Doodlebug Jitters

Summary: A group of refugees fleeing across the Nigerian border from unknown pursuers. Cyborg commandos investigate, only stumble upon inhuman, terrifying foes.

We came in loud and low, screaming like rabid demons. The helicopters we rode were old American ones, retrofitted beyond recognition by decades of improvised parts. We were equipped with bullpup Kalashnikov rifles able to fire both the classic and caseless versions of the 7.62mm round, thanks to a hybrid electrothermal-mechanical firing system. Like our equipment, our bodies were similarly augmented to the point where the human body was the barest suggestion.

We moved like a flight of obsidian angels, with skin of geometric and angular fullerenes. We leapt from those choppers with weapons ready, our four arms carrying at least two weapons. We looked like polygonal sculptures plucked directly from some ancient videogame, only comprised of meta-materials with the infernal gloss of a black mirror. I was a member of a section of cyborg troops, as part of the Yoruba Amazons security firm. Our co-operative was named for the vaguely feminine appearance of our bodies' contours, combined with the dialect of our primary investors and a homage to the ancient warrior women of neighboring Benin.

We were contracted to the Nigerian Provisional Assembly, the largest economy left standing the South Atlantic after the Brazilian Civil War and Safrican Partition. We'd been deployed to intercept a group of Saharan refugees making for our northern border. Drone imagery showed several of them were armed, and their ranks thinned from two hundred to two dozen over a day. With unknown persecutors in pursuit, we needed to know whom, or what, pursued them.

We landed on a sun-blasted savannah two klicks from their last reported location. We put in a request for the local constabulary and security forces to assist us, but they were still mobilizing for deployment to a forsaken border outpost. We've had refugees entering from the north before, but their killers stopped when our borders started. Whatever party was so brazen to attack refugees on our borders had provoked the emergent power in West Africa.

As squad leader of the alpha team, I directed a gun-mule, a grenadier drone, and recon bot to navigate to the top of a nearby knoll. With the headquarters element and beta team behind me, I set up smart dust decoy and signal beacons to cover our advance. Given the alacrity with which they'd crossed the border, I half-expected those refugees to come sprinting over the horizon. The lack of human activity was merely a prelude to the eeriness of that place.

Having been deployed on the savannah innumerable times, I remembered how the atmosphere was pregnant with life. Even with a climate ten degrees hotter than the prior century, there would be the unceasing calls of birds and insects. There would be genetically engineered grass-stalks gone feral, billowing in the wind like green curtains. There would be leopards, gazelles, and others we'd cloned back to life as part of our de-extinction initiatives. Instead, there was an abject silence, an aural desert mirroring the devastation that Malley found.

Malley, an Irish peacekeeper that joined us shortly after our founding, was the section leader of scout unit that screened my own advance. Based on feedback from his own support drone element, he directed me towards a trail of desolation that started far to the north and continued south. It was a cluster of scoured grassy patches, cleared as though by some unseen conflagration. A broken rifle and traces of explosives near the closest ones were enough to convince Commander Osei to redirect us towards it. As leader of alpha team, I'd be the first one there. Lucky me.

I came to a clear patch of ground that still smelt of ash and charnel stench. While I could not see any signs of an enemy, it was clear something unpleasant happened here. I saw a rifle, some ancient bolt-action relic, snapped in half like a twig on the ground. I saw crushed shell casings, as though trampled underfoot in some mad fracas. I saw shrapnel on the ground, near where traces of explosive denoted grenade detonations. While the ground was dry and burnt, I had no doubt something bloody transpired there recently. Similar patches appeared whenever the armed refugees' numbers declined.

I almost called the area secure when some windborne dust blew in. Formerly fertile topsoil blew like an ochre ribbon in a desert simoom, where it landed on something round. The object was easily missed during my initial pass, as it was using thermoptic camo at least a generation beyond my drones' sensor design. As the dust settled, I nevertheless recognized its distinctive silhouette.

It resembled a beetle's carapace with a little imagination, with a single "head" pointing towards us. I was fortunate enough to recognize it when I saw it, but my gunner drone was less than fortunate. It skittered towards us, and with no further need to conceal it, I saw it in its full, terrifying glory. It was a pitch-black mechanical abomination that looked like a teratoid insect of nightmare. It bristled with the firepower of a main battle tank, the mind of a predatory cat, and the wrath of a demon. Trusting the Commander's orders, we engaged it.

I recalled the so-called Doodlebugs were designed as recon bots able to operate in the field for protracted periods. It was originally designed to eat grasses, wood, plastics, and the like as fuel by means of a blender-like mouth and microbial fuel cells. Later models were able to recycle scrap metal and electronics for spare parts and ammo, as well. The reason sane organizations ceased utilizing them was their knack for independently discovering the caloric content of corpses. With their armaments easily able to produce cadavers, they'd easily slip the flimsy safeguards the original designers put on them. In short, a perfect weapon for ethnic cleansing and genocide, even after a war officially ended.

The gastrobotic juggernaut opened up on us with an autocannon that thundered like divine wrath. It shrugged off fire from the section's machinegun and two automatic rifles, as though our rounds were no more than spitefully thrown pebbles. We emptied our grenades and threw rounds from the heavy weapon team's electrothermal gun, but none was able to breach its armor. It honed in on me with a surprising celerity, cutting through my white noise and camo with decryption algorithms generations past my own. Narrowly avoiding being eviscerated by a chainsaw-pincer appendage, I wisely decided to shift my position.

We fell back using bounding overwatch, with the remnants of my own fireteam meeting up with the HQ element and beta team for each movement. We poured what was left of our ammunition at it, trying to buy time until air support arrived. When it seemed we were starting to put some distance between ourselves, the second Doodlebug decloaked behind us. I heard Agu shout from the beta team, as the wretched thing closed in on him. I wondered how the refugees endured against such foes for so long. While we undoubtedly had more firepower, they had numbers. But in the end, we could both be digested within those evil machines.

When I heard the pounding of helicopter blades and felt the wash of rotors, I thought the cavalry arrived. A salvo of rockets from the second Doodlebug brought down the first chopper, but not before it launched its own payload. An anti-tank missile blasted it to bits, sending its flaming detritus across the grassland. The first Doodlebug scuttled around to a more advantageous position, only to succumb to the secondary chopper. I still remember the hissing of that rocket cavalcade, before they sent the Doodlebug to robot hell. It was a glorious moment.

By the time the security forces arrived, we'd gathered up what little remained of the Doodlebugs. They'd arrived in the form we expected they would, a motley mix of uniformed police, older generation military cyborgs, and irregular deputies armed with homemade weapons. It was fortunate we'd encountered the Doodlebugs when we did, as otherwise, they'd have been massacred by the ravenous robots. The only real losses on our end were some easily replaced war bots. Sadly, we found no trace of any surviving refugees.

Commander Osei flew what remained of the damn things to New Lagos, the 3D printed metropolis that arose as a model of urban redesign to the world. We tracked the serial number on one to a shipment to a Saharan warlord, who likely dispatched it after an ethnic group he detested. The second one, peculiarly enough, had no serial number. Instead, was a nearly perfect copy of the first, likely assembled using its ability to fabricate spare parts. Once the first had enough parts produced within it, it would assemble them. It was the first case we encountered of a von Neumann gastrobot, but it would not be the last.