Mathias followed his detector over the ridge of scrap to find the target, but it was not what he expected. Before him wasn’t a Viper II or a Leo IV, it was a small shell rummaging through the junk pile. It was one he didn’t recognize, which put him on edge instantly, but there was something about the machine that he couldn’t quite place. It was the strangest sight he had seen in a long time. Perhaps that is why he didn’t kill it right away. Instead, he chose to observe it. Gathering intel on new series was vital in any scenario. The little machine hadn’t noticed him and his detector hadn’t picked up anything else in the area.
Byron caught up to him and quietly readied his rifle putting the small machine in his sights. Mathias placed a hand on the gun and shook his head. Byron gave him a quizzical look and Mathias pulled a comm unit from his pack and typed a message.
‘Never seen this model before. Observe.’
Byron took the unit and typed a message back: ‘Copy. New series?’
Mathias shrugged. Whatever it was, he was sure it wasn’t good. They watched it for an hour before Byron messaged Mathias he was going to rest for a bit and to wake him should anything happen. He retreated down the scrap heap a few steps and found a comfortable piece to rest on. With his dirt stained jacket and boots, he blended into the rusted landscape. Mathias could feel the grime coating his own clothes and knew he was also invisible to the human eye as long as he remained still. He even thought he might be invisible to the scanning eyes of the machines as well. He smirked at the thought, knowing that such thinking would surely get him killed. He checked his detector again to make sure no other machines were nearby.
He observed the little machine for another hour. The entire time the little machine was simply digging through the scraps. Mathias began to wonder what it could be looking for, or if it even knew what it was doing. Perhaps it had malfunctioned. It stood at roughly three feet, had a spherical head, bulky rectangular body with large square feet underneath, and thin, hydraulic arms that were so disproportionate that it almost suggested it wasn’t constructed to hunt humans. This thought scared Mathias into shouldering his rifle. He intended to observe the machine a little longer before making it a permanent addition to the scrap piles. But, he thought, if it is malfunctioning, perhaps we could capture it for analysis.
Linda would go crazy for an operational unit to plug into. She was always asking for one. Complaining that they could never bring her anything intact. Stating she could learn more from a live unit than one thousand fried ones. Maybe today was her lucky day.
The little unit stopped rummaging and held a thin piece of metal in its similarly thin fingers. Then it brought the piece in front of its lenses and scrutinized it. Then the machine let out a laugh that made Mathias freeze. Adrenaline rushed through his body but he remained frozen. He had never in his twenty-four years scavenging heard a machine make such a noise. Mathias kept his eyes glued to the unit below as it giggled again. Then it held the piece of metal aloft and swung it through the air.
The arm moved in a swift, flicking pattern and the box-shaped unit stepped forward. “Fight me you coward.” The word emitted from the spherical head. Mathias almost open fired when he heard the words but soon realized the words were not directed at him. They didn’t seem to be directed at anything. The little unit giggled again, then swung the metal shard through the air. “You cannot beat me,” it echoed. Mathias dropped his rifle and stared at the machine.
Byron was beside him once again. The noise had surely stirred him from his nap. They were used to only the wind when scavenging on the surface. Anything else usually meant a tracker hunting them down, which meant a fight.
‘What is it doing?’ Byron typed into the comm unit.
‘It seems to be’ Mathias paused, thinking for the right word, then typed, ‘playing.’
Byron gave him the confused look he was expecting. A look that could not hide the tinge of fear.
The little unit kept swishing the thin piece of metal through the air and talking to itself randomly. Then they heard the rattle of a tracker through the rubble. It had a distinct sound. Metal on metal as it raced over and through the scrapyard. They both instantly shouldered their rifles. Mathias peeked at the detector. His eyes fixated on the screen as the noise rumbled in his ears. Finally, a green dot appeared from the north. A tag appeared next to the dot. Leo IV. Mathias nudged Byron and showed him the screen. Byron nodded and they both readied their rifles to the north. A Leo was too quick to outrun. They would have to destroy it.
