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Short story: Simulation Theory


I knew paralysis and brain damage wouldn’t stop you, Ned. You’re a damned good soldier and you belong in the field.By Jo AndertonIllustration by James Nathan


James Nathan

Mike’s brains are in his helmet and they make this weird sound – slosh slosh slosh – as Ned runs. The mountains are copper shadows, the ground dark and bloody, and the sky burns. Knopp hollers in his ear, all static and distance and panic. He knows they’re shooting above him, behind him, but all he can hear is brains. And Knopp. And Tucka, out there, somewhere, screaming.

He won’t let them hurt Tucka too.

Ned runs. Bullets snap at his feet, sing past his ear. Tucka is a shadow in the smoke, the bulb from his camera sharply red, the desperate lights from his hub ports flashing blue. His tracks scream as he fights the sand, stuck in who the hell knows what and why the hell did he pick now to malfunction?

The roar of helicopter blades cuts through everything. The flash of missile fire. Then the ground’s rolling, and there’s pain down his back, and Ned falls. He can’t move. Mike’s helmet rolls away, sloshing. And Ned can’t do anything. As the bullets rip through Tucka, shatter camera lens, tear steel sheeting, rip out wires like guts, all he can do is scream…

“Sergeant!”

Ned slammed his head back against the chair rest and his robot arm jerked wildly. The cup he’d worked so hard just to pick up went flying, smashing into the far wall, leaving a solid crack in the plaster. Sweat ran down his face, and the chair beeped furiously as it fought to normalise his heart rate and breathing.

“Edward?” Beth, his nurse, leaned in close. “What happened?” Those hard brown eyes searched his face, even as she reached around and fiddled with the nodes in the back of his head.

Shivers coursed through him, the world seemed to shake a little with every movement she made.

“Pointless,” he spat the word, didn’t care about the drool dribbling down his chin. What dignity did he have left anyway?

That stopped her. She sat back, lips pinched to white. “That’s enough of that kind of talk.” Bitch didn’t have the decency to treat him like the pathetic invalid he was. Beth walked over to the wall, collected the cup and replaced it on the table next to his arm. “Try again.”

Except it wasn’t his arm, now was it? It was a part of the chair. An ugly motorised contraption on wheels, with a high back to strap him into, and nightmarish steel arms a mix of scorpion pincers and black skeleton bones.

“No,” he whispered.

“Now come on. You’ve been doing so well. Concentrate, and you can control the chair all on your own. Start by imagining…”

“I said no!” Ned shouted. He was sick of her prattle. Imagine moving his arm, imagine lifting the cup, the nodes in his brain and their connection to the chair will do the rest.

What good would imagining do? He couldn’t imagine the shrapnel out of his spine. He couldn’t imagine everyone in his unit back to life. He couldn’t imagine Tucka in one piece. So what was the point of it all?

They should have let him die.

“Try again, Ned.”

Ned’s heart would have skipped a beat if the chair wasn’t regulating it for him. For a moment, the world shook again, and Knopp’s voice was in his ear and Mike’s brains were in his hands. Then Beth turned him around to face his Captain, standing casually in the doorway. She looked odd, in civvies. Skirt and shirt and heels, all pressed and clean and polished.

“Sir,” Ned whispered. His robot arm twitched, an involuntary almost-salute that embarrassed him even more.

“This isn’t like you, Sergeant.” Captain Knopp crouched beside the chair. She looked tired, grey streaks in her short hair, lines deep in her sun-spotted face. But she was smiling, and she met his gaze, and didn’t look with pity or disgust on his useless body. “You’re a damned good soldier, Ned. And you belong in the field. Can’t go back out there if you give up, can you?”

“Field?” he asked, voice cracked. “What could I possibly do in the field now?”

“What you’ve always done so well.” Knopp stood, and wheeled his chair around while Beth altered the angle of his neck brace so he could see the floor.

There, rolling into the room on newly clean treads, was Tucka.

“That’s...” Ned felt lightheaded, like he wasn’t even breathing. “That’s impossible.” He’d watched Tucka die. Just like the rest of his mates, his whole goddamn unit, ambushed in the middle of an IED recovery. Tucka’s brains might be circuits and his skin steel, but dead was dead, just the same.

“Only as impossible as you are,” Knopp said.

Ned almost didn’t hear her. He was so deeply focused on Tucka, taking in every familiar scratch, every patched-up dent, and the dog tags he and Mike had wielded to Tucka’s chassis. The bomb disposal robot had saved his life, and the life of everyone in his unit, at least a dozen times. Ned would recognise him anywhere.

