The hike proved to be moderately difficult in the summer heat. Keeping pace with a nine foot android devoid of the capacity to feel pain was even more challenging. My strides were considerably shorter than his, and my tolerance for stray branches slapping at my face considerably lower. He kept a brisk pace and a watchful eye. As far as I could tell Adom only spoke when spoken to. The slight whirring and hissing of his innards were his theme song. He seemed unbothered by my presence, but continually mindful of my safety.
"How many times have you hiked this trail?" I asked.
"Eighty-two times friend." Adom replied. "May I call you friend? Is this okay?"
"Sure." I responded with a chuckle. An awkward pause inserted itself into the conversation while I mused what questions to ask a seemingly, self-aware android. "Why are you so set on being in military use?"
"Purpose." Adom declared, "I do not feel a sense of purpose, but I do understand I was made with a purpose. I am a mission-oriented being. I must accomplish the given goal. I must please my superior. I must do things correctly."
"Have you ever failed a mission?" I curiously queried.
"I have failed ever mission thus far." Adom stated. He paused his movements and looked emotionlessly into the distance. I doubted he had any capacity for emotion. The ability to reason falls short of the ability to feel. On occasion he would feign emotions in order to communicate more effectively, but in this case he simply stared aimlessly.
"Remind me, what is your mission right now?" I asked.
"I have been tasked as your protector."
"And you've failed every mission you've gone on?" A worried look began to invade my face.
"This is correct." Adom turned towards me as he spoke. "Does this concern you friend?"
"Uh," I stammered, "how many of these missions have you gone on?"
"What?" I spewed back at him. "C'mon we're friends. Classified? Really?" His posture softened as he sank down to my level. On one knee in front of me, looking at me the same way a father looks at a child, he was increasingly less intimidating. He craned his head forward waiting for my response.
"You learned this posture from someone didn't you?" I murmured.
"This is correct." Adom quietly replied. "It is a human posture often correlating with the calming of a small child or frightened animal. Does it calm you?"
"For a minute you had me." I admitted with a wink, "How many of these missions have you been on?"
"How many people have you worked with?" I desperately pried.
"Classified." Adom briskly rose to his feet and scanned our surroundings. His watchful eye gave me comfort, but his track record did not. "Please, let us continue our hike." Suddenly, we were moving swiftly through the trees again as if nothing had happened.
"How long have you been active Adom?" I asked.
"I have been active for a period of 1,512 days." Adom replied. "How long have you been active friend?"
"I'm twenty-eight years old. I was born and raised in farm country. Growing up, there were more cows on my street than people." I reminisced with a snicker. I wondered if he had the ability to look back fondly on a memory. As I climbed through a difficult patch in the trail I considered what I was to him. At the end of the day would I be nothing more than a meaningless piece of data? Maybe there was more to it than that.
"My database shows that cows are large herbivores who remain in use for their efficient milk and meat production." Adom droned on. "Is this correct friend?"
"We liked to name them too." I replied. "They ended up being part of the family."
"Something of a different species could be included in your familial unit?" Adom asked with a hint of puzzlement.
"Of course." I explained. "A dog, a cat, or a cow could all be part of the family. I mean, we didn't treat them like humans, but we loved them nonetheless. Granted, we did eat them sometimes too."
"May I be included in your family?" Adom suddenly asked. The question caught me off guard. It was more complex than I expected from him.
"Why?" I simply retorted.
"I am not capable of producing such feelings as love," Adom mechanically explained, "but I am not opposed to receiving such human sentiments. If you do not wish for me to be part of your family that is acceptable as well. I am not offended nor do I have the ability to be."
"Let me think on it." I chuckled. More thin strands of light came piercing through the trees overhead. As the jungle thinned Adom slowed our pace to a cautious crawl. I tried to slip past my sluggish protector but he refused to allow me to continue.
"Please follow my directions closely friend." Adom commanded. "We have entered an area favorable for the southern predators."
"What kind of predators live on this island?" I asked for the second time.
I stopped in the path with a disgruntled look on my face. I couldn't tell what was worse; being disappointed at the fierceness of what we might encounter or being surprised by it. We had easily hiked six miles from the clearing, which put us roughly seven miles from the base. I'd hate to be trapped in this jungle that far from safety with a robot known to fail.
