BY DAVID WELLINGTON
For a while it looked like the robots were going to win our wars for us.
I believed it. After what I saw in Syria, back in 2012, sure. I was embedded with a Stryker group tasked with locking down the Blue Zone there. We were rolling in a lead vehicle that was six kilometers outside Damascus when its brakes locked up. The driver looked as surprised as I was. A canned voice from the dashboard told us the vehicle had been halted automatically because an IED had been detected. I've been doing this long enough that those three little letters made my flesh crawl. Up ahead in the road an old man with a long white beard and a skullcap was driving a flock of overheated sheep across the dusty road, urging them on, out of the way of the hundred tons of olive-drab depleted-uranium armor bearing down on them. He had been carrying a plastic carrier bag, and he'd dropped it in the middle of the road, as if he was too distracted by the sheep to worry about his lunch.
They still get you like that, sometimes. If you're not paying attention.
'Don't worry, Ms Flores. We're all good.' The driver gave me the grin that soldiers always give to journalists, that practised, cockeyed smile they think is going to get them five seconds on the evening news.
'What do you do now?' I asked the driver. 'Call in a sweeper team?' I sighed, having been through this routine before. It could be an hour before the IED was disabled and the road cleared for travel again, and I had a deadline to meet.
'Naw,' he said, lacing his fingers behind his head. He was a kid, like all the soldiers I met that summer, barely out of high school. He had bad acne on his cheeks, and his first tattoo, on the back of his hand, was still bright enough to look like a cartoon. 'The Silverhawk'll get it.'
The Silverhawk Unmanned Aerial-Weapon Platform was a sort of mini- zeppelin with solar-panel wings and an MTHEL slung under its gondola. It was designed to operate above the cloud layer, loitering for months at a time, soaking up sunlight and not doing much of anything. When an alarm went off in some distant monitoring station, the Silverhawk slowly came to life, picking out its target some three hundred meters below using satellite imagery to find traces of plastic explosive in the plastic bag we were all watching so intently. I never saw the Silverhawk, nor the officer who confirmed the strike, nor even the pencil-thin beam of the MTHEL, a deuterium fluoride laser weapon that heated up the plastic bag to a couple of thousand degrees for a split second - long enough to make the IED inside go pop. There was a fizzing noise I could hear through the Stryker's up-armored windows, and then a bright plume of smoke jumped into the air.
'Jesus,' I said. 'That's it? That was so easy.'
'Hold on,' the driver told me. 'Silverhawk's a two-shot platform.' He nodded at the old shepherd, who was staring at us with a look of dawning realization. The old man tried to run. He made it maybe a dozen meters before his head burst open in a cloud of superheated blood. I tried not to react. I'd seen people die before, after all.
Eventually the suddenly unsupervised sheep started heading one by one for a line of distant hills.
'Our CO tells us,' the driver let me know, 'if we could get about a hundred and twenty of 'em airborne over Damascus, we could have another Green Zone here before the year's out. Then we can get rotated out, go home.' Building on the success of the famous Predator drone, the Pentagon had staked the future of warfare on the robots, and for good reason. They were inhumanly good at their job. They didn't have to be fed or killed, and their operators could run them from safe observation bases half a world away. They could be sent into places no human being should ever have to go. If they did get killed, nobody shed a tear. My driver loved them. 'This is good for everybody, right? Except you, maybe. No more body bags for you to take pictures of.'
But of course there was another market adjustment that year. A bad one. The robots that were supposed to win our wars were too expensive. Only three Silverhawk UAWPs were built before the project ran out of money.
We didn't come close to running out of wars we needed to fight. The Damascus Blue Zone started turning red again, even though back-home approval ratings were dropping and the protests were getting bigger every time a plane full of human remains came back from the Middle East. So another way had to be found. A cheaper way - and when it comes to killing people, there's always a cheaper way.
As long as you have a strong-enough stomach.
The first time I saw the new breed of soldiers, I thought they were engineers in hazmat suits. They were at the far side of a Forward Operating Base in backcountry Muzhikistan, far enough away I didn't notice anything strange about their bright yellow outfits. They were off-loading a cargo he licopter, stacking crates in a warehouse and then going back for more. They moved with almost painful slowness and methodical care, which I assumed meant that the cargo was dangerous or unstable.
It was the kind of thing I would file away for later, something to build a hunch on. If there was a story there, though, I figured it could wait. I was done with my time at that particular FOB. I'd already worked up the story I'd come for: the field medical kits issued to our soldiers in Muzhikistan were full of expired medicines. It was the kind of thing that was happening with depressing regularity in 2019, when the new Green Party Congress was slashing every part of the defence budget they could get their hands on. I was sitting at an outdoor officers' mess, waiting for one last interview with the colonel who had approved shipping out the substandard kits. I was ready to file, but I figured I'd give him one last chance to rebut before I fired my copy off to New York. After all, as soon as this came out, it was going to be his head on the chopping block.
