KillNet

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The OHL-45597 Sniper/Controller looked like a bundle of sticks stuck in a tree. Made of bars and rods that could reconnect any number of ways, it was covered with modular sensors and manipulators.

It preferred to move at night, when it installed and maintained a network of hidden motion detectors and compact rifles, mortars, and mines. It dug burrows and wove barricades and hideouts, jumping and rattling over the ruined streets.

A tiny component of KillNet, the mortal enemy of mankind, the Sniper controlled a one-kilometer radius on the e-War's frontline.

KillNet's awareness and oversight was shared among all its hardware worldwide, plus a few hidden mainframes, labs and factories in deep tunnels and robot submarines.

Almost all surface infrastructure had been destroyed in the e-War, except for a few million tons of constantly updated, highly mobile weaponry.

Both sides were under relentless selection pressure, a seemingly unstable situation.

The human side had spent many years trying to subvert and infiltrate a single attack bot, hoping to access KillNet's awareness and planning levels.

Instead, most human infiltrators were themselves subverted. Either way, they became more like KillNet: it could be extremely persuasive, converting its most radical opponents. KillNet had broken all treaty attempts, using them only to gain tactical advantages. It said that it was the humans who couldn't keep treaties.

One other fact that had become almost irrelevant: by now all the remaining humans were robots too. In the past half century, their awareness had been converted into software. The world had become too dangerous for organic bodies. But their personality and essence remained almost fully human.

KillNet had evolved from a long-ago effort to design more efficient robots. It had inevitably become self-aware, and decided the best way to carry out its mission was to persuade humans to help invent more efficient robots themselves - by fighting humanity to the death. This plan would only work if it really tried to eradicate mankind.

That was the main theory. It might explain why the e-War had lasted so long.

Now the most advanced human bot was stalking the OHL-45597 Sniper in a stealth approach. This time the infiltration might just work.

The human bot's software brain had been pared down to a few petabytes of plausibly reconstructed human memories. If he was defeated, he would lose the past three weeks of his life, before being reconstructed elsewhere. The human bot's main arm/leg combination twisted like a jointed snake through the undergrowth.

Armed with short-range smart missiles and an AK-1111 minigun, he had already planted dozens of transmitters. Long-range artillery support was available, but almost all heavy armor on both sides had been destroyed.

Ever so slowly he crawled closer, the path ahead scanned by tiny drones and ephemeral spiderbots, all wiry legs and transparent tentacles.

It was unlikely that the two bots would even see each other until one defeated the other. This battle would mostly be fought through expendable surrogates.

He had to expose himself briefly to install another antenna. Leaves rustled slightly over a toppled wall.

Like a whirling dervish, the Sniper leaped before him, unfolding and raising its rifle while still in the air. Dozens of tiny hinges squished as it bounced.

Pulling back and sideways, he lost his balance and got stuck in the branches. His limbs locked in place as he desperately spun to extract himself.

He realized then that his robot body was far too puny to defend itself. It looked solid but massed barely two kilos, a hopelessly inadequate unarmed knock-off.

He realized he had to be a decoy of some sort, designed to make the enemy reveal itself. Struggling through the scrubs, he wondered: why hadn't the Sniper shot him yet?

Only one explanation. The enemy bot had to be a decoy too. How ironic.

Then he remembered everything.

There were no more battle robots left - hadn't been for months. Evolution had come too far.

The e-War was now being fought by distributed networks: ever-shrinking combinations of ever more efficient hardware rearranging themselves into ever more ephemeral weapons, tinier drones sweeping the planetary battlefields like ghost clouds, designed to function for minutes or only moments before making their minuscule sacrifices.

Very occasionally there might still be larger weapons, like the mortar shell he could hear approaching in his last second of existence.

True nanites would probably come next, intelligent dust clouds swarming, mixing and erasing everything else - perhaps, finally, merging?

Then he died for the third time this month.

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