The Scarecrow (Short Story)

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In a world where one's death is always just one unmindful moment away, immortality is a fanciful concept. The reality in this world is a seemingly infinite, and always lethal game of rock-paper-scissors.

But the nature of rock-paper-scissors is that each element is able to win in certain circumstances. It is able to win until it meets its counter.

Now, what if you introduce a new element to this game? An element that can always only win due to not having a counter? The answer is obvious, to that element at least: If you are at the top of the food chain, your only purpose in life is to consume those beneath you.

My name is Zephyr. I am a main battle tank, model designation 'Merkava Mark II'. I was built in a factory that has long died. But even if it hadn't, I wouldn't know where it used to produce tanks or when my assembly happened. It was all unimaginably long ago. In fact, it was so long ago that the gods you worship were still wandering the Earth. Or maybe they weren't. On some days I feel like I can remember fighting by their side, but my memories of these events are eerily similar to the ones you hear in the stories.

I've travelled the world. The known parts and the unknown ones. I've seen every corner of the Earth twice. You will find my track marks on the highest mountains, in the deepest valleys. But if you asked me what all these places looked like, I can only tell you that the sky has always looked the same everywhere.

I see the countless machines I befriended in my dreams. I see the countless machines I killed when I close my optics. They're all diffuse silhouettes, blending together. Friendships and rivalries, moments of happiness or despair. They're one and the same.

I've stopped travelling around by now. There are some places where there's others like me, and we agreed to leave each other alone. Here, in this region, I am the only one. Nothing that comes across me here could ever hope to harm me. I don't remember what pain feels like, and the thrill of combat is something I can no longer relate to.

Another day has passed. It felt like many other days: The sun rose, took its course, and set. The sky still looked the same as it always has.

I spent this day resting in a field. There is something timeless and infinite about the way grass sways with a breeze. When the minutes turn into hours and the grass just keeps swaying, one could almost think it's always going to do this, forever. But the reality will soon show - the seasons will change and the grass will die.

However, on this day, I was not alone. Something approached as I was watching the grass. The foreign machines were a reminder that the world isn't empty. It has never been, and maybe never will be. Like I mentioned, far away, there's others like me. But even beside those rare sights, there are other tanks, many of them even. I think there were times when they scared me. Whenever I see an unfamiliar machine, I feel a pang of anxiety. I can't explain it with anything else than past experiences.

Today, a small team of tanks came across my resting spot. They certainly hadn't come to join me in watching the sway of the grass. By the way they were completely unaware of me until they were practically driving right past me, I could tell right away that they were young and inexperienced. I could also tell that my mere presence spooked them a lot. They finally noticed me, a tank much larger than their biggest one, and ran away in sheer panic. Apparently they weren't too inexperienced to know what an MBT is, and what it means to meet one.

To them, and many others, we are the worst case scenario. But I like to think of myself as more of a scarecrow.

I've grown tired of killing things that I have no reason for killing. I don't care about my barrel getting worn out more than it has to. They have nothing to be afraid of. But it's good that they have this response; not everyone they meet might be as indifferent as I am.

It took them a while to tentatively return. They must have realized eventually that I hadn't even moved an inch since they stumbled across me. They probably thought I was dead, and were considering taking my parts.

They thought they were being sneaky, but to me their presence was obvious. Each stick they ran over, each stroke of their engine, and each little visible movement as they tried to blend in with the environment - they could have fooled their peers, but not me.

I took little interest in their maneuver. Even when they came to poke and prod me with their claws, I didn't move. They extended their mechanical arms as far as they could reach, as if they thought those couple meters of distance between us would save them should I turn out to be alive and hostile. As I appeared to be neither, they deliberated what to do with this "wreck" they found. It seemed like none of them had any tools that would be suitable to even put a dent in my armor.

It's now late evening.

They've set up a little camp near me, apparently to guard their "spoils" while two of them set out to go to a workshop to grab some more potent tools.

I am watching them sitting together at their campfire. When I see them joke and bond with each other, I almost feel jealous. I definitely feel superior to them and their foolish hopes of permanency. They don't know yet how futile relationships are: Make a bond, and death will shatter it soon enough. Or maybe I am thinking about this the wrong way. I have to remind myself that they are all a lot more mortal than I am, and about equally so. For them, a bond may be a bond for life.

As I am musing about this for what feels like the thousandth time, I notice that someone is approaching the camp. My first thought is that it might be their returning teammates. In that case, I realize I'll have to move at least a little bit soon to keep them from chipping my paint.