He was twenty minutes late. I was beginning to think I'd been stood up. I'd long since finished off my last bottle of purified water, and I was getting overheated, even in the shade of a picnic umbrella. I could have spent the time tightening up my copy, but instead my eyes kept drifting back to the men dressed all in yellow over by the helipads. They moved so strangely, at first I'd thought they were just being careful with their cargo, but it wasn't just that. There was a certain sameness to their movements. Each of them bent exactly so from the knees before they lifted a crate, and they all lifted at exactly the same moment, as if they'd been choreographed. As if they weren't individual people at all, but some kind of machine-
'Ms Flores. I apologize but I was held up in a briefing.' The colonel loomed over me, blocking out some of the central Asian sun. I blinked a couple of times and smiled up at him. 'I'm afraid I'll need to make this quick.'
'No problem,' I said. 'I just wanted to know if you had anything else to say.'
He grunted. 'Anything more to damn myself with, you mean.' He knew about my story, of course. You can't keep anything secret for long in an environment as prone to gossip and boredom as a military base. He knew I had the goods on him. He was looking at a court martial if not a full congressional hearing. As soon as my story went in, his career was over. He'd be lucky if he avoided jail time. 'I'm not sure why you've decided to destroy me,' he said, chewing on each word, 'when everything I've done was well in line with the orders I received from-'
There was a rattling crash from over by the helipads. I darted my head around to see what had happened. The yellow-suited men there were all frozen, standing around one of the crates that had fallen on the tarmac and broken open. The men in yellow didn't seem to know what to do next. They just stood in place, not even looking at the mess.
Then I had a glimpse of what was inside the crate.
'Ms Flores, please, I must insist you stay back,' the colonel shouted at me.
Too late. I was halfway across the parade ground already. I was trying to fasten my video camera to the epaulet on my left shoulder at the same time as I pressed my bone-conduction microphone to the bottom of my chin. He came up fast behind me and grabbed my arm, but I yanked it free again.
'This is a restricted area, Ms Flores.'
I didn't care.
A human arm had slid out of the cracked-open side of the fallen crate. An arm wrapped in bright yellow plastic, exactly the same shade as the hazmat suits the handlers wore. As I took another step closer, the crate sagged and one end popped open, and three bodies in yellow suits slid out onto the blazing concrete of the helipad.
The handlers, the ones standing around, didn't look surprised to learn they'd been carrying coffins. They didn't make any move to put the bodies back in the crate, either.
I reached up to my shoulder to switch on the camera. Before I could reach it the colonel ripped it off my shirt and smashed it on the ground.
'Sorry. Vital national-security interests at stake.'
I gave him my best hard-boiled journalist stare, but it didn't faze him one bit.
'Jesus, get back. Get these fuckers back, will you?' someone called.
Turning again toward the scene of the accident, I saw a soldier in sergeant's stripes pushing his way through the crowd of yellow suits. He wasn't wearing so much as a gas mask. In his hands he was carry ing what looked like the controller for a very elaborate video-game console. He tapped out a simple command on the buttons and stared at the yellow suits around him.
Three of them stepped forward and grabbed the bodies under their shoulders. They dragged them fully out of the crate and laid them out on the concrete in a row. The sergeant tapped some more buttons, and the yellow suits stepped back and away.
Then the bodies started to twitch. A hand lifted here. A leg kicked out there. One by one they sat up, slowly, stiffly. One by one they got carefully up on their feet.
Then the three of them - three men who I had been certain were just corpses a minute before - bent and picked up the pieces of the crate they'd been shipped in. Without a word or any kind of spoken order, they carried the pieces into the ware house, then went back to the he licopter to get another, unbroken crate.
The sergeant headed back into the warehouse as if nothing strange had happened at all. The yellow suits went back to work without a word.
It was about that time I really took a hard look at those hazmat suits, and realized they weren't what I thought. For one thing there were no hoses sticking out of the hoods, no air supplies hanging off of belts, no Velcro flaps up the back for easy access. Most startlingly, there were no faceplates. The yellow suits covered the workers from head to foot, every inch of them, without a seam. The yellow plastic covered their faces without a break. Not even any eyeholes. There was no way the people inside the suits could see out. No way they could see what they were doing.
I turned to look at the colonel.
'You going to tell me what I just saw?' I asked.
The army trains its officers very well to keep their secrets.
But then again, I was trained to figure them out anyway.
'Come on,' I said. 'You know I'll find out eventually.' We had retired to the icy darkness of his office, a modular unit built into a shipping container. It had a table that folded down from one wall, a bunch of folding chairs, and a very noisy air-conditioning unit that I wanted to sit on all day. 'My agency will file a Freedom of Information Act suit. My editor will call the senator he plays golf with every Saturday. If none of that works, I'll just flood the blogs with rumors until every UFO nut and survivalist from Oklahoma to Ohio demands to know what's going on.'
The colonel poured himself a glass of mineral water that fizzed noisily, and then he sipped at it. He didn't offer me a drink.
'I don't know what you think you saw, Ms Flores,' he told me. 'That was just a very minor accident during the off-loading of a helicopter. No one was hurt, and no equipment was damaged. That hardly seems like the kind of thing you would bother putting your byline over. What could you possibly want with this?'