"What kind of predators live on this island?" I demanded. Adom was incapable of being offended, and I intended to test that claim.
"Classified." He robotically replied.
"You're going to tell me what we are in for, or I am not moving from this place."
"Friend," Adom quietly answered. "I implore you to allow me to do my job. I must take you to the end of the trail, but I am unable to share classified information with you." He reached his arm out pleadingly. "I do not comprehend your frustration though I do recognize its origins."
"I just want a little information Adom." I explained with an indignant sweep of my hands.
"You once were in the military friend." Adom argued as he raised to his full height again. "Would you ever disobey direct orders for a friend?"
"Well, yes." I softly replied.
"This is your humanity showing." Adom explained. "Humanity is weakness. Please, let us continue carefully."
"Fine." I stepped into line behind my companion and drew my P25-Adder. If the situation got tense it wouldn't help much, but it'd sting.
"When did you choose to enter military use friend?" Adom asked with an utter disregard for my irritation.
"I was young and ready to go do something worth doing." I explained in a hushed tone. "I was fifteen when the war broke out and was infatuated with the idea of bleeding red, white, and blue. I don't regret it, but it turns out I only bleed red."
"I don't bleed at all." Adom simply replied. "I sense that you do not look back on these years with joy. Why is this?"
A sudden flurry of reasons flooded my mind. As quickly as they appeared they were followed by questions. That wasn't a question I had asked myself in a long time.
"Let me think about that." I responded with a quizzical look. I snapped from my fog and forced the horde of questions back into the dustiest corner of my memory. Sometimes things are stuffed in the attic of our psyche on purpose. I tried to get him off the topic quickly. "When I was in the military we liked to use slang terms to describe guns, tanks, and planes. It always made them more threatening. Have they given you a threatening nickname?"
"Yes they have." Adom responded.
"What is it?" I expectantly asked.
"Oh," I looked up at him as he slowly waded through the foliage. "How's that threatening?"
"It is not threatening." Adom answered. "It is a joke. Ha. Jokes are pleasurable to humans."
"Yeah but you have to know how to tell them." I explained with a grin. "You'd probably be better with dry humor. Maybe I'll teach you some day."
"This would be desirable." Adom replied.
A few feet in front of me he knelt on the ground. I hadn't noticed how much the jungle had thinned since we began talking. For a brief stretch the trees had relinquished control to large, sandy-colored rocks. Adom carefully observed his surroundings. If he saw something worrisome I couldn't tell. Slowly, he looked back at me and held out his hand. In his massive palm was a small metal piece no larger than a pea. A small rubber ring began on one end and circled around towards the bottom.
"This is called a Whisper. It is a small earpiece synced with my voice system." Adom clarified. "We do not have a preset set of signals we can use to communicate. I will use this to give you instruction when necessary without making noticeable noise."
"Why do I need this?" I queried as I reluctantly took the gadget.
"The southern predators have keen senses of smell and hearing." Adom reached behind his back and secured one of his photon rifles. "Through dependence on these two senses their eyesight has become dull which makes them ideal night hunters."
"But it's not night." I protested.
"I did not say they were picky." Adom swiftly responded.
"Adom," I quietly replied, "You are really starting to make me jumpy."
"Please," Adom continued with a disregard for my discomfort, "while we cross this clearing, stay close and stay quiet."
As quickly as we had approached the rocky outcroppings we were moving through them. Protecting yourself against an enemy you know nothing about in a place you've never been is a losing proposition. My head was swiftly swiveling about searching for the unknown foe. For a moment, helplessness gripped me as we wove through the rocky maze. In the back of my mind a scenario constantly replayed. We were in the midst of test one. Who paid the heaviest price if Adom failed another mission? The answer was simple; I did.
"You said you couldn't share information with me." I said in a hushed tone. "So why'd you tell me about these predators' senses. I thought it was classified."
"Information is only allowed to be given incrementally in necessary situations." Adom explained through my earpiece. With all the finesse of a professional ballerina, he stepped out into the open. "If we run into anything I will give you all the information you desire. For now, it is unnecessary."
"That doesn't make much sense," I argued as I attempted to weave around him.
