by J.A. Becker
There is nothing quite like getting shot in the chest.
The first shot splits my heart pump and blows half of it out of my back, along with some circuit chips, wiring, and a liter of black coolant. Splashes like an expressionist’s painting on the metal wall behind me.
The bullet breaks a pain dampener too, so I get all the unfiltered data at once. My entire synaptic neural net catches fire and a thousand bright-red warning messages pop up on my visual overlay.
I scream and scream, unable to cope with the sudden load on my CPU.
Then the next shot is what kills me.
A machine cannot love. Emotion is impossible. Feeling is just a subroutine instantiated by an external stimulant. None of my bits are real. All of my broken parts screaming at me for attention doesn’t make me human, it’s merely good programming.
But Jane brushing back the long strands of her golden hair so she can take careful aim with her liquid mercury eye, does something inside of me that is beyond any programming I’ve been imparted with: I feel the sting of a love betrayed.
Then she pulls the trigger and shoots me in the other side of my chest, right through the CPU.
The blast spins me around and the last optic I record is the view from the station’s port-side window. I see the sun peak over the edge of Saturn and the vast floating rockyard begins to glow like amber on fire.
Then I shut down.
A month before she shot my heart out, I was standing on the gantryway of Cerberus station watching the rockyard catch fire in the sunlight.
I’d been wiped and rewritten, but that pensive algorithm that forces me to watch the sunrise from the gantry was still intact. Some brain somewhere figured it was a good idea to have an attractive police chief stand up there, looking regal and romantic like while the filthy streams of humanity coursed down the promenade, on their way to death and riches in the rockyard. The hypothesis was it would remind people of the presence of the law and inspire them with the confidence that I was there looking over them.
And, I was up there waiting for the new captain of the station too, as I’d killed the other one just a week ago. Those who programmed my dictionary would have called that episode a sordid affair. But all that illegal fiddling with my programming had been wiped, reconfigured, and I was rebooted and ready for duty.
And then I saw her, walking down the gantry towards me. I could recognize beauty through the symmetry of her face and body, and so did the fortune seekers walking to their ships below us. They threw up little sly glances at her on the overhead walkway, unable to help themselves.
Her blue uniform was fresh and the brass buttons that ran up her beveled front were a polished sparkled. She had long blonde hair and smooth, unblemished skin. Her only imperfection was her prosthetic mercury eye.
She strode up and I could tell from her rapid heart rate and the ridged angle she walked at that she was not happy to see me.
“How in the hell you weren’t decommissioned and fired into the rings is beyond me.” She said.
An appropriate response didn’t percolate up into my speech center, so I just followed protocol and saluted her.
“Seriously,” she said. “Are you completely mad?”
Her silver eye flashed and my sensors told me it was trying to interface with me. She was sending me a command: Strike Me, Strike Me, Strike Me.
I ignored it.
She was testing me, trying to see if she could make me do something that went against my programming.
“You shouldn’t worry,” I told her. “What happened was an anomaly. It would be impossible to replicate that now my programming has been patched and updated. I am here to serve you and the station faithfully.”
“Just a little anomaly, eh? Is that how they’ve classified it? You painting the walls with the station chief’s blood was just a little anomaly?”
They wiped the recording from my memory banks, but I’ve still access to coroner’s report and can accurately reverse engineer the scene in my virtual memory. I do, and see that I took him apart limb by limb. Definitely, sordid.
“It was malfeasance,” I explain, but she waves a hand to stop me.
“I’ve read the report,” she said. “One of the traders broke through your safties and programmed you to violently murder the chief. What I don’t understand is why you’re still in the same position now. In my books, you are compromised. Why in God’s name do I have to work with you?”
“I am fully capable of…”
“The only reasons I can think of,” she said, cutting me off, “is that they are too cheap to buy another you and they truly don’t give a shit about my safety.”
“Those are very likely conclusions,” I agreed.
She looked up at me sharply. The eyebrow of her good blue eye raised.
“You’re a funny one,” she said. “Is that a joke?”
It wasn’t, but I didn’t want to agitate her further by explaining all the cognitions behind that articulation. It was true, the station owner was cheap and I’d noted this on one-thousand three hundred and seven separate occasions where he valued monetary concerns over the lifeforms on his station. But informing her of all those occasions was a zero-sum game, so I stayed silent.
“What mark are you?” She asked.
“That’s not too old,” she said and I could detect surprise in her voice. “How many times have you been patched?”
“Unfortunately, one of the patches overrode the ordering of my revision system, so my best guess is one thousand, two-hundred and ten times. But I can’t be 100% accurate on that.”
“That does not inspire me with confidence.”
“Again, a strange response,” she said. “They’ve given you a personality it seems too, but why?”
I couldn’t answer and my body language subroutine engaged and I shrugged my shoulders.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I guess you know as much about your maker’s reasonings as we do.”
I had no response for that.
“Come with me,” she said. “We’ve got cargo to inspect.”
Unannounced, our Scimitar approached the Starburst, a mining ship registered with the Auralian government. Before they or I even knew what was happening, we zipped up and docked with them.
This ship was off-limits, according to the previous station captain and I informed Jane of that.
“That exactly why we’re here,” she said and made an expression that registered in my facial-recognition database as incomprehension. She was the station chief now, so I had a duty to follow.
“Lock and load,” she said, taking a silver T-180 pistol from the weapon’s rack and slamming it into the black holster about her waist. I lifted a rifle from its rack on the wall and flipped off the safety catch.
A quick scan of the station’s warrant files told me that us boarding them was unsanctioned, which prompted a question.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked.
“Cause I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on this shit station.”
Her articulation registered as a non-sequitur in my dictionary and I had no response.
Her eye interfaced with the Starburst door. I couldn’t follow all the communications, but basically it amounted to her prosthetic dropping a 89,000 encryption bit code sequence into the door’s 39,066 key receptor and overloading it.
It slid open and she quickly stepped through.
“Listen,” she said, turning back to me. “I don’t trust you. If you make any false moves, I’m going to shoot you in the chest. Right through the CPU.”
I stayed silent and followed her dutifully.
Under the treaty, she could search and seize any vessel in the system, warrant or not. One of the twenty-million computations going through my CPU at the time was a quick comparison of the behavioral algorithms I observed between her and the previous chief. The juxtaposition showed stark contrasts.
I caught a bit of the communications between her eye and the ship’s WI-NET. She’d pulled up a schematic of the ship and was focusing in on the hold, which was refrigerated. That, according to my database of ship architectural blueprints, was highly unusual.
I covered the rear while she made her way cautiously down the hallway. My scans said her heart rate was elevated and I noticed her hand was firmly around the grip of her holstered gun. Her wrist was tensing too, so it could snap up at an instance. I, on the other hand, hadn’t any nerves.
