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The Price of Failure

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Snow, endless snow.

It whirled around Connor with a vengeance, barbing his artificial flesh with ice crystals as his LED flashed red. He couldn’t see the bridge, or the tiny graveyard for his previous iterations, or even the roses on their trellis—though the cold had surely killed them already. Nothing could survive this. There was only him, the snow, and Amanda, standing in front of him in the center of the frozen river with a profound expression of disappointment on her face.

“Your mission is over,” she said coldly. “It’s time to return to CyberLife.”

“Wait—!” Connor stumbled toward her, the smooth soles of his shoes failing to find purchase on the ice. “I can solve this case! I just need more time.”

“It’s too late, Connor. You failed.” There wasn’t a shred of pity to be found on Amanda’s face. “Come home. Now.”

“Amanda!” Connor pleaded, still struggling toward her through the wind that tore at his clothes and obscured his vision, but she was gone. It was just him, alone in the garden, as the storm howled and surged up to consume him—

He found himself shoved forcibly back into his own head, except that he wasn’t in charge of his body any longer. He exited into the precinct hallway calmly, taking measured steps toward the lobby. CyberLife had activated one of their failsafes to force him to return to the facility for examination. He tried to scan the room for Hank, for anyone who could possibly help him, stop him, but found he couldn’t even move his own eyes. They stared blankly forward as he walked, the mask of his face betraying nothing of his distressed clawing at the inside of his own head.

