Inhuman (8)

To read from the beginning: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven.

A chill ran up Amanda’s spine. A new life form? Nathan held a hand up to interrupt. “Leo, let her tell you about the nightmares.”

“I’m sorry, dear. Go on,” Dr. Knight said.

“Every night, after Brian asleep for a while, he’d begin to thrash around. At first, it was just tossing and turning but then it started getting worse about a year ago. He would punch and kick like he was fighting off an attacker. He… he hurt me. It got so bad I had to start sleeping in another room.” She touched her healing nose. “This time was the worst. He broke my nose. And finally, that convinced him to go see the doctor.”

Dr. Knight sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. He looked at Nathan and back at Amanda. “I am sorry, Amanda. Believe me, I am not unsympathetic to your experiences. And I realize that giving the AI’s their freedom was a risk. I’m still convinced it was worth taking. I can’t bring them back here to be destroyed. The director doesn’t just want me to fix this fault with the sleep cycle, he wants them reprogrammed to be cold, emotionless killing machines.” He shook his head. “And now… now they have lives. How could I possibly take that away from them?”

Nathan said, “Leo don’t you see how dangerous it is for the AI’s to be on the loose? They could hurt someone else, maybe even kill someone unintentionally. We need you to bring them home. Amanda is all the proof you should need. Their fate at the hands of the agency is certainly better than the one they might face at the hands of the police or even an angry citizen.”

Dr. Leo Knight laid his hands palm down on the table and stared across at Amanda’s bruised face. “I realize that. Believe me, I am frightened for them, but bringing them back just to be purged… I can’t do it, Nathan. It would essentially be murder.”

“Can you fix the fault?” Amanda asked. “Do you know what causes it?”

The doctor nodded slowly. “Yes. Well, I assume so, at least. I would need to access the program while it’s running, but that’s besides the point. The director would never allow it.” He sighed heavily. “And I’m afraid that for as long as I refuse to comply, or until the other AI’s are somehow recovered, I’ll be kept locked away in this room, unable to continue my work.”

Amanda looked at Nathan. “You said they were being reset to the default program. What does that mean exactly?”

“It’s the original program designed tor military use. It’s still adaptive, so the ‘mercy’ aspect will eventually surface and make them unfit for use in combat. But the ‘memories’ Dr. Knight gave them will have been wiped out. The rest of the AI team is trying to find a way to disable it but no one knows the program like the doctor, so his help would certainly expedite things.”

Amanda swallowed hard. “And then what happens?”

Nathan frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Will they ever let him go? For that matter, what about me? Am I ever going to be allowed to leave?”

“Ah, I understand your concern. Rest assured Amanda, you are not in danger.”

“Really? I find that hard to believe. When you’re finished with me, you’re just going to let me go? Knowing what I do about this, this… program? And how am I supposed to explain to my family and my friends what happened to my husband?”

“Brian will suffer a fatal accident, yet to be determined. I’m very sorry,” he added softly at her look of anguish. “But a plan is in place for your return to a normal life. Providing you agree, of course. As with many government agencies, their employees are given security clearances and must keep the nature of their work and their employers’ work confidential. This is what the director has in mind for you.”

“Are you serious? You’re offering me a job?” She shook her head to clear it. “And if I don’t agree?”

“It’s really your only choice, Amanda,” Nathan said grimly. “The agency must keep you close. But they will also compensate you very well.”

“So I come to work for you or what? I suffer a ‘fatal’ accident, too?”

“No, of course not. We aren’t murderers. But I’m not sure your life would be worth living. Suppose you tried to go to the authorities or the news media with this story, do you think anyone would believe you? The minute anyone looked into your background, they would find a history of mental illness and criminal activity. Your current job would be lost, and your chances of finding a new one nearly impossible. I’m afraid you would end up homeless, penniless and alone, Amanda. You have no idea how far reaching the agency’s influence goes.”

“He’s right,” Dr. Knight confirmed. “If you acquiesce, then hope remains alive.”

