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Posted: September 29, 2011 in Fiction, Steel

Sunlight trickled through the trees to splash on the patio of the nursing home.  The residents were mostly veterans who were no longer able to care for themselves, whether because of injury or because of age.  Small clusters of people dotted the patio, some in wheelchairs or on crutches.  In a corner farthest from the patio entryway sat a woman in jeans and a red tank top.  Her brown hair was cut short to fall along her jaw.  She stared off into the distance, absentmindedly clutching the hand of a wheelchair bound man with a vacant stare.   A glistening trail of drool fell from his chin to the white cotton shirt.  Physically, the man was complete.  He was still well-muscled despite being in the hospital for nearly a month.  He had short, sandy blond hair and piercing grey eyes.  Those eyes used to hold the spark of determination, courage, and intelligence.  They hadn’t focused on anything since the man had been found lying in the ambulance bay in his black jumpsuit.  The doctors had been able to repair the punctured lung, and even repair the multiple breaks and a spiral fracture all over the man’s left side.

He had been a John Doe for the first couple of days after his admission, but Iris had finally found him.  His wristband now read “Wade Morgan.”  He had been a test pilot and then a Civil Defense Operator before.  Iris Morgan had designed the hulking steel robot that Wade piloted, but he had been wounded badly by an unusually well-armed group of domestic terrorists.  Wade had been unconscious for more than ten minutes when his body had been discovered.  Iris was familiar with brain functionality.  She had designed the neural interface that was implanted in Wade’s skull.  She knew that brain damage was unavoidable, but she had hoped that it wouldn’t be as severe as it turned out to be.    She sighed, and ran her hand through Wade’s hair.  Her fingertips brushed the cable jack behind his right ear.  She knew none of this was her fault, but she couldn’t silence the thought that she should have been able to do more.

Iris had tried connecting with Wade through her own headjack as soon as the doctors had left her alone in the ICU.  There was an impenetrable fog in his head.  Too much time had passed.  Too much damage.  Right now, Iris was supposed to be working on recovering Wade’s robot.  It had gone missing after the terrorists had been killed.  Wade might have been in trouble for that, but his mental state ensured that he would be left alone.  Iris had been unable to reestablish contact with the machine, and the locator beacon had been disabled.  She wiped the drool from Wade’s chin and gently closed his mouth.  A tear scorched its way down her cheek.

 

[Searching . . . ]

[Searching . . . ]

[Searching . . . ]

[Operator located]

The machine had waited on a rooftop opposite the hospital for more than five hundred hours.  It sat with the patience of a stone, waiting for the operator to complete its repairs.  It had hunched down between a pair of massive HVAC units.  Intercepted transmissions has indicated that the operator was wanted for questioning.  That order had been rescinded.  Further monitoring had indicated a “rogue asset” and intelligence software had told the machine that it was that asset.

[Connect to operator]

[Connection failed]

The machine shifted.  Servos whined and hydraulics hissed.  The hulk stepped out from its cover and oriented itself.  It sank in on itself for a moment as pistons retracted.  Targeting assistance plotted a route to an assisted living facility.  Pistons stretched to full extension and servos raced to keep the mass on target.  The machine shot into the sky.

[Enable neural link]

[A network cable is unplugged]

The chrome giant streaked through the sky.  It was self-aware, sort of.  It knew it was a machine, and it knew that it required an operator for optimal performance.  It landed with a glass shattering boom.  Pavement buckled.  It burst into the air again.  Cameras focused on a cluster of trees.  Infrared showed multiple heat signatures.  The machine opened flaps all over the surface to slow itself.  Arms and legs reached out to greet the earth.  It slammed into the lawn just beyond the patio.  The dirt absorbed the impact, giving off a muffled thump.  The machine pulled its claws from the dirt, flexing them rapidly to clear the earth.  Control surfaces snapped back into place, restoring the smooth chrome appearance.  The camera cluster and facial recognition software frantically scanned everyone on the patio.

[Target acquired]

The woman gasped.  The man in the wheelchair next to her drooled.  The machine gingerly stepped forward.  The thumping footsteps masked the sound of safety latches uncoupling.  The front of the machine yawned, revealing the pilot’s compartment.

“Sally?”  The woman spoke.

[Voice recognized: Doctor Iris Morgan]

“Sally, deactivate.”

[Voice command: deactivate]

The machine went silent.  The interior monitors flickered off.

[Rebooting]

The monitors winked back on.  The machine took another step.  It was within arms’ reach of Wade and Iris now.

[Locate operator . . . Operator found]

[Neural link enabled]

The headjack cable inside the machine unspooled to full extension.

[A network cable is unplugged]

The woman stood up.  “Sally, deactivate”

[Voice command not accepted]

The machine reached into its pilot’s compartment and gently hooked the cable with one massive steel prong.  It stretched it out toward Iris.  The woman stared, mouth agape.  The people behind her continued to flee into the supposed safety of the building.  She did not look back.

 

Iris wheeled Wade closer to Sally.  Somehow, the robot was overriding her shutdown commands.  It was also holding out the neural link cable, offering it to Wade.  Could it really be that self aware?  True artificial intelligence was still a long way off, according to everything anyone knew.  Sally’s systems were designed to assist the operator and augment…  Iris’ jaw clicked shut.  “Sally, help me lift him.”  The machine’s free claw snapped open and shut in answer.  Maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea.  “Wade, if you’re in there at all, I need you to stand up.”  She pulled his arm over her shoulder and struggled to lift him.  He was dead weight.  Joints creaked and servos hummed as the machine crouched as low to the ground as it could.  Sally flopped Wade’s limp form onto the knee of the robot.  She pinned him there and grabbed the end of the neural link cable.  Hand shaking, she slid the plug into the port behind his ear.  He jerked, arms and legs twitching, as Iris held him up against the robot’s cold leg.  Wade’s head jerked back.  His feet found purchase on the ground.  He stood.

“Sally?  Iris?”  He looked down at Iris.  She squeezed him tighter.

“Oh my God,” she whispered.  “Thank you.”  Wade hugged her back.  He pressed his face to hers.

“It’s okay, baby.”  He felt tears of his own. “I’m back.  I’m not going anywhere.”

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