The Third Station discontinued the B-Model False Men very shortly after their failed response to the surprise attack on the southern border. They were slow and nearly as fragile as real men; the ones that had tiptoed into the last strongholds found themselves torn apart and jumbleheaped in abandoned lawns and on living room floors. The idea that the false men were unsuited for war was considered for a slogan by more than one marginally witty soldier but never saw fruition because it drew attention to the Third Station's extravagant failure.
The False Men were innovative because they were able to recognize live soldiers of the Third Station; consequently they could look to the nearest friendly face for direction in the event of mission drift. During tests they had attached themselves to their live compatriots obsessively, mirroring their every move while watching them with an empty robot stare. A number of enlisted men developed symptoms of battlefield panic. Of course this fervor was scaled back a bit in the model that was eventually green lighted for honest-to-goodness fighting, but an unforseen consequence was a sudden delicacy in the friend-recognition software. After good shake-up a False Man was at a loss to differentiate between friend and foe, or even human and non-human.
The Third Station's embarrassment tapered to a point one morning when the last surviving False Man found its way to a military installation.
Normally the Third Station made every effort to keep operations a safe distance from civilian areas.
When enemy forces started to move up over the bluffs near the southern border of the Second Country they left no room for conscience. By the time they started to trickle down over the green toward the homesteads the aviators were there to shred them with fire before ground forces charged in to neutralize the stragglers. Because the enemy had caught the Third Station by surprise, a few of the fast ones were able to sprint the three hundred yards North into the suburbs and take refuge in whatever structures they could force open.
The Third Station was very cautious to avoid making the situation even more of a diplomatic nightmare. To the enemy's delight they waited for demands to come from the commandeered buildings. And things were still for several days. The Third Station was unable to find anything out. No word about hostages or anything else; there was only waiting.
When the waiting became too much they sent the new False Men in.
The world returned slowly, preceded by the hiss of spinning disks.
False Man Michael remembered nothing for a few minutes. Gradually he became aware of dancing shadows and cool air moving through leaves, and stillness. After the initial memory tests finished he was able to register an oak tree before him with a homemade swing hanging from the longest branch with one side ripped out. He winced when his pain sensors fired off, a heavy throb pushing up along the entire left side of his head. Then his memory came back completely and that was even more painful.
He was in the city near the border. The Third Station had sent him in to absolve the situation with the enemies in the buildings. He had walked quietly the way he had been ordered, listening and watching for strange things. He'd heard noises inside one of the houses and had knocked on the door; after knocking he heard things rustle like someone inside was in a hurry. He'd kicked the door in and had gone in to investigate. Inside the house he found only eerie silence until a hammer had struck his temple. Then someone had dragged him outside while everything gradually turned black.
It was quiet but Michael did not feel unsafe. He stood and looked around. There was no one. He was next to the house exactly where he had lost consciousness. Through the homemade flowered curtains in the window he could see a dark living room. The hammerblow had caused a crash inside his head and some things had reset themselves while he had been asleep; now he felt an overwhelming desire to find a friend who would guide him. He wondered if there was anyone inside.
The front door hung awkward from the bottom hinge. The curtains were drawn but there was still not much light, and there was the feeling of waking up safe in the morning. There was a smell of cookies and vague burning. In the kitchen Michael saw a fresh batch lined up on a tin sheet on the counter; the oven was still on and the door was open. The sunlight played in the turning hazes of smoke, broken by the leaves dancing on the big oak outside. There was a woman on the floor with her head caved in.
Michael knocked over the coffee table while he ran into the hallway to check the bedroom. It was silent there as well. There was a bed canopied with a mosquito net because it was summer, and on the wicker nightstand there was a book with a flower on the cover and a bookmark about 50 pages in. The window was open and there was a man sprawled over the sill, his limbs outstretched like boards in the sunlight. He was wearing only socks.
They had died so suddenly that they had not even had time to pull together the echoes that made them human: the woman's cookies were becoming stale on the counter. Michael returned to the kitchen and turned off the oven.
When Michael walked back outside he saw a gray thing move quickly across the grass, glancing along the oak and disappearing with a hiss beneath a row of low hedges about twenty feet away. It was the first moving thing he had seen since awakening and he hurried after it. While the programming drove his limbs he became aware that the hours laying against the house had taken their toll: it hurt to move. He fell to his knees in front of the hedges and inertia pushed him onto his belly. He reached inside and followed the moving and hissing until his fingertips encountered something soft, and once he could wrap his hand around it he drew it out.
The thing made a weak sound and struggled for a second. Its eyes were blue.
"Hello, friend," Michael said. "I have lost my way."
The animal said nothing.
Michael waited a moment. "I was part of the mission to draw the enemies out of the houses," he continued. "I came from the battallion dispatched on Tuesday to point six. We went south. The top of the bluffs. I have been separated from my group and need orders. I have damage also. Give me orders."
The animal would not answer him. Michael knew that there was a reason for this and saw only one conclusion.
"Are you unable to speak? You have sustained damage also, likely to your vocals or perhaps the part of your brains responsible for speech. It is no surprise because you are small to be fighting here; it was right of you to be frightened of me. I will take us to the base where we will be repaired. Is that alright?"
The animal looked at him. "It is no matter," Michael replied. "I will carry you because you are small."
Michael saw very quickly that the neighborhood was empty: the area had been evacuated prior to his deployment and the fighting had long since finished, but no one had moved back in. He passed several False Men like himself, all dead, some slumped against buildings, some in pieces, one who had died spasming and whose eyes were open so wide his eyelids were bunched into the sockets like uneven rugs. It was some hours before he encountered civilization again and more hours still before he found his way to the first outpost. The animal was calm the entire time and because Michael had a guide he felt safe.
"Hello, friend," Michael said to the young Sergeant behind the reception desk. "I am from the failed mission on the bluffs. I have an injured comrade with me and we need to be returned to the East Base. Arrange transportation please."
Sergeant Faria eyed the False Man incredulously. The kitten under his arm mewed.
"Are you injured also?" Michael asked loudly. "It is unfortunate that the enemy reached this far. We will walk together if you can move."
Michael was turned over to the engineers for further study.