Author : Bob Newbell

The man and the machine surprised one another when they happened to both enter the half-destroyed and looted store from opposite sides. The human reflexively reached for a gun, his hand finding only an empty holster. The robot pointed an arm at the man despite the fact that the gun mounted on the arm had been without ammunition for almost a month.

The thin, sickly appearing soldier and the battered robot said nothing. There was neither the sound of gunfire nor of screams as there had been a few weeks earlier. Now the wind was all that was audible in what was left of Leshan in Sichuan, China.

“You are my prisoner!” the scarecrow of a man wearing the tattered military uniform said as he grabbed a broken lamp and brandished it as a makeshift club. He immediately went into a coughing fit.

“No, it is you who are my prisoner,” came a tinny voice from the automaton’s half-broken voice synthesizer. It slowly rolled forward half a meter and stopped.

Battery running down, thought the soldier. It could have rushed me as soon as it spotted me but is hasn’t the power. “The rest of my platoon will be here any moment,” wheezed the man. “They’ll destroy you unless you surrender yourself to me.”

“I do not believe there are any other human soldiers in this area,” the robot replied. “Moreover, you are obviously in ill-health. If you turn over to me a compatible power supply, I will accept your surrender and let you live. Otherwise, I will kill you.” The machine again moved forward but only about half a meter. The motors that propelled it forward groaned in protest.

It’s in terrible condition, thought the man. One good blow to its optical sensor and it would be utterly helpless. He tried to lift the lamp above his head but the torn supraspinatus muscle in his right shoulder made him wince and rapidly lower his improvised weapon.

Again, the two combatants stared at each other in silence. At last, the machine spoke: “I cannot kill you. My power is nearly gone. I’d hoped to find batteries in this building that might keep me functioning for a while longer.”

The man said nothing.

“If I surrender myself to you,” continued the robot, “will your platoon provide me with at least enough power to keep my metaprocessor running?” Its voice was getting slower and deeper in pitch like an ancient record album playing on a turntable set to too few RPMs.

“I have no platoon,” admitted the human. He set the lamp down. “I’ve had radiation sickness for weeks. But starvation will kill me faster than the radiation. And pneumonia faster than the starvation.” He went into another coughing fit, one that brought him to his knees.

“If…I…had…food…or…medicine,” spoke the robot very slowly, “I’d…give…it…to…”

The machine fell silent.

The man looked around the room for anything that might provide power for his adversary. He found nothing. He staggered toward the robot, coughing up copious amounts of blood as he shambled forward. He lay down on the floor in front of the dead machine. He thought he should make some philosophical observation about war or life or some such thing. But he could think of nothing but his labored breathing. A few minutes later, the man died.

In time the soldier decomposed and the war machine rusted. And the howl of the wind was again the only voice to challenge the dead city’s silence.

Discuss the Future: The 365 Tomorrows Forums
The 365 Tomorrows Free Podcast: Voices of Tomorrow
This is your future: Submit your stories to 365 Tomorrows