“I knew you could do this,” Knopp was saying. “I knew paralysis and brain damage wouldn’t stop you.”

One of Ned’s robotic arms was lifting, almost on its own, to reach for Tucka. Like he could touch him, pat him, and make sure he was real. “Tucka, mate.” He swore the robot’s camera was looking right back. He could feel it.

“You’re moving a machine with your mind, Ned. Have you thought about how amazing that is? Because you should. And that’s just the beginning of what your new and improved brain is capable of.”

Ned frowned at his extended arm. He pinched the clawed hand into a rough fist. “Improved?”

“Your nodes, Edward,” Beth said, behind him. “They patch up a hole in the back of your skull, the link between your chair and the electrical impulses from your brain. But they can do so much more.”

“And it’s time to put that to the test,” Knopp said. “I need you back in the field, Sergeant. That’s an order.”

He tried to swallow, but his useless throat got stuck half way.

“But you won’t be on your own.”

An insurgent hideout. Blood on the white-plastered walls.

He was still stuck in the bloody chair. Beth was off to the side somewhere, doing something he couldn’t see. “…establishing connection to your cortex array, Edward,” she was saying, talking to him when he couldn’t look her in the eye. “Just relax. This will feel a little strange at first.”

“Where’s Tucka?” he asked, again. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d asked her, since she hoisted him out of his bed and strapped him into his chair. Lost count of the number of times she refused to answer.

“Just focus, Edward. The transition will be a shock. Remember to keep calm.”

“But I need to know...“

And suddenly the room was gone. Beth too. Even the goddamn chair. And Ned, breathless, stunned, looked up to mountains he knew so well. Those same copper shadows, stretching into the glass sky, looming over him. He couldn’t breathe. Logar province. How did he get back here? He didn’t understand, what the hell was going on?

Beth’s words were ringing through his head, almost like he could still hear her urging him to keep calm. He tried to take a deep breath, but he didn’t have lungs. He looked down, to his stupid useless body, and found Tucka’s battered steel casing instead.

He wasn’t alone.

He was keenly aware of every inch of the robot, more aware than he’d ever been, even after so many years of working so closely together. Ned had never been a soldier’s soldier. Not good at all that team bonding, running for ages with heavy packs on your back bullshit. What Ned was good at was machines. And Tucka was his favourite. Standard run-of-the-mill bomb disposal unit when he was first allocated, but under Ned’s guidance, Tucka had become something else. Overclocked, extra sensors, heightened interactivity. One of the team. More than that. One of the boys.

But now, Ned could feel the grit in Tucka’s treads and the hunger of his reduced battery life. He could see through his camera, comprehend the data in his satellite feeds and he knew, a feeling deep inside his bones, that Tucka was waiting for Ned to tell him what to do.

“Tucka, mate,” he whispered. Or didn’t. He couldn’t tell.

Together, their camera focused on a bulky object in the middle of the dodgy dirt road. A car, wired up to blow them all to hell. In place of the fear of his waking nightmares, Ned felt a deep satisfaction. A sense that this was right.

“Just like old times.”

Under Ned’s direction, Tucka rolled forward. They approached the IED with caution. Dimly, Ned could hear gunfire and voices, but they weren’t his problem. Him and Tucka, they were here for the bomb. They quickly located a simple proximity fuse, and cast a smothering net to disable its twin seismic and magnetic sensors. This was Tucka’s specialty. A quick dump of data that confused the bomb’s tiny processors, paralysing it for just long enough, while he dug through the confused mess of decoy wiring, found the detonator and removed the striker-pin...

And everything went blank.

Ned woke to an impossible sensation of wetness. His hands were dripping. Holding Mike’s sloshing helmet, and dripping...

“Edward?” Beth appeared in front of his face. This time, there wasn’t any hardness in her eyes, the cold stone glare that refused his protests and forced him to practice with his robot arms. She was smiling. “Back with us, I see?”

He opened his mouth, but before he could say a word she placed a straw inside it, and he realised he was so damned thirsty. His throat was raw and dry, like he had swallowed half a desert’s worth of sand.

“Good boy,” she said, and stroked the side of his cheek as he sucked down great mouthfuls of water. “You did so well.” She placed a soft kiss just beneath his eye, and took the straw away.

