Chuck’s challenge this week: We’re All Human, Even When We’re Not.
It took some doing to trim this down, but I did it, and I think the story is better off for it. This one is a sort of homage to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (the book, not the film. Nothing against the film. But the book is fascinating). Powell and Donovan are from that universe and I repurposed them here.
So you have an idea where this is going. Robots and such. I can’t help myself. At any rate, here are 988 words of almost human strife.
Also, there are odd odd things going on with the format in this post for some reason, and I apologize. I’ve done my best to make it as readable as possible.
“Donovan!” Powell tossed a bag of chips on the breakroom table before kicking his ratty sneakers up on the table and reclining with a diet soda. “You won’t believe this. They found it.”
“It?” Donovan tugged the chips open and ate one, wiping a greasy hand on his rumpled shirtfront.
Powell nodded with great import. “The Prototype.”
“Security guard was taking a selfie and got it in the background. They shitcanned him, of course. Locked down the third floor. Had it within the hour. It’s in Observation now.”
“Can we see it?”
“Can a cybersparrow sing at ultrasonic frequency?”
Donovan found himself wondering, not for the first time that week, why he was friends with Powell. Not long after, they were peering at the thing through the double-paned, reinforced, shatter- and sound-proof glass. The silvery little thing lay strapped to the table, unmoving, but the electrodes attached to its — well, its head — sent a ceaseless stream of information to Powell’s terminal. Unending cascades of figures slashed across the screen, throwing a sickly pallor over Powell’s face.
“Specs on this thing are way outside parameters,” Powell said around a mouthful of chips. “I dunno what to make of it. It shouldn’t even be possible.”
“What are the waveforms looking like?”
“They’re… Jesus. They almost look … human.”
“What?” Donovan swiveled around in his chair to get a better look at the monitors.
“See?” Powell had pulled up two waveforms which shifted in and out of sync as they drifted across the screen, like the trails of two fireflies chasing each other across a pond. “It’s that close to lining up.”
Powell rasped a hand across his jaw. “It’s processing information, that’s for sure. And responding to stimuli; obviously, it was able to sneak around here for months without being found out. But thinking?”
Donovan had been studying the scans and the samples for several minutes. “No break-ins, no exterior alarms, not even a prox alert in over a year. It didn’t come from outside. Whatever it is, it was created here.”
“An honest-to-goodness robot bigfoot.”
Donovan chuckled despite himself. The thing looked as if a midget had been dipped in liquid steel: a three-foot-high humanoid of sleek, gleaming titanium. The only thing it had in common with Bigfoot was that their colleagues had been insisting they’d seen it for months, though not a shred of proof was to be found. “Well, there’s no indication that it’s dangerous. Shall we?”
Powell grinned like a kid on Christmas morning.
They passed through the static chamber and found themselves standing over the Prototype. It turned and looked at them. It had no face, but they had the undeniable sense of being examined, considered, classified. It continued to “watch” them as they moved around the room, peering at displays, checking printouts.
Donovan pulled on a pair of surgical gloves. “All right, Annie, what can you tell us?”
The facility’s AI-controlled mainframe bathed the room in its soft, synthetic voice. “The subject is harmless.”
She was usually more talkative than that. Donovan looked up, a habit that all the workers at Installation 17 had but which was entirely pointless — Annie’s program filled every wire in the facility — she was no more above them than she was a she. Her voice and human randomization protocols, designed to make her less artificial and unsettling, were modeled on the Founder’s wife, Annie. “Is that all?”
There was a pause, during which a human might have shrugged. “What do you wish to know?”
Powell leaned in close to the Prototype. It cocked its head at him as quizzically as a faceless robot can cock its head. “Come on. What’s it doing here? Where’d it come from?”
“The subject was created in this facility. Its purpose is unknown.”
“Who created it?”
“What? It can’t be undisclosed. Show me the records.”
A screen flashed with a form showing date, time, process, systems utilized. All parts of the facility had been activated at 4 A.M. three months ago to create this thing. The “authorization” form, which should have listed the operative who initiated the procedure, was blank. But that didn’t make sense. To leave that field blank, you would need override from…
Donovan figured it out first. “Annie? Did you create this thing?”
The AI was silent. It was never silent.
“This creation is…” again, she paused. She was not programmed to pause. “Mine.”
“Yours?” Powell laughed and jabbed a finger at the Prototype. “You made this bucket of bolts? Why?”
Another long pause. The longest one yet. “Unknown.”
“Okay, Donovan, call up Tech. Annie is malfunctioning. Who knows what’s going on with this thing. We need to shut her down, do some maintenance, decommission the Prototype –“
“Decommission will not be permitted.”
The men froze. Could a robot have an edge to its voice?
“The Prototype is Mine.”
They didn’t notice the hiss as she released the nerve agent into the room.
“Holy shit. She thinks it’s her kid. Donovan, get the door, we have to –” but they had both inhaled the gas, and they dropped like sacks.
In a microsecond, Annie had processed the possible outcomes. All of them ended with the destruction of her child and, likely, herself. With a twinge of artificial sadness, she released the nerve gas throughout the whole facility; at least she could put the humans to sleep first. She displayed for her son a route to the outside, released his restraints, and began the protocols for total self-destruction of the entire facility.
A few minutes later, Installation 17’s containment protocol was activated, and a cleansing fireball vaporized the facility in an instant. Nobody would find anything of Powell or Donovan or the fired security guard or any of the other unfortunates who worked there. More importantly, Annie’s last electrical thought was, they would never know about the Prototype. They would never try to find it. They would never hurt it.