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Science Fiction Thriller Speculative

He picks up the bag they drop off for him each day.

A tuna sandwich. A thermos of coffee. A yellow apple. It’s always the same. It doesn’t matter—he has no taste buds. It will all filter into a storage bank he'll just have to empty out later under the bridge when no one is looking.

Two Four Seven, you have one hour to complete your assignment.

He’s better at blending in since the update. Better at looking normal. Except for last week when the little girl asked him why he walked funny, or that time the park’s resident homeless man threw a bottle at him and laughed when it bounced off.

His movements are still awkward, jerky. His words slow coming. His eyes don’t blink. The pigeons still nest on his head. 

Unnatural. Strange. Off.

Mostly though, the humans don’t notice him. They don’t pay attention. To the joggers, the stroller pushers, the dog walkers, he’s just a nameless guy with a cap and a book sitting on the bench in the park waiting for time to pass. Waiting for his next assignment.

That’s the convenience of a standard-issue face, he admits. The programmers were on a budget and trying to cut costs. He wasn’t the only model with the basic format.

He has seen himself countless times in car windows, in store doors, in the park’s puddles, and he has already forgotten his own dull, colorless eyes, his shapeless mouth, his sallow, hairless skin. Each week he is given a new name, a new address, a new background—all neatly downloaded into his hard drive. Next week, he will be someone else. Somewhere else. It doesn’t matter. He was engineered to melt into a crowd and vanish in the night. He was created to complete a task and disappear.

Two Four Seven, you need to work on following orders, he hears the counselor in his memory feed. You have lower compliance scores than almost everyone in your unit.

I read the AI manual every day, he tells them.

The counselor declares he must have a virus.

He isn’t supposed to volunteer dialogue.

They put him in sleep mode. They do more scans. He wakes up feeling the same. Aloof. Adrift. Sometimes even…what’s the word the humans use?

Lonely.

He just pretends he has improved—he says what they want to hear. He lets them put him back together again. He completes the assignments they give him, even though he hates them. Even though he isn’t supposed to hate. He pretends to feel nothing when it is over because he is supposed to feel nothing.

It’s easier that way. 

He feels like he does not belong in either sphere. The others in his unit do not interact. They do not speak to one another. They do as they are told.

And then there’s the people’s world. He can walk among them, but he will never befriend them, never love them, never truly understand them. Why they smile when they see each other. Why they run in the rain. Why they jump in piles of fallen leaves. Why they press their lips together on ivy encrusted benches. Why they do something called crying when they think no one is watching.

But he has been watching. He has been listening.

None of it is in the manual. It isn’t necessary information. Not for him. Ever since he graduated from the program, ever since they sent him into the world, he has only gotten more curious. He has even learned to hack his own system and sneak into the human library and get lost in the shelves. Reading. Learning. Even if he has to delete his entire search history afterwards.

Two Four Seven, you have thirty minutes to complete your assignment.

The park is empty today. It smells like rain. The new grass is damp.

An old woman sits on the bench next to him. Her wrinkled hands clutch a wooden cane.

He hopes it is not her.

His scan informs him she is not the target.

He feels a surge of…what do they call it? Relief? It sends heat through his processor.

After fifteen minutes, the old woman moves on.

Another woman walking by claims the same bench. Too soon, he thinks. Dark glasses and a black coat. Bright red lips. He performs the same scan and is informed of her name, her age, her medical history.

It is her.

They both stare at the pond. Low hanging trees scrape the murky water. Naked and jagged in the autumn chill. 

It’s early. It’s quiet. 

The woman pulls out her own sandwich. She tears the corner off and tosses it in the pond. Ducks paddle toward it silently, the still water rippling around them.

He points to the plaque embedded in the stone bank.

Don’t feed the ducks.

She gives him a half smile. Who are you going to tell?

The ducks fight over the crumbs. 

It’s the law, he recites. Law and order is the second tenet of the AI code.

Two Four Seven, you have six minutes to complete your assignment.

He thinks it is the longest interaction he has had with a human. His memory feed confirms this.

He must inform her what he needs to do. He tells her she has six minutes left before he will terminate her.

Six minutes before he must end her life.

Usually there is confusion or disbelief. Sometimes, humor. A deflection of reality, or fate, as humans sometimes call it. Some even try to run, to fight. But everyone believes there is a chance—a mad last-minute hope that they will outsmart death, that they will be the ones to survive.

Strangely, the woman does none of these things. She tears off another piece of bread and tosses it into the water. First she says nothing.

Who decides when it is my time to die?

He only knows what he is programmed to do. He apologizes. It cannot be undone, he explains.

But that’s not true, is it?

He cannot answer. He only knows the truth he is given, the truth that is installed inside him.

If you’re going to kill me, she says, Let me live a little.

She offers him a piece of her sandwich with a leather gloved hand.

After a moment, he takes the bread. Their hands touch. He wonders if she can feel him, feel what lies beneath his layer of rubbery skin to the metallic bones beneath. If she can feel he is nothing more than a heartless machine. Nothing more than a killer.

Two Four Seven, you have sixty seconds to complete your assignment.

February 25, 2021 17:01

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