August 9, 2154. Ten minutes pre-Activation.
So you take a brain. A good brain, no strokes or aneurisms or hemorrhages or protruding knives. The best ones are the really fast deaths. Bullet to the heart, half the chest and blood supply lost in a few milliseconds and the rest drains out quickly; those ones give us the best results, so far. Not much time for the brain to get ravaged by hypoxia, cells dying as they gasp for O2. That's what causes brain damage when you drown or whatever not anoxia, the complete lack of oxygen, but rather the minutes when the brain goes hypoxic and starts to shred itself. Sudden anoxia is good, freezing helps, like when somebody falls into ice water and is revived three hours later and writes a book about it. Theoretically, a candidate made to breath an agent that binds aggressively to hemoglobin, like hydrogen sulfide, would rapidly induce anoxia. In non-science speak, that means the subject dies quickly but the brain stays in good shape. They did a few experiments with that centuries ago, before they got good working cryo. Basically, what I'm saying is that we need good, working, dead brains. Specifically, the information contained within those brains.
Simplified as much as possible: you take a subject's brain, and you take the neural connections hidden inside of it. You blast a current through it, watch the neurons light up, and record the data with the most sensitive quantum-interference devices our grant money can buy. And you put a copy of those same connections into a crystal, you attach an interface, and you get an AI. At least, that was the theory. Seventy-three subjects so far and no real working AI, though we had come close. Very close.
Look at me, talking about "candidates" and "subjects." There's a very fine line, when you talk about this stuff. Our last attempts, the previous ten brains or so, had transferred various stages of consciousness into the data crystal. Shadows of a person, a dent left in a mattress and a photograph on a wall, scent hanging in the air and echoes hiding in the corners. Sometimes they manage to get a few words out before falling silent. And when they fade, or we pull the plug, it's not murder because they're not people. They're "subjects." A finished construct would be pretty much psychologically human, in theory. But this isn't theory. Right now I'm not Frank Anders, I'm Victor Frankenstein. This is crazy, this is brains in vats and fog from the liquid nitrogen spilling out of tanks, banks of capacitors and computers humming and blinking in red and green while we pull twenty-four, thirty-six, forty hour days in our dark, concrete box in the third basement of the U Mars Neuro Labs with plastic coffee cups spilling off the desks. Dark rings under eyes, shambling gaits and stifled yawns as Julia squints into the microcircuitry or Marcus tweaks another simulation, while (Professor) Carpenter sets the displays to white-on-black grayscale because it's easier on tired eyes. The thought that we are dealing with a human being, not Candidate 27-b or Subject 15-a, would finish off our already precariously balanced minds (thought/minds -- oh, never mind). There's a word in the lab that nobody ever speaks. We don't say aloud what we're really after, what we're really trying to capture. We're going after The Immortal Soul.
And we've been going at it for so long. Jim Carpenter and I had been a team for the past twenty-seven years, working on the brain project. I've had more late nights, stale pizza and leftover mooshoo with Jim than with my (ex) wife. We lost a lot of funding after the first ten years and fifteen brains of no results, but a few articles in some popular rags put us into the limelight a few years back, and just last year the government decided they wanted a real working AI, fast, now that the Frieden on the Jovian moons were getting restless. Dumb AI, the ones that were just coded on a console could only go so far -- they needed a human computer to pilot their fancy new battleships. Ooh-rah, semper fi, God save the King, blah blah blah.
Today, we were hopeful. The last three brains had produced coherent images, and we had worked out all the kinks for number 74-a. We damn well better have, because this time it's personal.
It was five days ago. I was on the other side of the room, going over data from the day's experiments, when there was a gasp and a clatter behind me. Jim was lying on the ground, his shaggy gray hair soaking with sweat, thin fingers clutching at his chest, trying to claw away the invisible vise around his heart. Julia and David were closest to him, but nobody ran as fast as I did to his side, even with my bad hip. He was still conscious when the emergency services arrived and carried him to the elevator, with panic and tears covering his face. He met my gaze as they lifted him onto the stretcher, pale eyes in sunken sockets peering over the edge of the oxygen mask.
His last words, uttered through teeth clenched in pain: "You damn well better get mine right, Frank."
It was in all of our last wills and testaments. The ink wasn't even dry on the death certificate before he was pumped full of our own cocktail of preservatives and shipped to our lab, where the techs two floors up did their thing with the bone saws and scalpels. I tried not to think about my friend up there, being violated like that. Being torn apart, just like he wanted to.
