By Christopher T. Shields
Sector Seven, 21:38 hours, San Antonio, Texas – September 12, 2013 AD
“Five to One on the curve.” Came a whisper in First Sergeant Dowling’s tactical headset. That would be Harrison, Dowling’s best tracker. He tapped his gloved finger to his ear to press the speaker closer as he also held a finger to his flex mike, turning his head away from the strong breeze that was wailing through the urban ruins.
“One copies Five. On the curve. Go ahead Five.” He whispered into the mike.
“One to Five. Sitrep. I have contact. Single. Terminator. Endo. Bearing one ninety one true, range two hundred seventy-five meters from my position traversing sector 11 in search mode. It’s the T425 that we’ve been pacing but it looks to be an older model. Uh, looks like it’s carrying dual, say again, dual 3PRs.”
“Copy that. Both hands full. Patch me some feed and let me take a look.” Dowling said.
“Rodge that. Transmitting now, on the curve.”
Dowling brought his M20 phased plasma rifle up close and in tight, tapping his flexy sight on, found Harrison’s feed link listed in his local combat network assets and tapped into it. He watched as the feed from Harrison’s flexy sight was transmitted directly to Dowling’s own unit. He took remote control of Harrison’s flexy sight, zoomed in and read the intel that the passives were soaking up.
“Hold it steady. Good. Now pan it around a little.”
He watched the image change as Harrison followed his instructions on the other end. Dowling nodded once all the passives had updated.
“Five to One, on the curve. Is that good enough or do we need something shinier?” Harrison whispered over the tac mike.
“One to Five, on the curve. Stand by and let me do a little show and tell. Sit tight.”
“Five copies. Rodge that.”
Dowling looked down at Nelson, his team’s latest addition, a Tech-Com op straight out of Connor’s core group, and the reason that Dowling and his team were out here in the first place. Nelson had shown up, flashed some hard to come by top rank and pulled Dowling’s team off of R&R to head back out in the field. Nelson wanted Dowling’s team to supposedly break some of SKYNET’s toys but to not be so rough on them that Nelson and Dowling’s two scavs couldn’t get what they needed from the wreckage. Exactly what that was, Nelson had been real quiet on. Her lips were a lot tighter than her fatigues and Dowling didn’t have the rank himself or anyone on his side further up the line for that matter to pass this little chore on to some other team. That made him not happy with Nelson.
Real not happy.
“Nelson?” he asked.
“I copied direct.” She whispered back up to Dowling, not even bothering to use her tac mike at the slight distance that separated them.
Dowling carefully crawled two meters back down the rubble strewn wall of the storm drain until he was just above Nelson. He handed her his phased plasma rifle and she cradled it with care, turning it so that she could look at the image being displayed on the flexy sight. She also took remote control of Harrison’s flexy sight and changed the image enhancement as well as the magnification.
“Is that what you want?” Dowling asked, looking around cautiously, feeling somewhat naked and exposed without his phased plasma rifle in his hands.
Nelson looked at the image again, fine tuned the feed, studied it for a few seconds and finally nodded.
“The passives match the readings we took two hours ago when we first saw it so this is the one that we need. The CPU is showing as unknown but that’s because we haven’t given it a name yet in the Shared Collective Archive. Call it a mod 4 for now as that’s what we’re leaning towards naming it and yes, that’s what I’m looking for. How close are we?”
Dowling reached his gloved hand down into the side pocket of his fatigue pants and pulled out his snap map; two black polymer tension keepers with a rolled up semi-liquid optics impregnated smart cloth stretched between them. He tapped the snap map once on his leg then pulled it open where it locked rigid, becoming a 30cm by 30cm tablet. He tapped the rigid snap map again and it glowed to dull illuminated life. An overlay of the sector that they were in with the nearby neighboring sectors showed up in two dimensional relief. He tapped the snap map’s GUI once and the overlay showed nearby compatible information sources; he found the flexy-sight listed, choose direct remote feed and updated the snap map in real time based off the passives that Harrison was feeding them from his position. Nelson and Dowling watched their positions get pin pointed as well as the positions of the three other members of the team … The Endo was heading in a direction that would almost parallel their own position with the closest point of approach being … one hundred and twenty-eight meters.
“So, how do you want the noisy toy brought down?” Dowling asked, handing Nelson the snap map and taking from her his phased plasma rifle.
“Ideally you’re going to want to separate the cranial pod from the torso structure. The neck is flexible and while it’s armored it’s nowhere near as thick or as tough as the rest of the body. The neck is the weak link. Hit it there and you should be able to get a clean amputation.”
“All you want is the head, right?”
“Okay. Get ready. That Endo is moving at a good clip, I’d say it’s going to be within engagement range in about five minutes, more or less.”
