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Once upon a time, I wrote a story for a writing contest. The theme was that every story had to have the same title; how we interpreted it was up to us. So I wrote a story. I sent it in. I never heard anything back. Some time later, I ran into one of the judges and asked him about it. “Oh, that one,” he said. “We couldn’t figure out how to read it. Sorry. Maybe if it came with reading instructions?”

Somewhere in the madness of getting a new car 2 weeks back, I managed to get tick-bit. Last week was a haze of flu-like symptoms, fevers, aching joints, and a headache that let me get pretty much nothing creative done.

So instead of Kudzu, you’ll get that contest story. I trust y’all are clever enough to figure out how to read it.

Yesterday, I Will

by Bernie Mojzes

Yesterday, I will be brave.

It was a suicide mission from the start. I knew that. We all knew that. But what other options were there?

These are the times that try men’s souls, as they say.

I’d met Sergeant Myers’ squad in the city. They were pinned down by warbot fire from two directions. One soldier was pressed into a doorway. The others were trapped behind two cars.

I’d been doing what I could against the mechanistic monstrosities, with what little I had at my disposal. Saving the soldiers meant giving up every advantage I’d cobbled together since the invasion started, but I couldn’t just sit back and watch them die.

I kamikazed my Hummer right into the cluster of warbots, jumping out at the last minute. The pavement ripped at my clothes and skinned my knees, but it was a small price to pay. I clutched my only other significant asset to my chest as I rolled. It would be needed in a minute.

It worked like a dream. The warbots turned and fired at the Hummer, and the gas tank blew just as it plowed through them.

Time to pin down the other side. I got to my knees and lifted the rocket launcher to my shoulder. This wouldn’t stop them, but it might hold them off long enough to get the squad to safety.

One of the bots exploded. Two others spun crazily, damaged by the blast.

The squad hefted their payload and we ran for their ship.

They were pulling out, leaving us behind. Not that there were many of us left. The warbots had seen to that. Alliance ships had come in, guns blazing, blasting the bots to pieces.

But it was too little too late. There wasn’t much left to save, and what victories they’d had were sure to be short-lived.

I ran as fast as I could and launched myself at the hatch of the nearest ship as it was lifting off.

“Don’t leave me!” I begged. “Please don’t leave me behind!”

A big guy with a shaved head pointed his blaster at my face, and I almost let go. But the warbots were swarming behind us.

“Let go so we can take off,” he said.

“Please!” I cried. “I don’t wanna die!”

Another soldier pushed the first one aside and extended a massive hand. It engulfed my whole arm, and he pulled me into the ship like a sack of flour. The hatch shut and the shields went up. Something sizzled. It was the sound of the warbot’s weaponry disintegrating against the shields.

“Get us out of here,” called the soldier who had pulled me in, “before they bring in the heavy artillery.” My stomach pitched queasily as we lifted and swerved. He turned to me. “You,” he said. “Keep quiet and stay out of the way, or I’ll personally drop you out of this boat.”

I nodded and hugged myself. Below us, the bots were destroying everything. A second slower, and I’d have been one more statistic.

Yesterday, I will be cool. And collected.

Sergeant Myers was a brutally effective man. He’d lost half his men, including his commanding officer, retrieving the EMP bomb. Even so, once I’d sprung them from the trap, they maintained excellent discipline, and left a swath of burning and shattered warbots in their wake.

When we got to the ship, Myers turned to me. “I know you can fire a gun,” he said, “but can you follow orders?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I even saluted.

“Then you’re drafted. Get on and let’s get the hell out of here.”

The assault on The Citadel was brutal. In the future, it will certainly be compared with the D-Day invasion, or the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the Battle of Thermopylae. We flung ourselves at The Citadel’s defenses, thousands of light airships, each with a squad of brave soldiers and an EMP bomb.

We were Army, and Marines, and Navy, and Air Force. We were American and Russian and Chinese and Israeli and Syrian. For the first time in the history of the world, all of us working and fighting together. And one by one, airbots and anti-aircraft rockets took us out.

And then it happened — the one thing nobody had expected. The one thing that nobody had even dreamed possible.

The Citadel turned on its defensive grid: the plasma shield that DOD engineers had determined physically impossible a decade ago.

I don’t know how many ships disintegrated immediately, or how many weren’t able to change course fast enough to avoid the plasma field. We were lucky. We were inside the thing when it went on.

Just a little too close.

It ripped our ship open and we dropped like a rock.

I don’t know how she did it, but our pilot was able to get a little bit of control back before we hit the ground. If there’s anyone who deserves a medal, it’s Mladshiy Leytenant Tosha Federov.

I wish I could thank her personally. But when I regained consciousness, there were only two of us left alive.

And Sergeant Myers only lived long enough to explain how the EMP bomb worked, and what needed to be done.