Mathias glanced down at the little unit then had to look again. It was looking toward the north also, but had placed its thing arms atop its head and was rapidly moving from side to side, as if it were quivering.
He looked back toward the approaching Leo. He could see the landscape shifting, bulging as the hunting machine made its way through the pile of metal. It was nearly upon them. Mathias felt lucky the Leo had to exit the scrap in front of them and into the small valley where the unit was playing. Lucky that they had high ground.
The raging machine burst forth from the pile of rubble and was aimed directly at the small, quivering unit below. To Mathias, the next few seconds seemed to extend themselves allowing him to see and assess everything. What he saw was the Leo unit emerging from the scrap pile in front of the small unit. It was already swinging one of its large paw-like limbs. Mathias knew too well the force behind such a swing. He’d once seen a man get caught by one and it had cut through the man’s waist as if it were simply air. The swing would have cut right through a human’s chest, but was too high and missed the little unit. The Leo soared past the unit. As it skid across the dirt and readied itself to leap again and destroy the little unit, Mathias open fired. Byron quickly followed suit and they were able to destroy it before it was able to fully change its momentum. It fell to the ground and became another fixture among the scrap.
He turned his attention to the little unit, which was now looking at them.
“Quickly,” Mathias risked a whisper, “gather what you can from the Leo.”
Byron looked at him and nodded toward the little unit.
Mathias nodded and gestured Byron toward the still smoking Leo. They both descended the ridge of metal and parted ways at the bottom. Byron toward his objective, and Mathias toward the little unit.
He slowed as he neared the boxy figure. The lenses in the sphere followed his movements. He noticed the unit was still quivering slightly.
“What are you?” Mathias whispered. He looked around them to make sure nothing else moved nearby. “Answer quietly,” he added.
The little unit stopped quivering. “Are you a scavenger?” it said.
“Quiet,” Mathias whispered sternly, then answered, “yes, we are scavengers. You know about us?” He couldn’t help but shake a feeling of dread welling in his gut.
“Father used to speak of your kind,” it said at a slightly lower volume. It wasn’t low enough for Mathias’s liking, but he let it continue. “You are fighting against the progress.”
Mathias pointed at the Leo, where Byron was picking through the remains, and said, “That is not progress.”
“That is what protects us,” the unit said.
“What do you mean ‘us’.”
“The real humans. The ones still working.”
“What?” Mathias caught himself from raising his voice. “How can you count yourself among those beyond the wall?”
“You mean within the wall? Of course.”
“But,” Mathias couldn’t understand, “How? You aren’t even human?”
“Of course I am. I was part of the proty type test that father was in charge of. He said I would become the next type of human. The first one, and everyone else would follow me.”
Mathias felt his head spinning. The rumors were true. “How did you get out here?” he asked.
“I don’t remember,” the little unit said, “I was talking to Father when they poked me. Then everything went dark. I woke up outside the wall in a pile of machines. I’ve been wandering for a few days now. I’m terribly hungry sir. Do you have any food?”
Mathias stared at the little unit. Byron had finished scavenging parts from the Leo and now stood beside him. No doubt he had heard their entire conversation. “What is it?” he whispered into Mathias’s ear.
“I don’t know, but we need to get it to Linda. It was an experiment beyond the wall.”
Byron nodded and Mathias turned back to the little unit. It stared at him with its mechanical lenses. They were void of emotion yet he couldn’t help but feel the fear and hope hiding behind them.
“Come with us,” Mathias whispered, “We have food back at our camp.”
He offered his hand to the little machine. One of its thin, metal arms reached out, hesitated, then finally took his hand. They turned and headed back up the scrap-heap. As he helped the small machine navigate the metal landscape, Mathias couldn’t help but remember his son.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Andrew.” The machine said.
“Nice to meet you Andrew,” he replied, “I’m Mathias.” He stared as the little machine struggled along with its box figure and wide, metal feet. His heart sank. He didn’t need to wait for Linda’s examination to confirm what he already knew. This little metal box contained the mind of boy. A boy who had once been human. Now trapped inside a rusting piece of metal. Used and discarded like every other piece of trash that littered the surface.