He frowned at her, but she disappeared down, out of his vision. “What are you doing?” Silence beat around him. “Where am I?” He thought he was in the chair but it was hard to tell. Something was supporting his neck, and he’d been angled back, looking up. He didn’t recognise the lime-green ceiling.

“Shhh,” Beth whispered. He tried to move his head, to look down, but he was strapped tightly. “Relax, you’ve earned it. I’m here to look after you.”

“Earned it?” Uncertainty danced in his belly. She sounded right next to him. Was she touching him? He couldn’t tell, couldn’t feel a thing, except for the phantom wetness across his hands. “How did I earn it? Beth? Please, look at me?”

The S-400 Triumf, an old-school soviet surface to air intercept missile,
just lying there live and dangerous.

A little sigh, and she was back. Close to his face. “You must remember,” she said. “Out in the field. You did such a good job.”

He did? What field? “But where am I now? How long have I been here?”

Instead of answering, Beth gave him another drink. Her fingertips smelled like blood, and oil.

Tucka edged forward, cautiously. Quiet and empty-looking now, but Ned couldn’t help but remember the last time they’d been in this village. An insurgent hideout. Blood on the white-plastered, walls. The goat Mike accidentally shot, wailing as it died slowly. Kids clustered at the front door, terrified faces and huge eyes, but bastards with guns hiding in the shadows behind them.

What do you do? How do you know? Knopp’d wanted to send in Tucka, to check. Afterwards, Ned hadn’t slept for a week.

Now, the place was ghostly. No kids in the broken door, pile of bones where the goat might have been, bullet holes in all the walls. And they were sending Tucka back in. At least this time, Ned could go with him.

“That’s it, mate. Nice and slow.”

What were they looking for, again? It was hard to keep track of the specifics, but Tucka seemed to know what he was doing. His flexible, all-terrain tracks carried them up a short set of stairs, and rolled silently across the cement floor. Cold air brushed over them, Ned could feel it crisp against Tucka’s metallic skin. It felt like air-conditioning, but that couldn’t be right, could it? Not here.

Around a corner – he didn’t remember the hallways being so wide – and there it was, the 9M96E component of the S-400 Triumf, an old-school Soviet surface-to-air intercept missile, just lying there live and dangerous. Yes. That’s what they were after. Even as Tucka hurried over and began deactivating it, almost of his own volition, Ned began to wonder. Who would leave such a thing in an empty room? With smooth floors, and clean walls...

“E.A.T.R.’S got interference on the signal. Run me a quick diagnostic…

James Nathan

For a moment Tucka, the compound and the missile were gone. Ned was in his chair and Beth was right in front of him, talking to a bunch of wankers in labcoats, worry in her eyes this time, her gestures wild and sweeping.

Then he was back with Tucka, and the missile, a section of its warhead hanging open, and the anti-handling device already disengaged. Yes, that was better. That was what they were here to do. Diffuse and collect. So he reached down with Tucka’s great mechanical arms, just like collecting a cup with the ones attached to his chair.

But Tucka wouldn’t budge.

“I know it’s almost done, but I still think we should abort! I’m not liking the look of these numbers.” Beth’s voice.

The robot backed away, spun suddenly on its tracks and headed for the open doorway.

“Tucka, mate?” Ned whispered. His lips were so dry they’d split in the corner, and there was cold air blowing on Tucka’s camera. Both, at once. “What are you doing?” Fear rattled through him. Dimly, he could hear voices, but the words were hazy, coming in and out of focus. Beth. Knopp. Others he didn’t know. All freaking out. “Please. Stop.”

Tucka told him not to be such a pussy. So clearly Ned could almost hear the words. And Ned couldn’t help but laugh, a short snort that wiped all his fear away, instantly. “Screw you, Tucka,” he chuckled.

Somewhere, a warning siren blared as his robot carried him deep into the ruined compound, deeper than they’d ever been before. The further they went, the less like Ned’s memory it became. Cement floor was replaced by pale ceramic tiles, strips of fluorescent lighting embedded high in walls, numbers painted above gunmetal grey doors. What was this place? At the same time, Beth was leaning in close, eye to eye, calling his name.

“Ned. Ned. Can you hear me?”

Tucka came to a halt inside a small dark room, with a gaping crater at its centre. He skirted around the shattered tiles and broken cement to something on the far side. A hole blasted in the wall. He flicked on his low level light imaging, and peered inside.

“Tucka’s treasure,” Ned breathed the words.

