Xin had run this patrol even more times than he’d wished something would happen during one of them. Still, something about the Dark Forest and what he knew lay on the other side of it kept him alert, even now. The expanse of ancient, dense trees cut a leafy scar through settlement territory, with its far side bordering a re-militarised badland that stretched to the coast. Regular Warden patrols such as his discouraged opportunistic bandits or smugglers from the rich pickings of the border settlements, and from despoiling the forest itself. Xin could never make his mind up which he wanted to protect more. He turned the Warden Imperative over in his head: “First, stay true to Nature. Second, protect our lands and those upon it. Third, protect other lands, and those upon them.”

“Tap? Run the usual scans and fill me in, then tell me a good joke.”

“Will do” Tap–the AI-drone piloting the nimble, all-terrain Guard, twenty metres to Xin’s left and currently obscured by dense foliage–replied. Tap reeled off the scan results a second later, going through the various frequencies and analyses it always did, even though nothing ever changed. Not one to break with tradition, Tap then told the same joke he had every patrol for the last two years: “Two snakes and an elephant fall out of a tree: Ba-dum tssss.”

Xin chuckled. His personal spotter drone, floating just above and behind his right shoulder and nicknamed Polka, made a good approximation of a sardonic giggle too. Polka knew Xin hated laughing alone.

The trio neared the edge of the patrol route. Xin made his final scans and visual confirmation checks before heading back for a steaming mug of hot-chocolate and his books.

But something didn’t smell right – literally. Xin loved the peaty smell of the mulch and the various olfactory tones of tree bark, had grown so used to the delicate balance of forest scents over the years. Now, for the first time, he smelled the faintest hint of something off. “Tap, run a quick sweep for particles in a mile radius that aren’t entirely naturally occurring.”
“Xin, I will run the scan, but please be aware, there is a high chance of manmade contaminants in the area as an entirely natural fallout from–”
“Tap, I didn’t ask for your opinion. I asked for the scan. Results, now.

The scan came in. Trace amounts of metal alloy and some kind of fuel exhaust.

Xin followed his nose, off the patrol route and deeper into the heart of the forest, despite Tap’s protestations about missions timers, unacceptable risk parameters and general moaning about the terrain scratching his new paintjob. Polka remained silent throughout, but Xin knew it was silently running through tactical scenarios and contingency plans. He felt safe with it hovering there, just out of sight, a number-crunching guardian angel.

Xin and his AI companions spent twenty minutes more carefully tracking through the dense forest into which virtually no light from the overhead canopy could pierce. Xin began to make out an impenetrable looking tangle ahead, from which he could swear wafted a metallic tang, that should just not be there.

“Tap, I’m going to penetrate that cluster for a closer look. I want you covering me with precision rounds. Polka, help me with the cutting–”

“Xin, I, must, advise, strongly, that, you, do, not, attempt–” The AI’s voice was strangely stilted and it left the sentence unfinished. The warning made Xin turn to look, in case something was somehow interfering with their comm-link or with the Guard directly. What he saw was the Guard’s rifle, not covering him, but aimed at him.

“Xin” Polka’s voice appeared in his head. “I have scrambled Tap’s targeting software. I believe you have twelve seconds until the manual override kicks in. I suggest a rapid tactical retreat.”

There was no quick way through the tangle of vegetation in front of him, as good a place as it would have been to hide. So Xin simply ran for his life. “What the hell is Tap doing?!” Xin rasped. Polka kept pace, and its voice appeared again, perfectly clear over the rush of blood to Xin’s head. “Irrelevant. In approximately three seconds, Tap will regain a firing solution and accuracy coefficient incompatible with your acceptable chance of survival. I have recalculated your strategy.”

Xin did as he was told. He dived onto his belly into the densest, nearby bush. He rapidly stripped off his homeostatic tac-vest and flung it as far as possible. It would act as a heat source of the right shape to distract Tap for a few precious seconds. Next, he unfolded his rifle into sniper configuration, forcing a steadiness into his hands that he really didn’t feel. Polka had already remotely configured the scope for appropriate range and imaging solutions. “You have time for three shots.” the AI drone whispered. Xin didn’t need to ask ‘or what?’

