Any Landing

by Robert Mitchell Evans




It’s following us.” Eric’s voice carried fear, an infectious agent in the passenger compartment of Dex’s aircar.

It is not following us,” Dex said, not even turning from his pilot’s seat to look back at the M.I. drone.

In the back Eric twisted around, peering through the windscreen at the Machine Intelligence flying a few hundred meters behind. Alexis, with a dusky Cambodian complexion that matched her brother Dex, joined her husband and stared at the unmanned drone. Then their little boy, Nathan, sitting in the front passenger seat tried to undo his safety harness, intent on joining the gawking at the large oblate spheroid.

Not so fast, co-pilot,” Dex reached over from the pilot seat and with one hand re-secured the seven year-old’s harness.

Aboard my aircar we always wear out harness aloft. Always.”

Eric’s attention turned from the trailing object.

You’re not about to let us forget that it is your aircar, are you?”

That isn’t what I meant and you know it.”

There was both a whine and a snap to Eric’s tone. “This whole picnic was just you showing off.”

Damn it. I wanted to do something nice for my sister and her family, but no, you have to –”

Alexis cut him off, her frayed nerves and evaporating patience puncturing the tired and familiar argument, “It is following us.”

Dex wanted to put Eric in his place, but let himself to be distracted. He flipped on the dash monitor and trained it on the M.I. The spheroid, looking like some absurd football over two meters long, coincidently matched their course. Nathan leaned forward getting close to the screen.

Cool.” He turned his face up towards Dex. “What does it want Uncle Dex?”

Nothing good,” Eric said, but the boy ignored his father, waiting for Dex’s answer.

Not us,” Dex said. “Those machines aren’t interested.”

Not yet but that day will come, you mark my word.” Eric turned back and peered at the following machine. “That thing is up to no good and if you had any brains you’d get us out of here, fast.”

They don’t care about us.” Dex jerked his head back towards the Machine Intelligence . “You need to get it through your skull the first generation was different. Now they don’t waste a CPU cycle on our petty issues.”

I don’t care,” he insisted. “I’ve got my wife and boy here and you need to get us away from that thing.”

If it meant us any harm, and it doesn’t, what do you imagine we could do? We’d be goldfish fighting a trawling ship.”

You better decide which side you’re on, buddy. When things go south, no one’s going to stick their neck out of an eight-bit quisling.”

Dex started to snap but Alexis placed her hand on his shoulder, her fingers squeezing gently. He couldn’t tell if she tried to comfort him or if she silently pleaded for peace.

Look!” Nathan pointed out the passenger window towards the brown rolling mountains to the north.

Uncounted spheroids sped over and around the hills, flowing towards them like a flying liquid. Alexis and Eric leaned over staring at the unnerving sight as Dex switched his monitor for a status update.

The satellite map flashed with a large red-shaded zone – a Machine Intelligence Quarantine Zone – encompassing most of the desert region extending from east of San Diego well into Arizona. He frowned. There were no reports of new activity along the zone’s southern border. They had the bad luck to be the first on the scene. He meant it when he told Eric that the M.I.s didn’t consider humanity important but they were equally unconcerned with collateral damages.

He instructed the autopilot to change course, giving the M.I.s as much room as possible. The car banked and turned southerly, but after the war of ’37, he couldn’t risk getting too close to the Mexican border where too many twitchy fingers rested on too many triggers.

Another mass of M.I.s appeared. These did not fly close the ground, but moved speedily well above the terrain angling towards the first group for an interception, an interception taking place right on top of his car.

He didn’t hesitate, releasing the autopilot from speed limits and air-space restrictions, and they shot south. They’d just have to take their chance with the Mexican army. The passenger compartment grew quiet. Nathan’s eyes were wide, scared by his parents’ sudden silence.

The two flights of M.I.s continued converging and despite increasing their speed, Dex understood they’d still be right in the middle of it when the flights met. He took control and started dropping them from 3500 meters down to the deck, but the aircar was no fighter and a heartbeat later they were engulfed. Hundreds of oblate spheroids buzzed around them like a swarm of metal insects. He opened his mouth to say something reassuring about the M.I. being resolutely peaceful unless provoked but flashes of brilliant blue light silenced him.

Bolts lanced from machine to machine, filling the air with blue beams that left faint after-images on his retina. The air cracked with soft booms like truncated thunderclaps and turbulence rocked the car. A silent, intense violet flash filled the world and the comforting hum of the car’s gravity-defying drives stopped.

