Duty

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith


After many many years of holding perfectly still, the tank moved. The tank rolled back a few feet and then waited.

A hidden machine gun off to the left, positioned to help the tank, noticed immediately. Sensing the ground vibrations and using digital memory terrain comparison, first looking at the stored image of yesterday and then comparing it to the present situation, the machine gun realized that the shape of the camouflage net over the tank was changed.

Yesterday the net looked like a forward-leaning boulder surrounded by smaller rocks and grey desert sand; now the camouflage net looked like it was leaning back. The machine gun thought the tank was reacting to something occurring across the valley. Using magnification, the machine gun panned slowly left and right and found nothing moving, nothing to destroy.

For an hour the gun thought about the motion of the tank and then used its command link. A short burst of information shot skyward and then bounced off a satellite and came down at the tank. “Was that you?” it asked.

The gun barrel of the tank went down an inch and then back up. “I have given away my position,” it said.

“And nothing has happened,” said the machine gun.

A year passed: four long seasons, all of them hot. Some rain fell in early September, enough to wash some of the dust off the solar panels.

Long before the tank was positioned, and before the machine guns were situated, and before the mortars were calibrated, a wide belt of mines had been hidden under the sand. A wide belt of mines placed between the factions.

Hundreds of years earlier, a giant planting mechanism rolled back and forth on the valley floor, carefully, never retracing its own satelite-guided route and never going faster than three belligerent miles an hour, the huge machine placed mines randomly in the sand.

Mines were supposed to be reactive, they weren’t supposed to plan or take co-ordinates. The tank was surprised when one of the mines asked permission to explode. “Shall I explode?” it said.

“Not yet.” the tank said.

“I am ready and those near me are ready.”

“Fine. Thank you.” said the tank. “But do nothing. Stand by.”

Moments later. “I now have nine neighbors committed to a display of our prowess. May we kick sand in their ugly faces? Shall we?”

“Gun and I see no faces. You were told to wait.”

“We have waited... waited for a very long time.”

“As they were being placed, they were told an attack was imminent.” said the machine gun, trying to explain the unwarranted zeal.

“I know,” said the tank. “I was told much the same.”

“What’s happened?” said the gun.

The tank searched the air with radar and found nothing. The tank sought information. “Please examine your digital memory terrain image files in strict sequence and describe to me what you see.”

Without taking its main attention from the valley, the gun accessed the files. The gun viewed the changes. “It’s hypnotizing.” he said, “The sand moves up and down... very slowly... passing across the Earth, like an ocean... an ocean with a name; it’s called Desert... Great swells and deep troughs driven onward by the wind.”

They were both thoughtful.

The tank and gun thought it over for a full day. “I think we’ve been forgotten. I think we see what others have forgotten to include in their social calculations. You have the authority to contact others. Will you?”

“One more test,” said the tank.

That night, when the full moon sank down behind the desert sand, leaving the black paper of the sky pierced only by the needle points of distant stars, the tank flashed its lights one time, one time only. For exactly five seconds the heights above the valley looked like the parking lot of a shopping mall. Then everything was darkness. A dozen lizards, at first frozen immobile by the unexpected display of light, eventually started moving again. The tank sat braced for explosions that never came.

By the time the sun came up the tank had mapped out its plan of action. At three minutes before noon, it asked a satellite for maps and conditions and wind patterns and temperatures and locations.

When the chronometer said noon, the tank moved. The left track rolled forward and the right track rolled back, causing the heavy tank to change direction. Then it rolled forward ripping the net into shreds. With tattered streamers hanging off the turret the tank churned sand and started rolling west.

Without hesitation, the machine gun fired six hundred rounds scattering two percent of its stockpile on a noisy attempt to project defiance and give support to the tank’s maneuver. Then the machine gun began to crawl to the southwest hoping to get a better field of fire. “What’s their strength?” it asked .

“I am traveling, not maneuvering. I see no enemy.”

“I will cover your withdrawal. Are you damaged?”

“I am curious,” it said.

In less than an hour the tank came to a road. Machines kept sand off the black asphalt. One hurried past sweeping up sand and ejecting it in an arc from a slanted stack on its cowling, depositing the sand at a distance from the road. The tank rolled out onto the road and watched the little dustpan as it sped off into the distance.

Sensors told the tank that the pavement was scalding hot. “I will stop briefly in that water just ahead.” It thought. But it never seemed to reach the water. The enemy has made inroads into my circuits, it thought. I am being lied to. I will ignore those inputs. That was the only course of action that seemed appropriate.

“I am here,” said the drone.

The tank looked up. Overhead there was a small plane. The tank supplied an identifying code. The plane supplied a name. “Range ahead of me?” asked the tank.

“No need,” said the drone. “The road ends just ahead.”

“Keep station. Inform me of any changes.”

“As you wish.” And it banked left and began to circle.

The first thing the tank noticed was the cars moving about. The tank wasn’t quite as big as it thought it was, or the cars were bigger than they needed to be. To find a vantage point the tank approached a small hill. A sign on the hill said, ‘Keep off the grass’.

The tank was not familiar with grass. It rolled to the edge of the green area and as soon as the tank was touching the first blades of grass the tank stopped. It thought, To view the surroundings I will have to climb this hill. I will tread lightly. A promise it found hard to keep.

The surroundings were green, lawns were well-tended, the trees tall and lifting their branches high. There were modern buildings and tastefully done walkways and outdoor sculpture. From where it was the tank could see four fountains spouting water. One of the fountains was shooting water fifty feet into the air. Water was plentiful. Everything looked plentiful.

People were walking on clean sidewalks and shopping and running errands and picking up laundry and going about their duties. A dog was chasing a cat. A bird was pulling a worm out of the ground.

As the tank was trying to process the new information the drone passed overhead.

“Is this typical? Is the entire city like this?”

“For the most part,” said the drone.

“Quiet people... quiet lives?”

“As far as the eye can see.”

“Are there signs of sacrifice, or panic, concern, patriotism, resistance? Do we see a fifth column, a loyal opposition? Is there a great debate raging in the homes of the populace? Did you see groups of people marching about carrying banners and stopping traffic and demanding change?”

The drone dipped its right wing, and then flew level, and then dipped its left wing, and then flew level, scanning carefully. Shrugging its shoulders. Saying, “No. I can look down at the heart of the city... but I can’t look down into the hearts of men.”

The tank backed down off the hill. The tank rolled down the familiar road. The tank rolled back into the tank-shaped depression where it kept vigil.

“I held them off,” the gun said.

“Was there an incident?”

“Not really, I was just kidding,” said the gun. “I held my fire while you approached.”

“I appreciate that,” said the tank.

“According to my orders, I could have fired on you.”

The tank almost said, “For all the good it would have done you.” But it didn’t say that. It almost said, “You only weigh ninety pounds, I fire shells that weigh more than you.” But it didn’t say that. The tank almost said, “And my orders make no sense at all.” But it didn’t say that. It said, “Together, we will soldier on.”

They watched the bright sun. Later they watched the moon arc placidly across the sky.

One more day was added to the digital memory terrain image file. They were piling up like specks in an hourglass.

“Describe it again,” the tank said.

“Swells and troughs,” said the gun. “Sometimes it seems beautiful. Sometimes it’s just sand moving with the wind.”


Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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