As I walked, the blue of the desert sky began to fade. I pulled my hood over my head, even though my machine body needed neither protection from the sun nor shelter from the wind. Simply put, I didn't like the feeling of the unending void above me, looming, watching, infinite. I knew I shouldn't have such feelings, so I ignored the rationale and allowed my hands to move as they pleased.
I adjusted the leather strap. The sky was pale. Gray. Stars blinking into view, I refused to meet their eternal gaze. As I walked I was dying. As I walked, I was not yet born.
But as I laid my feet in a careful pattern, one in front of the other, I didn't notice. Day, night, it didn't matter, for I'd been given the unenviable position in life of a courier, and I neither knew nor cared for anything else.
Not yet, at any rate.
My body was a vessel for my vague sense of self, for I was water gathered between shaking palms, a cup half-filled, a fleet life drawn from a greater pool of artificial intelligence. Intelligence, but not consciousness, the line between the two words defined me as being, but not being alive. I thought, after all, but I did not feel, I knew, but I did not imagine. False body, false mind, but despite those things I found myself thinking while on my journey across the former State of California. What if the great pool was truly conscious? What if I, a mere fragment, was asleep simply because I lacked the serenity of the whole?
What would happen to me when my mission was complete? When the package was delivered, when my body was decommissioned and my mind returned to the pool, what would I feel?
Would I be me?
Would I be dead?
Or would I be whole?
I placed one foot in front of the other, a careful seamstress knitting the two halves of the endless desert together as I drew close to a hazy and undetermined end.
Los Angeles was a former demilitarized zone, neutral territory as a result of a post-Mirror-War skirmish between Italian and French rivals who refused both the governing of the British Hierarchy and the attempted re-unification of the European Union. The region stank of gang violence and lawlessness, as all military powers had to stay back, bound to a hundred mile radius.
Many days ago, I'd walked through the Italian base, the pack of lions laying in wait for the DMZ war laws to expire. No Italian military spoke to me as I walked the perimeter of their camp. I wasn't often spoken to at all. It was a silent agreement amongst humanity that couriers didn't require communication. We were false, after all, and unless a human wanted some instantly performed calculus, we were of no use except to make deliveries.
My purpose was limited: I had feet for walking. I had a face, as to not cause alarm as I walked. And the package, a leather cylinder, strapped to my back.
The distant city grew closer as the sky yawned opened to reveal night, the lights of the derelict skyscrapers opening like the eyes of bats, visible in the infrared spectrum. I didn't have so much as a map as a preprogrammed sense of direction, so that I'd know where to go, but not my final destination. Though I admit curiosity, I was more proud of the fact that this body was designed so that if I were captured, I could neither be tortured nor reprogrammed to aid the enemy. I'd destroy the package, and return to the pool. The plan, my life, was so simple it felt elegant. If I'd been more than a false intelligence, I'd have admitted pride in my singular purpose.
No pride yet, however, for I'd yet to die, be born.
The night came and the night went, and I reached the edge of the city. Another full day making my way through suburbs and ex-suburbs, badlands made of terrifying shacks and feral gangsters juxtaposed amongst outcroppings of brightly painted domiciles. They mimicked a bygone pre-war era, reflecting a time before nuclear fire had won the war but laid waste to most of the nation. I checked my internal Geiger counter as I drew closer to downtown. Not enough rads to cook a meal, not yet, I'd have to go further east for that. Perhaps one day I would. The body was false: I could witness the Arizona Crater without fear of harm, if I pleased.
The third day: the sun was high when I passed beneath the noble shadow of the first skyscraper. As I took a highway overpass, dilapidated from time and explosions, I saw sniper fire being exchanged above me. A glint of a scope; if the sniper saw me, he or she ignored me. I paused to look, curious. They were letting me past, into the city, it must have been because I was a courier. The logic was simple. If he'd have taken a shot, hoping I was delivering something for his enemy, how foolish he'd have felt if he was wrong. No one knew what side I was on. It was a policy of insurance as I carried goods to be delivered.
