by K. D. Julicher
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