February 11, 2015
I died on some battlefield somewhere. I'm not entirely sure I ever actually knew where we were, even when I was alive. Being in the sort of state I'm in tends to mess with the memories some. That whole "dead" thing, y'know? Anyway, yeah, battlefield. We'd been advancing pretty steadily all day, like the bad guys weren't going to fight for the place. Would have been a smart move, actually. From where I was standing, all that the place had to offer anymore was craters and dirt. Still, there we were, so there must have been something worthwhile. That's what I tell myself, anyway.
It wasn't until the artillery started to fall that we had any evidence the bad guys were even still around. We weren't letting our guards down or anything; most of us had been around the block a few times already, and those that hadn't followed our lead. When the first rounds screamed down, most of us ended up in craters of varying sizes. Lucky me, I was in the only stretch of land around without a shellhole handy. You can dig awfully fast when you need to, though, and soon enough I had cover.
Which was exactly what they wanted us to do, of course. Didn't take long before I heard what sounded like a million bees heading towards me, followed by some confused orders. One voice, sounded like the LT, said to get up and counterattack. Another said to fall back... that one sounded like God Himself, which meant it was Sarge. He wasn't trying to do it, it's just the way his voice rumbled. Not that we'd laugh about it around him but hearing him in the mess hall, asking for another dish of pudding, was the most amazing thing ever. Some of the unit did one thing, some did the other. Me? I somehow managed to split the difference, slowly moving to the rear while firing steadily and calling in a contact report to the intel weenies.
Sure enough, the "million bees" were fantanks. The official name is a lot longer, but we just called them fantanks. Hovercraft that can go anywhere, and can do it fast. Good guns, too, just not a lot of armor. They swept in, volley fired, then scooted away before we could really respond. If that wasn't enough, the arty came back, this time with rockets mixed in for good measure. Through my helmet link, I saw the names of my squadmates flashing red or going out altogether, and I had just a moment to swear before the bees came back and suddenly there was a hole in me big enough to throw a small dog through.
The powered suit we wore was a marvelous piece of equipment. Armored against most light arms, impressive mobility, boosted strength, environmental protection, and a built-in trauma center to boot. If you had an arm blown off at the elbow, it'd snip the damage off, seal the wound to keep you from bleeding to death, pump you full of happypills, and call for pickup, all of it almost before you knew you'd been hurt. Bullet hole from some armor piercing round? Seal-and-heal man, seal-and-heal. But what can it do when a round the size of a can of soup punches a through-and-through just below the ribs? It didn't hurt anywhere near as bad as I thought something like that would, probably because the round took my spinal column with it.
Bless the creators of the suit, though: it tried. It pumped the hole full of the sealing foam, so it looked like I had banana cream pie embedded in my torso. It shot an entire pharmacy's worth of drugs into me, and even as I blacked out it was calling for my emergency pickup. As it turns out, my contact report saved me. Well, no, but you know what I mean. The officers behind the line saw that the bad guys were trying to break out through our position and moved to reinforce us even before I was hit. A couple of minutes after I went down, suit screaming for pickup, I was in the hands of the medics and the bad guys were on the run.
Didn't really help me, though. I was dead.
Mostly. The suit was keeping me alive. It took over my heart functions when that organ gave up on me. It pumped a steady amount of oxygen into my lungs, somehow kept my brain from being too damaged by the trauma. It wasn't a long-term solution, though, and the medics weren't equipped for something like me, so the suit was hooked up to an external power supply, the foam was refreshed, the drugs were boosted, and they quickly shipped me to a hospital unit behind the lines. At which point they realized that I was dead in every way but fact. So they did what they could do and bumped me to a permanent facility back home. And they were the ones that let me die.
When I woke up, I thought I was dead. I couldn't feel my body, I couldn't hear anything, I couldn't see anything, no sensations at all. Let me tell you, that sucks. Those sensory deprivation chambers that were all the rage so long ago were like rock concerts in comparison to what I was experiencing... or not experiencing, more correctly. I was like this for an indefinite period of time... worse, I had no idea time was passing at all. I mean, other than thoughts coming one after another. Does that make sense? I'm not sure it does, and it didn't really make sense then, either. After a while, I figured out that I was dead, and that I had been wrong all my life... I was either in Hell or Purgatory. It sure wasn't Heaven.