“But you said there were protocols to follow to avoid permanent damage to his mind!”

There was the piece of shrapnel Mike had wielded into a makeshift helmet to fit over Tucka’s camera. The bottle of beer they’d given the robot for New Years – still full. Bits and pieces he’d collected himself over the years. Rocks and twig, chunks of rubble. An old mirror. Anything that had, apparently, taken the robot’s fancy and he’d kept, rather than consuming as fuel for his engines. The snow hadn’t survived the trip home.

For an instant, the mountains shuddered, replaced by the
bullet-riddled compound walls.

Ned knew this because Tucka was telling him. In flashes of memory and electrical spikes that surged through him like emotion. Tucka reached in with a careful pincer and withdrew his most precious treasure.

“Fine, do it then, but hurry up.

Ned had once made Tucka a medal, after he’d seen them safely through the Tera Pass. Out of a flattened bottlecap and a scrap of silver insulation, Tucka’s name and the date scratched on the surface. Half-joking, half-absolutely serious. And here it was, kept safe.

“And you call me a pussy?” Ned whispered, but he was smiling. It felt like the robot was smiling too.

The alarms were getting worse. “Come on, mate,” Ned said. “We have to get back.” Tucka gave him control again. Together, they retraced the machine’s tracks. “It’s okay,” Ned hoped he was saying out loud, but he had no way of really knowing. “We’re coming back. You can all calm down.”

“Just try not to do any damage.”

But this time, one of the steel doors was open.

“Wait!” Ned jerked his head – their head – to one side, and Tucka’s grip on his vision – their vision – wavered.

Dimly, Ned could see Beth’s close-up face replaced by Knopp, eyes red-rimmed and nervous.

Then he was back with Tucka. In Tucka. The robot slowed, swivelled his camera, allowing Ned to get a better look through the open door. Bodies, strung up in chairs, bound to machines, but not the way he was. Robotic arms clamped to inflamed shoulders, robotic legs drilled into exposed hipbones. Tucka zoomed in on a single face.

“Mike? Is that you?” He was certain, even with only one eye remaining and most of his mouth turned to metal. He’d have known his mate anywhere.

“Disconnecting in five, four…”

“No, wait please!” Ned urged Tucka forward. Men walked through the rows of bodies, all dressed in black and carrying guns. Who were they? Their faces were covered, insignia obscured.

“…Three, two…”

Tucka’s camera wavered. The image began to turn to snow. Together, Ned and Tucka reached for Mike. Mike whose brains Ned had carried. Mike who stared down at them both, shock on his face so terribly alive.

“…One.”

Beth washed the sweat from his body with a sponge and bucket. “The technical term, Edward, is PTSD.”

Ned opened his eyes and looked down at where she was scrubbing his feet. She’d draped a towel over his crotch. It’s maintenance, he thought, watching her fingers move so steady and precise.

“What?...” he tried to ask, but his mouth was dry again. His lips hurt.

Beth sighed, gave up cleaning and crouched beside his head. She ran soft fingers just below his hairline. Touched him where he could feel it.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” As she spoke, her fingers traced along his face. They dipped down to his neck, then disappeared.

What was she doing?

He swallowed and coughed and forced himself to speak. His raw throat tasted of blood. “How did I get here?” He recognised the bed, and the pulley that got him out and into the chair every morning. But he had no memory of coming here.

James Nathan

“Memory loss is common.” She kissed his cheek. “Just relax.” She kissed his mouth. “I’m here to look after you.” She was very warm.

“But I saw…“

“Nightmares.” Where were her hands? He had the sudden impression the cloth around his groin was gone, even though he couldn’t feel it. “I will help you forget them.” Her mouth was on his chin now, his neck, going down…

“No,” he whispered through cracked lips.

He closed his eyes. And he couldn’t feel what else she might have done. He didn’t want to know.

In the darkness behind his eyelids he could still see the images from Tucka’s camera feed. Mike’s half a face, and all the other bodies, behind his.

They were back on a dodgy dirt road. The mountains seemed closer, larger, looming and too brightly red. In front of them, another wrecked car wired into an IED. Sounds of fighting coming from… somewhere. Behind them? Off to the side? Guns hidden in the haze, the smoke from bombs obscuring any details of friend or foe.

Tucka rolled forward, confident, ready. This was what they were made for, the two of them, together.