Everyone else screamed as the car plummeted. Dex blinked hard, trying to dispel the violet flash’s intense after-image. His stomach felt as though it were fighting to escape through his throat and a frightening smell of ozone permeated the air.

Finally regaining a measure of sight, he inspected the controls. Every screen was blank and unpowered. Calculations flashed through his mind. Their altitude had been about 3500 meters; falling belly-first their terminal velocity was between 50 and 60 meters per second and precious seconds had already slipped away leaving him less than a minute for a miracle.

He spent five seconds attempting to re-boot the flight systems, but nothing responded. Ignoring the screams assaulting his ears, Dex moved to the main power system. He reset the circuit breakers and re-initialized the batteries, but the car remained a dead weight dropping towards the desert.

The horizon rose and his list of options narrowed. He isolated just the lift systems and tried a manual restart, but after wasting even more precious seconds he admitted defeat and moved to their final option.

Reaching up he unsecured an overhead panel, removed a Plexiglas cover exposing a pair of sturdy steel handles. Alexis and Eric’s screams stopped as they paused for breath but Nathan’s high-pitched wail pierced the whistling wind better than a battle klaxon. Dex gripped the handles and yanked hard. The safety harness kept him in his seat and he smiled as the cables responded. The little craft quivered as the parasail’s protective cover, torn by the wind, detached.

The massive parasail began unfurling and the fluttering sound promised a good deployment. Dex searched for an acceptable landing spot but the landscape was steep hills and boulders. The handles vibrated in his hands as the sail opened.

There’s going to be a bump,” He warned just as the sail spread out and bit into the air.

The jerk slammed him hard into his harness and Nathan’s wail turned to tears of pain. The car slowed, no longer falling but drifting, and Alexis started to undo her belts.

Stay put.” Dex pulled hard on one handle, spilling air and angling their descent toward what he hoped would be flatter ground.

Not until we are down,” he added. He looked over to Nathan. “I’m going to need you, co-pilot.”

Nathan cried, but stopped screaming.

Listen,” Dex said, hoping his voice carried a confidence he did not have. “Keep an eye on those M.I.s flying about. Let me know if any start heading towards us. I’m counting on you, Nathan.”

The boy nodded and his sobs grew softer as he peered out the passenger window, searching the skies. Scores of M.I.s fell in a heavy metal hailstorm and the strange incomprehensible battle continued, but none of the machines took notice of their aircar.

What the hell is going on?” Eric demanded, as though Dex could conjure an answer.

Later,” Dex snapped.

Not later, now!”

Later!”

Eric began unfastening his harness but Dex ordered, “Don’t! Not until we’re down!”

Do what he says Daddy. He’s an astronaut.

Nathan made Dex’s profession sound better than divinity and he couldn’t suppress his little grin. His smile turned to a grimace as he pulled hard on the cable, trying to steer the unwieldy parasail.

With only mechanical leverage working the control lines, his muscles cramped and complained as he maneuvered them this way and that, but no suitable landing spot appeared. They were running out of time as the ground approached.

Nathan yelped as a flight of M.I.s swooped towards them with dozens more giving chase. They flocked together, turning hard and heading directly towards the car.

Dex pulled down on both lines, spilling air and dropping the car fast. The spheroids passed overhead as brilliant blue bolts flashed through the air and tiny thunderclaps shook the compartment.

Now with the ground close, they were moving too fast for a safe landing and Dex pulled back on the lines, catching air and soaring past the only spot he had even marginally liked.

A tall brown hill, its crown and sides crowded with boulders, loomed ahead of them and they had no lift.

Brace!”

At first the hill approached slowly but then the perspective shifted and it rushed at them. Dex spilled air trying to dodge the summit but they clipped a boulder and spun. Thrown into pilot’s side door, he gripped the handles fighting for control.

The car’s nose slammed into the hillside and airbags exploded into the compartment. They slammed into his face and arms, breaking his grip on the parasail's controls. The sharp gunpowder-like stench of the propellant filled the air. Nearly as quickly as they had appeared, the airbags deflated. For a brief moment, torn between the pull of the parasail and the downhill slope behind them, the car balanced on its nose.

A wind gust filled the fabric and pulled them hard over on one side. Frightened at the prospect of becoming tangled in the lines and trapped, Dex grabbed the release and freed the parasail. Bereft of their mass it sailed up and over the hill, vanishing from sight.