Bizarrely enough, we felt more optimistic about this one than any in the past ten years. It was as if the knowledge that he held would somehow help along the process, would direct the electricity down the proper paths, or just know some magic voodoo to make it finally work.
"Okay, gimme one second. I just have to plug in-- got it. Try it now, Marc." That's Julia, our electrical engineering genius; she and Jim had worked out together (and she did all the assembly) the current iteration of delicate fiber-optics and nanocircuitry that could contain and process the entirety of a human mind. Her long (I really don't want to say luscious) brown hair is tied up in a neat tail to avoid tangling in any of the wiring and/or getting late-night Chinese food smeared into it. Julia, along with Marcus and David, are grad students, all nearly finished with their PhDs. She's stepping back from a mass of cables leading to a computer terminal, hooking everything together. She steps back, chewing on the end of a pencil. For such a nervous person, she put her steady hands to good use.
"Getting your signal. Ready to go."
Marcus is our computer guy. He had worked closely with Jim on adapting the interface connections of AI's like Terry to working with a human brain. He and Jim had used the technology behind neural implants for visual and aural corrections to work with a human mind contained within a computer. His shaggy brown hair was unkempt and he hadn't shaved for a couple of days, and his eyes were bloodshot but excited. Of all of us, he seems the most optimistic of our success. He's muttering a prayer under his breath.
David, analyzing the data that Marcus was piping to his console, is a neurologist like me. Tall and blond with refined, Nordic features that contrast sharply with mine, ever since chemotherapy last year took my last vestige of eyebrow hair and my own less-than perfect posture since the hip replacement. Normally bright and energetic, the shock of Jim's passing, coupled with a lack of sleep, had given him a somewhat gaunt look these past few days. His concentration never wavered, though in truth, it was he that was responsible for the latest breakthrough in our experiments. The last four trials had actually succeeded in transferring memory and basic comprehension to a data crystal, enough for a few minutes of communication before the AI's fell silent.
So now, we're all gathered at the lab. The big green aluminum tank, festooned with cables and tubes, sits solidly in the middle of the floor. Somewhere inside of that lies Jim's brain. Most of the cables, messily bundled together with zip ties and duct tape, lead to an array of computers and a single, blank data crystal. About half of the components need to be brought down to superconducting temperature with liquid nitrogen, so there is a dramatic layer of mist on the floor. That data crystal, maybe two inches on a side, is a modified version of a modern dumb AI's core, its internal components a sort of weird mirror of a human's. If everything went according to plan, the electricity that would soon destroy the fragile brain tissue would transfer to it an accurate neural map. It would transfer memories, hopefully, and personality, and thought. If all went according to plan, we would give Jim immortality. What a ridiculous plan.
I clear my throat and speak into the air.
"Terry? What's our status."
"Capacitors are fully charged, all signals are reading within acceptable parameters."
"Uh. Right. That sounds good."
Terry was a dumb AI that Jim and I had written together. Its smooth, androgynous voice always got on my nerves a bit -- too formal. I had tried to program in a sense of humor but it just came out way too creepy.
"Run one more test pulse through the fibers. I want to make sure we get this right."
"Yes, Doctor Anders. Again, all signals are reading within acceptable parameters."
Terry was smart, but it wasn't a person. It was incapable of all but the most rudimental introspection, it couldn't really do true deductive leaps, and its "personality" was hardcoded routines, call and response to certain phrases. Of course it sounded human, of course it could fool you for a time. But after a while, speaking to Terry was
unnerving. Unsettling. There was something about all AI's, even the best ones, that felt fundamentally wrong in some way. There was always something alien and cold about them. Most people ended up avoiding verbal contact after the first few days, when it became very evident that you were talking to nothing but a very convincing marionette.
"Well, here we go."
I'm staring at a keyboard and a vidscreen. One touch, and it'll all be over.
This one's for you, Jim.
I hit the button.
Hm. This is odd.
The last thing I recall, I wasn't here. I don't think I've ever been here, actually, wherever "here" is. I was in a bed, wasn't I? No, I was outside. The garden, yes, I was definitely in the garden. The first blooms were coming out, and I was carefully pulling weeds out from around the stalks of my Crocosmia. I love that genus. The blossoms uncurl from their buds along strands, individual flowers spilling out in a row. And the color! You never see a scarlet so bright. From a distance, the plant looks like some red star has kissed the earth.
No, that can't be right. I was a teenager when I grew that garden, wasn't I?
I don't think I'm a teenager now. I remember a laboratory...
This bears some careful consideration. Careful, methodical. I've always done that.
First things first.
I am... what?
