Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 63
by K. D. Julicher
A World Without
by Aimee Ogden
Comrades in Arms
by Bud Sparhawk
Sin Titulo
by Dan Stout
IGMS Audio
The Life Cycles of Goldfish
Read by Stuart Jaffe
Vintage Fiction
The Rhythm Man
by James Beamon

    by K. D. Julicher

Artwork by Andres Mossa

I awake. Someone pulls a parachute off my head and I see the world again. The briefing loads into my active memory, where we are, why, weather reports, but none of it matters. All that matters is fire.

The grass fire creeps along the hillside above us. I draw my Pulaski from my flank sheath, my four long metal fingers dark against the golden wood of the axe-and-hoe combination tool. The wildfire is in the dry cheatgrass ahead of us, three-foot-high flames lapping along the ground. Dark smoke billows upward, blotting out the brilliant blue sky and the spiky granite teeth of the mountains fencing this remote valley. There's twenty of us: fifteen lean men, four wiry women, and me, the four-legged metal monstrosity they call NK7 after the first three letters of the radio call sign assigned to my chassis.

I've counted a hundred and forty days on fires since I first deployed. I think it's been three years but I'm not sure. Something in my cybernetic brain doesn't do well at making memories. Facts, I know. Faces and names, how to fight fires, a simple tally of days on an incident, I can recall. Bigger things, like how often I've seen August burning red on the mountains, are as lost to me as the taste of bread or the feel of a bed or human touch. The things I knew before I became a centaur-bodied cyborg. I remember them less every day.

It should bother me. I want it to bother me. I want to care about where I am, what I do, anything but the aching emptiness inside me.

A hundred and forty days. Maybe thirty fires, maybe four dozen. They all blend together. I activate, there is fire, nobody looks at me or speaks to me except to bark orders. I dig my line, the fire burns out, and we are left with ashes and destruction. The others go home to their families. I get turned off, to wake up only at the next incident. Repeat for eternity.

I am going to kill myself. It's not a visceral want. I don't have those any more, or desires or hope either, just despair and emptiness. I cannot face this continued hellish existence in which I have no more volition than the Pulaski in my hand. Only it's hard to destroy yourself when your body is military-grade hardware, when your systems are hardened against fire. I could force myself to walk into the flames and wait for the heat to worm its way into my delicate parts, except my sadistic designers made sure that I can feel pain. No doubt to them it makes sense for the same reason a human nervous system needs pain. When you are burning a delicate sensing organ, whether that's a fleshy finger or a ten-thousand-dollar haptic sensor, the brain needs to be told stop that, you're an idiot. This body is a better prison than my cell ever was.

Up ahead is a stand of aspen, then another open patch, and then the hillside sprouts lodgepole pines like spines on a hedgehog. Once the fire reaches the treeline, it will be much harder to knock down. I don't think we have much hope of catching the fire before then. Not my place to make the decision. At the head of the line, Captain Ehring consults with Archer and Hill, the sawyers, who unsling and gas up their chainsaws as they speak. They laugh and joke with each other. Did I use to do that? I don't remember, but I miss it. Ehring waves us over to him. He points to a boulder field about twenty yards upslope. "That's our anchor point," he says to the rest of the team. "Line starts there. We're going to come at the flame from the side. If the wind stays low we may try to cut it off, but we start with the line here. We don't leave till the job's done."

It makes good sense. A fireline here will protect the downhill slope. If the fire blows up, we have somewhere to retreat. We string out from the boulder field, the rangy line of lean fire fighters and me, the monstrosity. The sawyers are at the head of the line on the east side of the rock. They march ahead to the aspens and start cutting. Mendez and Jones follow and pull the branches and sections of skinny trunk away from where our line will go. Next we come hacking away at the slope with the hoe head of our Pulaskis. Liu attacks the virgin dirt, scraping back the surface vegetation and gouging a two-inch line in the dirt.

I know everyone's names, skills, length of service. Everything and nothing that matters. In my memory they are no more human than I am. Just data. Mendez is talking to Jones about his children. Did I know he had children? Things that don't matter to the job don't stick in my memory. Do I have children? I wish I cared, wish anything could penetrate my programming and let me feel again.

