Conrad was the first to go, split in two mid-sentence, the halves of his body peeling neatly apart. The weapon must have thrown itself through him at incredible speed, stretched out like razor wire: quick, but far from clean.
It should have been obvious then that it was only warming up, toying with us even. The machine could have killed us all that instant but instead it chose to give this little demonstration - it wanted us to run, to try and evade it, to fight for our lives. More than anything, it wanted to hunt. This was good, theoretically, it meant that it was doing its job and now all we had to do was ours: stay down, stay ahead of it, and try to stay alive.
I throw myself to the ground, rolling for cover and then back to my feet, running low, trying to present as small a target as possible. Two more of my men fall in front of me, one seems to have been shot through the eye, the back of his head exploding like an orange halo as he falls. That was Josh Sasenick; he was 23 and shouldn't really have been here but the son of a bitch volunteered. Only the young ever volunteer for black-ops missions. All around me the woods are filled with gun fire and the screams of the dying.
To be fair, none of them knew what they were signing up for at the time; they didn't learn about the machine until they were already here. Not that that really changes anything of course – it's not like any of us has time to debate the ethics of the situation but I suppose I should share some of the responsibility for my comrades' deaths; I am technically their commanding officer.
Our adversary, the weapon, is what’s called a multi-agent system; a hybrid intelligence of several scruffy-logic comparts each composed of an ultra-strong semi-rigid nano-film designed to take virtually any shape the machine decides. Its brain, spread equally amongst the symbiotic units is modeled to be as robust as possible and, of course, to adapt and evolve over time. Each one of us it kills, it grows a little smarter. We told them all this in the briefing and explained that, having been set free, the weapon was no longer under our control. It is loose on the island, we are the only soldiers here and the only way to stop it is to take it down.
Naturally this isn't true; there's always a kill switch. The only question is: in whose hand?
“My night vision’s gone” calls Jax, her words cracking over the radio – shielded they said, so that the weapon cannot hear, but I have doubts about that, amongst other things.
“Great” I sigh, trying to get a visual bearing. If I can work out where she is, I might be able to keep her alive. It has been just over an hour and we are the only two left – two soldiers out of twenty five veteran paratroopers and ex-marines. I scan the horizon desperately, my night vision on high.
“I can hear it” she screams, and then her M17 takes up the call spitting white-hot bullets into the pitch dark night. But it's no use; they won't even scratch its surface. I watch it all playing out across my visor - she doesn't stand a chance. The weapon is functioning perfectly; it has been designed to kill her and that's exactly what it's going to do. Far above us cameras whirr, zooming in, realigning, making sure they capture the exact moment and method by which the weapon executes its deadly art. And behind them the buyers bid, securing stock for their armies; NATO and partners only of course, at least for now.
I listen to Jax screaming as I watch closest camera feed, my finger tracing the curve of the small black kill switch sitting in my hand. “You're nearly there” I lie. “Keep running Lieutenant!”
The weapon is over her now, hanging silently, observing its kill; deciding how best to take her apart, what kind of mess to make of her body. Suddenly it snaps into a giant net-like structure, its serrated wire edges vibrating with a barely audible whine. She turns too late, clutching desperately at something small and dark in her hands. The cameras zoom, pulling focus; it’s all over in an instant.
I stand up clapping, my eyes switching between the enhanced feed of the weapon and my physical night vision display. “Good show” I shout, stepping over what’s left of one of my colleagues, a leg by the look of things but I pay it little regard. My antics have attracted the machine’s attention and I can see it, its body contracted to about the size of a football, rising slowly into the sky just over the nearest hill.
“Come to papa you bastard” I whisper, holding up the kill switch. Just a little closer and then: CLICK! – I’ll drop this beast with the simple push of a button. It won’t be justice for my comrades of course, won’t atone for what I’ve done, but if they were still here I’m sure they’d want their old CO to come out of this. Treacherous asshole or not, they’d have to respect my guile. Like old Sun Tzu, I didn’t go to war until I knew I’d already won. Command chose me for this mission because they knew I was smart enough to survive, because they knew I wouldn’t use the kill switch until the job was done. All warfare is based on deception, and I have just won.
The weapon has cleared the tree line and is accelerating toward me across the plain. Smiling, I depress the kill switch and wait for it to go down. It doesn’t. I press it again: nothing. I press it again and again but the machine just keeps on growing in size, closing the distance between us with a steady gradual dive. Frantically, I grab the remote with both hands and hold the button down as hard as I physically can. “Mayday! Mayday! Control – come in!” I spit into the radio, but meet only the familiar crackle of static on the line.
I look up at the approaching machine and down at the dark button clutched in my hand, and then it hits me. Calling up the last kill footage I zoom in on Jax’s fingers and see an identical rectangular kill switch nestled in her palm. I look down to the eviscerated limb I just stepped over and sure enough, right there sticking out of a pocket on the torn fatigues, another kill switch just as useless as the one in my hand.
“FUCK!” I scream, letting the button drop to the ground.
My vision cuts to a close up of a face I almost don’t recognize as my own, the look of horror distinct despite the bulky helmet and visor. I tear them off and see with my own eyes the weapon hanging above me, and then slowly, but not without grace, it begins to fall as somewhere a faceless buyer press a kill switch intended for me.
Short Bio: "Liam Aidan writes fiction of varying lengths on both the interweb and out in the real, ink-and-paper world. His first collection of flash fiction, Vestigial Tales was published in 2014 and contains 106 micro short stories each just 140 characters in length.
Born in Kent in the south-east of England, Liam lived for many years in the great city of Edinburgh, Scotland, and can now be found lurking somewhere in the American Midwest. When not writing stories, he is probably eating cake; when not eating cake he is probably wishing he were."