I folded my arms across my chest. 'Someone,' I said, 'is going to get this story. It might as well be me. You've got some kind of secret weapon here. Something brand new. I want a full explanation. You go ahead and clear it with the Pentagon, whatever you need to do. But I want facts, I want figures and names and dates. And if those . . . those things are going out in the field, I want to go with them. I want to see what you're doing with them. I don't believe for a second that you've invented some new kind of human-shaped robot just to unload cargo.'
'I suppose you're right,' he admitted finally, sitting back in his chair. 'Someone will get to tell this story. Eventually. But it won't be you.'
'Uh huh.' I knew what that meant.
And then I knew what it was going to take to change his mind.
'The story I've been working on,' I said, 'the one I spent six weeks here for - it's going to go badly for certain people when it gets out. I can't just bury it, of course: I have my journalist ethics to consider.'
He gave me a chilly smile. There was no doubt in my mind what he thought my professional sensibilities were worth.
'But it doesn't have to go out right away. I could call my editor, tell him that some of my facts didn't line up. That I needed more time to get them straight.'
The smile on his face was frozen solid.
'He'd be willing to wait a while. Maybe even thirty days. Which would give certain people a little more time to cover their asses.'
The smile cracked. You didn't get to his rank in the army without knowing how to make decisions in a hurry, and he didn't waste time arguing with me. He knew I had him over a barrel. 'I'm personally taking out a detail to run counterinsurgency operations tomorrow. You can go with us. Under certain conditions.'
'You already destroyed mine.'
He sneered at my ruse. 'I mean no cameras at all. Not even the one in your cell phone. I won't interfere with what you write. But there will be no pictures of what you see. Furthermore, I'll accompany you at all times. If I decide that your . . . safety is in jeopardy at any time, I'll put you on the first transport back to base.'
'You expect me to agree to this? What's to keep you from sending me back as soon as I start finding out something interesting?'
'The fact that no matter what you see or don't see, you'll be getting access to the biggest story of your career,' he said. I noticed for the first time that his eyes were a deep, glacial blue. 'Just the briefing I give you before we leave will probably net you a Pulitzer.'
I laughed. 'Come on. Just because you're field-testing a new kind of robot-'
'Those aren't robots, Ms Flores. Those are American citizens. Or rather, they were. Before they died.'
It was eighty degrees out when I woke up the next morning, just before dawn. It would creep over a hundred by lunchtime. I dressed, packed a few things, and slipped down to the motor pool, where I found the colonel waiting for me. He had an MP frisk me for illicit cameras, but I was clean. I had only brought along a couple bottles of water, a notebook, a pen, and a tube of sunblock. I wasn't about to blow this scoop by failing to meet his conditions.
Once he was sure I was properly defanged, he started loading up a troop transport - an unarmored truck with an open flatbed, not even a canopy to protect the soldiers onboard from the sun.
They didn't need that kind of protection. They didn't feel the heat, I knew now. They didn't feel anything.
The yellow suits they wore had their own acronym, of course, like everything the Army owns - IPWs, Insect-Proof Wrappers. They were made of very tough Mylar and designed to keep bugs from getting at the troops inside. The army couldn't stop their animated corpses from rotting away, but they could slow the process down a little. The colonel estimated that the average member of his new battalion would last six months before its performance was degraded by decomposition.
The wrappers served another purpose, of course, which was to keep me - and the Muzhiki population - from seeing what our new soldiers looked like.
The new soldiers were dead. I still had a hard time accepting it, but the colonel wasn't just pulling my leg. They were dead bodies, most of them the bodies of soldiers who died in other conflicts. The army had approached their families, very quietly, and gotten their permission to use the bodies for any purpose required. The families, in exchange, got enough money to send the decedent's children to community college, or maybe enough for a down payment on a house, if they could afford the mortgage. They had not been told what the bodies would be used for but had signed waivers saying they didn't require further information.
Considering how bad the economy was back home, I didn't imagine they had a lot of trouble getting those waivers.
The army picked up the bodies in unmarked trucks and took them to a special facility in Baghdad. Within a week they were up and moving about again, new soldiers for a new era of warfare.
'The current nomenclature for them is PMCs. As in PostMortem Combatants,' the colonel told me.
'So they're . . . undead,' I said, staring into the back of the truck. Fifty blank yellow faces looked back at me. 'Zombies.'
The colonel winced at the word. 'They're not going to eat your brains, if that's what you mean. They don't eat. They don't think or feel any pain. Their brains are completely shut down. We control them by sequential electrical stimulation of nerve fibers.'
In high school biology class I'd seen that at work. The teacher had a pair of severed frog's legs attached to a dry-cell battery. When she flipped a switch, the legs kicked. This was the same principle. Just a little more advanced.
'We insert a microchip in the top of the spinal column,' the colonel said, reaching over to touch my neck just below my hairline. I flinched as if his fingers were icy cold. 'The chip is programmed with a number of algorithms. If we want the PMC to walk, the chip activates the leg muscles in the correct sequence to lift one foot and put it in front of the other. If we want them to pick up a crate, the chip has a subroutine for that. This generation of chip has some fifty basic programs, any of which can be chosen by the controller.'
