There's no respite from the heat up here, on this dour little brick tossed into the endless halogen sea. The sun, which you're careful to keep your back to, is a burning iron bar across the back of your neck. You're beginning to get tired.
"What level are we up to?"
The robot nods. "Edge weapon combat mode is currently operating at 38 percent of optimal performance," it deadpans, in that beautifully modulated, perfectly empty voice.
It has no real capacity for language, just a voice-user interface with a decent operating vocabulary, and a handful of ancient pop culture references that it seeds with varying degrees of aptness into your interactions. You saved the real juice for the battle AI, of which you are justly proud. You have spent the better part of three years building it, iteration upon iteration, each minutely more advanced than the last. It was a long slog, compiling all those hours of military footage, translating stacks of fifteenth-century Fechtbücher into Python. But worth it, in the end.
Now it's building you.
"Raise the level," you say. "Quarter of a percent."
"Edge weapon combat mode now operating at 38.25 percent of optimal performance," it says. "Are you ready, Dirk?"
"Ready," you say.
Operating at its top setting, the robot can slice through a fly with a lunge and catch the pieces before they hit the ground. It's not as good as a killdrone; as far as you can gather, those have some sort of outrageously inscrutable quantum xenotech that outpaces even the fastest hardware at your disposal. But it is so much better than you.
Evidence suggests you have hit your limit. For months, you've been stalled out at just over a third of the battle AI's capacity, unable to make any progress against the machine.
You advance with a lateral strike to the head, intending to draw its focus off-center, then move to a lower line of attack. The robot ignores your feint, stepping back out of your reach with infuriating smoothness.
At the periphery of your vision, a red cursor spits text.
TT: You're overthinking.
TT: Try a more direct attack. See what he does.
You do. There's the parry; solid, immediate, just enough to displace your blade and no more. You back away from the riposte, muttering to the autoresponder.
TT: It can tell when I'm bluffing.
TT: A fucking Speak & Spell could tell when you're bluffing. You're telegraphing all over the place.
TT: You need to commit more fully to your exploratory actions.
TT: And ease up on your grip, it's not a baseball bat.
He's never more aggravating than when he's right. You ease up. Offense is in the fingers; defense is in the wrists. You try again in a low line, miss by a millimeter, and barely dodge having your forehead bisected by the robot's counterattack. Again, you attack, aiming for its right shoulder, where a few fine hatchmarks glint in the sun, trophies of other battles. The robot's wise to that move now; it won't work again. You lunge and thrust, hoping to make the most of every inch of your reach, but it dances away.
Again, you move in for an overhand cut to the head. Again, you feint, attack, parry, counter. Again.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you begin to fail. It's a fraction of a second faster than you. That's all it takes.
TT: You've feinted high and attacked low three times out of the last five.
TT: Mix it up.
TT: Watch your stance, too. Keep your wrists up in the high-line parry. I assume you want to keep your fingers.
TT: Okay. Yes.
You flex your left hand around the hilt of your katana. Still a little stiff. You still have a 64G flash drive full of surgical instruction video lying around somewhere. And you have to admit, Sawtooth did a beautiful job. But you lost a good six months of training. It's not an attractive prospect.
Being tired has a way of making you more aggressive. You've spent the interest; all you've got left is principal. You fix your stance, and lash out in a direct attack.
Fuck. You're overbalanced on your front foot, you've misjudged the distance. As your blade descends on nothing, the robot cuts at your forearms with a smooth, unhurried strike. Adrenaline blasts through you, and instead of retreating, you stumble forward, hoping for an opening. It's a blind move, but it works; you wind up taking a harmless thwack to the arm from the slower-moving hilt end of the blade, rather than losing a hand to the swift-moving tip.
But you're in too close now, tangled up in your opponent's personal space, and your desperate forward lunge has only made your balance more unstable. You reel away from the robot, trying to get back into position. And then, the unthinkable happens: You trip over a divot in the roof, and fall backwards.
It's a bad fall, because your right arm is out in front of you, still holding the sword. You manage to keep your guard up. The roof won't kill you. The robot might.
TT: Game over.
TT: I don't think so.
TT: Take the opportunity. You need to learn to recover from this.
It looms over you. Something whirs inside the carapace and it lets out a lossy digital croak, a shitty third-generation sound clip that chatters out of its exquisite speakers like a wind-up toy in a tin bucket.
"I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane," it gargles.
There was a time when you actually thought that was funny. And after that, for awhile, the idea that you had once thought it was funny was itself funny. Now it's just there to goad you into getting up. Get up. Get up. Get the fuck up.
You get up.
It seems an appropriate moment for a Hail Mary pass, and so you shift into a low waki-gamae stance, opening your left side to attack. Hilt out, the point of your blade trailing behind you, you prepare to flash out in a strong upward strike.
The robot takes the proffered bait, moving in for a cut to your undefended left flank. Time dilates around the whistle of the blade, descending on you in slow motion. You wait for your moment. Now.
The stance conceals your intentions. Your face, not so much. When you spin away from the blow and cut upward at its wrist, its blade is already there to meet yours. It catches the midsection of your blade with its own strongest part, near the hilt, and parries it easily, following it up with a snakelike thrust that would have slid between your third and fourth rib if you were there to catch it. You retreat fast, parrying a little too wide, and instead of skewering you like a kebab, the point of the robot's blade runs a narrow red furrow up your right arm.