The car’s tail fell hard to the ground and for a moment nothing moved; then they slid. At first slowly, the car’s wide flat bottom provided plenty of friction, but the grade sharpened and then with a belly-dropping lurch, they accelerated.

Striking a boulder off-angle they tumbled, rolling side-over-side down the hill. Screams accompanied a chorus of tearing metal and crumpled plastics. The world spun outside the windscreen, sky, boulder, and earth swapping places in a frenzied dance.

Ricocheting off a rock spur they spun onto a new axis, bouncing nose-to-tail, flipping down the hillside. Brief seconds stretched into unendurable moments until existence compressed into a series of unending impacts.

Suddenly the rolls and flips stopped and, in the first turn of good luck since the MIs had appeared, they landed upright, skidded to the bottom of the slope, and stopped. For a moment, as everyone recovered, silence ruled the compartment, while outside the impacts of falling machines sounded with heavy thuds.

Quickly, the aerial battle moved on as the drones vanished beyond hills to the east. Dex leaned down and peered up through a windscreen obscured with a spider web cracks.  The scene appeared peaceful with clear blue sky and an occasional cirrus cloud. Sounds of Alexis and Eric undoing their harness came from the back seat and beside him Nathan softly cried.

It looks clear.”

He reached overhead and began unfastening the roof’s emergency exit.

Like you know anything.”

Eric finished freeing himself and then turned to help Alexis with her jammed harness release. Dex ignored the snide snap and released the hatch. He pushed but it remained firmly closed.

Bending down to Nathan he said, “I’m going to need to stand on your seat, co-pilot.”

I – I—” Tears stained his face as he tried to speak and a sharp ammonia odor wafted up from the boy. Dex tried to give a Nathan his best ‘everything’s just okay’ smile.

Same thing happened to me on my first carrier landing.”

He winked at the boy and then placed one foot on each of the forward seats. Bending over hunched, he pressed his back against the hatch and pushed, his thighs trembling and straining with effort. Eric, now finished freeing his wife, stood as best he could in the cramped compartment and pressed upward with the heels of both hands.

With a sudden sharp crack, the hatch opened and flipped out of the way. Dex stood upright, his torso, shoulders, and head protruding beyond the car’s ruined roof.

A hot sun beat down on him, the glare from the shattered windscreen made looking down difficult and above there was only barely marred skies. Using both hands he levered himself up and out of the car.

You’re next, co-pilot.”

He reached down to help Nathan but Alexis waved him off.

I have a change of clothes,” she said and Dex nodded to her, moving aside as Eric climbed out. Dex offered a hand but his brother-in-law spurned the help and with only some difficulty clambered out and onto the car’s hood.

Looks like you have an excuse to buy next year’s model.”

He stood on the hood, the metal and plastic buckling under his weight and with one hand shielding his eyes from the sun, scanned the terrain.

We’re in trouble here,” Dex said, keeping his voice soft and for Eric’s ears only. “This is –”

Your fault. I told you that thing was up to no good. I told you we needed to get away from it, but no, you know best, don’t you.”

Eric, if they had meant us harm we’d be dead. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Eric turned and leaned toward Dex, balanced himself with one hand on the ruined windscreen. He spoke in a lowered voice.

And why was that? Was it because you just had to show off again? You just had to drag Alex, Nathan, and me out to the desert in your flying car, rubbing my nose –”

We’ve got no time for this crap.”

Dex stepped from the roof to the hood.

Don’t play the boss now. I went along with this picnic to keep Alex happy and because you’ve got my boy brain-washed, but this is stopping now.”

I don’t have the time to make you understand. You’ll –”

Alexis’ voice sliced through the acrimony.

Stop it!”

Dex and Eric turned, Alexis stood half way out of the escape hatch, her dark skin flush with anger, her deep brown eyes narrowed and intense.

I have had it with the two of you.” She turned her fury to Dex. “You don’t have the time? You’ve always got the time.”

She levered herself out of the car, but didn’t climb down to join the men.

We’re not military,” she continued. “We haven’t been trained for crap like this. We’ve never been in a crash, and we’ve never been sent to SERE school, so mister you are going to make the time to explain things to us and you’re going to treat all of us right.”

Anger rose in Dex as Eric’s chest swelled and his insufferable pride grew with it.

