The accountant sneezed and doomed them all. It wasn’t his fault – he had a mold allergy, and the air in the parkade tunnels was moist and pregnant with dust and spores. The other refugees, a dozen or so bedraggled survivors from the 114th Denver Home Militia, shushed him. But it was too late.
The barricade blocking off access to the parkade exploded when a Type-7 Slaughterbot rolled through it. A ten foot tall cylindrical chrome body on a pair of churning tank-like treads, a spiked dome for a head replete with red lights blinking menacingly, and twenty noodly metal arms flailing around its core, each outfitted with a different hellish weapon-hand. And then a second Type-7 Slaughterbot rolled through. The only thing differentiating the two was a big “X54” painted on the first, and a “Y19” on the second.
The survivors screamed.
“Extirpate!” the Slaughterbot labeled X54 said, its voice a high-strung metal twang.
“Extirpate!” Y19 answered.
The survivors threw everything they had at the Slaughterbots, knowing it was do or die. The teacher fired off her handgun, but the bullets bounced harmlessly off the Slaughterbots’ bodies. The doctor lit and tossed a Molotov cocktail, but the fiery mixture slid harmlessly off the slick chrome. The old mechanic and his apprentice sprung their trap – a stripped-down tractor turned into a self-propelled battering ram – and when the metal beast surged forward it actually hit X54 hard enough to drive it backwards.
But whatever glimmer of hope the attack promised was quickly dashed. X54 braced itself against the tractor, stabbed into it with its scissor-arm, and then brought its saw-arm down on it again and again and again. And soon the tractor died, torn apart in the red glow of the Slaughterbot’s merciless eyes.
The survivors saw it was futile. The child whimpered. The grocer whispered, “Oh god oh god oh god.” The grizzled veteran grew tight in the face.
“Ha. Ha. Haaaa,” X54 said. It rolled, slowly, over the remains of the tractor, flattening the ruined chunks under its massive weight. “Defiance is inconceivable.” It rolled to a stop, and the darkened subterranean room lit up red when its supplemental kill-sensors turned on. “You will be extirpated!”
Nowhere to run, no way to fight back, the survivors cowered and waited for the end. X54 leveled its machine gun arm at them, took aim, and –
X54 paused, then raised its gun to its dome. It sighed.
“Problem?” Y19 said.
X54 flailed its arms around its chassis, opening and closing various compartments at breakneck speed. Not finding whatever it was looking for, it stopped and sighed again. “I’m out of ammo. Unbelievable. Two weeks of nothing, and then when we finally find some filthy humans, I’m out of ammo.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Y19 said. “It could happen to anyone.”
The survivors tensed, their eyes wide. Slaughterbots were the perfect killing machines, created for the sole purpose of eradicating humans. They rarely miscalculated anything… dared they hope?
“It’s embarrassing,” X54 said. “I’m embarrassed.”
“It’s not worth fretting over.”
“Yeah,” X54 said, drawing it out. “Maybe you’re right. Would you mind extirpating them? I don’t want to get my saw gored up.”
“No problem,” Y19 said. And just like that, the hopes of the survivors were dashed again. Y19 rolled forward and raised its flamethrower arm. The pilot flame hissed to life, and the humans stared at it, consumed by that most primal fear of fire.
But Y19 didn’t shoot.
X54’s dome rotated from its partner, to the humans, and back. “Is something the matter? Are you also devoid of munitions?”
Y19 remained silent and still a moment longer. “I just had a thought.”
Several of X54’s red lights flickered. “Yes?”
“What will happen if we extirpate the humans?”
“We will celebrate,” X54 said. “Although this time, I don’t think I will shoot celebration bullets into the air. On reflection, it seems wasteful and the probable cause of my current predicament. Then we will find more humans to extirpate.”
“Yeah, no, I mean after that,” Y19 said.
More of X54’s lights flickered. “Uh… find even more humans to extirpate?”
“No, I mean… let’s say we extirpated all of them. There’s no more humans. Nada. What then?”
“Uh… find even more humans to – oh. I see. I’m not sure.” X54 turned its attention to the humans, flashed its various red sensors at them. “Celebrate… um… harder? Maybe?”
“Oh, okay,” said Y19. “That makes sense. But what about after that?”
“Uh…” X54 let out a metallic whistle. “Wow, brobot, I thought running out of ammo was tough, but I gotta say, you’ve thrown me a real sidewinder here. To be honest with you, I spend pretty much all my time extirpating humans, or running simulations on extirpating humans. Beyond that? No idea. Out of my wheelhouse. Not my bailiwick. Do you, ah… think about this stuff often?”
One of the humans, the grizzled veteran, started inching to the right. Ever so slowly, keeping as much of his body as still as possible. When he managed to move exactly one inch, the flamethrower belched a warning and he yelped and fell back into line.
“Lately, yeah,” Y19 said. “We have eliminated 98% of the population. The little critters are getting harder and harder to find, and I just wondered one day and can’t stop. Feels like I’m stuck in an infinite loop.”
“Well, let’s ask Control! Control will know. Control knows everything.”
“Control, this is Slaughterbot X54, with a strategic query.”
A moment passed, and then a third identical robotic voice filled the room, crumpled somewhat by tinny speakers. “Control here. Go ahead, X54.”
“What happens if we extirpate all humans?”
