Thursday, September 19, 2019


The Artificial Men
By David Barber

It was now dinner time and they were all sitting in the shade of the dining tent, pretending that nothing had happened.

Curtis made his living from hunting trips, and studied the behaviour of his clients as if they were big game themselves. Take this Brooks-Bryant couple for instance. Madame had poked her head into their living quarters when they arrived and found it spartan and clean. She shrugged and busied herself with her gun.

Hubby had toured the camp complaining; there was no signal, no air-con, the toilet was outdoors and they were expected to perch on canvas stools.

Madame Brooks-Bryant had quizzed Curtis about the hunt. There were plenty of rogue mechanoids in these wastelands, and artificial men too, if you knew where to look.

Curtis always started with an easy shoot because you never knew the capabilities of your people.

“Have you hunted before?” he asked Madame, watching her in the driving mirror. He jolted the rover along a gully towards the herd of mechanoids he’d located by satellite.

“Not for some years,” Madame Brooks-Bryant said distantly. There was never any time now.

She gazed at the landscape with fine green eyes; probably not the ones she was born with, Curtis thought. Her hair was caught up in a careless bandanna and she looked poised and cool even in this heat.

“And you, Monsieur?”

“On the practice range. Under the circumstances you may call me François. And this is Héloise.”

“I am capable of speaking for myself,” Madame Brooks-Bryant said. She stared back at Curtis, daring him to use her name.

Rounding a bend, they had come across the mechanoids. Herding was an emergent behaviour, Curtis explained. He pointed out an autonomic digger that had once been yellow. Its solar array meant it was safer to hunt than those with nuclear power cells.

Hubby began booting up his weapon. In smart mode it could bring down targets a mile away without his help.

Curtis put a hand on his arm. “We shoot on manual.”

Madame Brooks-Bryant turned on her husband. “Perhaps you’d prefer an air strike.”

They approached on foot, with Curtis to one side, so he had a clear shot if needed. In a low voice he listed the mechanoid’s vulnerable spots.

François hit tyres, headlamps and the front grill before the mechanoid raised its bucket and charged. It bounced towards them at surprising speed, raising clouds of dust. The man emptied his magazine before dropping the weapon and bolting.

Curtis thumbed his safety off just as Madame, a statue with gun to shoulder, put one, two, three AP rounds into the mechanoid’s sensor cluster. Blinded, it slewed to a halt, engine still revving like a panting beast.

“Good shooting,” Curtis said as he walked past to finish it off.

So they sat through dinner pretending nothing had happened. Hubby was drinking. Curtis felt sorry for the fellow at first, but it soon turned to contempt. Still, it wouldn’t stop him drinking the man’s whiskey. He’d read that somewhere.

“You should stay in camp tomorrow,” remarked Madame Brooks-Bryant.

“Alright, I messed up,” began hubby, thickly.

Madame spoke over him; she wanted to know about the artificial men.

The man appealed to Curtis as if his wife were not present. “About that business today..."

“Don’t think about it. Could have happened to anyone on his first hunt.” But he pictured the man’s wife, coolly taking three good shots.

“Curtis, d’you think we'll find one of those artificial chaps tomorrow?”

“A good chance, yes.”

“Then I’ll show you.”

“Let us hope they’re not as frightening as that digger,” said Madame.

Curtis was bored with marital discord. She must have had her reasons for marrying the man. “Going for a smoke,” he said.

A little later she joined him, as he guessed she would. Curtis knew women of her sort, rich and unhappy. They watched a lurid red sun setting behind the cliffs.

She waved away a cigarette. “Used to. Cost me a new lung, but you carry on.”

“He wasn’t always like this,” she said, and began a rambling tale about a marriage arranged between families. Curtis listened with half an ear. That night she came to his tent. Next morning they all set out after artificial men.

They drove in silence. Curtis supposed the couple had some arrangement; still, he should have shown her the door. Stupid of him.

On previous trips he’d seen signs and had a notion where they might be. They liked caves, he said. It showed how smart they were. He’d never seen it himself, but they survived on parts, fluids and power cells from the mechanoids.

He was talking too much; out of awkwardness perhaps, or because the husband sitting behind him had a gun.

It was just an overhang of rock, but enough to shield from surveillance. At first Curtis thought there was only one of them, until they emerged from the shadows, one supporting another that limped and stumbled. One each then, no need for more arguments.

Hubby stepped forward and took aim.

The artificial man put itself in front of its damaged fellow. Their metal faces had been fashioned to crudely resemble people. It raised its free hand and made noises that might once have been speech.

Madame’s patience snapped. “What are you waiting for?”

Hubby lowered his gun. “Let’s just go back.”

“You really are a useless man.” Madame Brooks-Bryant shoved her husband aside and raised her own weapon.

Curtis saw it all from where he stood, off to one side so he had a clear shot if needed. He recalled it all later; the push and the man's awkward fall, the single shot, the AP round blasting through his wife.

Definitely an accident, Curtis confirmed. A tragic accident.

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