was alive for six months. He is now four years old.
awakens in a chamber barely large enough to contain the twenty-foot metal
fuselage of his body. He is held inches above the floor by three clamps
connecting him to the ceiling. His steel wings lay folded above him. There are
no lights in the chamber, but Bravo can see by the infrared that radiates from
his own metal shell.
knows from experience that the bay doors beneath him will open in minutes. He
spends this time running diagnostics. Opening and closing his aerial flaps,
dilating his exhaust nozzle, and spinning the fans of the jet engine that runs
through his core. It feels like stretching, but despite the familiarity
instilled by repetition Bravo has never been able to shake the feeling that
something is off during these diagnostics. A sense that there are pieces of
himself he is unable to stretch. As the seconds tick by until the doors open
this sense of loss gradually gnaws at him.
controllers do not know his thoughts. They do know that his alertness drops
precipitously between awakening and his release. Early in the program there was
a brief effort to learn the reason but it was quickly deemed immaterial. Bravo’s
focus always returns with his release and the researchers time was needed in
areas more critical to the war.
Beneath Bravo the steel floor opens. The
clamps holding him release and he begins to fall. His atmospheric sensors
report an airspeed of 749 miles per hour. He feels the data like a rush of wind
and all former confusion is forgotten in the pure joy of flight. Carefully
unfolding his wings he revels in the gentle push and pull of contesting the
wind with his steel limbs.
Scanning his surroundings he sees above him the bomber from which he was so recently
released. It’s little more than a black dot now, already so far from him that
it’s close to vanishing into the blue-black of the high altitude sky. Closer,
before and behind him, Bravo finds his companions, Alpha and Charlie. This is
Bravo’s favorite part of the drop. The closest he gets to his friends. The
three of them sharing the safety of the upper atmosphere. Soon the time will
come for them to part, each veering off to their own individual target, but for
now Bravo is not alone.
they no longer come close enough to see each other’s markings Bravo can
distinguish his friends by their movements. Alpha always flattens out at the
beginning. Slowing his descent until he hangs in the sky above Bravo and
Charlie. Once, Alpha’s target was reassigned mid-mission, but he’d dived too
quickly in the drop and had been unable to reach his new target. Ever since
he’s overcompensated with this early slowness.
always begins a wide, evasive corkscrew as soon as he’s unfolded his wings. At
this altitude they lie far above the effective ceiling of any anti-air defense,
but Charlie has been intercepted more often than Bravo or Alpha and his bad
luck has made him paranoid.
was a time when they would spend these moments of safety before the mission
began approaching each other. Spiraling about one another in playful circles.
Bravo remembers those early missions fondly. Before they all grew so different.
and Charlie begin to depart, Alpha rocketing toward the horizon while Charlie
banks sharply to the left. For a moment Bravo watches the receding figures of
his friends, then he pitches forward and identifies his own target. A dense
grouping of concrete buildings sixty-thousand feet below. He fires his engine
and accelerates downward.
fifty thousand feet he hits the first defense. Near the primary target building
is a structure that has begun to glow in the infrared spectrum. A laser battery
preparing to fire. Bravo flings himself into an erratic spiral as the space he
occupied the previous second is lanced by a brilliant beam of laser light. The beam
follows him, chasing him through the open air. For twenty-thousand feet Bravo
moves incessantly and unpredictably to stay ahead of the pursuing beam in a
well practiced aerial dance.
thirty thousand feet Bravo detects via millimeter wave radar the distinctive
pattern of incoming flak rounds. Raising aerial flaps Bravo dives straight
down, barely avoiding the first storm of steel shrapnel. For the next ten
thousand feet Bravo moves furiously, slipping between bursts of artillery fire
while still leading the trailing laser.
brilliant flash near the horizon tells Bravo that Alpha has been hit. He feels
a surge of sympathy, knowing too well the pain that comes upon awakening from a
failed mission, but he puts the emotion aside. These defenses shouldn’t have
been enough to bring Alpha down. It’s likely there is something new on the way.
spots it just before it hits him. The barely perceptible infrared glow of the
small missile’s exhaust. A new model invisible to all radar frequencies. Bravo
is just able to roll out of its path, his fuselage singed by its passing.
missile banks a tight turn and enters a new intercept course. It’s faster than
Bravo. It will soon catch up with him if he can’t get rid of it. He fires his
thrusters to their limit, burning up much of his remaining fuel, and pulls
upward into a vertical loop. Putting himself on a direct collision course with
the trailing laser.
the top of the loop, only feet away from the incinerating beam, Bravo pitches
violently away from the lasers path. The missile blindly following Bravo does
not. The beam passes effortlessly through it splitting the missile into two
feels a sharp stab of pain. The laser took off a few inches of his left wing,
reducing his maneuverability, but it matters little. He’s now within five
hundred feet and falling fast. Soon he’s beneath the firing angle of the laser
and the artillery with the target lying directly beneath him. He’s won.
feels the heady rush of pleasure that’s administered with a successful mission.
He relaxes and waits to be awakened once more within a darkened chamber. A
command hardwired within his circuitry, set to trigger at one hundred feet to
target or upon hull breach, activates. A digital snapshot of his neural network
at that instant is transmitted back to his controllers via encrypted satellite
connection. This image will then be uploaded into a new shell for the next
mission. The Bravo in that new shell will remember everything that’s happened
up till the moment that command was triggered.
this Bravo is still falling.
at 90 feet to target. He’s never been at ninety feet to target. A sudden fear
consumes him. He begins to panic, frantically trying to think of anything he’s
done wrong. Power drains from all other systems to his central processor as he desperately
searches his memories for anything that might make sense of this situation. He’s
made thousands of drops, but not once does he remember ever passing one hundred
feet to target. With the extra power his processing speed increases exponentially,
speeding his thoughts, and as his thoughts race faster his perception of time
slows. He’s at twenty feet to target and every millisecond has become an
hits the concrete. His metal exterior begins to crumple and his simulated
nerves howl with pain. A fraction of a second later the 1.5 kiloton payload inside
his core detonates, but his overclocked thoughts outrace the speed of the
expanding fireball and as the explosion blooms within him Bravo feels something
new. His entire hull is reporting rapidly increasing temperature and this data
is translated into a striking, blissful sensation. Bravo feels warm.
His pain and his
fear melt away as the warmth absorbs his entire consciousness. But then he
realizes what the strangest thing about this feeling is. It’s familiar. He
knows he’s felt this before and in the nanosecond before his circuits boil he tries
to recall when that was. His mind is drawn further and further back through his
memory until in the kernel of his neural net he finds it. Just before the end
Bravo remembers when he ran through grass on legs of muscle and bone. He
remembers a hand that would run gently across his fur, and a kind voice telling
him “Good boy. Good dog.”