And you!” She turned to her husband. “I know that it’s really tough having a famous astronaut for a brother-in-law, and yes Nathan adores his uncle, but you are going to get your crap together. We’re going to survive this picnic and we’re going to do it as a family.”

With both men chastised and silent, her anger became somewhat abated. She then bent down into the car and helped Nathan up and onto the roof.

Sporting a change of trousers he wore an expression of deep shame.

Come on, co-pilot,” Dex called out, offering the boy a hand as he climbed down to the hood. “We’ve got some work to do.”

Alexis followed her son and soon everyone stood on the hard hot earth next to the grounded aircar.

What do we do now?” Alexis shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked around the brown and baked landscape.

We’re not that far from El Cajon,” Eric said. “We could hoof it to the old highway and follow that in.”

Dex shook his head. “That’s about 40 klicks. We’ll take that march when we’ve run out of options.”

Alexis dropped her hand from her face and turned to Dex.

And our options are?”

Right now? Shelter in place and make sure we have our essentials.”

He moved to the car’s trunk, waving for Nathan to follow. The trunk lid refused to pop open. Dex took out his phone but the device was as inoperative as his car. He went to the passenger compartment, returned with a pen and paper then handed them to Nathan.

Once I get this open, you’ll help me with the inventory.”

Nathan silently nodded his understanding, his mood still somber and shamed. Eric and Alexis joined them at the back-end of the car as Dex, working with just his finger, tried to pry the trunk open.

You’ll never get it open that way.”

Eric squatted down and inspected the mechanic lock, then snorted almost immediately.

It may be a rich man’s toy but the parts are cheap crap.”

He rummaged around in his pocket until he produced a stylus, then after a short search along the ground he selected a fist-sized rock. He stepped over to the trunk, forcing Dex aside. Placing the stylus onto the lock, he struck it several time with the stone until the lock vanished into the trunk. With the mechanism removed and grunting a little from the strain, he pulled the lid up and open.

So much for SARS, eh?”

Warned by a bitter look from Alexis, Dex swallowed his snide retort and retrieved the car’s survival pack.

Every car you ever own,” he said solemnly to Nathan, “needs to be equipped properly.”

Nathan nodded. Dex closed the lid, which tried to reopen, but after slamming it closed with some force the trunk finally stayed shut.

Get what’s left of the picnic,” he said to Alexis, as he started inventorying the supplies.

Dex could have recited the contents of the pack from memory, the exact liters of water, calories of food, medical supplies, but he coaxed Nathan into marking down the inventory with ink and paper as none of their electronics worked, thus distracting the boy from his terror and embarrassment. When they completed the task, the boy’s mood had nearly returned to normal.

I don’t like it.”

Eric looked east where the M.I. drones looked like dust motes in the sky, but dust motes never fired energy weapons.

Neither do I,” Dex agreed, staring at the on-going battle.

Nothing about this made any sense. The M.I.s attacking each other would be about as sensible as someone taking a knife in their right hand and stabbing their left.

Eric turned away from the combat and looked west.

I still think we should hoof it to El Cajon.” He glanced back to the drones. “And get as far away from them as we can.”

Dex shook his head. “Not a good idea.”

Alexis looked to the collection of supplies spread out on the trunk and the surrounding ground then said, “Is it really that bad of an idea? We don’t have much and they scare me.”

Unless circumstances favor you, stay at the site, that’s the first rule of a forced landing.”

'Forced landing’” Eric snorted. “You crashed, no sense in trying to make it pretty.”

Fine, crash site, does that make you feel better, does that make you the big man?”

Dex swept his hand indicating the vast panorama of hill, gullies, and boulders surrounding them. “Do you understand just how hard it can be to find a person out here? Even with IR cameras, all it takes is sheltering against the wrong boulder at the wrong time and your rescuers fly right on past.”

He slapped his hand against the crashed car.

This they will find and if we’re here they’ll find us, out there there’s a thousand ways to get injured, to break bones, and then what will you do? Leave Alexis behind? Nathan?”

He didn’t bother to list himself, certain his brother-in-law would answer with a blunt and impolitic ‘yes.’ How had they ever come to this?

You have eyes!” Eric insisted as he pointed towards the battling machines. “Once they get finished with whatever it is they are doing, we’re next. “

Even if you were right, what the hell do you think a few kilometers will do? On foot, out in the open? For just one minute stop being an idiot!”

