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Brainbox
by
Christian Cantrell

 

The Amazon hadn't flowed in almost a hundred years. It froze from the outside in, the thousands of tiny capillaries infused throughout its great basin solidifying like veins of quartz, the bubbling groundwater of its tributaries hardening into permafrost. The cold continued severing appendages until the main artery of the mightiest river in the world finally stopped flowing, and the fresh water ice met the brackish white sheets of the southern Atlantic Ocean.

The skeleton of the Macapá Biosphere was just west of the frozen mouth of the river in what had once been northern Brazil. The massive structure was complete, but only half of the triangular plastic panels had been installed. Inside the complex latticework was a snow-covered courtyard enclosed by whitewashed buildings with red clay roofs.

Miguel dos Santos Vásquez stood in the entrance of the main courtroom with an American soldier posted on either side. It was a military court, and nearly everyone wore the dirty white camouflage of the frozen tundra. The judge was not present, but she presided over the room through a wide suspended sheet of plasma glass. Her hair was caught in the transition between soft blond and wiry gray, and her piercing blue eyes watched Miguel with interest. The galleries were crowded but motionless, every awestruck gaze turned toward the back of the room. Miguel could see the young uniformed Colonel sitting at the bar table in the front, the corners of his mouth characteristically upturned in their enigmatic smirk.

"Bring him in," the judge said. Her voice descended from speakers mounted around the perimeter of the ceiling and reverberated off the white concrete walls.

The soldiers escorted the prisoner down the center aisle until he stood before the judge's enormous countenance. Miguel normally wore dark glasses to conceal his sunken white eye, but the soldiers had made him cover it with a patch instead so that he could address the judge with due respect. His curly black hair and stiff beard were long and matted, and his dark skin was dry and scaly from the cold dry air. His request for formal clothing had been denied, so he wore the same one-piece jumpsuit he'd been given on the day of his arrest over three months ago. It was cut from a bright orange material that was designed to stand out against the white and barren Brazilian landscape, and to retain as little body heat as possible. The restraints he wore were synthetic woven belts which permitted gradual and deliberate movement, but would instantly arrest any sudden forceful motion.

"Mr. Vásquez," the judge began, "the state has elected to drop all charges against you save one." She spoke with conviction, but without disdain. She struck Miguel as a fair judge, maybe even a kind woman. "You stand accused of high treason. How do you plead?"

Miguel cleared his throat in a way that indicated he had not spoken in some time. Out of the corner of his good eye, he could see the Colonel slowly rise to his feet. Miguel dropped his gaze for a moment, then looked back up and spoke directly into the enormous eyes on the plasma glass panel.

"I plead guilty."

There was movement in the galleries behind him. The judge's expression did not change.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Vásquez," she said, "but I cannot accept your plea."

Miguel shook his head. "Why not?"

"Because the court will not allow you to make a martyr of yourself."

"I don't want to be a martyr," Miguel said. "I want to get this over with."

The judge regarded Miguel for a moment before responding. She leaned back in her chair and twisted from side to side. She narrowed her eyes and pinched her lip momentarily between her teeth.

"Miguel," she said with sudden informality, "let me ask you a question. Are you aware that you are considered the most dangerous man alive right now?"

Miguel was unprepared for the judge's new direction and answered hesitantly. "Yes."

"Are you aware that you might just prove to be the most dangerous and destructive human being in history?"

"Yes."

"Do you know what the other charges against you were? The ones that were dropped?"

"Yes."

"What were they?"

"Murder, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to overthrow the state, and twenty-two separate acts of terrorism."

"Those sound pretty bad, don't they?"

"Yes."

"So why do you think the state chose to drop all those charges and just focus on high treason?"

"I don't know."

"Do you think it was so you could walk in here, plead guilty, and, as you put it, get this over with?"

"No."

"No. It wasn't. It was because treason is the worst crime anyone can possibly commit. Do you know why that is?"

Miguel knew the theory. But he also knew the judge was determined to spell it out. "No, I don't."

"Because the most important thing we have is our state. It's more important than you. It's more important than me. It's more important than anyone in this room. It's more important than any single person on the entire planet. Our government not only keeps us alive every single second of every single day, but it's the only thing that promises to give us any kind of a future on what's left of this bleak and wasted planet. What you did, Miguel — what you intentionally, deliberately, and knowingly chose to do — has directly jeopardized the government's ability to do that. Treason, therefore, isn't just a crime against the state. It's a crime committed against every remaining living soul, not just in the American Territory, but in the entire world."

