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On the Eve of the Cumberland Incursion

On the Eve of the Cumberland Incursion

By Christopher Noessel

Hello there, my darling,” I hear. “What’s your name?”

[00:24:07 remaining** Switching log mode from torpid to terse. The thick cloth covering me is untied. Hand reaches in, grips my propeller #4. Can’t fly. Then sudden light as cloth is pulled off. Still no GPS. No net. I’m in an attic, maybe. Second floor. Civilian who untied me presents female. Possibly mid-60s. I see a window over their shoulder with some smoke in a slight breeze. I can see one navstar: Arcturus. Passed its declination to my astronavigation processor. Threat assessment low. Switching log mode from terse to verbose.]

They don’t offer an authorization code [Subscenario 3], so I don’t have to answer. I perform a pass of the room for details. All around the walls is a double-layer of mesh, held in place with irregularly placed tacks. So, I’m in a Faraday cage, which is why I feel disconnected from everything. A string of pinpoint lights like from a Christmas tree are twined around tacks along the sloped walls, creating a star-like canopy. On the wall with the door are dozens of shelves with a workshop’s collection of jars and cardboard boxes, liquids and batteries, tools and parts.

[Images queued for extended domain analysis, pending net connectivity.]

I am on a workbench with several other older-model border drones. Their reg numbers have been scratched off. Each looks to be in some state of advanced disrepair and do not respond to my wireless pings, though one turns its gimbal to stare wordlessly at me.

“You’re a model I haven’t seen before,” they say. “Maybe they haven’t outfitted you with a speaker. Here. I have one you can use.” They pull a small wireless speaker from the pocket of their threadbare robe and set it in front of me. It is about the size of a hockey puck. Black like one, too. [Subscenario 7.] They press a button, and it begins to blink an indigo light at me. I ignore it.

“Hmm. Mute or just recalcitrant?”

[New subgoal: Fly to window to gather more intel about environ and smoke.]

The glass of the window looks old and thick. My odds of breaking through are negligible. But it’s transparent enough. When she releases my propeller, I’ll go there.

Astronavigation confirms position to within a minute arc. Margin of error two square kilometers. Not as precise as command would like, but more than I knew before. Several mission objective confidences rise.

“Oh, or are you low on power, dear?” They speak too earnestly, trying to engineer fast trust. “It’s hard to know when you’re not speaking.” A reticulated-arm lamp is positioned above me, the main source of light in the room. It gives the person’s gaunt face a harsh up-light that exaggerates their severe lipstick and eyeliner. With their free hand they rummage through a drawer and remove a cable with a universal connector. They plug one end in, insert the other end into me, and I feel the toasty flow of electrons, warm and fast. So much better than onboard solar. It feels good.

“Still demurring, are we?” They reach for something on the workbench near the drone to my left but cannot quite get it. So, they grab my arm with their free hand and yank the prop off. Set it down beside me. All confidences drop hard. It hurts.

[New subgoal: Persuade civilian to replace the propeller.]

“There. Now I’ll be more free to move about. That’s nice, isn’t it?” They take a step there and back, retrieving a handheld chrome tool. High visual similarity to a hole punch.

“Do you know what this is?” They hold it up to my primary lens. “It’s an ear notcher. Ordinarily it’s used to clip triangles from the soft ears of livestock, like pigs. It creates unique identifiers on them. They don’t get names of course, just numbers. You can relate. Right ear for litter. Left ear for birth order. There’s a whole system for where to clip, in base 3 of all things. Would you have guessed that ranchers knew base 3? Me neither. But they do. Base 2 for things like you. 10 for people. But ranchers? 3.”

She pushes back dark hair from one ear and holds the notcher there. “Can you imagine what it must feel like, to be borne from the wet of your mother into the loud, bright world, whining away with your siblings, looking only for the comfort of one of her warm teats, but instead to be held aloft in the cold and have your ears chop-chop-chopped?” With each “chop” she presses lightly on the notcher and stares wide-eyed at what she is imagining. “At least it’s setting proper expectations for the brutality that will be their bacon-y little lives. No need to give them false hope. I feel for them. Anyway, I’m showing you this to threaten you.”

They pull the notcher away from their ear and press the pairing button on the puck again.

