Mute

Annelie tightened the final bolts, unhooked the battery terminals, and slammed the torso plate down. Her boots rang on the aluminum rungs of her ladder as she descended. Marin watched as she removed the safety goggles and headphones, which were so comically large on her small head that he had to stifle his laughter.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Now,” she said, “we fire it up.”

He looked over the machine hulking above them. It had not moved in at least a century, though it was remarkably intact for all that. A few shallow pits where ordinance had ricocheted away, harmless. A single bullet hole in the canopy. Marin was no engineer. His only part in this had been to tug free the remains of the cockpit’s former occupant.

“We don’t know how to…use it.” He wasn’t sure of the right word. Pilot? Drive?

“The AI will pilot,” Annelie said. She typed something into her computer and a progress bar slipped by.

“The AI?”

“It’ll boot up in autopilot mode,” she said.

“Then it will auto-murder us.”

“No,” she said with a grimace. “I altered its mother board, pulled out the tactical apps. It can’t harm a kitten now.”

The behemoth was terrifying. Slated plates to deflect armaments. Thick arms that ended in heavy fists that could easily crush a car, much less a teenage girl and her father. The domed head bore no expression, only stubs of antennae and a pair of slots for sensors. He wondered at humanity’s tendency to build things in its own image – those sensor slots could have gone anywhere. At the center of its chest was a transparent convex bubble, where a lucky shot had ended the operator’s mission prematurely. On its shoulders were blocky weapons pods, cabinets that opened to reveal bristling rows of rockets. Tubes lead from the pods to a superstructure on its back. Before she’d even started this project, he’d made her crack open those tubes and disconnect the thick bundles of wires inside, and then remove all the remaining rockets just to be sure. They were stacked in a crate well away from the house.

The legs were short, ending in a set of feet that were as much hands, built to climb all manner of terrain. He imagined a legion of these things, clambering over the mountains to rain death on the bustling cities that used to dot this valley.

Annelie stepped back to admire her work. Her computer was bright with green status bars. She’d managed to dig out ancient, jagged bits of shrapnel, yank and replace frayed wires, tear out rusted bits of the chassis. There were plenty of dead warbots in the valley, but nobody had ever bothered to scrape enough of them together to get one going again. Nobody had wanted to.

In the corner of the shop lay a stack of the ablative battle armor that had once layered the battlebot’s torso and appendages. It had been in the way, and heavy, and, Marin hoped, nobody would be shooting at them any time soon.

“Okay. Okay okay okay.” Annelie said, shaking her hands nervously. “I’m gonna do it.”

Marin shook his head. “We should at least-“

She lunged forward and tapped on her computer. Something beeped, and she fell back into a chair, hugging her legs up under her chin.

“Dammit, Ann!”

Something whined inside the old machine, and a hiss erupted from joints that hadn’t received a command in ages. Annelie chewed her fingernails. Behind the transparent canopy, a few panels winked to life, little green lights lost amidst the rat’s nest of wires and newly soldered circuit boards that Annelie hadn’t bothered to hide. Marin took a step toward the wall where his shotgun was propped.

The electronic whine crescendoed and settled. One of the antennae swiveled a full rotation and a green-tinted map of the workshop and their nearby home lit up on the inside of the cracked canopy.

“It’s looking around,” Annelie whispered.

Then it went dark. Marin blinked and let himself breathe. Annelie scrunched her face up.

“What’s…oh!” she jumped up and grabbed a dry erase board that was tied to a loop of wire insulation. Before Marin could grab her, she scrambled up the ladder and threw the loop around the warbot’s head. Marin pulled her down from the ladder and back behind the computer desk.

“Will you stop it!” he said, grunting as she wrenched free of his grip, her eyes on the warbot. “We don’t know what this thing will do. It could easily kill us both!”

“Look!” she cried.

The warbot’s arms moved, for the first time since it had died, of its own volition. It reached up, heavy fingers prying apart. For the first time, Marin saw the glowing circles in its palms, probably a whole other weapon system that they hadn’t accounted for and which probably worked just fine. The warbot grasped the dry erase board, gingerly grasping the marker dangling by a string from one end. It wrote in careful, controlled strokes, and turned the board toward them.

“Hello,” it read. Annelie squealed.