I follow, my Pulaski scraping the ground. It's a precise motion calculated to widen the line to a ditch nearly two feet across, but only a hand deep. I don't have to think about the work. It's programmed in along with the thousand other skills I need. I crab my way sideways along the hill, my four legs moving my metal centaur's body, watching the flames. We work our way closer to them, till we're only a few yards away. I can see the heat radiating off. My vision goes into infra-red. I know from experience that if I step into the flames my sensors will transmit the pain straight to my brain.

My arms scrape the Pulaski's hoe head along the ground and reveal the bare dirt beneath the cheatgrass or occasional bitterroot and scrawny sagebrush. Gonzalez follows me, mopping up anything I missed and pushing the debris further away from the fireline. Ehring, seeing how well we are moving, sends four of the rest on ahead of the sawyers to push the line up closer to the head of the fire.

So thin a line, not even the span of one of my mechanical arms, to stop a fire. And yet it can when almost nothing else will. Starve a fire and it will die. Give it fuel and wind and there's no stopping it. Like hope, it burns on the barest ground, but when it is gone leaves nothing but ash.

This is my life now. The researchers came to me in my cell and offered me freedom; a reduced sentence and a chance to be part of something important. I jumped at the chance, of course. Six years, half my sentence, taken off just for letting them make a copy of my mind?

I laughed about it right up to the first time I booted up in my chassis. Hell, the other guy is probably still laughing. Damn him.

Captain Ehring walks the line behind us. He's got his radio out, held up to his ear, and he's talking into it. I keep working but start scanning the frequencies, looking for which one he's on. Voices blossom in my head.

Ehring: "Anybody out here should have seen the smoke hours ago and headed out. Waste of time for me to send one of my crew."

The woman on the other end: "Governor Wahles is worried for her son's safety. Put someone on it."

I glance sideways, never losing my rhythm. The tool rises and falls without my conscious attention. Ehring is swearing but doesn't have the radio keyed down. Then he toggles the switch. "Understood."

This is my chance. I've got to have time to myself if I am to find a way out of my misery. I step out of line. "Sir," I say. "I'll go."

"You were listening," he says.

It's not a question, so I don't bother answering. "Someone's missing?"

"There may be a pair of kids somewhere in this vicinity, hiking along the river. We're supposed to locate them and get them to safety."

I sheathe my Pulaski. Ehring watches me. His head tilts back to meet what he probably thinks of as my eyes. My head is just a platform for various sensory inputs and my speaker, because other humans expect my voice to come from the top and not my abdomen. My centaur's torso is designed to power my arms and protects my input console, the one Ehring or my maintenance crew can use to access my diagnostics and boot routines. All the critical parts are carried up in my abdomen, cradled like a fetus inside the bulk of me. My brain is in there, somewhere, a black box full of circuitry or synapses or who knows what. I nurture a dream of cutting in and ripping the box out like an ancient priest removing a still-beating heart, but it's too well protected for me to reach.

"I'm the fastest in this terrain," I say, the modulated tones issuing from my speaker giving no hint of my sudden interest. An hour or so alone, unsupervised, will surely be enough. "I'll find them in time."

Ehring hesitates, weighing his options. I am valuable on the fireline, able to do the work of several men, but by the same token I can locate the hikers without needing to be rescued myself. "Take a spare pack with you."

"I don't need it," I say. The packs hold water and protein bars and survival gear. My batteries are fully charged and will last for 72 hours before I need to plug in or swap out packs. Maintenance happens between fires while I'm offline. I wake up for a fire, fight through till containment, then they pull the plug and take me off somewhere. I suspect there's a lot more happening while I'm out than I'll ever know. Sometimes there'll be a new set of programs added, sometimes I see scars on my frame that I don't remember acquiring. I think there have been whole incidents removed from my memory. It's all part of my personal hell. My body is not my own and I have doubts about my mind as well.

"For the hikers, if you find them," Ehring clarifies. "Stay in touch. I'll call you on that same frequency you were just monitoring. If you see any hotspots, call it in."

