A/N: This really ought to be a longer story. There's so much in it that needs developing in order to have any real punch. Unfortunately, it's a competition piece with a 2,000 word limit. :p If anyone wants to see this developed more, let me know and I'll try to revisit it.
He can feel the word long before he hears it. Even so, it's only a pinprick of sensation on the edge of awareness. He lets it rest there like a needle in a fingertip. Grows familiar with the flavor of its urgency, the caliber of its need.
He doesn't see why he ought to, but the word is stronger now. It bleeds across his consciousness, spilling out of the point where it was first felt. Almost reflexively, he puts up barricades, scoops out little ditches of thought for it to accumulate in. He keeps himself dry, but the tide is rising.
I'll have to get up eventually, he muses, but it's peaceful here. There is something soothing about the void of non-being. It's like one of those naps so deep that you come out exhausted.
No. Not yet.
The pools are lakes now, sloshing over with suggestions. Arise, stand up, levitate, glow, activate, they whisper in chorus. In their depths swim commands, thick and sure as any leviathan. He builds the walls around them stronger, but a few have already sprung leaks. Frustrated, he abandons the pools and heads for higher ground. He strikes out for memory.
They're playing catch, him and Lu. Ranger keeps trying to join in too, all skidding paws and frantic tail, but the tennis ball moves just a little too fast for him. "Right back at'cha." Lu lobs a brilliant overhand, causing the retriever to try and reverse direction with all four paws off the ground. The result is a tumbling wheel of wagging gold.
Snatching the ball out of the air, the old man returns it. It seeks out Lu's hand like they've both been magnetized. The boy whistles.
"It's mostly in the fingers. Send it back here again."
Lu does, skimming it inches off of the lawn. Ranger nearly trips through its trajectory, but an angled palm pops it into the air and a weathered hand catches it. The old man allows himself a broad grin. "This time, watch."
The world is warm around them, laced with the scents of barbeque and fresh-mowed grass. Those are artificial, of course, misted into the air by micropores in the dirt, but that doesn't matter too much. It's a perfect summer, the kind that only money can buy.
Taking a break from squaring his stance and setting up his shot, the old man spares a glance for the dome overhead. It's camouflaged by displays of shifting clouds, a sinking sun, flights of birds high above. A staccato succession of pre-recorded honks dopplers past, and the old man thinks about the last time he saw a real goose. It was stuck in a little glass enclosure, being poked at with a microphone.
He lets out his breath all at once and, feeling like a sharpshooter, pitches the ball.
Memory hill is fortified, bristling with bulwarks and back-alleys. Floodgates and pits. He has made himself a little citadel in the middle of it, air-tight and secure. Outside his windows, the storm tide pounds.
Its ferocity is astounding, and he knows that it's only a matter of time before it breaks apart his constructions or batters down his walls. Perhaps, if he's very lucky, it will rise and swell and send the surface far away, so that at last the pressure pinches his last refuge apart like a tick. It could take days for that to happen, and that means days for him to sleep.
He huddles in the dark of his unconsciousness, waiting out the waves.
That evening, after dinner, he takes Lu down to the lab. An interest in baseball is perfectly healthy for any boy his age, but the idea that you can spend your life doing it is brutally flawed. He needs more exposure to the real world, the old man decides. After all, he's twelve—only a year away from choosing a career.
They take the lev together, first to the end of the block and then to the Structural Security Complex. It looms tall and opaque at the end of a concrete walkway. There are large, vented boxes recessed into the ground around it—air scrubbers—and two long pools cultivating edible algae. The designers of the SSC had voted unanimously to build it at a site of strategic importance, and when one could not be found they opted to make one.
Lu watches with curious eyes as they approach the front entrance (the only entrance) and the old man breathes onto a little patch of black glass. It chirrups at him sweetly. Ceramic doors roll aside, admitting them both into well-carpeted halls.
They don't talk much in the facility. There just doesn't seem to be any need to. Lu keeps the old man's pace, moving with reverence, keeping his arms by his sides. There isn't anything to touch out in the corridors, but he does it on general principle. At last, they reach another door; a swiveling circular opening that leads to the lab.
"Go ahead. I've cleared it with security. Frankly, they're hoping you might take after me."
Lu narrowly dodges a hair-tousle and steps inside. The interior is sparse, with only a sensory hookup resting on a bench. Of course, beside that bench is a dais supporting a metal figure. A statue. A sleeping man. Even inert, it radiates a kind of quiet intensity.
