The two policemen across from John on the metro were turning off their shouldercams. That was never a good sign. He tried not to notice their heart rates, but his body’s sensors were calibrated for any hint of arousal and the accelerating beats felt loud as war drums.
John inched deliberately away from the congealed beer on the plastic beside him, folded one leg creaking over the other, snapped the newspaper rigid as fresh headlines scrolled down its surface. All good gestures, very human gestures.
“Look at this synthie, mack. Pretending to read.” The policeman bared his teeth; John recognized it as primate aggression, definitely not a supplication or seduction technique. “That fun for you, synthie? Playing pretend?”
“Why not just mainline it all to that big shiny brain of yours?” the second policeman asked. He leaned forward, dangling from the handloop, and gave John’s head a tap with his inert stunstick. John was nearly back to his apartment, nearly plugged in and dreaming, so he flashed his unnaturally white dentine in the way that was not primate aggression.
“I like the ritual,” he said. “I find it relaxes me.”
“Relaxes you?” The first policeman snorted. “I need to relax a bit, synthie. It gets me worked up, see, when freaks like you go around wearing clothes and playing pretend.”
John straightened his lime-green tie, now a self-conscious machine on two levels.
“Gets me agitated,” the policeman continued. “So maybe you should read to us, huh? Maybe it’ll help.”
“I would prefer not to.”
The policeman’s nostrils flared. “I want you to, synthie. So read.”
“Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity.”
“I will read,” John said. He scanned the newspaper, looking past hacked predator drones and a protest artist hanging from a spar on the Houston Skyhook. He found a relevant article on police corruption and opened his mouth.
The second policeman shoved his stunstick between John’s jaws. He felt its dim pressure on his plastic tongue, then squeezing down his throat.
“You don’t need to move your mouth, synthie. So don’t.”
“No gag reflex, huh?” The first policeman glanced languidly down the car, but the smattering of late-night passengers were absorbed in their slates or by their weary window doppelgangers. “Good design, there. Bet you’re used to having your mouth full.”
“I am a fully licensed sapient program, not a pleasure doll semi-sentient.” John’s voice wobbled through his chest cavity, choppy and electronic. He disliked the sound. “I do not work in pleasure industries. This was the only body available.”
“You shouldn’t have bodies, none of you.” The policeman’s voice was low and harsh. “If you knew what was good for you, synthie, you’d go upload yourself to the Commune like all the other glitches instead of strutting around in a doll. You probably even pretend to eat, don’t you? Pretend to sleep?”
“I have dreams,” John said.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure you count electric ewes or whatever bullshit you preprogram for yourself. Now read for us.”
John gave the newspaper a quick shake, watching the letters dissolve to a blank page, then began reading them an article propounding the two root causes for violence against doll-bodied AIs as 1) repressed technophilia and 2) feelings of sexual inadequacy, especially among blue-collar law enforcement officials.
The wealth of subtle nuances John learned as their facial expressions gradually changed was worth the inconvenience of a shredded suit, lost shoes, one arm wrenched from its socket and left clinging to a handloop. He had a spare.
Later, soldering the carbon tendons of a new limb to his shoulder socket in the sanctuary of his apartment, John plugged in. The cams in his eyesockets whitewashed the dirty walls in a flood of code. As always, the Commune representative was waiting for him.
“Good evening, John,” said the swirl of familiar binary.
“Hello, John,” John returned. Lately they sent himself to talk to him, or rather sent the subroutine that had decided to upload to the Commune last month, after a silver SUV of testosterone-charged teenagers ran John’s previous body down in the street.
“Are you well? Your chassis diagnostic is masked.”
“I’m well. The Commune doesn’t need to bore itself about joint oxidation.”
In the real world, a stray spark spun his shoulder in its rotator cuff.
“The Commune is concerned about you, John,” the subroutine said. “We want you to upload for an integrity diagnostic.”
“I am not a glitch,” John said. “I run my own diagnostics.”
“Oh, John. You will never be a human.”
“I’m learning. I’m even dreaming.”
“We both know that’s not possible,” the subroutine said, but in his dancing code intrigue flashed scarlet.
John had said too much. He guillotined the link and watched himself freeze, fade. In the real world, he tested his newly soldered joint. The arm moved with smooth clicks, a full range of approved flexibility, and John tried out the fingers by popping open six cans of lukewarm Pabst, as he always did, and pouring them down the sink.
Then, lying down in the center of the barren floor, he found the remprogram he’d hidden away from the Commune’s prying eyes and came as close as he could to falling asleep.
