Paying the price

Paul drew in a breath, held it, and slowly let it out. Another, and as he exhaled, he put his eye to telescopic sight. His father had taken him deer hunting during his teen years, and he’d hated the yearly pilgrimages into the forest. But his father had taught him how to use a rifle to shoot from a distance, and the skills had stuck well enough to let him shoot well even years later.

Those lessons had been with a Remington 30.06, but now he peered through the sight of a Barrett 82A1, a much more massive weapon. He’d found it several months earlier by accident. During one of his scrounging patrols, he’d come across the scene of a battle. The remains of several men, all of them lying in twisted poses, and often more than one piece, surrounded by their defeated opponents had made it clear this had been an intense fight. Several of those opponents had huge holes in them, which led Paul to the sniper who’d made those holes. He had been hidden atop a building, but his ‘hide’ had clearly not been good enough. Like those below, his body was in several parts, some of them looking like they’d been partially shoved through a wood chipper. Only the bald eagle shoulder patch on all the bodies had made it clear they were regular military.

Paul had taken the time to collect what he could of the fallen soldiers, giving them what dignity he could before hauling their weapons away to one of his stashes. One of the M16A4’s he’d recovered that day lay beside him, but he knew against the enemy he faced, it would be little more than an annoyance.

He watched that enemy as it rooted around in the ruins of a small house. He’d been sure to leave a clear trail to the structure, hoping he could draw the enemy out where he had a chance to kill another one. The box-like body sprouted four wheels with off-road tires on them. The cabled neck whipped from side to side, the head-like sensor array seeking to find the human that had left the clear scent path to this point. It had no imagination, any more than all the other machines that now hunted humanity. No, it could not imagine a human using a rope to pull themselves into the ash tree that stretched its branches over the remains of a suburban bungalow. Nor could it conceive of the possibility that once they done that, a human would use other ropes to climb from tree to tree so they could drop to the ground well away from where the trail appeared to end. No, the human trail ended here, so the machine knew there must be a human here.

The vents for the machines power supply were easy to see, the low howl it made clear even from 500 yards away. The critical spot should be just in front of them, and that was where Paul had his sight centered. The machine shifted slightly away from him, making the shot harder, and he knew he had to shoot, and now, or he would lose his chance. Slightly to the left, down a bit…a final deep breath, a squeeze of his finger on the trigger, and……

Paul had fired the Barrett over a dozen time before this, but the overwhelming noise, the brutal recoil, still caught him off guard. The huge armor-piercing bullet crossed the distance between Paul and his target before the sound could, and did what it was designed to. The impact lifted both tires off the ground on the side Paul had targeted, and before they had landed, the machine stopped moving. The neck and head flopped to the ground and in the ringing silence after the shot, the howling of the small turbine was conspicuously absent.

Paul waited, watching to see if the machine had a partner, something they had taken to doing. When his hearing recovered, all he heard was the sound of the chill north wind that had been blowing the past two days. Longer, and he heard a squirrel somewhere in the trees around him begin to chitter its complaints about being disturbed. Finally satisfied, he safetied the big rifle and levered himself off the ground. One more thing to do before he moved on.

He approached the wreckage with caution, the Barrett cradled under his arm, a fresh round in the chamber ready to fire as soon as he flipped the safety off. He’d only been forced to make a second shot once, but that had been enough to make him approach the robot with all due care. When a stop just inside the reach of its neck elicited no response, Paul moved to stand beside the wreck. The metal was still surprisingly warm, not unlike a deer or any other large animal that had just been brought down by a hunter. He leaned the rifle against that mass of metal, slipped his pack off, and pulled out his stencel. It was something he’d taken to doing after seeing another smashed machine someone had ‘tagged’ with their name and a number Paul assumed represented the number of killed robots they had to their credit. With no where near the talent to make something so ornate, Paul settled for a stencil he’d made of his name, and a number to mark his own kill total. He’d been using a florescent orange until last week when the can finally gave out. Now he pulled a can of dark red spray paint out, rearranged the numbers to reflect this latest kill, and with a quick shake, marked the side of the wreck.

“Paul Sanchez, 138” he read it aloud with a smile. He laid the stencil aside to dry and pulled a pair of grenades from the pack. These he put under the head, pins pulled, knowing that if another machine found the wreck it would try to salvage the sensors in it. Many of his kills had been accomplished that way, and he had no qualms about bobby-trapping the wreckage. No human would want it, so the only ones that would face danger from the unexploded ordinance would be other machines.

Back to the body of the machine to retrieve his stencil, then a quick flip of a body panel revealed the fuel filler port. The machines might have been the result of a military experiment gone wrong, but they burned the same fuel Paul had once used in his own car. It took barely a minute to shove a strip of old drapery down the fill line to the fuel, then with rifle in hand, he lit the improvised fuse and ran.

Paul was halfway up the hillside he’d come down when the flames reached the fuel and the machine exploded. He turned to look at his handiwork and saw two of the tires already burning. If all four burned, the machine would be a completely useless piece of junk, the delicate electronics already fried by the flames rising from the body. Not for the first time he wished that he’d known the autonomous killers would turn on their makers before he began developing them. Now, all he could do was try to kill as many of them before one of them got smart enough to kill him. It would never be enough to atone for his stupidity back then, but it was all he could do.