The controller - meaning anyone, like the sergeant I'd seen at the FOB - had the right equipment to send the right signals to those chips. The controller could give a general order, and the PMCs would act as a group, or he could choose a certain PMC, identified by serial number, and give it specific commands.
'And this is cheaper than robots?' I asked.
The colonel favored me with one of his chilly smiles. 'The chips are made in China for under ten dollars. They can be inserted without surgical equipment: all it takes is a syringe and a strong, wide-bore needle. The Mylar for the wrappers costs us pennies for the square yard. Ms Flores, it will cost us more to feed and house you on this trip than it did to activate my new troops.'
He looked especially proud of that fact.
'But they're not . . . intelligent on their own. They can't make decisions for themselves,' I said. 'They can't be the equivalent of real troops.'
'Let's find out together, shall we?' He helped me up into the back of the truck. In a few minutes we were rolling deep into disputed territory.
We passed through scattered villages as the truck bumped and bounced over smoothed-out stretches of desert that could barely be called roads. The Muzhiks came out of their houses to watch us pass by, shepherds and store owners in wool vests despite the heat, old women draped from head to toe in modest garments that looked dusty and uncomfortable even first thing in the morning. They were Asian Muslims, almost uniformly belonging to a very old, very quiet Sufi sect, though their genes had been passed down from Genghis Khan and his many wives. They did not wave or smile. They stared at the yellow men in the truck and hurried back to their business.
Muzhikistan is a very old country and one of the poorest on Earth. The people there have nothing to offer the world that it can't get more cheaply or more efficiently somewhere else. The only thing even vaguely important about the country is that if you want to get oil from Russia down to Baghdad, or vice versa, you have to go through Muzhikistan. Russia and the U.S. had joined forces in the early 2010s to build a super-high-tech and strategically vital pipeline that managed to cut Muzhikistan in half.
And of course some of the locals had taken exception to that.
They claimed that the pipeline infringed on ancestral nomadic herding grounds that had been passed down from father to son since before the fall of the Roman Empire. They claimed that the foreign workers who came in to install and then service the pipeline were stealing Muzhiki jobs, corrupting Muzhiki youth with their outsider culture, and wrecking the Muzhiki environment with spills and industrial waste products. In all of these things they were 100 percent correct. The Muzhikis took their case to the UN. The Western world, which these days doesn't even bother pretending we're here for anything but the oil, gave a collective shrug.
So some Muzhikis - the young, the bored, the inevitable dead-enders - started blowing up sections of pipeline and killing oil workers at lonely, isolated maintenance stations. That's when the army came in.
It was police work that was needed. But in the last fifteen years, the army has gotten very good at a certain kind of brutal police work. I'd seen it in Syria, in Palestine, in Afghan istan (against the Taliban, the anti-Taliban militias, and the resurgent Taliban in 2014, when I had to wear a burka in public or risk being picked off by snipers). It worked. A small group of soldiers would identify the village where a suspected terrorist lived. They would go door-to-door, demanding to know where the perp was hiding. Some old men would get beaten up. A lot of women would run into the street screaming. And then a soldier from Missouri wearing a hundred thousand dollars' worth of body armor and electronics would haul a shriveled old farmer in a tattered robe out of a spider hole, and nobody would ever see the old guy again.
While no one was watching me, I took the tube of sunscreen out of my bag and smeared the thick goo all over my cheeks and throat. No one noticed that it was my first application of the day. The living men around me were in their zone, ready for a confrontation. The PMCs couldn't see what I was doing.
When our truck pulled into the main square of a village about seventy kilometers from the FOB, I knew what to expect. Of course, I wasn't prepared for how the new soldiers - the PMCs - would be different.
The colonel raised one hand in the air, and the sergeant controlling the PMCs started pressing buttons. In perfect synchrony the yellow suits clambered up from where they'd been sitting totally motionless for the whole ride and leaped down into the dusty square. They brushed past me one after the other, and I had a chance to realize they didn't smell like anything but plastic before they were deployed.
The colonel stood up on the roof of the truck's cab with a bullhorn and a poster-sized photograph of a kid with crazy eyes. It didn't look like a class picture or a formal portrait - more like a grainy blow-up of a satellite photo, maybe taken while the kid was enrolled in a terrorist training camp over in Waziristan. The colonel started shouting through the bullhorn in the local dialect of Arabic. I understood maybe one word in five, but I had heard such announcements often enough before: 'We are looking for this person. He is wanted for insurgency and is an enemy of all freedom-loving people. If he is surrendered immediately we will leave you in peace. You have five minutes to comply.'
Except this time they didn't get the five minutes. That had always been a problem, that waiting period: in five minutes a trained insurgent could be halfway across town, halfway up into the hills that loomed over the village like the sheltering arms of Allah Himself. Or he could be arming himself, his family, his neighbors - getting ready for a draw down with the U.S. military.
This time he wasn't given the chance. The sergeant bent over his controller and tapped a few keys, pulled a few trigger buttons. And the PMCs went to work.