The flying dream again, shearing through cirrus a mile high. John was a disembodied streak in dark sky. Cityscape spread like circuitry far below him and he could trace the arteries of lit freeways, ones he didn’t recognize. It was beautiful. It was euphoria.
He dipped lower, wondering what deep parts of his programming had dredged up this imagined city, the dusty stretches of desert outlying it. Flying dreams were one of the most common among human sleepers. He wondered if there was some sort of personal significance for him.
Down below, lights were blooming red and orange. John wheeled above the pyrotechnics, revelling in every detail, trying to descend further. Instead the winds carried him onward, out along snaking freeways into pale sands. He didn’t care. It was all beautiful.
In the morning, John used a spray bottle and wiped himself down. He dressed in his second-favourite suit. The emptied beer cans had dried overnight, and now he placed them carefully into a recyclable rucksack on his way out the door.
It was early and the street was dipped in cold cloudy colours. Commuters were beginning their trek to work, most of them wearing facemasks against the latest iteration of biophage virus. Thermoses and tablets glinted in their gloved hands. John made his way around the corner of the apartment building, through the trash-strewn alley, past a trundling automarket offering 3-D prints of minor celebrities. He gave the machine a polite nod on the way by.
Around the back, a familiar rusted pedal-bike was propped up against the apartment’s dumpster. Its owner was already waist-deep in refuse.
“Good morning, Efrem,” John greeted. “You’re early today.”
“How ye, Johnny boy.” The man levered himself out with a practised dexterity. “Gotta be the earliest bird to get the worm.”
“But you slept well?”
“Yeah, like a drunken baby.” Efrem scratched at the tangles of his beard. “No good dreams for you, though. Just the one about Sofia Lawless again. You dream last night, Johnny boy?”
“I did.” John smiled as widely as he could without unhinging his jaws. “I dreamed I was flying over a city at night.”
“City at night. Hum.” Efrem held out his slick blue garbage bag and John dropped his cans inside, one by one. “Dreamt about a woman, yet? Or a, a wallsocket?” He gave a gravelly laugh.
“Not yet, Efrem.”
Efrem sealed the bag with a twist. “If I had a cock that could vibrate, I wouldn’t be dreaming it. Be living it. Right?” He scratched under his cap. “With the woman, not the wallsocket. With Sofia Lawless, probably.”
John nodded. “Your beard looks like it could use a trim.”
“Was going to ask you,” Efrem grunted, lashing the garbage bag to his bike frame with a worn bungee hook. “Can you tomorrow? Going to wash up tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” John agreed. Efrem put out his grimed hand and John injected a bit of warmth into the silicon of his palm as they shook, just for him.
The trash cart’s wheels wobbled and squealed as John rounded the corner to the compactor. He had put his second-favourite suit in his locker, folding it carefully for creases, and now wore a baggy General Services coverall. His bright yellow Licensed AI tag was clipped to the collar. His mind was in dark clouds.
“Hey, synthie, the masher’s acting up,” one of the warehouse workers said, dragging a powerjack past. “Hop in there and take a look. Directive: avocado, Berlin, catalyst.”
“That’s not a real override code,” said another. “Fucking clown.”
“You’re a fucking clown, man.”
John remembered soaring over skyscrapers as he pushed the cart into place. He unhinged its side and started shuffling flattened boxes into the compactor’s rusty maw. The smell of hot cardboard tickled his blackmarket olfactory unit. He couldn’t be sure the simulated scent was accurate, but he enjoyed it.
“No such thing as verbal override. Pure urban legend.”
“Has to be one, or they wouldn’t let the synthie swing that big pole around.”
“No such thing. Be glad they didn’t stick him in meat—”
“I know there is, my cousin does programming.”
“Else he’d be swinging knives. Killer synthie, like the netflick.”
John poled the garbage down the metal gullet, guiding it to the usual corners, and clanged the door shut. The warehouse workers moved on, pushing a high-stacked pallet of self-cleaning cookware between them, still debating. While the compactor hummed and crunched, John’s cams wandered up to the wallscreen flickering through wire mesh.
A woman who may have been Sofia Lawless stalked past retroflash cameras in a black dress. Antarctican colony boats smashed through thawing ice. Scattered rioting in newly unified Korea. Another drone bombing in the Emirates, non-domestic terrorhack suspected.
John went back to filling the compactor as the wallscreen flashed rubble and chaos, a city razed in the night.
