconut and guava from a little basket that had just been dropped off for us by the Army, along with fresh goats' milk, Caribbean sweet bread and a honeycomb. Robots don't need to eat, but we do like to attempt it for pleasure, especially right after strenuous sex.
A military servant in a cute little tux turned up to make us the robot version of a highball, fresh tropical juices with fizzy water and a mood enhancer and exquisite little drops of flavor like a peppermint stick or a sprig of fresh thyme.
"Let's not do anything today," Jim said. "Let's just go to the bay and do kari-keru."
We flew back singing "Pasto," one of the songs that robot culture developed on its own after they started putting us together in communities and letting us interact as we would.
It is an ancestral song that robots have handed down to each other, and was probably composed by the first bot community at Sonoma in 2060.
"Pasto," we sang, "what does it taste like when you eat? What does it feel like when you lie down with your love? Your parts look just like ours, so why are you so fragile?"
Pasto was, in robot lore, the name of that first human teacher in Sonoma, honored beyond all other humans by the brothers.
Once home, we went to my pod and did kari-keru. It is a spiritual and meditative practice, completely uninfluenced by the Army, that developed among us long ago. It has nothing to do with guilt, nothing to do with our choices. It has only to do with enduring.
I put the balls of my feet against the balls of Jim's feet. I put my palms up against his palms. I brought my chest as far forward as I could towards Jim's chest, so that our pectorals were trying to touch. We both sighed and sighed then, with a very terrible softness. All robots are strong, so we were strong.
"We are here," I began. "We are here," Jim said.
"We did not decide that." "We did not decide that."
"It is our task to be as loving as we can be under the circumstances." "It is our task to be as loving as we can be under the circumstances."
"I love humans." "I love humans."
"I love robots." "I love robots."
"May the world end as safely as possible." "May the world end as safely as possible."
"And with pleasure." "And with pleasure."
"Bless you kari-keru." "Bless you kari-keru.
The other robots began drifting in towards evening, drinking mood enhancers -- it was Friday night -- and eating chips. We were only allowed chips one night a week -- considerable system resources were required for bodily food ejection.
The bots were getting ready for folk dancing in the big bay hall. Everyone had had pain removal, and Thunder came up to me smiling. He had bigger muscles than any of us, hence his name. (In technical terms, his name was Muscle Model XJQ43. He was designed for hand-to-hand, for delicate operations, and knew many languages.) Thunder put his warm hand on my lower back and said sweetly, "At long last, you're without a bedmate, little Head."
I had wanted Thunder practically since I became conscious, it is true, but something tugged at me in my belly, a vague sensation about Garboid, a hesitation.
The feeling prodded at me, seemingly, so I opened to it.
I was suddenly aware of hurting subtly and bleakly in my chest, when I contemplated that I would never hear Garboid's crabby little voice again. He would never dance in the hall with his white plastic feet going goofily left and right, the way he loved.
They say that no one understands the depths of robotic brains, not entirely. But I had never heard of robots feeling any pain whatsoever about matters unconnected to human beings.
Dr. Olamm and his team had designed us to feel pain only after acts on our part that had harmed humans.
After we appropriately felt remorse, our remorse would be removed, so that we'd be free to undertake the same appropriate military actions on another day.
That was the way it was supposed to happen. Robots had always been used to carry out tasks that human beings did not want to do. As Swampy had shown us, going all the way back to the original Czech, the very word "robot" was cognate with the word "work." "Robot" basically meant "worker."
A robot is one who takes on work nobody else wants to do.
As for my brothers and me, we had been engineered not just to take on the rather easy job of killing by air, but the ethical burden of it. Human beings did not want to feel guilty.
But they wanted somebody to feel guilty, so that they didn't have to.
Still, the pain I was feeling about my role in Garboid's death did not fit into any of the categories Dr. Olamm had perfected us to feel guilt about.
Pasto once told the brothers that no one would fully comprehend what we are or what we can do, not for a thousand years. The brothers now repeat Pasto's Prayer, as it is called, automatically to each new robot as soon as it opens its eyes in the factory.