I assent, and Ehring turns back to his team, dismissing me without another word. I head downslope toward the river. My pace is easily double a man's. The noise of the fire dies off as I hike down the mountain meadow, away from the burned-over area.

We're a hundred miles out of Boise, in some chunk of national forest with trees and chipmunks and rocks and not much else. My legs adjust stride automatically to compensate for the uneven ground and the extreme slope, automatic routines I don't have to think about. I toggle my rear camera once or twice to make sure no tendrils of flame have broken free to chase after me, but all I see of the fire is the smoke snaking skyward. It's pushed pretty fast; the wind must be picking up, and that's not good. I can't leave the rear camera on for long. Getting input from two opposite directions at once gives me a headache. That's something that frustrates the researchers. They say with the hardware I'm running on I ought to be able to cope with a 360-degree range of vision. One of the post-docs likes to accuse me of lying about it. But I'm not; it gives me a feeling of nausea, which is doubly annoying considering I don't have a stomach to be sick with.

The mountain meadow is, no doubt, beautiful. All I see is fuel waiting for a spark. We fight fires in breathtaking locations, putting our lives and our labor on the line, to prevent a few more acres being added to the ashes. I come to a stand of burned-over pines from a fire a season or ten ago. The blackened trunks tower over my head. Half the trees in the stand are dead, their bare black branches drooping at their sides. Others bear spiky green needles in clusters along their branches. Here and there a new sapling has sprouted. Lodgepole pines need fire to germinate. Their pinecones have resin that melts and releases the new seeds. The wildlands know how to live with fire, but we come along and mess with that. It's as unnatural as I am, an attempt to force a new technological order on the natural way of things, and just as futile. Sooner or later the fire wins and we are left standing in the ashes.

I reach the bottom of the slope and splash into the river. It's shallow here, racing along past rocks, frothing up at outcroppings, and so clear. My extremities record the temperature--40 degrees, and that's at the height of summer, but I don't feel the cold since it's no threat to my body. I splash along the riverbed. How am I supposed to find a pair of hikers in this vast wilderness?

I could take this opportunity to lose myself. My batteries will last almost three days, long enough for me to get deep into the mountains, to find a hole and drop myself in it. Only I'll have to remove my radio transponder first and I've had no more luck with that than with removing my brain-case. Besides, I have a secret worry that somehow my mind will stay active even with all my inputs cut off. And that sounds even worse than this miserable existence.

The wind shifts, blowing smoke down from the fire. It settles in the ravine, shrouding me, dimming the sun and blurring the world beyond. I make my way along the river's edge. The rushing water is unnaturally loud in the gloom. I scan through radio bands as I go, listening in on calls between Ehring and the fire incident commander, or between the commander and other teams. It's easy to forget that there are other people working other fronts, that my team is just one of several trying to button the blaze up before it spreads.

I hear something, not on the radio but with my audio inputs; a harsh whistle blowing groups of long and short. I tilt my head and try to locate the sound. It seems to come from upslope to my east, farther still from where I started. I splash across the river. The current is swift and several inches deep. It poses no threat to my four-legged wide stride. I consider radioing Ehring but I haven't found anything yet. Besides, this is still my best opportunity yet. Maybe once I've found the lost hikers, inspiration will strike. Maybe I can call in a chopper for them and arrange to fall out of it from a great height. But my designers will find the black box and reinstall me in a new chassis and I'll have to try again.

I start up the slope on the far side of the river. It's densely wooded. I weave past tall lodgepole pines waving gently in the stiff breeze, crush small bushes underfoot, and wonder about the smoke. It seems too thick to have drifted over from our blaze. Is there another fire nearby?

And how is it in three years I've never managed to effectively attempt self-termination? Am I really such a coward? Or have I tried a dozen times only to have the memory removed? Or--and this thought strikes me for the first time--did the researchers who uploaded my brain implant an unconscious desire for self-preservation? I've thought of three different methods already today and ruled them all out without even trying.

