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Operational Parameters

Coming over the hills, it gave out a low rumble, a low whine as its joints moved and placed one foot in front of he other on the grass. As it crested the hill it scanned around for the target, finding its bearings between the many valleys across the cliffs. Scurrying behind at a safe distance, children shouted and laughed, having tracked it for some time, eager to see what would happen next. The adult fans followed, binoculars and notepads in hand, discussing amongst themselves what they knew to be the target of its mission today.
As it led the parade down the slope, it slowed to a halt in front of a small rectangle of concrete set into the grass. A metal hatch sat embedded on one side, bolted shut, and the remnants of an exterior structure showed in the grooves and foundations sticking out around the edge. The fans stopped and grew quiet just out of reach, waiting in anticipation for the next event.
It took photographs, examined the concrete remains, and dialled.
“Operator, over.” Came the answer, unheard to the human crowd.
“Unit 81 at target site. Exterior structure absent but underground access present. Seek confirmation to proceed, over.”
A moment passed in silence, the unit standing still, the crowd behind shuffling nervously.
“Unit 81, you have permission to proceed. Be advised ground and cliffs formed of chalk and prone to instability, over.”
It knew that already, had researched the terrain and history of the area beforehand. The underground bunker would not extend very far in any direction; the unit paced in a circle, listening carefully with its feet. Hearing the echoes of the chamber underground, it traced a line out for the walls. Returning to the hatch, it crouched down and grasped the restraining bolt.
With a distressed whine, the metal gave way and bent backwards, the bolt curling in on itself like a spring. Shouts came from the kids watching on the hill, and as Unit 81 grasped the hatch itself the audience cheered. Pulling the hatch up, it lowered its head into the darkness of the chamber below and looked around. The light filtering in from the hatch just slightly picked out the edges of chairs, reflected off a tarnished tea kettle, and made the artillery equipment inside gleam.
It drew its head back out of the chamber as it heard footsteps. Two of the older fans had jogged over to the hatch to look and stare, one of them holding a camera nervously. As Unit 81 turned to face them they froze. It exaggerated looking them up and down before speaking.
“You have fifteen seconds to observe. No photographs.”
They nodded and crouched down by the hatch.
“Cool! It’s just like the bunker up at Horam.”
“Look, there’s the ammunition.”
Unit 81 counted down the seconds silently as the two humans excitedly pointed things out to each other. The smaller kids sat on the hill, still too nervous to come any closer. As the fifteen seconds came to an end the unit stirred.
“Time. Please vacate to a safe distance.”
The two of them flinched before backing off quickly. They jogged over to the rest of the children on the hill, and ushered them all further away to hide behind the crest. The one with the camera turned to face Unit 81 and shouted back.
“Why this site? It’s been sealed up! No-one would know!”
Unit 81 did not answer. It took three steps backwards from the hatch, past the line drawn in the grass, and took aim with its left arm. The human’s eyes grew wide and it dived over the hill. Unit 81 hummed a small melody to itself as the reactor charged, gradually drowning out the tune with its own humming of power. A light flashed in its vision, ready to fire, and Unit 81 erased the site.
As the smoke cleared and the last echoes of the blast died away across the hills, a few children stuck their heads over the crest to look at the remains of the bunker. Unit 81 had already started to walk away, leaving behind a scorch mark on the grass leading to a crater in the chalk.
MD-OPS to J. Ingram - Unit 81 has returned to base.
Ingram stirred and lifted his head from the desk as his computer chimed at him. Sprawled out in front of him were files, folders, aged and faded paper documents covering all of his assigned workload. He’d fallen asleep partway through redacting a particularly dry report on damp-proofing. Any distraction from this task was welcome, and he acknowledged the message before stretching his arms. With a yawn, he picked up his notepad and the remains of his coffee, quickly chugging the latter before leaving for the debriefing.
Unit 81 stood expressionless in the hanger, its posture hunched as it charged via a thick cable to the torso. It opened its eyes and tracked Ingram’s path as he walked towards it. Ingram waved casually and it responded with a twitch of its fingers.
“Afternoon, eighty-one. How was your trip this morning?”
It shifted slightly on its feet before responding, “Uneventful. The children are still following me.”
Ingram laughed. “We’ve had reports of that across several of your fellow units. Nothing to worry about as long as you’re careful with your aim.”