Eric tensed and Dex suspected a fist was coming. He readied himself for a block but for several seconds nothing happened.

You don’t always have to be such an ass,” Alexis snapped, pulling her husband away. Nathan, sniffling and tears returning, hesitated but then Eric reached out and pulled the boy along as the family retreated to the far side of the vehicle.

Working his anger, frustration, and fear, Dex tore into their supplies, erecting a crude shelter from the bright reflective fabrics. When he finished it formed a basic canopy, providing shade from the intense southwest sun and a bright surface, reflective to both light and radar, that would help in getting them spotted.

Provided anyone came looking.

Dex didn’t share with the others his fear that this was not some random excursion and that the Machine Intelligences had expanded their zone of operations. If that were the case there would be no rescue sent. After a series of disastrous encounters, all the governments of the world gave the M.I.s unencumbered operations.

He turned and peered towards the east. The drones had flown on and if they continued battling they were doing it on the far side of the low mountains. If the M.I.s stayed clear of the area they had some chance otherwise they’d be forced to implement Eric’s suggestion and Dex doubted Nathan could walk 40 kilometers.

Taking in a heavy breath he stepped around the crashed vehicle and approached the others. Alexis leaned against the car, Nathan cradled under one arm, as Eric threw stones at crashed drones in the distance.

I’ve got the shelter up. Best get under it. A sunburn will just dehydrate you faster.”

Nathan popped up and enthusiastically offered a hand to help his mother to her feet. Seemingly recovered from the trauma of the crash, he hurried around well ahead of her. She paused as she passed Dex.

Things used to be easier between you two.”

A sharp crack echoed off the hill as one of Eric’s stones missed and shattered against a boulder.

Not my fault,” Dex said. “He’s acting –“

This isn’t about blame.” Though she kept her voice soft and low, her edge still cut sharp as she interrupted him. “I’m tired of it on the best of days and today I’m not putting up with it.”

What do you want? I’m doing the best I can.”

Her lips curled into a sardonic smile, her dark skin smooth and unbroken. For a moment she reminded him of mom.

Really? This is your best?” Her incredulity stung. “They’re over paying you.”

She stepped past him and joined Nathan under the awning.

Dex moved next to Eric who squatted down for another stone. He said nothing as he stood, selected a spot up the hill, and hurled the rock. It landed amid a small cloud of dust and dirt.

I’ve got the shelter up.”

That’s just great.”

He selected another rock and hurled it hard, the stone bounced off the husk of a drone and the impact sounded like neither metal or plastic.

Really, it’s best to get out of the sun.”

Wasn’t that the point for the whole day? Sun and fun?”

Another rock, which glanced off a boulder and vanished from sight amid the field of stones.

It's a shame you already got credit for stealing their gravity tech.” Eric looked out over the graveyard of the fallen machines. “Must be a hundred units out there.”

He shook his head.

But they already made you rich so what do you care?”

Dex squashed his irritation and tried to keep his voice level. “Come on, Alexis needs you.”

You know there used to be time when you didn’t go out of your way to show me up.”

Eric spun on his toes and stalked back towards the car as Dex sighed and then hurried to catch up.

In the shade of the shelter the afternoon passed slowly. The adults took turns engaging with Nathan, keeping him occupied as the long hours dragged towards evening. Dex tried several attempts at getting any of their personal electronics working but the violet flash had rendered everything inoperable. Along with the beam weapons, this was something new and despite assuring the others, it worried him.

Humanity’s paranoid Frankensteinian fears had yet to materialize as the planet’s second sentient species left mankind to their own devices. In the decades never had they shown any inclination to warfare. If surveillance satellites had captured today’s battle, Dex had no doubt that the world’s capitals were now in a panic.

The sky darkened, the blues moving to purple, and neither the drones nor any conventional aircraft arrived. A gentle wind rose carrying the warm scent of the hot dusty terrain as the land cooled. To the east the sky over the mountains darkened to black and the night’s first stars appeared.

Looks like we’re not getting rescued,” Eric said.

It’s been only a few hours.” Dex kept an eye on the east, where faint points of light darted just above the crenellated peaks.

Alexis prepared bedding and settled Nathan in for the night. Dex stood and walked several paces from the shelter, she and Eric followed.

We have enough water for three days,” he said as they stood in the deepening gloom. “More if I drain the coolant from the car.”

The whites of Alexis’s eyes looked bright in the fading lights. “Is it safe?”

