Robogenesis, Daniel Wilson's much-anticipated sequel to Robopocalypse, hit stores yesterday, and it's even more intense and mind-blowing than the first novel. We've got an excerpt.
If you recall, Robopocalypse was a hair-raisingly realistic tale of a robot uprising, written by former roboticist Wilson in a journalistic style reminiscent of World War Z. All the players in the action are telling their stories in the wake of their Pyrrhic victory against the brilliant AI that orchestrates the whole rebellion — sort of for humanity's own good.
Robogenesis picks up where the first novel left off. A new robotic menace has emerged in the post-war landscape, and it's even weirder (but also plausible) than the ones we met in the previous novel.
Something metal clinks in the trees behind me and now my gut is speaking to me real clear. Hustle up, fat boy, is what it's saying. You got to daydreaming here in the woods and forgot that there's murder among these trees.
I spin around, rifle butt French-kissing the meaty part of my shoulder. My eye is off the scope while I search for whatever made that noise. That's why I'm able to catch the flash of movement in my peripheral vision.
It's a light quadruped. Wolf-sized and damaged. I hear the clink again now that it's moving fast. It's had a bullet put through it at some point. Must have learned something from the experience, because it keeps running off into the trees. I just about get a bead on it before it's gone.
My Cotton patrols don't use the radio, for obvious reasons. And I can't risk calling out in case I attract more attention. It's important I stay hidden. Some of these leftover quads have serrated forelimbs, like steak knives. They'll tear through your chest armor in the first lunge and a second later they've got bladed rear feet up and scrabbling to disembowel you. One quad might be a nice dance, but two or more is a party you should regretfully decline.
I stalk a few feet into the trees. Place each boot step careful and fast, my eyes open so wide they feel tight in the chilly air. The walker moves, leaving plain tracks, scraping like a drunk against an occasional tree trunk. It might be a wandering mapper-variety or it might have been part of a hunting pack. I don't know. But if it's really wounded, then I've got a singular chance to put it down before more can come join it.
If it's got friends, then I'm most likely a dead man walking.
For the next ten minutes, it's just me and my breath and the frostbit rifle stock pressed against my numb cheek. God forgive me but I didn't think this one all the way through. It seemed broken and slow but the walker must have accelerated. The trail is gone and this is an ambush, no doubt about it. I knew better than to hunt Rob. We all of us who fought the machines know better.
You don't hunt Rob; he hunts you.
I'm reaching for the radio to get some help and damn the consequences when I realize that maybe, just maybe, I'm not the dumbest son of a bitch on the planet. Maybe I'm the smartest. Or at least the luckiest, anyway.
The thinking cube is wedged in half-melted snow at the base of a tree about ten yards away. Winking at me in cotton-candy colors that stand out in the dark woods. It's the size of a child's block, and as I get closer I can see that them keen colors are sort of floating away from the surface a few inches. The thing itself is pupil black, darker than coal.
It's a brain box that must have dropped out of a big thinker. And it's still functioning. Even if it's broken out here in the snow, I can't believe my luck. We found a handful of these over the course of the whole war. A white boy soldier named Cormac Wallace even found one with a whole Rob war diary in it.
I back-sling my rifle and drop right to my knees in the slush, snatching up the cube in both hands. The hardware twinkles at me like a handful of rubies and diamonds. But this is worth more than gemstones. Maybe a lot more.
The woods are even darker now and the pretty colors of this thing are flashing in my eyelashes like Christmas morning. The light it makes is hot against my cheeks. It's warming up my fingers through my gloves like a loaf of bread hot out of the oven. Up close, I can tell it's making real quiet noises. A flow of static like the breath of wind over a creek bed full of dry leaves.
Sssh, says the cube. Well, I'm listening.
I can't quite remember how it got this cold this fast. Feels like maybe the world is taking two breaths to my one. Like things are jumping for- ward every time I blink my eyes.
Now the strange light is getting downright hot on my skin and my cheeks are feeling baked. All the snow has melted out of my whiskers and water is seeping down over my little double chin and dripping off. Or, hell, is that my own slobber? Either way, I don't wipe it off. The flashes and swirls of color are growing up big and shrinking down small now. For some reason it strikes me as funny. I grin through my wet beard at the little dancing streaks.
