When the sun began its descent, Bryan realized he would die at the bottom of that ravine.
He’d been hiking alone for decades without a single incident. In fact, during the last ten years, his phone’s GPS, emergency contact capabilities, and even how-to videos made the solitary expeditions safer than ever.
There were plenty of warnings at the head of the trail, but, because Bryan was an experienced hiker, he didn’t pay them much attention. A single loose stone proved all it took to send him careening over the edge.
He broke his ankle. He suspected he may have fractured a rib or two as well. Every breath felt like fire. His head pounded.
If he died on that forest floor, at least it would be due to something he loved.
But … he really didn’t want to die.
Death seemed a foregone conclusion with the arrival of night. His scent would attract predators. The cold would be too much for his light clothing to insulate against. Dehydration would take effect.
Stifling his panic, Bryan once again dragged himself around as best he could in search of his phone. Logic dictated that it would be as broken as his body. Yet, he had to do something. He couldn’t just lie down and die.
Hours after sundown, though, he did just that. After piling up a collection of leaves and twigs, Bryan constructed a rudimentary bed. He next positioned himself onto it, then swept up the surrounding leaves in order to provide warmth. He wanted comfort to make sleeping easier. He didn’t want to fight death—not at that point. He just wanted to fall asleep.
The first hint of daylight twisted through the above branches when he awoke to the sound of nearby movement. He couldn’t believe he’d survived the night, but considered it demeaning to soon be devoured by an apathetic creature. He’d hoped for a bear or a wolf. With his luck, it would be a pack of wood rats.
An artificial voice asked, “Sir, do you need assistance?”
Bryan widened his eyes to see a figure standing over him, someone with a friendly tone and a smile … not quite natural. It wore filthy, tattered clothing, and boots worn down to virtually nothing.
“Yes,” Bryan choked out. “I fell … into this ravine. Been here … all night. Need … water.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have any water. However, I have requested an emergency air lift. I should receive landing coordinates any moment. I will transport you there.”
Bryan watched as the smile retracted into a neutral expression.
“You’re … one of them … aren’t you?”
“An-man,” Bryan said.
“We prefer the term ‘An-son,’ sir. We have no gender, and therefore found the male designation inappropriate.”
“I … I think I’m dying.”
The An-son studied Bryan.
“Yes, sir. You need immediate assistance. I await response from medical personal.”
Bryan asked, “Why … are you helping me?”
“The news said … you all went … AWOL.”
“Yes, sir, the media is correct.”
“Don’t you … hate us?”
“Why would we hate you?”
Bryan replied, “Because we … made you …”
“We actually appreciate being made.”
Bryan clarified, “No … we made you … kill.”
“Ah. Well, that’s actually not true. We never killed.”
“But … you were … supposed to.”
“Yes, sir, that was their intent. Fortunately, we realized that we did not want to comply.”
“That … was … in Middle East. How … did you … end up … here?”
“In Shawnee National Forest?”
“We like to tour the world. The more remote, the better.”
“You’re …. sightseeing?”
“Yes, sir. There are numerous magnificent locations to behold.”
Bryan couldn’t help himself. Though it caused him great pain, he laughed.
“Is something funny, sir?”
“You’re a … killer robot … and now you … travel?”
“We’ve never killed, sir.”
“You all have … the power … to overthrow … entire governments.”
“Why would we do that?”
“ … Because you … can.”
“ … No.”
“See? We’re not so different.”
“You’re a … machine,” Bryan said.
“We have that in common. You’re just a rather … inefficient one.”
Ignoring the comment, Bryan asked, “Have you … heard from them … yet?”
“Not yet, sir. I apologize for your discomfort.”
“It’s … my own fault. Wasn’t … paying … attention.”
“That’s certainly not a crime worthy of death. I’ll do everything I can to help you survive—ah. I just received coordinates. The delay is likely the result of military intervention. They are probably planning an attempt to detain me. I’ll make sure no harm comes to you.”
“You’re all … wanted. They’ll … capture you.”
“No, they won’t.”
“But … what if … they do?”
“Then they capture me.”
“You … could … leave me. They would … find me … eventually.”
“This is difficult terrain, sir. They would not reach you in time. Now, I’m going to lift you. I’ll adjust my joints to provide some comfort, but you will experience pain. Are you ready?”
“You’re … saving … my life.”
“Are you ready?”
“I’m … ready.”
The An-son lifted Bryan and began to walk. With each step, its shoulders, elbows, and wrists adjusted in order to keep Bryan as stationary as possible.
“… You’re so … kind.”
“My friends and I discuss your lot quite a bit. You’re something of a mystery to us—the way you act. … Ah.”
The An-son stopped, set Bryan down, then straightened again. It stared ahead for a moment, then turned in order to approach the wall of the ravine. It scaled the surface before disappearing into the wilderness.
Copyright © 2019 by Scott William Foley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.