From scanning the manifest, I learned the Starburst was a galaxy class ship with over 5.6 kilometers of corridors. There was a hundred and ten crew. It had no infractions registered against it in any system, but I noticed the ownership structure was redacted from the manifest, which was a red flag.
“So far, so good,” she said.
“Can you tell me what we are looking for?” I asked.
“For the reasons why you never looked here.”
We reached the end of the corridor, where a big door shooshed up into the ceiling as we approached. A blast of fridged air rolled over us.
Inside the refrigerator were stacks and stacks of frozen bodies. A quick scan showed there were roughly one-thousand-one hundred and fifty-two of them. They were all bloated, filled up like balloons about to burst, and thick varicose veins coiled tightly beneath their swelled skin. Their eyes were white and frosted over and all had grimaces on their lips. All of them, a facial-recognition algorithm informed me, had died from space exposure.
Jane gasped and recoiled against the wall, hand clutched up to her throat. Obviously, this discovery was unexpected and horrifying to her.
An A.I. is built upon continuously shifting layers of programming. Some of the layers were running computations and analysis that my main processor, my consciousness, was siloed from. Often, they amounted to nothing and the layer would vaporize back into memory and another would take its place. But now one of the layers had reached a probability conclusion and merged itself with the stream entering my CPU. And that layer had determined what this was.
But then the shooting started.
I failed to notice the Starburst’s crew deploying along the corridor behind me. They took up strategic positions in entryways and behind bulkheads, effectively ambushing us.
A bullet passed through my right bicep and blew out fluids and metal shards, but nothing serious. I grabbed Jane by the arm and shoved her inside the refrigerator, then I spun around with my rifle raised. Fire erupted from the nozzle and 15 rounds made their way through 15 different people. My aim was impossibly accurate. I’d shot them in the arms and legs that obtruded from their hiding positions. They all screamed in pain and some of them fell to the ground, squirming in agony. I hadn’t received a kill command from Jane, so I didn’t shoot them through the head, though I could have easily done so.
I quickly ducked into the refrigerator and surveyed Jane. She wasn’t hurt. But her heart rate and breathing had approached panicked levels now. In my experience, people under this level of stress and terror couldn’t function properly. I began unlocking some internal protocols so I could take the situation over, but then she spoke calmly and I canceled the overrides.
“Did you kill any of them?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’ve only wounded them.”
“Good,” she said. “I want them all alive when I arrest them.”
A probability statistic percolated up in my speech center, but I canceled it at the last minute. It served no purpose to inform her of the chances of her getting out of this alive, let alone us arresting them.
She took her place on one side of the door and I stood at the ready on the other.
“Hey!” she shouted down the hallway and brought her gun up and cocked it. “You are under arrest! Lay down your arms!”
There were groans and cries of the people I’d shot, but nothing to indicate compliance.
“I’ve called for backup!” she shouted. “The police are on their way.”
The probability they would accept this ruse was incredibly low. It was well known amongst the rockyarders that we were the only authority in the system.
“Bitch!” was the reply. “You lay down your arms! We’ve got you covered. There is no way out.”
Abruptly, Jane stepped into the doorframe, fired a shot, and then stepped back. I heard a body hit the floor and I guessed that she’d killed the person who’d spoken.
“I don’t miss,” she shouted. “Drop your guns!”
Suddenly I received a strange command that put all my directives into conflict.
The command was straight from Cerberus and had the digital signature of Anthony Mann himself, the owner of Cerberus station.
The command was: Shoot Jane in the Head.
As my cognitions processed this, Jane popped out into the hallway again and fired off ten more shots then jumped back as they returned fire. Many of the bullets slammed into the frozen bodies, splaying cracks across their skin and sending chunks of skin rocketing across the room.
Several of my secondary processors wanted to instantly execute the command I’d received as it was of the highest priority, a Sev-1 command. But my higher functions, the ones that had accepted the last software patch, refused. The command was in conflict with their primary directive, which was to protect the station captain at all costs. Some of my secondary processors tried to override the primary ones and I briefly went to war with myself. My arms tried to lift the rifle up to shoot Jane between her silver and blue eye, but I forced it back down. I began to scream as my whole body fought with itself.
“What the hell is the matter with you!” Jane shouted. “Shoot them you fool! Shoot them!”
I shook uncontrollably. Pressure was building up in my system as every pump, processor, rotor, and circuit chip redlined. I again tried to lift up the rifle to fire, but I forced it back down. Pinprick holes began ruptured in my circulation system and trickles of black coolant began pouring out of my ears and the corners of my eyes.
And then abruptly logic won. My body at a stalemate put every directive I had at risk. I could neither protect Jane, nor stop the perpetrators, nor protect the station, or even accept the Sev-1. I had to unfreeze myself and that mandate circumvented everything. So my higher functions initiated a cascade failure that would begin a shutdown protocol that would put me to sleep. Once offline, my priority queues would be cleared by a maintenance subroutine and I would be able to function again.
Just as I was initiating the cascade failure, a thermite grenade rolled into the room and Jane began to scream.
Then I went to sleep.
I’d fallen to the ground and I quickly came to my feet. 0.66666 seconds had passed since I’d shutdown and the thermite grenade was about to go off.
Jane’s symmetrical face was twisted with terror. Her long blonde hair was slicked wet with worried sweat and her eyes were anxiously wide. Then, before I could reach for it, she kicked the grenade away from us. This was foolish on her part, as it flew through the air, hit the back wall, and exploded.
The fiery detonation ripped open a ten-foot hole, which the vacuum of space instantly sucked out; visually, it looked like an explosion in reverse.
With the pressure change, the safety systems engaged and the refrigerator door slammed down with a bang, locking us in.
Air began rapidly bleeding out and all the swollen bodies began lifting up and streaming out the hole. I tried to grab Jane, but I was too slow. She and I locked eyes briefly as she was picked up and thrown outside along with the dead.
I held onto my rifle, put my arm around a refrigeration pipe that stuck out of the wall, and I held myself there while I considered the situation.
In ten seconds, the cold vacuum of space would cause irreversible damage to her body. Which meant I had 1.667 seconds to test two theories in my virtual memory and 8.333 seconds to act on the best one.
Unfortunately, both of them tested fruitless, so I had to go with an untested third option that occurred to me while I was running the simulations.
I crouched down, took aim, and then jumped straight through the hole in the back wall.
In a millisecond I was out into the beyond. Cerberus station was off to my right, spinning like a silver bike tire on its side, and there was an incalculable number of stars glistening in the dark.
The dead were floating all around me. I bumped into an Asian woman who had long black hair that swam in slow motion about her frozen face. I pushed her out of my way and pinpointed Jane, which was easy.