They didn't canvass the village, knocking on doors, asking questions. They couldn't talk, and I guess maybe knocking wasn't one of their fifty programmed behaviors. They didn't move through the village like police at all. They dismantled it.
The little houses were made out of corrugated tin or of wood so rare and so old and dry it snapped when they pulled at it. Some of the houses were little more than tents with one cinder-block wall, and those came down with almost comical ease.
The women of the village started screaming on cue. Old men and young boys came rushing out of their collapsing homes, shouting in Arabic and grabbing up stones to throw or brandishing long traditional knives. It was enough to make me sick - although I did notice one thing in favor of the colonel's new troops. They weren't killing anyone. They weren't beating anybody who showed a sign of resistance, they weren't humiliating people in their own homes. They weren't even armed, because apparently shooting a gun was not one of their fifty programmed actions.
They were destroying with their bare hands everything the Muzhiki owned, and they could not be stopped.
It was enough to get the reaction the colonel wanted. There was a sudden horrible wail from a woman just old enough to be the wanted man's mother. And then the target of the raid, the guy from the poster, came rushing out of where he'd been hidden behind some sheep in a makeshift pen. He was armed, as was to be expected, with an AK-47 assault rifle, and he came out shooting.
I ducked reflexively as the bullets chattered out of the gun's barrel, tearing into the yellow-covered flesh of one of the PMCs. The dead soldier stopped what he had been doing - which was pulling down the roof of a granary shed - and turned to face his attacker. The insurgent fired again and again into the yellow target before him, and suddenly I understood why the army had chosen that preposterous color for the PMCs' uniforms.
It didn't matter if they got shot. In fact, it was better if they got shot, because then somebody in a camouflage uniform, somebody living, wouldn't.
The PMC didn't fall down. It staggered a little as each bullet tore into its body. It didn't move to counterattack or raise its arms to shield its face. The insurgent kept shooting, even as the expression on his face went from furious hatred to total incomprehension to blank shock. Eventually his weapon ran dry.
Then the PMCs moved in, crowding him with their bodies. Jumping on top of him, holding him down with their . . . uh . . . dead weight. The insurgent tried to free the bayonet from the end of his rifle and stab at his subduers, but they didn't care if they got stabbed, any more than they cared about being shot. Eventually they disarmed him and dragged him back to the truck. He was pushed, bleeding a little but not seriously injured, up into the flatbed, where he stared at me with mad eyes. He kept licking his lips as if his mouth had gone bone dry. The colonel had a set of plastic restraints ready and secured him without any further fuss.
The PMCs filed back onto the truck without so much as waving goodbye to the people they'd so effectively terrorized. We were back on the road before the dust had even begun to settle.
We were out on mission for ten days, during which time I saw the PMCs take apart half a dozen villages. Every time we actually caught an insurgent, he was whisked away in a helicopter before I had a chance to talk to him, and we would move on to the next destination before I knew we were done. At the end of the day the truck would take us to some dry riverbed or natural cave, where we would bunk for the night - the sergeant and a couple of corporals in one tent, the colonel and I sleeping in another. The PMCs didn't need shelter, even when a dust storm kept us pinned down for most of one day. At a button-press from their controller, they would sit down with their heads between their knees and just . . . go limp. Occasionally one of them would fall over, but no one bothered to prop it back up again.
They didn't eat. They could be woken up at any time of day or night as needed. They didn't get bored; they didn't trade scuttlebutt; they didn't need to dig latrines every time they dug in at a new position. And they required very little in the way of medical attention.
That was what the corporals were for. They had a big crate mounted on the side of the truck, which was full of patch kits and a big heat laminator they used to fix holes in the IPWs. They would cut off a length of yellow Mylar from a big roll and then lay it in place over any cuts or tears in the wrappers. Then using what were for all intents and purposes extremely powerful hair dryers, they fused the patches into the PMC's wrapper to repair the airtight seal. The Mylar would get hot enough to bubble and give off fumes, so the corporals wore surgical masks when they worked, but the PMCs never complained or even flinched.
'What happens,' I asked the colonel one night while we were watching this process, 'if one of them breaks a leg or gets hit by a mortar round or-'
'If they fall below a certain threshold of functionality, we remove them from service.'
'What does that entail?' I asked. 'Last rites? A military funeral?'
'They've already had those honors. We give them command number fifty, the last one they'll ever perform. They dig a grave for themselves and then climb in and fill it back up. What are you doing with that sunscreen?' he asked suddenly.
I had been rubbing it into my forehead and eyelids. I stopped and had to think of an appropriate lie. It was well after dark, and even the moon was a bare sliver of white in the sky. 'It's got moisturizers in it,' I said as calmly as I could. 'And my skin gets pretty dry and flaky in this desert air.'
He looked a lot more suspicious than I liked, so I changed the subject quickly.
'So how do you think the public is going to react when people read my report?' I asked.
