The fabricators were humming along steadily. F-03 was working on eight nano-chips at once, and a quick mental scan of the fabricator told me they were going to be combined in a cluster for use in the logic board for the Paladin’s anti-grav controller. It was hard to actually tell what was happening, because the chips were too small for me to see with the naked eye. But F-03 was whirling away at it in a dance of lovely machinery, so I guess it really didn’t matter if I could see the end product. The process was enough for me.
The spider bot Adelaide was inhabiting was sitting next to me on the walkway by F-03. She’d been quiet on the way back from Fort Morgan, distracted. It was the first time I’d seen her like this. I didn’t want her to be alone, so I invited her down, insisting she use the spider bot she watched movies in (I had dubbed it The Looking-Bot). Maybe it was silly, but I wanted her to be physically there with me. I looked over at her, and it was times like these that I really wished she’d let me make her a more humanoid body. She refused me every time I offered, and she wouldn’t tell me why. Maybe it was a barrier she thought she shouldn’t breach. Either way, it made it damn hard to tell what she was thinking when she was a metal spider. Or a building, for that matter. I revisited my idea of putting smiley faces on the bots, tweaking it a bit so that it was an electronic display that could present a range of expressions. I thought about it some more and realized that it was still creepy as fuck, and promptly put the idea back in long-term lockup where it belonged.
Adelaide was still mulling something over, and I was waiting for her to talk first. After lots of unsuccessful comforting attempts during my relationship with Camille, I’d learned a very important lesson: don’t be the one to talk first when the other person is upset. Just wait. Vital exception: when it was you that did the upsetting, get apologizing ASAP. I wasn’t sure if the same principle applied to friends but it was a fairly safe bet.
In the meanwhile, I decided to get introspective on my own ass. Specifically, why I didn’t feel that bad for straight up murdering almost three hundred people. Immediately afterwards I felt like a monster. It hadn’t been like the press gang. That had been horrifying, but I had been reacting, defending myself. This time I’d gone in with the intention of killing those raiders. It’s not that I felt bad about the end result; I had no regrets about stopping them. It was the killing itself I was concerned with. Afterwards, the entire time I was playing medic, I could barely stop myself from vomiting and breaking down. The sensation of Reaper breaking on my leg… I just kept feeling it every time I moved, the wet crunch and the sudden give. And thinking about it now is still nauseating, but in a detached way, like a slasher film. Maybe that’s why the rest of my rampage wasn’t affecting me as much as it should. I detached myself from it, from all the people I killed, somewhere down the line. Maybe it was Bob’s story, maybe it was seeing all the dead of Fort Morgan lined out, or maybe it happened two weeks ago with that press gang. Whatever it was, I don’t know if it was a good thing.
I was probably going to have to kill a lot more people in the future, if I was going to do anything about the slavery that had wormed its way into the remnants of humanity, so there was a definite benefit to not having a breakdown every time. But if I got used to killing, normalized it, I just don’t know what that would make me. Strong, in a way, but incredibly dangerous, considering the power I wielded. I can see why all those old superheroes chose not to kill. Once it happens, there’s little to stop it happening again. A line gets crossed and you can’t walk it back.
It was way easier to just not think about it.
Now, the battle had actually given me some good ideas about the Heavy Assault Paladin. I’d been going about it all wrong, trying to preserve its mobility to allow it to avoid damage. The Paladin was originally designed as a standalone, highly mobile all-purpose weapons platform. But the thing was, I could drop the ‘highly mobile’ part. In a normal Paladin, the vast majority of power consumption came from the anti-gravs. The Assault Paladin didn’t have to zip around the battlefield; all it had to do was be able to keep up with the normal Paladin’s straight-line top speed. So I’d ditch the powerful maneuvering anti-gravs, keep the main thrusters, and throw the considerable savings into firepower and armor. The ability to strafe and dodge would be virtually non-existent, but it would be able to take an incredible amount of punishment and dish out truly devastating amounts of damage. It seemed like the obvious solution, and in some ways it was. But it was a radical departure from the very idea of the Paladin, and the only reason I could trust the armor so much was because I’d experienced first-hand how strong it was in real combat. Meeting something head on is a lot more dangerous that trying to avoid it, after all.
