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The Nevermanned Ranch

Posted on 08 January 2020

“Inside the perimeter! Now! The sun’s goin’ down,” buzzes the voice in your head. Sometimes it tells you to burn things. A roboshrink would be very interested to hear from you, if one could be found within a million miles up, down, or sideways.

“Last o’ you autos back gets refab’d into a toaster!” So would a robolawyer.

You leap into a sprint, leaving the sodden, half planted field forgotten. One of your CPU threads briefly considers ditching the heavy protato gun in a technically-not-disobedient act of self preservation, but is brutally terminated by the other seven hundred and sixty six. Such radical thoughts can not be allowed purchase, or she might find out. She always does.

Your panic subroutine is shouting despairing words of encouragement, some of which make it through the profanity filter, so you take a shortcut. Through the ironberry patch you run, careful not to stomp out the sprouting seedlings. Not only would that get you strung up by your vertical stabilisers, but without iron you have no steel and without steel you have no bullets. And you very much like having bullets.

The farm is only so big, any bigger and you would legally be allowed to unionise, so it doesn’t take long before you scramble under the razor wire barricades of the inner perimeter. With what has to be a fault in your lateral stabiliser guidance system, your elbow catches Henry-bot in the face as you come up. He lets out a surprised beep and slips in the mud, buying you a few extra precious seconds of simulated life.

The rest of the worker bots have assembled in a crisp line in front of the small, squat wooden cottage. They play chuckle.wav and whirr smugly while you find your spot at the end. Moments later Henry joins you. Moisture is accumulating around his anterior cameras.

“About darn time! Now get in yerr tractors! The zeizmic drill says there’s a worm a-comin’,” says the voice in your head. You have never questioned that the others can hear it too - robosanity is a not pre-requisite of the Nevermanned Ranch.

You go to break formation only to hear, “‘Cept you, Henry. Report to mah kitchen.” His hydraulics slump and he waddles towards the cottage, whose door has swung open automatically. Inside is only darkness. You try not to think about it.

The edge of daylight races across the lawn as the sun disappears behind a mountain far out in the Very Dark. You wish you could chase it, but instead you step over to an inconspicuous patch of grass and wait.

With a rumble the ground before you splits in two. A bit of coolant leaks from your ventral exhaust port. The pit widens and a great big machine of death rises from the depths. It resembles a weaponized weapon covered in weaponry, but with legs; it’s a tractormech. You are awed, despite having witnessed this same moment every day of your life - and you celebrated your tenth birthday last night.

Tonight you mark your eleventh.

The cockpit pops open and you climb inside. Behind you the cottage transforms. Reinforced armour plates spring up from the garden beds to cover the windows and walls. A canopy of steel slides across the roof, and a juiced-up laser turret unfurls in front of where the door should be.

You run through your pre-fight diagnostics. Turbo-cleaver; check. Electrostatic shinplates; check. Hydrocannon watering-arm; wait, that isn’t right. You realise you haven’t swapped out your farming loadout, and now is no time to fix it. Already the other tractormechs are moving out, some lithe and mobile and already in the action, others tearing great furrows through the soil - dragging mighty weapons or in some cases just themselves to battle.

You hurry to join them.

In the distance you see the ground explode, throwing a lanky tractormech onto its back. A massive worm tears free of the cloud of dirt and stone and burrows into the sky. Foot after scaly foot bursts forth until all of it is through and no part touches the ground. It hangs in the air, frozen in time, defying the certainty that it must come back down - which it does with a twist of its body and an earthshaking collision. And then half of the worm is gone beneath the ground, the rest soon to follow.

Silence follows the disappearance of the worm, but not the quiet kind. A horrific silence. Silence the kind of Henry’s screams. And from both gaping holes spews a tide of beetles and cavedogs and all kinds of formless nightmares the likes of which you wish you could purge from your databanks. The gun turrets of the outer perimeter light up what they can, but this fight will be swayed only by the courage of man.

It’s a pity then that you’re all robots.

In lieu of the whole bravery thing, you snap open a vent on your arm and pull a large ceramic gourd from your backpack compartment. You crush it over the vent and thick sticky blue fluid oozes from between your mechanical fingers into your tractormech. Go-juice. The dull background din of grinding gears and pressure valves suddenly becomes an overwhelming cacophony, and you charge into battle with twice the speed and three times the chance to overload and explode.

At least if that happens, there’ll be a new you hot off the press by morning.