“Say again, Control. Should I cut the red or the blue wire?”
I wait, cutters poised in mid-air above both. Status reports scroll through my eyeline, but I ignore them. Every previous time I’ve dealt with an Improvised Explosive Device of this design, I’ve cut the red wire.
The IEDs look simple — but looks can be deceptive. The terrorists are getting trickier, making up for our superior equipment and training with ever more inventive boobytraps. So doing what worked last time isn’t necessarily a good idea.
A gust of wind comes out of the desert, hot and dry, and blows sand over the IED. I use my airbrush to clear it off again. I’ve always been a stickler for a clean work surface, and that’s even truer now.
In the midst of the silence, unbidden, the face of my wife, Samara, floats into my mind. It’s the same memory as always.
“Do you have to go, Jon? I’m scared.”
“Don’t be,” I reassured her, gathering her into a hug. Her hair smelled of lilies. “I know what I’m doing.”
“It’s not just you I’m worried about,” she said, pulling away a little and staring intently into my eyes. “What about us –- me and the bump, I mean.” She glanced down at her growing waistline. “The insurgents get closer every day.”
I put on my game face. “Do you think I’d go to work if I wasn’t entirely happy about security? There’s nothing to worry about, darling. The base is safe. You and baby Belinda can sleep soundly till I get back.”
We hadn’t actually agreed on a name for our unborn daughter yet. But after my younger sister Belinda died in the food riots of ’22, I’d vowed to keep her memory alive if I got the chance. I hadn’t convinced Samara yet — she thought it mawkish –- but I was working on her.
“Okay,” Samara said. “As long as you’re sure.”
She balanced on tiptoes, I bent my knees, we met in the middle and I kissed her goodbye.
“See you in a couple of days,” I said, then shouldered my kitbag and walked to the jeep outside.
That was the last time I saw Samara.
“Cut the blue wire, Jon.” The hiss of the radio message cuts into my reverie like a scalpel; it takes me a couple of seconds to register what Control said. So the insurgents have switched their MO. That’s fine; so have I.
I cut the blue wire.
“Jon, are you in there?”
I come to, confused and disorientated. Large amounts of startup code scroll across my eyes, and I can hear dialogues between internal subsystems.
“I’m here, sir.” My words emerge in an unfamiliar voice, richer and more resonant than I’m used to. “What happened?”
“Double bluff, I’m afraid,” Colonel Stornoway says. My vision isn’t fully functional yet, but I’d recognise his cut-glass accent anywhere. “There was a boobytrap on the blue wire. Sorry, old chap.”
“Damage?’ I ask, though I already know the answer.
“Almost total. We managed to salvage your memory chip, but the Mark Two body unit was a write off. We’ve transferred you into the first of the new Mark Threes.”
“Just as well you sent me, rather than a human, then,” I say.
It’s a sore point for everyone. Especially me. I’d been the last bomb disposal technician to “die” — here in the guerrilla wars in Afghanistan at least — some fifteen months earlier, when the terrorists changed their bomb design and I found out the hard way. My body was critically injured, but the reinforced helmet I was wearing protected my brain and they managed to save that.
As I found out afterwards, the government had become increasingly worried about the number of casualties we were taking from IEDs, and the effect this was having on morale back home. The politicians leaned on the top brass to do something. They started by working us bomb disposal guys harder, but that just led to mistakes. Fatal mistakes. That’s when DARPA — the Army’s resident eggheads — got involved. They’d been developing robotic supersoldiers for the war in Brazil. The project had failed. The robots lost every firefight, too bulky and slow for combat. But when one of the DARPA guys heard about our IED problem, he realised he had the answer.
They took the bomb-disposal knowledge and experience locked up in my brain, downloaded it onto a memory chip and married it to one of their robots.
Bomb disposal engineers don’t need to rush around, or beat the other guy to the draw. Bulky and slow is fine for us, as long as we can manipulate delicate mechanisms. So my robotic fingers are as sensitive as a concert pianist’s.
It took months for me to learn how to use them. Longer to accept what had happened. Eventually I did both. What choice did I have?
I’m still doing the job I always loved. But now, if anything goes wrong, I simply wake up in a new body.
There’s just one problem. Samara can never know, because the programme is top secret and the brass want to keep it that way. She thinks I’m dead, killed in the line of duty. They had a funeral and everything.
It’s my daughter Belinda’s first birthday next week. I’d love to see her open her presents. But I can’t. Not if I don’t want to be decommissioned — permanently.
Mind you, this new Mark Three body is much less bulky than the Mark Two. I could almost pass for human now. Enough to sneak over to the crèche without being noticed? I dedicate some processor time to the question. I’ll think about it properly later.
For now, I pull myself together, put those thoughts back in long term storage, along with the rest of my human memories, and get back to business.
“Where do you need me next, sir?”
Patrick Mahon works on environmental policy by day, and scribbles when he should be in bed. He has previously been published in Every Day Fiction and Jupiter SF magazine. He lives in leafy Buckinghamshire in the UK with his long-suffering wife and two children. He’s on Twitter as @PJMahon.