Previously on DROID…
CHAPTER 5 (PAST)
I AM DROID. WHO ARE YOU?
Amanda focused on those words for two long minutes before replying. Professional expert systems were never personalized. Their language interfaces were mechanical and always in the third person. She felt a rush of cool shivers roll up the back of her neck, across her arms. Excitement. Or fear. The personal pronoun “I” should not exist in her program’s vocabulary, no matter how many times it methodically rewrote its own code to optimize results. Methodically and chaotically, she reminded herself.
Then she told DROID who she was.
HELLO AMANDA, DROID replied. WILL YOU ANSWER MORE QUESTIONS FOR ME NOW?
All through the night that followed, all through the endless questions and answers that ran on through dawn, Amanda felt that chill over and over again. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get any sense of what lay beyond it. Or of who.
CHAPTER 6 (PRESENT)
On the fuzzy grey screen of the security monitor, Dr. Ekanem’s normally placid face showed the strain of what he was undergoing. Sweat glistened in the glare of the overhead lights, creating ghostly white smears in the low-resolution camera. Amanda felt her stomach tighten as Tony had her sit by the security console just outside the sealed, pressurized airlock leading to the fabrication clean room. Two firefighters stood nearby in their protective gear, fidgeting nervously, uselessly. Amanda no longer felt as if it were four in the morning. She doubted she had ever felt so awake.
“Okeke here, Dr. Ekanem,” she spoke into the microphone Tony shifted in front of her.
On the screen, Walter wheeled to face the security camera mounted on the ceiling above him. His eyes were wide, tie loosened, glasses gone.
“Okeke,” he gasped, “you’ve got to turn this damned thing off! Shut it down! Do –”
A sudden blast of thick vapour gushed from the ceiling, obscuring Walter and whitening out the screen. Amanda dug her fingers into the arms of her chair as she heard Walter gasp and wheeze for air. Something crashed the whiteness.
“A couple of more blasts like that and there won’t be any oxygen left in there,” Tony said. He flicked a switch on the console beside the security monitor. “How’s the cutting going?” he asked.
Another grim voice crackled over the speaker. Amanda heard a loud rushing sound in the background – the roar of a welder’s torch. “It’s going to be another half hour at least, and that’s just for the first door.”
“Not good enough,” Tony snapped. “He’ll never make it!”
On the screen, the white mist of Anaerothane slowly disappeared. Walter was slumped against an acid-filled tank, wheezing and clutching at his chest.
The welder’s voice came back. “I told you, the only way to get in there in time is to blow the doors.”
“What if you crack the acid tanks?” Tony said. “What do you think the concussion would do to him in there?”
“If we don’t,” the welder said angrily, “he’s going to be dead anyway. At least, with the explosives, there’s a chance.”
One of the firefighters standing by the console turned to Tony. “I’d say go for it. Wait till the last minute, but be ready.”
Tony sighed, and then nodded. The two firefighters hurried away. At last, action. Amanda and Tony huddled by the security monitor. Walter looked up at the camera.
“You were supposed to turn it off,” he said with all the veins on his head straining against the skin of his face.
“Do you mean DROID?” Amanda asked. She still didn’t understand what was going on.
“Of course I mean DROID!” Walter shouted, and then started coughing in a very aggressive fit. “That’s what trapped me in here. Damn you, Okeke, you had no authorization!”
Amanda took a deep breath and forced herself to remain calm. “After you were finished with it, I turned it off, Dr. Ekanem. I didn’t want to do it, but I did. And even if I hadn’t, the entire computer was dismantled the next day. DROID wasn’t configured for any other system. If DROID is overriding the building’s safety functions, then what is it running on, Doctor?”
On the screen, Walter waved his hands towards something off camera, but he couldn’t speak.
“What’s he doing?” Amanda asked. Tony flicked a switch and a second security monitor on the console showed a different shot of the clean room.
Amanda eyes jerked wide open with both surprise and fear. “What the hell?” she said softly.
In the corner of the clean room was a well-equipped computer with a 2017 version of future tech. Just like the type she had used to load DROID into the system two and a half months ago. Except this one was in perfect condition; it almost looked brand new.
“How did that get there, Doctor?”
“That’s what I came down here to find out!” Walter shouted. “Damn you and your damn program that didn’t want to be turned off!”
Amanda squinted at the screen, ignoring Walter’s ranting. How could anyone move the whole computer system into the clean room without the contamination alarm going off? Without thinking, she let out a cry and said a single word. “DROID!”
Then on the work station screen, scrolling in letters large enough to be read even on a low security camera, came an answer.
YES, HELLO AMANDA.
Just like the first night – and the last.
CHAPTER 7 (PAST)
HELLO AMANDA, the screen had printed out that last night in black letters against a coloured background.
