This is something I started writing on a whim, so it feels like a pretty good thing to stick into a Sunday filler slot. I’m probably posting it to someplace like Royal Road at some point, but for now I’m holding off in case I decide to tweak details about setting or character in the future, which means there may be differences between this version and the final version. Not just line-by-line editing for clarity and pace (for example, this entire first chapter might get cut if this story makes it to a final release to Amazon, but not for Royal Road), but significant overhauls in character personality and the time and location of the setting. The year given has shifted by several decades in several directions from 2039 to 2099 since I started writing, and may continue to do so. Basic setting assumptions about the source and nature of the crime problem and the geographic location of the setting have been altered, and may be altered again.
She wasn’t sure how, but she knew that if she so much as twitched, it would kill her. She knew better than to open her eyes to danger without first ascertaining where she was as best she could. She’d survived here while unconscious, most likely she would be safe to listen a while rather than immediately alert anyone in the room that she was awake. The back of her head felt ice cold. She could hear the hum of machinery and the occasional clack of a keyboard, and that meant someone was in the room with her. She fought to maintain control of her breath.
What was the last thing she could remember? She knew how this process was supposed to go: She’d remember something, probably from the previous day, and then she’d connect it to whatever moment caused her to black out. The impediment here was that she couldn’t remember anything. Well, not true. She couldn’t remember any events. She could remember that this was called retrograde amnesia, that it may or may not impede the ability to form new memories, and that it was usually caused by brain injury. Which explained why the back of her head felt so wrong. She could feel something pressed against her face, too, some kind of t-shaped mask over the eyes and nose, but which left her cheeks open to the dry, stuffy air.
“Can you say ‘hello world?’” asked the man at the keyboard.
Hello world? A common computer program used to learn the very basics of a programming language. It caused the screen to display the text “Hello world!” and that was it. Was she a robot? Did she have no memories because there was actually nothing to remember? Then why did she expect to have memories? Why did it scare her that they were missing?
And also, was she getting deactivated if she didn’t answer this guy?
“Hello, world,” she hadn’t meant to whisper. She opened her eyes as she said it, and they immediately widened as she saw the barrel of some huge cannon, four feet long, hanging from the ceiling and pointed directly where she was lying. She would have leapt to her feet, but she was still certain she shouldn’t be moving.
A blinking cursor sat the top left of her vision, and the glass of a visor ever-so-slightly tinted the view of the clinically sterile room. That cannon didn’t seem to be preparing to fire. It looked like a gun, but that didn’t mean it was. It definitely didn’t seem to be shooting at her right now. Still, she was hoping to get it pointed away from her ASAP.
“Current year and president?” the man asked. A glance to her right showed that he was in business casual and tapping on the keyboard for a laptop sitting on a spartan metal table. Monitoring her condition? Or just checking email?
“2049, William Marchand,” she said.
“I can’t move. I mean, I could, but it would…” she couldn’t finish finish the sentence. Admitting her mortality out loud seemed like it might tempt the reaper to invite her in from the doorstep.
“Sure you can. Most of your spine has been replaced by an artificial nerve system. Your body thinks your spine is cut in half, but it’s actually better shielded than it’s ever been,” he said. “Give your fingers a little wiggle, you’ll be fine.”
It took her a few seconds to work up the courage. When she did, her breath caught. She felt nothing. She glanced down towards her hand, panic at being paralyzed fighting with caution to keep her head from tilting with her eyes. An arm of pure metal rested besides a torso covered in articulated tungsten plates. The fingers were wiggling, but she couldn’t feel a thing.
That wasn’t a suit, was it? Was she completely artificial? Why couldn’t she feel anything? She tried to order the questions flooding her mind in such a way that she wouldn’t ask anything that might get her killed until she’d confirmed whether or not that was on the table. “What’s that…that device on the ceiling?” she asked.
“That is an AT gun,” the man said, sounding like he’d had this conversation often enough to be sick of it, but not often enough to have rote responses gouged deep into his memory, “to thwart any killer cyborg rampages. We frown heavily on cliche in this company. Don’t do any murders and we’ll get along just fine.”
Easy to say when the anti-tank weapon wasn’t pointed at his head. “I’m a cyborg,” she said, a statement rather than a question. “Why…” she caught herself, wondering if this question would get her blown up. He said the gun was only in case she attacked someone, but could someone who aimed AT guns at random strangers really be trusted? But her curiosity got the better of her. “Why can’t I remember anything?”
“You just woke up, there’s nothing to remember,” the man said.
Before she could ask another question, an image appeared in her vision, and she yelped in surprise. A floating green robot lying down, though she couldn’t see what it was meant to be lying on. Its arm and articulated metal torso looked the same as the body she’d seen when she looked towards her arm.
