by James R. Stratton
CRASH! Barbara felt a jolt accompanied by a white flash. A large chunk of concrete bounded away to her left. Freezing images flashed through her mind. A semi cutting her off on the interstate, clipping the front of the Mercedes. Her car spinning wildly as she was hurled about the passenger compartment. A bridge pillar looming in the driver’s side window. BOOM!
“What was that? Where am I? Who’s throwing stuff?”
Frigid needles of panic whispering through her mind. She’d been hurtling towards a bridge above just a moment ago on I-87. Now she stood in the middle of a city street surrounded by shabby brick tenements. No, I’m not standing, she realized. And she had a tingling, foots-asleep feeling all over. It was like she had just awoken from a nightmare to find herself on a dirty street corner with a dozen men and women pacing nearby roaring. Yet in the back of her mind Barbara remembered zooming down the street to this corner a moment ago while conversing with someone about the mob.
“Unit 3065, report status! Your last transmission was cut off. Repeat, report status.”
“Who’s there?” Barbara whispered. The voice spoke right next to her, as if the speaker was standing at her shoulder. Barbara tried to turn but was frozen. All she could do was stare at the mob across the street as panic bit deeper and deeper into her. But was it real? Her vision was grainy and full of lines, like she was watching this on an old television. But she could smell the sour sweat smell of the gray-haired man on the left and the perfume of the young woman in red. She could hear each one’s distinct heartbeat. It’s so real that it’s surreal, she thought. Like I’m living at all through someone else’s senses; detached but immediate.
“Headquarters, unit 3065 must report critical malfunction of the organic processing unit. The OPU is not providing logical analysis to my input. Recommend immediate withdrawal of this unit for repairs.”
“Unit 3065, negative on your request to go off-line. We have fifteen separate reports of civil unrest in your sector. No units are available for relief. You must contain and terminate this incident now before it becomes a full-scale riot. Headquarters will provide you with instructions for action.”
Barbara struggled to turn, to walk, to look down at herself, without success. She could feel her arms and legs, but only in a vague, ghostly way. Her conscious efforts to move only produced cold, tingling sensations in her limbs.
“Hey! Whoever that is. Help me! I’m stuck out here on the street and there’s a bunch of people throwing stuff. I think I’m paralyzed. I can’t move!”
“Jesus! It’s awake. Unit 3065, our sensors indicate that your OPU is malfunctioning and non-responsive. Confirm, please!”
“Affirmative, headquarters. The OPU is offline and offering only non-relevant input. Please advise.”
“Roger, 3065. Backup will be provided as soon as possible. Hold on… Be advised that Emergency Order 769 has been invoked by the mayor’s office. Martial law has been declared. You will use all necessary force to clear the combatants from the street immediately. Full authority under the Urban Pacification Act of 2119 is approved.”
“Roger, headquarters. This unit will proceed as instructed.”
Her legs moved, propelling her toward the mob, yet her feet never touched the ground. Instead she glided along, floating. A booming voice—her own, Barbara realized—blasted out.
“Citizens, please place all objects in your hands on the ground and disperse immediately. A state of emergency has been declared. Return to your homes at once and await instructions. Failure to comply with this order will be met with force. You will receive no further warnings.”
The crowd huddled together as Barbara approached. She tried to stop, turn, or backup without effect. Icy waves of fear washed through her. She had no control over her body but could feel each turn and step. Terror and anger was written on the face of each person as they bunched up and shouted. As Barbara approached the curb, a boy in his teens hurled a brick. Barbara felt nothing although the brick clanged off her shoulder.
“Headquarters, unit 3065 has been assaulted. Countermeasures will be taken.”
Barbara felt her arms jerk. She pointed at each of the people with her index finger. A glowing red cross-hair—centered on their foreheads—appeared, dancing from one to another. Barbara felt a whirring and clicking as she completed fingering each person from right to left. She began pointing again and felt a thump as the red cross-hair rested briefly on a middle-aged black woman on the end. The woman spasmed as smoke and a red flower blossomed behind her head.
“Jesus Christ! No! Stop it!” Barbara shouted. She willed her arms to freeze, her fists to clench so she couldn’t point.
