Excerpt from The Siege

The Siege by Mark Alpert

Chapter One



My girlfriend is mad at me, and this is the worst possible time to have an argument. It’s midnight, and Shannon and I are crawling through the grass outside a military base in North Korea.

“Slow down, Adam! You’re going too fast!”

Her words are urgent, but she doesn’t raise her voice. In fact, we’re not even talking. We’re sending messages back and forth on a short-range radio channel. The antennas are embedded in the armor of the robotic crawlers we’re occupying for this mission. Shannon’s words leap from her antenna to mine, then ricochet inside my circuits. It takes me less than a millionth of a second to analyze her message and determine she’s angry, but I have no idea why. Even with all the computing power in my electronics, I can’t figure her out.

I send a radio signal back to her. “We’re okay. No one can see us under all these weeds and—”

“No, this isn’t safe. We’re supposed to go slow and be cautious. Just follow orders for once, all right?”

Instead of arguing, I adjust the motors inside my crawler and reduce its speed. Shannon and I are on a reconnaissance mission, so we’ve transferred ourselves to machines that are designed to be stealthy. My robot is shaped like a snake, like one of the big rat snakes that are pretty common in this part of the Korean Peninsula. All its motors and sensors and electronics are packed into a five-foot-long flexible tube that’s four inches thick in the middle and tapered at the ends. At the core of the tube are special neuromorphic circuits that hold all my data: my memories, my personality traits, the millions of gigabytes of information that define who I am and how I think. Shannon’s robot is smaller, only one foot long, but it has the same kind of advanced circuits inside, and they pulse with her own gigabytes of memories.

These are special-purpose machines, used only for spying. Our usual robots, the ones we occupy when we’re back at our headquarters in New Mexico, are larger and more humanlike. Shannon and I can download our data to any kind of machine -- small, big, gigantic -- as long as it has a neuromorphic control unit. And get this: we can use radio antennas to wirelessly transfer ourselves from one machine to another, streaking through the air like digital ghosts.

We can do all these things because we’re not really human, not anymore. Our bodies died before we reached the age of eighteen. But just before we died, my father -- a computer-science researcher working for the U.S. Army -- turned our souls into software. The name of our team says it all: We are Pioneers.

The official Army name for my spy robot is ATSU, the All-Terrain Surveillance Unit, but I call it the Snake-bot. Its motors bend and twist the robot’s flexible armor, propelling it through the grass in a wavy pattern that looks just like the motion of a snake. I can navigate in the dark because the Snake-bot has an infrared camera that shows the heat signatures of all the nearby objects: the warm grass and weeds appear to glow brightly above the cool, dark dirt. Thirty yards ahead is the military base’s chain-link fence -- chilled by the cold October night air -- and beyond the fence is a guard tower with two North Korean soldiers standing sentry at the top. One of the soldiers holds an assault rifle, and the other is gazing through a pair of sleek, high-tech binoculars.

“I have a bad feeling about this, Adam. Those are infrared-vision binoculars. The soldiers can see in the dark, just like us.”

I would shake my head, but I don’t have one. Instead, I wag the front end of my Snake-bot back and forth. “Snakes are cold-blooded, and our armor’s cold too. Even if they spot us with those infrared binocs, we’ll look like reptiles.”

“I have news for you, smart guy. Most people don’t like snakes. The soldier with the rifle still might take a shot at us.”

It’s a good point. Shannon’s excellent at spotting dangers during our missions, which is one of the reasons why she’s the leader of the Pioneers. Besides her and me, there are three others in the Pioneer Project: Zia, Marshall, and DeShawn. All of us were terminally ill teenagers, with just a few months left to live, when my father figured out how to digitally preserve our minds and transfer the data to combat-ready robots. A sixth volunteer also made the transition, a seventeen-year-old named Jenny, but she’s no longer with us. I know Shannon blames herself for Jenny’s loss, which explains why she’s so cautious now.

But it doesn’t explain why Shannon’s acting so cold to me tonight. The radio messages she’s sending are so much harsher than her usual easygoing tone. Like calling me “smart guy” -- what’s that all about? A girl wouldn’t say those kinds of things to her boyfriend unless she was upset. But what’s bothering her? What did I do wrong?

My circuits ponder the question for an unusually long time, almost a hundredth of a second. Then I shunt it aside. I need to focus on our mission. Shannon and I have to get past that chain-link fence so we can see what’s inside the base.

“You’re right, we can’t stay here. It’s time to go underground.” I point my Snake-bot’s front end downward, jabbing it into the moist dirt. Then I turn on the drill. “Stay close. This might get a little rough.”

