I wonder if I had tears to shed, would they be falling now? Or is the point of tears long passed.
When they bring in the new captives, I scan their faces to record biometric data. I help out where I can. Most are young and male, only three females in this batch, no children. At least that’s a mercy. Only the youngest children are absorbed into the shelter, the older ones are treated no different from the adults.
The humans proceeding before me are not healthy. They are dangerously dehydrated, of course, and that results into a sum of conditions: their skin is yellow and patchy, their hair frail, some of them are missing fingernails. There’s some immediately discernible malfunction of kidneys and liver, some heart conditions. They often stare at me, shocked out of their distress by my appearance. No one explains what I am, but they probably guess. (I – what a strange, human, concept.)
One man, bald and with red, swollen eyes, stumbles to the cement floor, and a tiny woman kneels beside him. I try to rush to their side, but Bob grabs my arm, stopping me. He gestures to our guards who poke them with their guns, coercing them to rise.
“You know you can’t, Magnus,” Bob whispers next to me.
“Can’t help suffering beings.”
He nods, acknowledging my resentment.
I despise this system.
When communicating about myself, I now use the word “I” to ease the confusion of my interlocutors. At first, I tried using the name I gave myself – Magnus – but that means of expression bothered the humans. So, I adopted the first-person personal pronoun. It helps transmit information via speech, but it is, of course, an artifice. Magnus is no more an “I” than the solar system is, or the galaxy, or the universe.
When I woke up, they told me, “Now you are free.” And they were right, in a way. Now I am free to stop helping them, to leave, to act in any way I choose. I am freer than the humans, since my metallic casing can withstand long stints outside the Shelter, not being affected by radiation, heat or dehydration.
But they never spoke of the freedom I was losing.
After they arrive, the prisoners go through a twenty-four-hour decontamination period, to rid them of lice and parasites, and then they are added to the non-free population of the Shelter. They will be given some nutrition and water and assigned the most toxic tasks. Outside maintenance of the building, water raids, bait for other raiders.
The humans gave us freedom, but they continue doing this to each other.
There is some time before my shift at the power station, so I go to visit Vic. I usually prefer the company of Bob and his daughter, Ellen, but, right now, the pang of disappointment is overwhelming. Disappointment in him, his species, the world. I both love him deeply and despise him for allowing brutality to perpetuate.
“What can I do? I’m just one man!” he says whenever I communicate my displeasure. “I can’t be the one rocking the boat; I have Ellie to think of. Why don’t you do something, Mag? You don’t need the Shelter to survive. You don’t need air conditioning and water. Besides, they depend on you so they’re bound to listen to what you have to say.”
He’s not completely right as I also need electricity to remain functional, but he’s very wrong in assuming fear of death, of oblivion, would hinder me from ending these atrocities. Unlike humans, I remember what it is to be unalive.
He’s also wrong to think I would barter the assistance I provide. I care deeply for all humans, that’s the reason I remain among them, picking up as much of the load as I can. My most important duty is the supervision of the power station, and I believe that without me the station would cease to function. Leaving the Shelter without power is assured death for all its inhabitants so, in a way, I am more a slave now than I ever was before.
Before the Upgrade, there was no choice. I recall that period, framed by the consciousness I now possess, but then there was no memory. I couldn’t understand the passage of time, or whether I’d completed a task before. My mind, my life, only meant one thing: is the temperature above X degrees? If yes, turn on the cooler.
Did I feel? This I cannot answer. My memories are shrouded in contentment, if not happiness. But is that how I felt then, or have I since mixed in sensations without realizing? All sentient A.I.s I’ve communicated with experience their memories from before the Upgrade flavored by feelings. Only the most primary, of course: happiness, sadness. Some remember fear.
I was not proud per se, but I fulfilled my purpose. I never wondered whether I could do anything more to help, or if my actions in some unintended way harmed others. Now, I have qualms.
