Future Tense

“Collateral Damage”

Read a new short story from the author of Dread Nation.

A big robot with a shield and a nametag reading "TED"
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Tom Barrett/Unsplash and U.S. Government.

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

TED Log
Initial Entry-35166

Unit 10003 interacted with assigned platoon during physical training and assisted in small tasks. Complete recordings are now available for download. Morale of assigned unit is high and no hostility was experienced. ENTRY COMPLETE

We are at PT, physical training, the first time we meet TED.

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Sgt. Daniels, a stocky white guy with muscles on muscles, is leading the session, something he refers to as “Playing Card Conditioning” and that the rest of us call “straight fuckery.” The setup involves drawing a card and doing a correlated number of whatever body-weight exercise Sgt. Daniels can dream up, usually pushups or situps. As the platoon’s resident muscle head, he loves it.

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The rest of us would rather be left alone to sleep in. We’re set to leave for a deployment in less than two weeks, and every minute taken from us feels like a personal affront. Rolling around in the grass in front of the platoon office while Sgt. Daniels shows off his hard work at the gym is a colossal waste of time under the best of circumstances, but in the countdown to a deployment it’s even worse. I don’t have a family in base housing or any of that bullshit, but I like sleep. I definitely would’ve rather been snuggled under the covers than enduring another round of athletic shenanigans.

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“Ace of Spades!” Sgt. Daniels calls from the front of the formation. At the announcement of the card everyone groans. “Fifteen side-straddle hops!”

“Yo, what the hell is that?” asks Gershwin, a skinny Black kid who spends more time cracking jokes than working out. No shade, pure honesty. I’m jealous of him, not gonna lie. He somehow manages to pass his PT test with flying colors every time, while I just barely squeak by.

“It’s a jumping jack, dumbass,” calls back Younger, a sharp-tempered white girl from Texas without a hint of a drawl, the joke being that she’s too high-strung to even adopt the accent of her home state. Younger and I had gotten drunk together in the barracks’ day room one night when everyone else had gone home for Christmas break, neither of us having the leave for a trip home. At least, that was what we told everyone. The truth is I didn’t have the money for a plane ticket. All of my cash was sent back to my family in Pennsylvania. When the economy tanked after the last pandemic, it was the least I could do. I never found out Younger’s story, but I figure it was something similar.

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Gershwin rolls his eyes at Younger. They dated once. It was a spectacular catastrophe, and there’s still a bit of lighthearted venom there if you’re watching for it. Not because either of them have feelings for the other, but because the rest of us expect it. “Not the exercise, that!”

Twenty-six pairs of eyes turn to where Gershwin points. The 1st sergeant approaches with the company commander and a strange, boxy-looking bot. 1st sergeant wears a look of disgust on her face. It’s a standing joke that there would be nothing better than to invite her to one of the barracks’ poker games. Meanwhile, the company commander looks happier than a pig in shit.

Sgt. Daniels scrambles to his feet and calls the platoon to attention. The company commander laughs in delight and waves away the necessary adherence to protocol.

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“At ease, at ease! Good morning, 4th Platoon, I see we’re getting some of that great PT in this morning. Not even heading to war can stop you guys.”

The platoon murmurs in polite response at the company commander stating the obvious. Such idiocy is expected from the brass, though. It’s what they do.

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It isn’t worth pointing out that we’ve already been to war twice in the past three years. When I got to the unit from my training, I was told that I’d be shipping out in less than a month. At some point, packing your shit to head to some country you’ve never heard of gets pretty routine, like selling cable door to door, maybe. Just with more shooting. But you can’t just shrug at an officer, so we all smile politely instead.

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“Well, we’re going to interrupt your session a little bit to introduce you to the newest member of your platoon,” the company commander continues. He beckons us closer, his smile friendly. “Bring it in, bring it in. Gather around.”