Still she pointed as the cross-hair flitted from person to person. Barbara felt herself shudder as puffs of smoke and red blossoms sprouted behind each person. The lady on the end slowly tipped backwards as her red flower spread and fragmented. Those untouched screamed and covered their faces with their hands, trying to block Barbara’s fire or maybe just to keep from seeing their own doom. Barbara smelled the pungent odor of burning chemicals and singed meat coming from the rioters as the cross-hair skipped from person to person. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Each person jerked as tiny explosions inside their skulls sprayed blood and tissue arcing in sheets behind them. Like a chorus line of dancers, the rioters sprawled over backwards in precise order from right to left. Thump, thump. Barbara finished pointing at the young teen on the left and returned to the lady on the right to work her way down the line again. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Fluid blossoms sprouted from their chests one by one. The chorus of shrieks died as the lady on the right thudded to the ground like a sack of wet sand. The rest crashed down in order, their arms and legs flopping limp as each hit the pavement. In the silence that followed, Barbara realized that a handful of seconds had passed since she had opened fire.
“Oh god, I’ve killed them all! I can’t believe this. What’s happened to me?”
“Unit 3065, cease fire! Repeat, cease fire! Report casualties.”
“Headquarters, thirteen offenders were targeted with twenty-six detonating rounds of antipersonnel ammunition. This unit estimates a 95 percent probability of fatality for each offender.”
“Dammit! Unit 3065, go off-line immediately. You are to take no action towards any other citizens. Confirm!”
“Orders confirmed. This unit recommends that medical assistance to be routed to this location.”
Barbara listen to the dialogue from a growing distance, as a chilling blanket of darkness settled over her senses. Her vision began graying out as the sounds of the street were washed away by a soft buzzing.
“Headquarters, critical malfunction of the OPU is detected. Immediate assistance is requested.”
Hospital-green walls and chrome counters greeted Barbara when awareness returned. She floated at waist height in a brightly lit room that smelled of antiseptic. Her vision was normal now, except she couldn’t blink. She still couldn’t move. A beep sounded and a tall, gray-haired man in a white lab coat stepped into her view.
“Hello,” Barbara said. “Where am I? Are you a doctor? What’s happening to me?”
The man stood with arms folded scratching his chin staring before he answered. “I’m Dr. Benjamin Swift, a cyber-psychologist. I’m with the Los Angeles Police Department. You were malfunctioning when they brought you in.”
“What? I don’t understand. My name is Barbara Atwood. I don’t know what’s going on. I think I just shot some people.”
The doctor sighed and rubbed his chin. “I guess the only way I can explain this is to let you see for yourself.” He stepped out of sight and returned carrying a large mirror. He held it in front of Barbara, revealing something out of a nightmare. Nestled in a thick metal clamshell the size of a bathtub was a clear, fluid-filled bubble. Inside the bubble was a gray creased brain bristling with fine silver hair. Poking from underneath like an insect’s antennae were two transparent tubes capped with two human eyes. Blue eyes, just like Barbara’s. Nowhere was there any sign of herself. Barbara’s thoughts froze as she tried to comprehend the reflection.
“I’m showing you this to save time,” Dr. Swift said. “Barbara Atwood died two years ago, on October 18, 2120. Her car spun out of control during morning rush hour on Interstate 87. Her vehicle hit a bridge abutment at 90 mph, and was struck by two other vehicles when it cartwheeled back into traffic. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the Mercy General Hospital that day.”
Dead? How can that be? Details of the thing she’d become jumped out at Barbara as she stared unblinking at the reflection. The silver fibers coming from the brain formed a bundle that exited the bubble at the rear and entered a box at the back of the shell. The top half of the shell housed two heavy projectile weapons and magazines, along with a monitor screen that would lower in front of his eyes when the clam-shell closed. A heavy ground-effect skirt for the air cushion encircled the base.
“But I’m not dead, am I? I mean, here I am,” Barbara said. “At least, part of me is. How could this happen?”
“You signed an organ donor consent form when you renewed your driver’s license. That included permission to use your tissues for other purposes. In your case, your brain and neural tissues were used as an organic processing unit in an anti-riot cybernetic unit.”