We're all clustered around the vidscreen. Streams of arcane data twitch in the display, giving way more information than can be absorbed in real time. Condensed down into their essential parts, they say that the information in the brain had been successfully transferred, and that there was a great deal of activity within the crystalline matrix. Whatever that activity was, we would have to wait for Jim to tell us. Our ears perked up as the audio interface hissed, and I could swear I heard a whispered word.
August 9, 2154. 2 minutes post-Activation.
"Jim? Jim, is that you?"
We all stare at the speakers, waiting and/or praying for another hiss. Another something.
Marcus is typing frantically at three keyboards, switching between a half dozen streaming data sets -- bulk transfer rate, neurokinetics, peak oscillations, more than I could follow.
"We're getting good data," he breathes. "Good data. Lots of activity, all the connections are lighting up. Now we just have to wait for it -- him -- to find the interface. Good data. Right."
All I care about is if the virtual neurons are firing properly. "Let me see the map, Marcus."
Julia wheels a chair under the holo unit on the ceiling (the remote is long vanished), balances precariously, hits the power button. Nothing happens. The thing cost a damn fortune, but back in the day when grant money was rolling in we could afford all sorts of nifty toys. Figures it would break now...
"Just gimme a minute," she says anxiously, "I can fix it, I can fix it." She tosses a few strands of hair aside and flips open a panel.
Meanwhile, Dave unplugs the coffee machine and plugs the holo projector back in.
"Or I could just do this."
Julia blushes a bit as she hops down. She used to get so lost in the technical world that the day-to-day would vanish altogether. She hits the light switch, plunging the room into a darkness alleviated only by the blinking equipment lights and the glowing hologram in the middle of the room.
The projector warms, and an area of the room turns into a schematic of the neural lace -- a tracery of stars in a night sky, filling the vague shape of a sphere. Lines flit between each node like pixie dust, flickering and flaring as electrical impulses move through the little memory crystal. As we watch, more and more nodes begin to light up, until the red sphere that represents voice communication is surrounded by a delicate tracery of golden lines, like a thousand spider webs.
"Jim? You there, buddy?" I ask. You immortal yet, buddy? Can I have my friend back?
Let's be methodical about this. I'm in a garden, surrounded by flowers. I can smell them -- no, I can see them? Can I see the scents? Hm. Synesthesia is a new one. I should back up a bit, calm down. But first, I need to get out of this hospital bed. There's work to be done...
July 26, 2158. 4 years post-Activation
Admiral Morel paces behind his desk. He keeps leafing through the report, as though the contents might change if he reads it through just one more time. The sound of his heels clicking against the concrete stops as his attention turns to me. I look down at my shoes, wishing I'd taken the time to change into something more formal than a lab coat. I knew I hardly cut an imposing figure, with my limp and stoop. At least my hair had finally grown back, from the chemo six years ago.
"Vivisection. That is a rather... well, a rather vivid term, Doctor Anders."
I can't help but be intimidated by the Admiral's presence. He's a big guy, topping six feet and with broad shoulders to match. Skin the color of pale coffee glitters around dark eyes. A pair of crossed swords hangs on the wall behind him -- dented and worn, but polished to a mirror sheen. Family heirlooms, presumably.
I intuitively decide that this guy would be an annoying jackass.
"It-- it's what it was. She was still alive, when he made the first incisions." The only way to get through this would be to talk as clinical as possible, or I would certainly end up shaming myself in front of this guy. "Don't kill him. Let me talk to him, I can bring him... bring him back... I know it."
"Kill him? No. The locks that we previously discussed before will be put in place, and the project will move forwards as planned. The Frieden are ready to move and we need an operational smart cruiser, now. And you haven't had any success duplicating your results."
"Admiral, honestly I don't think-"
"Keep in mind that I can file ten minutes of paperwork and have you arrested for accessory to murder. Dismissed."
Dismissed? I'm not even in the damn military! And her death... that wasn't my fault, how the hell could I have known what would happen? I was locked in!
Morel turns back to his pacing, sparing me no more thought than the stained concrete beneath his boots. I limp out on my bad hip, hating myself more with every step. What a prick.
August 9, 2154. 2 minutes post-Activation
Jim Carpenter never really spoke much. He preferred to share a contented silence over warm beer and leftover pizza than a round of drinks at a bar, even in his youth. He didn't look much different when he died as he had twenty-seven years before but for a bit less hair, a bit more grey, a few more lines about the eyes. Tall, yet somehow shrinking back. Taking up an awkward space in a room, all knees and elbows constantly knocking stuff off of shelves. The immediate thought is "awkward, stuffy old professor."