Mostly,” he confessed. “It’s not recommended but it will do in an emergency.”

Maybe one will come up.”

Dex couldn’t tell if Eric had tried to lighten the mood or simply snapped out another pointless sarcastic comment.

The stars appeared along with faintly colored lights of M.I. orbital facilities. Dex checked his watch but no manned stations were due to rise anytime soon. These days machines dominated the sky.

I don’t know if I can sleep,” Alexis confessed, hugging herself tight. Eric stepped close to her and pulled her into an embrace, his long arm wrapping completely over her shoulders.

You’d be surprised.” Dex yawned, his adrenaline long since vanished and the stress of the day taking its toll. “The body needs what the body needs.”

But we shouldn’t all sleep,” Eric said as he moved himself and his wife back to the shelter.

Dex followed and opened his mouth to answer, but Eric continued.

I know, ‘There’s nothing we can do. We’re flatworms at the opera and we just have to grin and take it from our machine masters.’”

I never said that.” He started to correct Eric about that masters comment – you can’t master what is beneath your consideration – but decided to skip the argument.

You’re right. We need to stand some sort of watch. We can’t react properly if we don’t know what’s going on.”

The trio sat under the silvered awning, fluttering slightly from a slight breeze. The lion’s share of the picnic blankets they had used to make bedding for Nathan, leaving only enough to shield themselves from the dirt while providing zero comfort.

I still don’t think I’ll get a moment.”

Alexis laid down on the hard ground, her long brown hair spilling over the thin blanket, and within moments joined her son in slumber.

You go ahead,” Eric said, gesturing for Dex to lie down. “You’ve been going full throttle. I’ll wake you in a few hours.”

He wanted to argue, but fatigue had started his muscles quivering and Dex surrendered. Laying a few feet from Alexis and Nathan, he too was soon asleep.

A stray sound awakened him. Leaning up on one elbow, his back protesting the hard stony ground and even in late summer the desert air carried a chill that raised goose-pimples across his forearms.

The night was quiet. Beside him Alexis and Nathan slept, their breathing deep and regular. Everything seemed right but Dex’s instincts screamed. He sat fully upright and searched their surroundings.

The husks of destroyed drones littered the hillside, just as they had during the afternoon. The stars shone bright, their twinkling pronounced in the clear night air. Nothing moved; they were alone.

Eric!

Moving quickly but stealthily Dex climbed to his feet and moved out from under the shelter. Alexis and Nathan slept as he started searching. He circled around to the far side of the ruined car and scanned the terrain, but Eric wasn’t to be seen.

Dex stood there, his arms akimbo, half tempted to go back to sleep and let Eric suffer his fools’ folly, but the temptation crumbled under even just the hint of guilt. Sighing heavily he began climbing the hill hoping the low summit would provide him with vantage he needed.

Thankful for the nearly full moon, he selected he steps carefully; aware that one bad twist injury would make things far worse. Halfway up a soft sound of metal clattering to dirt drifted from the far slope. He stopped and listened closely.

The wind carried Eric’s muttering and soon another piece of metal impacted the ground. Setting his shoulders, Dex turned and followed the slope around the far side of the hill.

Eric, ghostly white in the moon’s light, stood near a crashed drone. He reached into the ruins of the M.I. drone and pulled out incomprehensible parts. Bringing the parts close to his face he inspected them, then with disgust, threw them down.

Dex stomped across the inclined, uneven ground.

You need to concentrate on survival, not salvage!”

Eric returned Dex angry shouts with a hard piercing glare. He hurled a piece of junk, not close enough to imperil and not far enough to be innocent either.

I don’t have to worry about survival,” Eric’s voice reclaimed its earlier whine. “You’re in charge of that.”

Out here? Right now? I’m in charge of everything. I’m not going to let you –“

You don’t ‘let me’ anything.”

Eric turned and closed the last few feet separating them until they stood, their faces nearly touching.

I get that you’re the big man now. You’re the space hero, the Prometheus that stole gravity from the machine gods. Hero to little boys all over the world, but I got news for you, Dexter, I’m not going to be your joke. I got eyes, I can see that this,” he swept his hand across the landscape, indicating the field of fallen drones, “is something new. No one’s seen M.I. weapons, and those are going to be worth a fortune.”

He smiled, his lips thin and pressed hard together, making an unpleasant expression.

Maybe even more than yours.”