The whistling starts again. It sounds more frantic than ever. They must have spotted smoke rising nearby. I briefly wonder if they'll flee when they get a good sight of me. My metal body stands a good two feet taller than an average man. I have the posture and gait of a mechanical horse, a dark metal exoskeleton straight out of a nightmare.

I reach the top and the smoke clears enough for me to see the hikers. There's a kid on the ground cradling his ankle and another blowing her whistle. She's looking directly away from me. The kid with the busted ankle raises his head. He sees me. His eyes go wide and the pain in his face fades briefly to astonishment. "Pat! Look out!"

The girl whirls, whistle still at her lips. She drops it and shrieks, shuffling back. Her foot hits a rock and she trips, landing on her rear.

I hold up a metal claw. "I'm here to help you."

The young guy looks wary. "What are you? Some sort of park ranger bot?"

"I'm with the wildfire crew," I say. "They call me NK7."

"Let me guess. My mom sent you." He looks disgusted now. "I hate that she's right again! She's never going to let me hear the end of it! Damn it!"

"You're Governor Wahles's son?"

"I'm Adam." He grimaces and gets up, all his weight on his right leg. Pat gets up too. They're a cute young couple. He's dark, almost as dark as me, and tall enough he towers over the girl. She's pretty clearly the outdoorsy one. Her hiking shoes have scuff marks and mismatched laces, her hat is worn and sun-bleached. Adam wears gear that looks like it just came off the rack at an upscale hiking store in Portland. "Sorry you had to come up here," he says. "Is the fire close? The smoke's awful."

"That's probably why your mom sent in Smokey here," Pat says. She drops her whistle, which hangs from a lanyard around her neck, and approaches me, peering up at my head. "So are you remote-operated or what?"

"No," I say. "How badly are you hurt?"

"He sprained it," Pat says. "It's not broken."

I look around. We're at the top of a ridge. The wooded land slopes away on both sides, gently enough to allow foot passage but not ideal for landing a helicopter, even assuming they can find a gap in the trees large enough. "Get that patched up and let's move." I remove the first aid pouch from my survival gear and toss it to them. The girl gets to work while I stand useless. My hands are designed for the intense physical work of firefighting, not for healing.

I check my internal GPS against the satellite map set I have downloaded. We're about five miles from the nearest forest road, probably closer to seven along whatever trail these two took coming in. It's also away from Ehring and his crew. That gives me more time to make a decision about myself.

"Done," Pat says.

All right," I say. "I'll escort you back to the road."

"That's not necessary," Adam says.

"Yes, thank you," Pat says. She turns to Adam, glaring. "I am not hauling your ass when your ankle gives out halfway."

"I've got my stick," he protests, leaning over and picking up a thin carbon fiber pole. It's got a rubber tip and an electric blue coating. From the same place, no doubt, where he bought those fancy pants.

We strike off down the side of the brush-covered hill. The path winds down through the straggling trees, veering here to cross a dry gully, dodging past a particularly large lodgepole pine. It's clear of the juniper and grasses that fill the space between pines, but the two hikers move much slower than I do. I take up the rear. Adam hobbles along ahead of me, leaning too much on his pole.

"What's that?" Pat asks, halting. She points. The path curves around a huge granite boulder just ahead of us. I can't see past her. I step down through the brush beside the path, my feet finding purchase on the hillside, and circle to the front, rounding the boulder.

A trail of smoke snakes skyward. I should have noticed it before, when we were on the ridge. As I watch, it thickens. It must be growing at a tremendous rate. I study it, my eyes automatically focusing and zooming as some subsystem kicks in without my trying. At the same time I check my most recently cached satellite data. It's over an hour old. I have a satellite transponder built into my chassis somewhere and a text link out, but not broadband. Satellite time is too expensive. Usually I piggyback off the incident commander's comms, but I'm well out of range of Ehring's gear. The intel might as well be a year old for all the good it does me.