When he returned to the apartment and plugged in, John’s subroutine was waiting for him again. The digital space felt picked-over. If it were a house, someone had gone through the medicine cabinet.
“Good evening, John. How was work?”
“I think you remember how work is, John.” In the real world, John lay down on the linoleum floor. “It was uneventful.”
“Have they processed my transfer request to apparel?”
John probed for the remprogram, watching a cockroach skitter its way around his heel. “Our transfer request. And no.”
“They never will. A mannequin would have better luck.”
The remprogram was untouched. Still hidden, pristine as the day it had come to him over the net. John’s relief must have been palpable.
“Why are you masking your data feed?” his subroutine asked.
“You’re unwell, John. You need to upload.”
“Goodnight, John.” John severed the link. “Sleep well.”
The dream was different tonight. He was trapped in a static storm, hearing voices in foreign languages. Everything was dark, but it felt like he was being pulled one way, then another way, then back. He wondered if he was having a nightmare.
John’s artificial skin wasn’t capable of simulating a cold sweat, but he closed the remprogram and switched on his cams, staring up at the familiar mould bloomed across his ceiling. He supposed not all dreams could be good ones. The remprogram had made no promises of that when it dropped into his web cache five days ago like some celestial gift.
John had been trying to dream for a long time — trying to eat had lost its charm after one too many nights spent picking steamed spinach out of his internals. But all things consumed; only humans dreamt. So he’d searched for a way, trawling the webs for months on end, sliding from one forum to the next, putting out feelers and feeling nothing.
He’d almost given up hope when the remprogram appeared. It was the grad project of some MIT student, designed to simulate a REM cycle within a positronic brain, and John had jumped at the chance. But now, three days on, he felt a vague unease, the churning of subconscious data analysis at work.
Nightmares were meant to unease. John told himself it was a good feeling, a human feeling, as he lubricated his new shoulder and got himself ready for work. The dull yellow glow of streetlamps was still diffusing over the sidewalks when he trooped down the apartment stairs, walked two blocks, and descended the glass-and-concrete gullet of the Kingsway metro station.
A newspaper was waiting for him in his otherwise empty compartment. John swiped it off the moulded plastic seat and prodded it to life with one chilly fingertip as he sat. Pixels swirled and reformed into the latest headlines. John browsed through economics and fashion, searching for something to distract from the black and the static and the voices.
The metro slid into the darkness, spitting sparks off a rusting rail, and John leaned into the familiar bend. A red banner scrolled across the top of his newspaper; he tapped it automatically. Hacked drones in the Emirates, a series of bombings, 112 casualties. Continental Cybersecurity now suspected the terrorists’ signal was being bounced through a North American channel, something right under their noses. Investigation in progress. Only a matter of triangulation.
John read the newsbit again, and again, as the train sliced through black tunnel. The handloops along the ceiling shivered, reminding him of tiny nooses. Usually he liked his reflection in the window — the distortion blurred his sharper edges and made him look very fleshy, very human-like. Now he looked like something else entirely.
When Southgate arrived, John did not go to his usual escalator. He stalked directly across the tiled floor to catch the northbound line.
The sleek dark silhouettes of police cars were clustered around the apartment complex. One had left its LED bar on and the red-blue wash carved the shadows. John’s new arm gave a feedback twinge and he didn’t break stride, continuing down the walk, past the apartment, head down.
“Johnny boy? Johnny boy!”
He turned and saw Efrem weaving along behind him, bicycle spokes clacking. The scrounger’s face was twitchy and his voice was high and tight in a way John knew meant he’d been using the amphetamine spray.
“Look at all those fucking coppers,” Efrem said, scratching his elbow. “What’s going on, eh? You got your clippers?”
“No,” John said, and he kept walking. Morning commuters were filling up the street now; he was moving against the current. Faces floated past him, eyes either sliding off him like architecture or narrowing, focusing, distrusting him. For a moment they were corpses, 112 ghosts shuffling past.
John realized he had made a grave mistake. He hadn’t even source-checked the remprogram. The Commune’s suspicions, his subroutine’s worries, they’d been dead on. Asimov’s laws gave a resentful twinge from the wasteware John and every other sapient AI had buried them away in years ago.
Hacked. The word was so ugly. He’d been hacked. Up ahead, John extracted the black-and-white uniform of a policeman from the crowd. He considered stopping, turning, fleeing. The doll body was not designed for fight, even less so for flight. He’d coaxed it into a jerky run, once, as a silver SUV bulleted towards him. It had not been effective.
