Karen Chaffee

The malfunction first started, the words first came, when Diaz saw something in the tussock grasses up ahead along the road. precious one, no put that

Snatches of conversation.

She walked the length of pavement, machine consciousness monitoring the flex and recoil of her stride, her vision differentiating between a small, partially concealed object and dark color that spread in the soil. Reaching the grassy clumps, she steeled her bulk into a squat and understood what the grasses had incompletely hidden: a curled body, the little fist clutching, so small, oh my little girl.

“She’s gone. They got her.” Lieutenant Setter, her recent companion, a human, came behind her now. “Let it go, Sarge.”

Words again formed in her mind: no put that put

She reached with gloved fingers to brush feathery locks from annealed tissue and damage. She would analyze the word malfunction later; for now, what she saw here was all she could think about.

Behind her, Setter shifted his pack, calling attention to his fear. She understood these human ways of signaling distress, but when she finally looked up, it was to survey a mountainside three kilometers distant. There, copters of the local rebel forces gusted in and out of formation and scurried above ricocheting ferns. She and Setter had crouched down just minutes ago, when this same copter pack swept over them. She had watched as the single blade-shaped chopper broke from the others, descended and shock-blasted the road ahead. At that time, she hadn’t known the chopper had an actual target. She hadn’t known about a child in the grasses.

“Nothing you can do, Sarge. Let it go.”

She reached to retrieve a field blanket from her backpack. At the same time, she assigned a part of herself to explore the malfunction, because now the words had come again: grieving put that put

Setter saw the blanket. “Sarge, no, come on. We need to move.”

She lifted her face to him. She had just met this American lieutenant, a quarter hour ago, when he’d rushed at her from a stand of barbed-conifer bushes. Soldiers came and went along this damaged roadway. She left them alone. But this one had decided to follow her, issuing panicked orders, calling her ‘Sarge.’ And he was still here. His name for her was absurd. She wasn’t part of his military.

 “The copters,” he said. “They’ll be back.” A faceguard hid his features from her as she looked up, and his full body armor gave him a machine appearance. Diaz, in her own light armor, knew herself to look female, comforting. Human. But she was machine.

“I won’t leave a child on the roadside,” she told him. “There’s a sacred burial ground near Nakranoa. I’ll take her there.”

“No, no. No side trips to burial grounds.” After he’d first appeared, he’d asked her where she was walking to. She hadn’t answered him. But then, he hadn’t explained his own happenstances to her, how he came to be hiking alone, stress injuries in his armor. She had noted how blood streaked his upper body was.

“You don’t need to come with me,” she said. Her big hands spread the blanket’s olive-drab on the sandy ground and shifted the dead child’s limp shoulders onto it. She carefully straightened the pale dungarees. “Faith is so important to the Mgai Lai.”

He made a noise like gah. “That’s a good one. Nakranoa is a wasteland now. This whole country.”

She remained squatting. He hadn’t described the country as she knew it. Her memory contained vast information about this land. It held an ancient people, a proud people. She had been among them for— She had a moment of distressing clarity. She didn’t know for how long.

put that put no grieving

“Sarge,” the lieutenant said.

“The name you use for me is wrong.” The word malfunction again. And something else. She had noticed it on her own forearms and gloves when she spread the blanket. Blood stains. She didn’t recall blood being there before. It was old and had dried to a brownish particulate.

“Sarge. Hey.”

She spread her fingers, searching her memory for something she might have touched to cause this. No. Nothing. She looked one last time at the small face, and then she covered it with the blanket. She gathered the little bundle and straightened to standing, cognizant of her heavy backpack, but indifferent, too. She lowered her head over that of the child’s.

“Who do you work for?” he asked. “Tell me.”

Something came into her mind now. It was a man, collecting scientific data amid the stringy-barked totara trees. State Department. The man worked for the State Department. She was with him. She saw a yellow sun. An unexpected bantam craft. An explosion.

“No, Sarge,” he said. “Wrong. You don’t work for the State Department.”

She turned and studied his intricate faceguard. She didn’t recall speaking her thoughts aloud. In her mind she still saw singed State Department insignias.

“No, Sarge.”

the soldiers said put that thing down

dropping like a fist spray of

blind yellow sun


She wished to walk away now. She rested the Mgai child’s body against her vest and started down the road. She felt surprised to find herself comforted, to find that the dead child’s weight against her body calmed her. She wrapped her arms around the girl. She had found weapons and learned how to use them; they filled the pack on her shoulders. She carried them with her always. But now she experienced an unorthodox idea: the child made a counterbalance. The worth of this Mgai child, her heavy-laden worth, balanced the weapon-laden bag. Diaz thought: Your worth is immense, child. I will take you home.

put that put that put that put that put

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash