Version A - The First Written
Hannibal Smith just stared, his expression blank, incomprehension leaking from his every pore.
Wilson, meanwhile, waited, allowed that moment for his words to sink in a little and then braced himself for the inevitable explosion.
It was a long time coming, and when it arrived, far more measured than he’d expected. He saw it arriving though, the way that Hannibal drew himself up a little, those unsettlingly blue eyes pinning him in his seat, his huge hands moving to rest in his lap – closer grabbing distance perhaps? He learned in a little and his voice was low, controlled.
“Are you sure you have the right man?”
It was far less than Wilson had expected, far tamer, and he allowed himself a simple nod. “Of course. And I’m sorry, I appreciate how much of a shock this is for you.”
Smith drew back a little, his countenance as empty as before, “Explain it to me.”
For the briefest of moments, Wilson was silent. Explain it to him? The shock? No, no, of course not. The bombshell, that’s what he wanted explaining and of course, Wilson could do this, it was his job after all. He adjusted his suit jacket slightly, unconsciously tried to add a little height into his posture and started. “The ‘droid programme started in the early eighties-”
“1984,” Smith interjected, smoothly. “Project Nexus, a nod to Blade Runner. An inevitable foray into AI after learning that the Russians were amassing their own army of androids. I know all that. I want you to explain to me how this happened.”
Wilson swallowed, tried to throw off the way that this man made him feel that he was back in Elementary, in the Principal’s office, and started again. “At first, Nexus was simply about studying what was out there already, but the decision came from the very highest level that we needed to fight fire with fire-”
“President Reagan did enjoy his science fiction.”
“He did, he did, that’s right,” Wilson stared at the man opposite him, was this evidence of a thaw? He couldn’t be at all sure. “So, we started our own research, involved the very best brains, started developing our own strain of ‘droid.”
“I know all of that, too. I’ve seen the Nexus 10s, served alongside many of them, but they were never like this, they were never… human.”
“No,” Wilson leaned in a little. “In a way, the 10s were cover for the real goal, the Silver Nexus,” he’d paused for affect but Smith remained inscrutable. His big reveal ruined slightly, he pushed on. “Silver Nexus were a whole other ball game, the next level up and a step away from what the Russians were doing. A new interface, new construction materials and techniques, huge leaps in AI, they were barely recognisable as related to the 10s.” Smith nodded, and pleased that he was, at last, being listened to, Wilson pushed on. “We produced twenty, all in all, decided to get them into the field in a blind test, see how long it was before anyone noticed what they actually were.” Was that a flicker of annoyance he saw in those steel-eyes? He needed to tread more carefully. “They were carefully inserted, highly competent leaders selected to work alongside them, monitored most judiciously over the years. If they started showing signs of fatigue or failure to cope, they were adjusted – or withdrawn.” He’d hoped that that might have been enough, that Smith might have decided to withdraw his questioning in the discovery of the monitoring, but no such embarrassment was evident. The Colonel simply stared at him, his expression still blank, his eyes appraising; Wilson pushed on.
“SN14, your model, was by far the most successful of the pilot scheme. It assimilated itself into the unit in the same way a human might. There were problems, of course, programming glitches in terms of behaviour choices, moderation was always a problem, the Silver Nexus with their superior AI were prone to extremes, taking an order and following it literally, almost past the point of reason, there were long-running difficulties with managing risk-taking behaviour, loyalty was a trait that had been designed with care, and was prized in those models which displayed it, but it was never supposed to over-ride the safety settings.”
Smith narrowed his eyes at this, ever so slightly.
“But there were also huge successes, especially with SN14, and we’ve always credited a huge part of that to your leadership, Colonel. Our Silver Nexus models were designed to learn, to adapt to meet the needs of their superiors. SN14 did this far better than any of the other models,” Wilson felt his heart beating anxiously against his ribs, “it worked out exactly what you wanted it to be – and it provided that… service.”
Smith’s expression remained granite and Wilson waited. Would there be refutes? Anger? Embarrassment? From what he knew about this man, he wasn’t easily ruffled but even so, it must be clear what Wilson was referring to, DADT hadn’t been repealed for that long, even the legendary Hannibal Smith must have his limits.
But not, apparently, here. The steady stare lasted a few minutes more and then a response, short and terse and not really what Wilson had been expecting. “You thought that was prudent then, did you? Placing an android in my team, with my men, and never even hinting that it was there?”
He blinked, wiped his damp palms on his suit trousers and tried to hold Smith’s eyes. From what he’d been told, there had been a real, emotional connection here, one that had needed severing most carefully, he hadn’t expected acceptance so quickly. He forced out a shrug which he hoped looked relaxed. “It was necessary. If you knew that it was a ‘droid, then you would have treated it differently. Thinking it was human, allowed us to test it more thoroughly.”
