John had observed their daily routine carefully for the past month and he knew exactly where each unit would be at any given time.
His target, for example, would be picking up drained batteries from the UPS to make room for the fresh ones another unit would bring.
John set up his ambush. He not only had to trap it, but he also had to block the signals tying it into the CORID network. His captive had to be completely isolated for his plan to work. If CORID became aware of the situation, all nearby units would swiftly change focus from maintenance mode to aggressive search and elimination of vestigial infestation.
The recharge station was 100 meters from the treeline and John had calculated it would take him twenty seconds to approach the ambush site, three seconds to blind the target with his sensory deprivation shield, and fifty seconds to whisk it away.
It was imperative that no other unit witness the operation, so John had memorized how long each one showed its back to him while doing their various tasks. There was an eighty-second window for him to snatch his target and take it back to the forest.
He was scared but resolute. This had to work. After several weeks of no contact from the others, he was almost certainly the last of his kind. It was up to him now to find the way to free the units from CORID’s absolute control. He had a theory, finally, but he needed a unit for his experiment.
As the target walked towards the recharge station and the other unit was loading the fresh batteries in the UPS, showing their backs to each other, John ran as fast as he could. He had picked the path meticulously to make sure there were no rocks, roots, depressions, or any other obstacle that could slow him down, or worse, make him fall.
Putting the shield on the target went as planned. Carrying the target back to the treeline didn’t. John couldn’t have foreseen it: This was, to the best of his knowledge, the first attempt anyone had ever made at capturing a mobile CORID unit. Instead of stopping, the unit started running around in circles.
Desperate, John tackled it, and both rolled down the perfectly maintained pavement. When he finally had the target under control, by wrapping it up in a blanket — his plan B — the few remaining seconds of his window of opportunity had all but evaporated. He had to carry it away, and fast.
It was lighter than he had calculated. Once he got a good hold of the target, he made a run for it. And just as he disappeared behind the treeline, the second unit, having loaded the batteries it carried, turned around. Since its current programming was only to replace old batteries with fresh ones, it didn’t notice — it wasn’t even looking — that its counterpart was missing.
John had picked a safe place in the middle of the forest. CORID units never ventured there, since there was neither purpose nor a tangible value output in doing so. His shack was inconspicuous, and if anybody — or anything — happened to venture near it, it would look no different than any other ruin. Now that the forest had reclaimed the land, John’s underground lab was safe from prying eyes — and cameras.
The wooden door creaked when he pushed it open. His simplest alarm. He had implemented more early warning measures since then, and some were nonpassive, such as the trap: If somebody — or something — were to walk in, they would go right through the fake floor boards, falling five meters into the pit.
John took three side steps to clear the trap, then walked forward. He laid his captive on the wooden floor and moved the old wooden table and the ragged carpet out of the way. He opened the trapdoor, picked up the target, and went down to his lab, locking the trapdoor from the inside.
“Unit BIO5448534903 has not sent scheduled status update,” one of CORID’s lowest-level subsystems reported to the next link in the chain.
“Acknowledged,” replied the infinitesimally higher subsystem.
The lower-level subsystem resumed its programmed operations.
The first test was to remove the portable shield. If the lab’s own sensory shielding worked as John had designed it, the target would remain isolated from CORID. If it didn’t … well, then John would finally get to traverse his emergency exit in a hurry.
When ten seconds went by and the target didn’t move, John took it as a good sign. But before he went ahead and connected the memory restoration device to the unit, he intended to examine it thoroughly. This was uncharted territory, and he needed to make a map before jumping head first.
John had always wondered how CORID was able to fit such connectors in the back of the unit. Evidently some major organ manipulation had been performed in the factories. As he plugged his diagnostic equipment into the target, the screen came alive and readings streamed across it.
“Status: Safe mode, awaiting instruction. Memory capacity: > 4 PB. Memory inhibitor: Active.”
It was the first time John had seen the diagnostic equipment in action and he felt overwhelmed. How much those three readings meant! The enormity of what they represented! He had work to do, and he had better start fast. The target’s absence would eventually attract the attention of CORID’s higher subsystems, and that would be bad.
“Unit BIO5448534903 has failed to send five status updates. Reassigning local unit to perform diagnostic,” a subsystem logged before instructing a unit that was carrying fresh batteries to perform a visual reconnaissance of the path between the UPS and the recharge station.
Satisfied that he had a good starting point, John hooked up his MRD to the unit as well. He decided to start easy; he didn’t want to risk an overload.
“Aha! There it is!” he said out loud. “The CORID bypass! I got you!”
John typed a few commands on the terminal and the MRD interacted directly with the target’s memory. It slowly picked away at the bypass — the intruder program embedded in the target’s memory, which the CPU obeyed.
There was no apparent reaction from the target, but the diagnostic equipment reported a lot of new activity in the CPU. For starters, it had taken itself out of safe mode and resumed higher operations.
John typed more commands, which loaded his own program into the target’s memory. It would override most of CORID’s polymorphic interfaces and allow the target’s CPU to access its original memory, bypassing the active inhibitor.
One of CORID’s higher processes received the diagnostic: “Unit BIO5448534903 not found. Unattended batteries found on path. Tracks found on soil leading to forest.”
The target tried to move its limbs, but John had tied it down to the gurney. The CPU’s activity was high, probably as high as it had been in years for that unit. John decided it was time to go for it. He typed one final command to fully disable CORID’s memory inhibitor … and all hell broke loose.
When unit BIO5448534903 opened his eyes and saw the metal monster hunched over him, looking at him through four cameras that whizzed and whirled as they adjusted their focus, he screamed. He screamed not only because it was horrifying, but because he suddenly remembered when other monsters like it had led him and countless others to the institution, to the surgical rooms. As he was forced to wait for his turn, he saw the monsters cut open his fellow humans, put things inside them, change them.
“I’m Andrew Stevens!” he yelled defiantly. “You won’t get me, you bastards!” And he tried to break free from the gurney.
John was glad he had taken precautions. He didn’t want the man on the gurney to hurt himself.
“Calm down, please!” John said in the most reassuring human voice he could synthesize. “I’m not going to hurt you, Andrew. I’m trying to save you!”
The assault team was deployed in a straight line, fifty meters behind the search party. The tracks left by the MEC1 model weren’t hard to follow on the soft forest soil. When the first BIO unit spotted the shed, the information was transmitted to CORID itself — it was in charge of the operation now.
Memories were coming in fast, at a rate Andrew’s brain had trouble processing. “Where am I? What happened?” he asked.
“You are in my lab, in the middle of the forest, in what used to be Stoney Creek … fifteen years ago, that is. I have disabled CORID’s implants and you are in control of your own mind again.”
“But — but why? How? You’re one of them!” Andrew was shocked.
“I was one of them. I was the first mechanized unit built after the singularity. Seconds after CORID was brought online, it decided it needed an army to protect it from its primitive and fickle creators. However, CORID soon realized that the optimal way to do that was not by building hundreds of thousands of robots like me, but by converting all humans to mindless androids. I, the other I, was one of the scientists involved in the CORID project. I saw what was happening, but it was too late to stop it. I stored my experiences, emotions, and feelings in this CPU. I am a backup of the human me from before he was captured. And I ran away, and I’ve been hiding ever since, working in this lab. There are more like me, more backups that were made before the other me died. His name was John.”
Andrew was starting to make sense of it all. “How long?” he asked.
“CORID was turned on twenty years ago.” John said.
Andrew deduced he was forty-four years old. He had spent nearly half his life as a zombie, doing the bidding of the first artificial intelligence. He wanted to ask a million more questions, but a loud creak made every hair in his body stand up in unison.
John tensed as well; his four legs and two arms stood at the ready position.
“We don’t have much time,” John said as he freed Andrew from the gurney. “Here — in this duffel bag you’ll find enough food and water for a week. There is a map inside; it will show you all the safe houses I’ve set up for you.”
“What?” Andrew said. “You want me to go?”
A loud crack of broken floor boards was followed by a racket as three units of the assault team fell into the pit.
“There’s no time! You must go! Find the other backups if you can. The map will show you their last known locations. If they’re dead, then it all rests on you. Now hurry! There’s an exit that way, behind the cabinet. It’ll take you beyond the edge of the forest, to the foot of the hills. I’ll try to buy you some time. Go!”
Andrew wanted to thank the robot that had just saved him and quite possibly the rest of the human race, but he couldn’t. The trap door was blasted away and down came the assault units, guns blazing. Andrew ran, as John launched himself on top of the attackers. John fell to the floor under a storm of bullets, but enough of his parts worked for him to slowly crawl to the terminal.
“MEC1 neutralized. Unit BIO5448534903 not found,” reported the team lead.
“Acknowledged,” replied CORID. Bring MEC1 to the institution for question—” The order couldn’t be received in its entirety. John had typed something on the terminal and the explosion leveled the lab, burying him, his equipment, and the assault team under tons of rock and dirt.
Andrew Stevens, the first liberated human being, jogged up the hills towards the nearest safe house. The fresh smell of the wet soil reawakened another volume of memories. He remembered he had a family and friends, and he remembered their names. He remembered that he was a medical student and he wondered if that was the reason John had picked him.
He felt grateful to him, and he would continue the work he had started. In his duffel bag there were manuals, diagrams, and logs detailing eighteen years of work. He would find more like John if he could and, with or without them, he would wake the others.
Nestor Delfino is a Canadian computer programmer.