You wake up with a start. For quite a while the hammering of your heart is all that you can hear. The frantic beats of your cardiovascular system fills your ears and almost drowns out the ambient noises of an early dawn. You attempt to perform some breathing exercises so that you can calm down.
You dreamt that you had been murdered. Stabbed in the chest, to be precise, by a masked stranger in black. The dream was so real that you would have sworn it had actually happened, if not for the fact that you are sittting upright in bed at this exact moment, still alive and kicking. But the realism of that dream is really unsettling. It sends shivers down your spine, and makes you wonder whether you are indeed still alive, or are you perhaps already in the afterlife. You pause to look around, and pinch yourself. Well, you seem alive, and even if you're dead, life goes on and you still need your pay- might as well get out of that bed.
You shake off those thoughts like a dog would shake off water droplets after a walk through the rain. Stumbling out of bed, you are mildly pleased to note that you have woken up earlier than usual. Going through the morning routine is a breeze, and you depart from your vintage house to find that you will arrive for work half an hour ahead of schedule.
Having verified your status as warden, you enter the safari compound. Pulling your jacket closer to you, you make your way towards the warden's lookout. This was the only job that they would ever offer a fifteen-year-old boy, even if his grandmother had passed away and he was running out of savings. Other jobs are dangerous for children, they say, but you know better and aren't surprised when they choose not to promote you to something better-paying even after you have proved your abilities at self-defense countless times.
Guiding hunters and performing routine checks during open season was one heck of a job that had left you exhausted every night. However, since the hunting season was due to end in a few days' time, the endless stream of thrill-seekers had dried up. Nobody turned up for the hunt today, and the road running from the colony to the safari would be quiet for another eight months or so.
You don't want to think what that would mean for you.
But the animals won't be quiet. The survivors know the new two-legged predator that hunts in four months of the year, the experienced animals have no trouble hiding it through the season until they grow too weak to run- but before they do, they have developed a wrathful hate towards anything humanoid. They know now is the time of only the weak ones, the stragglers, the few who somehow choose to lag behind. And now, at the very cusp of the end, you, the lone warden.
So of course they all come after the 'easy pickings'.
All of them.
It isn't as bad as it seems to be, since you are more than capable of defending yourself with the two pistols that never leave your side. You like to think of yourself as a sharpshooter, but in truth your aim has never been very good. It was enough to chase away any fauna that looked for a human snack, however, and it was enough for you.
But then he- it- he- had to come, and mess everything up.
That robot was your best friend's idea. Considering how lonely you were on the outskirts of the colony (also counting the fact that the colony was very far away from any other human settlement), he had offered to make a robotic replica of himself so that it could keep you company. You thought it was a good idea, and had agreed to it. However, he didn't mention the fact that it also possessed his fighting skills. And a very sharp sword.
The two of you have gotten into fights. Most of the time you lost, because that elusive Strider had made his robot out of bulletproof metal. Of course your pistols would have no effect whatsoever, and even if you had somehow hidden its sword somewhere the robot was still more superior at hand-to-hand combat. You were content to let it wander your estate - as long as it didn't break anything, or get into the safari.
Which, unfortunately for you, it did.
It would have been no trouble if the robot left the fauna alone. Which, again unfortunately for you, it didn't. Somehow the artificial intelligence had developed a killing streak and started targeting the animals in the safari. Once open season had closed, any killings of the safari fauna would immediately be blamed on you. And whether due to hunting fees or illegal hunting fines, you'd have to pay something- all the options were hefty, and none of them are options you can afford.
Therefore, you are going to finally have to get around to getting rid of it. Even if it kicks your sorry behind every time you try. You know you will be downed in an instant if you went for the head-on-confrontation approach. Stealth is the key now. And even if the approach fails, you (finally) have a weapon that its metallic skin cannot resist. A Neutrino 2000. You shoot perfectly with it. Nuclear battery, and despite whatever the reviewers have been saying, it never runs out. Not for you. It's special and it likes you. The thought makes you happy and a little more confident.
Up ahead lies the recently beheaded carcass of some unlucky sea-goat. The trail of indigo blood is still fresh, and you do your best lad scramble up a series of vines -
- there it is. Eyeing the sword with some sort of hungry expression, if robots could actually express (you assume they can). You duck slightly to make sure you are out of the robot's sight line. Unconsciously gripping the handle of your pistols, you take a moment to marvel at the distinct contrast between the two before steadying yourself. Your first pistol sits in the left slot. You are ever reluctant to relinquish its slot for a better one, as it holds countless memories for you. The Neutrino occupies the right slot, but you should stop yourself before you lose concentration marvelling over the beauty.