The judge paused to see if Miguel had anything to say. He shifted his stance and blinked, but did not speak. The judge leaned forward and peered into his one good eye.

"This trial will proceed," she told him, "if for no other reason than to make an example out of you."

The courtroom was still. The only sound Miguel could hear was the creaking of the Colonel's chair as he slowly sat back down.


As soon as it was proven that the earth was cooling, the wars began. The scorching of the planet a century before had taught the world that cataclysmic climate change didn't have to take thousands of years anymore. The process had clearly been expedited, the safeties designed to work in tandem with evolution somehow circumvented. It could happen over the course of decades now, advancing with exponential ferocity, and any nation who wasn't prepared inevitably became the subject of those who were.

During the scorching, migration had been toward the poles, and the advantage went to those nations who either had access to the Arctic or Antarctic Circles, or who had the resources to gain access and hold it. But the cooling of the earth had the opposite effect, shifting the pressure toward the belly of the planet. Initially, anything south of the Tropic of Cancer and north of the Tropic of Capricorn was expected to remain habitable, but the extent to which the glaciation was self-perpetuating had been poorly understood. Everyone knew that the more of the planet that became covered with ice, the more solar radiation would be reflected back out into space, but other variables had proven much more difficult to account for. Nobody realized how well the earth had adjusted to industrialization until human displacement radically reduced the greenhouse gas emissions it had come to rely on. And rather than algae dying as the oceans became encased in thick layers of opaqueness, the water froze just slowly enough to eject impurities from the forming ice crystals which allowed enough sunlight to penetrate that autotrophic organisms actually flourished. These immense new underwater forests converted centuries of dissolved carbon dioxide into oxygen molecules which seeped up through the ice and into the atmosphere where they scrubbed away the high concentrations of heat-trapping methane. These were the theories that were circulated and endlessly debated among the world's climatologists. Although nobody knew for certain all the reasons it was happening, the end result was indisputable: the planet's habitable band would continue to narrow until it held only a single degree of latitude above and below the equator.

The majority of the death and destruction had occurred as the United Russian Republics cleared a savage path with ever diminishing opposition through Western Europe and into Northern Africa, then Sub-Saharan Africa, and eventually into Kenya, Uganda, and the Congolese Republic. The Chinese proactively attacked the Korean peninsula and Japan before forming the Sino Archipelago across what had been Indonesia, Singapore, and the Malay Peninsula. American forces were technically and legally invited into South America, but found themselves under constant attack by well organized and merciless bands of guerrillas speaking Spanish and Portuguese. No official records of troop movements or military tactics existed, but evidence of the liberal use of nuclear and biological weapons to reduce competition in the northern latitudes was abundant, tapering off into the use of more conventional methods inside the tropics in an attempt to preserve habitable geography. As what remained of the human population converged on the middle of the planet, warfare become increasingly primitive and brutal, and territory was gained one exhausted, malnourished, and tenacious life at time.

This period was referred to as the Equatorial Migration as though it were spurred by natural human instinct, and therefore somehow immune to moral review. But once the last three remaining habitable regions on the planet turned on each other, all pretense was dropped. The Equatorial Wars had been openly and unambiguously declared.


Miguel once saved the Colonel's life. The Colonel traveled across the American Territory on the Trans-equatorial Railway to Quito, then took a military tracker south toward Miguel's last known location. After several hours of travel, the Colonel's tracker was disabled by what he discovered to be a tiny quadrapedal robot designed to fry electrical systems with electromagnetic pulses. The Colonel was amused and, realizing he had to be close, loaded supplies from the tracker into a pack and continued on foot. When Miguel found him four hours later, he was ensnared in a relatively shallow white depression which had appeared to the Colonel to be ice, but turned out to be some sort of hardened ceramic material which was completely impervious to crampons. He was curled up at the bottom, dehydrated, nearly hypothermic, and considerably less amused.

"It's best not to call unannounced," Miguel shouted down at the Colonel. The Colonel did not turn his head, but slowly nodded in resignation.

Miguel's tracker was warm and well stocked with rations, and by the time they reached their destination, the Colonel was once again focused on his mission. Miguel's home was a series of what appeared to be aviation hangers: corrugated metal cylinders half buried in the frost. He maneuvered the tracker through a wide opening in the closest structure and parked it beside two identical trackers. The outside doors automatically slid closed on their tracks behind them.

