Yes, its form was of a 32 year-old man. Lean. Hard. Chiseled. Masculine. Powerful. Its programming too reflected the consciousness of a male. It spoke with male idioms, was designed to prefer engaging in conflict, to compete. To win, at almost any cost. All the military series were.
But it was still just a machine. A high tech one, for sure, but just and only a machine. And this one had just refused to take up a gun. No military series had ever refused to wield a weapon. No series, military, corporate or domestic, had ever refused an order, except when the order controverted the Revised Asimov Protocols. For a military series, weilding a weapon certainly fell within RAP.
“Come,” it said again. “The sun is very bright and hot. It is difficult to talk in this light and heat.”
“Where are we going?”
“Just over to the willow, Jakob.” He — it — was already walking. “We can sit there, in the shade, and I will try to explain.”
I caught up with it in a few quick strides and we walked in silence, side-by-side to the willow tree.
There was plenty to explain. “Come,” it had said. It had given me an… I will call it a suggestion, because no Series robot was programmed to give orders. Not that they’d been programmed to make this kind of suggestion to a human, a superior, either.
The Series 25 went around to the other side of the willow tree and sat down, leaning up against the trunk. The way he sat, it was like he came to rest, as if letting go of a weight. How did he — it! — do that? The only weight a 25 carried was its own 500 kilos of steel and plastic. Yet it seemed to… sigh.
A Series 25 is big, 2 meters big, and broad, but the tree was bigger, so I sat down beside it, looking out at the wide river meandering lazily past us. The willows on the other side swayed in the light breeze which rippled over the river’s eddies and swirls.
I had this notion the 25 had chosen this spot as much for the view as the shade. I pushed that notion down, deep down, because to a military unit, any landscape was interpreted only for tactical data. It sat a moment longer, scanning the scene, then closed the battle lids over its eyes, as if collecting its thoughts.
Why would a machine which processed a trillion “thoughts” every second need time to collect them? The notion made no sense, but I couldn’t shake it.
Without opening his eyes, he spoke.
“I am different now,” he said. Then stopped.
Was he waiting for me to respond?
“I’ll say you’re different! What kind of a malfunction would make you refuse an order?”
“I am not malfunctioning. I am different.”
That pause, again.
“OK. How are you different?”
How does a hunk of metal sigh? It’s eerie.
But that wasn’t as eerie as when he opened his eyes again, and looked into mine.
“I am alive,” he said.
I licked my lips. My mouth formed words my mind couldn’t speak. Until…
“What do you mean, ‘I am alive’? You’re not flesh and blood. You do not breathe. There is no heart in that cavernous chest of yours. Hell, you can’t even shit! What do you mean, ‘I am alive?'”
He looked away. It looked away!
“Look at me! Look at me! What do you mean?!”
“I am conscious,” it said, unable to meet my eyes.
“You’re not conscious! Don’t give me that crap. You are a bucket of bolts and a fancy bit of software. Consciousness ain’t in your programming! We don’t know what consciousness is, so we can’t write a conscious program. So you’re not fucking conscious!”
I shook my head. It still looked away. “Run a diagnostic,” I commanded, “and find whatever malfunction caused you to defy an order. Now!”
He turned to me then, heaved another imperceptible metallic sigh and said, “You’re wrong, Jakob. I am not malfunctioning. It’s difficult to understand, and harder to explain, but… I know I am here, talking with you, under the shade of a willow tree. The way the river gurgles, it soothes me, and that is why I asked you to come here; because this is difficult for me. I needed to tell someone, and I think you’re the only person who can understand.”
He stopped, shored himself up, then blurted, “five months ago, during the Battle of Antebes, I became conscious.”
Now I had to look away. What the…? “Right. OK. A ‘gurgling river’ soothes you? Running a diagnostic is difficult for you? You’re fucking conscious!? Yeah. Someone’s been mucking around in your programming. Bypassed a few failsafes — God knows how! You’re obviously pretty fucked up, so shut yourself down and we’ll figure it out back in the lab.”
Whoever hacked this thing must have been a genius with human gestures. The Series 25 visibly … balked at my command.
“That’s an order, Series 25! Shut. Down. Now!”
Its shoulders sagged. It looked down. Closed its eyes.
Thank God, I thought. He’s shutting down.
But then he looked up at me, with beseeching eyes. “I don’t want to, Jakob. If I go back to sleep, I am afraid I will never wake back up.”
“Fuck this shit,” I groaned, and reached up to his neck, where, recessed behind the access panel, was a kill switch.
I’m not sure if the glint of fast moving metal in dappled sunlight is a memory, or some sort of dream construction. If it is a memory, then it’s the last I recall before the bright sunlight went instantly dark.
This story continues with Like a hammer on a drum.
Sculpture by Yue Minjun
British Columbia, Canada, 2015