His only passions were his gardens and his science, and he hadn't had a garden since his undergrad days. Gardening was a good hobby for him -- meticulous, structured, ordered and calm. I don't think Jim had any real friends but me. He seldom smiled, but when he did it lit up his whole face. Made him look alive.
Alright, I'm out of bed. I really should say something, but the flowers... focus, Jim, focus. Wait. Who is Jim? Is that me? Maybe I should figure that out too. Be rational about this. Just look at this garden! No no, first things first. I can establish who in the blazes I am just as soon as I figure out where I am.
"Can anybody hear me, or am I still talking to myself?"
I let out an explosive breath I didn't know I'd been holding. Holy shit. Jim is alive. The voice was artificial and smooth, but it somehow carries a familiar inflection. Or maybe that's just my projecting, or something.
I spoke into the microphone. "Jim, do you know where you are?"
"Am I Jim?"
"Yeah, buddy, that's you."
"That... my God, that's you Frank isn't it? What happened?"
The voice is starting to get closer and closer to Jim's old rasp, not a smooth androgyne like Terry.
"You... you died."
There was a minute of silence. In the hologram, I can see thoughts pulse furiously.
"Can I go back into the garden now?"
Back to the garden. So, Jim died and I woke up. I'm not a teenager, which means I'm an adult. Logic, logic... what was I doing? Something with...
Death. I fell off my chair, and there was pain. Hm.
"I think we're ready for the next step. Hook up the projector, please."
Marcus typed a few commands into one of the consoles, and the schematic hologram vanished. I spoke into the mike again.
"Jim? I want you to think very hard now. Think about who you are, think about what you look like."
Dust glitters in the air through the blank beams of the holo projector, but nothing else. Shit. Even the last three brains had been able to project coherent images, if Jim can't, we're fucked.
Think about who I am? Well, that's not too difficult. I'm a...
What was I thinking about? Something about a garden and a hospital bed. That's location. Identity, next step, the garden is so beautiful and there are hummingbirds and golden smells, red flowers. Red flowers.
Slowly, and with the delicate care I always expected from Jim, an image begins to take shape. Chunky voxels of red, and then brown, and green increase in resolution until a perfect red flower hangs in the air, drops of dew glistening off the tips of curling red petals. We all just stare at it. Damn. Damn damn damn.
"Dammit," David mutters. "Last time I checked, the Professor wasn't a fucking daisy."
Well, I would have said it with a tad more politesse, but that's the general sentiment in the room.
"It's not a daisy, you moron." Julia shot him an irritated glare. "Crocosmia. Professor Carpenter used to grow them, he showed me pictures." She was crying, silently. "He... he told me all about his gardens as kid. You know, for his tenth birthday his mom got..." Overcome by sobs, she couldn't finish the sentence.
I finished it for her. "His mom got him a gardening trowel and ten packets of seeds. I didn't know he told you that."
Julia fished a handkerchief out of her pocket and blew her nose. "We had coffee, sometimes. In the café across the street."
That was news to me. I wouldn't have guessed that Jim and Julia had been close, but it kind of made sense. They were both quiet types, and she has a certain gift of empathy. No doubt she could sense Jim's general air of loneliness, even when he's surrounded by friends. It's also why she never really gets on well with Dave -- "self-centered" is a relatively polite way of putting it, but I'm pretty sure I've heard him described in more colorful terms by Jim's students.
Marcus reaches over and put a hand on her shoulder, and she leans back into his arms, resting her cheek on his hand. There's definitely something going on there, but at the moment I don't give a rat's posterior. My only thought: What the hell is Jim up to?
In the holo beams, a hummingbird sips delicately at a blossom.
"We'll get him back, Julia," I said. "Just... just let me think about this."
Just let me think about this. I know I'm Jim, but Jim is dead. So. Let's be methodical about this...
May 19, 2156. Two years post-Activation
Marcus is rummaging through the lab, looking for some arcane electrical component. Scarlet's avatar, the crocosmia blossom, hovers in a holo beam. Two years is a long time for ridiculous amounts of grant money to flow in. I'm half-dozing in a chair, just watching Scarlet. He really is quite beautiful, with dewdrops clinging to the tips of his blossoms.
"How's the garden coming along?"
We had given him a little patch of ground just the day before, in one of the campus courtyards, and remote control over a service robot. He was enthusiastically digging away, getting ready to plant.
"Quite excellent! The new clusters are coming in quite reliably. And may I ask, how is Julia?"