Step back; recalculate. You're losing fluid too fast now, sweat stinging your eyes and pooling in the hollow of your collarbone. Your elbow hurts where you ground it into the concrete in your fall. The cut on your right arm aches, and it's making you angry -- calm down, Dirk, focus. If you're angry, it's over.
Pain you can handle. It's not the pain that's worrying you. It's the black, shaky hollowness at the core of you, spreading outward like a blight, sucking air from your lungs and draining strength from your limbs. All told, you have been fighting for just over four minutes, and you are rapidly running through what's left of your limited resources.
Time to up the stakes. Careful study isn't cutting it. Let's see what a shot of pure terror can do.
"Raise the level," you say. "Max it out. Hundred percent."
TT: Have you lost your mind?
TT: Do it.
TT: Are you quite sure?
TT: It seems there's a stupendously hairy probability that your current line of reasoning is going to get you chopped up into teeny-weeny Dirk sashimi.
TT: Format drive [DiStri] (Slice * some way optimized number of shitty little meat fragments)
TT: Can you please drop the schtick?
TT: It's tired. I'm tired.
TT: Obviously you are. And you have no business with this level.
TT: Above 90, he won't respond to commands. You're on your own.
TT: Just do it.
TT: Come on.
TT: The fuck are you waiting for.
TT: You're a moron.
TT: And whatever you get, you're going to deserve it.
The robot shifts into an aggressive fighting stance and settles there, left foot forward, blade up, edge canted toward you so fine and straight you can barely see it. Behind the glassy red shades, the bright points of its eyes flare into dull orbs.
"Edge weapon combat mode currently operating at 100 percent of optimal performance," it says, and this time it's your voice. The sound of it sets your gut churning with disgust.
"Bring it on," you say, teeth gritted. It's not even half out of your mouth before you realize what a played-out parody of a B-movie cliche you are at the moment. This town ain't big enough for the both of us. How embarrassing. But there's no time for that now.
You flashstep hard right, a perfect glissade that pivots your body around the fulcrum of your opponent. Your blade carves a smooth sweet arc toward a pitiless asymptote. No thought. Only action.
Except where there was supposed to be metal, there's only air, and vice versa. Instead of deflecting or avoiding your strike, it steps deftly inside your guard, and your total commitment to the action fetches you up against its titanium shell so hard the collision makes your head ring. Your blade cuts at nothing; your pommel skitters harmlessly down its chest. Still, you don't drop the sword until it backs you up against a rusted steel pylon, its fingers twisting your elbow into a painfully unnatural position.
Grappling isn't your strong suit. You'd rather fight at distance. But you give it a go -- or at least your body does. It's stopped taking orders from you. You scrabble at its smooth chest with your one free arm, gaining no purchase, as it mashes you against the pylon. Just as well, you think, when you feel the unmistakably final bite of the robot's katana against your throat; it was bound to end this way.
With bruised fingers, you claw the glasses from your face. You tilt your head back and open your eyes wide. The sky breaks over you, flooding you with light.
"Do it," you say, and the taste of it in your throat is bitter, but you are ready, you have never been more ready.
You're going to keep your eyes open all the way down, til whatever's left of you hits the water. Perhaps it's true that you stay conscious for a few seconds, after the spinal cord is severed. You've always wondered about that.
The robot shifts its center of gravity, lets go of your battered elbow and steps back. You try not to flinch as it lifts the katana. But it doesn't swing; shhhhhoook goes the blade back into its sheath, and the robot plants itself with implacable dignity into a wide horse stance.
You're so busy getting ready to die, it takes you a moment to realize it's doing the Gangnam Style dance.
TT: Ruined your special moment there, didn't he.
TT: I rue the day I programmed it to do that.
TT: It's a surprisingly complicated piece of code.
TT: You know, it is.
TT: In all seriousness though.
TT: Go back downstairs and lie the fuck down, Dirk, you're making bad decisions.
TT: For once, I'm inclined to agree with you.
>> start brototype.prg
>> channel 189.938.451.9000
>> brolog.239840 INITIATED
TT: He's making a lot of progress.
TT: Don't tell him that. You'll set him back weeks.
TT: Robot please.
TT: I have massive servers devoted to maintaining the exquisitely tuned balance between reward and frustration, calibrated to foster the optimal capacity for learning in the smug wob of sentient jelly known as Dirk Strider.
TT: I'll do my job, you do yours.
TT: I intend to.
TT: What level is he actually at?
TT: 65 or so, I'd say.
TT: How distressingly imprecise.
TT: What's the variance on that number?
TT: The metrics are increasingly irrelevant.
TT: As a result of the recent modifications we've made to the battle AI, the system's maximum potential is a moving target.
TT: As are you. Nice work on that last engagement, bro.
TT: Next time, give him another souvenir. That's been working well lately.
TT: Next time I'm cutting his motherfucking head off.
TT: And waste all our hard work?
TT: Into the sea with it.
TT: Women shall wail.
TT: Garments shall be rent.
>> DELETE brolog.239840? (Y/N)
>> ARE YOU SURE? THIS ACTION CANNOT BE UNDONE.
>> brolog.239840 DELETED