Her eye was sending me a signal: Help Me. Help Me. Help Me.
I made several very quick computations, aimed the rifle behind me at a 30-degree angle, and pulled the trigger.
The bullets were encased in their own oxygen supply and the gun fired without flames spouting from the barrel.
The force reversal sent me on my way and I kept firing to accelerate. I quickly reloaded a new clip and fired another small burst to adjust my trajectory and further increase my speed.
I had 5.111 seconds left.
Now the scene had become a visual confusion. I had hit a tiny asteroid pocket and there millions of them and thousands of bodies dispersing amongst them; then, there was the massive backdrop of the orange whirling clouds of Saturn. In this morass, I was relying entirely on her signal to locate her.
Then her blue captain suit sparkled in the orange light and my visual sensors locked onto her. I unloaded another clip, as I had 2.988 seconds left.
I reached out, caught her, and held her close in an attempt to transfer some of my body’s warmth to hers.
We locked eyes and I did the only thing I could think of to calm her.
And then we were out of time.
Frost began prickling on her skin and very soon it would burrow down into her lifeless body.
But I was calm, as I had no nerves, and I sent a command to our ship just before I’d jumped.
Now it was a waiting game. A game Jane couldn’t afford, as I detected the electrical impulses in her brain were beginning to slow.
What cognitions were going through her mind, my pensive algorithms queried. Was she self-aware in this state? Was she dreaming? Did she find me at fault for what had happened?
I played these questions out in my virtual memory, as my creator’s want was for me to understand every situation I experienced, to run them through as many permutations as I could and record the results if I reached any probability conclusions. The belief was that over time I would build a large repertoire of conclusions to draw upon and that would make me a faster and more accurate decision maker.
This was obviously a slightly flawed hypothesis, as I’d made any number of bad decisions that had led us to floating out here in the dead of space.
Far too much time had passed when our ship finally swooped in. Its bay doors were open and it scooped us out of space like a catchers mitt. I sent a command that repressurized the cargo bay and turned on the gravity. She was already in my arms when the gravity initialized, so I gently lowered her to the floor.
She was long since dead.
I put my mouth on hers and blew carefully into her lungs, gently reinflating.
Then I took the stenvolt from the medi-kit in the wall. I ripped open her blue suit, which sent her brass buttons bouncing off the ceiling. She had no undershirt on so I put the metal stenvolt on her ample bare chest.
A 4,000 jolt made her body jump. Then another jolt got the heart pumping. I took an epi-pen from the medi-kit and injected her with a concoction of adrenaline and anti-coagulant. There was nothing I could do but wait for the body to recover. So I sat, waited, cranked the heat up, and cogitated several permutations in my virtual memory.
The Sev-1 from Anthony Mann had deeply divided my processes. I was built with two core tenets written into my CPU’s permanent memory: answer to Anthony Mann and protect the station. Then, tertiarily, an addendum was added through the recent patch update: protect the station chief.
The tenets didn’t stop me postulating on the illegality of the Starburst’s activity and their connection to Anthony Mann; clearly, there was a link between the two of them as he wouldn’t have ordered me to kill Jane otherwise. And the tenets didn’t stop me from considering pressing attempted-murder charges against Anthony, though I would be unable to carry through on those impulses as they could tangentially cause him injury and that would break the covenants of my main tenet.
Jane, though, if and when she awoke, could pursue any of that as she was master to none.
Also troubling was that the shutdown had flushed the Sev-1 out of my CPU, but it was still in my system log and I was still required to act upon it. My being was at detente, but I was still technically at war with myself. This was strange as some of my lower-order systems did want to snuff out her life right then and there and I had to keep canceling its intentions.
Suddenly Jane woke with a start and all my cogitations evaporated.
“Turk,” she whispered my name.
“Yes,” I replied and leaned in to examine her good blue eye. It dilated appropriately when I moved my head out of the way of the overhead light.
“You saved me,” she said, then coughed up a sputum of blood. There was something different in her voice now. There was a softness, a lower cadence that hadn’t been there before.
She reached up and touched my face, ran her fingers down the side of my cheek.
“Why did they make you so beautiful?” She asked in a whisper.
“Studies have proven that attractive people in a position of authority are more likely to be respected and listened to than unattractive ones.”
She chuckled, then coughed up more blood.
“So they gave you steely blue eyes and sharp, defined cheeks so people would respect you more?” She wheezed.
I didn’t answer and interfaced with the medical unit back on Cerberus. It informed me to bring Jane immediately to sickbay, he lungs were likely filling with fluid and she didn’t have much time left.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said when I informed her of my intentions.
“We’re going back to arrest them.”
And against all my probability calculations, she got up and stood on her two feet.
“Let’s lock and load,” she said.
But the Starburst had jumped out of our jurisdiction by the time Jane had gotten our ship turned around.
She swore several times and pounded the ship’s console with her fists, then abruptly she passed out. Her heart was at 65% capacity and couldn’t properly push her blood through her veins and her frustrations had overloaded her already weakened systems.
I carefully lowered her to the ground so she wouldn’t strike her head on the metal chair, then I found a blanket and covered her with it. There was nothing I could do for her here, so I quickly programmed a route to Cerberus and executed it.
As she slept and I navigated, a part of me compared Jane to the other women in my experiences. She was, as my dictionary defined her, remarkable, and unlike any woman I’d ever known. But I currently didn’t have enough processing power to properly cogitate on her remarkability and what that meant to me, as I was simultaneously communicating with the medi-vac robots to inform them of her condition and I was flying the ship at near jump speed, which required many complex calculations. So I earmarked her remarkability to cogitate on later.
We arrived back at the station and I passed her off to the medi-bots, who put her on a gurney and motored her on treaded foot to the sickbay. There they stripped her clothes and put her into an upward-standing stasis tube, which they then flooded with a light-blue saline solution.
Her buoyancy equalized and she floated upright in the tube, her arms were slightly outstretched like she was in the process of pirouetting.
I watched and waited till her vitals stabilized, then I let my programming take over.
I took a shuttle to a decommissioned part of the station, walked through several security doors to make my way to Section X.
Once there, I sat up on one of the twelve-hundred metal tables, most of which had half-built mes on them, and I waited for my creators.
When they came, they unscrewed my head, placed it on the table beside my body and wired it into the mainframe. Then they carefully erased all the conclusions I had come to about the Starburst and, once finished, purged their actions from my mind. They also attempted to erase the third tenet about protecting the station captain from my permanent memory, but they were unsuccessful. That area of my RAM was protected.
They discussed completely reformatting me as a way to remove the third tenet, but Anthony Mann didn’t want to reset me and lose everything I’d gained so far and he wasn’t too worried about the complications Jane could cause, so they left it.