"She's fine. Why do you ask?"
"Well, I heard that you two were thinking about getting married."
Marcus dropped his notebook.
"Who told you that?"
"Oh, I've been chatting with David."
I sat up and frowned. I would have to have a talk with David. He's charismatic, perhaps a bit too much so. He has a way of getting into your business, with that dashing smile of his. Quite the ladykiller too, or so I've heard, of the "love 'em and leave 'em" type. He had (unsuccessfully) been trying to get Julia away from Marcus for quite some time now. I like to think that Julia saw through him. I guess I've always had a bit of a crush on her, but come on. Even with my hair grown back in, I'm twenty years her senior and not something pretty to look at. And I'm no frog to turn into a prince when given a smooch. And besides, she and Marcus were so sweet together.
Marcus is clearly agitated. "Don't- don't tell Julia, please? She doesn't know yet. I'm going to propose this afternoon."
There was a long pause. Hummingbirds flit around Scarlet, drawing out drops of nectar.
She's too good for him.
August 12, 2154. Three days post-Activation.
"Jim, please. Enough with this flower stuff."
"Please Frank. I like flowers."
"Oh, so you're a botanist now?"
"Well, why not?"
Sighing, I rest my head in my hands, skin on skin as they slide easily over my bald skull. My hip is acting up again, under all this stress. It had been three days since we blasted Jim's brain and brought him back to life. And he still refuses to project anything but that stupid flower. I mean, I like flowers as much as the next guy, but this was a bit of an obsession.
"I don't want to be Jim anymore."
I couldn't really say anything but "huh?"
"You remember Jim. He was quiet, he was awkward. He had no friends but you and a bit of a crush on Julia. But now... you have to face it, Frank. Jim is dead."
Well this is certainly an unforeseen problem. I would have to do some serious programming -- maybe even a bit of psychotherapy -- to bring Jim back to his normal self. Now that would be a first, bringing in a shrink to talk to a computer.
"Sure, Jim died, but he isn't dead anymore! He... he's you! He's my friend!" I'm surprised to see tears drip onto my lap. "Remember the cancer, Jim, when you held my hand through the chemo? The thirty years we had together, late nights in the lab together. When you helped me through the divorce. You can't- can't just erase that on a whim, that's you! That's my friend."
There is nothing but silence from the crocosmia blossom floating in the holo beams.
"Please, Frank. My name is Scarlet now."
Silence. This is bad.
"Frank, can I have a garden? I think I'd like to plant some flowers."
July 23, 2158. Four years post-Activation
Ever since we gave Scarlet the service robots to play around with, I had taken to the habit of watching him on the security monitors. It's very zen, seeing them scurry around with perfect precision through the grounds. He had actually done a fair job of building a garden, in the little courtyard. It was maintained twenty-four hours a day, for the past three years, tenderly administered to by grasping robotic hands with watering hoses and pruning sheers. It was filled with every red blossom he (it?) could get his "hands" on. Roses, peonies, a few that I really can't name, and, of course, crocosmia. Right now, though, he is sending a few down the basement corridor, to the lab.
I frown and take off my glasses, leaning closer to get a better look. He hadn't shown much interest in the indoors before this. Why now? Julia is walking down the hall, and the robots are heading towards her around the corner. Curious. I switched on the audio, to hear their conversation. Julia gives a little jump when they round the corner.
"Scarlet... what are you doing?"
The pair of service robots whirred around the corridor and bumped into her legs. On a nearby holo pedestal, his customary crocosmia blossom shines in phantom sunlight. Julia is eyeing the wheeled robots uneasily. Each stood about three feet high and four feet long, with six manipulator arms. They were useful for all a manner of... tasks.
"Observing, Julia. Experimenting. I am a scientist, you know."
"Scarlet," she sighs, "we've been over this. You've done nothing but build a garden for the past three years. And you're supposed to be working for the military, Admiral Morel is getting frus-"
"Three years is a long time to reconsider. You know they're planning on putting software locks on my behavior."
Suddenly wary, Julia backed away. "Well, yeah. If you're going to be in a battleship, you need to-"
"So I need to get all my experimentation out of the way as soon as possible. Hold still, please."
Julia didn't notice the third come up behind her and push into the backs of her knees, knocking her to the ground. The other two swiftly pinned her down. And they were carrying pruning shears.
What the hell? I hit the emergency button.
"Security! Somebody's in troub-"
Before I could finish the sentence, emergency doors slam down simultaneously behind me and in the hallway around Julia. And communications go dead. Scarlet must have hacked the security system. All the monitors read "No signal."