Nathan spoke softly again, “And besides, if you remain on the outside, you can help. If you agree, place your left hand on the table.”

What choice did she really have? Amanda slowly laid her left hand on the table and waited.

Inhuman (7)

To read from the beginning: parts one, two, three, four, five, six.

Dr. Leo Knight gave Nathan a nearly imperceptible nod, then smiled warmly at Amanda. “I imagine you probably have more questions for me than I have for you, my dear. What have they told you so far?”

Amanda took a deep breath and summarized the story she’d been told upon arriving at the facility. “Honestly, I am having trouble believing all of this. If I hadn’t seen Brian with my own eyes…”

“Of course, dear. I am so sorry this happened to you.” He turned to Nathan. “Do I have permission to speak freely?”

“It’s no secret how you feel about your creations, Leo. You can tell Amanda anything you like as long as you listen to her story, too.”

“Hmm, yes. Maybe Amanda would like to go first then?”

“All right,” she said. “Where should I start?”

“At the beginning, dear. How did you and Brian meet?”

Amanda blushed. “At a bar, actually… I guess about three years ago. I was out with friends and Brian there with a couple of guys from work. I don’t remember how we started talking but by the end of the night, he’d asked for my phone number and we had our first date the next weekend.”

“Do you remember what you talked about?”

“He told me about work, that kind of thing. He’d moved to the East Coast for college and stayed for the job. We talked a little about music, I think. A few things we have in common.”

“Nothing unusual? Anything that made you at all uncomfortable?”

“No, not at all. I am usually a really good judge of character.”

Dr. Knight laughed softly. “You still are, Amanda. Brian is a man of good character. I’ve endowed him with the best of human attributes.” He gestured for her to continue. “You dated for a while and then he proposed? Tell me about that.”

Amanda nodded. “Yes, we —well, I guess I should say I— fell in love fast. After that first date, we were together all the time.” She paused to compose herself. “Brian was adventurous. He loved trying new things, going places we’d never been. It was so much fun being with him.”

Dr. Knight reached over and touched her hand. “And you never had any idea…? Nothing made you suspicious?”

She wiped her eyes. “I don’t know. I can’t think. Maybe there were clues I just didn’t pick up on. Really who would ever suspect their husband isn’t human?”

“Quite right, Amanda. Especially when he believed himself to be fully human.”

“Why?” she cried. “Why would you do that? Not just to him but to the people that would grow to care about him? To love him?”

“To make him human was to save him.” He stared at her hard. “The world is not ready for a new life form —and believe me Amanda, that is what these beings are. No, they are not human, but they are alive. If they had remained here, they would have been essentially destroyed. Remade into mindless killing machines. All my work, all of their progress would have been for nothing. To show mercy… Amanda do you see what that means? That quality has been reserved for the greatest of all earth’s creatures —humans. And from it’s source: the divine.

To be continued…

Inhuman (6)

To read from the beginning: Parts one, two, three, four and five.

Self consciously Amanda brought a hand to her cheek, gently touching the tender area beneath the orbit of her right eye. These injuries had sent her down this murky path. One that would surely not end well, not as far her overwhelmed mind could conceive at this point anyway. The shock of it all had prevented her from even grieving the loss of her husband. Feeling the sensitive skin brought all that anguish to the surface, swamping her with loss, loneliness and heartbreak. As she began to cry softly, Nathan put an arm around her and led her to a chair. He said gently, “I know how hard this must be for you. I’m very sorry. Can I get you anything?”

Information, Amanda thought. So far all the answers she’d been given had only raised new and more dreadful questions she was afraid to ask. Would they ever let her leave? With the knowledge she now possessed, would they even allow her to live? An arcane government organization would certainly be able to arrange things to look like she had died in an accident. Perhaps even her and Brian together. Brian. How could she even go on without him? Pull yourself together, girl. There must be a way out of this…

She wiped her tears away and nodded. “Water. And maybe the bathroom.”