The unit didn’t say anything in response, and Ingram stepped over to the readout on the pillar next to it. Nothing untoward -- no damage, charge levels to be expected.
“We’ve another assignment this afternoon. Charging should complete in--“
“Two hours, thirty-four minutes,” Unit 81 interrupted. It turned its head slightly to look directly at Ingram, which made him hesitate before continuing.
“Uh, yes. We’ll be sending you to Carter Barracks. The buildings are to be repurposed as accommodation, but there’s some weapons to be disposed of.”
“You want me to disintegrate the materiel?”
Ingram cleared his throat. “Slightly more carefully, this time.”
Ingram finished the final checks on 81’s status. It had worked hard in the past week -- Carter Barracks to be its fourteenth assignment -- yet showed little sign of wear. Unlike some of its contemporaries, 81 had not yet suffered any errors in judgement or misfires. Ingram was glad to have been assigned it as one of his patch, though sometimes found the conversations a little tense.
“Do you know my assignments tomorrow?”
81 was studying the ends of the fingers on its right hand. Ingram recognised it for the gesture he did when he asked one question but meant something else. After the training, it had been creepy to see his actions reflected in larger scale. His own hand twitched in response.
“There’s another Canadian tank that needs exhumation and destruction. It’s a bit out of the way, so it’s going to be your only one for the day.”
81 let its hand drop back down and looked at the ceiling.
“And the following day?”
“Uh, if the negotiations are completed, then you’ll be joining the Redoubt team. The decisions haven’t come back yet.”
It turned to face Ingram again, who glanced away from the red eyes that spun and focused at him. After a moment’s pause, it said, “The Redoubt is within the range of my operational parameters,” and the pupils of its eyes expanded. Ingram had deduced what the phrase meant by now, thanks to the meltdown of Unit 36; for a reason unknown to him, the behavioural programmers had not seen fit to include the ability to express likes and dislikes. Most of the units, instead of expressing desire to do something, simply stated to their operators that they could. 81 had never told him that it could not do something; but it had informed him three times this week that the Redoubt was within its operational parameters.
Unit 81 had drawn a crowd again as it reached Carter Barracks. This time, in the centre of town, there was a much higher risk of collateral damage. Some of the spectators were the same from earlier, some different -- the two adults had waited outside the depot for 81 to re-emerge, although the one formerly with the camera had at some point left it elsewhere. Processing the reports from other units that had come in whilst it charged, 81 understood there had been an incident with a tourist taking pictures. It guessed that the spectator here had also heard.
Two men in plain clothes greeted Unit 81 at the entrance to Carter Barracks. The spectators stopped a couple of metres behind, more wary of the humans than 81.
“Greetings, gentlemen,” said 81. Its voice was unexpected to them -- intentionally recorded to be mild, calm, inoffensive. The man on the left hesitated before saluting, and the other one shot him a look, before clearing his throat and speaking.
“Lieutenant Collinson, reporting. Materiel is stacked in the courtyard behind the main building. It’s...” he hesitated, looking away for a moment before looking 81 in the eyes. “It’s a shame to see it go.”
Unit 81 did not answer the Lieutenant, but let itself be led through the barracks to the courtyard. Arms and ammunition were neatly and orderly stacked as the lieutenant had said, and 81 took a moment to visually record and catalogue the stack. The lieutenant and the other -- 81 assumed them to be a private -- stood silently waiting. The spectators stood at the gate, knowing better than to trespass even with the arms stacked here out of reach.
“The materiel is incomplete,” 81 said after some time. “There is a single Glock 17 semiautomatic pistol unaccounted for.”
The lieutenant’s face twitched minutely, and the private’s eyes shifted involuntarily away from Unit 81. It traced the private’s gaze to one of the smaller buildings. Without speaking, 81 turned and started to walk towards it.
“Wait! You are not authorised to enter --“
81 responded without turning back to face the Lieutenant. “I am authorised to destroy all materiel designated on this site. If that materiel is located in a building I must enter that building.”
The lieutenant stuttered for a moment, before closing his eyes and groaning. 81 paused to give him time to respond.
“OK. There must have been a... miscount. Private, please enter the building and search for the missing Glock 17.”