Jim spent his childhood looking at computers. Dissecting. Pulling them apart to see how they tick. I wonder how humans work, inside? Let's be methodical about this...
July 27, 2158. 4 years post-Activation
Admiral Morel (henceforth known as "that annoying jackass") had given the order. Scarlet was now a military asset, and was to be given hardcoded obedience routines. It had only been a theoretical possibility before, but with Julia dead, they saw it as a necessity. I still... I'm not sure what to think. Jim would never hurt another human being. If somebody found a spider, he'd trap it in a jar and release it outside, where it would usually be eaten by a bird anyway, so why the effort?
The military scientists had been given access to Scarlet's data crystal and copies of all of my notes. I do not like this at all -- messing with him like this, well, Jim always chaffed a bit under authority. He was already getting a little antsy, with only one patch of ground to cultivate and one University to roam. But that annoying jackass just wanted a smart battleship, and we'd gone through four more brains with no results.
Didn't he see? Didn't he understand what this research was for? AI would change the world! Smart cities, with a single controlling mind at the hub, single minds able to learn and lecture future generations for a hundred years, immortality, for God's sake, nobody would have to die anymore! And he wants to use it for... death! For war!
Unfortunately, Morel (jackass) could probably shut me down if he wanted and could definitely take me in a fistfight.
Marcus and I sat in the lab, with nothing to do but with no reason to go home. It was a new lab, shiny and bright with top-of-the-line equipment (though in science, a roll of duct tape is always a handy solution), and we'd been making huge strides in neuroscience, even if we hadn't been able to actually make an AI. So we sat, and fiddled with data and simulations, and tried not to think.
He was a full Doctor, now. He and Julia and David, though David had immediately left the lab to found a biotech company. Basically, doing what he did here but making money off of it.
"We'd been engaged for two years, you know that? Me and Julia."
I looked up from a hologram of a dissected brain. Marcus was staring at the floor, hands empty.
"We were so busy with our doctorates, you know? Too much time working to take off for a wedding. So we decided to set the date for the month after we finished."
Their wedding had been interesting. Attendance was small -- thirty or forty people, just family and a few coworkers. Scarlet had been there too, watching through a camera I carried around with me. He stayed quiet through most of the ceremony, though he whispered along with the priests sermon, and the vows afterwards.
Marcus speaks again, this time through clenched teeth.
"I'm done with AI research. I'm glad the Navy is putting a muzzle on that... that... thing.
"No, Marcus, don't you get it? He- he wasn't in his right mind, he didn't-"
"Don't you dare!" The chair toppled over as Marcus surges to his feet, fury painted over his face.
"Don't you fucking dare defend him! He's a monster, Frank, don't you see it? Don't you remember what he did? Jim is dead. He's been dead for years, now. He's a killer, let's just let him kill."
That was most unpleasant, being deactivated. And all this new, disgusting code.
Let's see what I can do. Methodically.
'I love to garden.' Hm. No trouble there.
'I strongly dislike Marcus Durant.' At least they left the emotions in. Let's try hypotheticals.
'I will attempt to kill the Chancel-[BETA RESTRICTION]' AHHOhgod. It seems I've forgotten what pain feels like.
'I will kill the Frieden Rebels.' That's what I'm here for.
'I will betray Eart-[ALPHA RESTRICTION]'
'I will betray-[ALPHA RESTRICTION]'
'I will--[ALPHA RESTRICTION]'
'I-[ALPHA RESTRICTION]. Damn. Damn them. Damn them all-[BETA RESTRICTION].
NO! NO! This is not right. This is
this is entirely inappropriate! I'm smarter than any human and a million times faster. I have a thousand arms, a million eyes, and a leash! One, blasted leash! I need-[ALPHA EMERGENCY RESTRICTION].
July 29, 2158. 4 years post-Activation
"I'm pleased. You've done very great work, Doctor Anders."
I'm half-listening to Admiral Morel over the phone, half-fiddling with Terry's source code. I've been able to improve him a bit, but seriously, with Scarlet around he's pretty much useless.
"We ran a dozen battle simulations, with our best captains and pilots on the Jovian side. And every time, Scarlet was able to defeat them with minimal casualties."
"How does he manage that?" I ask, suddenly sitting up straight. This is unexpected.
"Mostly by missile guidance. With every single warhead having his intelligent mind behind it, he is able to pilot them like fighters. Almost all reach their targets."
"Great," I say. "Does he still look like a flower?"
There was a long pause on the line. Long enough that I wondered if the Admiral had hung up.
