This Machine

         Bravo was alive for six months. He is now four years old.

         He 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.

         He 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.

         Bravo’s 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.

         Though 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.

         Charlie 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.

         There 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.

         Alpha 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.

         At 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.

         At 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.

         A 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.

         Bravo 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.

         The 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.

         At 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 glowing halves.

         Bravo 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.

         Bravo 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.

         But this Bravo is still falling.

         He’s 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 eternity.

         He 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.”