It was chaos. I didn’t understand what was happening. The sergeant barked orders. Everyone scurried to obey. They strapped a large, metal box down to the floor and prepared their weapons.

I kept my head down and tried my best to be invisible.

And then the shooting started. The ship bucked and spun, and things exploded all around us. On the screens I could see other ships like ours, all weaving to avoid rockets from the ground, and fire from the airbots.

Something exploded very near us, and suddenly I was looking right out at the open air. I was covered in something hot and wet. Pieces of one of the soldiers hung from his harness. I didn’t want to know where the rest of him was.

We dropped fast. I guess that’s what saved us.

A loud electric hum filled the air, and then there were explosions. Hundreds of them.

Through it all, we dropped like a rock. Anything that wasn’t tied down flew up in the air, and then was sucked out through the hole in the hull. I was certain we were going to die. But at the last minute the pilot managed to regain some control.

I heard the engines roar, and everything became heavier than I could imagine. I couldn’t even swallow, I was so heavy. That’s probably what kept me from throwing up.

And then there were trees whipping past us. I watched them through the hole in the side of the ship.

A constant stream of curses in Russian and English came from the cockpit. The engines screamed, and the wind was louder than anything I’d ever heard.

Then there were buildings whipping past us. The screaming got louder.

And then I realized that the Sergeant had his pistol aimed at my face.

“Shut up!” he was yelling. “Shut the hell up or I swear to God I’ll shoot you!”

The screaming was me.

I don’t know if he’d really have shot me. One of the wings touched something, and then we were spinning like a top. And that’s how we hit the ground.

It’s a miracle we all lived.

Yesterday, I will be strong.

The EMP bomb was heavy, but built for mobility. Most of the weight was batteries, massively powerful and designed to discharge completely with devastating results. About the size of a large dog crate, it weighed maybe five hundred pounds, but it had six hydro-pneumatic wheels that kept the thing rolling smoothly and level even when going over uneven surfaces, like debris, or stairs.

I wrestled the thing out of its harness and got it out of what was left of the ship.

I took only a few steps with it before realizing that the thing was too unwieldy to handle alone. I was in enemy territory, all alone, surrounded by hostile warbots. I was well-armed — I had salvaged two pistols, a half-dozen grenades, and three blasters with explosive rocket-propelled ammo — but none of it would do me a damn bit of good if it wasn’t in my hand when the warbots attacked.

It was a longest fifteen minutes of my life. I worked feverishly, scavenging seat harnesses, cable and pieces of metal. All the while listening for the inevitable mechanical whir of impending death. I used a headrest to brace against my hips, and when I was done, I was able to hold a blaster in my hands while pushing the bomb along. If I needed to steer it, I could pull on the cables that I’d attached to the front end, left or right.

I could scarcely breathe as I made my way up Hagood Avenue toward the thing that had grown out of Summerall Field. Warbots could be anywhere, behind any abandoned car, inside any building, on any rooftop. They could come at me from any direction. I didn’t dare blink.

In retrospect, carrying the gun at that point was pointless. I was in the open, indefensible. One shot and they’d swarm.

That’s what they do.

They swarm, and they kill everything that breathes.

And now that the defense grid had been activated, I was the only person in the world who could do anything about it.

The fate of the world was on my shoulders.

With slippery palms, I made my way to the Hagood Gate.

Move, move, move!

Sergeant Myers slapped us all out of our stupor. My head was still spinning as I stumbled out of the wreckage. I fell to my knees and lost the contents of my stomach.

The sergeant kicked me. “Get the hell out of the way!”

Two of the soldiers were dragging the big box out of the ship. It hissed when they put it down. The other soldier helped the pilot out of the cockpit. There was blood on her uniform and she gritted her teeth in pain.

The sergeant frowned when he saw her.

“Leave me,” the pilot said. “There is no time.”

I saw that her left hand had been crushed, and her left ankle was bent at an odd angle. A lot of blood was spurting from a gash in her calf.

The sergeant’s face was stony. “Taylor, you’re on triage.” The soldier who had first waved a gun at me nodded. Myers turned to me. “You, whatever your name is, you stay with Taylor and Federov, and when she’s able to move, you help her walk. Follow us and provide support. Elkins and Oh, you’re with me.”

The three of them took the box and moved down the street at a jog. One of them pushed the box. The other two had their blasters drawn and were scanning for warbots. They headed toward the large building at the end of the road, and soon they vanished from sight.

I waited to hear the sound of gunfire, but it never came.

Taylor worked quickly. He cut the pilot’s pant leg off, then tied a bandage tightly above her knee, using a metal rod to tighten it until the blood stopped flowing. He put a bandage on the wound, and then apologized to the pilot. Then he straightened her foot.

I threw up again.