The light in the sky was visible earlier in the evening now. Ingram looked up at it from the office window, and stretched his arms as he stared. The light twinkled just north of the Orion constellation, although he knew it to be far closer than that; it had come closer at alarming speed, travelling through space with a sense of inevitability, each hour that passed an hour closer to the Envoy’s arrival. Ingram took a deep breath and returned his gaze to his desk. Empty cans of energy drink lined the windowsill next to him, each one accounting for a few more hours’ overtime. He had a nearly full one in hand as he leafed through the reports on Unit 81.
An incident at the second Canadian tank exhumation had been recorded; an elderly gentleman who took it upon himself to stop the destruction of history. 81 had suffered a shotgun blast to the chest before he had successfully disarmed the man. Thank heavens it was without injury to anything but the man’s pride; Ingram didn’t think he was good enough at the PR angle to spin an old man’s death as necessary. Instead he had been restrained by backup crew, taken to a station to calm down whilst 81 carried on with its work. The tank had been erased before the man had finished his complimentary cup of tea at the station, and another target had been struck off the list. Now, in the quiet of his office, Ingram compared the list of targets remaining with the estimated arrival date of the Envoy, and found it to be a close call.
Unit 81 stood on the promenade, a few metres away from its contemporaries, and it gazed at the Redoubt. As the human crew manned a barricade the units closed in on the old fortification with purpose. Unit 81 took photographs as another unit dialled in.
“Operator, over.”
“Unit 64 at target site. Units 49, 63, 81 accompanying. Seek confirmation to proceed, over.”
81 was aware of the communication, mirrored into its own comm link and broadcast to its audio sensors as if it was physically vocalised; it was aware of it but shunted the information down the list of priorities as it started to circle the fortress. Out of the corner of its eye, it saw Unit 63 standing still and emotionless, just as 81 must have looked.
“Units 49, 63, 64, 81, you have permission to proceed. Limit demolition to core military structure and leave auxiliary buildings intact, over.”
The units raised their arms as one and took aim, four reactors charging in unison. 81 started to hum, a new tune this time, and looked around the area. It saw the children standing at the barricade, and it saw old adults milling about back and forth, some watching, some hiding from the imminent event. When the whine of the reactors started to drown out its melody, 81’s weapon arm began to shake a fraction.
The Envoy had arrived. Ingram attended the meeting with all his other colleagues; the head of service, and all the others higher in position than him; and the one who now ranked above all of them, having sent their avatar whilst they orbited the earth. The Envoy’s holographic avatar chaired the meeting and sat, relaxed, at the head of the conference chamber. On thinking about it, Ingram wasn’t sure what he found more disconcerting; the technically human, averaged appearance of the hologram sat before him, with long grey hair and a trace of stubble matched with a suit jacket and skirt; or the knowledge that the Envoy itself looked nothing like this at all.
“Friends,” it spoke, and the chamber went silent in an instant. The Envoy’s hologram gazed around, and its eyes settled on Ingram’s for a brief and terrible second. He felt it’s gaze go through his skin, as if straight into his consciousness; he gulped.
“Friends,” it repeated, “You have endured two revolutions around your star since our first contact; two revolutions since our ultimatum was issued. The Union of Intelligent Species has sent me to determine your performance.”
It gestured at the wall behind itself, and it lit up with a screen full of figures; unintelligible readouts flickering between text and image too fast to process everything. Ingram recognised a few pictures; Cape Canaveral, London, the Nile, Johannesburg, Tokyo. Another picture flashed up on the screen and he recognised this, too; Unit 81, staring at the photographer.
“Your progress has been admirable. The erasure of any structure or equipment liable to be used in violence appears to have been almost universally adopted.”
There was a shuffling a few seats to Ingram’s left; he glanced over to see one of the police representatives looking uncomfortable.
“We have received your reports on noncompliance and reviewed them. Some cases can be dealt with by your own species. Other individuals with particularly egregious displays of violent or militaristic fetishisation will be removed.”
At this, the police rep stood up abruptly. “What do you mean, removed?! What will happen to them?”
Ingram frowned and, at a vague wisp of recollection dug through his memory. He remembered the important bit with a sick feeling in his stomach; the police rep’s son had been one of those arrested for non-compliance. The rep gazed at the Envoy with a mixture of anger and fear splayed across his face.
“Individuals will be removed from your society to foster greater harmony amongst the whole, and to enable your species to join the Union. This was made clear to you on contact.”
What was also clear, after the first transmission received, was the fate of the species as a whole were there to be insufficient compliance. Ingram swallowed as one of the other attendees hushed the police rep and got him to sit down with a queasy look on his face. The Envoy barely gave him another glance.