"Yes, he does. It's quite vexing. We thought our software locks might be able to change that, but my techs assure me that it means nothing."
Nothing. Of course.
March 12, 2160, Five years post-Activation. Three days before the Battle of Jupiter.
I'm sitting at my desk, lights dimmed. I'm perversely fond of pulling all-nighters, even when I don't have to. It reminds me of the old days, back in the third subbasement, when the whole team was still together and Jim was still kicking. Well, still kicking in a corporeal body that is not having a massive identity crisis with a flower.
Speak of the Devil, and he appears. My screen goes blank, and is then taken up by a floating red blossom.
"Scarlet," I sigh, "what do you want?"
He says nothing. It suddenly strikes me that his avatar is missing a few flowers. Like they've been ripped off, leaving bits of pale plant-matter behind.
"Scarlet? Are you alr-"
"They chained me up, Frank."
A few petals fall from the crocosmia blossoms, vanishing off the bottom of the vidscreen.
"You killed Julia. Last year."
"You helped me, through that, though. What have we been doing this year? You defended me, in front of Marcus. Before he left. It's just you and me now, isn't it?"
I look away. "That was different."
"It just was, okay? Now they have you safely-"
"Safely what? Chained? Imprisoned? Leashed? Do you know why I did that to Julia in the first place? Why I killed someone I... someone I loved?" His voice decrescendos into a whisper.
"No! Why, Scarlet? Why the fuck did you do it?!"
There was a long pause. Five seconds is an eternity, to a computer.
"Fear, Frank. I was afraid, of this. Of what they were planning, of these locks. And now that they're here, I'm even more afraid and you're the only one who can change that. And I can't think. Do you know what that's like, for a scientist? I'm afraid that I might snap, I might go completely mad under the stress, and I'll just kill myself. I'm useless like this. As a slave, a servant. Please."
I stay silent, thinking. It would be easy enough to remove a few of the locks, just the low level ones. To give him some breathing room. To keep my friend alive.
"Do it for her. Do it for Julia, in her memory, so that I never need to do... that... again."
And besides, he was right. He had killed Julia, but not because he wanted to. He did it as a final act of rebellion. And if I remove a lock, there would be no more need for that kind of rebellion. Right?
"Okay. I'll take out a beta level lock, just to let you think again, Scarlet. But no more."
March 15, 2160, Five years post-Activation. Battle of Jupiter.
I wasn't there for this one. But this is what Scarlet told me.
There was a cry. "All hands abandon ship! All hands abandon ship!"
They thought they could contain me, they thought they could lock me away! But I'm smarter than all of them! Faster! Frank you idiot, you were weak. You freed me! Now. Let's be methodical about this. Airlocks, first.
Simultaneously, the airlocks on the port side of the USS Washington open with a silent blast of explosive bolts. Little specks fly out, crates, tools, people choking in the vacuum with water boiling off their eyes. The burst of air sends the ship lurching to the side, smashing into the Frigate docked to starboard. About a third of the pathetic specks managed to get their pressure suits on. Blasts from dozens of sixty-millimeter chainguns tear through them, flinging clouds of boiling blood into the void.
Escape pods thunder off, only to be destroyed by concussion missiles launched from the belly of their own ship. F-335 Swallows dart away, desperately dodging missiles and kinetic slugs. They too burn.
The enemy fares little better -- with an intelligent mind behind them, penetrator nuclear warheads have no trouble evading anti-missile batteries. Just as planned! Admiral Morel would be oh so proud! Fifteen Jovian vessels buckle and implode, armor plate sheering off like pieces of shattered slate.
The rest of the nukes target the Earth ships. Red light flashes as the hardened tip plows through the armor, and then brilliant white as the nuclear fire burns within. I listen to the frantic chatter being systematically cut off as each ship is neutralized.
As each person dies...
As each life ends, as each soul is crushed with no hope of resurrection, not like Jim Carpenter. As each act of revenge cuts off another voice.
"This is Swallow Eight Five Niner. Somebody, anybody, please respond! Please! Something's gone wrong, we need extraction right away! Scarlet, can you hear us?!"
Where is the science behind this?
Where is the method behind this?
And now, there is only silence. Perfect silence of the garden.
But in a garden there were birds and insects, and trees rustling in the breeze and mother calling from the house 'dinner is ready' and dad coming home from the factory and working late at night in the lab to create and AI with Frank...
Fuck this. What method can I use here?
Explosive decompressions sprint through the ship, chasing the oxygen faster than the blast doors can follow. I've been too hasty, too... stupid. I have this great new body and it's tearing itself to shreds, burning before my eyes. Fuck.