When I was done, Federov’s leg had been splinted, and she was up on her other foot, leaning heavily on Taylor. Her face was ashen.

“C’mon, boy,” Taylor said. “Time to earn your keep.”

Yesterday, I will be fast.

There are only two ways into The Citadel. Electric fences and mines ring the former military college, and motion sensors tethered to automated gunnery towers dissuade casual intrusion. And that was before The Citadel declared war on its creators. The defenses are certainly stronger — and more deadly — now.

The Hagood Gate stood closed, and lasers dotted my chest and head as I approached. One false move and I was dead.

Lacking the force to overwhelm the Gate, I had very few options left. So I followed Sergeant Myers’ final orders.

I emptied the Sergeant’s forms of ID from my pack and made sure every piece was in order. I fed Sergeant Myers’ military ID into the machine. Then, when I was prompted, I held his head up and pressed his open eye to the retinal scanner. I held my breath while it processed.

The Gate opened.

I hardly believed my luck. I’d been so shocked and appalled by Sergeant Myers’ order to take his head with me that I’d almost disobeyed. But I’d made a promise, back when I joined the squad.

An oath.

I would follow orders.

No matter what.

And it saved my life.

“It’s a different system,” Sergeant Myers had said. “Complexity created a monster determined to destroy us, but that same complexity means that there’s systems that it isn’t fully aware of.

I walked through the Hagood Gate as if I belonged there.

I put Sergeant Myers’ head back in my pack, just in case, and headed toward The Citadel, rising like a pewter pyramid from the middle of campus.

I made it there without incident.

It was only once I was inside that things started getting difficult.

The pilot was heavier than she looked. She couldn’t put any weight at all on her left foot, and couldn’t even hold on to my shoulder to support herself. It took a little while to get a rhythm going, but once we did, we got so we could move at a moderate hobble.

Taylor went ahead of us, scanning the buildings and bushes and cars. Nothing. Eventually, we reached the Hagood Gate.

The Gate was closed, and all three of us stood, targeted, in its yawning maw.

Taylor dug in his pocket and produced his military ID. “This had better work,” he muttered, as he fed it into gate. The screen asked for him to set his eye to the sensor. Then it authorized him. He fed it Federov’s ID, and mine, and told the Gate we had temporary visitation permits.

It spat out day passes, and opened.

We hurried through, before it could change its mind.

We were close, now, and we had reason to believe that the rest of the team had made it this far as well. “We’d have found the bomb,” Taylor said. “The casing is nano proof.”

We were halfway to The Citadel itself, rising like a pewter pyramid from the middle of campus, when we heard gunfire. It was muffled, as if it was coming from inside, but unmistakeable.

“Hurry!” Taylor gestured impatiently. “We’ve got to help them.”

Federov did her best, even though each fevered step brought tears to her eyes and a whimper to her lips. But she didn’t complain.

“I can’t go any faster, goddamn it,” I said.

Taylor turned to look at me. He opened his mouth to say something. And then he was hit.

The nanoshot splattered on his hip and spread its pseudopods over him as it began to disassemble him.

He didn’t scream. Not yet. Instead, he fired at the things that had killed him. I heard bullets penetrate metal.

“Run,” Taylor said, agony etched into his face. “Now!”

I let go of the pilot and ran.

Yesterday, I will be smart.

The doorway to The Citadel was open.

I didn’t hesitate.

But I was cautious. I watched for traps, for hidden doors, and for ambush.

It wasn’t long in coming.

Three warbots blocked the path to the core datacenter. They fired as soon as the EMP bomb came into view. Two of the shots hit the wall. One hit the EMP casing and slid harmlessly off, neutralized by the casing’s antibots.

I tossed a grenade around the corner, and when the echoes faded, there was silence. All three warbots had been destroyed.

That was when the real fun started.

They gathered in front of me.

When one blaster emptied, I grabbed another from the makeshift holster I’d built into the harness.

I dodged the nanoshot, and returned fire. And one by one they fell.

I used the EMP’s casing as cover, and returned fire. And one by one they fell.

I pushed my way down one hallway after another. Down one staircase after another. Deeper into the heart of The Citadel.

And still the warbots came.

And still they fell.

I ran out of grenades. I emptied all the blasters. I held them off with a pistol while I reloaded the blasters, and then kept going.

And then Sergeant Myers saved my life one last time.

Warbots had snuck up behind me.

The nanoshot hit me in the back and started to spread its corrosive tendrils. But it hit my pack, the one that I carried because Sergeant Myers ordered me to, and I was able to shrug out of it before the goo reached me. By the time I dispatched my attackers, Sergeant Myers’ head was gone, reduced to its component molecules.

After that, there was no more time to play it safe. The warbots were ahead of me, and they were behind me. I had no choice but to run, spraying bullets in front of me, and praying I didn’t miss.