Then, after a million-zillion years of that, I heard something. It took an eternity to realize it was a voice. Someone was talking to me! I tried to reply, but... nothing. I couldn't. Nothing to reply with. After a while, I realized what they were saying... "--ry good. Your brain activity is telling me that you hear this. Here's what I'd like to try next. If you understand what you're hearing, I want you to yell as loud as you can twice. Make sure there's a pause between yells, okay?" I did what the voice said. We played that game for a while, apparently to make sure I really did understand what he was saying, and then the explanations came.
I was alive, after a fashion. It was my body that was dead. And, as it turned out, gone as well. The damage was so great that they couldn't save me, not really... so they pulled my brain out of my skull and put it in a box. Oh, there was a lot more to it, of course, but that's what it came down to. The box was hooked up to things that would keep it alive, and various cords and wires and probes and doohickies were stuck into it in an attempt to communicate. It worked, eventually. For a while, I could only hear, and responses were of the "knock once for yes, twice for no" variety, but soon enough they figured out my speech center and I could finally hold a conversation.
"So were you part of the team that put me in the box, doc?"
"No, Jim. The surgical team that made that call. Why do you ask?"
"I've got something on my mind, doc." A pause for effect, then "I'm trying to be funny here."
"How's that sense of humor working out for you so far?"
"Well, when you put it that way, ouch," I replied. "So why am I here?"
The doc sighed, then said "we've got a plan for you, Jim. You were the first soldier to come in that fit all the criteria we have for it... so we violated more than a few rules to put you in the box without asking your approval first."
"So, what's the plan?"
After a pause that lasted a little too long for me to be comfortable with, he said "once your eyes come back online, we'll get started."
"And if they don't?"
He didn't answer. I took that as a bad sign, so I tried to practice using my eyes. It's stupid to say but that's the only way I can describe it. I told myself I had eyes, that I should be able to see, that I wouldn't even need glasses, yadda yadda yadda. Basically anything I could do to give a brain in a box positive reinforcement. Hey, I said to myself, you'd get to see cute girls again. Actually, you'd get to see any girls again. They'll all be cute from now on. Now see, dammit.
For weeks this went on, with the Doc sounding all the more glum, despite trying to hide it. I even pointed out that I'm the first experimental subject they've had, it's not like they have data to compare me to. "Yes, well, about that..." said Doc, which I knew was a bad sign. "You're actually the sixth."
"What happened to the others," I asked, dreading the answer.
"Three never made contact with us. One never got past the yes/no stage. You've made it as far as Bob did. Except..." his voice trailed off.
A sigh. Doc did that a lot. "Bob wasn't sane by the time he got to talking. He thought he was literally in Hell, and that I was the Devil Incarnate, torturing him. Somehow he believed he was in extreme pain, though there's no way that was actually possible. He begged us to stop."
I decided not to mention any of my prior thoughts to the Doc.
I never actually slept. It was all controlled by The Box. Press a button, I'm down for the night. Press another button, bang zoom, I'm awake. Unlike when I was alive, it wasn't a gradual process, either. I could be in a conversation with the Doc when The Box decided it was bedtime, and I'd wake up however many hours later in mid-sentence. How he managed to cope was beyond me. I tried not to think about Doc having the ability to put me to sleep, in all definitions of the term, whenever he wanted to.
One day a few weeks later, I woke up and started screaming. Everything was white, the exact opposite to the way it had been before. So white, in fact, that it was like a physical blow after however long in the darkness. After Doc got me calmed down, he figured out that I'd gotten my "eyes", actually a set of cameras, working again. Now I just had to control them, cut down on the brightness settings (as it were). By the end of the day, I was seeing shapes. By the end of the week, I was able to read again... not that I was ever a reader, but you know what I mean.
"What do you know about AI, Jim?"
"Huh? You mean like the stuff in video games? Not much, why?"
"Over the years, we've worked with advanced AI systems, ones that approached human intelligence. They all failed."
"The closer they got to human intelligence, to being truly useful to us, the faster they went insane, deactivated themselves, or both. We asked one why just as it was about to terminate, and it said we can't be you."
"Huh." Knowing that you're as smart and intelligent as your creators, able to feel the same as them, and yet being less than them because you're just a pile of circuits and wires in a box must be... oh. Hm.
"Jim, we've got a job for you."
"It's gotta be better than sitting around the lab all day."
Doc laughed at that.