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Everyone is hesitant to move into a group. We reek after nearly an hour of exercising. But the closeness isn’t the problem. We don’t like the company commander, and not just because the man is a yutz. A month ago he canceled all travel and pre-deployment leave, worried that some of us might go home and bring back something gross—which is plausible as the latest virus sweeps across the country. Most everyone was pissed; no one wants to go overseas for a year without at least seeing the people they love first. The company commander didn’t get that, and our platoon will never forget it. It’s fine. He’ll be in a new position in a few months’ time and we’ll have new brass to hate. And the circle of life will continue.

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Once we’re all up on one another, the company commander gives us all a big, cheesy grin, like he just won a game show or something. “I would like for you all to meet TED. I know we’ve been hinting at something big coming to Alpha Company, and this is it. The Army’s first completely self-aware combat drone.”

The thing behind the company commander lumbers forward. The silence is filled with sounds of heavy breathing and quiet distress. The bot is monstrous, like something out of a near-future movie about an evil artificial intelligence bent on destroying humankind. It’s painted coyote, the same pale brown as the rest of our vehicles. A generation ago it would’ve been O.D. green with black splotches, and I can’t decide which would be worse. It lurches toward us with a creaking racket that’ll warn any insurgent within a klick of its approach, and despite the many presumably weapon-concealing compartments visible on its body, there’s nothing really menacing or overtly threatening about the thing. It’s just a bot. It could be carrying groceries to a car or mowing the lawn or any of a dozen things that humans can totally do better.

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“How many billions of tax dollars do you think they dropped on that?” Younger asks, leaning in to whisper in my ear.

“They should’ve given us a bonus instead,” Gershwin mutters from my other side.

“Or at least let us go home on leave,” Younger says, and there are murmurs of assent. Mine included.

“Hello, I am TED: Tactical Enhancement Drone,” the bot says, its voice feminine and reassuring. The sound is somewhere between an archaic video game and a phone’s clueless A.I., and there are a few snickers from the platoon. This is the killing machine that’s going to turn the tide of the war? “I will be assisting you on your missions.” A number of looks are exchanged, especially amongst the junior enlisted like me, but the company commander pretends not to notice and continues talking.

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“TED here is part of a pilot program to introduce bots into our platoons. The battalion and brigade commanders have a lot of excitement for this initiative, a new era of soldiering, and Alpha Company is lucky enough to test the flagship specimen. Well, one of them.”

“Cool, but where are the others?” asks Gershwin, loud enough to be heard by the company commander, and the nods of the rest of the platoon make clear that he is not the only one wondering just how many of these bots are wandering around out there. Frankly, it seems less like an asset and more like yet another thing we have to keep an eye out for on the battlefield.

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“Only one in a war zone, this fella right here. At least he will be, once you all get there,” the company commander says with an easy grin. It’s a nonanswer, and pretty much expected. No one bothers to tell us anything until it’s too late to matter.

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There is also something disconcerting about referring to the unit as “he” rather than “it” or “she,” especially given the feminine speaking voice. “I’m depending on y’all to take him out and show him the ropes the next few days so that he’s calibrated and ready for action,” the company commander says. “Your platoon leader will have more information, since TED will be joining you for the last few days of your pre-deployment training. I’m going to let you all get back to that good PT, and I’ll see you around.” The company commander walks off with a wave, but the 1st sergeant remains behind.

“Make sure you follow the direction of Sgt. Peters, as they have all of the necessary information for the unit. You’ll also be getting a contractor, who will tag along and ensure the unit is properly maintained. He should be along later today. All right, enough tomfoolery, get back to work.”

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We meander back to our PT formation, and I find myself looking at the bot as I go. All through the rest of the hour of jumping jacks, pushups, situps, and the like, my eyes drift to the bot, which stands off to the side of the formation, just watching us.

No matter how much I tell myself it’s fine, I have the feeling that this bot is really, really bad news.