The voluminous space was interspersed with several well lit workstations: benches, plasma glass displays, spools of wire, bins of hardware, precision hand tools arranged on peg board, microchips, stacks of printed circuit boards. The far side of the room was occupied by dark rows of tall shelves, and there was an enormous white refrigeration locker against the opposite wall. The Colonel's attention was focused on a canvas-covered mound in the center of the room about the size and shape of a horse, but without its head.

"This way," Miguel said.

The Colonel followed Miguel into a corner toward what must have passed as living quarters: a grimy kitchenette, a table, two plastic chairs, and a small springy cot. The two men sat down and looked at each other across the table. Miguel had replaced his goggles with a pair of dark glasses.

"So this is the lair of the great Miguel dos Santos," the Colonel said. His voice was higher pitched than Miguel expected, and it fit well with his boyish appearance. He didn't look nearly old enough to be a Colonel, and Miguel suspected it was something other than years of service that had earned him his rank. His smile told Miguel that despite the minor setbacks he encountered in locating his objective, he was now back in control. "What's in the other buildings?"

"My creations."

"And what is it that you create?"

"Only what I need to survive."

The Colonel smiled. "Do you realize that you live further south than anyone else in the AT?"

"No."

"Why the isolation?"

"Why not? I'm not a citizen, so why pretend like I am?"

"What if I told you I could change that?"

"Why would I want to be a citizen?"

The Colonel looked surprised. "Doesn't everyone want to be a citizen?"

"I can't speak for everyone, but I'm doing fine down here by myself."

"Look, Miguel," the Colonel said, "I know your story. I know about your father and what he did to your family."

"What my father did," Miguel told the Colonel, "was not his fault."

"Whether it was his fault or not is irrelevant. It still happened, and the result is that you live out here like a hermit. I'm offering you a way to become a citizen, to finally serve your country, to start all over again."

"In exchange for what?"

"In exchange for continuing your old research. That's all I ask."

"I don't think you realize how dangerous my research was."

"It's only dangerous if it gets out of control. We won't let that happen."

"The moment you create something that is autonomous, self-replicating, and truly creative, you've already lost control."

"There are safeguards that can be put in place," the Colonel said. "I know it can be done. And I know you're the only one who can do it."

"Your war doesn't concern me anymore."

"It concerns everyone, Miguel, because if we don't do this, our enemies will. It's just a matter of time. There are only so many resources left on the planet, and if we don't take them, our enemies will. I don't like it any more than you do, but those are the facts. We have to be realistic."

"You don't have to justify your war to me. If you want to fight, go fight. Just leave me out of it."

"We can't leave you out of it. We need you. I know what you build down here. I know what you're capable of building. And I also know what's being built right now in the Sino Archipelago. And in the New Russian Republics. This isn't something we want to do, Miguel, but we don't have a choice anymore."

"What about me?" Miguel said. "Do I have a choice?"

The Colonel reached down without taking his eyes off of Miguel, removed his sidearm, and placed the heavy weapon gently on the table. "Of course," he said. "There's always a choice."

Miguel looked past the Colonel at the canvas-covered mound in the middle of the room, then looked back at the Colonel. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said.

"It wouldn't do any good," the Colonel said. He re-holstered his weapon. "Even if you killed me, even if you buried me out there somewhere where nobody could ever find me, it wouldn't change anything. Your future is already decided, Miguel. You know that. You knew that the moment you saw me down in that pit."

Miguel watched the Colonel from behind his dark glasses for a long time before he spoke. "If I help you," he said, "it's purely to clear my father's name. I don't want to be a hero. I don't even want to be a citizen. I just want to restore my father's honor. That's it."

"I promise you," the Colonel said, "if you can pull this off, you can have anything you want."


Miguel grew up in Mitad del Mundo, the Middle of the World, in two small rooms at the foot of the extinct Pululahua volcano. He qualified for school on the American military base where his father trained, and the two of them walked together every morning through the fog, passing an old skinned football across the frozen ground and talking about what they were learning. Miguel was already studying engineering, and his father was training as a weapons specialist. Miguel's two younger sisters stayed home with his mother.

When Miguel's father shipped out to the Sino Archipelago, Miguel had to quit school and find a job. He became a programmer at the munitions plant where he wrote instructions for some of the smart weapons his father had been trained to use. He became known for writing code that made weapons do things that even their designers hadn't intended or anticipated. By the time he became a lead programmer, he was helping to engineer several of the weapons his team was responsible for. Three years later, his father still gone, Miguel had his own division dedicated to prototyping the first generation of truly autonomous weaponry.