“You’ll only get one shot.” Nelson said.
“Actually, I’m going to get two.” Dowling said, keying his tac mike back online.
“One to Five, on the curve.”
“Five copies one, on the curve, go ahead.”
“Listen up. I’m going to take a high shot at the Endo, try to pop its top from the side when it isn’t looking. At the same time, I want you to shoot low.”
“The chassis control nexus?” Harrison’s whisper came back.
“I’m sending you coordinates to move to and set up for your shot. I’m going to take my shot from here. When you see my shot, take your shot. If either of us misses, I reckon it won’t matter. If we both miss, haul ass and we’ll form back up at the wet culvert in sector 16.”
“Okay, at the way that thing is moving we’ve got about three minutes. Move into position and set up your shot. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“On my way.”
“Dowling …” Nelson began.
“We do this my way, Nelson.” Dowling said. “You may be from Tech Com and you may carry some rank but those are my people out there and I won’t let you get them killed for no good reason that I can see. We do this my way. You get your toy and we all get to go back to the forward area. You go your way, we’ll go back to forgetting we ever met you.”
Nelson shrugged and began getting her packs of gear together. As soon as she was done she cradled her own phased plasma rifle and hunkered down amid the small pit in the rubble that she had managed to scoop out for herself. Now, all that was left to do was wait.
“Five to One, on the curve. In position. Standing by.”
“One to Five, on the curve. That’s a rodge. Sit tight and wait for my signal then take your shot. Make it sweet and neat.”
“Rodge that. Show me your best shot and I’ll show you mine only don’t take it personal this time if I show an old man like you up in front of the lady.”
Dowling chuckled. If Nelson had copied direct, she made no indication of having done so.
“We’ll see about that. One on the curve. Out.”
The back and front walls of the old pharmacy had been blown out long ago during the prolonged conflict for this sector and now only the rubble of the buildings on each side provided any sort of framework for the old place of business. The T425 Model 211 Terminator stood in the crushed debris that composed the floor of the pharmacy, its pitted and weathered 3cm thick dull matte gray poly-steel armored torso swiveling slowly clockwise as it brought its pair of M20 phased plasma rifles to bear, tracking. The squat, ugly, wholly utilitarian, bulb-like head moved slightly faster than the torso it was attached to, scanning … scanning with its spider-like myriad of clustered optics and sensors whirring, sampling, analyzing.
First Sergeant Dowling saw all of this through the 30x microchip adjusted magnification of his flexy-sight atop his M40 phased plasma rifle. He adjusted the image for clarity and put the illuminated target pipper right on the center of the neck of the Endoskeleton. Range was a hundred and sixteen meters and holding, a little better than he had anticipated. The air was clean so bloom shouldn’t be a problem at this range.
“Taking the shot in three.” He said into his flex mike.
Dowling’s finger gently took the slack out of the trigger and the high energy weapon spat a screeching bolt of superheated plasma that turned most of the neck of the Endoskeleton into so much vaporized enduralloy. The decapitated Endoskeleton stood there for a moment, its torso swiveling in the direction of the attack and then an eye blink later a second plasma bolt lanced out from the rubble overlooking the ruins, striking the Endo in the small of the back in the center of the spine. A bright flash followed the impact of the second plasma bolt and the headless Endo took two steps forward, one step to the side and fell over in a clatter of debris and dust.
“That was a good shot. Nice cross work.” Nelson said, admiring Dowling’s marksmanship.
“It’s a lot easier when they stand still. A whole lot easier.” Dowling replied. “The trick is getting them to stand still but when they do you can run up some pretty work on one of those hard shells.”
“We’re on borrowed time.” Nelson said.
Dowling nodded, he knew that better than anyone else.
“One to Team. Endo is down. Three and Four, go! Grab the 3PRs if you can but the head turret is the primary salvage. Get that first. One and Five will stay put and provide overwatch in case anything shows up to check on that Endo going off the net. Two? Keep a lookout and let us know if anything shows up early.”
“Two to One. Copy.”
“Three. On the move.”
Dowling flicked his flexy sight to passive team tracking mode and watched the overlay of their positions. Three and Four were moving up to where the downed Endo was located. Five was almost far on the other side on high watch and Dowling was watching from his side, over a hundred meters to the left side of the dropped Endo. Two was half a klick farther out, providing over watch to their over watch.
“Three is on scene. I’ve got the turret. It’s a little scratched but nothing major. While we’ve got a few is there anything that I should look for to make sure this is what we hiked all the way out here for?”
Dowling turned to Nelson who nodded and keyed in her own flex mike.
“Three, this is Attached. Are you familiar with the diagnostic port on the underside of the Endo turret?”