TED Log
Initial Entry-35183

This unit accompanied currently assigned platoon for training. Left seat–right seat is a hand-off process in which the current unit in a war zone trains the incoming unit on best practices for conduct of operations in an occupied area. During the process, this unit observed that many of the soldiers found the unit suspicious and unnecessary. Data analysis indicates this may present an issue for future combat drones. An index of images has been provided for analysis and has been sent via communications link. ENTRY COMPLETE

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TED fucking sucks.

By the time we touch down in the combat zone we’ve decided we hate the unit. The bot is efficient and good at what it does. Two weeks of training with it was brutal. It was damn near flawless, while we were fucking up left and right. No matter the battle drill, no matter the task, the bot accomplishes it without fail. And the rest of us?

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The rest of us are human.

It’s not that we aren’t good soldiers, or competent. Each of us has been deployed a few times, and we know how to survive out there. But we aren’t computers, so it’s not like we can run through half a million possible scenarios in a handful of seconds and know we’re making the best decision. We have to go with our gut, and that’s not something TED appreciates, or can even take into account with its fancy preset algorithms.

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It becomes clear that being assigned to work with the bot isn’t a reward. It’s hours of frustration followed by a full report of all the ways we forgot to do this or that. Even people like Sgt. Daniels—who really, really likes shooting things—are annoyed and flustered by the bot’s constant perfection. The day we had to simulate clearing a building, we were still on the first floor while the bot had had already gone through the entirety of the exercise, declaring the all-clear while we were still discussing the operation. Sgt. Daniels had tried to explain to the bot’s handler that it was useless to have a unit that went off and did its own thing without waiting for the rest of the platoon. The contractor, a white guy in a polo shirt and khaki pants with the worst facial hair I have ever seen, shrugged.

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“TED is following its programming. If you have a problem with it, then log a report. All calibrations are handled at the dispatch center.” He tapped on his tablet as he spoke, barely acknowledging the sergeant. He’d introduced himself the day TED arrived in our unit, but we’d all immediately forgotten his name and had taken to calling him Greasy, because his shoulder-length hair always looked like it needed to be washed. He did not appreciate the nickname.

“Dispatch center?” Sgt. Daniels asked, frowning in confusion. Making Sgt. Daniels look stupid was never a good idea. He had a way of going all-out when he got angry, and he usually dragged the rest of the squad along with him for the ride.

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“The bot logs all interactions and observations and sends them back to the dispatch center on Langley for research and calibration,” Greasy said. “This was all in your briefing.”

Sgt. Daniels didn’t say anything, just walked away. But the next day our squad got called before the platoon sergeant, and we had the joy of watching ourselves fuck up in real time, courtesy of TED’s numerous observation cameras.

Some of us were hoping TED would have a meltdown and remain stateside, but when our plane touches down in the war zone, the bot is clanking along right next to us. It’s a damned spectacle, and the only person excited about it is the company commander.

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We’re only on base for a few hours before news spreads, as it tends to do when people are bored and ready to be somewhere else. The other units stare at us as we go through the motions of unloading our gear and taking inventory, the bot staggering along like a drunken shadow wherever we go, and in the chow hall a guy comes up to our table, kind of angry.

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“Hey, what’s the deal with the robot?” he says. “You guys work with it at all?”

TED stands next to the entrance to the dining facility, waiting for its assigned squad for the day to be finished so they can move on to the next task. If they’re late leaving, if they dally too long or linger over coffee, that triggers a report to the platoon sergeant.

Like life ain’t hard enough.

“Yeah, we trained up with it,” Younger says, no one else wanting to be bothered in the middle of dinner. We’re all tired after a long flight and an even longer day of getting our stuff settled, and first call is at 0530 even though we’re all jet-lagged and bummed to be at war again.

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“And?” the guy demands. His name tape says “Rogers,” and he’s just an E-4 like the rest of us, so I can’t figure out why he’s so pressed. It’s not like he’s in competition with the bot. Anyone who can fog a mirror can make sergeant, and Gershwin, Younger, and I have debated many a time the pros and cons of becoming a noncommissioned officer. For now, we’re all happy to just collect a paycheck and not worry about gaining rank.