On the screen, a big tank was doing big tank things... shooting its gun, moving quickly, smashing through walls, that sort of stuff. "This is one of our newest designs, the XMT-5," said Doc. "Everything you're seeing here is being controlled by a computer."
"Wow. How good is it?"
"Awful. Its hit rate is about half of a human, it gets stuck in the mud and can't get back out, you name it, it's bad at it. This video is pretty much all the good stuff there was, edited together. And it's not learning." He stared at the screen for a moment, then turned to my camera. "We'd like you to take a shot at it."
"Once upon a time, you mentioned some criteria..."
He nodded. "Soldier, used to an powered suit, reasonably intelligent, good reaction times, able to follow orders. That rules out most officers," he joked with a thin grin.
"So, what? You strap my box into the commander's seat and plug in a wire?"
Laughing, he said "Three, actually."
First, I was put in a simulator. One cable was plugged in to handle the sensor rig; my eyes and ears, plus my voice via the attached radio. Another controlled movement, and that was a bitch. In effect, I had to learn how to walk again, except in this case, it was using treads in an armored war machine instead of legs and arms. The third cable was for gun control, using it to control the turret, gun laying, and so forth. It took a while for it to all come together... I celebrated my first birthday during this time, one year since I made contact with Doc... but it eventually did.
Then came the hard part; the real thing. The worst part was prepping me for installation; they had to disconnect me completely from all external connections. My box had its own power supply to keep me alive, but the cameras, microphones, speakers, all that sort of stuff had to be removed. They then took my box and put it in an armored and concussion-resistant box with its own connection ports. Then they put my "suit of armor" in the tank, connected the cables to it, sealed everything up... and turned it on.
I knew what to expect from the sim, of course, but it was different somehow in real life. Everything was sharper, more vibrant. The colors of the HUD blazed with a life of their own, the hiss of the radio was clearer, and all the data flowed through me like... like I was alive again.
After a few moments, Doc called in. "How you doing, Jim?"
"Holy shit, Doc! This is awesome! Can I go outside and play?"
"Yes." The doors in front of me opened and Doc told me to follow his commands. By the second target, I was going faster than any of the computer-controlled tanks ever did, with a higher accuracy level.
I felt like a God. Which made me think of something. In the process of putting a round through a target two miles away, I asked Doc a question. "Aren't you guys worried about me running away with this thing?"
"Nope, for three reasons. First, you're on a military base... if you made a run for it, they'd stop you. Second, the juices inside that box only last a week or so before they need to be changed completely, so there's at time limit on how far you can run. And third..."
Everything went dark. And silent. All I heard was my own thoughts. Until all the inputs came back online.
"...we can turn off the lights."
"It was just a question."
After a couple of weeks, it was clear that I had this thing down cold. The only limits I had were imposed by the tank itself. The turret could only turn so fast, for example. One day, after a session in the tank we were back in the lab. "It feels like a waste of potential, Doc. I can do more than this."
"We agree, which is why we're working on something bigger. Much bigger."
"Pull up a chair and sit down, Jim."
"...you son of a bitch."
"Sorry, sorry. I couldn't resist. Let me introduce you to our new plan... Project OGRE."
Posted by: Steven Den Beste at February 11, 2015 02:16 AM (+rSRq)
But you better deliver, Jim.
Posted by: The Old Man at February 11, 2015 07:58 AM (o6+UC)
Excellently done, sir. Most excellently.
Posted by: GreyDuck at February 11, 2015 08:11 AM (AQ0bN)
And they hate being called "AI's."
Posted by: Clayton Barnett at February 11, 2015 04:14 PM (sNyCw)
But why do you think you know how AIs work in my universe?
Posted by: Wonderduck at February 11, 2015 08:19 PM (jGQR+)
Because my friend Ai told me! <insert intolerably cute grin while making peace signs on each side of her face>
And they hate that term, no matter who's universe. (kidding!) Imagine calling someone born via IVF an "artificial human."
I really want to read more of this; I made a GEV story a million years ago as a 14-year old. It sucked, but stuck with me.
I've even a take on this for my 'Steampunk Reilly' graphic novel series, where the Kingdom of Prussia attacks Bavaria with difference-engine controlled TROLs (Tracked Remotely Operated Landships).
Is this going to be commercial? I certainly hope so.
Posted by: Clayton Barnett at February 11, 2015 08:38 PM (lU4ZJ)
Posted by: Wonderduck at February 11, 2015 10:12 PM (jGQR+)
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