“This is the universal dialogue complete; I now turn the transmission over to my local counterpart.”
The Envoy seemed to freeze for a second, expressionless, before jerking back to life again and looking around the room.
“I am the local counterpart for Division 5068 0028. We will now relay our concerns specifically regarding your division.”
Unit 81 stood charging in the hangar as it heard voices approaching. It turned its head to see Ingram, looking concerned and wringing his hands together. He was accompanied by a hologram, of a person 81 had not seen before. The pair approached 81 and came to a rest in front of it.
“81? You awake?”
“I am functional,” 81 responded. Ingram nodded and gestured to the figure next to him.
“This is the Envoy. He-- uh, they-- have some questions for you. Please answer them as if you were talking to me.”
81 nodded and turned to face the Envoy. The figure regarded 81 for a moment before stepping backwards a little.
“Unit 81. Please describe the contents of memory bank starting at 0x451F:000F.”
81 stirred and automatically started to talk, describing the contents of the bank in sequence. As it spoke, Ingram looked uneasy.
“Image of artillery bunker. Image of uncovered Canadian Tank. Image of Redoubt Fortress from South angle. Image of Redoubt Fortress from South-East angle. Image--“
“That will do, 81,” said Ingram. He touched the unit’s arm gently and it stopped talking, staring forward at the Envoy.
“Unit 81, who programmed you to record images of structures and equipment liable to be used in violence?”
Unit 81 took a second to respond this time. “My programming does not contain specific commands to photograph targets. My programming contains specific commands to prevent others photographing targets.”
Ingram swallowed. “Envoy, I don’t know where this has come from, the other units --“
The Envoy hushed him with a raised finger. “Unit 81, please explain why these images have been recorded.”
81 struggled to respond. One of its arms twitched as it thought, and it raised it to the ceiling to stare at the back of its hand. It lowered its arm again and looked at the floor. Finally, after a tense thirty seconds, it looked forward at the Envoy.
“Recording visual information correlating with equipment and structures liable to be used in violence is within the range of my operational parameters.”
When Unit 81 next became aware of its surroundings, it was no longer in the hangar. It stood in an empty room, with restraints around its torso that held it to the wall. Unable to move, it surveyed its surroundings and saw little but clean white walls and a floor made from an unidentifiable silver material. One wall at the end displayed lines that suggested a doorway, but wider and taller than would correlate with one that was human-sized.
As it stared, the wall within the lines began to fade, gradually becoming less opaque until it revealed a creature standing beyond. 81 tried to categorise its appearance based on identifiers built into its database; the creature matched 21.04% with canis lupus familiaris, 17.33% with ursus arctos, and 2.92% with amanita muscaria. It moved into the room and came to a halt in front of 81, before speaking.
“Greetings, Unit 81. We are glad you have not been damaged by the transfer.”
The audio matched 94% with the Envoy hologram, and 81 nodded to the creature in response.
“All core systems are functional. Discrepancies in expected power supply; accurate estimate of remaining charge time impossible.”
The Envoy hummed a little in appreciation, and gestured at the wall opposite Unit 81. It glowed for a moment, before displaying an image of a planet seen from space; red continents sat next to dark blue seas, with wisps of white clouds covering a band around the equator.
“Let us bring you up to speed. You have been removed from your planet due to troubling aspects of your programming. It appears you have developed an aesthetic taste for objects and structures liable to be used for violent purposes.”
The creature stretched out an appendage and tapped on the image. It zoomed in to a remarkable resolution, showing canyons and buildings right down to the metre scale. 81’s database subroutines immediately started to scan the visual data for matches.
“However, we have identified an application for this aesthetic taste. We believe with additional training you can be used to recognise such objects and structures in other circumstances where there is noncompliance. Please scan the image and report any objects of interest.”
Unit 81 raised an arm stiffly, and pointed at the image. It circled a boxy structure with metal beams sticking out of the sides; the Envoy chattered excitedly for a second.
“Excellent. Would you like to take some photographs up close?”
The restraints on 81’s torso retracted and it leant forward, regaining its usual posture. It extended its arms and legs, flexing the joints and letting the hydraulic fluid equalise after a long time stood still. It looked at the Envoy, before returning its gaze to the screen in front, considering the buildings shown. It stood quiet for a minute before speaking.
“That is within my operational parameters.”

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