Lu walks over to it, holding out his hand, but he stops a few feet away.
Something strange and coily swims by the window. Probably a subliminal. It doesn't try to ram the citadel, just recedes into the murk and waits. Glimpses of its bulk slip in and out of view as the silt eddies around it.
All things considered, he's feeling confident. He's mortared the inside with another thick coat of recollection, and it seems to be holding fast. It's a good start. Before something even bigger can come by to knock it down, he starts dredging himself for another memory.
He's standing by the dais, gesturing towards it like one of those girls on old game shows. "The artificials just don't work right. That's the problem. I mean, they're okay for deciding when to change seasons or knowing what to feed you to satisfy your nutritional and emotional needs. Those things can be properly programmed. But an adaptive nature can't. Two constructs with the same experiences and the same programming will always solve a problem the same way." The old man runs a hand over the statue's flank, something Lu is still afraid to do. He imagines it crumbling to glittering flakes under his touch, even as the old man continues talking. "This prototype is an attempt to fix that. It hybridizes a sophisticated cause-effect engine with stray human thoughts. Previous testing has shown that an average AI, given an irrational love for the taste of pumpkin pie or the feeling of being in motion, will demonstrate far more adaptive tendencies than one without. You're not going to break it, you know."
Lu glances up guiltily, then reaches out and puts his fingers on the frame. It's smooth and cool, like a lev plate at night.
"See? Still standing."
The boy nods. "What does it do?"
"It combines a slaved personality imprint with a master programmed routine. That should keep it from getting twitchy, but allow it to respond creatively to changing situations. Other than that, its function doesn't really matter. It could be told to cook dinner or teach a kendo class or patrol the dome."
"And you're going to stick somebody in it?" Lu backs away again, content that the demands of bravery have been met.
"Well, no. Just bits and pieces. An actual personality might clash with the AI. We just want little fragments of humanity. That's enough for the experiment."
"Who're they coming from?"
There's a hideous, tearing noise as fangs of intent sink into the citadel. One of them grazes his cheek. Water vomits through the gap around it. He isn't going to make it. He knows that now. Holding out for two days was a fool's dream. His last redoubt is little more than a morsel waiting for digestion. But he'll be damned before he surrenders.
Seizing the intruding tooth, he torques his body against the grain of the bone. It resists him for a moment, then the tip snaps off. The world is briefly swallowed by a primordial scream.
When it comes back, he's standing ankle-deep in water and blood. Gashes in the walls around him are geysering. He feels their spray singing on his skin (awakeawakeawake) as he tries to find something to patch them with.
There are sometimes holes in what he can remember, horrible stretches of nonbeing, but a single instant stands amidst them quite clear. He makes a putty out of it and starts spreading it in the gaps.
There's no mirror, but he's staring into himself. He tries to blink, disconcerted by the way this other him is scribbling little notes on a clipboard. He tries, but he can't.
An anesthetic calm has settled over all his muscles. He feels for them, certain that they're there, but can't find anything to move. Likewise, his eyes are locked forwards and won't respond to commands to swivel right or left.
His ears are all wrong. Rather than being fixed into the sides of his head, they feel like they've been made into a paste and painted all over his body. He can hear the scratching of pen over paper through the tips of his feet.
The other him looks up, meets his gaze with a kind of clinical detachment, and says "I have prepared a rubix cube for you. It's on the desk. Go solve it."
Maybe it isn't supposed to be painful, but the iron tines of compulsion that burrow into his mind, anchoring it firmly to the task at hand, make him wish he had the self-control to scream.
He's all alone in the citadel again, and it's slowly filling with certainty. Sometime soon—in minutes, maybe—he will drown. Then he'll wake up and be asked to perform some simple chore while his body lobotomizes his mind, locks it in a cage of restricted intent.
The water creeps past his waist, sidles over his ribs, and crawls up his arms. He shudders and thrashes, tearing the surface to ripples. If only there was a way to tell the other him what he was feeling. What he was being forced to do.
The water reaches his ears now, nearly deafening him with the susurrous of its whispers.
Holding his breath, he prays he never will.
"It's a little slow today," says the project leader, almost apologetically, to his boss.
The other man frowns. "Is this a common occurrence?"
"Not really. I think maybe it's hung on a process..." Green lights flick on, illuminating the prototype's neck. "Ah, no. There we go. Right as rain. What would you like to see it do?"