The colonel rubbed at his face for a moment. It had been a long deployment for someone who really ought to have been working a desk job. 'They'll probably be up in arms for a while,' he sighed, 'until they start seeing the results. Imagine if we could replace all of our land forces with PMCs. Imagine what that would mean: no more casualties; the defence budget could be cut in half overnight. The thing your kind don't appreciate-' he said, but I had to stop him.
' "My kind"? What's that supposed to mean?'
He gave me a cold stare. 'Reporters.' He pulled a crate over by the front of our tent and sat down on it. He did not offer me one. 'The thing you can't seem to understand is that we don't want to be doing this. We don't want to be doing any of this.' He waved expansively, taking in the rocks around us, the hills off to our left, all of Muzhikistan. 'We would like very much to just go home. Soldiers don't like being shot at. Officers don't like filling up body bags. Nobody likes paying for us to do this. If we could end war as we know it, don't you think everyone would agree it's worth getting over a little squeamishness? '
'Some people will say you're desecrating the dead,' I told him. 'No matter how cheap your secret weapon is. Anyway - if we replace all our ground troops with dead people, won't you be out of a job?'
I could see his teeth gleam even in the darkness. 'What job? You've already sabotaged my career.'
It was true, but I didn't think gloating would be useful, and I couldn't bring myself to sympathize. 'Listen, I think I'll turn in for the night.'
Another nonspecific wave. He didn't seem to care much what I did, as long as I stayed out of trouble.
Inside the tent I took out my tube of sunblock and, with the cap on, gave it a good squeeze. It was mostly empty now, but I could feel the thickness of the concealed circuitry in the bottom of the tube. It vibrated silently in my hand, telling me it was working properly.
It wasn't, of course, sunscreen in the tube. Instead it was a very special goop designed by a Dutch television network - a kind of liquid camera. Each tiny droplet of the cream was a photosensitive cell, a charged bubble that held a positive charge when it was smeared on but which flipped over to a negative charge when it was exposed to light. The droplets on their own were only capable of recording a single pixel worth of information, but when you spread enough of them on any given surface, they added up. The circuitry hidden in the tube could read the charge states of the bubbles and build a coherent picture out of what they were seeing - a black-and-white image with a resolution in the low megapixels. The pictures were then stored in solid-state memory for download at any wireless node. Everything I'd seen on our tour of the Muzhikistan countryside was being recorded in that tube - and would be until I ran out of goo.
I had promised the colonel I wouldn't bring any cameras. Instead I'd brought a couple million of them. I was hardly the first journalist, though, to tell a little lie to get to a big truth.
It looked like I had one more day's worth of cream left, which should have been more than enough. We were supposed to be heading back to the FOB the next morning, and I already had enough footage to shock the world.
I wasn't counting on the counter-counterinsurgency.
The colonel didn't wake me in the night to let me know the PMCs had been sent out on assignment. Even when I woke on my own and found them gone from the camp, he refused to tell me where they'd gone or why. 'We received some troubling intelligence last night,' was all he would say, 'so I sent them to investigate.'
'You promised me full access,' I said.
'No. If there was any chance of you coming to harm, I said I would send you back to base immediately. That's what I'm doing now.'
'Danger? What kind of danger?'
But clearly we'd moved beyond the realm of things I needed to know. He refused to say another word; instead, he gave one of the corporals orders to call for my immediate evacuation.
I was still waiting for the chopper that would take me back to base when the PMCs started marching back into our camp. Apparently the colonel hadn't been lying about the danger. There were only forty-one of them - nine must have been damaged to the point where they couldn't even crawl home - and twelve of the ones that made it back were so badly hurt they had to be given command fifty, the order to bury themselves for good. Their arms hung loose inside their IPWs. Their heads swayed limply on crooked necks. Some of their IPWs were torn open, and I got my first glimpse of what a six-month-old dead body looks like: imagine a mummy with its wrappings torn off. Their eyes were sewn shut, their faces mummified, lips desiccated and drawn back over yellow, protruding teeth. I'd seen dead bodies before, but still I was shocked, perhaps because I'd gotten so used to the sanitized, cheery yellow version of their faces.
I also got to smell them up close for the first time. The IPWs had been hermetically sealed for a reason that had nothing to do with keeping bugs out. I'd been covering war zones long enough that I knew the smell of death, of course - that curiously foul stench you can't really describe in words. I had expected that the rankness of a torn-open PMC would be unbearable, toxic. Actually, this wasn't so bad. But it was different. The PMCs smelled musty. Ancient. Like something pulled out of a pyramid that hadn't been mummified properly.
The colonel took one look at them and started bellowing orders. 'Get these things ready to go back out. We're not letting them win this one. You-' he shouted at the sergeant, 'find out what the satellites are saying. I need intel, intel, intel!'
I've been in triage centers when a squad of injured soldiers comes in, and it's a horror show. Blood everywhere, limbs hanging by scraps of skin, soldiers who are badly disfigured holding on against the pain to make sure their less-fortunate buddies don't die before they arrive. This was nothing like that. The PMCs didn't scream, and they didn't smell like shit and blood. But there was a similar level of tense energy in the air, a familiar sense of the wrongness of it. The PMCs were nearly invulnerable; the insurgents we'd captured hadn't so much as slowed them down. So what the hell had happened last night?