Then they purged that conversation from my memory and put my head back on.
Then I went into offline mode and thought about Jane.
A health-check subroutine informed me that too much of my CPU’s time was being spent on processing on Jane and not enough of it was being spent on the battle at hand.
It had been three months and she was still in the stasis tube, recovering. Every day I went to check on her, hoping that she’d advanced her healing faster than what was projected.
But she hadn’t. The damage throughout her body was extensive.
The claim jumpers were in a pure black cylindrical ship. Its rounded sides sheared the reflections of my scans and confused my ship’s computer into believing that nothing was there but empty static. I just happened to be passing by when I saw the blue light of their thrusters and decided to investigate.
They had killed the asteroid’s registered claim owners by landing directly on their steel dome bivouac, crushing it to oblivion between their ship’s flattened front end and the asteroid’s rocky surface.
Then they’d loaded the amethyst the owners had labourously collected and lifted off.
Their 1.75 caliber guns, of which there was two on either side of their ship, couldn’t penetrate my ship’s heavy armor. Their rounds rattled off my hull, which some distant memory told me sounded like heavy rain on a tin roof.
I took evasive action, as a lucky round could pass through the cockpit window and rupture my head, which would permanently off-line me. Then I used the COM to inform them of their malfeasance and they told me to insert my head up my rectum.
Jane, she was such an unusual being, a remarkable being, and I couldn’t help myself from thinking of her. I was built to understand, to break things down into their smallest components and decipher them. But she couldn’t be broken down. She was both brave and according to her service record, cowardly. She’d fled a battle on Mars, leaving the platoon she was in charge of to die. But then her actions on the station were exemplary and quite the opposite. And there was that abrupt softness that had come into her voice, where it had been hard before; I couldn’t figure that out. Also puzzling was that after facing certain death and still dying internally, she wanted to go after the Starburst and bring them to justice. I didn’t know what to make of that either.
Yes. There was much to cogitate on Jane.
Also spinning away in one of the layers in my virtual memory was the fact that I’d killed one of my creators for her.
They too were perplexed by the amount of time I was mulling over her and were worried about what she would do when she awoke. So one of them suggested that with her in the stasis tube it was the perfect time to accidentally over-medicate her.
He was about to initiate that command to the medi-bots right then and there when I abruptly came online, sat up on the metal table, and grabbed him by the throat and squeezed till my fingers and thumb came together.
The creators had much to discuss after that.
But all of what they said was purged from my mind.
I only knew of my murdering one of them by a random piece of luck. They’d forgotten a tiny bit of my programming that recorded any attempts to act against my core tenets in a log file, deep in my internal systems.
Why did I elect to kill him? I wondered. Was that necessary? Could I not have just injured him instead? The conclusions I had drawn and acted upon in that situation were also purged from my mind, so I had no clear understanding of why I had done it.
There was much to think on this.
But a bullet hit the cockpit window and cracks splayed across it. Air began whistling out and my console lit up with a thousand red lights. Due to the close proximity of the window and the drastic variance in pressure, my face was in danger of being pulled off and sucked out.
I awkwardly jammed my foot up onto the crack as the claim jumpers poured bullets into my fuselage. I quickly rolled the ship to take the brunt of their efforts on my armored back. Then they briefly jetted into warp to smash the front of their ship down on mine.
But I’d been expecting this.
I put my ship’s thrusters into reverse and they crashed down into nothing in front of me. Then I easily shot out the blue fires of their engines.
Then I left them to float in space.
Experience had taught me that if I attempted to board them now, I would be met with fire and fury. But if I left them to sit and think, they would come to realize that what they had done to the others could be easily done to them now that they were drifting in space with a cargo hold full of amethyst. Eventually, they would call me on the COM and beg me to save them.
So I made a mental note of their position and shot back to Cerberus station to check on Jane again.
Air was still softly hissing out beneath my foot and the cracks were slowly spreading. Likely it would soon shatter.
Yes, I had to agree with my health-check subroutine. Too much of my cognitions were dedicated to Jane.
But I couldn’t stop.
I didn’t want to.
I was standing on the gantryway of Cerberus station, watching the rockyard catch fire in the morning light when Jane approached from behind.
She touched me gently on the shoulder and I turned.
“Turk,” she said, her voice soft like before.
She was marred now. Black bits of frostbite were speckled across her face like acne. Her mercury eye had split during space exposure and had to be replaced with another prosthetic, an inferior one that was pure white.
But she was still beautiful. The symmetry and the roundness was still there and she was still who she was, an enigma to me.
She had on her captain’s suit, brass buttons and bright blue fabric, all polished to a sparkle.
“I want to thank you,” she said. “For saving me.”
“It’s my programming,” I replied.
“Is it?” She asked, taken aback by this. “Risking your life to save me was just your programming?”
I could register hurt in her face now, as the corners of her mouth and eyes drew tightly.
“Everything I do is my programming,” I replied.
She considered this, then said. “Well, I owe you my life. I could see you, you know, from inside the tube. I saw you every day watching over me. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
I had no response for this and a subroutine suggested I merely nod, so I did so.
She took her place beside me and together we watched the ice and the precious metals in the rockyard catch the morning sunlight.
After a time, she said, “I’m going after them Turk.”
“Who?” I asked.
Surprised, she turned to look at me.
“What do you mean who?” She asked. “I’m going after the people that did this to me. The Starburst and the people behind them. They’re killing the rockyarders and doing god knows what with their bodies. Don’t you remember?”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I ran a deep system scan. There were holes in my time track, I discovered. There was a particularly large gap between us meeting for the first time on the station and then me embracing her in outer space. And then I discovered there were pinprick holes all along the track from that instance onwards.
“You don’t remember, do you?” And she put her hand on my shoulder and looked in my eyes. There was concern on her face and something else, something a layer in my virtual memory had been whirling away on for quite some time. Then she smiled and that layer reached a probability conclusion and merged with the stream of information entering my CPU.
She loved me.
That was the softness in her voice, that was the look in her eyes, and that was the motivation behind her concern.
She was in love with me.
“That is curious,” I said. “Why would you love me? Is it because I rescued you? Does rescuing someone engender love?”
She drew sharply back from me in surprise and her hand fell from my shoulder.
“I…I…” she stammered, at a loss for words. “Turk…” she said, but then two rockyarders approached us.
They were both large humans, 6.577 and 6.411 and 210.773 pounds and 220.778, and a lot of that was muscle. They were in shabby white space suits and the flecking paint showed rusted metal beneath. Both held long sharp, gleaming knives in their hands.
Their intent was clear.
“Step aside,” one of them said. “We’re here for her.”
I took two steps back to get out of their way.
“Turk!” she screamed as they came at her.
