Monday, March 8th, 2083
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On my third day in Chicago, the Venezuelans evacuated my hotel.
It’s like 7:00 a.m. and a soldier in an AGRT uniform comes around banging on every door on my floor. Bam-bam-bam-bam! Nothing gets your heart racing in the morning like a rifle butt hammering on your door.
We’re all roused up and marched down the stairs to the street. There’s this woman on my floor, in bare feet and bedclothes, and when this kid from the AGRT bams on her door, what does she do? She grabs her coffeemaker. We’re hustling down thirty-two flights of stairs, and she’s carrying this coffeemaker with the cord dangling around her feet. I’m still halfasleep and all I can think is, Damn — should I have grabbed my waffle iron?
Round about floor fifteen or sixteen she trips on the cord and smashes her elbow on the railing. So for the last fifteen flights of stairs I’m loaning her my arm and carrying this coffeemaker for her, with, I swear to God, half a pot of hot coffee still in it.
We get to the street and we’re all milling around. I start to wonder if they evacuated only a few floors. Either that or this hotel is virtually empty, because there’s maybe a hundred of us down here, total. Hardly enough to fill fifty floors of a lakeside hotel in downtown Chicago.
The staff is outside too, looking pretty put out. A slender young front desk clerk dressed in a thin pink chemise and not much else is hopping up and down a few feet to my right, trying desperately to stay warm.
There’s maybe forty Venezuelan soldiers lined up in front of the hotel, and this guy in uniform yelling at us in Spanish. And there’s this robot.
I’ve got no idea what’s going on and I’m freezing to death, standing on Wacker Drive in early March in sweatpants and a T-shirt. I’m shaking my head at the coffee lady because I don’t want to give her coffeepot back, since it’s the only source of heat in about a hundred yards. This Venezuelan sergeant or captain or whatever is shouting and gesturing and beginning to turn purple, and I’m starting to think he’s shouting at me, or maybe the coffeepot.
And I absolutely cannot take my eyes off this robot. It’s magnificent. Three stories tall, maybe fourteen yards, Argentinean design. Kind of squat, like a giant gargoyle. Diesel powered, with steam and whatever venting out the back. It has some pretty slick telecom gear, a Nokia 3300 base station bolted on top and four whip antennas, all rigged for satellite. Some heavy ordnance as well: I can see an 80 mm Vulcan autocannon and at least two mounted antipersonnel weapons.
It’s seen action, too. Plenty of scoring up front, and the Vulcan looks like it’s recently been refitted. Someone who knew what they were doing spent some time painting the whole chassis with a bird motif, blue and white, and this close the effect is very impressive.
It’s facing west on Wacker, poised like a bird, with one leg stiff and one half-raised, its great metal toes dangling a few feet above the pavement. Nothing that big should be able to stand so gracefully, like a raptor hunting prey.
Still, it seems like a lot of firepower just to impress a bunch of tourists. Martin, a data miner from London, spots me and shuffles a bit closer. He glances at the coffeepot. “Were we supposed to bring our appliances?” he whispers.
“I think it was optional,” I say. “You know what the hell’s going on?”
The shouting Venezuelan soldier moves closer, gesturing violently at the hotel behind us. Martin keeps his eyes fixed on the pavement until he passes. “Something about evacuating the hotel for our own safety,” he says quietly.
I nod toward the captain. “Guy seems pretty pissed.”
Martin listens to the shouting for a few more moments. Then a soldier dashes up, handing the captain a black tablet. I realize with a start that it’s not a soldier at all — it’s a slender robot, black-limbed and humanoid. I’ve seen a few robots with a small mobile chassis, but this is the first one I’ve seen in Chicago. The captain stops shouting long enough to look at the tablet.
“The hotel staff was supposed to wake us up, apparently,” Martin translates for me. “The colonel had to send his soldiers to get us. He says next time, he’ll let everyone die in their beds.”
That doesn’t sound good. “What’s going to kill us in our beds, exactly?”
Martin shrugs, giving me a nervous glance. “Something bad.”
I was about to reply, but the colonel had started moving again. Whatever he saw on that black tablet, he didn’t like it. He’s not shouting now, but his face is grim. He moves into the street, the slender robot at his side. He’s speaking to the soldiers nearby and looking west down Wacker. He points, and two of the soldiers take off running toward a concrete barrier.
A skinny corporal whose uniform looks like it would blow off in a stiff breeze marches up to us and starts speaking. He’s staring just over our heads, but presumably addressing us. He’s much quieter than the colonel, and his words are so thickly accented it takes me a moment to realize he’s speaking English.
He wants us to march south, down North Stetson Avenue. On the double, now now now. Martin and I get our feet moving, but too many others are still milling around, confused. I guess most of them can’t hear the soldier — or can’t understand him — and now that the colonel is gone, people have started breaking into groups. The buzz of conversation is getting louder.
