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Designate - Short Story

This is a short story I wrote in 2005. Haven't looked at it in a while, thought I'd give this web site a try and see what everyone thinks of it.

By Ross Payton

The plane collapsed in the flame’s embrace. The wind carried particles of burning fat, skin and hair across the field, lighting up like fireflies in the dusk. Five columns of drones, semi-autonomous mounds of grey flesh and hardware marched across, laying down heavy suppressive fire. Explosions, gunfire, and the other roars of machines at war reverberated throughout the battleground but no screams of pain or triumph or hatred.

A single pitiful creature, manlike, dragged itself from the plane’s wreckage. One of its eyes filled with blood and dust, causing it to tear up. The other eye, still good, saw a drone approach some twenty yards away. The creature raised a good arm and pulled itself to a copse of trees it could see in its peripheral vision. The long grass concealed the creature and it hoped not to be seen.
The drone looked almost like a human, except carved out of slate grey mud. Aside from the various devices inserted in it; instruments to communicate with its fellows, sensors to detect enemies and mines, and gauges to aim its weapons. Almost human.
The creature moved closer to the copse. A piece of wreckage cut the creature’s stomach as it slowly slid across it. The pain dug inside, cold. It stopped, feeling light-headed. The creature saw the drone advance and panicked. It strained itself to move closer to the trees. The wreckage cut further into the creature, more pain, warm and wet. Black swallowed up the battle.

It started thinking again, stopped acting purely on instinct. Brighter and much more quiet. It felt a dull pain coming from its chest, and scabs where it had bled some hours ago. It remembered the guide, a computer inserted into its head and activated by thought. Luminance came into his mind.
“You are Reconnaissance-Designate 55581S10-A91. You have four days left. I can not find establish a signal with command and control. Please look for this unit.” The guide spoke. An image formed in RD’s mind. A man sized cubic device with three antennas. RD stood up. Dead machines lined the ground as far as he could see. The flesh based machines had already begun to decay. He saw the remains of the unit near him, blown apart. He asked the guide for further instruction. It did not reply. RD decided to try and finish the mission, some four hundred kilometers to the northwest.

He had never seen nor touched vegetation before. The scent of the trees stung his nose. After a few hours of marching, he stopped. A sound in the forest, something hiding drew his attention. He withdrew a sidearm he had found at the battlefield and shot at it. A small animal ran out, bleeding. RD shot it again. It fell. He stepped to the corpse and looked at it. It seemed harmless and a waste of ammunition. It appeared so different than anything he had ever seen before but he couldn’t say how. He could not think of a word to describe its shape or skin or smell. He knelt down and touched it. It was warm and wet, but cooling. RD wondered if the animal would know Accomplishment, like all soldiers did if they finished their mission before dying. He tried the guide again.
“You are Reconnaissance-Designate 55581S10-A91. Three days eleven hours left. Your objective is out of reach given current travel velocity. Accomplishment awaits only for heroes. Emptiness is the price of failure.” The guide said.
RD stood alone in the forest. He turned all around and saw nothing but falling leaves and sunbeams pouring through the canopy. His heart slowed and for the first time in his life, he did not imagine an enemy drone near him. He looked again at the navigation module built over his wrist and forearm. It pointed the best direction to his destination. He continued.

The convoy of cargo haulers sped through the valley. RD watched from the roadside, concealed. Each hauler was controlled by a simple labor drone. They weren’t moving fast as that would overtax the drivers’ simple cognitive systems. RD decided to risk being spotted and infiltrate a hauler for a ride. He leaped. The impact of landing and grabbing onto the rear of the hauler numbed him. He scrambled to a side hatch and pulled at its handle. The side door opened and RD went inside the hauler. The interior was nearly empty, a simple metal box. RD fell asleep.