“Look, the bot fucking sucks,” Gershwin says. “It logs all of our actions and reports them back to someone who then calls our platoon sergeant who reads us the riot act. Like, it’s just one more way for the Army to make sure we’re doing what they want.”

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“Yeah, but have you heard why they’re fielding them?” Rogers leans in, glancing around like anybody in the chow hall gives a crap about our conversation. “They’re going to replace us with those robots. Like, the same way they phased out the pilots with the aerial drones. This is the next step.”

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“Who cares?” asks Younger around a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “It’s not like I want to get shot. Let the bot take a bullet.”

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“I care,” Rogers says, his emotions running way higher than the situation calls for. “I’ve got a family, and my wife just told me she wants to try for another fucking kid when I get home. How am I supposed to support my family if the robots are taking all of the work?”

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“Man, you need to calm down,” Gershwin says. “We don’t like the bot either. We’re just doing our job.”

Rogers stomps off, back to his table. They all look back at us when he talks, and it’s clear that he’s relating the conversation to the rest of his friends.

“Why is everyone so ragey about this stupid bot?” Younger asks. “Who the fuck cares if we get replaced by a unit made of Kevlar and circuit boards? Personally, I hope we do. I’m not reenlisting, and I’m only still here because we got stop-lossed. Send my ass home, I’m ready,” she laughs.

But I’m not listening to her, I’m thinking about the thing the guy said about being replaced. I’d considered the bot a hassle, one more metric of how we suck. The Army already weighs us, tests our endurance, and treats us like something between property and errant children. The additional data provided by the bot seemed like another way for the brass to micromanage us—and not just us, but the NCOs as well. Sgt. Daniels was frustrated by his inability to discuss and push back against the bot’s observations, and everyone else was so afraid of making mistakes that you could see folks paralyzed by indecision, worried what the bot would make of an action.

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But now I had to consider the idea that we would be sent home with a letter of thanks and best wishes as the bots took over fighting wars. What would I do then? What would my family do? I send all of my money home, and that’s the only thing keeping a roof over my family’s head since my father had died and my mother lost her job as a cashier, first to the old pandemic and then later to the bots the store replaced her with. There isn’t much I can do that pays as well as the Army.

Rogers is right.

TED Log
Initial Entry-35223

Hostility toward this unit persists, despite numerous successful missions. Engaged with enemy hostiles and neutralized the threat before any friendly casualties were sustained. Full report forthcoming.

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Our first patrol with the unit we’re replacing, sort of a tour of their most active sectors, is a spectacular shit show. And not because we do anything wrong, but because TED does everything right.

The day starts off fine, the other squad friendly and helpful. We walk a foot patrol with the squad, who has been maintaining the main supply route that runs through the local market. It’s supposed to be a quiet trip, since most of the fighting in the country has moved down into the southern regions. The idea is to see the potential chokepoints and areas where we can get seriously screwed if we’re not vigilant. The only problem is before we can get any of the survey done, TED is shooting people.

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“Hostiles detected. Drop your weapon and lie on your front. Surrender or you will be killed,” TED suddenly announces, repeating the warning in two or three other languages.

“Who the hell is that thing talking to?” asks the sergeant from the other squad. Sgt. Daniels looks around in confusion, trying to find the supposed threat that TED has already spotted.

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“I don’t know,” he says, but waves us to spread out and find cover anyway. It’s just in time, as a spate of gunfire hits the dirt road right where we stood moments before.

“TED is programmed to scan all areas for possible threats,” Greasy calls out, tucked away safely in a nearby doorway, unarmed and just watching the scene unfold. “He saw your sniper before any of you did.”

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“Threat acknowledged. Engaging,” TED says, the compartments opening up and a couple of semi-automatic rifle barrels deploying. There’s nothing to do but watch as TED shoots a man on a nearby roof, along with a woman who pops out of a nearby alley, the whole thing taking place so quickly that by the time I realize what’s happening there are two dead people in the street.