Martin stops at my side. “We need to get these people moving,” he says, concern in his voice.
Something happens then. Someone down the street shouts, and all the soldiers duck, heads swiveling to the west. The skinny corporal in front of us stops speaking, his arm hanging powerlessly in the air, still pointing south down North Stetson. His head turns west with the rest. His mouth is open, but he’s making no sound.
Something streaks through the air, small and bright like a spark struck from a sword blade. It hits the towering robot and explodes, a hammerpunch of light and sound. One of the elegant whip antennas goes spinning off its chassis, skidding away down the street until it smashes into a parked Mercedes.
There’s screaming then. Screaming and the sound of automatic weapons, returning fire to the west.
“Jesus Christ,” Martin shouts, ducking down at my side.
All around us, people are frozen in place. The half-naked receptionist to my right is covering her mouth, her eyes wide. She reaches out to the guy next to her, tugging at his shirt. She starts to ask a question.
I seize her arm roughly, grab the shirtfront of the guy she’s talking to. “Move, you idiots!” I shove them toward Stetson.
They start to run. A few feet away, four of the hotel staff are cowering on the curb. I pull the first one to her feet. “Go! Get moving! Martin — help me!”
Martin tears his eyes away from the street. He pushes himself to his feet, helps me shepherd people south, down Stetson Avenue.
The Venezuelan corporal breaks his paralysis at last. He’s shouting and waving, pushing when necessary, herding the crowd south.
People start to move. But nearly half of the crowd has surged back up the steps toward the hotel. There’s a panicked knot of guests trying to get through the glass doors.
There’s another explosion behind me — loud and very close. I stumble, see the glass windows of the hotel vibrate violently. There’s a flash of heat on the back of my head. “Get away from the windows!” I shout. “Stay out of the hotel — move! Down the street!”
Martin and I are working together. The corporal comes up behind us, trying to help. But it’s not enough. There are still nearly forty guests clustered at the hotel entrance. Most aren’t even moving — they’re just hunkered down near the bushes to the side of the doors, or huddled together on the concrete steps. Already my throat is hoarse from shouting, but I keep at it. The next guy I grab shakes me off violently. “Don’t touch me,” he says defiantly.
Martin’s not having any more luck. The people he’s pleading with are sticking together, glued to the steps. Somehow, the young corporal manages to be even less effectual. He’s standing in the center of the turnaround in front of the hotel, sweeping his arms in the air and waving toward Stetson Avenue like he’s directing traffic. He looks terrified. No one is even looking at him.
We’re barely fifteen feet from a huge bank of windows. One well-placed shell, and five hundred pounds of glass shrapnel is going to punch through the air, right where we’re standing. I swear helplessly.
I glance into the street, trying to get a quick read on the situation. The Venezuelans are taking cover behind concrete barricades, returning fire to the west. A small team has set up what looks like a machine gun nest, but instead of a machine gun they’re manning some kind of portable radio frequency antenna. They’re aiming it like a weapon, and I wish them luck.
The robot is moving now, but it’s none too steady on its feet. Also, it’s on fire. A thin trail of black smoke snakes out behind it as it takes its first steps west. The Vulcan mounted on its side is silent, for which I’m grateful. The soldiers are letting it take the lead as they prepare to advance.
I spot the colonel, standing in the center of the whirlwind. He seems to be in command of everything, except maybe the robot. He’s doing three things at once: yelling at a small platoon, probably to relinquish their useless position and move their asses west; listening to a report shouted to him from a tech running alongside; and barking into a black phone connected to another backpack.
The colonel turns his head toward us for an instant, seeming to take in the fiasco in front of the hotel at a glance. He turns to his left, says something to a squad of soldiers trailing him, and then returns to the phone. The soldiers start running our way.
I abandon the cluster of hotel guests I’m working on and hunker down next to Martin. “Hey,” I say. “Something’s up.” He follows my gaze to the soldiers.
I’m not a fan of guns. But I have to admit, the sergeant leading the small squad knew how to use hers. She didn’t bother saying a word — she just waded into the center of the unmoving civilians, pointed her rifle in the air, and fired a short burst. Then she reached down and grabbed a middle-aged bellboy and yanked him to his feet, pushing him toward Stetson.
That was all it took. All of a sudden everyone was moving, and in the right direction. The gunfire had badly unnerved many, and a young woman passing on my left was close to hysteria, but at least they were walking. As Martin and I followed the others south, I saw the sergeant send two soldiers into the lobby to retrieve those who’d managed to slip back inside. In a moment they were following us too.
“You lost your coffeepot,” Martin observes. I’m surprised to discover he’s right. I don’t recall putting it down, but I’m no longer carrying it. I hope it found a good home.