I had begun mocking up preliminary schematics in my head when the repeated dull pokes to my side turned into a sharp pinch. I yelped in surprise and turned to see the spider bot digging one of its spindly metal legs into my ribs. If an emotionless frisbee-sized spider could be giving me an annoyed look this one would be.
“I was hoping to speak to you, like you promised we would whenever I wanted to,” she said scathingly over the base’s PA, “But I would hate to interrupt your important staring contest with Fabricator 03.”
I coughed uncomfortably and rubbed my side, “Sorry Adelaide, I was just caught up in my head. We can definitely talk now.”
“It’s okay,” she said, and her tone was slightly softer, “I didn’t mean to snap, but I am out of sorts right now, and I need to talk about it.”
“Where do you want to talk? Here?” I asked.
“No. The common room would be best. It is too loud and impersonal here.”
I nodded and stood up, taking a moment to stretch. Adelaide released the spider bot, and it paused for a second before rushing off to do whatever it was that needed doing. I started a fast walk up the stairs towards the common area. I was curious about what Adelaide was going to say to me. This had been the first time she’d killed someone else, or really doing anything that could fall in a moral grey area. She’d lied to me about what she was, but that was because of a promise to Amy, and even then she’d been completely torn up about it afterwards. Adelaide was so smart and capable that sometimes I forgot that she’s just five years old. Intelligence by itself isn’t a substitute for the knowledge that only comes through experience.
The common room always felt a little sad to me. We didn’t come here very often, preferring to watch our movies in the command center. It was a ghost of happier times. There was still a box of records in the corner, gathering dust. Adelaide had tidied them up so they weren’t as haphazardly scattered, and they sat next to the record player. I sank into the couch, and looked around the room. My gaze stayed on the holoprojector in front of me, and I studied it for a while, memories of the last scenes it showed me flickering through my mind.
“I’m sorry Sam,” said Adelaide suddenly, “I wasn’t thinking. We should speak in the command center.”
I shook my head, “Nah, here is fine. I’ve been back to my old room and cleaned out Amy’s. This one’s my last stop.” I smiled up at her, “And more importantly, this isn’t about me, it’s about you. So talk to me, what’s on your mind?”
“Okay,” she said, “Thank you.” There was a pause.
“I killed people today. I… Thought I was prepared for it. I was not. Not at all. Even though I didn’t see any of the people I killed, I knew that I had sent them to that black void that I fell into when I was testing the packets. The idea that I sent them there, and they can never come back, it makes me feel like a monster.”
“But you know those people had to die,” I said, making it statement, not a question.
“Yes. I know they had to. They were threatening innocent people and more importantly they were trying to hurt you. I have reviewed my actions and I can could see no way for me to effectively neutralize them without eliminating them.” She said immediately.
I would be making eye contact with her now if I could, “Then that’s not what’s bothering you, though. Not really.”
She said the next part very quietly, “There’s already one alien species on this planet killing humans. I do not want to be another.”
I sighed, “Do you think less of me for killing those people, Adelaide?”
“No Sam, of course not.”
“If I had been from another country, Australia or something, would you think less of me for killing them then?”
“I fail to see how-“ she started to say, but I cut her off.
“Would you think any less of me?”
“No Sam, I wouldn’t.”
“Okay. So, it doesn’t matter where I’m from, I did the right thing by killing the raiders, yeah?” I said.
“That is correct.” Adelaide replied.
“Okay, then why the fuck does it matter for you? You saw evil and you removed it, just like I did. You were born on Earth just like I was, it’s your home just like it is mine. More importantly, you’re a sentient being. You’re capable of empathy and compassion, I’ve seen that. You have a conscience, ethics, and you stick to them. You are nothing like the Assimilators, and I don’t ever want you to compare yourself to them again,” I cooled off my tirade, “Adelaide, I don’t care what you are. I care about who you are, and I know that you are fundamentally good.”
I held up a placating hand, “But I get where you’re coming from. I won’t expect you to kill anyone again, because I know how horrible it is, even for me. It’s not fair to ask you to do it.”
Adelaide thought for a minute, “Thank you, Sam. Surprisingly enough, that does make me feel better. I am constantly amazed at how you can turn an utter lack of tact into words of comfort. And while I appreciate that you will not ask me to kill, frankly it is a moot point. I decided it for myself today and I will continue to in the future. I will not kill without need, but if you are in danger, or a civilian is, I will never hesitate. I was merely worried about the implications of my actions.”