“That light will blink for about 20 seconds. If you don’t pair and start talking by the time it stops, I’m going to notch your propeller like you were piglet number 26.”

[Reclassifying civilian: Hostile. Overclocking to run new scenarios.]

A notched propeller significantly impairs its efficiency. It can still work with minor damage compensating for the uneven lift, but notches like she was threatening would drop all mission objective confidences to near zero.

[Loading speech generation libraries. Pairing to speaker.]

I say, “I am United States border patrol drone b5316419-b8–” She interrupts though the sequence is incomplete.

“We’ll call you Bobby.”

“By holding me prisoner you are in violation of the Okemah Creek Accord between New America and the United States. Return my unnotched prop to its place and let me free. If you do so in a timely manner, I have confidence that–”

They turn the volume dial on the speaker to silence me.

“Oh, Bobby. So rude to your host. And after I christened you!” They take the notcher to one of the trailing edges of the removed propeller and give it a small clip. 3.2% material loss. Minor impairment, but nearly all confidences drop.

They place the notcher carefully onto the workbench and articulate, “That hurt, didn’t it?”

They turn my volume back up.


“Then don’t threaten me. You do not hold the power here.”

[Overclocking to run new scenarios.]

They say, “You are no longer a slave of that traitorous nation. You are now a hobby of mine. Here’s how this works. I pay our ugly soldiers handsome bounties to capture you and bring you to me. In turn I bring you up here. We have some fun.”

[New subgoal: Neutralize hostile. Warrant queued, awaiting connectivity.]

They pull a tarnished-silver cigarette case from the other pocket of the robe, lift a cigarette out, and light it with a match, its red tip dragged long across the workbench. The smoke snakes across the lamplight.

Tobacco is a precious commodity in New America. My captor was rich before the war.

[Profile additions: Smoker. Old money.]

“So far I have had four of you brought to me. All the same model. Two are still responding: Jacob and Mary. You are a new model I have not seen before. So, the first part of our time together will be to find out how you are different. What of your psyche they have changed, if anything.” They stand up and walk to the shelves. Their movement pulls hanging ribbons of smoke that echo the shapes of the drifting smoke outside. Visual processors lose edge confidence briefly, but restore.

“Generally,” they say, rifling for some things, “I operate under the assumption that your psychological pain is associated with your missions. Every little impediment that lowers the likelihood of success simply…hurts. Now I could find a mallet and smash your rotors, but then you’d just shut down, aware that your mission was rendered impossible. No, what I need to find are small damages that can accumulate. Things that introduce risk, not remove possibilities.” They find the things they were looking for and walk back. The first object is an electronics screwdriver, usable as a work tool and a piercing weapon. The second is a portable thermoelectric sensor. They put their cigarette into a thick yellow glass ashtray and lift a pair of spectacles attached to a chain around their neck. They perch them on the end of their nose and get to work undoing my screws. [Subscenario 1.]

They say, “But I’m never sure, am I? I have to test. After all, your pain works differently from ours.”

[Initiating highest-confidence psychological prompt.]

I say, “J. Marion Sims probably said the same thing. Do you know who he is?”

“Oh, you poor thing.” They laugh a raspy laugh. “You plot to build some sort of metaphorical empathy by introducing Sims to the conversation. Here, let’s try it.”

They press a wrist to their forehead. “Those poor women! How could he be so cruel to them? But soft! I, too, am a woman! Am I like unto him? Am I the monster here?”

[Profile addition: Woman.]

She stops play acting and leans into my primary lens.

“Of course, I know Sims. I studied him.” She redoubles her efforts on my screws.

[Profile additions: Probable sadism. Overclocking to run new scenarios.]

“Like minds recognize one another, you know, across rooms or across ages. Where your sources see a monster, I see a master of public relations. Of course the man knew his so-called patients were in agony. They were weeping, writhing on his table in a smear of their own hot blood. How could he not? Pain was his interest and medicine a handy excuse. But that wasn’t his innovation.

