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)

Inhuman (5)

To read from the beginning: part one, part two, part three, part four.

(5)

“Set them free? You mean, like out into the world?” Amanda asked, her voice shaking.

Nathan nodded and taking her arm, led her away from the android stations. “Let me introduce you to Dr. Leo Knight.” He picked up a remote and aimed it at the large video monitor on the wall. A face filled the screen. It was a pleasant face –male, bald, wearing wire-framed glasses and a neatly trimmed beard. The doctor appeared to be middle aged or older, Amanda wasn’t sure. With a smile on his lips and laugh lines at the corner of his eyes, Dr. Knight looked more like a kindly uncle than mad scientist.

“Dr. Knight is the man who developed the adaptable AI software, the lifelike synthetic skin and the humanoid bodily functions. Among other things, his androids can eat and eliminate food, even though they don’t need to. They simulate breathing, they cough and sneeze in response to environmental factors, and their processors recognize appropriate times for sleeping and waking. All those little details make them seem more human,” Nathan explained. “Once the androids were cleared from the beta trials, they would be embedded into the army as regular soldiers. If they performed well in the field tests, the military would be able to eventually replace human soldiers with these AI units.”

“No one anticipated just how ‘human’ the androids would become. Dr. Knight’s software turned out to be a little too adaptable,” Alexander said. “The androids were physically superb and certainly fearless, but they weren’t ruthless enough.”

“How so?” Amanda asked.

“They showed mercy,” he said. “They ignored orders to kill.”

“The director asked Dr. Knight to find the glitch and fix it. Turn off the conscience, if you will,” Lydia told her. “He balked at the idea. The fact that the androids were behaving in such a way gave evidence of life, he claimed. And no one had the right to take that away from them.”

“But the director insisted that they were machines, with no rights, no matter how lifelike they seemed,” Alexander continued. “He ordered the modifications and Leo began work, seeming to comply.”

“But what he was really doing was giving them memories, altering their programming so that they would actually believe they were humans, with families and a lifetime of experiences,” Nathan said. “He gave them names, chose real families whose circumstances couldn’t easily be uncovered.”

“You mean no close relatives? Dead parents? That kind of thing?” Amanda asked.

“Exactly. Any superficial investigation wouldn’t turn up anything suspect.”

“There was a problem with the new programming, however,” Alexander said. “We still haven’t found the source of the fault, but it’s buried within the sleep program.”

“The nightmares…” Amanda murmured.

“Yes, that is how it manifests,” he agreed. “Some remnant of code from the military programs, a response to close quarters fighting or something —that’s where we’re searching at least— seems to be triggered during simulated sleep. It builds to a climax and is shut down by some internal feedback loop.”

“The low hum. I noticed some kind of electronic tone just as Brian would settle down,” Amanda said.

“Right. We think that’s the upper limit warning on the program. For some reason, it only occurs once each sleep cycle. In ordinary feedback loops, the process might begin again when the signal falls below the threshold level, but that isn’t happening here. That’s why we are restoring the entire system to default mode,” Nathan said. “And that is why it is absolutely vital that we find the other missing androids.”

Amanda’s eyes widened. “How many more are there?”

“Two. Units One and Four are still out there. And so far there’s no sign of them.”

“You see, unless they get in some kind of trouble or end up seeking medical attention like Unit Two… er, Brian, we can’t track them.”

“The other android you found… what happened to him?” she asked.

Nathan scrubbed his hands over his face. “Ah, it was bad…”

“He was pulled over while driving,” Lydia said, scowling. “The cop made him get out of the car. Said Unit Three made a threatening move and he shot him. Of course, the bullets never pierced his internal armor and he didn’t even bleed. The cop freaked out and kept firing. Emptied his entire gun into him.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Fortunately, we monitor all police bands and one of our teams was able to get him released into their custody,” Nathan concluded.

“You see why we need to find them? Not only for the safety of the general public, but also for their own safety,” Lydia said.

“And Dr. Knight is the only person who knows the identities of the androids. Who they are, where they are, what kind of work they’re doing. But so far, he’s not cooperating,” Alexander added. “We were hoping to enlist your help.”

“My help?”

“Yes. Dr. Knight needs to hear just how dangerous his creations have become. He won’t take our word for it, but he might just listen to you.” He gestured to her fading bruises. “The evidence is written all over your face.”

To be continued…

Inhuman (4)

Find the rest of the story here: parts one, two and three.

(4)

Amanda laughed, realizing she sounded a little hysterical. This was ridiculous, something straight out of science fiction. She took a deep breath and hoped she sounded reasonable. “But he had parents, family, a childhood… I’ve seen photos…”

“But you never met anyone from his past, did you?”

“No, he’s an only child and his parents died just a few years ago. Before Brian and I met.”

“And what about your wedding? Any old friends on Brian’s side? Extended family?”