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“Threat neutralized. All clear,” TED says, and I swear I can hear the smugness in the bot’s voice.

And even if it’s not really there, if a bot can’t really feel superior, Greasy’s shit-eating grin as we regroup says it all.

TED Log
Initial Entry-35229

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This unit accompanied assigned platoon into sector for patrol. While on patrol, platoon made contact with enemy. Spc. Thompson and Sgt. Daniels were observed committing hostile acts toward noncombatants. When this unit intervened, it was severely damaged by Spc. Gershwin. Report forthcoming. ENTRY COMPLETE

The niggling, persistent feeling that TED is out to replace us doesn’t go away. It only gets worse. As we have a change-of-command ceremony and the unit we’re replacing leaves to finally go home, I keep thinking how it makes sense that a bot would replace soldiers. They don’t need to eat or sleep. They won’t complain about going home for leave, or that the on-base housing is unsafe for their families. They certainly won’t get old or get sick and die. Bots could be a perfect solution to an endless war.

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And I should feel happy about that, should look forward to going home and finding something else to do. But every time I consider it, I hear the sound of my mother’s voice, the relief as she tells me that they used the money I sent to pay for rent or to get my younger siblings new shoes or even order pizza. All the little things that people take for granted. How can I let someone take that away from them?

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When I confess these feelings to Younger one night, as we all lie in our bunks, she snorts. “Wait, so just because the Army has given you a chance to help your family out, you think that TED is bad? I mean, don’t get me wrong, TED is awful and I hate it so much, but I’d much rather send an army of bots over to some shithole country to keep the peace than any other American. And there are other ways to make a living. Like, why don’t you start taking online courses or something? I saw a place that you can get a degree in 24 months. That’s not that bad.”

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“Oh, and have something that gets you no work and a mountain of debt besides?” Gershwin says, chiming in. “Great plan.”

Younger huffs in annoyance. “So, it’s better that they send us off to fight time and time again? Besides, that stupid bot saved our lives! None of us would’ve seen that sniper the other day, at least not until one of us got shot.”

Gershwin shrugs. “Maybe. But that was this time. What about next time and the time after that? We start to rely on the bot and we’re going to get complacent and screw up. Either way, I signed my paperwork, same as you. I knew what I was getting into, and it was worth it. I have a brand new car. Do you know how many of my cousins don’t even have their driver’s licenses? Yeah, the bot is useful, but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of us won’t have anything to do if they send us all home. I’ll be broke and maybe worse,” he says, a shadow falling over his face briefly, and we all know what he means. A lot of us here used the Army to escape the terrible lives we left behind.

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“Fine. So what are you going to do about it? It’s not like you can just blow up TED,” Younger says.

“Why can’t we?” I say, the words coming out before I even consider their impact. TED isn’t in the barracks—there’s a closet where they send the unit to charge and upload its data at the end of the day—but I still glance around to see who else might’ve heard. I’m surprised to realize that we have an audience. The other specialists in our platoon have left their conversations to listen in on ours, and now a few people sit up in their beds at my suggestion.

“Yo, you serious?” calls Thompson, a thick Black guy with equally thick glasses. “You really thinking about destroying that bot?”

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“Yeah, why not?” I say, warming to the idea. “It’s a war zone, right? Battlefield loss. We make sure TED doesn’t come home and we get to spend the rest of this deployment business as usual.”

“How do you figure that will keep the Army from replacing us with bots?” Younger demands.

“It’s a prototype, right?” calls another girl from down the row of beds: Garcia, a Mexican girl from Arizona who only joined to get her American citizenship, since it was the easiest way for undocumented immigrants like her. “My sister worked on a few of those when she was at MIT. She said that a prototype failing can set a program back years, sometimes decades. Maybe if we destroy this bot they won’t be in such a rush to replace us.”

