They would have said it was divine justice. For what we did. Sitting in an armchair far away, playing games, while their blood gushed onto the sand. But what happened to Kathy…. If that was karma, some god had tipped the cosmic scales too far.
The shrink, Dr Robertson, was impassive. Professional.
The dream was always the same, I told him. The square surrounded by the shells of houses. The Sirocco winds blowing smoke in whorls around the palm trees.
“That’s when she appears,” I said. Eight or nine, in a brown linen dress. “Not sure where she comes from. Probably from inside the café — or whatever was left of it — just like she did…” The shrink shakes his head slowly.
“You say this is the girl that you… eliminated?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s her.” There are some things you don’t forget.
“We’ve been through this, David,” said the shrink. “She is not the same girl. She is a figment of your post-conflict mind.” He paused. “And she must be destroyed before she destroys you.”
“David,” Kathy had asked me, “have your dreams ever… hurt?”
“Look, Kathy, what’s going on?”
“There’s something happening to me, maybe to us. I need to know. Have your dreams, those dreams, ever caused you pain?”
“No,” I said, “No, they haven’t.”
But soon I’d know Kathy was just ahead of the curve. As she always was.
The recruitment videos told us we’d save innocent lives. Drones could purge an area of insurgents, but they had itchy trigger fingers. Sometimes all they left behind was a couple of square miles of ash. That’s where we came in. The human touch.
“We’ve gamified war,” they said. “Serve your country without setting a foot outside its borders.”
When the call came, we stepped up to defend our homeland.
They called us pilots but we were more than that. We snorted nanobots that burrowed into our brains and built the connections we needed to sync with the mechs. Just enough sensation to react in real time: a little jangling of the nerves when the mech sensed danger, tingling on the skin when we came under fire. Nothing unpleasant. That was the theory at least.
“Carry on, David.”
“You know the rest, doc,” I said. “We’ve been through this before.”
“Repetition is part of the process, David,” he said. “Please continue.”
“She steps towards me…” I raise my arm-cannon and the cross hairs snap into focus. I know a hundred-millisecond burst will cut through her, leaving nothing behind. I know because that is what happened. That is what I did.
But in the dream I do nothing.
“This is when you must act, David. Slay your demons,” the doctor said. “She is not the girl you saw. That girl cannot be saved. But you can save yourself.”
The girl keeps coming until I can see the mech’s metallic proboscis reflected in her eyes. She opens her mouth wide. Impossibly wide. Then grabbing the mech’s arm, she bites down. And there is pain. Unspeakable pain. Pain we were never supposed to feel.
The techs could not work out what had gone wrong, exactly. But they liked Kathy, so they told her things they were not supposed to. And she told me.
“The AI that designed the nanobots screwed up,” she said. “The ‘bots were supposed to stop after syncing our brains with the mechs. But they didn’t. They’ve made strong neural connections from the mechs back to us. That means we don’t just get a little sensory feedback. We feel everything they do.”
They eventually stopped the programme. We were no good to them if we were paralysed with pain whenever our mech took a hit. And they wouldn’t let us see each other anymore. To avoid ‘enabling relationships’, they said. But Kathy and I met in secret, and I knew what they had made her do.
Kathy died in her sleep, you see. But not peacefully.
Kathy had been on patrol when her mech got ambushed. Old tech, but effective: the mine blew out the servos in her mech’s knee. The whole village — men, women, kids — showed up to finish the job. Some threw grenades, others rocks; whatever they could get their hands on. She couldn’t extricate the mech without inflicting heavy casualties, so she was going to jack out. Leave the mech to its fate. But they said no. The programme couldn’t afford to lose a mech this way, they told her. Anyway, there were no civilians in this war anymore. They had come to the party so now they had to dance. She refused but they overrode her controls so she couldn’t unplug herself. She had to kill almost all of them before the mech could limp away.
From then on, it all came back to her night after night. The gasoline exploding into flame. Shrapnel scything through her hull. The mech burning and Kathy feeling it, as if her own skin were blistering and her eyeballs boiling in their sockets. Because we knew by then. The nanobots we had inhaled could not distinguish our nightmares from the feeds we got from the mechs. So they patched our dream states into our nervous systems. Kathy was the first to feel the consequences. But soon it was all of us. In our dreams, we began to suffer brain-rending, inescapable pain.
No one could wake Kathy. She screamed and screamed until, in the end, her heart just stopped.
When I get back to my room that night, I ponder Dr Robertson’s words. But when I close my eyes, I can find no demons to slay. Then at last I let myself remember the girl. Her eyes. And finally I realise there is a demon in my dream after all. So when she appears in my dream that night, I am ready. I offer her my arm. And her appetite is endless.
Ananyo Bhattacharya is a science correspondent for The Economist, based in London. His short fiction has been published by Nature and Fantastic Stories.