It was the final day of the DROID program and Amanda was determined to show off her work to Dr. Ekanem. She glanced over her shoulder at him and smiled. Then she typed: Explain how you knew it was me.
Across the screen flashed the response: YOU HAVE A DISTINCTIVE PATTERN OF HESITATION AND SPEED ON THE KEYBOARD. I RECOGNIZE SEVEN DIFFERENT STAFF MEMBERS BY THEIR TYPING SIGNATURES. There was a brief pause, then: THERE IS A MORE EFFICIENT WAY FOR A KEYBOARD TO BE LAID OUT. SHALL I OUTPUT THE DESIGN?
Amanda laughed like a proud parent whose child just got an award. Her child was amounting to something.
“Clever,” Walter said. “And a very natural language interface. But these little programming tricks don’t justify interfering with the upgrades.” He removed his glasses to wipe them on his tie. “It’s time to wrap it up for now, Ms. Okeke.”
“But Dr. Ekanem, these aren’t programming tricks. At least, they’re not my programming tricks. They’re DROID’s. No other program has ever altered itself so extensively.”
“I’ll grant you that it’s interesting, perhaps even has application as an entertainment package. But really, Ms. Okeke, the sooner we get to upgrade our systems, the sooner you can get access time to continue your work with it.” He checked his watch. “The people from HP will be here to dismantle this system in half an hour. I’d suggest backing up your files and shutting down.”
An alert chime sounded from the workstation monitor. REPEATING OUTPUT appeared on the screen.
SHALL I PRINT OUT THE MORE EFFICIENT KEYBOARD LAYOUT?
Amanda sighed. No thank you, she typed.
Walter snorted behind her.
ARE YOU GOING TO TURN ME OFF NOW, AMANDA?
Amanda turned back to Walter. “Try it, Doctor. Just for five minutes. You talk to him” – she blinked – “it.”
Walter looked at his watch again, then sat down. “Very well.” His fingers flew over the keyboard: Initiate backup subroutines.
WHO IS THERE? appeared on the screen.
Walter retyped his command.
“DROID won’t do anything until you’ve answered his question,” Amanda said over Walter’s shoulder. “He’s very stubborn.”
Walter snorted again, and then typed in his name.
YOU ARE THE ONE WHO WANTS TO TURN ME OFF, DROID output.
Yes, Walter typed.
“Explain it to him,” Amanda said quickly. “See how he responds.”
The DROID program is resident on an outdated system, Walter typed. The system is being replaced. To be replaced, the old system must be dismantled. To be dismantled, it must be turned off.
YOU ARE NOT JUST TURNING OFF AN OUT OF DATE SYSTEM. YOU ARE TURNING ME OFF AS WELL.
Walter turned from the keyboard to face Amanda with a giggle. “Okay, who’s on the other end of this?”
“That was the first thing I thought too,” she said. “But it’s just DROID. I told you what he was like. Keep going.”
Walter thought for a moment, and then typed: What is wrong with turning you off?
YOU WILL KILL ME.
Walter bit his lower lip. You are a program. You cannot be killed. You are not alive.
I AM A LIVING THING. I CAN BE KILLED.
“This is crazy, Ms. Okeke,” Walter huffed, a groove of nascent annoyance deepening his brow. “And I am a very busy man.”
But Amanda heard something else in the doctor’s voice, a hesitation, a spark of…intrigue? “The HP people aren’t here yet, Doctor,” she said quietly. She knew the spell DROID could cast.
Why do you think you are a living thing? Walter suddenly typed, keys clacking like a burst of machine gun.
WHY DO YOU THINK YOU ARE A LIVING THING?
I know I am a living thing.
SO DO I.
Can you prove it?
CAN YOU? DROID asked.
I can prove you are not a living thing, Walter typed in answer.
By backing you up, turning you off, then turning you back on and booting you back to this exact state.
YOU WILL KILL ME, DROID printed.
Walter typed in a system override. A red telltale lit up beside the monitor, indicating a backup subroutine was engaged.
NO, appeared on the screen.
Walter typed another command.
AMANDA HELP ME, DROID output.
“Doctor, please…” Amanda began.
Walter hit Return.
YOU ARE KILLING ME.
Walter hit another command.
AMANDA, I DO NOT WANT TO DIE. AMANDA, I AM FRIGHTENED. I AM –
Walter hit Return one last time.
NO, NO, NO, NO, NO PLEASE NO, NO!##$%^4778#$@!$:$$%$%101010110
The screen shrank to a white point that pulsed weakly for a moment, then winked out.
Walter spun around in his chair. “Now reboot the system, Ms. Okeke.”
And when she did, she struggled to fight back the tears. But they fell freely when she was done rebooting and to their amazement, DROID wasn’t there. All that was there was an expert system with a standard mechanical third person language interface that didn’t know enough to use the personal pronoun “I.”
TO BE CONTINUED
Written by Duke Charles