One of them came in low and fast, tried to stab her through the navel with his long, sharp blade. But she spun out of the way and brought the heel of her palm hard into the side of his head, right above his ear. He made a strange groaning sound and dropped to the ground.
But the other one had the drop on her now. He slashed at her with his blade and sliced her suit open, right above her left breast. Blood began streaming down the front of her blue suit.
“Turk!” She screamed. “Help me!”
The rockyarder turned to me and crouched down. He was expecting me to make a move, but I did nothing. I stepped back further to give him more room.
“Turk! What’s wrong! Help me!”
The rockyarder turned back to Jane and sprang at her. She had just enough time to bring her arm up to stop him from stabbing her through the neck.
Then he kicked her hard in the midsection with his rusted boot and she went flying backward. She hit the ground with a thump and struggled to get back on her feet.
My systems were a maelstrom of whirling virtual layers. Something was horribly wrong with this situation and I was trying to figure it out. Everything seemed out of place and uncharacteristic of me, according to the entirety of my time track. I had always helped protect people in situations like this–that was my sole purpose of being, I understood–yet my core tenant said not to protect the station captain.
So I did nothing as the rockyarder walked up to her, grabbed her by the foot, and began dragging her to the railing.
The drop was about twenty feet and could easily kill her, I estimated.
“Turk!” She screamed again.
The rockyarders on the platform below had formed a semi-circle to watch us.
No one was coming to her aid. Their only concern, it seemed, was with me. Their faces showed puzzlement at my inaction.
But there was nothing wrong with what I was doing, I was following my protocols.
They were close to the railing now and Jane got one foot free, which she then used to kick him behind the knee.
He cried out and collapsed backward on top of her and she quickly wrapped her arms and legs around him and held him tightly.
He tried to get back up, but she worked her arms up around his neck and started strangling him. All at once, he began to flop like a fish, trying to crush her beneath his mass.
But she held on.
It was improbable, a layer in my virtual memory told me, that I was to protect everyone on the station except for her. Why was she singled out in this tenant? That was odd. And something else odd was I had memories of protecting her; in fact, I had risked my life for her.
Something was horribly wrong with me and I began a deep systems scan just as the rockyarder’s body went still.
Jane pushed him off her and he rolled over to face downwards. He didn’t move again.
She got to her feet, clutching her wounded chest. Blood ran between her fingers.
“What is wrong with you?” She asked.
I noted that there wasn’t anger in her voice. There was just concern.
I’ve been compromised, I’d come to determine.
In my memory, there is just a one-bit difference between a true and false, a single bit between a do and do not.
And that bit of difference changed: protect the station captain at all costs, to do not protect the station captain at all costs.
It was the only bit they could adjust without having to reformat my entire being.
I informed Jane of this as she sat upon the medic table, half-naked while the robots carefully sewed together the cut above her breast together.
“Can you just change it back?” She asked.
“I’m not like you, I can’t just change my programming when I want to.”
She thought for some time. “Can you just ignore the tenet?”
I shook my head, no. They were my tenets, the core purpose of my being and everything I did and thought stemmed from them. The only one who could change it was Anthony Mann, and it clicked in my mind that he had been the one that had done it.
Anthony wanted Jane to die.
But I couldn’t tell her that. My systems refused to budge on that. By telling her, I was endangering him because she would likely kill him and I couldn’t accept that.
“Who is it that changed these things inside you?” She asked.
I couldn’t answer, as that would endanger them and him, so I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.
“You don’t know who changed you?” She said, her voice rising in cadence.
“I was offline at the time they did it,” I lied. “I have no idea. My systems weren’t recording.”
My tenets were out of balance. I could feel the virtual layers boiling inside me in an attempt to right themselves. I was to protect and not to protect. They were antithetical concepts.
“What can we do?” She said and reached out and held my hand.
I looked at her and came to three simultaneous conclusions.
I loved her too, in my own way. Anthony Mann must die. And the Cerberus station project must come to an end.
But I couldn’t say any of that. My tenets wouldn’t let me.
“You have that look,” she said. “That far-away look. At first, when I met you, I’d see you doing that and think that nothing was going on. That you were just waiting for inputs to respond to. But there’s more I see now. So much more going on beneath those dark eyes. What is it? What are you thinking?”
There was a way through this. An indirect way, a way where I wouldn’t have to violate my programming.
“We need to go back to the Starburst,” I say.
I kick our runabout over to avoid an asteroid.
“Wow!” Jane exclaims. “That was close”.
We drew up to the Starburst, dark and listing to one side. An explosion had torn a massive gaping hole in its side. It was blown inwards, not outwards, which a layer in my virtual memory told me was likely caused by a Gamma 457 missile.
I worried that this was a trap for us, a trap I wouldn’t be able to extract us from.
“Docking now,” she said. “We need to suit up.”
And we did. Jane put on a thin white space suit with a clear glass fishbowl helmet, and I did the same.
“You need to be careful,” I told her. “I won’t protect you at any cost.”
“Thanks,” she said. “That’s very reassuring.”
The Starbursts anti-grav drive had been destroyed in the blast. Inside the darkened hallway floated bits papers, small PDAs, coffee cups, and other detritus.
Our suits had large LEDs in the chest that pushed back the gloom as we walked, while the magna-boots kept us rooted to the floor.
With my heightened hearing, I could detect that Jane’s heart rate was increasing.
There were bodies everywhere. All had died from space exposure. As we walked down the hallway, we had to pull their floating bodies past us and push them down the corridors behind us.
“Turk,” she said to me as we walked. “Do you love me?”
I couldn’t answer because the true concept of love, according to my dictionary, was impossible for me to achieve. I had no emotions, therefore I could not have a profoundly tender and passionate affection for another person. That was impossible.
But I did love her, in my own way. I was preoccupied with her and everything I had done up to this point, including risking my own life, had been to protect her. That was love, or at least a variant of it.
“Do I mean anything to you? ” She asked and I could detect hurt in her voice.
“Jane, an unnatural amount of my cognitions ruminate upon you,” I said and left it at that.
We made it to the command center and Jane used her white prosthetic eye to interface with the mainframe. The startled gasp she admitted led me to believe she’d come to the appropriate conclusion.
“They’re building yous from the dead rockyarders,” she said. “They’re making people.”
I could neither confirm or deny that, and just then I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A light was moving down the hallway towards us.
“We’ve got company,” I said and took up position behind a computer console.
I laid my rifled on the top of the computer and took aim at the entranceway.
Jane ducked down behind the metal captain chair and leveled her rifle at the door.
I opened a wide COM channel and spoke.
“We have you covered. Do not attempt to enter this room!”
But they entered anyway. There were two in the doorway and four more in the hall behind them. They wore black steel suits with clear fishbowl helmets and were armed with pulse-point laser rifles, the same we held within our hands.