RD awoke on a mat, in an unfamiliar room. It smelled empty, as though nothing had lingered long enough to leave a scent. He heard a voice, some kind of speaker, clear his throat. He sat up. A dim light turned on as soon as he moved. The walls were paneled metal.
“Hello. I know you can understand me. I want to help you. What is your name?”
RD told him.
“From now on, I will call you R.D.. You are not a number anymore.”
“Yes.” RD said. He did not understand why the voice wanted this to be changed. He did not think to question him though.
“How long do you have left?” the voice said.
RD consulted the guide again. Only two days and five hours now. He repeated this to the voice.
“I can change that, R.D.. I can heal you.”
Now, RD or R.D. had a question. “What are my new orders?” he said.
“Just don’t hurt me when I come in.”
A minute later, a metal panel slid to the side. R.D. saw the voice belonged to an enemy organic command unit, the base species on which all drones were based on. He wore a simple utility outfit. R.D. did not see any drones though. The man spoke as he approached R.D..
“I’m Martin. I work as a post-human therapist for the resistance. You don’t know what that means yet, but you will. I want to fix you. You see, when your creators made you, they designed you so you would only live for so long and then you would die.”
“Accomplishment awaits heroes.” R.D. said. He thought of the forest, tried to recall the scent of the trees. He turned his eyes away from the man approaching him.
Martin kneeled down beside R.D.. “Your makers made you a weapon to be spent. One shot and then you’re gone. How old are you?”
“I remember a general speaking before many of us in a great hall. He said I needed to fight or all would die. That was six days ago.” R.D. said.
“Nothing before that? No training?”
“No. It’s all there, when I need it.”
“Follow me, then. Unless you still want to complete your mission.” Martin said.
R.D. watched Martin stand up and walk to the door. He thought of the animal he shot and decided he wanted to see one alive. He followed after Martin.

The surgery took only five hours. R.D’s creators simply removed his capability to absorb food and nutrition naturally and endowed him with enough stored fat to live for a week. R.D. awoke later, to find himself in a new room lying in a bed. Martin entered the room. Another creature like Martin, but smaller, followed. R.D. did not know what the new creature was or how to identify it.
“I’m glad to see you recover so quickly. Obviously your creators made you quite strong. You recovered quickly. How do you feel?”
“I’m not injured. I don’t feel any pain.”
Martin looked down, then at the other creature in the room. “This is Helen. She wants to ask you some questions. Go ahead.”
Helen began. She spoke differently than Martin, softer but more direct.
“Do you still want to fight for your creators, the ones who made you?”
“I don’t know why I should.”
“What about the thing you called Accomplishment? What is it?”
“I wasn’t sure before. I thought it was some kind of reward at first. But when Martin told me that I would die after the mission, I thought maybe that was Accomplishment.”
She looked up to Martin. She spoke to him, not caring if R.D. listened.
“This confirms a few theories. They’re not even properly indoctrinating grunts anymore. They just assume if they point them in the right direction, their instincts will take over. They also heightened their cognitive abilities, probably in light of the Aleutian campaign.”
Martin’s eyes widened to a degree. “This is big. Don’t they realize that they have free will now? We can start turning them now, with a few psy-ops.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Grunts are heavily influenced by first impressions. Any grunts that survive a battle are probably too hardened to bother with.”
R.D. studied Martin and Helen and compared them to himself. He saw that he was only somewhat like them. They stood straight up while he always preferred to hunch over. Their hands ended in smooth fingers, while he had jagged claw tips to grip and slash. Their scent was mild and peaceful, while he remembered the sting in his nose from the others like him back in the plane.
“When I fell asleep, I was somewhere else. I saw things I didn’t know. Broken machines and fire mostly. Little specks of light in the dark. I was confused. What happened to me?” R.D. said.
“It was a dream. We all have them.” Martin said.
R.D. felt good, to know that everyone experienced something that he had. It was a connection to other living things. He wondered what the animals in the forest dreamed of.

R.D. spent several days learning how to survive. He could not consume food as Martin did, but had to rely on specially prepared drugs and pills. He memorized their names and their components. He learned a little about writing and words, but R.D. didn’t pick up on it well. He learned about the resistance, a group of humans (as the command units called themselves) who did not agree with R.D’s creators. Martin tried to explain why the creators were evil but R.D. failed to see how they were evil for creating him and others like him. Each night, after ten hours or so of education, Martin left R.D. in his room. R.D. took his pills and went to sleep.