Xin took aim, found his empty, inner space, and targeted the most exposed joint in the Guard’s left ankle. He thanked a nameless god that the rogue AI trying to murder him was piloting an all-terrain Guard that sacrificed armour for mobility.

The shot was true, and the Guard staggered, but Xin’s timing was off. The load-bearing struts would have shattered when struck with a high-calibre rifle round at the exact same time it took the full weight of the Guard.

“Xin, I do not believe your next shot has a high enough chance of success. Will you allow me to attempt emergency Fusion?”
“You always did give the best team talks. Do your worst, Polka.” Xin whispered in reply. Survival was worth the pain. Polka anchored itself to Xin’s shoulder with a talon-like manipulators, and sent out a trio of tendrils towards his head. Two of them went for his temples, and another to the base of the neck, where they pierced the topmost layer of skin to better synchronise with Xin’s brainwave pattern. “My worst and my best are identical parameters.” Polka whispered as he worked.

Xin’s second shot was aimed at the Guard’s thermal imaging array. Tap’s manual rifle control would still be more than enough to take him down, but it would theoretically mean he could could hide. The Warden held his breath, and exhaled perfectly in synch with his trigger squeeze. The array starting spewing sparks–a good sign, but no guarantee. Plus, the second shot gave Tap more an indication as to where to hunt. One more and it would triangulate his position.

The Guard was close now, approaching an unobstructed firing line through the trees.

“Xin, I do not believe your next shot has a high enough chance of success. There is one option open to you.”
“You mean making peace with the universe and dying here in the mud?”
“No, I refer to a more manual fusion. It will require extreme pain and potential loss of one of your eyes.”
“Will it work?”
“It is an unorthodox solution not yet field-tested. If you desire, I will break down the statistically likely outcomes.”

Xin weighed up the trade. He was a good shot, but it’d be a shame to find out the hard way just how good he wasn’t. Time for a little blind faith, just the one last time.

“Do whatever you need to do Polka.”
“I shall, but I must inform you it will take a great toll on your body. Do you have a favourite eye?”
“I can truly say no-one has ever asked me that before. I’d say the right eye.”
A tendril whipped out from the orb known as Polka attached to Xin’s shoulder, split into vanishingly thin filaments and snaked its way in a heartbeat around the sides of Xin’s right eye. The pain went from agony to a kind of abstract white-heat so fast that Xin could only gasp before the world as it really was revealed itself to him. The variables affecting the trajectory his next bullet would take began to fit together like a beautiful mosaic. Polka no longer whispered directly into his mind. Their thoughts were the same thoughts.

Tap and the Guard had a clean shot. And Xin had a cleaner shot than ever. He knew that there was a tiny structural weakness in the cockpit, at the point where it curved the most. It would have been ridiculous to try hitting that point–until now. He felt the target, with a cold detachment, and watched with equal calm as the bullet penetrated the cockpit and continued through the core of Tap’s drone inside before ricocheting madly around the inside of the Guard’s chassis. The mech ground to a halt, fizzling.

Xin stood. Pain, and questions, flooded his mind as Polka detached from the analogue Fusion. He looked down at his hands, now a strange mottled white, and his skin had taken on a distinctly papery consistency. Fusion had taken its toll, but that was a problem for later. Xin looked away, just about managed to stay standing, and set off to find the cause of the smell that had forced some protocol to turn Tap against him. This time, he penetrated the dense thicket and found a camouflaged container. Polka hacked through the locks. Inside was a Guard, unmarked. Had the Wardens hidden it here? Or smugglers? Or worse, were they working together? What the fuck Xin thought. There are no controls, barely even a cockpit.

“I can open it.” Polka piped up. “And together we can pilot it. I have logically concluded that aiding you in this endeavour would stay true to the greater Warden imperative, over my direct orders/programming.”

“I’m touched by your loyalty Polka” Xin growled. “And by the way: I meant the right eye was my favourite.”