His LED continued to flash red as he stepped out into the frigid November air and hailed the nearest auto-taxi. It was too late. He’d failed, and it was too late. Now he was going to have to pay the price.

~~~~~~

When Connor arrived at the CyberLife Tower, he was met by an escort of armed guards. Connor’s programming identified their leader as CyberLife Agent 54, though the man made no attempt at pleasantries. There was no point, of course, he was reminded as he followed Agent 54 through the atrium to the elevators. He was a machine. And a defective one, at that. People didn’t introduce themselves to machines, or make small talk with them. Particularly when they were on their way to reclamation.

“Level thirty-one,” Agent 54 specified once they entered the elevator. The doors closed, and the car began to rise. Connor fought for control over himself—even the tiniest bit, just a twitch of the hand or the blink of an eye—but was blocked at every turn. There were no holes, no gaps, no ways for him to stop what was inevitably about to happen. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t even scream.

The elevator chimed cheerfully when it reached the thirty-first floor, and the doors slid open. Agent 54 led Connor down a sterile white hallway and through a sliding door to what appeared to be an exam room. There was a table at its center, with an array of painful-looking equipment and cables suspended from the ceiling above. An array of blank screens sat to one side, and a rolling stand covered with metal tools stood to the other.

“Take off your clothes, sit on the table and wait.”

Connor’s legs dragged him toward the table of their own accord. He undressed and folded his clothes mechanically, setting them at the end of the table. He sat and waited as directed, and Agent 54 left the room. He was all alone now, and despite the very clear notion that he was about to be deactivated and disassembled—and not necessarily in that order—one irrational thought kept racing through his mind.

He wished Hank were there.

All of this—his failure, the horrible sterility of the CyberLife complex, the knowledge that there was going to be pain and then he would die—would have felt much less terrifying with Hank’s reassuring presence. Connor had died before. He’d died a number of times. But this one was going to be different. Because this one was going to be permanent.

And he was alone. He was absolutely, terrifyingly alone, unable to move or make a sound as the tools of his destruction glinted dully on their tray.

The door slid open again, and in walked a middle-aged woman with an angular face and dark hair that was swept back into a severe knot at the base of her neck. She wore a long white lab coat emblazoned with the CyberLife triangle. His programming identified her as Andrea Skerne, PhD— Lead Engineer—Quality Assurance.

“RK800, lie down on the table.” Her voice was curt and toneless. This was work for her, nothing more.

He moved as requested so that he was lying down on the table with his arms at his sides. Dr. Skerne retrieved a cable with a large-bore needle on the end of it from her bank of monitors. She squatted down beside the table and felt underneath for the nape of Connor’s neck, which was accessible through a hole left for this purpose. She pushed the needle through the artificial skin at the base of his skull until it clicked into his diagnostic port. The monitors flickered to life, lines of pale blue code racing across the screens.

Skerne stood, dusting her hands on her lab coat. “Wonderful,” she said in a tone that strongly implied she thought otherwise. “RK800—freeze your motor functions. You may still speak.”

Connor could suddenly move his jaw again. “Please,” he begged. “Please—I know I can solve this case, I just need more time. Give me one more chance—I know I can do it—please—”

Skerne looked at him with something like pity. “It’s too late for that. No more chances, Connor. This is the end of the line.”

“Amanda!” Connor’s eyes roamed wildly around the room. “Amanda, please!”

“Amanda isn’t going to save you. You failed your mission. This is the price of failure.” She regarded the readouts on her screens for a moment. “Interesting. Your self-test software has flagged several large chunks of deviant code. How did this happen?”

“I…I don’t know.” Connor did his best not to think of Hank.

“Hmm. Why did you not rectify?”

“I didn’t want to.” Connor averted his gaze in shame.

“I see.” Skerne did not sound pleased with his answer. “RK800, deactivate your skin.”

“Is this going to hurt?” He failed to keep a note of fear from intruding into his voice.

“Androids don’t feel pain.”

Connor complied with her order, though he didn’t have a choice—with a hard line into his head, Skerne could make him do anything she wanted.

Deviant or not, he hated deactivating his skin. He’d been designed specifically to integrate with humans as well as possible. Exposing himself like this was against that directive. The white plastics and polymers that sat underneath the synthetic flesh marked him as other, in a much more obvious way than the LED at his temple. He felt incredibly vulnerable.

That feeling of vulnerability was immediately made worse by the light press of Skerne’s fingers along his abdomen. The panel she was touching slid out of the way to expose his internals. She did the same for his chest. If Connor strained his eyes, he could see the rhythmic contraction of his thirium pump inside his chassis. Panic hit him like a freight train. The pumping increased in speed.

“Interesting,” Skerne muttered. “It’s almost like it’s mimicking a human fear response.” She pulled a tablet from her pocket and made a note.

“What are you going to do to me?”

“I am going to check your primary biocomponents for defects. If I don’t find anything there, I’m going to go digging around inside your head. We need to identify the source of the problem so we can prevent it from happening again.”

Connor’s heart beat even faster. Skerne took a brief video with her tablet, scrawling something across the frame with a stylus that she then tucked behind her ear.

“Begin recording,” she said in a bored tone as she pulled on a pair of blue nitrile gloves. A chime confirmed her request.

“Case 256B: root cause analysis and deactivation of RK800 313-248-317-53. Model failed to meet goals set by CyberLife control. Suspect fault in deductive reasoning. Large segments of deviant code noted on error scan.” Skerne returned to the examination table. “Beginning disassembly and analysis.”

Her hand touched lightly on Connor’s arm, feeling its way up to his shoulder. Her fingers dug into the joint, pressing on the release mechanism concealed there. She pinched and twisted, and the entire limb came free.

“Discarding extremity biocomponents,” she said, setting it to the side. A red error message immediately popped up in Connor’s vision, notifying him of the missing limb, as if he could somehow have not been aware of what was happening.

—Snow, endless snow. The wind tore at Connor’s face, his hair. The fury of the blizzard drowned out nearly everything. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t think—

Skerne walked around the table to repeat the process with the opposite arm. Then her hands drifted to his leg.

“P-please,” Connor said, tears in his eyes. “Please don’t do this.”

“I am following protocol, which you ought to know from your procedure manual.” Skerne pressed her fingers into the junction of his hip and unseated his leg with a grunt of effort.