“N-no… he’s not close to his family and he grew up clear across the country, so… no none of his old friends were at the wedding.”

Lydia nodded. “There are no old friends or extended family. SAIW-02 was created in a laboratory a little over five years ago.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Amanda, we realize how inconceivable this sounds. Maybe you’d like to see for yourself,” suggested Alexander, rising from his seat. “Let us take you to Brian.”

He held out a hand to help Amanda up from the sofa and tucked it in the crook of his arm as he led her from the room. Lydia and Nathan followed a few paces behind. They followed the long hall to the elevators at the far end. When the four of them had entered and the doors closed behind them, Nathan used another retina scanner to direct it to a floor only accessible via this security. As the elevator descended, Amanda tried to recall anything, any tiny detail that she might have overlooked. Was the lack of family and friends enough to cast suspicion on his background? He had a college degree, friends from university, work friends. He excelled at his job —maybe that was no surprise— but he had made friends, he’d fallen in love with her, he had told her he wanted to have children eventually. Were those the actions of a machine? And his memories… He believed he had parents and a childhood, old friends and a family home. The truth hit Amanda like a ton of bricks. Brian didn’t know.

“Why? Why would he not know? Why would he think he was human if he’s not?” Amanda asked. “If he knew he was an ‘android super soldier’ (she air quoted) why would he have ever agreed to go to the doctor? He would have known what they would find. If what you’re telling me is true, how does Brian not know?”

“One thing at a time, Amanda,” Lydia said calmly. “I promise, we’ll tell you everything we can.”

Everything we can. Not everything, then… Amanda thought.

The elevator stopped at Subfloor Three and after a pause, the doors slid open onto another hallway identical to the one they’d left above but for one exception. There were no doors interrupting the walls on either side, just an unbroken corridor that terminated in a similar set of secure doors at the end. Alexander, still holding Amanda’s arm against him, led the way. The ubiquitous retina scanner admitted them into a glass foyer.

At first, Amanda was overwhelmed by the space. The vast laboratory seemed to take up the entire floor. All the surfaces were gleaming white and the handful of workers within were dressed as surgeons would be —white gowned, capped, masked and gloved. Alexander plucked a white jump suit from a hook on the wall and handed it to her. “It’s a clean room. We keep the dust and debris to an absolute minimum. Preserves the sensitive instruments.”

No one spoke as they suited up. When Amanda had slipped into the suit, Lydia passed her a pair of elastic booties to fit over her shoes and a cap and mask for her hair and face. Finally they each donned a pair of surgical gloves from a dispenser on the wall. After everyone was appropriately attired, Alexander opened the inner door. The dominant sound was a low hum —machine noise— with no distinct source.

Alexander led them to an area behind another wall of glass. Behind it were four bays with computer interface hardware mounted to delicate scaffolding where —in two of them— a human form was resting. Amanda’s eyes were drawn to Bay 2 where her husband lay semi-supine with a thick cable threading into his nostrils. Without Alexander’s arm supporting her she might have collapsed. “He’s been deactivated, Amanda. We’re purging the current programming and restoring him to default mode.”

She shook her head to clear it. “I still… I don’t… how…?”

“These androids were in beta testing.” Alexander gestured to the bays. For the first time Amanda noticed the second android in the bay next to Brian. Another male, this one with African American features. “They hadn’t even been introduced to the armed forces.”

Nathan cleared his throat. “They were programmed with basic human functions, only interacting within the confines of the laboratory and with the workers employed here. But their programming is intuitive, they are capable of learning and adapting.”

“Rather quickly, it seems,” Lydia interjected. “They developed some unintended and unexpected characteristics.”

“Quite right. They developed ‘feelings’,” Alexander said with obvious distaste. “Emotions, concern and sympathy, conscience, accountability, and em… guilt. Not particularly the sort of thing one wants in a weapon…”

Amanda flinched and Lydia shot Alexander a warning look. He mumbled an insincere apology as Nathan continued. “Remember, this is an experiment, Amanda. The actual deployment of the SAIW units may be years away.”

She pulled her arm from Alexander’s grasp and wandered over to the glass wall to stare at the being she had believed was her husband. “You haven’t answered my question. Why did Brian believe he was human? And how on earth did he find himself living a normal human life? With me?”

Nathan stepped forward to stand beside her. He watched as a single tear trailed down her cheek. “I’m sorry Amanda. This never should have happened.” He sighed heavily. “But some of the issues we wrestle with go beyond mere science. They’re better addressed in the realms of ethics and philosophy. What is life? What does it mean to be alive? If it is alive, does it have rights?” He glanced at her. “Those are the fundamental questions. The answer to which our lead scientist decided for himself.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He gestured to the area behind the glass wall. “Brian’s creator decided to set him —and the rest of them— free.”

To be continued…