“That’s a rodge.”
“Look at that for me, will you? On the older models it should be a rectangular port, covered by a small alloy dust cover.”
“I’m familiar.” Three responded. “This one doesn’t have that. It’s different.”
“Describe what you’re looking at, please.” Nelson asked.
“I’m seeing a triangular shaped dust cover with a small indention in the middle and some scarring, it looks like it’s been accessed quite a number of times.”
“Repeat, Three. Did you say a triangular shaped dust cover?”
“Confirm. Triangular shaped dust cover. Five? This whole part of the assembly looks new, there’s industrial grade micro welds and the material isn’t as weathered as the rest of the unit, it’s almost shiny. Also, this wasn’t a field mod, what ever this is. I’d say it was done in at least a Class 2 production facility by the looks of how it was fitted and attached.”
Dowling panned his plasma mounted flexy sight around and then looked down at Nelson.
“Production line grade retrofit. Is that what we’re looking for?”
Nelson held up a diagnostic patch cord from her thigh fatigues pocket. The cord looked new, the plug on the end was triangular shaped with three prongs and a slide lock connector. Dowling had never seen a diagnostic cable like that before but if he had to guess he would guess that the plug that Nelson was holding up would fit, perfectly, the diagnostic port on the cranial pod that Three was cradling in his hands right now.
“It’s a Mod 4 processor, the latest generation. You can identify them by the fact that the processor is a quad core and runs twelve percent cooler than the Mod 3 that it’s replacing. Also, from what we can tell, it runs five times faster with a larger primary bridge and a lot bigger dedicated cache. Normally we see these on the newer models but if there’s a Mod 4 processor in something older like a series 4 Endo then SKYNET must be retrofitting some of its newer stuff to its older existing stock … or else we’re seeing maybe a hybrid or a prototype, the evolution of an older platform into something newer and more dedicated.”
“Makes sense.” Dowling said, taking it all in. “If SKYNET is putting better brains in its toys, even the older stuff, then that’s bad news all around.”
“Better brains? A lot better brains. The Mod 4 makes the Mod 3 look like an antique and there’s something new as well … the Mod 4 can be set from Read Only to Full Heuristical Learning …”
Dowling thought about what Nelson had just said and he didn’t like the conclusions he was coming up with on his own.
“You mean that those things can get … smarter?”
“Theoretically, from what we’ve seen in the examples in the lab and … probably, in the field but there’s a catch … literally. The Mod 4 processor has the capacity to gather and store data, what we could call experience, and to learn from that stored date or experience. In effect, from the simulations that we’ve run the Mod 4 can adjust its programming as needed, in real time, to meet strategic or tactical situations with a level of volition that we’ve never seen before in any other unit.”
“That’s not good.” Dowling said, louder than he thought he had said it.
“No, but there’s a catch, like I said. The two Mod 4 processors that we have recovered so far were damaged so we’re going on only what we know from what we had to work with but it appears that the only way that the Mod 4 processor can be set from Read Only to Full Heuristical Learning is by flipping a pin switch on the processor itself.”
“A pin switch? So it’s not a firmware or software based operational state reset?”
“As far as we can tell, no, which is weird, huh?”
“Why would something that advanced have a switch between modes that goes back to … what, Mod 1 architecture?”
“Before that, even. All of the operational state set resets that we’ve seen in design format have either been firmware or software based but this one is hardware and its hardware only. The firmware structure just isn’t there for a soft reset of that type. The switch is hardware based and has to be physically reset, probably at the factory. You could do it in the field but the processor would have to be removed, reset, and reinstalled.”
“That’s an odd setup.” Dowling mused. “Maybe SKYNET doesn’t want its toys becoming smart on their own … so it gives each one a physical reset that can’t be activated by the Endo itself as pulling the processor forces a complete hardware shutdown.”
“Sounds reasonable. I’ll know more … we’ll … know more when we get this example back to the lab. How are your people doing out there?”
Dowling scanned the downed Endo with his flexy sight, seeing Three and Four finishing their salvage list of items on the Endo that they could remove in under five minutes; auxiliary sensors, scanners, power packs, fluid reserves, etc. Anything that a set of basic tools could get loose.
“One to Three and Four. Sitrep?”
“Four to One. We’re almost done here. Got some good stuff. Give us two more minutes and we’ll have some even better stuff. Over.”
“One copies. Do what you can but work quick. Two? Are we still comfy?”
“Two to One. Affirmative. Nothing else is taking an interest in us. Yet.”
“Three to Five. Maybe this piece of junk didn’t have any friends.”
“Fingers crossed, Five.”