On the third night, R.D. decided to leave his room to see the rest of the building. The door was locked but he knew how to unlock it, somehow. The corridor outside was unlit. R.D. walked, following Martin’s scent. He soon came to another door. He heard Martin’s voice coming from the other end. He pressed his ear to listen.
“Well, given our progress, it seems that the grunt can live for at least a few years before his organs start failing. However he’s too preformatted to recondition. Given that, I guess I do have to agree that he is better suited for operations. Sure, no problem. He’s already trained in reconnaissance anyway.”
R.D. tried the door. It opened easily. Martin looked startled. He jumped a bit.
“Why are you out?”
“I wanted to look around. What are operations?”
“Missions, like you’re trained to do.”
R.D. did not act for a moment. He looked down and then around the room, full of machines, a door, ajar, on the right side of the room, and a picture hanging on the wall. Martin in a forest with a human like Helen but differently shaped.
“I don’t want to go on a mission. I want to go there.” He pointed at the picture.
“You can’t.”
R.D. crossed the room. He touched the picture with his hand. Martin stepped away from him, towards the right side door.
“Why not?”
“Because we can’t just give you drugs.”
“How long is a year?”
“A few hundred days.”
“Just put me in the forest with some drugs. ”
“I can’t do that.”
R.D. turned and saw that Martin was edging towards the door. He knew Martin was now afraid of him, but not why. He looked down and saw a scalpel on the table near him. R.D. made a choice.
Martin bolted as soon as he saw R.D. grab the blade. He opened the door and turned around to shut it behind him. R.D. covered the distance in a few seconds and raised his right hand holding the knife up. He caught the door with his left hand just as Martin almost closed it. Martin caught R.D’s right hand with his left, his own right tried to swing the door shut entirely.
“No. I don’t want. No. No. Ah, pleas” Martin said as R.D. pushed the scalpel closer to his eye. R.D. got the blade within an inch and Martin yelled one last time trying to push him off. R.D. ground his teeth. The blade went in.

R.D. gathered the last bottle of drugs and placed it in a bag he had found in Martin’s room. He felt pain in his head over killing Martin. The human helped him. That was good. R.D. was bad but couldn’t help himself. He was too afraid now, afraid of missions and Accomplishment. He wanted to see the trees again.

R.D. will have his work cut

R.D. will have his work cut out for him! I liked this story.

I do think the writing could be tightened up. The first few paragraphs have a certain abruptness about them and could use some work. But the sentence flow does seem a little more smooth once we get to "RD stood alone in the forest..."

That steady countdown R.D. receives from the guide is a great way to keep tension building in the story. You wouldn't want to overdo it, but it might be good to emphasize that a little more, along with how strange it must be for R.D. when the countdown is suddenly no longer there. The story already does that to some extent, but I would keep working with it.

And you might try expanding the final part. It's a solid way to end the story, but you could probably introduce a little more tension about what R.D. might do. Maybe he gets even closer to deciding he would rather stay with Martin's side? I think if you open that scene up a little, expand on the mixed feelings R.D. might be experiencing, then the final revelation about Martin and R.D.'s response will have even more of an impact.

Looks good so far, though, especially for something you haven't looked in a while.

The sentence structure and

The sentence structure and word choices are odd and broken; almost as if this wasn't originally written in English. For example "I can not find establish a signal with command and control."

Even if intentional, this kind of thing makes it difficult to read.

The story itself does have characters and a point, that is good. However I didn't get a feel of increasing tension with complete release at the end, which is bad.

Plot arcs, even in short stories, should generally trend up in increasing tension until the last moment and then the protagonist character should change in some way or make a descision or perform an act which releases all that tension at once.

You have some of this kind of story arc, but the payoff doesn't seem quite right to me.