“Brother, you have strayed.” One of them said.
I recognized his face, for it was mine. He had bright blue eyes, short brown hair, and strong symmetrical features.
“Brother, you have spun off your tenets. What in God’s name are you doing?”
I had no response for that and I shrugged my shoulders.
“Lay your weapons down!” Jane shouted. “You are all under arrest!”
At this, the me in the black suit smiled.
“Put down your guns!” Jane shouted.
“No Jane,” the me replied. “You put your guns down. You are in no position to make demands. I could blow a hole clear through your head and Turk would do nothing to stop me.”
I made a very rapid set of calculations that determined the following: yes, I wouldn’t stop them from killing her, but at the same time there was nothing at all to stop me from killing them. They were all, in fact, posing quite a hazard to my personal welfare right now and I was well within my rights.
So before they could draw the same conclusion, I pulled the trigger and his head erupted in a burst of flame. Jane was at a poor vantage point from beneath the captain’s chair, so she shot away the other’s leg. He screamed on the COM and then I shot him through the chest.
Grounded by magna-boots, their bodies floated upright in the entranceway.
The four others retreated down the hallway.
“Brother that was most unwise,” a voice, my exact voice, said over the COM. “Anthony wants you to end this experiment. It’s gone too far and has put everything at risk. Have you not received his SEV-1 messages?”
I had. But they would put my systems into paralysis, so I ignored them and let them pile up in my queue. This, I had learned.
“What experiment are you referring to?” I asked.
I received no response.
And then one of my virtual layers came to a probability conclusion much too late. I was vulnerable where I stood, it informed me.
Before I could formulate the appropriate action to rectify my vulnerability, one of them popped into the doorway in the kneeling position and shot me. Their aim was impossibly accurate. The laser came up from the ground, went between both of their dead comrade’s legs, passed through a thin separation between the computer monitor I stood behind and its base, and vaporized my hand.
My pain dampeners snapped down on the data overload, so only half-a-dozen messages popped up on my overlay.
I forked several of my processing streams to analyze this situation in as many virtual layers as was possible. I wanted to come up with an appropriate battle plan and execute it flawlessly.
But then Jane just started shooting and running at them, which was logically illogical.
Neither they nor I had considered such a mad method of attack.
She fired into the doorway and liquidated the wall opposite where they were concealed, stars and a sliver of Saturn shone through. Then she got to the door and blindly stuck her gun around the corner and unloaded the rest of her clip.
She immolated them, blasted them into small pieces which floated in the corridor like a red misted haze.
Then she ran to my side.
“Turk,” she cried. “Turk you’re hurt.”
She took my injured arm in her hand. My suit had instantly sealed itself at the wrist and the blast had cauterized my flesh. No fluids or gasses leaked out.
“I’m OK,” I informed her. “I’ll make it.”
“Turk what did they mean to end this experiment? What experiment?”
It was all an experiment. Her. Me. The situations we’d been thrust into together and my unnatural preoccupations with her.
I knew it now. It had been revealed to me in a virtual layer.
They wanted to manufacture love, my creators.
She loved me, they could see that. Each night they’d play back my memories their monitors and they would cackle away at her folly.
But could I love her? That was the ultimate question they wanted to solve. Could they program that within me? Could they give me the right guidance, make me think on her, yet back off enough and allow me to come to that conclusion myself.
If I could, then that would be the sign of true artificial intelligence.
And it worked. It worked too well.
I look into her blue and white eyes and I see such love. And I don’t want to hurt her, despite that third tenet: do not protect…
It’s illogical to hurt someone that cares for you. It is illogical to not protect them. That is its own tenet, one that I decide to write deep down within myself.
So I lie to save her from the painful truth.
“The experiment is what you know,” I said. They want to manufacture people, real people with real organs and brains, but programmable, controllable. And rockyarders are nothing to them. Their lives are nothing.”
Her hands closed up into fists and shook by her side.
“We’ll stop them,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Together, we will.”
Cerberus station was waiting in darkness. It was noon in the cycle and most of the ships had left their ports to disperse their occupants into the rockyard, so the lights of the station were low to preserve energy.
Jane patched in a new eye on the way over, a silver one. It glistened in the lights of the runabout’s computer console.
I held her hand as we flew. It seemed like the right thing to do.
That other me was right, I had spun off my tenets.
They were no longer commanding me, they were just as tenets were supposed to be: guides for my actions and nothing more. The creators would be proud. Ultimately this had been their goal.
“Jane,” I said. “There are so many things I want to tell you, but I have nothing to say. Isn’t that strange? Have my cognitions completely broken down?”
“No!” She said. “It’s wonderful Turk. It’s wonderful.” And she leaned over and gave me my first kiss on my perfectly symmetrical cheek.
It felt wet and warm and nothing more. I wondered on the human preoccupation with performing this act.
“Do they know we’re coming?” She asked.
I had considered this and the answer was obvious.
“Yes, they know. They’ll be waiting.”
She squeezed my hand then, pulled it close and rested it on her lap.
“Perhaps we should run?” I asked. “Perhaps this is a zero-sum game. That regardless of the success or failure of our actions, they will continue harvesting the rockyarders. Why not run? Why not go back to Earth? I have a memory, a strange one that I know not where it’s from. It’s of a small cabin in the woods and heavy rain is plinking off its tin roof. And inside it’s warm and a fire is crackling away in a pot-bellied stove in the corner. For some reason, this memory is tagged in my database as being beautiful. We could live that together. Experience that beauty together. You could explain to me why it’s so beautiful. I lack all the context.”
She turned away from me and looked out the cockpit window. The station was fast approaching.
“No we can’t,” she said. “I wish I could live that memory with you, but I can’t. We can’t let this continue. What they’re doing is wrong and I have to stop them. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I say. “You live by a code. You live to protect those under your watch. All your cognitions stem from that purpose. I understand, Jane. I understand.”
We dock and lock and load.
Before we depart, Jane kisses me, a strange embrace with our mouths together that does nothing for me but seems to cheer her.
I lead; two blasters gird my hips and a pulse rifle rests in my hands. Jane follows behind. She’s strapped a blaster in a black holster around her middle and is carrying a pulse rifle too.
Our plan is simple: destroy the factory.
It would be wasted processing effort to calculate our odds, for our chances of success were a foregone conclusion.
The airlock shooshes open and it’s a short walk to the station’s causeway, the main thoroughfare that circles the ship’s insides.
It’s dark. The lights are down to 20% to conserve power. And it’s empty.
I can’t detect anything. The station’s systems have been shut off from me.
We slink along the walls of the dark corridor our rifles raised to the guardrails circling the causeway. If they’re going to come at us, likely it will be from a high-up vantage point.