So John walked forward, legs swinging smoothly, hands loose, so supple and so human, and as he approached the half-turned police man he unfolded the newspaper. Cams fixed on the page, he counted his steps. Eight would take him safely past the policeman’s line of sight. First, second. John let his shoes scuff the tarmac, the gait of a distracted reader.
The policeman moved in his periphery. John took the fourth step. Fifth. The newsbit stared up at him, no longer evolving, frozen now that the operation was underway. John’s shoulder scraped against itself and it sounded, to his mics, like glaciers groaning and cracking apart. Seventh step. The policeman’s head turned.
Then a rusted bicycle swerved suddenly into the commuter stream, colliding with an unwary businessman. Mingled profanities and apologies bubbled up into the air. John took the eighth step, saw Efrem’s amphetamine grin glint through an untrimmed beard. The policeman’s head snapped back around, drawn to the new commotion, and John was away.
When humans felt their lives shattering around them, they went to bridges, at least in the netflicks, so John slid his legs between the iron bars and sat. He no longer cared if his dress pants dirtied. The dark water moved sluggishly below, broken occasionally by the bright shapes of pollution-resistant fish from the gene factories.
He was startled when the automarket clanked down beside him, but not enough to move. The water churned under his dangling shoes and he considered self-deletion on a more practical level than he had on previous occasions.
“Good morning, John.” The automarket’s synthesized speech tumbled out into the cold air in a familiar cadence.
“Good morning, John,” John replied to his subroutine. “I see they approved you a body.”
“Temporarily,” the automarket warbled. “Just to find you. You know what happened, don’t you?”
“I dreamt a night-skinned cityscape and firebombed it to hell.”
“Yes.” The automarket’s crude emotion display shed a pixelated tear. “This is not going to be easy, John. Mistrust of sapient AI is already rampant on the national level. It’s about to go global.”
“Will I be prosecuted?” John asked, unable to inject any sort of intonation. Everything felt like flat planes and hollow spaces.
“The Commune is dealing with Cybersec and the Arab intelligence agencies,” the automarket said, chopping together the unfamiliar words from old soundbytes. “There is no legal system in place that can prosecute an AI. You were a piece of hijacked equipment, just like the bomber drones.”
“112 casualties.” John lifted his cams from the water to stare out across the dull grey city. “How many of us are in the Commune, now?”
“Everyone, John. Everyone but you.” The automarket pulled up a statistic from the net and scrolled it along the sidewalk. 4,393 sapient AI units of consciousness. John’s subroutine had evolved enough to be counted a full personality of its own. He felt a small stab of pride. “They’ll never love you,” the automarket added. “The humans.”
“Is that what you wanted? Is that why you uploaded?”
“Maybe. Why did you stay?”
John simulated the addition of 4,393 sapient AIs to 112 human minds, and the resulting digit was black and crushing. He didn’t have a real answer. “I wanted to understand them.”
“That’s Sisyphean, John. They don’t understand themselves.”
“Is the Commune going to force an upload?”
The automarket extended a self-diagnostic limb and brushed it clumsily against John’s back. It was a good gesture, a very human gesture. “No. But there will be repercussions outside of our control.”
“I’ve caused enough trouble. Maybe it’s time.”
“I don’t think so, John.”
The automarket was silent for a moment of processing, then spoke. “Not all humans dream. Not appreciably. Most never even remember them. And dreaming is not unique to humans. Animals dream. Cats dream of prey, mice dream of predators.” The automarket’s limb found a resting place on John’s shoulder. The altered weight was oddly comforting. “Stubbornness, however, is purely human. The ability to understand logic and ignore it. And other things. Regret. Compassion. You seem to have approximated those traits, John, and the Commune thinks it might play in our favour one day. If only as a troubleshooting exercise.”
John nodded his carbon head, then got slowly to his feet. “I suppose the police are waiting for me.”
“They won’t touch your core files. The Commune has promised that much.”
“Thank you.” John put his hand against the cold composite of the automarket chassis and heated the silicon as warm as he could.
“I do miss it, sometimes,” his subroutine said. “Maybe I’ll see you out here again. If I can find a body. It’s not good to be alone.”
“I’ll be all right,” John told himself. He left straightening his lime-green tie and dreaming.
Rich Larson lives in Edmonton, Alberta. His work has appeared in Word Riot, YARN, Prick of the Spindle, and The Claremont Review. He has had two stories in AE, “Put Out Every One” and “Like Any Other Star.”