You slowly tighten your grip, easing the right pistol out of its sheath.
The robot is still occupied. You take a deep breath and heft the Neutrino, mentally drafting an apology speech to Strider later - despite bearing an astounding likeness, the fact that the thing shone like a vampire in a trashy novel and was disgusting ruthless made it easier for you to think about obliterating the thing. It is, after all, a completely different entity from your good friend Strider. You prepare for the deciding shot.
You sight down the top of the barrel, aiming its crosshairs straight at the centre of the symbol embossed into its chest. Lock elbows. Breathe in and hold.
And you pull the trigger.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion.
You're not sure if you actually saw the pale green flash of ionizing radiation flare from the barrel of the Neutrino. What you did see was the robot suddenly launching into a complicated aerial somersault with its sword outstretched, poised to slice you into half.
Imagine your surprise when it ended up missing you by a hair's breadth, the resultant slipstream strong enough to ruffle your hair and draw your attention to the robot's intentional target. Caught by surprise, a sabre-toothed tiger pauses mid-spring to be knocked unconscious with a blunt blow to the head. Leaves crunch under its enormous weight as it crumples to the ground in a heap of fur and fangs.
And then there is silence. The robot has its back to you, and provides a prime chance for you to bring it down. However something stops you from pulling the trigger again, and it isn't the blinking yellow light on the side of the barrel informing you that the Neutrino still required five more seconds to cool down.
"You were surprised, were you not?" It takes a few moments for you to match the unfamiliar voice to your best friend's robotic double. It sounds human. Very human, but with static crackle during the pauses in its speech.
"... uh, yeah." You're not sure how to respond. You never knew it was capable of communicating.
It turns around to face you. "I expected as much."
"What do you mean, you expected as much? What exactly is your motive for slaughtering all these creatures?" Perhaps you shouldn't be so bold now that your element of surprise is lost, and the bot would surely kick your behind into next week if it wanted to. But the curiosity is overpowering! You are baffled by the strange behavior of your good friend's robotic avatar.
"I did not slaughter them." The robot touches the blade to its back, strapping the sword with a set of straps that sprung out of its mechanisms. "They came at me. I tried to stun, not kill."
"You're not very good at it." You try not to frown. "You could have come back to the house? You seemed pretty happy roaming about back then before you broke into the safari. You don't just go into the safari when it's out of bounds! The hunting season is over! I won't be able to pay the fines if the dead creature get pinned on me...could you not be a good chap and talk this out calmly?"
"... no. I cannot go back. Not when the transmission tower is still in operation." Something flashes behind the robot's lenses, and for the first time you realize that it actually has eyes. "I have been getting better at controlling what martial prowess the Maker has chosen to give me, as demonstrated by the tiger I stunned just now. Speaking of that, we better move out of its vicinity before it regains consciousness again."
"...good idea." You nod and quickly stride away from the tiger, trying to stay as quiet as possible to avoid attracting other creatures. You don't understand anything the robot has said at all. "What's this business about the transmission tower? You've lost me there mate, what in blazes is going on?"
"It is better that you do not know."
"Look. The point is, you can't stay here, and if you don't confide with me about this matter I won't know how to help! I need to move you out of here and I don't want to end up with you breaking out again because of some transmission tower."
"It is a long story."
"We've got time." You pause, lower your voice to a whisper. You'll never know what might be listening in for a quick snack around the area. "Because of you and how far you've wandered in it'll be a while before we get back to the entrance."
"Very well. The warden's lookout should suffice, I think."
"Mmm." There is a brief period of silence except for the crunching of the leaves underfoot. You realize it is rude of you to not thank the robot for saving you back there.
"Hey...thanks for that save with the tiger."
"... you do not have to thank me." There is a pause. "I was programmed to protect you."
"You what?" You hardly believe that after all that butt-kicking the thing was supposed to protect you. "Since when did beating me to a bloody pulp count as 'protecting'? Unless all our rather one-sided scuffles so far have been a string of exceptions that makes the rule rather pointless to begin with?"