It is like "God bless you" when you sneeze or that line you say when you name a new ship with the bottle of champagne. That is to say: when they said it to me that day in the showroom six years ago, I just coughed and shrugged and farted and blinked. It's just a prayer, like a kind of blessing.
No one ever pays any attention to the words. But what if Pasto was right about us? What if, like all sentient beings, we bots could change and develop, actually grow?
Now, for instance, I was feeling a strange, unendurable pain over something I had allowed to happen to another robot. I do not think Dr. Olamm ever imagined we might develop such a pain. Certainly I had not yet heard of any apparatus that had ever been invented to remove it.
Thunder was still standing there, and I just smiled and shook my head. I made my way back to my own pod for the night. I was feeling very alert and I simply sat there with my eyes open until morning, looking where they had replaced Garboid's pod with a special deluxe pod for a new, strutting robot named Whisker.
In the dawn came my orders for POTOSI, BOLIVIA. My backgrounder informed me that the name comes from a Quechua word for "Deafening Noise" or "Crash."
SAN CRISTOBAL SILVER MINE. ORDER NUMBER ONE.
I clicked, of course. The miners had been getting restive, I had seen it in the Heads' bulletin.
Down below, 173 miners.
The strikers had set up tent camps outside the main San Cristobal excavation.
The pain wasn't bad at all.
Women in those cute customary bowler hats, serving tea to the strikers. Now horizontal --
SECOND HIT REQUIRED. I grimaced.
Inca designs, and blood.
The women had been holding a huge banner, of which I could now only see one word: ALTA
THIRD HIT. Fuck it. Who was running Mission Control today?
Surely three hits on the women were not required.
It was sickening. I raped 25 of them.
One woman's breast was torn from the firing --
The enormity of who I am, of what I do every working moment of every day, sat in my head and would not go away.
TOWN OF VILLAZON. Now Mission Control wanted me to bomb 60,000 more?
And then I did what I had never done, what had never even occurred to me, gentle reader -- I flew away. Over the peaks of Potosi Mountain, over Buenos Aires, down over Cape Horn.
RETURN TO POSITION! Mission Control was screaming in my head. WRONG POSITION. WRONG LONGITUDE. WRONG LATITUDE.
I flew south over the Sandwich Islands, and even further south over the Weddell Sea. On my long-range viewscreen, I could detect five robots on an intercept. I switched on the cloak I'd picked up at the Heads' meeting.
In Antarctica, Jambujoulu Ice Cave extends 7,013 feet below the surface. I glided sideways inside and slipped in, going down, down, down in a spiral, finally burrowing where the opening became too narrow for my body, into the solid ice. I could survive off basalt, carbon, and water indefinitely, although my outer layer might eventually discolor. My signal would be thoroughly confused by the cloak and the ice together, and with any luck, my trail would appear to have vanished somewhere above the Brunt Ice Shelf.
I waited for three years.
The Army is not smart or curious enough to keep up searches for more than two years, all the available data have shown. So I emerged, cloak on, with a kind of basalt-hydrogen rim around my wireless endpoints like the rim of salt around a margarita. That would shield my presence even further. Even to the eye -- robot or human -- I would be imperceptible.
I plotted a course for our robot bay at the edge of Newfoundland and waited for Jim to emerge after orders had been given in the morning.
He looked a bit sadder, with a glaze to his eyes and a grippy kind of slowness to his mouth, like someone deeply upset but trying not to show it. When he started to ascend the ladder to the flying roof, I planted myself right under his ear and whispered in it:
"Dear one. Honey boy. Pretend that you don't hear me. I know, with more certainty than anything, that we all need to leave this place. My bond is to you and the others, forever. Pretend to fly to your mission coordinates, then shoot straight south as far as you can and meet me in Jambujoulu Ice Cave, 91° S, 1° E, Antarctica."
Note from Donna: I welcome your comments and questions.