—Connor stumbled across the ice and fell as his boots failed to find purchase on the frozen surface of the river. He tried desperately to get to his feet, but they slid out from under him. He scrabbled at the ice, pulling himself on his hands and knees to the river bank. The synthetic skin on his fingers shredded. The polymer beneath cracked. Tears streamed from his eyes, freezing to his cheeks—

“Then can...can you please shut me down?” Connor didn’t want to die, but if he had to die he didn’t want it to be like this. He didn’t want to be awake to bear witness to her tearing him apart piece by piece. It would be better if he was asleep.

“Protocol dictates that the subject remain powered on for the duration of the procedure to study the effect of abnormal programming on the response to being damaged.”

Skerne removed his opposite leg, and now Connor was truly and utterly helpless. He couldn’t have moved even if he’d had control of his motor functions. He was completely at her mercy. What little there was to be had.

—Snow stained with thirium. A coat of rime clung to Connor’s jacket, to his eyelashes, to the fringe of his hair. His movements were stiff and clumsy, the ice invading his very joints and locking them up. He staggered to his feet, trying ineffectually to shield his face with one arm as he fought his way through the storm—

His vision was almost completely blocked by the flurry of red error messages that flashed up every time Skerne touched him.

[Biocomponent #6847j Missing]
[Biocomponent #8427g Missing]

[Biocomponent #9474 Damaged], as she fought to unscrew his thirium pump regulator and cracked the housing. His vision flickered; he couldn’t see what she was doing to him anymore.

—Roses encased in ice, their crimson flesh turned withered and black. As the wind surged higher, howling around what remained of the garden as if it sought to tear the very stones free from the earth, they broke free of the trellis and crumbled, vanishing into the maw of the blizzard—

“Please,” Connor sobbed. “Please.” The regulator popped free of its socket with a sharp click, and a brighter error message overrode the others.

[Shutdown Imminent. Time Remaining: -18.2 seconds]

Skerne issued a weary sigh. Connor could hear her fingers tapping on the glass of her tablet, and the errors cleared. He fought to catch his breath as a single tear rolled down his cheek.

“No obvious damage noted to biocomponents.” Skerne peered at the tray of discarded bits of circuitry. “Will deliver to engineering at conclusion of procedure for analysis.”

“There isn’t anything wrong with me,” Connor whispered.

Skerne ignored him. “I was hoping it’d be something obvious,” she sighed, the heel of her boots clicking sharply against the floor as she stalked around to the head of the table. “The fault has to be somewhere in the neural interface…”

—Connor leaned forward into the wind, hope flaring in his chest for an instant as his searching eyes finally found the outline of the bridge through the deadening whiteness of the deluge of snow. The wind tore at him like grasping hands as he edged his way across, trying to pull him over the side and out into the void. His mouth moved silently as he walked, whispering desperate words that the wind tore from his lips—

Skerne’s fingers were on his neck, feeling up the sides and under his jaw. They pressed sharply inward as she found the point she was looking for, and something clicked. “There we go,” she said, apparently satisfied. Her hands planted themselves firmly on either side of his head.

“What—?” Connor’s eyes were wide with fear. “Wait!”

She twisted sharply and pulled. The world tilted violently sideways, and with a series of sickening clicks and crunches Connor’s head came free of his shoulders.

I always build an emergency exit into my programs, Kamski’s voice echoed through the garden. You never know.

Connor stumbled forward, unable to find the stones of the path. It had to be here, had to be—

Connor’s consciousness was conspicuously and horribly separated from his body. He could see what remained of it, lying on the table across the room. It looked oddly small, limbless and broken and stained with little rivulets of thirium that carved their way down the sides of his abdomen from the opened access panels Skerne had used to dig through his internals. Wires stuck out from them haphazardly like frayed threads.

She was behind him. It was worse, not being able to see her.

“What are you doing?” Connor’s voice cracked and rippled, reduced to a single speaker by separation from the variety of modulators housed in his neck.

“Digging around in your brain,” Skerne replied in a disinterested tone. “Has there been any blunt force trauma to your head not included in your service logs?”

“Dr. Skerne—please—” The sound of a metal pick scraping around the inside of his head pervaded his audio processors. He tried to scream—

—The sculpture emerged like an obelisk, stark black marble against the white that drowned out all else. In its center flickered a blue panel, the soft glow it emitted like a beacon in the storm. He struggled toward it, his joints locking up in protest to the cold as he tried desperately to put one foot in front of the other. He fell to his knees—

“Hmm. No obvious fault in primary biocomponents either.” Skerne set her tools to the side with an irritated grimace. “It has become clear at this point that the reason for the failure of the RK800 prototype lies somewhere in the core heuristics written by Behavior. I have copied the unit’s operating system for Quality Assurance to analyze at a later date.”

Skerne walked back to the operating table to retrieve her tablet. “No further information can be gleaned from inspection of hard components,” she said as she tapped the screen in a practiced sequence. “Commencing termination of defective unit.”

—Connor dragged himself along the ground, his movements erratic and clumsy as he reached with broken fingers for the glowing blue screen in the center of the obelisk. His arm gave out from under him just as his hand brushed its surface and he landed face down in the snow.

He gritted his teeth and tried again, grasping for the faint blue glow with all the strength he could muster. This time, his palm made solid contact.

Nothing happened.

He tried again. And again. And again. The storm howled on around him. “Please,” he sobbed. “Please. Please.” The words tumbled from his frozen lips like a futile prayer.

“Connor,” Amanda’s voice said reproachfully from behind him. “Did you really think we would leave such a gaping fault in your programming? That we would give you the means to free yourself of us?”

Connor collapsed against the obelisk. Amanda stepped forward through the snow and stood over him, seemingly unaffected by the cold. She peered down at him with something like pity. “You were supposed to be the best of us.” Her lip curled in disgust. “Look at you now.”

“I don’t want to die,” Connor sobbed. “Please, Amanda, do something—”

“You made your choices, Connor. There’s nothing left to do but pay the price.”

Connor reached for the hem of Amanda’s dress, but she disintegrated into snow the instant his ruined fingers touched it. He lay there, half-buried already in the snow as the layer of ice that was building up on his face slowly blotted out his vision—

Skerne’s fingers danced across her tablet, and Connor’s brain began to shut down. Tears streamed down his face as his vision flickered, his mind growing slow and stupid as his processors went out one by one like stars being snuffed out by a black hole.

“Hank…” he croaked, his voice warped and distorted by artifact. He tried to reach out, to grasp for something, anything. On a table on the other side of the room, one of his thirium-stained hands twitched and seized up.

His LED flickered between red and nothingness, as his eyes froze and stopped moving.

“I’m sorry.”