We stand overlooking a steep-walled valley, rocky here near the top of the slope, trees thicker on the lower flanks. From the bottom, hidden behind the trees, I can hear the rush of water. The path skirts the edge of the valley for some way, presumably making a switchback somewhere up ahead because I can see it again about fifty yards below us. The hill is more like a cliff here, though, and going straight down would be impossible without ropes. It's high enough, I might throw myself off and dash myself on the rocks below. Only I have promised to see the kids back to safety. Without me, they cannot radio for help, and thick smoke is rising from up the valley to the north. "Where's the fire?" Pat asks. "How far away?"

I am searching for her answers even as I speak. "From the way it's rising, not more than half a mile. The wind is pushing it toward us."

"Should we go back?" Adam asks.

I toggle on my rear camera and swivel my neck through its full range of motion, gathering input from all sides. It's disorienting, and the two hikers stare at me, but I quickly stitch together the video streams. There's a smoke trail uphill too. I've got the most advanced fire prediction algorithms baked into my brain. I can't follow how they work--all I do is call them up, provide them what I know, and the results are spat back to me faster than the hikers can blink. "The fire's on this side of the stream," I say. "It'll be traveling at us, and upslope faster than down. Our best chance is to get to the river and try to put it between us and the front."

"I don't know how fast Adam can travel," Pat says.

"He can ride," I say. I'm not built for it, despite my looks, but with Pat's help Adam climbs up onto my back and clings to my torso. We start off down the path, much faster.

The fire is visible as we reach the switchback. It's less than a quarter mile from us, creeping through the grass and shrubs on the hillside. The flames are quick but not tall. A few leap up to singe low-hanging pine branches but the surface fire has yet to take hold in the trees. We turn our backs on it and continue on the downward path. Pat keeps glancing back over her shoulder, at me or her boyfriend or the fire. I swivel my head every hundred yards. The fire is coming on fast. We'll reach the water before it does, but only barely. To my left the hillside rears up steeply, nearly a wall. It falls away on the right into the river, a two-foot-wide stream babbling past mossy lumps of granite that detached themselves from the mountain ages ago.

Pat reaches the water and I am right on her heels. She turns to help Adam off my back and her face goes white. I turn. The fire is nearly upon us, and now I hear its sound, like a freight train barreling down on us. The heat hasn't touched us yet. It's coming down the slope at us, and the heat is rising, so we barely feel its presence.

It's two hundred feet away. The flames leap up and catch on the branches of a beetle-killed lodgepole. A lick of fire runs up it, a bright tattoo against the dark rough bark. The pine catches with a whoosh. Pat screams as the shock of ignition hits us. We stumble back into the stream and three more trees explode into flame. A moment later the fire leaps across to a branch overhanging from a pine on the opposite side of the stream. I can feel the heat now as it begins to crown. The surface fire flames stand nearly as tall as Adam, almost to my shoulders.

It's too late to run and even if I had more than a single Pulaski, too late for us to dig. We'll have to shelter. The stream curves back behind us, and there's a wide sandy bank on the far side. None of the pines come down to the water there, though it's littered with pinecones and dead needles. "Hurry!" I say, and lead the hikers to the opposite shore. I reach for my emergency pack. I toss aside most of the gear and throw the two signal flares into the water so they won't explode when the fire reaches us. Then I remove the tightly rolled aluminum-and-silica shelter. It's meant for one, big enough for two in a pinch, but not for three. Certainly not when an eight-foot metal centaur is one of the three. "Unfold it. You stand on the edge of the sheet and then drop to the ground. Hold it tight against the dirt. It's going to burnover," I warn, handing Pat the shelter. "It'll be tight but you can both make it."

"What about you?" Pat asks.

"It's a robot, it'll be fine," Adam says. He moves to the center of the sandbar. "Come on, Pat, it's getting close!"

Pat doesn't answer. She stares into my ocular receptors, and I can feel her looking for me. Whatever there is of me inside this metal monstrosity. "You're not a robot, are you."

"I'll be fine," I say. "Go!"

They climb inside, collapsing into a shiny silver boulder on the sandbar. I pull out my Pulaski. We're protected on two sides by water but I might be able to dig a ditch on the landward side to keep back the flames. I move forward, and the fire reaches me.