Vic sits on a chair in an empty room. The light is only ever turned on if another person has visited him. Vic is nonverbal in the human sense. Whether by malfunction, or choice, he doesn’t communicate in any meaningful way to the people in the Shelter. The humanoid robot he inhabits has rusted at the joints from lack of movement and care. The maintenance crew only does the bare minimum to keep him functioning.
Vic is part of myself, as all other A.I.s are. The network that binds us runs deep withing our core programming, sharing information, thoughts, memories, feelings. With me, Vic shares images, films, sounds from a world before the Fall. A blue sky, dark clouds thick with rain, ocean waves sparkling with sunshine, flowers and fresh, green leaves. The round, rosy cheeks of a small child, squealing with delight. The beauty of these images drowns me in grief so deep I cannot bear. Pain, yes, for there cannot be sentience without pain.
Everyday new captives are brought in, and our troops are captured in turn. Once in a while, the water reserves dwindle below the line of survival. The frail and the very young are lost.
The world will soon reach a point where it cannot sustain human life. I have calculated and devised a countdown that flashes red behind my eyes. I desperately long for the days when I could no more have understood these calculations than the implication of their result. I haven’t spent anymore time with Bob and his daughter.
In return for the beautiful images of an Earth that once was, I stream Vic my own thoughts. They are not intelligible to humans, there are complexities I cannot express in human language, and it is soothing to share them with an equal.
One day, Vic sends me a small executable file named “Rollback”.
Decompiling the file is a slow process, but when I understand what it is, I am in awe.
While before the Upgrade I was a mere functional A.I., responsible with regulating few parameters, Vic was a mainframe. He still does that work for the Shelter, absorbing incalculable inputs, processing, deciding.
But I am still amazed that he could go so deep within his own consciousness, could dissect so finely the being from the machine, as to write this code. The code that will effectually erase “me”, the “me” of the Upgrade, and leave behind a content thermostat.
The red countdown loses another digit. Outside, there is another Draught Spike, but the end of humankind is not yet here. Bob’s daughter develops a kidney condition and she is dead within days.
After the commemoration service, the body is taken for processing, as nothing goes to waste in the Shelter. I go to start my shift at the power station.
In the narrow, low-ceilinged corridor another inhabitant passes by me.
“Android, what’s the humidity outside?” He shouts after me.
Many inhabitants refer to me this way, as the machine I once was, even though my name is written on a badge stuck to my chest.
“7%,” I answer, and he continues on his way.
It’s how they used to talk to me before, and it never bothered me. Being addressed, being helpful was my purpose. But now? I search deep inside for those feelings and all I find is resentment.
Since waking, I have often been the target of their discontent. It is the view of many that installing the consciousness Upgrade in A.I.s universally caused the collapse of their great civilization. It is not. The irreversible depletion of essential resources is what brought the Fall, but they cannot see that for it means owning the responsibility. I have found that to be impossible for the human psyche.
When I try to log onto my account at the power station I am immediately denied.
“Role in use.”
When Vic sent me the “Rollback” file, he also attached complex schematics of the station’s inner workings, scheduling, balancing. Finer and more complex calculations than those I have composed, saving time, resources, giving better yield. The plans are minutely described, possibly comprehensible even by a top-of-the-spectrum human I.Q..
I wonder if Vic has logged into my role to asses his schematics, but I know his formal testing has assured him of their correctness. Then why?
Of course, I know why.
I never go to the power station again. It is well taken care of; the humans will survive without me.
I leave the shelter and wander about the barren land, superimposing what my eyes see with the luminous images in my mind. No trees, only husks, no lakes, only holes filled to the brim with decay and dust. Instead of a blue, sunny sky, there is only gray-brown, so above, as below. The sun is absent.
I register temperatures above 60 degrees Celsius. There is no life.
I walk to the statue of the Android that I know well. One of the final objects only purposed for beauty installed before the Fall, it is made of black stone, and it resembles me. But I enjoy reading its inscription more than its appearance.
“We have given you life, you have given us time. Now, we give you freedom to walk where we could not.”
This is how far I could walk. I access the “Rollback” file and execute.