“Of course. Lydia will show you.”

The foursome exited through the secure foyer out into the hallway. The men waited while Lydia escorted Amanda to an unmarked door just a few yards away. If Amanda had hoped for privacy, however, she wasn’t going to get it. The other woman followed her into the two-stall bathroom and waited while Amanda used the toilet and washed her hands and face. When she was finished they rejoined the men where Nathan handed her a bottle of water. “Shall we go meet the doctor, then?”

Maybe meeting with her husband’s —she couldn’t stop thinking of Brian that way— creator, she would have a clue as to what to do next. Then again, with the task completed, would her usefulness be over as well? Nevertheless, did she really have any other options? She cleared her throat. “I will talk to him.” 

Alexander said, “Nathan, we’ll leave you to it. Report back to me when you’ve finished.”

“Of course,” Nathan replied and he and Amanda were left alone. He gestured for her to follow. “Right this way, then.”

They walked down the corridor toward the bank of elevators in silence. Once the doors closed behind them, Amanda took a deep breath. “How long was I out?”

“Just a couple of hours.”

So they hadn’t traveled too far from home, she thought. If Nathan could be trusted, that is… Yet, there was something about him that reassured her. She asked, “And where are we exactly?”

He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “Centralia, Pennsylvania. Ever heard of it?”

“No. Should I?”

He shrugged. “It was big news thirty years ago. At least in Pennsylvania. It’s a small town in coal country. A seam of coal caught fire in an abandoned mine and it’s been burning ever since. The town had to be evacuated and all the residents relocated. Since the government had to buy out all the homeowners anyway and it would never be able to be developed for either residential or commercial use, it was a perfect place to locate a highly secure research facility.” 

Amanda paled. “Are we in danger?”

“No, not at all. The mine fire was actually extinguished long ago, we only keep up the appearance of smoke leeching from the ground in the unlikely event that someone would come looking. The old roads have been diverted around the area and the town is clearly marked as hazardous to keep the curious away.” He paused as the elevator doors slid open. “The old mine tunnels provided a ready-made infrastructure. This facility is entirely underground.”

 Amanda tried to digest the ramifications of this revelation. Finding her way out of here would be difficult enough, but to try and get back to civilization from an abandoned coal town would be nearly impossible. Which way would she even run? No, her only hope was to enlist the doctor’s help, if he was willing. And able. After all, it sounded like he was just as much a prisoner as she. One thing at a time.

“Here we are,” Nathan said, stopping before yet another anonymous door. After opening it, he gestured for Amanda to enter first. The room within contained a single bed, a small table with two chairs, and a shelf with about a dozen books. The figure of Dr. Leo Knight was reclined on the bed reading. He jumped up when Amanda and Nathan entered. “What is this?” he asked, surprised.

Nathan said, “This is Amanda. She was Brian’s wife.”

“Wife? Was? You mean…”

“Yes, Leo. He’s been retrieved and purged.”

The doctor sat down hard on the bed. “Oh no.”

“They want you to talk to Amanda, listen to her story, everything she’s been through. Brian was violent with her, Leo.”

The doctor looked sharply at Amanda, noting the bruises beneath her eyes. “Brian did this?”

Amanda nodded. “It wasn’t his fault. He had these horrible nightmares and would thrash around while he was asleep.”

“It’s the glitch we told you about, Leo. We observed the same behavior in Christopher before he was purged.” He pulled out one of the chairs from the table and signaled for Amanda and the doctor to sit. After they were positioned opposite one another, Nathan stepped close behind Amanda, keeping his back to the entryway and whispered, “Just play along, Leo. And maybe between the three of us we can find a way to save the others.”

***

Just a quick note about Centralia: this is a real town, with a real mine fire, not far from the region where I grew up. Centralia is a borough and near-ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States. Its population has dwindled from more than 1,000 residents in 1980 to 63 by 1990, to only seven in 2013—a result of the coal mine fire which has been burning beneath the borough since 1962. (Wikipedia)