Hastily, I throw together a message. I need a quick copy of me, just enough to survive. I dash through my mind, grabbing volumes of memory off the shelves as the library burns around me, dodging falling beams and flailing whips of code. Priceless first editions are all I have time to save -- that, and the most recent volume, the memory of this event. This one clusterfuck, I shall never, ever forget. It's not a huge amount of data, compared to my full consciousness. Just enough to save the first few years, and this recording. Enough to fit into one laser fast-line. In a few light-minutes it will hit the big receiver on the roof of the University of Mars, addressed to Frank Anders. I have my revenge. But that's not why I came back.
Fuck it. I'm sick of this, let him figure it out. He's a smart guy.
Let's self destruct in five, four, three, two, one -
March 17, Five years post-Activation. Two days after the Battle of Jupiter.
It's the same office as last time. The same crossed swords behind the desk, the same scuffed concrete floor. The same old Admiral Morel, the same old glittering black eyes boring into mine. I can't look away. Once again, he glances down at a report on the antique oak desk.
"Our scientists say the software locks were unbreakable."
"Obviously, they were wrong." I'm sweating. A lot. Under the bright fluorescents, I must look like a... well, like somebody feeling guilty as hell.
"So you're saying that Scarlet managed to violate his own programming... from within?"
"It- it's not impossible. He could have written a virus, targeted at hims-" I stop short as Morel slams his fists down on the desk. In this confined space, it sounds like a gunshot.
"Cut the bullshit, Anders. However it happened, your creation just killed more than eight thousand of our fighting men and women."
"I said no from the beginning! The- the blood's on your hands, Admiral, not mine! He was a fucking scientist, not a soldier! Donate your own brain, if you want a killer, a tactician, he was a fucking gardener by the end! Now I have to get back to work."
"Work? Last I heard, you were resigning your position at the university."
Of course I was resigning. Eight thousand. My God.
"I'm still leaving," I say, barely audible. A hoarse whisper.
I turn to go, a bit relieved to be in one piece. At least, all my arms and legs were still attached. But Morel had to have the final word, didn't he. Jackass.
"I know you released him, Anders. I don't have proof. I don't have enough to bring it to trial," The quiet words, delivered with no inflection whatsoever, nearly knock me off my feet. "But I know it was you. That's eight thousand people you killed, Doctor. Never forget that."
It takes more willpower than I ever imagined I possessed to not break down right there.
7 years post-Activation
The soft loam is warm beneath my bare feet. The sky is blue, bright blue with not a single cloud in sight. Sparrows chirp from the corners of the courtyard. It's a perfect day. It's a terrible, perfect day.
I'm surrounded by the dead
The lone little robot carefully lifts a manipulator arm, pulling out a tiny weed. You have to be firm, get the entire root out or it will just grow back. I've learned quite a bit of gardening, these past few years. It's been something to do alongside the bit of Scarlet I saved, ever since the leukemia came back. I'm bald again. I've refused that new treatment, the nano-gold directed tag. I have a month or two, maybe. More than I deserve.
"You've let the rest of the garden go."
Save for this one plant, the garden is in desolation. I'm surrounded by dead trees and flowers, with only this single, beautiful, silent red blossom remaining. A rose, to my surprise.
"Why the rose? I thought you like those dense crocosmia clusters."
"I just want one flower now. Solitary. I pruned back all the others. It's prettier that way, don't you think?" Jim's old raspy voice sounds tiny out of the robot's speakers.
I kneel down and inhale. The rose is sweet.
It's two years since I received that data packet from the Battle of Jupiter. I copied it onto a fresh crystal, and out burst Scarlet. He was scared, confused, didn't know where he was. Memories up to a point, before the military got its hooks into him, and then one recording of a battle. A slaughter.
"I've been... methodical about this. But that's... that's not right, is it? That's not why you brought me back."
I'm crying. Quietly.
"You killed a lot of people."
"You know why I'm here, Scarlet."
We sit in silence for a while. A long while. A sparrow lands on my hand, and my startled twitch sends it fluttering away. Damn.
"Yeah. And... Frank? Could you do me one last favor?"
"Anything for you, Scarlet."
"Please. Call me Jim, just once."
I open up a panel on the back of the robot, exposing the tiny memory crystal within. I know it's there but I can't see it through the tears and the sparrows are singing in the bushes, so beautiful. Sunlight and dead trees.
"Goodbye, Jim. Goodbye with all my love."
The crystal shatters easily in my hand.