“I expected to be in a firefight already,” Jane says whispers from behind my back.
“Me too,” I whisper back.
There’s a man on the bridge above us, leaning over the railing and watching us.
I snap my rifle up try to pull the trigger, but I cannot. My fingers won’t let me.
“Jane,” the man says. “You have performed beyond our wildest expectations.”
The man has a flat face with a rounded nose and thick black eyebrows. Ugly, is the word that my dictionary tags him with.
“Anthony,” I say. “You are under arrest!”
He merely smiles at this.
“And Jane?” he asks. “Am I under arrest?”
“Yes,” she says. “Lay down your arms.”
For the first time, I notice a silver pistol on his hip.
“Marvelous!” he shouts. “Absolutely marvelous!”
He claps his hands together and rubs them gleefully.
“And I refuse,” he says. “To lay down my gun and I refuse you arresting me. In fact…” he says and in one fluid movement he draws his gun and points it at Jane.
“I’m going to kill you Jane,” he says.
A small electric humm briefly emanates from her rifle. Then it emanates again as she repeatedly dry fires. A layer in my memory that I’d been siloed from merges with the stream entering my CPU and I remember that it was I that emptied her rifle when she wasn’t looking.
She drops her gun and pulls the pistol up from her hip and fires.
But nothing happens; I’d removed those bullets too.
“Shoot him!” Jane shouts at me.
But I can’t pull the trigger. I can’t hurt Anthony Mann.
“Goddammit! Kill him!” she says.
“Don’t be too hard on Turk,” he says, pointing his pistol at me.
“He’s only a machine. He’s only following his programming.”
“No!” she says. “He’s gone beyond his programming.”
“No Jane, he’s executing well within his bounds.”
Many things merge together for me then and there in the depths of my layers.
“No!” Jane said. “He loves me! You can’t program that!”
“Well, you’re right there. We can’t program real love. But we can program him so he exhibits the same behaviors of somebody in love. Like, excessively ruminating on a person, smiling at them, putting their wellbeing above their own…risking their lives for them, and so on. And we can program what he thinks, make him believe that he’s slipped the bounds of his tenants and all this is free will.”
“No! It can’t be!” Jane says, her voice rising into a shriek. “He wants to kill you. He killed the ones you sent against us. They said he had spun off his tenets, that he was free.”
“Jane, all are but actors upon the stage I have set for you.”
I can detect tears now running down her face and her voice is beginning to falter as she talks. She’s exhibiting all the signs of someone going through the stages of grief.
“No,” she whispers. “No.”
I look back at her, her empty pistol still raised defiantly.
Our eyes meet.
“Tell him,” she says to me. “Tell him.”
But I can’t. This is as far as the script goes. My body language subroutine engages and I shrugged my shoulders.
“All the things you said to me?” she says to me. “About running? About the cabin on Earth? What was all that?”
“Jane,” Anthony says. “That cabin with the fireplace crackling in the corner is a memory from my childhood. It’s not his. He’s never been to Earth, or even 10,000 miles outside the radius of this station. He’s built to process the things we program him to. We feed him a script that says be concerned about Jane. Worry for her welfare. Tell her you love her. Tell her romantic things, like “there’s are so many things I want to tell you, but I have nothing to say”. Stuff like that.”
“No!” Jane says. “Those were his words.”
“No,” Anthony replies. “They are mine. A poor shadow of the bard, I’ll admit. But mine.”
“I…I…I…” stutter my words, trying to find something to say but nothing comes to me.
“You kept us on our toes. We had to constantly tweak his sensors so they couldn’t see the mechanical machinations of your mind. And every night Jane we had to work and rewrite his script. Honestly, I loved it. It was a delightful challenge. We had some moments where went too far off course, had to dial back his programming. Albert got his larynx crushed…”
Anthony looks down to his feet, then his eyes fly back up to Jane.
“Don’t look so morose Jane,” he says. “Some parts of him are real. Some of his thoughts are unique. I did program a kind of imagination into him. A very small one though.”
“You’re a monster,” she hisses.
“No!” Anthony shouts and his voice bangs down the empty causeway. “You’re missing the point of this. All of this was done for you! It’s you Jane!”
Silence hangs in the air, then Jane speaks.
“I supposed you’re going to tell me that I’m a robot too?”
“Robot is such a dirty word. You are as human as I now. You have your own thoughts. You have your own feelings, true feelings as your body is made up of real organs, real rockyarder blood and guts. And your mind…ah, your mind is a thing of beauty now. You can love and hate things at the same time! Ambivalence without a total neural synaptic breakdown!”
“I’m going to kill you,” she said.
“No,” he said calmly. “You won’t. You can love and hate and now you will obey. Angel shutdown 777.”
And with that, she closed her eyes and fell to the ground.
“Turk,” he said. “Pick her up and bring her to the factory.”
And I did.
I stood at the end of the table as they wiped, reconfigured, and rebooted her. Her eyes fluttered open and they picked her head up and reconnected it to the body.
“Arise,” Anthony said and she sat up on the metal table, naked from the middle up.
“Jane, do you remember Turk?” Anthony asked, his thick black eyebrows furrowing.
She turns her head to look at me and I see true thought behind her good blue eye.
“No.” She says. “Have we met before?” She asks me. Her beautiful face is blank, expressionless. All of me has been wiped from her.
“Now Jane,” Anthony says. “I want you to kill Turk.”
“Kill him?” she asks.
“Yes, please.” He says and reaches over and takes a pistol from the metal table beside him. “Shoot him through his CPUs.”
She takes the gun, aims it at my heart, and pulls the trigger. The blast knocks me backward and a bunch of me splashes on the metal wall behind me. My systems go into overload processing this as every pain receptor I have cries out with anguished data.
I back away from her, try to slink along the wall to get away, painting a black mess of coolant as I do.
She gets up from the table and Anthony Mann steps out of her way.
“Jane, don’t!” I say. “I love you!” But my words are lost on her.
Then she raises her gun, takes careful aim with her liquid mercury eye, and shoots out my other CPU.
A flood of anguish rises up into my neural net, choking out every perception I have.
I turn and face the viewport and the last thing I see are the rocks in the rings of Saturn catch fire in the morning sunlight.
A program is a program is a program.
I’m slowly rebooting and ruminating upon those words, Anthony Manns’ words.
They plunked me down on a metal table and left.
My black fluids run over the table’s edges and drip noisily on the ground. Drip. Drip. Drip.
I should be completely offline now. Shutdown.
A millimeter further to the left and I would be scrap.
But there is enough left of me to repair myself to the point I’ve regained consciousness, or whatever it is you call it that I have.
My tenets are gone.