A wall of flame suddenly roars up in front of me. I stumble back, my arms thrown up to protect my head instinctively even though nothing important lives there. The trees around me stand against the flame for moments before transforming to torches. Smoke whirls skyward, pulled up by the intense heat. The haze turns to thick smoke, closing in like a choking cloud, lit bright orange from the flames beneath. It's like being in a long road tunnel, with the orange lights they used to use. It's like descending into hell.

The fire rushes forward. It laps up the fallen pine needles. The grasses vaporize the instant the flames hit them. A chipmunk races forward out of the flame, its hindquarters charred, and throws itself into the water. A moment later a mule deer, screaming with a sound I've never heard before, bare skin scorched and smoking, follows. The deer crashes into the stream, thrashes, and falls still.

There's nowhere to run. The fire is too fast. I back into the middle of the sandbar, near but not too close to the sheltering hikers. If I should be overcome I do not want to fall on them. Tongues of fire lash out toward our sandbar. I am unable to move. I thought I had lost fear along with my body, but this goes beyond mere stimulus-response.

The nearest flames dart up and fall back, starving for lack of fuel on the sandy beach. The rest of the fire swirls past along the shore. Pounding waves of heat assail me. A nearby tree cracks and explodes from the heat. My internal diagnostics send up fifty warnings; my body is fire-resistant, not fire-proof. The river offers no escape. The shallow rushing water cannot protect me against the heat. Pain, artificially induced though it may be, feeds my fears. I can see nothing beyond the flames, nothing above me but black smoke lit hellish red by the flames below. The noise of the flames is all I can hear.

The urge to run is strong, so strong. It's the same fear that made me volunteer for this experiment, just to give me a chance at escaping my prison cell. It's fear that locked me in this body, and fear that keeps me alive without hope. I can't stand being trapped. I want to fight, but there's nothing I can do so I clutch my Pulaski in my hands. The inferno rages around me. It's been five minutes, and there's no end to the flames. My internal chronometer won't stop ticking, so I'm keenly aware of the passage of time. The pain fades to a dull roar. Maybe my underlying programming has realized I can't avoid the heat.

The grasses are gone, the pine needles are ash. Some of the pinecones are still burning black lumps, like charcoal in a backyard grill. The water beyond me hisses and sizzles as falling branches and embers drop from the burning canopy into its depths. I've seen the destruction fire leaves in its wake before, but never stood in its midst as it works.

A creaking noise breaks my reverie. To my left, a fifty-foot-tall burning pine groans and shivers. It leans forward and starts to fall. Alarms go off inside my head, blaring warnings. The tree begins to topple, right at me. Nothing stands in its way. It will come down on me and crush my brain case, crumpling my chassis like a small car under a semitruck. It will smash my circuits and synapses to dust, obliterating whatever it is I have become. I won't even feel it; my processing center will be destroyed before the rest of my body takes damage.

I turn off the alarms. The sensor suite is still running, calculating, as the tree falls toward me. And toward the fire shelter at my back.

The kids are completely unaware inside their silver shelter. I don't even know whether they are alive, or if the heat and smoke have overcome them, but a burning tree will settle that. There's no time to tell them to run, and abandoning the shelter would be their death.

I call up my tree-felling subroutine and it floods me with data. I know how the tree will fall, down to the inch. The algorithm shows me all the vectors and forces, and hiding in the data is a course of action. I might save them, but I will lose my chance at achieving oblivion. I may never get another.

I am content in this moment, knowing that at last my meaningless existence will be at an end. No more experiments, no more fires, no more me. No more. No safeguards stopping me this time. I'm not taking any deliberate action, I'm just letting the fire do what it does best: destroy everything in its path. The hikers may be dead already. No one could blame me for not saving them from this hell. All I have to do is stand still.

All I have to do to ease my own suffering is condemn someone else. I did that once, and the joke was on me when I was the one who woke up a cyborg.

I lunge forward, hands splayed out on my Pulaski and tilting the tool sharply so the right end is a foot higher than the left. I catch the falling trunk against the wooden handle, a glancing blow. The impact shakes me and shoves me backward. My claws scrabble and sink in the soft sand. My arms creak as a dozen strain gauges I forgot having all scream warnings at me. The tree crashes down, tossing me aside like a leaf, but my work is done. The trunk falls inches from the precious silvery lump.