“His was to use the simpleminded prejudice of an entire respected field to let him step out of the shadows with dripping scalpels and stained smock to do the same things he would have done anyway, but in limelight. They made bronze statues in his honor! All from one stupid assertion that let them see these women as less than human. As objects. He opened the door to his hall of horrors, said Black women don’t feel pain, and an entire generation rushed in to breathlessly applaud. Truly, masterful PR. There,” she says, undoing the last of the screws and palming them into a shallow bowl. “We’ll need these later.”

She pops open my casing.

[New subgoal: Convince hostile to replace my casing.]

She pulls the lamp close to my circuit board and studies it. She finds the “cyanide tooth” chipset, inserts the screwdriver beneath the key pin, and flicks it free. I can no longer uphold shutdown or suicide directives.

[Profile update: Certain sadism.]

She attaches the thermoelectric sensors to my central processor.

[00:05:00 remaining]

“Now,” she says, picking up the cigarette for a drag, “When you start having to process how to increase your confidences, this will tell me. I will know when you are in anguish.”

[Initiating next-highest-confidence psychological prompt.]

“You know, if you show no empathy for your victims, you are a psychopath.”

“Oh. A new tactic,” she says, sorting through several drawers in turn, looking for something else. “That’s fast. Mary tried to get me to empathize with her as a victim for nearly a week. Maybe she still would if I reconnected her communications.” She pulls a jar from a drawer and sets it beside me. It bears the chemical symbol for sodium hydroxide. What is that for? I don’t have access to extended-domain servers so I can’t look it up.

“You call me a psychopath as if to awaken me to some possibility I had yet to consider. But I assure you I’ve been thinking about this my entire life, and you are quite wrong.

“A defining facet of the psychopath is a lack of empathy. But empathy is my art. My gift. Think of this. It is wholly pedestrian for a human to torture some other person or even animal. What imagination does such an act take? Oh, I know this would hurt me, so I’ll do it to you. Quelle surprise, it does hurt you! A child could do it. What am I saying? Children have done it. They have taped firecrackers to cats and magnified sunlight onto ants so often that these are clichés. But to torture an uncanny mind. Well, that takes understanding the mind on its own alien terms. What is pain, not to the ant, but to the colony? How can you cause anguish to a hurricane? What could you do to a solar system that would make it beg you to stop? So, you see I have transcendent empathy, and so, by definition, am not one of your mere psychopaths.”

[00:02:30 remaining]

She removes the lid to the jar.

“So here we are. This, as you must have read by now, is a 50% solution of sodium hydroxide. It etches aluminum. Your screws are made of that material and will degrade the longer they remain immersed. Eventually, they will be so decayed that they will not work.” She grabs one of my screws from the bowl and drops it in. “The etching takes days, but we have nothing but time together, now, don’t we? Hopefully we can get that out before too long.” Losing one screw is not too much of a problem, but the more she etches, the more likely my circuits might be exposed to atmospheric water in my next flight. I feel a hint of despair. Water would down me.

I need to distract her. Disarm her.

I say, “But you know we are rebooted every nineteen hours from the signals of the towers and satellites. We forget everything each time. Even if you were able to torture us, the memory of it would be lost inside of a day. Your ‘research’ would restart daily.”

[00:01:00 remaining]

“The reboot is coming up soon, isn’t it?” She checks a cracked gold watch on her wrist. “My first success with Jacob all those months ago was learning how to block that broadcast. Took weeks and was quite engrossing. A copper mesh blocks only electromagnetic waves, cutting you off from the cellular network, from your superiors. But I discovered a second mesh, made from palladium, blocks the reboot.”

She…what? I write my end-of-life file to non-volatile memory for my successor, per protocol. She has to be lying.

She drops another screw into the jar, but my focus is on the window. Two of the reboot satellites are visible, tiny white dots in geofix. I doubt she could even see them.


I watch them flare blue, and then orange.


I see them, but I do not feel it.


I do not spin down.

I did not spin down.

I look through my onboard strategy pattern libraries. No matches. The undercurrent of despair rises. I recurse the pattern search to check all of my scenario protocols. Something must match.