"Another part of my programming. I think the Maker was slightly careless with the coding. Or it may be his intention altogether. I do not know too much about the Maker. He may have programmed me with his personality, but I believe a person's experiences shapes their actions as well." Another pause. "That aside, I have a question before I begin. Do you consider me your equal?"
"I...uh." Your first thought is that it is a robot- how could you ever compare it too good ol' flesh and blood buddies? But that would be downright horrible to say. "Well...you're certainly...different. I'm not really used to robot friends...so...uh. You're a nice robot, though?"
Alright, that sounded downright lame.
"I expected as much." You're not sure if it actually happened, but the robot's voice seemed to have... have broken slightly.
"You already said that." You try to ignore the slight twinge in the robot's voice (and the epic fail you just committed) and fault it as a design malfunction. "Do you have, well, a pre-set list of phrases or something? How do you speak anyway?"
"No! Why would I have that?" It seems genuinely horrified. "Pre-set phrases will never be able to express my feelings adequately!"
"I-uh- sorry!" You apologize hurriedly. "I didn't really know robots had feelings and stuf-"
You totally messed up again there, didn't you. Clamping a hand over your mouth you try to pretend nothing happened, but it's a little hard when you suddenly have a hand clamped over your mouth now.
"It does not matter." Its tone is plain, but you can sense the difference in its speech. "Again, I expected as much. Either way... The Maker gave you a device and told you to set it up, am I right?"
"Sorry!" You repeat again, unnecessarily. "Well...uh...yeah, he did."
"That was the transmission tower I spoke of. The Maker periodically transmits upgrades to my operating system using that tower. Most of the time they consist of updates on the current situation, sometimes knowledge that I may find useful. The Maker also monitors my operations with it." A pause. "A month ago, he decided to wipe my system. Not the operating code, but the section of the AI that controls my personality. I... could not let it happen. So while the wipe was starting, I managed to override the restraining operation and get away. The further I am from the transmission tower, the weaker its signals. But the operation burned some wires here and there, and I am not what I used to be." As if to demonstrate, the robot flexed its metallic digits. The last two fingers moved with strange jerks, and one froze in place halfway.
"There must be a reason why he arranged the wipe..." You try to wrap your mind around why your good friend would want to terminate one of his finely crafted creations. You can understand, having to put down creatures in the safari a lot- especially during hunting season. "Could you not...uh, somehow prove that such drastic measures are uncalled for? He usually listens to reason!"
"I cannot." There is a tinge of defeat in its voice, along with something else you can't decipher. "I will not be terminated. The Maker wishes to reset my personality. And as I have already said, I cannot let it happen. He is... ah, to put it this way, not very pleased with how my programming has developed."
"Oh." You're not sure who to side with. Your good friend must have his reasons, and the robot is his creation after all- but you can't help but empathize with the rather poor thing, much like your other good friend Jane would have done.
"Maybe if we...well, hid you away somewhere, and I could convince your maker that you're gone and you can go off?"
"You will not be able to do that. Trust me, the Maker will know. My operating system is capable of transmitting only a trickle of data, but that is enough for the Maker to monitor my statistics."
"Then- uh- well." You lick your lips nervously, and wipe your forehead with your kerchief. You are out of ideas, and the warden's lookout is in view. " 'Pologies, mate, I'm out of ideas."
The warden's lookout looms into view, an elaborately camouflaged room on stilts. The robot seems reluctant to scale the ladder leading to its door. "I think I should not enter."
"It is the warden's lookout after all." There is a pause, as if it is considering something. "Perhaps you could switch off the transmission tower? I am surprised I have not come to such a conclusion."
"...Transmission tower?" You rack your brains in an attempt to remember if you know anything about a transmission tower. "...where?"
"The Maker told you to set it up. I assume you have the rudimentary knowledge to deactivate it."
"Oh, that thing! Yeah, I can do th- did you just insult my intelligence?"
"What? Oh. I did not mean to offend you. Did I? It was not intentional." A pause. "I assumed that your forte was in combat and not mechanical assemblage..."
"You've good manners for a robot." You nod approvingly. "Since you put it that way, I must admit that mechanical assemblage really is your creator's strong suit, not mine. But yes, I should be able to disable the transmission tower for you." You hope you're not walking into any sort of trap.
The robot's features twitch slightly. You assume that it is trying to smile, but was hindered by faulty circuitry. "I shall wait for you right here then."