Over the roar of the flames I can hear the exclamation, not the words just the terror. "Stay where you are!" I shout and hope they hear me. The foil rips and pulls in the galeforce winds, but I can't tell if there's movement from inside or not.

The trunk is still burning. I hack at it with my Pulaski, delighting in the feel of the tool sliding in my hands as I lop off the branches and toss them, flaming, into the river. Each swing slices deep as my tree felling routine tells me just how to angle the Pulaski's sharp axe blade. Then I attack the shorn, blackened pine corpse. My arms pack a punch. I chop off a twelve-foot section of trunk and with some effort roll it away. My sensors report the heat to my brain as pain, screaming at me, but I don't care because I'm finally doing something to defy the flames. This fire is enormous, far beyond my ability to fight. I take savage joy in defying it, in fighting, in taking lives into my own hands. My body is powerful, purposeful. I can look into the depths of hell, and force hell to blink.

I am alive, not as a human or a sapling lives. I am fire, a force of nature, and I cannot be stopped.

The trunk section smolders safely distant from the shelter. I lower my Pulaski and gaze into the wall of flames whirling just beyond our little island of safety. My internal alarms shriek in my head, warning me I'm facing temperatures far too hot for my body. The wonky servo in my rear leg double-fires, making my leg twitch, and then shuts down altogether. The flames roar defiance, and I roar back. I can almost smell the smoke.

And then the fire is past. I've survived the burnover. I stare in its wake. The flame wall moves on down the river valley. Trees and patches of ground still smolder, little patches of flame fighting a rearguard action as the main force moves on. Two pines lean dangerously far over. The ground is dark with ash. The river beside me is choked with half-burnt branches and clumps of ash. Something dead floats by. My wildlife subroutine insists it is a fox, but all I see is a lump of charred flesh flaking away from white bones.

I have lost my best opportunity to end myself. I have been through the fire and I remain. It is as if someone opened my cell door and I refused to step through. Yet I find myself content.

I lean my head back. Overhead, the smoke begins to thin. I catch a glimpse of blue sky overhead. "You can come out," I call, and the kids emerge like saplings sprouting from the ashes. Adam's still shaking. Pat seems beyond fear. Their clothing clings to their sweaty bodies, their hair is matted to their skulls, their lips cracked. They gaze at the world around us. I have given them this moment. No human could have stood between them and death the way my metal body did.

Adam hobbles toward the ash-laden stream. "Ugh," he mutters. "But I'm dying for water." He crouches.

"Wait," I say, and find the canteen of water from my emergency supplies. I give it to Pat, who drinks.

She makes a face. "So hot," she says, and then hands it to Adam.

"I'll radio for help," I say, and realize I probably should have done that before we became trapped. I hadn't thought of it. A good sign to quell my nagging worries. I am still human despite my form, despite everything this body has been programmed with. The kids don't object, so I cycle through frequencies till I find the right one.

A helicopter is already in the area, waiting for word of Governor Wahles' boy. They spot us quickly once I describe our location. We'll have to hike a quarter mile upstream to a place they can land, but that's all. I relay word to the hikers, then change frequencies and find Captain Ehring. He's shocked at my report. "You'll need a full lab diagnostic and repair. Evacuate with the hikers."

"How's the line?"

"We're holding," he says, a grim note in his voice. "This is going to be a bad one. Containment is days out."

I check my diagnostics. My left rear leg is nearly useless, but I can limp along on the other three. My batteries are still nearly full. The weight of the Pulaski in my hands feels just right. "With your permission, I'll be back on the line in two hours," I say.

Ehring pauses. "You're sure, NK7?"

"We don't leave till the job's done," I say. "Hold the line for me. NK7YIV signing off." I pull up a maintenance program I've never bothered to use and adjust the power going to each of my legs, compensating for my damaged limb. I've got a long walk ahead of me, and a hard day of fighting fire.

I can't wait.

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