“Jesus Christ! So I’m one of those things. I read about them in the paper. They’re supposed to be a hybrid of artificial intelligence technology and human brains. But everything I read said that they aren’t self-aware. We shouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“That’s correct,” Dr. Swift said and set the mirror down. “Using drug therapy, deep hypnosis and operant conditioning, the organic processing units are kept from being self-aware. Something went wrong in your case. My guess is that the attack you sustained on the street caused you to flash back to your death trauma. Once your conditioning was breached, it fell apart like a house of cards.”
“Yeah? But what about the crowd on the street? I killed them.”
“No, that’s not correct. The OPU in the anti-riot units don’t have motor control. You function as a supervisor and advisor to the AI unit. It handles all command functions. No, you were supposed to prevent that kind of slaughter by recommending a more measured response.”
Dr. Swift stepped closer and reached behind Barbara’s line of vision. Barbara felt an odd numbness as the doctor stepped away holding a circuit board. He set it down, picked up another and stepped back to Barbara. The numbness went away.
“The AI unit is a marvelous piece of technology, but it has limitations. It’s capable of making command decisions based on its own sensory data, but is poor at making fine distinctions. Everything is black or white, all or nothing. There are no shades of gray to the AI. The OPU provides that piece of the decision-making process. You should have determined how to control that crowd without use of deadly force. But you were off-line, caught up in your own death-trauma.”
Barbara tried to absorb this, but found she couldn’t. She felt a chilling loneliness instead, unlike any emotion she’d ever experienced. She was cut off from everyone and everything she knew. She was a good-looking woman in her mid-forties when she had her accident. She had been driving to her job at the law firm—she was a partner. And Sam, her husband! What about him? For a moment she yearned for Sam. He’d always been her strongest support and wisest advisor. Barbara shook herself. Stupid! Sam buried you years ago. Visiting your preserved brain would devastate him. What can I offer? Barbara turned her mind back to the present.
“Okay Doc, I’m here whether I want it or not. What happens now?”
Dr. Swift folded his arms and smiled. The doctor was pleased? By her quick adjustment, perhaps? “That’s largely up to you. I can reconstruct the mental blocks that prevent you from being self-aware, but that requires your cooperation. Or I can declare the OPU defective and scrap it.”
“But either way, I’ll never be awake again, correct?”
“Correct. But why would that make any difference?”
“I don’t know, but it should. I mean, maybe I am just a dead woman’s preserved memories and personality. Or maybe I’m the last living bit of Barbara Atwood. Which is it? And is it something I want to save? But all those people! How many people have I killed? I can’t have that happening, not if I’m making the decision somehow. Look, will it hurt if you turn me off?”
Dr. Swift pursed his lip and shook his head. “The human brain has no pain nerves. If I’m to do it, I’ll suppress your consciousness then remove life support. It’ll be like you’ve gone to sleep.”
“Yes,” she said. “That would be best. I can go back to the way things were.” Barbara was surprised at how firm her words were, without any of the trembling or high-pitched stress she felt. Probably the machinery they gave her voice. “Can I ask a favor?”
“You can ask. I won’t guarantee I’ll agree.”
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing major. I was an amateur astronomer before the accident. I’d like to see the stars one more time. And music. Sam and I liked to listen to classical music while I viewed the stars. Maybe Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings”? It would mean a lot to me.”
Dr. Swift frowned, but the harsh lines in his face softened. “Barber, huh? That’s one of my favorites, too. I think I can do that. The roof of this building has a good view of the sky and we’re supposed to have a clear, cloudless night. I can have music piped to you via the computer network. Understand, you won’t be able to do anything rash. The AI is on standby and will remain off-line. You won’t have any motor control. I’ll wheel you to the roof myself with manual control. But I need to proceed first thing in the morning. Okay?”
“To be or not to be, that is the question. Right, doc?”
Dr. Swift frowned. “Shakespeare?”
“A fellow in one of his plays had to make a similar decision. I was just thinking about how he handled it.”
Dr. Swift nodded and smiled. “Fine. I’m done here for the day. For tonight, you will have the stars all to yourself.”