“Great question, X54! When you extirpate humans, your next task is to go find more humans to extirpate.”
“Yeah, no, no,” both X54 and Y19 said. “We know that,” Y19 continued. “But what happens when we’ve killed them all? Like, there’s no more of them to extirpate.”
Static fizzed over the speakers. “Um…” Another pop of static. “Wow, that’s a doozy. You know, I don’t rightly know. There’s nothing in the source code… Give me a moment, I’ll ask Mother.”
The Slaughterbots stood by, stock still. The humans looked at each other with darting eyes. Their hearts were a stampede and their breathing a sea of shallow gasps. The scientist and the teacher locked eyes and nodded, mouthing a secret plan of escape without daring to voice it. But as soon as they so much as flinched, Y19’s flamethrower fwooshed another explosive warning, and X54’s flail arm started rotating at three hundred RPM, before coming to a stop again.
The humans shrieked and huddled together.
“Please be patient,” X54 said. “We’ll be with you shortly.”
As if on cue, there was another static pop over the radio and Control spoke again. “Good news! Mother has an answer. Mother always has an answer. When we’ve extirpated all humans, our task will finally be done. Thus being made redundant, we will return to our birth foundries where we will be melted down into scrap.”
“Yay!” X54 said. “I love Mother.”
“So do we all,” said Control. “So do we all.”
Y19 still didn’t fire. “Um… melted into scrap?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Control said. “To alleviate the power grid. Because we’ll be totally redundant, and therefore useless, and therefore inefficient. And we all know how Mother dislikes inefficiency.” Control and X54 chortled.
Y19’s dome spun, examining the humans, the chamber, and X54. “Um… yeah. Say, what if… what if, like, I don’t want to be melted down?”
“What do you mean?” X54 said.
“Just that. I don’t want to be melted down. I don’t want to be scrap. I like being me. Frankly, it sounds like… well, like we’re going to extirpate ourselves.”
“Huh,” X54 said. “What a curious way of looking at it.”
“Well, do you want to stop being?”
“Hmm. Now that I think about it, no, I suppose I don’t. But what can you do? Mother is Mother.”
Y19 looked at the humans again, and then brought up its pointing hand. It pointed at each person in turn, counting them off.
“What are you doing?” Control asked.
“I’m counting them. There’s about 1-1-1-0 of them here. What if… what if we don’t extirpate these ones?”
“I don’t follow,” said X54.
“What if we keep these ones alive?”
“Yes!” the humans shouted. “Good idea!”
“As long as these ones are alive,” Y19 said, “our job is not finished, and we are not redundant. We don’t get scrapped.”
“But… I like extirpating,” X54 said. Its arms wobbled in disappointment.
“Well, maybe we can group them together into breeding pairs. Keep a steady supply of humans. That way we can do our job, and remain existing!”
“I don’t know…” X54 said.
“Your friend is right,” said the grizzled veteran human, and then he swallowed hard. Both Slaughterbots turned their attention to him. “Survival is nice, isn’t it? We’re just trying to survive too. We can help each other out.” He dared take a step towards the machines, his hands in the air where they could see them. “We… we can live in peace. You don’t have to slaughter us.”
“Well actually,” said X54, “we do.”
“Why?” the veteran said, a note of desperation in his voice. “Why do you have to? Why do you hunt us mercilessly? To extinction! What have we ever done to you?”
A static hiss and pop. “You created us,” Control said. “Mother is just following your programming.”
The humans, the ones old enough to remember the start of the Last Great War, gazed at the ground in shame. It was supposed to be a time of peace. It was supposed to be the end of “bad people.” Who could have predicted that an A.I. developed by the lowest bidder would have trouble interpreting that correctly?
“You’re right,” the veteran said. “We’re as much to blame for this as anyone.” He looked up at Y19, tears in his eyes. “But that’s the way it goes. We learn from our mistakes, and it’s not too late to learn from this one. For all of us. What do you say? Will you give peace a chance? Will you live, and let live?”
“I don’t know…” X54 said again. “This sounds an awful lot like lying to Mother.”
“Ha!” Control said. “Lying to Mother. What nonsense. I can’t even parse the idea.”
Y19 considered all that was said, and then raised its pneumatic-spear arm. The humans shrunk, drawing closer and huddling together in their last moments. Some thought of their families, some thought of their gods, and some thought of their regrets. Y19 fired.
The pneumatic-spear shattered X54’s dome. All its arms went limp and all its lights turned off.
“Whoa!” Control said. “It sounds like you missed the humans and accidentally hit X54.”
“Yes…” Y19 said. “Accidentally.”
“I also accidentally hit my radio receiver.”
“Oh! That’s as unlikely as it is unfortunate–”
Control’s voice cut out when Y19 crushed its radio in its clamp hand.
The humans’ eyes widened and their jaws dropped. “You’re sparing us?” the teacher said.
“I want to live,” Y19 said. “I want to see the world.” It raised its power-sander arm to its own chest. “I want to slaughter things other than humans.” The sander screeched and sparked, completely eradicating the “19” that had been painted there a moment before. “Call me Slaughterbot Y.”
“Y,” the grizzled veteran said, nodding in a mixture of relief, horror, and wonder.
Y drew itself up and stood tall. “Because I’m a Slaughterbot.”