And then, suddenly, almost anticlimactically, I was there.

The doorway to The Citadel was open. I didn’t hesitate. Ahead of me was the sound of gunfire. Behind me the warbots were swarming.

Taylor had stopped screaming. I could imagine the shapeless lump of his body lying on the pavement as the nanobots took him apart. I’d seen it back home enough times. It was like a super-accelerated cancer. It was like dropping someone in a vat of bleach.

Federov was still screaming.

Some things you never get used to, no matter how many times you hear them.

I followed the sounds of gunfire, down the hall, down an escalator that was pointlessly still running, and further. I came across shattered warbots, smoking ruins of machines that twitched on the floor.

Nano-goo was everywhere. There was nano-goo on the walls, and some on the floors. I was very careful not to touch any of it.

Still I ran, and I prayed that Myers had been thorough as he pushed his way through the Citadel’s defenses.

Then the shooting stopped.

I stopped short, waiting. Listening.

Nothing.

No shots. But also no screams.

I risked a shout. “Myers? You there?”

“Yeah. Follow the wreckage and you’ll find us. You sound close enough. We’ll wait for you.”

I found them in less than five minutes.

“Where’s Taylor and Federov?” Myers grabbed me by the shirt and shook me. “Damn it, where are they?”

“It’s not my fault,” I said.

Myers cursed at me and threw me to the floor. And then the nanoshot hit him, right in the face. In a second, it had wrapped its tendrils around his head. He couldn’t even scream.

I grabbed the gun he dropped in front of me and started firing down the hall along with the others. When the warbots were finished, we could look at Myers again. He writhed on the floor soundlessly, until one of the soldiers put a bullet in his head.

“You led them here,” she said. “You killed him.”

Yesterday, I will be a hero.

This was it. The core datacenter.

The mind of the The Citadel.

The heart of the doomsday device that was destroying life on Earth.

It was loud.

The air thrummed with electricity. With power. The war song of a hundred thousand processors, singing the death of billions.

The dream of armageddon, spelled out in lights that blinked across a hundred surfaces, across monitors that drew graphs and charts that no human would ever see: the mapping of the destruction of the world.

I pushed the EMP bomb into the datacenter and started to pull the casing off.

Another group of warbots struck. Nano-goo slid harmlessly off the casing. I fired back and took out both warbots.

After that, it was just a matter of remembering the arming process. It took a couple of tries. It seemed like an eternity had passed since Sergeant Myers whispered the instructions with his dying breath, and I prayed that I remembered all the steps, but finally, it was set up.

This was it.

Warbots were rolling down the hallway toward me. My gun was empty. I was out of ammo.

I got hit in the leg.

I’d wanted to say something poetic, something inspired. Something for the history books.

Something that future generations could look back on, and remember why our future can only come from cooperation, not conflict.

But the nanobots started eating my flesh, and I screamed the first thing that came to mind.

“Die, you evil, fucking, bastard! Die!”

I pushed the button.

As the ranking officer, Private First Class Tammy Elkins took the lead. She ordered me to push the box, while Oh watched the rear.

I wrestled with the box. I didn’t want to. I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide, but Elkins aimed her gun at my head.

“You killed Myers,” she said. “The only reason you’re still alive right now is that you might be useful.”

There were a few more firefights, all of which we won. None of us got hit.

And then we were there.

We pushed the box into the datacenter. Elkins and Oh pulled the casing off the bomb and started setting it up.

I took the opportunity to slip back out of the datacenter. I’d seen a good hiding place just down the hall, and I took advantage of it. And when the warbots rolled down the hall, I pressed harder into my nook. Elkins and Oh were soldiers. Trained professionals. They would hear the warbots coming. The best I could do was try to keep out of the crossfire.

But the datacenter was loud.

And when I heard the screaming start, I moved.

It wasn’t bravery that got me moving, or anger, or a sense of vengeance. It was fear. I was alone, and the people who were my only chance of living were turning into molten puddles on the floor.

I emptied Myers’ gun at the warbots in the datacenter. They smoked and burst and fell over. I could hear more warbots coming down the hall. Coming for me.

I ran into the datacenter. Nanoshot whizzed past my head.

The bomb was there. Armed. All I had to do was push a button.

Nano-goo wrapped around my knee. My pants leg dissolved, and the pain began.

I pushed the button.

The thump pushed through my body and left me breathless and tingling.

The lights went out. The sounds of machinery stopped. The nanobots dripped harmlessly down my leg. Deep in the heart of The Citadel, there was, for the first time in my life, true silence, and true darkness.

The Electro-Magnetic Pulse disrupts power. It fries processors. It scrambles circuits. It wipes hard drives, erases backup tapes. It destroys data. It kills computers.

It devours the past.

They say that it doesn’t affect people. But that’s not true.

It changes everything.

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