The drill extends from the front of the Snake-bot and spirals into the ground. It turns slowly at first, because the upper layer of soil is soft and easy to dig through, but after a few seconds I burrow down to the hard-packed dirt and the drill spins faster, so I can go deeper. I wriggle the Snake-bot into the hole I’m digging, and Shannon follows me underground, her smaller robot slipping easily into the narrow shaft. Once I get six feet below the surface I change direction, turning the drill horizontal. I head for the military base, tunneling under the fence.

I can’t see much through the infrared camera now, but the Snake-bot is equipped with other sensors to help me stay on course. I have a sonar device that sends sound waves through the dirt, and by analyzing the echoes I can detect the objects in front of me. There are dozens of long taproots threading down from the weeds on the surface, so many that they form a maze of tendrils. Between the roots are millions of worms and bugs and grubs, either creeping through the soil or lying motionless in hibernation. I have to admit, the underground world is pretty amazing. The Snake-bot is showing me things that most people never get a chance to see. For a moment I’m thrilled to be a Pioneer.

But the feeling doesn’t last long, less than a thousandth of a second. And it doesn’t make up for all the things I’ve lost.

After two minutes of digging, I wriggle past the fence, which extends only three feet underground. As soon as Shannon and I tunnel safely under it, I review a series of photographs stored in my memory. A U.S. spy satellite took the photos a few days ago; they show an enormous factory complex that was constructed in a matter of weeks at this remote military base in the North Korean wilderness. The Pentagon’s spy chiefs thought the new factories looked suspicious, so they shared the pictures with General Hawke, the Army commander who started the Pioneer Project. Twenty-four hours later, all five Pioneers boarded a B-2 Stealth bomber that took off from the airfield near our headquarters. Hawke didn’t come with us, but he radioed the plane while we flew across the Pacific and briefed us about the recon mission. By then, though, we all suspected what was going on. It had to be Sigma.

Now I use my sonar to get my bearings. The sound waves echo against the concrete foundation of the newly built factory. It’s a hundred yards ahead.

“I’ve located the biggest factory,” I radio Shannon. “And my sensors are picking up loud noises coming from the building. They’re definitely mechanical.”

“The factory’s in operation? At this hour?”

“That’s what it sounds like. They’re working the night shift. Whatever they’re manufacturing, they’re going full throttle.”

Shannon doesn’t answer right away. She takes a few milliseconds to analyze our options. “Can we get into the building from underneath? Drill upward through the foundation and sneak into the ground floor?”

“Yeah, that might work. Judging from the acoustics, I’m guessing the concrete’s pretty thin. We can probably break through it.”

“Probably? You’re gonna have to do better than that, Adam. I don’t like guesses.”

There it is again, that harshness. I wish I could ask Shannon what’s wrong. We were friends even before we became Pioneers, and she helped me a lot in those terrible days right after our transformation, when we had to adjust to our new lives inside hulking robots and train for our first battle against Sigma. She helped me after the battle too, when we were all so devastated over losing Jenny. A few weeks later I asked Shannon to be my girlfriend, even though I knew it was a little ridiculous. I mean, the Pioneers don’t have human bodies anymore, so how can we be boyfriend and girlfriend? Can you even have that kind of relationship if you’re made out of metal? But Shannon said yes anyway, and for the past six months the other Pioneers have treated us like a couple. Marshall started calling us the Dynamic Duo, and after a while Zia and DeShawn started using that name too. It made me feel good to know there was something special between Shannon and me. And now I feel stupendously horrible, because everything we had seems to be slipping away.

But I can’t talk about this with Shannon, at least not till after the mission. “Okay, you want the details?” My message is deliberately testy, echoing her attitude. “There’s a ninety-two percent chance that the concrete is less than thirty centimeters thick. Is that precise enough for you?”

Shannon pauses again before answering. “Proceed to the target. But be ready to retreat if they detect us.”

Her tone is neutral, emotionless, and that makes me feel even worse. I don’t know why I’m getting so upset. Like I said, we’re not human anymore. So why does it hurt so much?

Before I move forward, I use my sonar to send a seismic ping through the soil. In less than two seconds, the sound wave will travel three miles back to the small communications device I embedded in the dirt near the Hochon River. That’s where Shannon and I landed two hours ago after parachuting out of the B-2 bomber. When the ping hits the device, it’ll send a radio signal to the bomber, which is still circling the area, five miles overhead. Marshall, who’s in charge of communications for the Pioneers, will then share my message with Zia and DeShawn. One ping means Shannon and I are okay. Two pings means we’re not.

After sending the message, I wait five seconds until I receive Marshall’s reply -- another seismic ping -- which means we’re good to go. I wriggle the Snake-bot forward and plunge my drill into the hard-packed dirt.