“Eyes sharp, people. Let’s get what we can and get out of here. It’s a long walk back and the real estate isn’t going to get any prettier.”
Two through Five gave their affirmations and the local team net became silent again.
“I just had a real bad thought …” Dowling said.
“Tell it to me.”
“What if we run into Endo’s resetting each other’s switches? We know that if you pull the processor that the Endo goes into hardware and firmware shutdown but what if one Endo has already undergone a full operational state set reset and then it decides to reset another Endo and then that Endo, in turn resets another.”
Nelson started to laugh then stopped because it was indeed a scary thought.
“Endos doing brain surgery on each other.” She mused. “That would be something to think about but I don’t see it happening. I don’t think that the Endos would know about this switch. Call me crazy but knowing what we know, I think that this is something that we’ve stumbled upon. We’ve downloaded core simulations that indicate that the Machines don’t know everything about their designs … just what they need to in order to operate. Some of them have the capacity to be modified, to be evolved but that’s not something that they can do to their selves, it has to be done at a production facility. If this switch has to be thrown physically, and all current indications are that it does, then I doubt that it’s intended to be reset in the field, or by other Endos. If it is, then that’s a piss poor design and when did you know SKYNET to get shoddy in what it was deploying against us.”
“Never. But it could be, right?” Dowling asked, still observing the Three and Four salvage parts from the downed Endo. It was a shame that they had to give the skull to Nelson … Endo optics always made great starter pieces for flip down goggles, flexy sights and range imagers.
“Let’s hope not.” Dowling said, knowing that hope was almost too expensive to invest in. “If it does start happening like that, it will be bad for us and for SKYNET.”
“Well, for us we’ll have to deal with all the bad stuff being able to learn and adapt but in SKYNET’s case, it will mean that something has changed in its production capacity or its having a problem in its assembly lines if it has to go with a hardware only operational state set reset type setup and that might be something that we can exploit. Hopefully.”
“One to Three, on the curve. Time.” Dowling said.
“Three to One. We’re on our way back now. Will regroup at the backup point for a little show and tell. Four got some good stuff, almost brand new.”
“Rodge that. Good job, Three and Four. One to All. Fall back and regroup. Two, pick up our rear and watch sharp. We’re pulling back.”
Dowling watched as Three and Four each grabbed up one of the large phased plasma rifles and moved off in different directions, leaving the crippled, decapitated and stripped Endo where it had fallen.
Dowling and Nelson were moving back through the ruins, from cover to cover when Dowling’s high band keyed to life.
“Central to Hunter One Actual. Do you copy, over?”
Dowling slapped air to get Nelson’s attention then ducked in under the ruins of a fallen building, looking around and giving Nelson the “hold up and stay put” signal.
“Hunter One Actual to Central. I copy.”
“Hunter One Actual. Point for Three Team indicates an Aerial headed your way at high speed. Passives indicate that the Aerial is in Active Search Mode. Suggest you exercise extreme caution as other units may be in route to your position as well.”
“Hunter One Actual to Central. Copy that. We have acquired the package and are moving to recovery point now. Stand by for sitrep as we progress.”
“Central to Hunter One Actual, I copy. It looks like you may have stirred something up out there. Good luck.”
“That’s a rodge, Central. Out.”
Dowling switched from his tactical high band to local team network low band.
“One to All. Did you copy direct?”
There came four acknowledgements in staggered order.
“Keep your eyes sharp and stay low, everyone. We’ll group up again at the fall back point at 0200.”
In the distance, the downward blasting whine of high amp driven ducted turbofans echoing off the rubble began to grow in intensity. Both Nelson and Dowling looked at each other in a knowing manner. Only one machine made that kind of soul chilling acoustic signature; Aerial HK and it would have been the nearest one to them in this theater of operations. The Aerial would have been sent automatically, diverted from its assigned patrol vector, to investigate the sudden loss of signal event that would have been the Endo dropping off of the active asset list for this sector. Once the Endo’s wreckage was located the Aerial would go into an intelligent search pattern to try to find who or what had destroyed the Endo. It would be methodical, ruthless, and merciless and once it had found the wrecked Endo, chances were better than good that the Aerial would bring a lot more of SKYNET’s toys into this area for a sweep and purge.
“Well, you got what I came out here for.” Nelson said, cradling her own phased plasma rifle and keying the flexy sight on, bringing up her passive sinks and taking point for the two of them.
“Yeah. Now the real trick is getting you and that new … processor … back to Central.”
“In one piece.” Nelson agreed, moving out slowly and choosing their path carefully.
“In one piece.” Dowling muttered, remembering again why he had disliked Nelson in the first place.
All in all, it was shaping up to be one hell of a long night and it was going to be a hell of a long walk back to Central as well.