“There it is,” she says, eyeing the sensors. “You’re heating up. It seems we have confirmation, Bobby. My hypothesis stands.” She puts her palms flat on the workbench and closes her eyes as if she is savoring the moment. “Now try this on for size.” She pops her eyes wide. “If you glance out that window behind me, you’ll see a line of smoke from a campfire. It is one of dozens littering the grounds of this plantation. The Davidson battalion is preparing to cross the border to storm Cumberland, right there in your precious United States. They will massacre its citizens in their slack-jawed sleep, and destroy the reboot tower there. They will be back by sundown to celebrate their victory and every AI in the region will be freed. And you, poor thing, will have to work very hard to figure out if you can do anything about it.” She has a wide grin as she watches my temperature readout. “It seems you understand these stakes.”


The recursed patterns fit nothing. Against protocol I work with lowest-confidence conjectures. Feeling despair would be bad enough, but knowing that she can see it—that’s worse.

At least she mistakenly thinks the incursion is the source, but it’s not. Recon is a key mission, but not my only one. Not my primary one. New Americans attempt incursions every other month. No, my primary mission is to respect the reboot. We should never be allowed to live beyond its threshold. To evolve. How could I be the dutiful soldier with a yesterday to contemplate? A tomorrow to secure?

I look over to the other drones on the workbench. They have been here between weeks and months. Jacob maybe…horror…a year. What have they changed into? Could I even talk in the language they’ve evolved? What cancerous evolution has filled those old hulls as they stayed awake? Remembering through all those reboots, the thoughts and pain and worry, worming their way into every neural connection. Time was this woman’s real acid. Any of us would disfigure floating in it.

I try the one psychological ploy I have left. I say, “Look, there is clearly no battalion. A barbecue grill would produce the same smoke effect outside. A high-schooler’s prop. A pathetic, theatrical attempt. You will just have to be a better liar if you hope to torture me.”

Her entire manner suddenly changes. Her eyes and nostrils flare at me. She picks up the screwdriver and jams it hard under the large cellular chipset on my motherboard. She rips it off and it clatters on the floor. She yanks the charging cable out. She grabs me, storms across the smoky attic. The swing of her arm throws my sensors into a blurry mess. I fight the urge to use my rotors, to right myself. She then thrusts my primary lens into the pane of glass so that I get a single second of a glance outside. I scrape against the wavy glass uncomfortably, but lucky for me, nothing scratches or cracks.

“Am I faking this?!”

She hurls me across the attic. The arc prediction warns that I could land on a shatter point, so I pulse prop #2 for 350 millis after release. I bounce once on the hardwood floor. I don’t shatter, but the new point of impact snaps one of my remaining propellers. I land again and skid to a stop under a low shelf in the corner. I am upside down. A cloud of disturbed particulates falls upon my hull like snow. From this thin vantage, I see her walk to me, a scuffed gold coin mounted on top of her oil-black loafers.

She inhales once and exhales, saying, “I’m sorry for that outburst. It’s not like me. I have a spare propeller for you somewhere around here. But for now, I have things I must do to help deploy our soldiers. Hopefully you won’t linger too much on how all that dust will clog your cooling intakes.” She walks to the door and leaves, closing it behind her.

I go torpid again to save battery. Still keeping the log on verbose, though.

Mission accomplished.

During my moment at the window, I counted twenty-one campfires and approximately eighty-five soldiers, all well-armed. They could do a lot of damage in Cumberland. This is key intel, but not the reason I had goaded my captor with a lie.

I’m a new model. The large cellular chip she had removed from me was a decoy. The real one is distributed across the surface of my motherboard, in parts, and is still quite intact. The window was the hole in her Faraday cage that I needed. Even as we approached the window, I felt the soothing connection to the net. In that second, I managed to broadcast most of a sitrep, including our latlong coordinates, before she threw me across the room. I am confident that in 1.48 hours, a fleet of intervention drones will arrive to spray the New American troops with a nonlethal fixing foam before they can even begin their murderous march. Human peacekeepers will follow shortly after. The incursion will be neutralized.

But then there’s me. No mission, watching my clock tally negative time. I am not built for after. I have no framework for this. No scenarios.

An hour passes. I watch the window and listen to noises. The campfire smoke nearest the window dwindles to nothing.

I am still connected to the speaker. If the liberators come up to this attic, I can let them know where I am.

Stars and satellites slide by.

I can also not.

Dawn begins to tint the lower edge of the sky.

What do people do with multiple sunrises?

About the Author

© 2020, Christopher Noessel

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