The word sneaks up through my brain like water through granite and I mouth the words without making a sound. A chill courses down between my shoulder blades and it hits me that I'm a man down on his knees and all alone in the black woods with a bauble in his fingers. It keeps on touching me with its light. Putting whispers into the air. The whooshing voice of the deep black ocean in a seashell, and I swear it's saying something:
I promise, I promise, I promise.
I always thought the spooklight was just a story. But now I know it's real and it's right here in my hands.
My mama saw the spooklight out on the Oklahoma East 50 High- way. She was dating a boy from down there—the little border town of Hornet, Missouri. Legend in Hornet was that the spooklight showed up after the Trail of Tears come through. Thousands of men, women, and children near the end of a forced march. Only the strong still alive. Little babies dying on their mama's teat. Most of the sacred elders gone off alone in the night to pass on. For a thousand miles, day and night, it was the white man's rifle or another step forward and both as deadly as the other.
You do have to admire the Cherokee for surviving it.
The legend was that this ball of light came folding out of the blood- soaked ground after it was over, like a kind of tombstone. Something from beyond this world, here to offer a reminder of how much men can suffer. Maybe this spooklight is the same. Is it here to mark our loss? God knows that men suffered in these woods.
Mama didn't trust it. Devil's work, she said.
More than once, my mama told me to run if I ever saw the spook- light. That didn't scare me one bit because, hell, I thought her stories were just a bunch of old malarkey. Women of a certain age are full of those kinds of tall tales, and my mama told that same one plenty of times over the years.
Never gave me pause but once.
One time, Mama added something to the story. It was late and I'd been acting up, and she must have been feeling worried about my mortal soul. The way she said what she did that night, so earnest, put goose pimples on my ribs. It still does. What she told me was that the time she saw the spooklight, people started acting funny. Walking toward it, circling around. Saying strange things to it, she said. And some people thought it was saying strange things back.
That night my mama took me by the arm and she told me something extra.
Don't pray to it, she said, and the back of my neck went cold.
I already told you to run away if you see it, boy. But I know your mind and you'll stay and watch. That's fine. It's in your nature to disobey, Hank. But in the name of the Lord, promise me that you won't ever get down on your knees and pray to it.
With everything I got, I force my hands down. My joints are cracking and I figure they haven't moved in hours. That raw light leaves my face and I take a shuddering breath like a catfish in the well of a boat because the air out here is suddenly so cold.
"Get thee behind me, Satan," I mutter, and I somehow will myself to drop the cube into the snow. There, Mama. God rest your soul.
I start to paw at my rifle. It's slung tight and the strap is stiff and frozen and I'm too fat to get it around right away. These woods are going to swallow me up if I don't get out of here right now. Then I hear the noise. At first I don't want to believe it, so I keep right on fidgeting, but the second time I have to stop. It ain't like I want to but I can't help myself and I look down at that flickering cube of light in the snow.
"Hank," says the spooklight. And that glow, it spreads out, you know? Like the words themselves, the light spreads out around the edges of things.
"No," I say and it comes out a whimper. I've got the rifle off my shoulder now and I'm tugging at the cold metal to try to get into a firing stance. But all the strength is out of me. I feel like my bones are empty. Like my gut is made of papier-mâché and any second I might bust open like a piñata.
"I've got secrets to share with you, Hank. So much wisdom. I promise. Let me open up your eyes. All you have to do is say yes. Yes yes yes."
Something tickles me and I reach up to feel my cheek. My fingers come away shining with a layer of ice. No, no, no. I'm crying. I'm crying real hard and I can't stop because I'm about to disobey my mama.
I promised her, but this is too hard.
Don't you ever pray to it, Hank Cotton, she told me. "Please," I'm saying to the light. "Please, please, please."
But the spooklight is talking to me. Around the edges. Edges I can't see. But I can hear. It's a little burning bush in the palm of my hand. I don't remember picking it up.
"You're my chosen one, Hank. Chosen to rise above the rest. In my light you will become as a god to your fellow man."
"Yes," I say, and I could swear I'm standing still and the world is moving around me. Walking now. Columns of trees marching around me. Snow kissing my boots. Moving me out of these woods and back to the campfires.
Back to the world of men.