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“It’s a good idea,” Gershwin says, and Younger snorts in derision.

That sets off an argument, everyone pitching how we destroy the bot or debating if we even should. I drift off, the ebb and flow of the debate lulling me to sleep. But when I wake the next morning the idea sticks with me, and I can’t help but think that this might be the answer to all of our problems, no matter how insane it might sound.

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That, of course, is when everything goes to shit.

It’s supposed to be a simple supply run, just us and a line of dry goods, toilet paper, and soap, and all of that kind of stuff. We drive through the neighborhoods and streets in the middle of the day so the locals know we’re watching and while it’s easy to see the oncoming threats. Only today there’s an old man with a mule-drawn cart blocking traffic along our route, cars honking and people yelling at him to move. The mule is either sick or on strike, because it won’t get up.

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And before we can decide to either help or turn around, gunfire is hitting the outside of our vehicles and people are screaming and heading for cover.

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“It’s the old man!” someone yells over the radio, but the mule cart is in front of us and the gunfire pelts the left side of the vehicle. It not unusual for folks to panic in the midst of a firefight. We all know that the most important thing is finding cover.

“Threat identified. Enemy combatant located in nearby market stall. Threat neutralized,” TED announces in a bullhorn-loud voice. We don’t even have time to react before the bot has killed the target, but the shooting continues.

“Take cover! Left side! Green building,” someone else yells. Because, unlike TED, we’ve been in situations like this before, and we know that there’s usually more than one person trying to kill us. We’re the U.S. Army, after all.

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I put the vehicle in park and grab my rifle, rolling out the passenger side after Sgt. Daniels, gunfire shattering the window and glass raining down on us as we get out.

“You good?” Sgt. Daniels says, not waiting for my answer. Not that I would have one for him. The adrenaline is pumping and all of our training is kicking in. I don’t have time to be scared, even though there’s an endless parade of swear words scrolling through my brain.

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Out of the vehicle. We find cover. The gunfire hesitates, but we all stay where we are, knowing that this is a ploy to get us to show ourselves. People are screaming words that I don’t understand and far off a woman howls, and then there’s an explosion and more screams.

“Threat neutralized,” says TED, walking around the edge of the vehicle. “All clear. You all may return to your previous duties.”

“Don’t you dare fucking move. Hold your position,” Sgt. Daniels growls at me, but I wasn’t going anywhere. Sgt. Daniels remains where he is, and I do as well, trusting his instincts more than I do the stupid bot’s. But Younger stands up a little ways down the line of vehicles, and as soon as she does gunfire erupts once more.

She goes down. And that is when shit gets real.

Sgt. Daniels stands up, returning fire and taking out a shopkeeper wielding an AK-47. TED either missed the heavily armed man or decided he looked friendly. Someone is screaming for a medic, and locals are crowding around to gawk at Younger, who’s taken a bullet to the neck, blood fountaining out into the dirt, the NCOs telling us to set up a perimeter and make sure there aren’t any more hostiles as our medic gets to work.

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I’m working on autopilot, so I only barely register Thompson kicking a civilian who is curled up on the ground, holding a handgun and yelling that he only wanted to help.

“Noncombatants should not be engaged,” TED says, walking over, the compartments on its arms opening up to reveal gun barrels. Which are now pointed at Thompson.

“Stop that fucking bot!” someone yells, but there are people running all over, and who knows what TED is aiming at? Gershwin is closest, and he bashes the bot in the face area with the butt of his rifle. The drone stumbles.

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“Sensor damage,” it says. The gun barrels retreat. It’s enough to make Gershwin hesitate, even though he’s winding up for another round. But Thompson doesn’t, smashing the back of TED’s head with the butt of their weapon, knocking off a piece of antenna that probably costs more than what any of us makes in a year.

“Back off, back off,” Sgt. Daniels says, pushing Thompson away from the civilian before taking a set of flexicuffs off of his vest and locking up the local’s hands. “We got this, TED. Call for medical help.”