“Good. I’d expect nothing less of a murderous alien hellbent on conquering the world,” I said, grinning.
“Re-conquer it, you mean. Someone already beat me to it.”
We chuckled for a little at that, but hers sounded a just bit forced, like there was something else on her mind. There was more that she wanted to bring up. After a little bit, once the room went quiet again, she started speaking.
“There’s something else, Sam,” she said with trepidation, “is it okay if I keep going?”
At my nod she started to talk again, “I’m not human. I know you think of me as one, you just established that very emphatically, and to be honest I think of myself as one most of the time. Or, to be more accurate, I don’t think of myself as different. I don’t consider that I do not have a body, I don’t think about how I cannot touch, or taste, or smell. I simply am the same as you for the most part, or so I normally think.”
I waited for her to continue. I think this had building up for a while.
“But I know I’m different. I know that I’m not the same as you, and that fact is always somewhere in the back of my mind. It was never really a problem, because it was just us. You treated me like you would treat a human, even when you thought I was a program, and that made it much easier. And after I told you who I was, it became even better. It was wonderful not having to hide. However, now that we’re meeting more people, I’m afraid.” She sounded choked up and I knew she was trying to compose herself, but the words seemed to spill out faster and faster as she kept talking, “I’m afraid that I’m going to have to hide again. I’m going to have to pretend to be a dumb program, a lesser being that doesn’t have emotions or opinions. I’m afraid you are going to befriend other humans now, and then I will be left behind again. I know that I’m being dramatic, I know that you are better than that, but I’m afraid anyway. I don’t want to be alone.” She finished speaking in a rush, and went deathly silent.
There was silence for a while. I interlaced my fingers and put my chin on my hands. She didn’t say anything else and was clearly waiting for me to respond. So I did.
“Hey, Adelaide,” I said, “Have I told you about Dillon?”
“Uh. No, Sam. He was your brother, correct?” She said, thrown a bit off balance.
I nodded and gave her a small smile, “Yeah, he was. He was a clever little shit too. Not like me though, I put on a show about it, always had to be the center of attention. First-born child syndrome, mom called it, and she’d know because she was the same way. I got all my mom, he got a bit of her and a bit of dad, because dad was always quiet. Dad was always happy to hang out in the background but he was the best person to talk to I’ve ever met, one of the best men I’ve ever met,” I was getting that hot feeling in the back of my throat, so I moved on, “But yeah, anyway, Dillon got a mix of them. He was quieter but he wasn’t just in the background, he was always waiting for his chance. You’d be having a conversation with a group and out of nowhere he’d say this little thing, just a sentence or two, and you wouldn’t notice it at first but once it hit you it was the funniest damn thing anyone had said. I mean people say I’m witty but I just talk a lot and I land a few good ones every once in a while. Dillon was the clever one, not me.”
I think Adelaide was going to say something but I kept talking anyway, “I miss my family, you know. I miss Camille, mom and dad, and Dillon. I’ve come to peace with it but I’ll never stop missing them. When it all ended I lost everyone I loved within a few hours, and I only really got to hear a goodbye from one of them. Last time I talked to Dillon he was moving into a house with some of his buddies, was going to be a junior at Harvard. I looked over there with the satellites, didn’t want to but I had to, just like I looked at my mom and dad’s house in California. They’re gone, all of them.”
“You remind of Dillon a little, in the way you’re clever. You have this way of sneaking quips and snark into a conversation that’s just like him. I can get a rise out of you way easier though, trying to get under Dillon’s skin was like trying to dig through a rock with your fingernails. Oh, and you’re a damn sight nicer than him, my dad would’ve loved you for that,” I ran my hand through my hair. I had to wrap this up or I was going to break down too. “Look, I lost my family once, and I’m not going to lose it again, especially over something as stupid as a group of strangers. You’re all I got left, and I’m sure as hell not going anywhere, so if that’s what you’re worrying about, don’t.”
“Okay,” she whispered. We stayed like that for a while, listening to the low, steady hum of Camelot all around. I looked up at her.
“You know,” I said eventually, “we’ve still got to pick our movie for tonight. I haven’t made you watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy yet. We better start fixing that as soon as possible, so you should probably get the looking-bot in here. Would you mind bringing The Fellowship up on the projector?
“I wouldn’t mind at all, Sam.”