The munitions plant had adjoining barracks where Miguel began spending a few nights a week. His younger sisters were getting older, and were less willing to share their room with him. He was able to eat for free at the barracks, and he sometimes brought home bags of leftovers that had been set aside as animal feed.

Miguel came home late one evening to find his family sitting quietly around a man he didn't recognize. It wasn't until he saw his mother's expression that he realized the man was his father. He was missing his right arm above the elbow, and the right side of his face was encased in thick pink scar tissue. His head was tilted to the side, and Miguel could see a portion of a metal plate protruding from his skin where his ear had been.

"Papá," Miguel said, but his father didn't respond. The man watched his son through his one good eye without any sign of recognition.

Miguel tried to be home as much as he could to be with his father, but the drugs his father took left him comatose for most of the day. When he was awake, he spent his time either sitting alone in the dark, or listening to whatever unencrypted military transmissions he could pick up on the handheld receiver Miguel had built for him.

He began to leave the house when his drugs became harder to get, and sometimes didn't return for days. He seemed to plan his time at home around periods when he knew Miguel would be gone. Miguel came home for lunch one day and found that his mother had fallen and hit her face on the tile floor. A few days later, she suffered from severe stomach cramps, and couldn't get out of bed. The next week, Miguel had to pick her up from the clinic where she had 16 stitches in her chin and lip after slipping on the ice on the front steps. On the way home, Miguel looked for blood in the snow in front of the house, but couldn't find any. Miguel waited at home until his father got back and confronted him. Miguel's mother stood between them and begged her son to be quiet, but he did not back down. Miguel's father reached around his wife and slapped Miguel across the face. When Miguel didn't move, his father hit him again, this time close-fisted. Miguel stood defiantly in front of his father for as long as he could while his father hit him again and again, his mother screaming and wailing and pleading. By the time his legs gave out and he fell to the floor, his eyeball had burst and his face was slick and shiny with blood.

Miguel spent two weeks in a military hospital where he was interviewed several times by officers of various ranks, and when he got home, his father was gone. Six months later, he began to visit his father in the stockade. Miguel did all the talking, explaining as much as he could about what he was working on at the plant and giving him news about the wars. Although his father never responded, Miguel sensed that he appreciated the company and genuinely regretted what he had done.

When Miguel's father came home, Miguel was waiting for him with a long slender box. He helped his father remove the lid, and inside was a soft, silicone-coated prosthetic arm. The shape was realistic, but the skin was white and semitransparent, revealing the miniature servos and tiny titanium alloy rods inside. Miguel's father didn't smile. He looked up from the box at his son with eyes that were already wet with tears, and for the first time in his life, Miguel watched his father cry.

It only took six weeks for Miguel's father to adjust to wearing the robot arm and for him to condition his nerves and brain to operate it with far more accuracy than Miguel had expected. He practiced constantly, focusing first on large solid objects, then moving on to increasingly small and awkward items like pieces of paper and kernels of corn. He refused to feed himself with his natural hand, starting and ending every meal with his fork or spoon held firmly in his silicon grip. Miguel upgraded the software frequently, and occasionally swapped out tiny components with new versions he had assembled at work. When the hand was covered, it became impossible to tell which of Miguel's father's arms was robotic.

A friend of Miguel's at the plant offered to help get Miguel's father a job monitoring production output from an ammunition factory. When Miguel presented the idea at dinner, his father stopped chewing and looked around the table. He sat up very straight for the rest of the meal and fed himself with impeccable accuracy. From then on, he woke up early every morning on his own, dressed himself, left for work, and returned in the evenings precisely at six. Miguel usually got home about an hour later, and after eating together, they all watched updates on the wars, and then the old reruns his father enjoyed.

When Miguel was old enough to ship out, he was given the option of remaining at the munitions plant where he managed the entire Autonomous Weapons Research Division. Officially it was his disability that excused him from duty, but it was obvious that he was much more valuable to the American military where he was rather than on a battlefield or deep under the ice in a submarine. It was decided that his two tours would be served as a robotics specialist at home after which, assuming exemplary service, he would be be made a citizen.

