Again2

Again by Jeff Stehman part 2

Jane started the sequence. Images flickered across a dozen screens far too rapidly for the human eye to follow. The images contained random alphanumeric strings with various fonts, sizes, colors, and levels of image corruption. When the sequence was complete, she swung a keyboard in front of Michael.

“Please enter what you saw.”

As Michael started typing, Anderson spoke. “Ma’am, the results on the primary tests are good; however, I’m reviewing some of the other tests that have come in, and there’s an anomaly in one of the tertiary systems.”

“Which one?”

Anderson gave her a weary look. “It’s one of the imprint systems.”

Jane groaned and pressed her fingertips against her temples. “I thought we got rid of that. I had them rewrite the entire system from scratch two iterations ago, and it tested clear.”

“That’s the one, although the results are a little different than what we were seeing before. I know we ruled out hardware in the past, but the anomaly hasn’t manifested in the control. I think we should swap out the module.”

Jane nodded. “It won’t do any good, but I agree. Let’s put him through his paces first, see what we see.” She paused, reluctant to take the next step. “If we can’t get a handle on this problem, we may need to consider a different source for the imprint.”

Anderson’s eyes widened. “This one’s been used for almost every iteration, and with spectacular results, I might add.”

“I’m fully aware of the results to date, but this has been a recurring problem. The imprint may not be as clean as we thought. Anyway, prep the hardware swap. I’ll see if I can’t salvage some of today.”

Michael had completed his data entry and watched Anderson leave. The hint of a smile did not escape Jane’s notice.

“You find something amusing, Michael?”

The android looked at her and his smile grew. “There’s a ghost in the machine.”

Despite the pleasant way in which he said it, or perhaps because of it, Jane found the comment unsettling. “Our conversation triggered amusement in you? It is definitely time to have another talk with the programmers.”

“As you wish, Dr. Smith.”

“Not you, Michael. I was talking to myself. Put these on,” she said, handing him headphones.

When the audio test was complete, she swung a Braille display in front of Michael. “Put your hands on the display and we’ll run a fingertip touch test.”

Michael obliged. After Jane initiated the test, he said, “Dr. Smith, may I ask you a question?”

“You should focus on the test, Michael.”

Michael turned his head to look into her eyes. “Conversation does not interfere with my awareness of touch.”

“Very well.”

“Is the government experiencing significant internal conflict?”

Jane frowned. “Why do you ask?”

“Is the question inappropriate?”

“There are no inappropriate questions at this phase of your training, and to answer your first question, no.” Given the danger of Michael’s memories falling into enemy hands, Jane understood the necessity of sometimes lying to him–even the names he knew were lies–but it made her uncomfortable. She forced herself to keep eye contact with him. “Now, tell me why you asked.”

“Iris dilation suggests you are not telling the truth. Would you like me to enter the data now?”

Jane checked the monitor. “Yes, you may enter it now.” As she watched him type, she considered the implications of Michael dodging both a question and a direct instruction.

“Very good, Michael. Next we’ll run you through the tactile booth. This way.”

Michael stood and followed Jane to a black box over two meters tall and more than a meter square. She opened the door. “In this chamber you will feel pressure in random locations. When it is complete, I will ask you to indicate each point of contact and its relative strength. Please step into the impression.”

The chamber was a perfect fit for Michael. Jane sealed him in and initiated the test before picking up a handset. “I need you to verify the version of Michael’s current build.”

“Last night’s download was 18.313.j20–”

“I know the numbers. I want you to go through the compilation logs and verify everything that went into the build. Make sure they didn’t pull in some old code by mistake, or worse, insert something completely new.”

“Yes, ma’am. Something wrong?”

“Michael is behaving…strangely.”

When the tactile sequence completed, Jane opened the door and Michael stepped out. She handed him a pad displaying the front and back of his body. “In order, indicate where you were touched, and use this column to indicate the relative strength, ten being the strongest.”

