Gone For Good – A Short Story

By Meg Sorick; 2017

Moving day was finally here. I’d always hated living in the Philadelphia suburbs and at long last I was saying goodbye for good. The plan was pretty simple. Kim and I would recruit friends and neighbors to help load up the moving truck on Sunday, we’d stay with her family Sunday night, and first thing Monday morning, we’d go to settlement. With cash in the bank account, I would hit the highway in the truck, towing one of the cars. Kim hated the idea of a coast to coast road trip so I suggested she fly out five days later. “You’ll have some private time with your mom that way,” I had said.

The sale of the house netted us $53,000. Not a fortune, but enough to get started someplace new. Kim kissed me goodbye outside the realtor’s office and I took the cashier’s check with me to the bank on my way out of town. I promised to call her when I stopped for the night. My plan for the first day was to reach Knoxville, Tennessee.

At the bank, I deposited the check in our joint checking account and withdrew the small balance in our savings account which I added to the stash of currency I’d been accumulating over the past few months. The black Addidas backpack held $21,000 in tens and twenties.

The trip to Knoxville would take longer than if I were simply traveling by car. I was counting on that fact in keeping Kim from worrying if I didn’t call until late in the day. My first stop was actually going to be in Lancaster, at an auction, where weeks ago, I had negotiated a lump sum for all my worldly goods. The proprietor had also agreed to pay me in cash. When I drove away with my empty moving truck, I had another $8,000 to add to the backpack.

Next, I returned the truck to the local rental office and transferred my bags to the back of the Subaru. Now, I would hit the road for Knoxville. I arrived only an hour past my estimated travel time. Kim hadn’t worried at all.

The bank had said the money from the cashier’s check deposit would be available in increments of $10,000 per day on the first four days and the final $13,000 on the fifth day. I wouldn’t have time to access all of it before Kim boarded the plane for San Fransisco, but I’d be able to get a sizable chunk. I had planned my route based on branches of the national bank being close by. First thing Tuesday morning, I withdrew $9,990, just below the limit that would attract attention from the Internal Revenue Service. I did the same thing in Asheville, North Carolina the next day. And again in Atlanta, the day after that. Enough was enough. I was cutting it close.

That night in the hotel, I smashed my phone to pieces, cut my driver’s license and my credit cards into tiny bits and said goodbye to Perry Reynolds for good. My new driver’s license issued in Florida, read Michael Johnson, a name so common, it would never stand out.

The next morning, I parked the Subaru in the long term parking lot of the Atlanta airport and took the shuttle to the terminal for international flights. Instead of boarding a plane, though, I circled through the terminal to the area for arriving flights and hailed a taxi to take me back to the city center. After replacing my cell phone using my new identity, I made a single phone call.

“Hey, it’s me,” I said, the smile apparent in my voice. “I’m on my way.”

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…