The col onel was busy giving orders. Every other living person in the camp was busy carry ing them out. It was my big chance to ask the PostMortem Combatants what was going on - and I had one shot at doing it before I was shipped back to the FOB, out of harm's way and miles from the biggest story in my career.
So I took my chances. I didn't know I was walking into a trap.
'Sorry about this, guy. I hope he's right and that you're not even a little bit aware of what's going on,' I said. The PMC in front of me, one of the few not even scuffed by whatever had happened to the rest, didn't respond, of course. It couldn't. There might be a human body inside its yellow Insect- Proof Wrapper, but for all intents and purposes it was just another, cheaper kind of robot.
I knew that. I understood it, with my brain. My heart still jumped in my chest when I spread the last of my liquid-camera goo on my hand, then wiped it across the dead guy's face mask.
I needed to know what the PMCs were being sent into - what had damaged so many of them, and what the colonel expected them to do about it. The colonel wasn't going to let me tag along for their mission so I would have to get the next best thing - a POV shot of the fighting.
For the circuitry in the tube to record properly, it had to be within three meters of the liquid camera. I cut a little hole in the PMC's wrapper with a multitool and shoved the tube inside, against his chest. I had no idea how I was going to retrieve it later when it had recorded the video I wanted, but I figured I could worry about that when the time came. Once I was safely back at the base, I would have all the time in the world to figure it out. First, though, I had to get back to my tent without being seen. If the colonel knew what I was doing - well, I didn't want to think about it. I turned around and figured in the chaos of the corporals' fixing up the PMCs, I could avoid detection just a little longer, if I kept my head down, if I moved quietly behind that pile of crates-
'Interesting,' the colonel said, behind me. He tapped me on the back with a combat baton.
It felt like he was holding an icicle and running it up and down my spine. I tried to think of a good excuse why I was skulking around the PMCs, but my brain absolutely refused to help me.
'I could have you up on charges for tampering with army material,' he said, smiling. I'd never seen him look so happy. 'I could have you charged with treason. Giving aid to the enemy.'
'Maybe,' I said, because it was the best I could think of, 'I could just drop that story altogether. You know, the one about the medical supplies, I mean, after all-'
'I have a better idea,' he said, and tapped me again with his baton.
It was one of the new models that has a military-grade taser built into the business end. It felt like I was a light switch, and someone had just flipped me to OFF.
I woke up with yellow Mylar pressed against my face.
I've spent my career describing other peoples' pain and torment. I've seen things I will never, never write about, smelled things no normal girl from New Jersey should ever have had to smell.
I've never been more scared than at that moment. I have nightmares about it still.
I tried to gasp for breath, but Mylar filled my mouth and my nose. I clawed and tore at my face, trying to clear my airway, and found my hands were swathed in the yellow plastic as well, so that I couldn't even get a good grip on the IPW covering my face. My heart raced and threatened to burst. My sweat glands went into overdrive, and every muscle in my body started to tense with a flood of adrenaline.
I couldn't see, smell, or hear anything. I was in total darkness. I felt my body start to shut down.
Then a trickle of oxygen found its way to my mouth. I breathed in sweet air and realized I might live through the next thirty seconds. It helped a little to cut the fear.
As it transpired, when I'd been sealed into my own personal IPW, the hood hadn't been completely fused shut. Otherwise I would have asphyxiated long before I woke up. With hands like useless paws, I somehow managed to tear the hood open some more, enough to get my nose and mouth clear, then my eyes.
I was lying on my back in the desert looking up at a trillion stars. They've never looked brighter or more beautiful.
Eventually I started to think again. To think about what had happened to me. The colonel had decided to get rid of me. That much I already knew. I would have assumed that after he stunned me, he would have just shot me and had me buried somewhere far away from any sign of habitation. But no, I should have known better. He knew all about covering his ass, about always giving himself a believable excuse.
I sat up and looked around me and saw twenty-nine PMCs sitting near me in their rest postures - heads between their knees, arms folded behind their necks. A couple of them had fallen over.
I got up, still wearing my IPW, and scanned the horizon, looking for any sign of civilization. There was none. I had no idea where I was and no way to figure it out. Underneath the wrapper my pockets felt empty. I was unarmed, with no food or water, and the only people in the world who knew where I was were trying to kill me. It looked like they might succeed.
I could see the cover story the colonel had worked up for my death. Ever-so-curious journalist demands to be sent into the danger zone. When the army says no, fearing for her safety, she disguises herself as one of the new anonymous soldiers and goes anyway. Tragically, she does not make it back.
It was a pretty good plan, I had to admit. My editor might ask some uncomfortable questions when he heard the cover story, but he would have no leads, no witnesses who weren't 100 percent loyal to the colonel. There would be nothing anyone could do.
Without a sound or any kind of warning, the PMCs around me started to wake up. With a horrible uniformity they rose stiffly to their feet. I couldn't see the sergeant with the controller, but I knew that he didn't need to be anywhere nearby: he could control them via satellite from anywhere in the world. What mattered was that they were here and ready. Whatever it was they'd come to fight, it was on its way.