“Oh, heads up, I’m turning on your HUD,” the man said.
“Thanks for the warning!” she said, a half-panicked accusation as the brief jolt of terror subsided back into the anxiety of not knowing where she was, who she was, who this guy was, and under exactly what circumstances he would blow her up with the alleged cannon.
“You should be able to maximize the avatar so it replaces standard vision and vice-versa,” the man said. She was about to ask how, but as soon as she thought about it, the avatar disappeared. Then her vision disappeared and all she could see was the green robot floating on its back in a black void. Another thought and she could see the room again, the floating robot in the lower left corner of her vision.
“Working?” the man asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Alright. I need you to perform some basic motor functions using only the HUD,” the man said, getting up from his desk and grabbing a roll of black duct tape, “don’t freak out, it’s just tape.”
“Okay,” she said, while he placed a strip of tape over the visor. Her vision went dark, but she could still see the floating green avatar. She pulled it up to occupy her entire view. “If I’m a cyborg, why can’t I remember anything before waking up here?” she asked.
“‘Cyborg’ just means you’re made of both organic and artificial bits. The carcass we made you from was twenty minutes dead when we got it on ice, frozen for hours when we started plugging metal bits in,” the man said, “raise your right arm.”
It took her a moment to muster the courage. Wiggling her fingers hadn’t seemed to have harmed her, but she still felt like the slightest twitch would be lethal. She still couldn’t feel anything, but when she did finally try to lift her arm, the green robot avatar responded.
“Give me a thumbs up?” the man asked. The green avatar extended a thumb upwards. “Steeple your fingers together, like a sinister supervillain,” he said the final two words with the slightest hint of a Romanian accent. With a thought, the green avatar complied. “Great.”
“Who did you make me from?” she asked, while the man peeled the tape off of her visor. She could see robotic fingers steepled in front of her, could wiggle them around. They didn’t feel numb. They didn’t feel at all. But they moved when she told them to.
“I dunno,” the man said. A red laser swept across her visor, eliminating the residue of the tape.
“How can you not know?” she asked. The question was quiet. The gun still made her nervous, but if she didn’t have any home to run back to, then she wasn’t going to be intimidated.
“I’m sure legal has it on record somewhere,” the man said, “I’m just doing IT. Can you sit up on the table?”
She could, swinging her legs around to dangle off the edge. The cannon tracked her motion, swiveling just a few inches to the side to keep its bore trained on her chest. “If you don’t know the name of the person I’m built from, do you at least know mine?”
“Guardian unit zero-zero-zero-dash-zero-zero-zero-dash-zero-zero-one. And that’s in hexadecimal, they’re real optimistic about the future of this series,” the man said.
“That’s not a name,” she said.
“I introduce myself as Calvin and no one ever demands to see my driver’s license to verify,” the man said, “pick whatever you want.”
“Are you a cyborg?” she asked.
“No, but I was assigned an ID number at birth,” Calvin said, “I’ve still managed to avoid any psychotic existential crises.”
What sort of name did she want for herself? Something normal, but that still left her a huge number of options. “Alex,” she said.
“Leaning into the Robocop analogy, are we?” Calvin asked.
Speaking of Robocop. “Do you know why they built me?” she asked.
“By the specs, law enforcement or military,” Calvin said, and before she could even begin to decide if she wanted to ask her follow-up question, he continued “you can walk alright?”
She hopped off the table and started walking. She could feel the motion, but not her legs. She’d been able to feel the table on the back of her head, too, when she’d been lying on it. The gun followed her across the room. She wanted to ask what happened if she didn’t especially want to work in law enforcement or the military, but she was afraid the answer might be “you’re not actually supposed to be able to think those kinds of thoughts, so we blow you apart with a cannon.” What gave these people the right to threaten her with a giant gun just because the robot body they built was potentially dangerous if their candidate screening process accidentally attached it to someone unstable enough to go on a panicked rampage? She was scared as Hell when she first woke up – she still was! – and she’d never considered killing the IT guy over it.
Well, if they were willing to blow her up for defiance, that was going to happen eventually. May as well get it over with.
“One more test and we’re good,” Calvin said.
Before he could continue, she asked “what if I don’t want to work in law enforcement or the military?”
“I still get paid,” the man said, and with a hollow boom the cannon fired. Something slammed into her. She felt no pain, but she could feel herself tumbling backwards, could see an arm reaching out to plant itself and push her into a back handspring and then back onto her feet, crouched and ready to run for the door. A quick glance down revealed not so much as a scorch mark on the articulated plates of her chest, and a bean bag lying on the floor. “Reflexes and balance are all working fine,” Calvin said.
“What the Hell?!” were the only words she could find.
“I said it was an anti-tank gun,” Calvin said, “I never said it was loaded with anti-tank ammo.”