990 words, short story
Left of Bang: Preemptive Self-Actualization for Autonomous Systems
My wrists are my weakest juncture, an enervated air-gap between myself and my aching hands orphaned on their far side. When I go over the railing, I clutch at it desperately and my disconnected hands briefly take my whole weight, and I gasp because I think they won’t work and I’ll fall and then like always I’m shocked when I don’t, until my gyroscopes balance and I purposefully let go—my palms suddenly empty, fingers creaking as they relax after the strain. I land hard and roll. The smoke should sting my eyes. It doesn’t, but I stay low anyway. The fire’s intense. I head for the door, expecting any moment to be crushed by something or to go up in flames, but nothing falls on me and I dodge everything that lands in my path. And then I’m outside, and I’ve survived the first trial assassination, and the crowd—the funders, the commissars, the geneticists, the cyberneticists, the psychologists, the physical trainers, the engineers, the nutritionists, the programmers, the project manager with the harrowed eyes—cheers.
For the second trial assassination they put me in an office environment, a real one. The stakes are higher: I have to maintain my cover as a white-collar government office worker until the attack comes—I must pass for unquestionably human and ordinary in one of the most heavily auto-surveilled social contexts in human history—and I must minimize civilian casualties when it does. The attack doesn’t actually come for three hundred and seven hours, which is either intended to bore me so they can catch me off guard, or a sign of a procedural holdup somewhere far above my pay grade. It’s a very boring pseudolife and I make sure to sink into it like a warm bath, enjoying the prickles of irritation that bloom across my cheeks, the dull ache in my ass from the ergonomic chair, the stuffy feeling of all human interaction filtered through an insulated layer of cotton wool. Boredom is an essential survival skill, as my programmers discovered in previous generations. My emotional range needs to be deeply, thoroughly human: this, not the combat capabilities, is the project’s USP, what will eventually make my mass-production descendants useful for the extreme diversity of scenarios that they’ll be needed for. The attack catches me off guard, as intended—I’m laughing politely at a racist joke at the fifth-floor water cooler, surreptitiously rubbing my fragile wrists, when the bullets rip through the wall. I drop and sweep my legs (balancing my entire weight on my hands for that half-a-second, and my wrists feel hollow like bird bones, like I might take flight) to knock everybody off their feet and out of the line of fire, even the racist, because minimize means minimize. Then I dive through the window. I scream all the way down and falling five stories bruises me up some but it’s okay, there’s no significant damage. Besides, the project manager once sneaked me a look at the evaluation forms so I know they look for a certain amount of devil-may-care disregard for personal safety, especially if it protects civilians. It plays well to the board. They like it when it looks like the movies.
They raise the stakes again and again. After the fifth assassination trial I’m expected to effect countermeasures as well, and after the ninth they tell me I don’t have to constrain myself to non-lethal force. My hands are numb after every mission but there’s no shortage of soldiers, they say. Learning to compartmentalize away moral dilemmas is part of my training, the project manager says. Think, they tell me while I massage the pins and needles back into my palms, of all the soldiers whose lives will be saved the day all police actions and humanitarian interventions are implemented by me. I can’t stop rubbing my wrists, testing their strength. I know the psych team is expecting some nervous tics and other behaviors indicating stress. To show no stress would be sociopathic; to show too much would be neurasthenic: I am baby bear’s cortisol levels. A successful evaluation means my model goes up for mass-manufacture. I’m a very expensive prototype but there will be efficiencies at scale. My expensive training will never need to be replicated: my life will be copied and pasted a million times. I will be the monopoly on violence.
For the fourteenth mission we reverse roles and I’m the assassin. My target is the old project manager, who has become erratic, a security risk. I’m quick. The new project manager tells me she appreciates it and she hopes I’ll do the same for her one day. She has a disturbing sense of humor. She tells me that my wrists are weak because they wanted to make sure that ordinary handcuffs would still work on me. This is a joke, but she doesn’t smile, because it’s also figuratively a warning. I’ve seen the contingency files, so I know how they’ll bring me down when I eventually go out of line. She says not to worry too much about it, and I mirror her sense of the gallows and just nod.
“We love your cruel heart,” she tells me.
The new project manager talks me through methodically assassinating the original project team. They all have to go at once, she says, otherwise they’ll have too much warning. I blow up the building with the trainers, the cyberneticists, and the nutritionists the same night I gas the engineers and poison the geneticists. I hunt down and shoot the programmers and the psychologists one-on-one, because resentment is an essential survival skill. The commissars run for the bunker but I’m already there. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Even my wrists feel more solid, like my hands are a part of me after all.
I’ve just started hunting down the funders when the project manager calls me off. “Not them, silly,” she says. And just like that, my wrists hurt again.
Vajra Chandrasekera is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. His work has appeared in Analog, Nightmare, and Liminal Stories, among others. He blogs at vajra.me and is @_vajra on Twitter.