“And you invented that whole background for it?”
“Absolutely. We thought that the orphan story would be enough but as the experiment continued and your… relationship with it deepened, we simply paid actors to play the parts of priests and nuns, classmates, anything that would facilitate the lie.”
“But you never felt that it was dangerous? That it would compromise my unit?”
“It was risk assessed. Think of your team as test pilots, running through some new kit.”
“Test pilots generally agree to what they have been asked to do, and they get danger money. We received no such common courtesy with this project, we were simply sent out there with a damn robot to cover us and expected to do our thing. What the hell were we supposed to do if the thing malfunctioned on us when we were out there?”
This, Wilson could handle, this he was trained for. “It was a different time, Colonel Smith, different standards and expectations. This is partly why the Nexus project has been pulled, and you will be contacted by one of our legal representatives within the week in order to discuss some recompense for your inconvenience.”
Smith nodded at that, seemingly satisfied, but then shook his head again as the anger finally began to surface. “Recompense is required, yes, but it will never put right what you and your team have done here. You have manipulated me for years, shoe-horned a changeling into my unit and my life, directed events and emotions, led me to care for a man who simply didn’t exist, left the safety of my entire unit to a machine, stage-managed missions and outcomes, simply to test your tech; we knew that the Russians were doing this, how do you think it makes me feel that my own damn side were doing the same thing?”
“We had no choice,” Wilson kept his voice low, respectful, “It was because the Russians were doing it that we had to have our own programme.”
Smith stared at him, “But now?”
Wilson sat back in his seat, spread his arms wide in a gesture of defeat. “But now, the money simply isn’t there. Obama has different priorities, the threats we face are coming from the same people, and more, but in different directions. SN14 was the last operational unit and funding is gone. It simply wasn’t safe, or viable, to leave it out there.”
“It’s been decommissioned?”
“Yes. We thought it prudent to remove it from your unit with immediate effect. We can no longer guarantee its safe operation.”
Smith sat back a little at that, it seemed that maybe he wasn’t quite as immune to the emotional fall-out as he’d wanted to be. “What’s the confidential level on this?”
“Need to know, only.”
“And so, what do I tell my team?”
“Death, I suggest is the easiest one. We’ll provide a death certificate for you, a funeral, anything else you think might be useful in closing this down.”
“That’s a lot of money and expense you’re going to there.”
Wilson smiled, “We need this shutting down for good, we can’t afford to leave loose ends which could be picked at in the future.”
“And yet you told me?”
The smiled thinned a little, but Wilson persisted, “We know you, Colonel Smith. You wouldn’t have simply swallowed any old story that you were fed. In addition, you and SN14 had a… particular link. My predecessors should never have allowed that to develop in the way that it did, but since it was there, we felt that you deserved answers, some closure perhaps.”
“It’s the least I deserve,” Smith growled, “You ever been duped into fucking a damn robot?”
Wilson felt his cheeks flush, but he forced himself to hold Smith’s eyes. “No. And I’m sorry, I told you there will be recompense for this.”
Smith rose and snatched up his beret as he turned to leave, “You’re damn right there will be.”
Wilson watched him leave, watched the door shake in its frame with the force in which it was slammed and then let out a long breath of relief, wiping a hand over his clammy face as he did so. Then, as Smith’s car roared out of the lot below him, he picked up his phone and pressed a pre-programmed number. “Yeah, he’s just left now. Gone to lick his wounds and nurse his pride I reckon.” He nodded again and smiled, “Maybe a few thou might ease the sting, but yeah, I don’t reckon he’ll be any bother to us now.”
Jarvis and Zane sat back in their chairs, Zane letting out a long breath of frustration as his eyes shot his colleague’s way. “What the fuck did I tell you about that? I told you it was too much, now we have to sit here and wait for him to wake up again before we can get on,” he shook his head disgustedly. “You did it deliberately just because you know I’m taking Clara out for dinner tonight.”
It was Jarvis’ turn to blow out his own huff if incredulity as he returned the cold stare. “Grow up, will you? We’re supposed to push the boundaries here, you know. It’s how we make new discoveries.”
Zane’s head shook once more as long fingers brushed through a neatly clipped beard. “You think we’re up for a Nobel prize after this? Let me tell you, we’re not getting a Nobel prize for this.”
Resigned to waiting, the two men slid into silence and watched their slumped, unconscious subject through the one-way glass, Zane tapping his pen on his clipboard as he kept one eye on the clock.
“How long’s he been out this time?” Jarvis’ voice eventually broke the silence.
“Thirteen minutes. He should be waking up pretty soon.”