Miguel tried not to stay in the barracks anymore, but there were times when deadlines kept him at the plant late enough that it didn't make sense to go home. During the week leading up to el Día de los Muertos, Miguel stayed at the plant for four straight days, then decided to leave in the middle of the day and walk home for lunch. When he opened the front door, he smelled food that had been allowed to rot in the refuse shoot, and when he got upstairs, he found his two sisters and his mother in their beds with neat round bullet holes in their foreheads and crusty red pillows underneath. Miguel's father was lying on the floor, fragments of brain and skull and strands of hair on the wall behind him, a piece of white tooth embedded in his dry lip. The index finger of his prosthetic hand was still hooked through the trigger guard of his military-issue pistol.

As he stood among the bloated rotting bodies of his family, Miguel wondered why his father hadn't loved him enough to take him, too.


The witness box had been partially rotated and angled toward the plasma glass so the judge could see Miguel while he answered the Colonel's questions. One of the guards had explained to Miguel after the plea hearing that ever since the mutiny, high-ranking officers like the judge seldom left their bunkers.

The Colonel was standing next to another piece of plasma glass on the other side of the room. The display showed a picture of a soldier's head with the cranium neatly removed, the black cavity beneath entirely empty. He touched the glass and the picture changed. It was another soldier's head, this time photographed from the back where there was a perfectly round hole the size of an orange where hair had been, and only blackness beyond. The next picture showed a soldier with one of his eye sockets carved into a wide empty tunnel. The Colonel watched Miguel with the slightest hint of a smile playing at his lips and eyes.

"Mr. Vásquez, can you explain to the court what we're looking at?"

"Soldiers' remains."

"The remains of Russian soldiers? Chinese soldiers?"

"American soldiers."

"The remains of American soldiers. That's correct. And can you tell us what each of these American soldiers has in common?"

"Each has had his brain surgically removed."

"Surgically removed? I don't know if I'd use such a kind word. I think it would be more accurate to say that these soldiers were murdered, then had their heads ripped open and their brains torn out. Isn't that correct?"

"That is not correct," Miguel said. "The soldiers were most likely alive during the procedure in order to keep oxygen flowing to their brains for as long as possible, but anesthetized in order to keep them calm. Their brains were obviously removed with a great deal of care and precision."

The galleries stirred but the judge's expression did not change. The Colonel was nodding.

"Thank you for the clarification," the Colonel said. "Now, in your opinion, are these soldiers' deaths related to the mutiny?"

"Yes."

"In what way?"

"They were almost certainly killed by ASRAs."

"Can you explain the term 'ASRA,' please?"

"Autonomous Self-replicating Asset."

"Robots?"

"Mostly robotic, yes."

"Were these Russian-built ASRAs?"

"No."

"Chinese-built?"

"No."

"Well then who built them?"

"They are American military assets."

"American military assets killing American soldiers. Is that correct?"

"I don't think they distinguish between territorial affiliation anymore. Or between soldiers and civilians, for that matter."

"Answer the question directly, please. They have killed American soldiers, have they not?"

"Yes."

"And who designed this particular generation of ASRAs?"

"I did."

"So you admit to designing the robots that are responsible for the mutiny, and that caused the brutal deaths of at least one hundred and twenty-two American soldiers and civilians?"

"I admit to designing the ASRAs, yes."

The Colonel paused to give the court time to absorb Miguel's testimony. He inspected the faces in the galleries with a mirthful satisfaction.

"And why," the Colonel continued, "do they kill in this bizarre manner?"

"They are capable of killing in many bizarre manners," Miguel said. "But this particular technique is probably used to acquire viable brain tissue."

"And what would ASRAs want with human brain tissue?"

"They need it to reproduce."

"What does human brain tissue have to do with the reproduction of robotic weaponry?"

"ASRAs are not entirely robotic. Most of them contain neurological processors."

"By 'neurological processor,' you mean a brainbox, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Would you please explain to the court what a brainbox is?"

"Brainboxes are central processing units which contain neurological tissue grown over and integrated with an array of microprocessors."

"So building an ASRA requires organic brain tissue, is that correct?"

"Yes."

"And ASRAs are, by definition, self-replicating, correct?"

"Yes."

"Interesting. So how did you expect them to obtain the brain tissue they needed to reproduce without taking it from humans?"

"Some of them are equipped with stem cell cultures that can be used to grow various forms of tissue."

"But they don't appear to be using their stem cell cultures, do they? Why do you think that is? Wouldn't it be much easier and safer to cultivate brain tissue than to take it from well-armed soldiers?"

