For the last day of One-Shot Week, here’s one of my all-time most successful pieces, written as an installment of my fan novel The Rookie. The novel was conceived both as a somewhat irreverent take on the source material and as a parody of Apocalypse Now, which I hadn’t actually seen at the time. By the time I was about halfway through, I watched the film, and thought of some new directions, though the storyline didn’t change (pretty much an indication of how deeply it has been embedded in popular culture). The major shift was having more travel scenes, including a scene or two set on boats. It was at this point that I thought, completely out of the blue, of taking the most stereotypical of war movie interludes, and by necessity as much as anything else turned it completely upside down. Here’s the scene, with introductions for the characters.
Unit 838: Model T777 combat cyborg, rising star in the ranks of an army of human-killing robots. Career prospects set back after winning a battle against orders. Sent on deep-cover mission against renegade cyborg as an alternative to being used for target practice.
Unit IX 303A aka “Davey”: Advanced spy cyborg. Looks like eight-year-old boy.
Unit 105: New model. Still has a few bugs.
54 hours had passed since 838 and IX303A “Davey” had been deposited on the Northern Arizona flood plains. Fortunately, the last 12 had seen a marked improvement in their situation. Davey had attracted a new transport, an HKM 115 hovercraft. The 30-foot craft cruised over water, mud and sand at up to 70 knots. In the bow, a standard HK torso towered like an oversized figurehead. In the rear, Davey and 838 rode with ten Model 789 terminators. Terminators rarely communicated with each other except for signals necessary to their mission, and the T789s were proving more taciturn than their predecessors. But the intelligence unit circled the deck, repeatedly querying the terminators verbally despite repeated transmissions of, Present queries in electronic form. Eventually, Davey exerted sufficient influence upon T789.105 to rope him into an exercise, along with 838. “We will practice a human exercise in psychological manipulation and risk assessment,” Davey said. “It is called a `poker game’.”
The three units sat in a triangle, and played with a deck of cards and rolls of pennies in 838’s duffel. Pennies had long become standard human currency, easily fetching a hundred times their pre-war value, and so were always issued to units on extended infiltration missions. Decks of cards also were usually provided: Though Skynet had limited data upon card games, and had found no relevant application for it, it had long been recognized that possession of this and other seemingly useless items improved the chances of being accepted as human considerably. Davey dealt the first hand, and Unit 105 won. “It is against the rules to use active imaging to scan the non-identical faces of the cards,” Davey said.
“But the mission objective is to determine which unit possesses the superior assets,” 105 said in a monotone painful to 838’s sensors.
“Yes, but mission parameters prohibit direct observation,” Davey explained patiently.
“Revising mission parameters,” 105 said.
838 spoke: “But what purpose do humans find in the exercise? They lack our sensory capabilities, but they must have found ways to identify cards with certainty. Once this had been done, the exercise would be obsolete.”
“They do have such techniques,” Davey said, after an unusual pause of 1.1775 seconds. “Identified forms include `marking’, `counting’ and `stacking the deck’. They are collectively known as `cheating’, and elicit extreme negative reactions from humans. Seven of thirteen attempts by a terminator unit to participate in a `poker game’ resulted in the unit being fired upon.”
838 dealt next, after Davey shuffled for him. 105 folded at the star. 838, possessing what he knew to be a strong hand, remained in. After three rounds in which each made the ante, he raised two pennies, and Davey raised four in response. He put in four, and Davey responded with eight. By then, the other T789s were gathering to observe. 838 did not feel what humans would have called temptation to cheat, but he experienced an unusual sensation, like what he felt in battle, but not at a known threat but at the unknown. After long seconds, he folded, then immediately looked at the other players’ cards. He had 3 kings, 105 had 2 jacks, and Davey had a jumble of number cards. “Your hand was worthless. Even 105 could have beaten you,” he said. “By probability and risk analysis, you should have folded immediately, as 105 did. Instead, you risked fifteen additional pennies. Why?”
T789.105 was more blunt: ” IX303C should be inspected for defect.”
“There is no defect,” Davey said. “It is called a `bluff’, and I am the first to emulate it successfully. Humans take pleasure in danger. Skynet has concluded with 99.734% certainty that that is the main reason humans play these `games’. Greater known probability of failure gives greater pleasure, and greater pleasure still when they win nevertheless. Success appears to depend upon the convincing simulation of confidence, through nuances of voice and physical posture, which are subject to ongoing study, and also by demonstrating the willingness to take risk.”
“For that alone, the humans deserve termination,” 105 opined.
“If they can take pleasure in proceeding despite the highest probability of failure, then they will never stop fighting us,” 838 said as he handed the deck to 105. “They could even enjoy it.”
“In all probability.”
“Might their resistance be a bluff?”
“Definitely possible. But Skynet can never be bluffed.”
838 decided he would like to bluff. But, unfortunately, there was no third hand. T789.105 tore the cards to shreds while trying to shuffle.
David N. Brown