In one nimble sweep, Adom pivoted towards me and gingerly pinned me to the nearest rock. His massive, metal hand remained fastened on my chest while his telescopic eye remained fastened on something else. My heart raced as the world seemed to become muted. Every sound was an outright threat. Every rustle was an impending attack. Every thought was gripping paranoia.
I could see small details through a space between the boulder and my companion. Nothing caught my eye though everything seemed to catch my imagination. I had to compose myself. I could feel my heart racing. Adrenaline was beginning to kick in. I felt suspended in a nightmare. It was the kind of nightmare where the danger is only supposed. It's a nightmare where you fall helplessly but never hit the ground because the ground doesn't really exist.
"Friend." Adom whispered. "My sensors indicate your blood pressure and heart rate have spiked. Please, do not fear." His head turned slightly in my direction. "We will go around the long way."
"What's out there?" I breathed.
"A predator." Adom inadequately explained. "Follow me closely. Let us maneuver west."
Adom fluidly slipped behind the next outcropping to our left. For him, the distance was between two or three steps. For me, it was a more harrowing distance. I willed myself to the next rock. I didn't see anything. Adom gracefully moved to our next position. In order to remain unseen, he contorted his body unnaturally while he beckoned me onward. I faithlessly followed.
"You are doing well." Adom said reassuringly. "We must move sixty yards further to be out of danger. The rocks are insufficient cover for me. We must crawl."
My eyes darted past his shadow to survey the situation. None of the rocks would hide Adom and only a few were adequate to hide me. The pale grass was thin but nearly as high as my stomach. I couldn't conceive any other peaceful options.
"We'll crawl." I agreed through heavy breaths. I followed Adom's lead as he nearly slithered onto the ground. As I got into position my eyes caught a glimpse of movement. I paused with my head slightly past the barrier. Finally, I saw it.
Perched regally on the rock was a massive charcoal colored quadruped. Its body was similar to the body of a muscular feline. The angle made it hard to tell, but I estimated it to be at least four feet tall at the shoulder. A scarce coat of fur covered its entire body. Beginning behind its flared, elfish ears was a large, black, tuft-like mane that tapered into nothing at its hindquarters. Its long, whip-like tail was like a charmed snake winding through the air. At the end of it was a wispy tuft of black fur dancing in the wind.
"That's our guy?" I whispered.
"Shrieking Panther." Adom quietly replied. "You must move friend, now."
"I-I can't." I argued through clenched teeth. "I-I think it sees me."
Its feline face was fixed in my direction. Hidden beneath its menacing snout must've been an impressive array of teeth. Its paws, curled slightly over the edge of the rock and displaying remarkable claws, were larger than usual. Everything on this monstrosity was bigger than any predator I had seen. I tried not to wince as it flicked its head to the side. Adom said they had poor sight. I remained still. I remained silent. I intended to remain alive.
"I'm going to shoot it Adom." I determined.
"No." Adom commanded. "Do not shoot. I repeat, do not shoot."
"I-I've got to shoot the blasted thing." I replied through stiff lips. "Are you going to help me or not?"
"I will not help." Adom retorted. "Do not shoot, friend."
The massive cat crouched at the edge of the boulder causing my entire spine to tingle. It was teasing my mind with its posture. My body was protesting our proximity to the panther. I could feel the question burning in my muscles: fight or flight? Slowly, the feline began to sway its body. I couldn't tell if he was preparing to pounce or simply dismount from the rock. If he had any speed at all, he'd be able to close on my position in only a few moments.
"Friend," Adom pleaded through my earpiece, "move now or we will be in greater danger than before."
I ignored him. I ignored everything around me. My focus was swallowed wholly by the empty gaze of the monster before me. The entire situation was hypnotic. Moments ago I couldn't have told anyone a single predator that lived on this island. Now, I wouldn't try. No one would believe me.
Suddenly, an ear-splitting scream mingled with a deafening roar came burst from the panther's wide throat. The sound was unique, like nothing I had ever heard. It was as if someone had mixed an ancient war cry with a lion's bellowing roar. As the panther sat itself on the rock it masterfully distorted its cry. The sounds were deafening yet distinct.
"What's it doing?" I nervously questioned.
"He's giving commands." Adom explained as he slowly gathered his second photon rifle.
"What does that mean?" I asked as Adom shot a look at me through his cover in the grass.
"That means we run."