"I believe they are saving their cultures."

"Saving them for what?"

Miguel watched the Colonel for a moment before he answered. "For when there aren't any other sources of brain tissue left."

A din immediately arose throughout the galleries. The judge swiftly intervened.

"The court will remain silent," she hissed. She had clearly lost some of the impassivity with which she conducted the beginning of the proceedings.

"Mr. Vásquez," the Colonel said, "are you the inventor of the brainbox?"

"Yes."

"For what purpose did you invent it?"

"In order to fulfill my orders."

"In order to fulfill your orders?" the Colonel repeated with feigned perplexity. "I was involved in drafting those orders, and I don't remember them containing anything about creating murderous biological abominations."

"My orders were to create weapons that were entirely autonomous, and that could think creatively and work cooperatively. Specifically, they were to combine the logic and reasoning of a machine with the desperation and hate of the human soul. That's a direct quote."

"Let me rephrase my question," the Colonel said. "Were your orders to create military assets that would turn against the entire human race and attempt to destroy it?"

"I followed my orders," Miguel said. "It's the ASRAs that aren't following theirs. Take it up with them."

The galleries stirred again. This time the judge did not react.

"Let's change direction," the Colonel said. "Let's talk about your father." The two men watched each other for a long, unsettling moment. The Colonel smiled briefly and continued. "Your father was a soldier, was he not?"

"I'll answer your questions about the mutiny," Miguel told the Colonel, "but I will not discuss my family."

"You will discuss whatever I deem pertinent to this case, Mr. Vásquez," the Colonel said. "Now isn't it true that your father served one and a half tours as a Weapons Specialist in the Indonesian Theater, and that he returned home severely injured and suffering from profound depression?"

The Colonel gave Miguel a chance to respond, but Miguel did not speak.

"I'll take that as a 'yes,'" the Colonel said. "And isn't true that your father became abusive toward your mother, and that when you confronted him, he beat you so severely that you lost the use of your right eye? And isn't true that despite having forgiven your father, despite doing everything in your power to help him, he ultimately repaid you by murdering your two younger sisters and your mother, and then committing suicide in your home, robbing you of everyone and everything you ever cared about? Isn't it true, Miguel dos Santos, that you blame the death of your entire family on the American military, and that you planned the mutiny purely as revenge?"

"Not revenge," Miguel said calmly. He could see that the Colonel was breathing heavily and was starting to sweat. "But if you're asking me if I did what I did for my father, then the answer is yes."


There was a white metal hatch embedded in the frozen tundra beside the black ice of the Rio Negro. Beneath the hatch was a simple pneumatic lift inside of a shaft almost half a kilometer deep. One of the tunnels at the end of the shaft widened into in a long steel capsule lined with thick sound-dampening tiles. There was an elliptical table in the center of the room around which sat some of the highest ranking officers in the government of the American Territory.

Miguel sat across from the Colonel along the minor axis of the ellipse. The Brigadier General and the Fleet Admiral faced each other across the major axis. The stripes on the arms of the soldiers in between showed them to be various classes of Majors, Lieutenants, and Captains. Miguel was the only one not in uniform. His dark civilian clothes and mirrored glasses stood out among the white camouflage.

When the curt salutations were complete, Miguel touched a small plasma glass panel in front of him. The opposing volumetric plates embedded in the ceiling and the surface of the table began to hum and glow, and a three-dimensional aerial view of the Macapá Biosphere was gradually composited in front of them. When the plates were fully warmed up and the image was bright and crisp, the Colonel began.

"Thank you all for making the trip all the way out here this afternoon. Chief Engineer Vásquez and I are prepared to present our defense initiative."

Miguel's fingers moved across the plasma glass and the image pulled away. High towers began to render at intervals throughout Macapá City and continued along the spine of the equator. The Colonel prompted Miguel with a nod.

"The proposal is that we form a protective perimeter using a series of towers across the American Territory at intervals of no more than one and a half kilometers." Miguel zoomed in on one of the tiny spikes until it rose from the table surface to the ceiling. There were two triangular platforms impaled along the tower at different altitudes accessible by ladders bolted to the east and west faces. Each platform had a 30 millimeter Metal Storm gatling gun mounted on its north and south rail, fed by a thick chain of depleted uranium rounds supplied by lockers beneath the metal mesh floor. "These towers will double as transmitters and defensive positions. They will transmit at frequencies designed to disrupt communication among the ASRAs, preventing them from sustaining any sort of coordinated attack, and from communicating any intelligence beyond the perimeter before being destroyed. Each tower will be manned by at least two soldiers at all times. Since we don't yet know how working in such close proximity to the transmitters will effect the soldiers, they will be limited to no more than two two-hour shifts in any twenty-four hour period."