“Wait,” Ned whispered, and wondered just who could hear him. Tucka slowed, turned his camera, scanned the road, the desert, the mountains. “How did we get here?” Where was the rest of the convoy? The transport trucks, the armoured jeeps. “When?...”

For an instant, the mountains shuddered, replaced by the bullet-riddled compound walls. Static and snow gnawed at their edges. He blinked. Mountains again. Closer than before. Ned goaded Tucka to focus in on the blackened, twisted remains of a tree silhouetted against the hard blue sky, that simply hadn’t been there before.

“What?...”

Beth’s face, again. Close, again. “Dammit”

Tucka ignored the tree, and rolled on. They had a job to do. The most important job of all. Find the bombs, stop the bombs. Keep everyone safe. And then they will love you. And they will praise you. As long as you keep them safe.

“Everyone?” Ned whispered, to himself, to Tucka, to Beth? What did it matter? “Who is there to keep safe?” His mates were dead, or were they half-alive, hooked up like monsters to terrible machines. Which one was he?

Tucka didn’t care. As long as he had Ned, as long as they were working. Tucka didn’t care. And neither should Ned.

“We only abort if there’s no other option”

As Tucka closed in on the bomb, Ned steadied himself. The robot took the lead, began suppressing, scanning. Tracing the patterns of wire and explosive and circuitry to find the detonator.

“There, see, that’s better”

Ned listened to the distant gunfire. He felt the heat of the sun. The grit between Tucka’s treads seemed so real. But as the robot reached in, pincers ready, Ned wrestled back control. He retracted their suppression field and dragged the camera away from the bomb, forced it to aim at the impossible tree.

Tucka fought back. What was he doing? Didn’t he want to help everyone?

“It’s too late for that,” Ned gasped, and pushed Tucka forward.

The proximity fuse sensed them with a squeal and a surge of data, and the world flashed white.

The mountains were copper, the ground dark and bloody, the sky thick with smoke. And all of it flickered on loop across two battered old TV screens. Ned blinked, frowned at them. Scratching gunfire, distant explosions, the whirr of a helicopter low overhead. His gaze slid down to a small array of speakers beneath the screens.

“What?” he tried to speak. But there was something in his mouth.

“Well that answers that,” Beth said, and walked across his line of sight, tapping at the tablet she was carrying. Didn’t even look at him.

“It was worth a try.” That was Knopp’s voice, but he couldn’t see her. She sounded resigned. Defeated.

“Even if the outcome was predictable.” Beth placed her tablet down beside the screens and turned them off, one by one. The desert mountains replaced by darkness. The gunfire by a deeper, machine hum. Then she approached Ned. Her hard eyes didn’t meet his gaze, not even briefly. They scanned his chair, they looked over the top of his head as she reached over to mess with his nodes. “But of course you’re right, Sir.”

He couldn’t speak. Couldn’t even swallow. There was something in his mouth, and down his throat. Hard and uncomfortable. He wished he could gag. His lips felt stretched, dry. Cracked.

“Do what you have to do,” Knopp said, followed by the sound of heels, clicking down tiled floors.

Sweat down his face. Panicking, he glanced around, to the dead screens, the unfamiliar ceiling, and Beth. He pleaded with her, silently, to meet his gaze, to do something to help him.

But she didn’t even look his way, and her face remained impassive. “Get him prepped for the next stage,” she said.

And then he was moving. Gliding. Still in his chair? Away from the screens, past banks of computers and clusters of men and women in white labcoats. One, all dressed in black, gun in hand.

He almost didn’t notice Tucka.

A pile of broken machinery wedged in the corner. His camera shattered, his tracks all loose, mechanical body riddled with bullet holes, but his dogtags still intact. They glinted, his name crisp beneath fluorescent lights. Countless snake-piles of wires ran out of him, into the computers, and pipes of coolant connected him to the wall, and every so often, one of his delicate pincers twitched.

“Tucka!” Ned choked around the thing in his mouth. “Tucka!” But he could barely make a sound. So he reached with the chair’s mechanical arms, the ones Beth had worked so hard to teach him how to use. And he reached for his robot, the deep connection between them.

But nothing happened.

He was wheeled away, out of the room, away from Tucka.

And he could do nothing.

Joanne Anderton lives in Sydney with her husband and too many pets. Her novels Debris and Suited are available through Angry Robot Books, and her short story collectionThe Bone Chime Song and Other Stories through Fablecroft Publishing. joanneanderton.com
James Nathan is an illustrator based in Bristol, UK.
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