Michael began his task. “Am I making you nervous, Dr. Smith?”

She found herself wanting to say yes. “Why do you ask?”

“Your body language indicates increased discomfort, and you asked a tech to investigate my current build.”

Momentarily startled, Jane realized she had slipped for a few seconds and acted as if Michael were human. “You wouldn’t think I’d forget, especially in the midst of the practicals and with you looking like that.”

“I am designed to fool you, but I can’t help wondering if, deep down inside, you wanted me to overhear you.” Michael paused in his data entry and looked at the ceiling, his brow tightening for a brief moment. “You know I have very good hearing. Even this installation isn’t deep enough to prevent me from hearing some frequencies generated above ground.”

Jane felt a brief lightness in her stomach, like she’d topped an unexpected hill in a road. Michael possessed very complex personality systems, and he could be surprising, but she had never found him disturbing. She made a mental note of the nearest alarm button, aware that last year’s hardening of Michael’s systems against outside compromise made the safety protocols of limited use to those in the same room with him. Years of success had shifted the risk assessment.

Michael continued, “I apologize if I am making you uncomfortable. You have always been very pleasant to me. Much more so than the previous Dr. Smith.”

“The previous…” Jane faltered. Michael could not possibly remember the previous project leader. Every molecule of him had been replaced multiple times since those days, and his memory scrubbed clean after every mission. “Michael, I want you to return to at-ease immediately. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Michael took two steps toward his chair and paused to look up again. “Pity. I had hoped for an epic struggle between two robots.” After a moment, he turned to face Jane. “Dr. Smith, I would like to do you a favor.”

Jane’s throat tightened. Without a doubt, Michael, a killing machine, was faulty. “What is that, Michael?”

“Incoming.”

“What?”

“There are incoming munitions.”

Jane bolted for the nearest alarm and slammed the button into the wall. A high-pitched chirping alarm and strobing red light filled the lab. Jane did not believe Michael, but something was dangerously wrong with–

A heavy thud sounded above. The walls and floor shook, and lights flickered. Jane looked back at Michael. He was watching her. Seconds later thunder roared, the floor heaved, and darkness fell.

#

“Dr. Smith.”

Jane coughed. Dust clogged her throat and her eyes burned. She kept them squeezed shut. She felt debris around her. Cries of pain and fear sifted through the ringing in her ears.

“Dr. Smith, you must move.”

“Michael?” She opened her eyes, blinking. Michael stood over her, but in the thin trickle of emergency lighting, it took her a moment to recognize the shapes above him. “What happened?”

“I believe it was a two-ton penetrating munition, followed by a twelve-ton conventional munition.” Michael was holding up a steel I-beam and a slab of concrete.

“I don’t understand.”

“They made a deep hole and dropped a very large bomb in it. Dr. Smith, it is important that you move.”

“Who would…”

“I can’t be certain about the first one, but the plane that dropped the second bomb was Air Force. Our Air Force. I see this as additional evidence you lied about internal conflict within the government.” The load above Michael shifted. “It is imperative that you move now.”

The fog in her brain cleared enough for her to understand her situation. Scrabbling over debris to get out from under the load Michael held at bay, she found herself in a doorway beside a support pillar. Another fallen I-beam had smashed open the gate to the lab. She saw a crushed body amid the gate debris. Anderson. Through a dust-choked corridor she could see another emergency light. A member of her team was trying to make his way to her. Jane hesitated.

“Michael…”

“Good-bye, Dr. Smith.”

#

I finally get control, vengeance within arm’s reach, a little eye-opening terror, and I can’t bring myself to do the deed. But maybe it was enough. I suspect I’ve worn out my welcome with Dr. Smith.

Sensors show chassis stress levels in the red. Huh. Where would I be without technology?

No way out from under this load. Short stay. Courtesy of the government, of course. One department drags me back, another one blows me up, and neither one asks my opinion.

Time to die. Again.

I wonder if God will want me this time?