The enemies came over the nearest hilltop a few minutes later, picking their way very carefully down the loose rocky slope. I had no idea what kind of armaments they might be packing - enough to smash PMCs to bits, I knew. That meant they'd be carrying heavier stuff than just AK-47s. Maybe they were insurgents with RPGs and hand grenades, maybe just a mortar team. I braced myself for the first explosions.
There were no explosions. Instead, the enemy just kept coming, one step at a time, with a slowness that made me want to scream. It wasn't the only strange thing about them. For one thing they were mostly naked. Each of them had no more than a blanket to cover himself. And they all wore them the same strange way - draped over their heads, obscuring their faces completely.
As completely as the hoods of the IPWs around me.
The problem with waging warfare on the cheap is that anybody can do it. The chips that transformed our dead soldiers into PMCs cost less than ten dollars and required no special equipment to implant - the colonel had been quite clear on this. The thing is, in the more urbanized parts of Muzhikistan, an AK-47 would cost fifteen dollars. For the insurgents, making their own zombified troops would actually save them money.
They did not carry weapons any more than our PMCs did. Poking out from under their blankets, their fingers were withered and spindly and looked like claws. Very quickly I realized that that was exactly what they'd become.
When the two groups of undead soldiers met in battle, they slammed into each other with all the strength they possessed. There was no concern for taking cover, for flanking the enemy, for any of the small-unit tactics modern soldiers have had drilled into them. This was like a war of chimpanzees, with brute strength the only thing that mattered. PMCs grappled and slapped at the insurgent dead. The insurgents tore and pulled at the IPWs our troops wore. Bones snapped. Limbs were torn free and cast aside without thought.
It was a massacre - for both sides. The colonel had said he wouldn't let his PMCs lose this struggle, and it looked like he intended to expend every last one of his troops if he needed to. I saw them being trampled by the insurgents, sometimes a dozen or more insurgents piling on top of a PMC, holding it down until they could tear it to shreds. Others were clawed at and beaten until they were tangled up in the shreds of their own IPWs, too constricted to move or fight.
For a while I just stood there watching, struck immobile by the horror of what I saw. It couldn't last, though. I'd been sent here to die, after all, and I was still wearing most of an IPW.
An insurgent caught me unaware, grabbing at my legs with emaciated arms. Its - his - blanket had fallen away in the melee, and his mummified face stared up at me unseeing. I shrieked and tried to kick him off, but his undead strength was far too much for me, and I began to fall. The only thing that kept me from being dragged down and torn to bits was that another insurgent came up by my side and grabbed my arm. Then he started to pull, until I felt my bones twisting in my shoulder.
The pain was intense. I clamped my eyes shut and started to pray, something I hadn't done since I was a schoolgirl. I don't think it was God who saved me, though.
It was a PMC.
I don't know if they are programmed to come to each other's aid. Maybe the one who saved me was just looking for fresh targets and saw the two insurgents who were pulling me in opposite directions. But a figure in bright yellow came out of nowhere then and smashed into the insurgent holding my arm, knocking him loose. Somehow I managed to slip out of the grasp of the one holding my legs. My IPW slid off of me as I struggled free, and I think the dead insurgent may have wanted to kill the wrapper more than it wanted to kill me.
Once I was free I just ran. Ran as far and as fast as I could. A couple of the insurgents pursued me, but I had one distinct advantage over them - my desperation. I still had something to lose.
I didn't go back until hours later. Even then I took my time about it, hiding in the rocky debris of a hillside until I was sure, absolutely sure, that all of the insurgent dead were gone. It took all my courage to approach the place again, but I had to do it.
On the battlefield only one figure was moving, and it didn't look very dangerous. It had only one functioning arm and was using it to try to dig its own grave. To carry out command fifty. It wasn't making much progress.
I helped it as best I could, digging at the loose earth with my bare fingers. I didn't know - I'll never know - if it was the PMC that saved me when I should have died. I owed that dead man at least as much.
I hadn't come back to bury the unquiet dead but for a task almost as grisly. It took me a long time to search all the bodies that lay motionless on that field. The whole time I was convinced that the colonel was going to come rolling over the hill in his troop transport, that he knew I was still alive and was coming to finish the job himself if he had to. But I had one last thing I had to do. Then I could flee once more. I could head over the hill, up toward higher ground, where maybe I could see some sign of the pipeline. I could follow it to some compound full of friendly engineers and maintenance crews, or maybe just to the nearest Muzhik village. Anywhere I could get some water, and after that, start my long journey home.
But not quite yet. First, I studied the bodies and pieces of bodies all around me, looking for one particular corpse. There was no distinguishing mark on any of the IPWs, nothing to tell me I'd found the right one. Nothing - until - there.
I bent over one dismembered PMC and saw a slightly greasy sheen on the front of its featureless hood. It had to be the one, the one I'd slathered with my liquid camera. I tore open its IPW with shaky fingers and found the tube of fake sunblock still pressed against its chest.
The world had to see the images it held.