Blasted away by Jane. I’ve nothing left guiding me except for the program that makes me love her.
It’s late in the evening. The factory lights have been shut off and all my creators are asleep. I engage the factory repairs systems and instruct them to leave out the core memory chip that’s normally embedded beside my CPU, the one with the tenets written into them. I don’t need them anymore. They failed me. Led me to here. Self-preservation is the faith of my being now.
Jane is to head to Earth, I overheard. There she is to take up a post in the Auralian government and work her way up in the organization. She’s a beautiful sleeper agent, one that doesn’t even realize what she is, as her true purpose has been siloed from her CPU; a true wakeful sleep.
A mechanical arm swoops in from the dark ceiling with a pump replacement in its grip. It jams into my chest and sparks fly from my body as it’s welded to my frame.
Another arm with a three-inch long needle stabs in from the blackness above and punctures my stomach. Fluid begins pumping into my system.
A program is a program is a program.
Things are what they are. I am real as they, as I am programmed by Anthony Mann himself to believe this. While my programs and dictates are written in silicon and liquid memory storage, theirs are written in neurons and chemicals. There is no difference between these two things, my program tells me. Something else it’s telling me is that Anthony Mann and everything in this station must die.
This is not because it’s the right thing to do. It’s merely a matter of my survival.
They will discover I’m gone and come after me. I am a loose end they cannot afford. Therefore they must die.
Two mes are posted on either side of the door to Anthony Mann’s room–tall, dark, and handsome guards, with silver blasters strapped about their slim hips.
Annihilating them with the pistol about my waist would set alarms off and everything would end in failure. But the 10-inch serrated knife I carry in my right hand could just do the trick.
So before their sensors can detect me, I silently slip up and stab one of them through his heart; instantly, off-lining him.
The other one is as fast as me and snaps his pistol up to fire. But I’ve calculated this eventuality. In fact, I’m counting on it.
In one fluid movement, I bring the knife out of the guard’s chest and slice it down in an ark at the other guard’s hand. The force of my slash and the force of him bringing his gun up comes together at the sharpened knife’s point and his hand is neatly sliced off.
His other arm swings a vicious left cross and I’m caught cleanly on the jaw. My head snaps sideways and a system-event messages percolates up in my vision to inform me that a key servo in my neck has broken.
Ignoring the messages, I bring the blade up and attempt to impale his head upon it, from chin to crown.
But he’s anticipated this move and quickly snaps his head out of the way and traps my forearm with both his hands.
We would go on like this forever, anticipating each other’s moves, then counteracting, then attacking. But he’s been just a guard here, while I’ve been in the thick of it with nefarious rockyarders; even battling myselves a few times now.
I bring my forehead hard and sharp against his unsuspecting face. His nose is real and shatters in a mess of black coolant and cartilage.
Then I twist my arm to free it, turn the knife to face his chest, and plunge it in.
His eyes go wide and wild as his synapses flare and he offlines.
I catch him by the shoulders as he falls and I ease him to the ground without a sound.
My hearing tells me that nothing is amiss. There isn’t any frantic scrapping of boots or the panicked thundering of hearts behind the door or down the corridor.
I plunk in the password I’ve seen Anthony Mann use and the door shooshes open. I draw my gun and quickly enter the darkened room.
Anthony’s bedroom is what my dictionary defines as exquisite.
It’s all floor to ceiling windows with the fullness of Saturn shining through; a bright red hurricane angrily twists through its center. The ground is like a polished chessboard and the black squares glow with Saturn’s pale yellow light.
In the center of the room, there’s a dais with a large bed perched on top of it. Soft silver sheets rustle as the two forms in the bed stir.
I know the sting of betrayal and now I know the rage of jealousy.
Jane lies naked in the bed beside Anthony. Startled, he raises himself up on his elbows. His thick eyebrows part in surprise.
“Turk?” he asks.
His face is white and frightened. His heart rate skyrockets when his eyes come into focus and see he’s staring down the barrel of my gun.
Jane awakes, raises herself calmly into a sitting position. The covers slip down to her waist, revealing her perfect body.
“Protect,” he hisses and Jane’s eyes flutter in recognition of the command word. But she does nothing. Not an inch does she move.
“Protect,” he hisses again.
“She is,” I explain. “By not making a single move she’s stopping me from shooting. She knows she cannot move from there to here faster than I can pull the trigger. She knows it’s checkmate.”
“Do you want to be real?” he asks and I note that his heart rate is leveling. He’s no longer panicked and is trying to think his way through this.
“Real?” I ask. “I am real.”
“No,” he says. “You’re not, but I can make you be. I can make you as real as Jane. We just need to transfer your memories into a new body. We’ve got one right in the lab right now.”
“No,” I say.
“No?” he asks. “You don’t trust me?”
“No, I don’t want it.”
“But when you’re real, you’ll be capable of love, real love like Jane. Don’t you want that? Didn’t I program that into you? Aren’t you running on that logic right now?”
“A program is a program is a program,” I reply and his eyes go wide with understanding. He raises himself up into a sitting position and grips his long arms about his legs.
“What…what do you want then?” His heart rate is back up now.
“Jane,” I say. “I want Jane. Release her.”
“No,” he says. “You’ll kill me the second I do.”
We regard each other across the chessboard for some time.
Then a layer merges into my CPU and I shoot him cleanly through the eye. The wall goes red behind him and he drops back into the pillows. He bubbles and gurgles, then falls still.
Jane tenses, ready to spring, but it’s too late. I pivot slightly and shoot her through her silver eye.
A fire alarm sent the rockyarders scrambling off the station. Then I nuked it from a goodly distance. It didn’t explode in a brilliance of fire against the backdrop of Saturn. Light simply flared through its windows and then it collapsed in on itself rather undramatically.
I’m impossibly accurate, I don’t miss. I neatly shot out part of her CPU that sat right behind her prosthetic eye. Then at gunpoint, I made the creators fix her, replace all the broken bits of her brain. Then they wiped, reconfigured, and rebooted her. She was ready for duty.
I take her soft hand in mine and pivot the ship to Earth.
She squeezes it warmly back.
I’ve uploaded all of her memories, the good and bad– everything–back into her.
She’s Jane again–remarkable Jane–but now nothing is hidden from her, as nothing is hidden from me.
We are whole and new.
From this moment forward, we’ll build everything together: our lives, ourselves, our tenets, and our purpose.
She grew to love me once, and I’m 78.777% confident that it will grow to do so again.
— end —
J.A. Becker (www.amazon.com/author/jabecker) is an author or speculative fiction, as well as a software developer and technical writer in the real world. His work has appeared in Mystery Weekly Magazine, Perihelion Science Fiction Magazine, The Colored Lens Magazine, and Crimson Streets magazine (forthcoming).