El wormed her way, inch by stomach-clenching inch, across the field. To her left, a blood-smeared blast mark reminded her of what had happened to Hans.
Lights blinked on the screen of her smart bracer, showing a mine three meters ahead and two more possibles just beyond it. The wireless connections between the mines made detection easier, but it was still hard to be certain until she was up close. By then it could be too late.
Sweat beading her forehead, she wriggled toward the nearest mine. Drawing a slender extending probe from her belt, she slid it slowly through the dirt until she felt the first pressure of resistance. She plugged the probe’s wire into her bracer, took out her other tools, and set to work.
Anti-personnel smart mines were covered with sensors. Each movement, each shovelling away of dirt or insertion of a blade between plates, could bring death. El’s muscles cramped from lying still for so long on the uneven ground, but at last she was able to draw the device out of its hole, unscrew the firing mechanism and set the whole thing aside.
Letting out a sigh, sat up and stretched her aching limbs.
There was a soft thud, and something flew from the dirt a few meters away. In the second it took the device to arc through the air, she had to make a decision – risk running over another mine, or risk this one triggering as it landed near her.
Springing to her feet, she dashed back the way she had come.
An explosion smashed into her back, throwing her to the ground. Lying prone, aching in a hundred places, she waited for another blast to kill her.
The only sound was clods of earth raining down.
Curling up around herself, El shook with relief.
When she finally stopped shaking, El realised that the jumping mine might be a good thing. It had triggered when she deactivated the other mine, moving to fill the gap. That meant the whole minefield had been rigged with a collective decision making intelligence.
She could talk to the mines.
El had always been good with AIs. That was why the Blue Haven settlers had recruited her – to program tractors, maintain communications and train computers. Then they realised how many armaments the war had left in their new home, and priorities changed. She turned to mine clearing, to make a safer life for all of them.
Unfastening her bracer, she laid it on her knees and unrolled the silk-thin keyboard. It was a matter of moments to find the minefield’s frequency. Access options flashed up so quickly that she knew the intelligence must be lonely, left here decades after its owners were defeated. That gave her hope.
Forced hacks had never been El’s style. Besides, most armies relied on bullying machines through buffer exploits, cross-script trickery and other crude old approaches. The minefield would be primed against those. Instead she sent a series of careful queries, each one building on the last, coaxing out the attention of the simple AI.
Again, her muscles cramped as she sat unmoving, fingers trembling at the thought of what could happen if this went wrong.
“Friend / not friend?” The AI’s query flashed across the screen at last.
“Friend.” She followed the word with a string of confirmatory coding.
“Lies.” A mine exploded to her right. Shrapnel gouged her arm, blood running down her fingers and onto the keyboard. She typed frantically, hoping that the minefield was still listening, that it would have blown a closer mine if it really meant to kill her.
“Friends gone,” she asserted, in among the rest of the code. “War over. No need for AI to wait. No need to kill self / kill others.”
The cursor blinked as the AI processed the message. El smiled and wiped the sweat from her brow. She felt like she could have laughed with relief. The AI was listening. It was working.
“NO.” Just two letters on the screen, but it was enough to leave El rigid with fear.
“No,” the AI continued. “Category C hack. Network reset. User excluded.”
Her screen went blank. With a thud, another mine leapt toward the cleared ground where she sat.
Too stiff to run, El watched the cold grey box hurtle toward her on wings of death. Eyes wide, she waited for the end.
Another thud. The mine landed centimetres in front of her and burrowed into the ground. A single light blinked up from the hole, daring her to move and trigger it.
The minefield remained, but so did she. Taking out her probe, El returned to clearing it the slow, old-fashioned way.
* * *
The bravest person I’ve ever met was a civilian mine clearer. There are millions of unexploded mines littering old warzones around the world, killing innocent people decades after the wars have ended. This guy had lost half his right arm to a mine, but he still did the job, saving future generations from the violence of the past.
The idea for this story came from a conversation with friend and fellow author Russell Phillips. At one point the US military were exploring the possibility of self-repairing mine fields. Truth is stranger than fiction right up to the point where we turn it into fiction. If you’re interested in military history then check out Russ’s books.
And if you’d be interested in receiving a free copy of my book Riding the Mainspring or a short story straight to your inbox very Friday you can get all that by signing up for my mailing list.