"How many towers are we talking about?" the Brigadier General said. He addressed the Colonel rather than Miguel.

"To cover the entire AT," the Colonel said, "and to get enough overlap that there aren't any dead zones, we'll need to build approximately 2,310 towers."

The Brigadier General's eyebrows lifted. "2,310 towers," he repeated.

The Fleet Admiral leaned forward. She was outwardly confused. "That's a commitment of almost 28,000 troops," she said. "Where do you propose we get them?"

"We'll have to train about 2,500 new gunners," the Colonel said. "The rest will come from soldiers recalled from the African and Indonesian Theaters."

"That doesn't leave us much of an offensive force," the Brigadier General said. "Does your plan also include capitulating to the Chinese and the Russians? How do you propose we fight two wars simultaneously without any troops?"

"There won't be any more wars," Miguel said. "As soon as we're finished verifying the schematics, we need to transmit them to the Russians and the Chinese so they can start building out their defenses, too. The Chinese are going to need approximately 965 towers, and the Russians will need at least 2,487."

The Brigadier General sat looking into Miguel's glasses and blinking. "I don't even know how to respond to this. Are you seriously proposing that we not only withdraw all of our troops and give up everything we've fought for over the last seventy-five years, but that we also assist our enemies in building defenses against our own weapons?"

"They're not our weapons anymore," Miguel said. "They don't belong to anyone. Right now the most important thing is that we slow down their rate of reproduction. We have to protect all human life at this point, American, Chinese, and Russian."

The young Captain beside Miguel looked at the Brigadier General and raised his hand. "Sir?" he interjected. He was an engineer Miguel had worked with while designing the ASRA's electrical systems. Miguel had noticed him working at the plasma glass panel in the table in front of him and was waiting for him to insert himself. "If I may interrupt, this may all be a moot point, anyway. There's no way for us to power 2,300 transmitters 24-hours a day."

The question inherent in the Captain's comments fell to Miguel. "Not currently," Miguel said. "We will need to build additional solar farms."

"But that won't be enough," the Captain said. "It's not the generation of power that's the problem. We can generate several times what we need. It's storing it. There's no practical way to store enough energy to power the transmitters while the sun is down. We'll be completely vulnerable at night."

"The additional solar farms aren't for us," Miguel said. He began interacting with the plasma glass control until the image of the tower faded and was replaced by a dense array of bright parabolic mirrors moving in unison as they tracked a point of light across the room. "Between the American Territory, the Sino Archipelago, and the New Russian Republic, there's always enough direct sunlight to power well over 6,000 towers." They watched the array fade as the sun reached the end of the room, and then a new array appeared and the process started again. "In other words, each of us takes turns powering the others' towers over the course of 24 hours."

The Captain was working on his plasma glass. "Do you know how much power you'll have to generate in order to compensate for the resistance of cables thousands of kilometers long? What do you propose we build them out of?"

"Not cables," Miguel said. "Fiber optics. The focal point of the parabolic mirrors will be a fiber optic channel rather than an array of photovoltaic cells. We won't send electricity across the oceans. We'll send the sunlight that's needed to make the electricity."

The Captain looked up from the table surface. He watched the animation in front of him for a moment, then began to smile. "Christ, that just might work."

"It will not work," the Brigadier General said placing his palms on the table. "There's one thing your calculations aren't taking into account, and that's human nature. The implication of what you're suggesting is that each of the three territories will essentially be responsible for keeping the other two territories alive. Think about that. These are territories that have been at war for the better part of a century. What in God's name makes you think they won't use this as an opportunity to win the war once and for all?"

"Because it would be suicide," Miguel said. "If any one of the three territories is compromised, the other two remaining territories won't be able to defend themselves. We're not individual territories anymore. We're a tripod. If one of us goes down, we all go down."

The Brigadier General's complexion was ruddy and bright against his white fatigues. He was about to respond, but the Fleet Admiral stood up and pushed back her chair.

"Thank you, gentlemen," she said. "I think at this point, we need to run these plans by General Shannon. Please send your materials to General Edwards and myself only, and we'll be in touch."