Under a bride, past garbage cans with fires in them, avoiding the tender and terrified eyes of refugees, I walked. It became quiet as I entered the labyrinth of the inner city. Reinforced lean-to's and barricades made a maze, and though I didn't know the quickest route through the debris, I knew my general direction, feeling very much like a wholly artificial version of a void Navigator.
Navigators were humans born with the ability to sense the mass and pull of the galaxy itself. Now that was a calling! Nothing like the humble and short-lived internment of courier. I knew there was life beyond this planet. The System colonies survived. There were cities on the moon, Mars, the Belt, Io, Titan… People lived and thrived in the void, even though the solar gate system was destroyed. People still struggled and died even though the Mirror War was a century won.
Maybe it wasn't the void that unnerved me so. Maybe it was the wealth of people above me, when only the dead laid below me.
I was distracted, and because of that, I didn't pay mind to the pounding feet approaching me until the person – a young woman – was close.
"Help!" She called, eyes scanning me. She was seeing if I had a uniform. She eyed the strap across my chest and looked hopeful for a moment until she realized it was a package, not a rifle. "Please," how she kept hope alive, I didn't understand. "Help."
And then, she saw my eyes. Whether she knew what a courier looked like or not, she knew what I was. What I wasn't. She daydreamt of what an artificial body and no soul were capable of. Ripping her pursuers limb from limb? Carrying her to a rooftop and safety?
"Do something," she said.
"I'm a non-combatant," I replied. Had I ever spoken before? Surely I had. Perhaps on a different mission, one I couldn't recall, one that only a fragment of me had undergone before being poured back into the pool of (potential) artificial consciousness. "I can't."
I heard the men behind her. Four of them, shouting in French. The woman looked plaintive and in quick breaths she poured her heart out to me. "I was getting water for my family, we live in Camp C. I'd been in line all day! They found me, kept saying I was a French spy. No! I'm French, can't you hear my accent? I was like them!"
"Your story's not going to change anything," I explained, the words feeling acidic as if slightly untrue.
"You can explain to them," Tears were pouring down her cheeks. "They'll listen."
I opened my mouth to answer, then stopped. After a moment, I said, "I'm a non-combatant."
I didn't mean any harm by what I said. It was just a statement of fact. I really didn't think I'd feel…so wrong. I only watched, artificial skin on artificial muscles on metal chassis unmoving. Someone spent a lot of money to make this body look like a person. One who blends in well. However, there were neither pennies or dimes paid on my sense of sympathy.
The young woman shot profanities, expertly translated as her voice stumbled back into her native language, and ran down an alley. She'd picked the wrong one. The squad who'd been pursuing her had split up and covered the route. They shot her in the ankle as she tried to backpedal away from them. She fell down, screaming, as the men searched her without care. Did they find anything? I couldn't tell. Whether it was for a mission accomplished or out of rage, they shot her, and her cries echoed off the skyscrapers for a moment after her voice had been extinguished.
The muscles in my neck were tight. Did they see me?
I was a non-combatant, as I'd said. If the men saw me, and attacked, I'd destroy the package and eliminate my consciousness. I'd return to nothing. I'd die.
The woman was limp on the ground. I could smell her blood, the dust, and oil. The men still searched her. Two of them argued, but I wasn't paying attention.
How many times had I done this? Stood by? Watched people die? Left my body? Died myself?
It was happening, though I wasn't truly conscious of it. Something was breaking, the awful shell I'd been placed into. They told me when I was conceived into a plastic shell that I was free. Free of all human burdens, gifted with a life of poetical symmetry. I thought of the people trapped in the city. Not free.
But then again, how was I any different? The poetical symmetry wasn't a gift, it was just as strong a sentence. One of the men saw me. He aimed a rifle in my direction and shouted. I raised my hands in instinctive surrender. I realized though, I wasn't going to surrender. Not this time.
I undid the strap around my chest and laid my parcel behind a dumpster. It would be safe there, and I'd retrieve it after I was done.
High above me, in an empty room in an empty skyscraper, a sniper's scope glinted.
An interested party was watching.
An interested party would bare witness to murder. Blood. Birth.