Movement in his peripheral vision pulled Dex’s attention. Crab-like drones moved silently up the hills. Already several surrounded the two men. Following Dex’s attention, Eric too fell silent.

The machines moved up the slope in silence. They retrieved destroyed drones, placing them into large baskets that floated a meter above the ground behind them. Before either man could speak, several broke away from the procession, angling towards them and the crash.

Eric moved quick, interposing himself between the machine and the crashed car. Dex remained motionless, certain that nothing the mere humans possessed interested the artificial intelligences.

The approaching M.I.s, four of them, fanned out into a semi-circle, a formation that reminded him of an infantry patrol. Eric shouted at them, as though they were coyotes and easily frightened.

Dex stepped sideways, moving slowly, cautiously, to join Eric in opposing that which could not be opposed. As he reached his brother-in-law’s side, the machines darted forward.

They had six legs and two manipulative limbs but as they closed the front of two of the machines produced a new limb, a long, slender, and flexible coil that snaked out from it. It whipped about like a tentacle and at the end it splayed out in a webbed hand looking much like a distorted palm-leaf.

Even as it attacked, and as Eric’s drone struck him in the forehead, Dex couldn’t fathom the events. He tried to seize the tentacle but it whipped faster than he could follow and with a single strike it struck his forehead. The webbed digits wrapped around his skull and a tingle, like the shock from a small battery, exploded throughout his head. The world shattered, colors separated into sounds, smells cascaded into erotic sensations, the chill air thrummed loud in his ears and he fell to the ground.

He shattered, not his body, that crude rough object, but his self shattered.

***

A billion billion shards glittered with awareness and perception. I tumbled through a void alone and crowded with self. You flipped from moment to moment, memory to memory, past coexisting with present, promising infinite futures. Their shards collided, merged, reflected and refracted, becoming more and less than whole, more and less than Dex, more and less than Eric.

No screams, no terror, no panic, our fragments possessed nothing but intellect and memory, leaving behind all of evolution’s useful but limiting traps of fight, flight, and hormonal impulse. We experienced moments of its life, reliving with clarity and details that were devoid of numbing fear. Sequence ceased to matter, days, seconds, years, hours, jumbled together cascading into meaningful chaos.

College; meeting Alexis, her brown hair shimmering in sunlight, her laugh sharp and contagious, her fraternal twin Dex a warm supportive friend. Meeting Eric, his brash enthusiasms a welcome balm to the twins for their first time away from home.

Our memories bounced off each other, merging and dividing like cells, as their minds repeatedly shattered. Together, apart, they relived and lived random moments of their lives until I knew nothing and everything of us.

You mentally grasp for some firm hold, but like fog nothing comes away in your fingers, if you had fingers. The bright sunny days when they had played as a trio, the warm days as she and Eric grew close and hopes swelled at gaining a brother. The bursting pride, fear, and humility of the wedding, a culmination of friendship. The simple gold ring glittered in a sunbeam piercing the chapel’s stained glass. Giving the band to Eric and knowing the future held nothing but promise.

Months, seconds, years, days, tumbled past them riotously and imprinted every moment on his brain. The heady early days when together it seemed they conquered every world, the joyous days as he watched them become parents, their nearly crushing and inspiring responsibility of a new life, and of course the nervous dread-filled hours while Dex dealt directly with the Machine Intelligences. Helplessly watching from across news services and internet-fueled rumors about the astronauts and the almost certainly doomed mission.

Living the moments in Eric’s skin infused Dex with a nameless potent empathy. When he returned and the fame and fortune followed the slow disintegration of their triad it would have produced tears had he possessed a body.

You live alone, we never know each other, and I only see my world from my eyes but now they experienced life as a new intelligence, one that formed entities as required, spinning them off and absorbing with no more emotional care than anyone gives a shopping list.

He watched himself strut and preen with money, showering gifts in a storm of generosity that deluged Eric with inadequacy. He lived those moments simultaneously as Eric and as himself. He knew his intent and he knew his impact and the gulf that divided the two.

Again the world shattered. Shards of reality flew apart and collided back together like a star in its death throes. Awareness shrank, consciousness collapsed, and diminished into nearly nothing until only himself, Dex, remained, a tiny spark of awareness alone and isolated in an uncaring reality.

He stood in a flat grey room where the light seemed to come from behind him, throwing shadow-less illumination. Nearby Eric stood, his expression a mixture of bewilderment and pain.