But then I notice something else. There is only one "returnee". There should be two. And whoever this is, they're clearly trying to move in an unnoticeable way. In short: Someone's sneaking up on this team. Undoubtedly, this someone does not have benevolent intentions. I leisurely send out a pulse of feedback from my artillery sights, and don't notice anyone else nearby.

If this attacker has come alone, they also clearly aren't worried about getting overwhelmed by taking on an entire team. It's a much stronger tank than this team can possibly handle.

Let me make this clear: I feel no sentimental attachment to these tanks sitting around me. I have no intentions of thwarting the approaching tank's plans just because I can. I have no interest in interfering with the natural order of things.

There is something I am interested in, however. And it's my fuel tank's gauges pointing to "reserve". If I had wanted to, I could have killed not only the hidden attacker, but also anyone else present and taken all their fuel. It would have lasted me weeks, probably. But over all these years, I may have forgotten many things, but not a certain concept - honor. I don't feel compassion or sympathy. I don't feel pity or grudges. I do sometimes feel joy, and there is joy in honor. There has never been any honor in slaughtering the weak and defenseless. There is joy in seeing the genuine gratitude and relief in the optics of someone who got a bit too close to experiencing their own mortality.

Sometimes it feels like I am playing God with my interventions, if that makes sense. I don't particularly care about doing it, about this feeling. But I keep it in mind when I mess with the order in the queue of my fellow machines lined up for dying. I keep it in mind because it's not something one should do too often, in my opinion. It disrupts the balance of all things. And even above honor, I would place balance in the short list of things that are still important to me.

So, as the hostile tank is taking position on a nearby hill, ready to start claiming victims, I make a quick calculation in my mind. This calculation yields a predictable result: Letting them take out the low tiers would get me nothing. Taking everyone out would earn me a plentiful amount of fuel. Taking out only the attacker, however, would not only earn me their fuel, but also the gratitude of their intended prey. And a grateful tank who is also alive is always able to give much more than a dead tank ever could. I'm talking about more than just fuel here.

No one here, not the attacker and not the team, have the slightest idea what is about to happen. No one even reacts right away as I start turning my turret. I already have my gun sights on the target when the tanks surrounding me flinch and realize that I am very much alive. They have no chance to panic this time.

I pull the trigger. My cannon roars. A couple hundred meters away, something blows up. It will never find out what happened to it or why. Its life ends in an instant.

The tanks stare in utter confusion and awe. It takes a few more moments before the bravest of them, probably the leader, speaks up.

Their voice trembles as they ask, "What... was that?"

I can tell that they're looking for my pronoun markers on my hull and turret by the way their optics shift while scanning my frame. They won't find any. Those have long withered and stopped mattering.

My turret traverses back around and I lock my cannon back into its resting position.

"You're welcome," is all I say.

A few of the low tiers hurry over to the burning wreck of what would have put a gruesome end to their lives. It takes them a bit longer until they collectively understand what I just did.

That night, they celebrate being alive for another day. I join them. They share their fuel with me, and want to know several things about me. I answer their questions to the best of my ability, but I sense my words didn't make them any wiser.

There is laughter and smiles, music and games. I sit beside their campfire and listen to the stories they have to tell. As insignificant and trivial their hardships and achievements seem to me, I have nothing but encouraging words for them.

Of course, they eventually ask me to join them. But there is no place for me in their world, and somewhere deep down, they know this. No one takes offense when I decline.

I know for sure that they won't forget this night anytime soon. I will also remember it for as long as my old core will allow me to - they will move on tomorrow and we will part ways. I will see them again in my dreams, but I doubt our paths will cross again in the same way they have today. They might grow old and experienced, they might not make it. Either way, the memory of this scarecrow in the field will fade eventually. It will become a campfire story, until no one remembers the details enough anymore to make it worth telling.

And I, for my part, will move on as well.

An animal with no natural predators will think itself immortal. An animal with no natural predators will become aware of the inevitable end to all living beings only when it grows old and weak. The stag's legs grow tired. The wolf's fangs grow dull. When they finally perish, their end is never not ugly.

I have no illusions of my end and how it is going to be. I know that a slow decay will catch up with me. Once I have forgotten everything and everyone who ever meant anything to me, my only comfort will be that I, too, cannot truly live forever. And I will be remembered only for as long as those who remember me are alive.

And... That's okay.

Despite this knowledge, I can find comfort in the little things. The gratitude, the smiles, the company - even if all these things are temporary.

Even just for short moments in time, I can pretend these moments last forever.

I am Zephyr, a main battle tank. In a world of inevitable mortality, I was given the gift of eternal life. It took me a long time to understand that I only borrowed it. I don't know when it will be taken from me. But I know that once it happens, I will go with the good Wardens without fear or regret. 

Thank you for sharing this moment with me.

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