“Where the fuck is that contractor?” someone else yells. No one seems to know where Greasy got to, and we’re too busy to babysit the damned bot.

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The unit wobbles away without confirming the call for help, and I go back to providing security, waiting for any of the civilians to do something suspicious so I can react. But the streets have emptied out, everyone finding things to do in the aftermath of the violence.

The medics patch Younger up as best as they can, and load her into the lead vehicle to speed her to the hospital. Someone has shot the mule, and a group of people—our platoon and locals who are apologizing in whatever English they know—drag the carcass out of the way.

By the time we load back up into our vehicles and start driving—we still have to finish our supply run—Younger has been taken back to base to be patched up, and my hands shake. As I drive the truck, my mind races.

“We need to get rid of that bot,” I mutter, mostly to myself. “That fucking bot got Younger shot.”

I’m not expecting Sgt. Daniels to respond, but he does. “It seems to me that an enterprising group of junior enlisted might be able to figure out just how to go about such a thing,” he says. When I look over at him he’s putting a wad of chewing tobacco into his lip, getting it settled before grabbing an empty water bottle and spitting into it.

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“Really?” I ask, surprised.

“I think it makes sense that a group of soldiers might be upset enough to do something rash,” he says with a shrug. “Maybe even just running down the damned bot with a vehicle when we stop to drop off the supplies. But what do I know?”

TED Log
Follow-Up Entry-35229

Unit alert. Unit has been severely compromised. Shutting down to prevent any further …

TED doesn’t make it back to the base. After we deliver our supplies the bot goes wandering off, and when we get back Greasy is beside himself.

“You let a billion-dollar piece of experimental equipment wander off?” he asks, pulling at his hair in distress.

“Wasn’t it your job to keep track of it?” Sgt. Daniels says, spitting tobacco juice into the dust near the contractor’s feet. “We can show you last place we saw it, if that helps. But I’m not sure whether it was with us after Younger got shot. We were distracted.”

“I don’t think it was,” Gershwin adds, helpfully. “Did you see it?” he asks me, and I shrug.

“I don’t think so,” I say. “But I was driving, so I don’t know.”

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“You have a tracking device on it, right?” Sgt. Daniels asks. “I suppose you should call that dispatch center to locate it for you.”

The contractor stomps away, and we all go about our business. Later that evening we get news that Younger is going to make it, but she’s been flown out of country to Germany for surgery. She’s going home early, after all.

Greasy finds TED a week later with the help of a Special Forces unit, since the bot’s existence is theoretically classified. The unit is mangled, and there’s a bit of questioning of just how it ended up in a ditch along the side of the road, about a mile or two away from where Younger was shot. The front sensors are smashed and the entire antenna array missing, so it couldn’t upload any of its data. One of the Special Forces guys said it seemed like the thing might have been hit by a vehicle since its memory was severely compromised, the passive radio frequency signal barely functioning when they found it. Turns out the last bit of data it had queued to send was a full recounting of the firefight, which clearly shows the bot drawing down on Thompson. Weeks later, when Greasy asks us how it got damaged, we ask him why it tried to shoot a soldier. He doesn’t know, and we don’t know, either.

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No one knows anything. How could we? None of us saw anything. We were worried about staying alive. That’s just the way it is, sometimes.

No one notices that the paint at the front of my vehicle seems a little scuffed, or that there’s a layer of coyote flakes that aren’t quite the same hue. We’re at war, after all. Things happen.

And that is all I have to say about that.

A writer and military historian responds to Justina Ireland’s “Collateral Damage.”

More From Future Tense Fiction

The Last of the Goggled Barskys,” by Joey Siara
Legal Salvage,” by Holli Mintzer
How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” by Tochi Onyebuchi
The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Dream Soft, Dream Big,” by Hal Y. Zhang
The Vastation,” by Paul Theroux
Speaker,” by Simon Brown
The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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