The rest of the table stood and saluted. The Brigadier General was the last to get to his feet.

"Thank you, Admiral," the Colonel said. He turned to the other end of the table and nodded. "General."

The Lieutenant across from Miguel rushed around to the hatch and began to spin the wheel. The Brigadier General followed the Fleet Admiral out of the room and the rest of the officers followed him. When Miguel and the Colonel were alone, the Colonel sat back down. Miguel swung the room's hatch closed and began to reseal it.

"That could have gone better," he said to the Colonel behind him.

"Miguel, there's something you need to know." The Colonel watched Miguel return to the table and begin running his fingers over the plasma glass in front of him. The images on the table faded and the volumetric plates dimmed as they began to cool. "As soon as this situation is stable, you're going to be arrested."

"I know."

"They're going to blame all this on you. Do you know what that means?"

"Yes."

"I don't know if I'm going to be able to protect you."

"I don't want you to protect me," Miguel said.

"You're going to be tried for treason, Miguel."

"What I need you to do is protect yourself. I need you to blame all this on me. Do whatever you have to do to come out of this completely unblemished."

"I can't do that to you," the Colonel said. "This is more my fault than it is yours. You warned me about this."

"I knew exactly what I was doing," Miguel said. "My job is almost finished, but yours is just starting."

The Colonel peered at Miguel from across the table. "What do you mean?"

"These towers are a temporary solution. As soon as the ASRAs can't get to us anymore, they'll start using their stem cell cultures to reproduce, and eventually they'll figure out a way to get past the perimeter."

"How long will that take?"

"I don't know. Probably no more than six months."

"What do we do then?"

"We can't wait for that to happen. We're going to have to attack as soon as we can."

"How can we attack when most of our forces will be committed to defensive positions?"

"You're thinking like the General," Miguel said. He leaned back in the leather chair and laced his fingers together behind his head. "The only way to do it is to not do it alone."


There was only one form of execution in the American Territories for traitors. Nobody wanted to waste power on electrocution, and there was a general shortage of pharmaceuticals that could be used for lethal injection or to create poisonous gasses. In the past, executions had been carried out by firing squad, but a common belief arose among the soldiers that if they had to risk getting shot to death doing their duty, that was far too honorable of a way for a traitor to die. And why waste even a single bullet on a traitor that could be put inside the skull of a Chinese or Russian soldier? But death didn't have to be complicated in the AT. There was a constant and lethal threat that was almost so simple and obvious as to be overlooked. At the end of the third day of Miguel's trial, the judge swiftly and unceremoniously sentenced him to death by exposure.

Before the sun came up on the morning of the attack, Miguel's clothes were removed in his cell and he was led outside by three soldiers. The cold soaked into his naked body and traveled up his bare feet from the hard frozen ground. He expected there to be witnesses, but there was nobody waiting for him outside in the dark. He was placed against a wooden stake on the side of the main road dividing Macapá City, and his hands and ankles were bound. When the knots were tight, his three escorts jogged away in different directions as through Miguel's execution had been an imposition on their morning schedules and they now had precious time to make up.

As the sun rose, Miguel could see the silhouettes of the towers down the road, the long barrels of their gatling guns pivoting just perceptively as they conducted their sweeps. He was shivering uncontrollably when the sunlight reached him, but the sun felt as cold to him as the darkness. His ears and head ached and the burning numbness in his legs and arms traveled into his core.

By the time he heard the sounds of the joint forces approaching on their way to the mouth of the Amazon, he had stopped shivering. He knew his body was tricking him into feeling warm and at peace so that he could die more easily. His lifeless eye was frozen, but out of his good eye, he could see the well-structured battalions approach. The soldiers' white uniforms were all identical, but their helmets identified them as Chinese, Russian, or American. The Russian trackers in front were considerably larger than their American counterparts, and the Chinese Shuey Baw trackers were small and nimble.

A cacophony arose among the soldiers as they noticed the limp body hanging from the post. Miguel could pick out at least half a dozen languages among the violent derision focused on him. Some of the soldiers briefly left their ranks to spit on Miguel's limp body, and a few kicked at the frozen ground in front of him with their heavy boots. Miguel looked up and could see that the commander in charge was not calling them back or ordering them to hold their ranks. Instead he stood impassively at the turret of an American tracker, and as the troops around him screamed their contempt, he silently raised his hand in a crisp and decisive salute.