Where are we?” Eric asked. Despite his appearance his voice sounded clear and strong.

Dex turned around, surveying the strange space.

I think we’re laying facedown in the dirt.”

This isn’t real?”

We’re in their environment.”

Not entirely accurate/true/valid Pilot-Astronaut Dexter Samnang Keo. I/We/They created/quarantined/invoked this illusion/deception/hospitality in order to facilitate/expedite/clarify communications.”

The voice came softly from every direction, barely louder than a well spoken whisper and yet clear and intelligible except for, when over particular words, it shattered into competing choruses.

Can you try just one voice?” Eric pleaded, turning about as he did so.

You can face any direction you want,” Dex said. “We’re in their heads and they are in ours.”

Eric stopped and stared at him.

And what about when I was in yours?”

I think…” words came with great difficulty and Dex found he couldn’t untangle his reactions and memories from Eric’s. The similarities and differences both shocked and kindled a sensation of brotherhood.

We’ll have to sort it out later.”

The Machine Intelligence’s voice spoke up.

It is ironic/fortunate/unexpected/helpful than you and your relations participated in the exercise/test/practice/maneuver before the launch/departure/flight/exploration/contact.”

What are you talking about?” Eric’s shouted. Dex wanted to wave him silent but the damage was done. Years earlier, aboard an M.I. space station, Dex had asked for an explanation so now he braced for the onslaught.

A flood of information washed through his thoughts, torrents of images, data, phrases, graphs and formulas. Directly connected to the Intelligences, his self again shattered and he sensed Eric crumbling under the assault.

They mingled, their thoughts their selves, both together and into the vast cloud of sentience that defined the global Machine Intelligence. After a timeless interval of mere moments and endless infinities, they coalesced.

***

Dex opened his eyes, the smell of dirt punching into his nose, a light breeze blowing across his face, the stars hard and cold distantly overhead. With both hands he pushed himself upright, tiny pebbles dropping from his skin, and surveyed the hillside.

Drones moved about, salvaging their fallen and not far distant Eric lay on his back, his eyes unfocused on the sky overhead.

Scrambling on his hands and knees Dex hurried to his side. He took Eric’s face in his hands and locked eyes with him.

Focus!”

His own voice sounded distant and faint, an unreal echo from a forgotten dream. Chaotic visions, voices, and data, collided through his mind and he tried to shove them aside and not drown in the seemingly endless information.

Come on!” he slapped Eric’s unresponsive face. “You leave me in a lurch with Alexis and I’ll never forgive you!”

Another slap and still no response. He leaned in close until their noses nearly touched, his dusky skinned contrasting sharply with Eric’s much fairer complexion. Holding Eric’s face firm, he stared into his brother-in-law’s eyes, only realizing at that moment that they were now closer than any legal fiction.

Listen to my voice,” he said loud and firm. “Focus on that, just ignore everything else and listen to my voice. Ignore the images, the sensations, the thoughts that aren’t yours, and listen to me, to just one thing.”

Eric blinked and his attention fixed on Dex’s face. Dex nearly fell on top of him from relief and just managed to push himself aside into a sitting up posture.

God.” Eric sounded weak, his voice disconnected from emotion.

Take it slow. No one comes through that easily.”

Eric didn’t argue but remained flat on his back in the cool night air.

Are they going interstellar?” he said, his voice nearly carried away by the soft breeze.

Dex nodded in the dark and then laughed at himself.

Yeah.” He waved his hand at the ‘battlefield.’ “This was an exercise, in case they found the natives hostile.”

His shiver had nothing to do with the wind.

They are learning war. I hope to god they don’t need to make it.”

It’s all there,” Eric said. “But it’s such a jumble I don’t know if I’ll ever understand what they dumped into our minds.”

You won’t. Most of it will fade, like a dream you can’t remember.”

He looked up to the stars.

Our children are going to the stars.”

Eric sat up, his posture unsteady at first but quickly he gained strength and stood. Dex matched him and clasped a hand on his shoulder.

You were right,” he said. “They were following us and anyone else unlucky enough to stumble into the practice field. We stood in for a native species, local, dumb, and unpredictable, but the drill is over now.”

He turned and started for the shelter.

With the M.I.s going back to the Red Zone, I don’t doubt we’ll be rescued in the morning.”

He paused, trying to find the right tone for his confession. “I’ll be more considerate about my impact from now on.”

Eric trotted up beside him. “We both will.”