"The Defenders": An Excerpt From Our Sci-Fi Special Issue

An artificial intelligence that saved humanity from invaders 28 years ago breaks its silence to meet with human ambassadors. They have no idea what is in store.

"The Defenders" by Will McIntosh

Illustration by Lisa Kay

This is an excerpt from Popular Science's special issue, Dispatches From The Future_. Visit iTunes to download the edition onto your iPad, or return to our list of excerpts._

In an eyeblink, Lila lost all contact with the rest of the world. The silence was shocking, the sense of isolation unnerving, partly because she knew it meant the jet had penetrated the Defenders’ cloak and entered Australian airspace. For a moment she stared blankly at the stray tufts of gray hair visible over the seat back in front of her. That would be Gayatri Nadal, the Ambassador from India. Then she thought to look out the window

There was nothing to see yet; they were still above the smoky cloud-cover. It was hard to believe Australia was down there. Over the past twenty-eight years it had taken on almost mythical dimensions in Lila’s mind, and knowing she would see it any moment, see what it had become, set her heart pounding.

The Spanish ambassador, in the seat next to Lila, turned, as if noticing her for the first time. “Nervous?”

She nodded. The word didn’t begin to describe the shades and layers of what Lila was feeling, but it would do as a rough approximation.

The Spaniard’s white eyebrows pinched. “Were you even alive when the Luyten invaded?” Bolibar: His name came to her as he spoke. “Have you ever seen a Defender?”

Lila laughed, not sure if he was trying to flatter her, or if he really thought she was still in her twenties. “Oh, I’ve seen Defenders. And Luyten.” She closed her mouth. That was all she wanted to say on that topic. The last thing she wanted, given that she was the youngest ambassador on the plane, was to seem immature by getting upset on the flight in.

“Ah. I’m sorry,” he said, reading her face. “You were a young girl? I’m sorry.”

The second apology was for bringing up the painful topic, no doubt. It was impolite to bring up the Luyten invasion if you weren’t sure the person you were speaking to was amenable to the topic.

“No worries. Who doesn’t have invasion memories?” She forced a smile, turned back to the window, but it was too late. As they surged toward Australia, and humanity’s first contact with their saviors in twenty-eight years, Lila’s memories reeled out. She saw the Luyten, like enormous starfish falling from the sky, twirling in one direction and then the other, deadly flashes bursting from the tips of their five or six or seven stunted appendages. Lila squeezed the armrest, trying to let the memory be, let it play out if it needed to. She’d learned that if she resisted it would only pull her in deeper, turn into a full-fledged flashback, and if she went into PTSD mode the embassy might just pull her at the first opportunity.

She focused on her breathing, kept it smooth and even as she saw her seven-year-old self rushing into the shelter of the high school as the ground shook from explosions and the air crackled with the Luytens’ electric fire, which stank like burning sweat.

Where are they? Where are the Defenders? someone had said as they huddled in the cafeteria, watching human soldiers set up defenses outside. The soldiers had pointed their weapons this way and that, knowing that no matter what they did the Luyten would be one step ahead of them.

Then, that first glimpse of a Luyten up close: Much bigger than Lila had expected, galloping out of the trees on three arms, barreling over swings and slides, its free arms pointed forward; the blinding flash, the screams of burning soldiers who’d mostly been facing the other way, because how do you fight an enemy who knows your every thought?

Lila had squeezed her eyes shut as a half-dozen more Luyten broke from the woods. She’d tried to think of something happy--The Mermaid Frolly Show, her favorite television program. She’d resolved to keep her eyes closed and think only of the show until it was over.

Then: Her father, rushing outside with other parents to fight the Luyten, because the soldiers were all dead and the Luyten were coming. The parents trying to reach the makeshift bunker where the dead soldiers’ weapons lay amidst their toasted bodies. She remembered Mr. Suchy, her social studies teacher, swinging a fire ax at a charging Luyten, who cut him in two at the chest with a whip of its cilia.

Then: The warm wash of pee down her thighs when that watery voice—that impossible accent—called from outside: Over soon. Think of Mermaid Frolly. All over soon.

Lila’s mother covering her eyes, her trembling fingers not doing a thorough enough job, because Lila saw between the slats of Mommy’s fingers, saw Daddy’s shoulder socket when the Luyten pulled his arm off. Their stubby, fingerless appendages were deceptive, because the cilia on the end worked like long, powerful fingers.

Then: Cheering, as two Defenders leaped from the roof of the school, impossibly tall on three knobby, bone-white legs, their automatic weapons blasting the Luyten with bullets the size of cannonballs, their razor sharp exoskeletons slashing the Luyton wide open as they grappled, spilling their steaming green goo insides onto the playground. The cheering redoubled when the surviving Luyton fled, with the Defenders in pursuit.

Lila took a deep, sighing breath. It had been four or five years since her last full-blown flashback, but it was inevitable. Seeing Defenders, actually standing before the massive things and talking to them, was bound to bring the memories back. It was worth it, though, to be one of the first to see how the Defenders lived, to see what sort of society they had built, and to have the opportunity to finally thank them personally.

To keep reading, visit iTunes and download our _Dispatches From The Future_ special issue_ onto your iPad._