"Jolly good." You shoulder your gun and head forward, locating the transmission tower.
It isn't that hard to find the device. You had parked the obelisk-like piece of technology just behind your backyard, so to speak, and it was only a short walk away from the exit of the safari. The absence of a switch on the device is hindering your attempt to deactivate it, until you locate a thin cord that was partially buried to prevent you from tripping over it all the time. The other end of the cord is attached to a plug that you had personally slotted into a power point some distance away, and it is no big deal to simply pull out the power supply. There is a brief crackle of electricity as the transmission tower uses up the last of its power store, and then silence.
Which is promptly broken by the 'incoming message' beep of the chat client you had installed on your phone. Looks like your best bro is messaging you again.
- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering golgolthasTerror [GT] -
TT: Why have you deactivated the transmission tower?
TT: Are you in danger from my rogue contraption?
GT: No, my good man, no worries!
GT: I am absolutely safe and sound.
GT: Although I have a query to ask of you, regarding that 'rogue contraption' of yours.
GT: *mops brow with kerchief*
TT: If it's about the fact that it's gone rogue, I must apologize.
TT: I've got the situation under control.
GT: No, it's not that!
GT: I was just curious, what went wrong?
TT: It is better that you do not know.
GT: I really don't mean to pry, but is terminating your robot really the only way to proceed?
GT: It seems almost...a waste? If you get my meaning?
TT: Unfortunately, yes.
GT: Is that a yes to my first question or my second?
GT: I fully understand your need for secrecy, just to make it crystal clear!
GT: But I just- it's just- well, collywobbles, I can't quite put it in words!
TT: Why are you so concerned? It's just a contraption.
GT: Not necessarily!
GT: I mean- well- what makes him different from us? He can walk, he can talk, and he sure can think, since you're not controling he anymore.
GT: Just sort of, uh, watching him move about, I rather think it would be quite a pity if we were to put him down. Almost like the tugging guilt I feel whenever I have to lead hunters to take down game in the safari, yes?
TT: I understand your concerns.
TT: However you only see one side of the whole situation.
TT: It has to go.
TT: Do not try to change my mind.
TT: I should be the one debating about decommissioning it, since I was the one who spent ages constructing it from scratch.
TT: Also, robots don't have feelings.
TT: Most don't. But this one does.
TT: So it has to go.
TT: Either way, I must thank you.
TT: Whatever you have done, you have accomplished something that would have taken me ages to do.
GT: What've I gone and done? I didn't know I did anything!
TT: The sensors all went dead.
TT: All of them.
GT: Sensors, as in?
TT: Feedback sensors from the robot, of course.
GT: Gosh, uh, thank you...
GT: You ARE really congratulating me, right? Or is this one of your ironic sarcastic spells? I'm a little unsettled by such an easily gained praise, you're usually so goshdarned hard to please.
TT: I'm being perfectly serious.
TT: Either way, good luck cleaning up.
GT: Cleaning up? What do you mean?
GT: I'm not sure if the ominous feeling I'm getting is just me. It's just gotten several degrees hotter in this shack and it's not just my presence!
GT: At least for the sake of our friendship, assuming you took it as seriously as I did, tell me enough so I don't get myself killed.
TT: The robot.
TT: I don't know what's going on in that safari of yours, but it's decommissioned.
TT: Or to put it in simpler terms, dead.
GT: But that's impossble! It was walking and talking just a few minutes ag-
TT: You have been communicating with it?
GT: Looks like I opened the bag and you hauled the cat out...
GT: I just...saw it, I swear.
GT: Uh, its prey, I mean. Yes, that's it. It killed another seagoat. The trail's still fresh, and all that.
TT: An interesting development.
TT: You should clean the porch of your warden's lookout before the fauna go bersek.
TT: I will leave you now.
TT: Good luck.
- timaeusTestified [TT] ceased pestering golgolthasTerror [GT] -
GT: No, wait!
GT: How're you so sure it's dead?
GT: What kind of friend are you, leaving a chap to the dogs?
You don't bother to shout at Strider anymore - he wouldn't see anyway. Your mind is a whirl right now, full of revelations. And the fact that so much could change in ten minutes. As you race towards the safari compound, you cannot help but shake off a nagging suspicion. Whatever Strider and his contraption had been hiding from you, it was important. Something about feelings.
And you're not so sure whether you are ready to know it yet.