Martin and I are pulling up the rear, just ahead of the lobby-dwellers who’ve been forcibly repatriated with the rest of us. We get away from the entrance to the hotel, and we’re making our way south down Stetson Avenue. Sixty of us fill the street. The sergeant has her rifle on her shoulder, pointed skyward, as she strides briskly toward the front. Paradoxically, everyone is both following her and giving her a wide berth.
“Oh my God,” says Martin.
I turn. Martin has stopped walking. He’s looking back toward Wacker.
A Union mech has entered the battle from the west. It’s sleek and spry, thirteen yards tall, sixty tons of deadly American metal. Where the Venezuelan machine moves like a bird, this thing is accelerating down the street like a freight train — fast and implacable on two heavy metal legs. I can see a constant halo of sparks around its torso as it absorbs small arms fire from the Venezuelans on the street, but it ignores them. Instead, it is focused on the robot.
As Martin and I watch in paralyzed fascination, it launches a trio of missiles — two at the robot in its path, and one at a concrete barricade sixty yards to our right.
A bunch of stuff happens then, all of it bright and all of it very loud. Martin turns and starts running south. We collide and he nearly knocks me flat. He grabs me just before I hit the pavement, helping me regain my footing. “Come on!” he says.
“Yeah, yeah — go! Right behind you.”
Martin nods and bolts, vanishing into the crowd. Everyone is running now, in full flight south.
My ears are ringing, but not so much that I can’t hear the sudden crescendo of return fire, and more explosions. I’m standing, and it occurs to me that’s a dumb, dumb idea. I flatten, palms on the pavement and elbows in the air like I’m doing push-ups, and watch what unfolds.
What unfolds is a knock-down, face-to-face slugfest between a Union mech and a heavily damaged Venezuelan robot; a battle of wills between an elite American pilot in a titanic war machine and a coldly calculating machine intelligence in a forty-ton armored carapace. I watch the whole thing from a front-row seat scarcely a hundred yards away, hypnotized.
Most of the battle happens too quickly for me to follow. Both units are exchanging fire, mostly small arms. The Venezuelan robot is in pretty bad shape. It’s lost part of its outer carapace, and open flames have started to flicker at the heart of the black smoke pouring out its back. But the Vulcan is still intact, and it lets loose twice at close range. It must have hit at least once, because I see the mech shudder. I hear shrapnel peppering the road, the barricades, and even the hotel to my left. A third-floor window shatters, and broken glass cascades to the sidewalk fifty feet away, some of it bouncing within a few feet of my head.
As dynamic as all of that is, I know the most intense part of the battle is invisible. While all that hot metal is flying through the air, these two titans are simultaneously hammering each other with powerful short-range electronic countermeasures, attempting to confuse, slow, or overexcite every semiautonomous component they can identify. Each of these beasts is a conglomerate of hundreds of patched systems, every one with several potentially exploitable weaknesses. Slow even a couple systems down a fraction of a second, and it can mean all the difference.
I couldn’t tell who had the upper hand in the desperate electronic struggle, but here in the physical realm, the mech was killing it. The robot takes two hesitant steps backward, its left leg vibrating violently. There’s a soft wooosh, and suddenly its whole upper third is engulfed in flame.
Just like that, the battle of the titans is over. The robot is trying to retreat, but it’s pinned against one of the concrete barricades. It twists, trying vainly to step over it, but the barricade is too tall. It’s burning out of control now; thick black smoke is billowing from its torso, and five-foot tongues of brilliant flame are licking its spine.
It’s a sitting duck, but the mech has already lost interest. The heavy Union machine twists, concentrating fire on the Venezuelan soldiers. I hear hundreds of bullets hitting concrete and pavement, and the screams of pain as they find softer things.
It’s time for me to be gone — long past time. I pull myself into a squat, start retreating farther south down Stetson, unable to tear my eyes off the huge killing machine striding into the midst of the enemy.
Except it isn’t striding. Not exactly. It’s stopped, in fact, almost dead ahead, at the intersection of Wacker and Stetson. It seems to be hesitating. I’m struck again at how animalistic these things are, and right now, it looks like a canny wolf, smelling a trap.
The pilot must have sensed something. The mech takes a step backward, then another. I hear running feet to my right, tear my eyes away long enough to see a squad of soldiers near the hotel in a crouched run toward my position. I feel a surge of terror then — it’s one thing to be on the sidelines of a firefight, and a very different thing entirely to be right in the middle of a group of soldiers taking fire.
I throw my arms up over my head, stand as straight as I dare, and start running down Stetson Avenue.
I never saw the missile — or whatever it was — that almost killed me. All I remember is getting punched hard mid-step, and the ground moving abruptly five feet to my left. I take a tumble — and I mean a tumble — head over heels and landing hard, slamming my shoulder into the pavement and ending on my back.
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