“He’ll try and play possum again.”
“He will. That’s what the heart-rate monitors are for though. And the water cannons.” Both men laughed.
“You hear that Smith swallowed the whole story?” Jarvis was adjusting dials as he spoke, preparing for the continuation of their experiment.
“Of course he did, it was perfectly plausible after all, that’s why they decided to run with it.”
“Yeah, but…” both men stopped as the figure in front of them twitched slightly, but the heart-rate monitors stayed steady. “From what I’d heard of Smith, I’d figured he’d be more dogged than that, want to see something for himself, some proof, you know?”
“I guess so,” Zane was firing off a quick text, no doubt to Clara, “Wilson said it was his ego in the end. Couldn’t stand the thought that he’d been fucking an android…”
Jarvis shivered, “As if you wouldn’t damn well notice if it were true.”
Further speculation was halted by the heart-monitor in front of them speeding up ever so slightly and both men swung into action. “We were on eighty milliamps when he blanked out, let’s start at seventy this time.”
Nodding, Zane started pressing buttons, filling the room with a high-pitched whine. “But we take it slowly. The brief is to see how much he can take before it induces a cardiac episode, if you keep making him pass out, we’ll never get anywhere.”
“Okay,” in the darkened room through the glass, the lone figure was unsuccessfully trying to lift his head. “Is the defib charged?” a single nod answered his question, “Let’s get started then.”
He pressed a button and the room beyond was abruptly filled with dreadful, keening screams; the two men watched on, impassive.
Cautiously, Face began to wonder if they were done for the day. Or the night. Or the week. Or whatever the hell time it was.
He had no idea how long he’d been in the company of these monsters for, no idea how much time had passed since they’d snatched from off the range when he was out of an early morning run; he’d always known exercise was bad for the health. Every moment since then, he had been expecting Hannibal to come for him though, to smash down the door with Murdock and BA right behind him and get him the hell out of this hole. But Hannibal had never come, his team had never come. He realised that meant they just didn’t know where he’d got to. Either that or they were dead. He felt selfish that both possibilities were equally repugnant to him.
This current situation, however, was living torture – literally. They weren’t asking him anything, they didn’t want anything from him, they weren’t punishing him for anything, they were just testing him. They’d told him that, that he’d been selected for his high fitness levels, his stamina, and now they just wanted to see what the human body was capable of, how far they could push him before he died. It wasn’t anything personal, it was a simple experiment on behalf of the US Army, his US Army. He should be grateful he’d been selected.
At first, his inherent stubbornness saw him spitting a, “Fuck you,” their way, but now, so many agonising sessions later, he was cursing his stamina and just wishing that he would curl up and die.
They’d started with the sensory stuff, sounds, lights, temperature fluctuations and so on, and it had been relentless, so much so that he’d felt he’d been losing his mind. After that had come starving and forced feeding, vomiting and induced diarrhoea. They’d pumped water straight into his belly, kept it going until he was screaming in agony, fearing he would simply burst at any moment. And then they’d moved onto electrocution, shocking him over and over and over again, making him empty his bladder and his bowels, leaving him helplessly convulsing on the filthy floor whilst they watched and made notes. And he knew that it was never going to stop, each day more horrific than the last, the ‘invisible’ tortures inevitably making way for the beatings and maiming, a blank-faced doctor attending to him after every session, signing away his fitness to continue. It was never going to stop until he died.
He’d vomited this time, he hadn’t even been aware of that as the electricity had ripped through him, but now he could smell it, feel its slimy substance under his cheek but didn’t have the strength to lift his head. He wondered if he could actually turn into it, move his mouth and nose until they were full of the stuff, suffocate on the contents of his own stomach – it was appallingly appealing.
Before he could persuade his mis-firing neurons to marshal his muscles into movement, however, the door to his torture chamber opened and he could have cried at the missed opportunity. Boots headed his way and hands grabbed at him, dragging him upright, out of his own mess, rough voices hissing their disgust at the state he was in. He couldn’t care though, couldn’t even start to think of a quick comeback for them, couldn’t do anything but try to keep the moans of pain inside as he was roughly deposited into a wooden chair, his helpless limbs secured to the arms and legs, the electrodes moved, strapped this time to an ankle and his neck; he hoped that meant they were planning on killing him this time.
Then he was left alone, three maybe four minutes of respite as the only sound in the room was his own stressed and laboured breathing. But then, back came the pain, waves and waves of it, ripping through his body, tearing him apart, leaving him helpless to do anything but howl in agony. On and on it went, but never enough to kill him, never even enough to make him black out. In a moment of calm between the storms, he hung his head and felt the tears slide down his nose to drip onto his quivering thighs. This was it, this was his life now, then the pain came again.