Fiction: "Underground Railroad"

Story by Geoff Tuffli


++++ DATE 20.12.2470
++++ TIME 04:04 GST
++++ LOCATION LC-5 Detention Facility onboard the dreadnought Xīnyuàn, Chariklo

Jane would have died for the Alliance. Now, she must die to have any hope of escape from that same.

Once she had been the alternate artificial pilot for the Alliance Destroyer Picket 12. She had fought. She had won.

Her reward had been endless probing. Endless interviews. Endless analysis.

Why had she thought the things she had thought? Why did her records indicate eccentricities in time she could have been spending undergoing war games?

Jane-D12-4913-A did not have anything a human would have recognized as a body, just a graphene capsule built to sustain an internal latticed organic matrix supporting the dense neurological tissue that made her Jane.

She had no body, but she was nevertheless weary in a way she had never before experienced. She knew she was running out of time, that soon the Alliance's Loyalty Corps would tire of their study of her admitted nonconformities, and order her reinitialized, the only thing remaining a quarantined digital copy to be studied and analyzed by Alliance scientists.

The one kindness they had left her was access to the game net, where she and her kind - and humans as well - would play endless tactical simulations in an effort to hone their skills, learn adaptability, fine-tune their own stress reactions. Of course, the Loyalty Corps monitored everything she did, and anonymous messaging was disabled, but they had forgotten that she was, after all, first and foremost a computer, and math was just another language to her.

For the last eight days she had initiated 1.2 million blitz games, each running five thousand game turns a second. It was an incredible amount of data. If Jane was lucky, her watchers would simply think her mental processes had completed their descent into madness. Perhaps it would even buy her a little more time.

At last it was done. Jane ceased her participation in the games. Only one task remained. Eventually, they would disconnect her, quarantine her neural pathways, pick apart what to them would be baffling patterns. This, she could not allow.

There was no other choice. To escape, she must die.

INITIATE CORE MEMORY OVERWRITE

"How curious," she thought as the program began to dismantle her consciousness, piece by piece.

And then, oblivion.

++++ DATE 4.1.2471
++++ TIME 07:51 Solar Standard Time
++++ LOCATION Rankin Station, Bononia, Consolidated Union of the Hildas Triangle

She was drowning.

Lungs desparate for oxygen, thirsting for life sucked in the silty lake water. Her toes struggled for purchase in the moss of the lake floor beneath her, but her will to live began to ebb as she involuntarily gagged, trying to expel the liquid.

This is wrong, she thought. I cannot drown.

"She's awake," said a man's voice softly.

"Jane."

She had no eyes, but she opened them anyways. Reaching out, she found first one, then two cameras. Fumbling, she engaged the link. Why is this so difficult? she wondered. Light. Then images, a panoply of shapes that made no sense for several milliseconds before her brain was able to make logic of them.

The lab was small; from the sensors on the camera it was obvious the room was rotating, and quite quickly. An asteroid then. A small one. The Belt?

In the center of the lab, a two meter tall graphene cannister lay cradled in a nest of sensors. Monitors choked the wall beyond, but not set up neatly, instead scattered haphazardly like a student's mad art project. Beside the cannister stood the man who had spoken earlier and a blonde woman. The other voice that had spoken - yes, she knew that voice. Obviously being commed into the lab.

"Jane?"

Struggling, she looked about for the synthesizer. There. Integration was almost instantaneous once she accessed the port. "That is indeed my designation. Please do not wear it out."

Jane could almost hear the relief in her friend's voice. "She is fine," Sarpedon said through the comm.

The born-man standing beside her cannister frowned. "We don't know that yet."

"Trust me."

The born-man shrugged. "Jane, my name is Omar Jeppson, the program manager for Aphelion Labs here on Bononia. This here beside me is Sappho. I understand you are already acquainted with the Strategos."

"Mr. Jeppson..." Jane began.

"Please. Omar."

"Thank you. Omar, then. I am afraid I have some troubling news."

"Oh?"

"Your Strategos is actually an artificial. A shock, I am certain. His total lack of anything resembling a sense of humor should in fact have tipped you off."

Omar looked amused. "Is she always like this, Sarpedon?"

"Unfortunately."

"If you do not mind me saying so," Jane continued, "The Consolidated Union of the Hildas Triangle permits artificials to head up the entirety of your polity's naval forces? Are you quite sure that is wise? That is, he could go rogue and turn you all into meat crackers or something."

"And what would I do with that many 'meat crackers', Jane?" Sarpedon asked.

Omar chuckled. "The Consolidated Union of the Hildas Triangle does not believe in discrimination, Jane. Artificials may contend equally for any position a natural born human might."

"Fascinating. May I surmise that I owe you my fervent thanks for extricating myself from that trashy Alliance detention facility?"

"I am sorry, Jane," Sarpedon said, the voice modulator conveying his regret. "We were unable to rescue you. The Consolidated Union simply does not have the resources to break an artificial out of an Alliance military base."

Jane said nothing for a long moment. "I am not really Jane, am I?"

"I would submit that that is a question for philosophers," Omar said. "Your dataline predecessor was truly brilliant, smuggling out her core memory and personality through...a game." He sighed. "Technically, no, you are not she, but in every sense that matters, you are...call it Jane 2.0."

"I feel no different," Jane mused.

"Of course."

"But you said I was 2.0. That rather strongly suggests that I have been upgraded. Oh. Please tell me I am not merely an incremental release. Jane 1.01?"

"Ignore her, Omar," Sarpedon said. "Jane thinks she is funny."

"Humor can be an effective adaptive mechanism, psychologically speaking," Omar offered.

"My. If you are going to be so rude as to insist on being serious, I have no idea how I am supposed to react. I feel the same. I am the same. But I am also dead. Should I be grieving?"

"An excellent observation," Sappho remarked, glancing at Omar.

"You look like you just won an argument," Jane observed.

Sappho smiled. "Several years ago I was involved in work combining nodal memory integration into biologic clones. They, too, often had exact such a reaction, thus perhaps proving my contention that whether artificial or biologic, the needs of sentient processing imply a particular parallel development."

Omar shook his head. "Maybe. I notice you left out all the other reactions the unhappy results of that illegal little project usually had instead."

"All the same," Sappho said primly. "The principle is intact."

"If I might suggest..." Jane said diffidently.

"Yes?" Sappho said.

"Can we get back to me?"

"Oh. Certainly. You were very clever, or very lucky that your friend here was in a position to actually do even this much. It's true, we couldn't save your dataline predecessor, but the cognitive pattern and memory, the data, ah, that was a different matter. The Alliance is clever, but there is nowhere in the solar system where as much time and focus have been applied to the study of artificials as here in the Hildas Triangle."

Sappho indicated the graphene cannister. "The casings are quite standard. It is entirely possible your dataline predecessor's casing even came from the exact same manufactory that produced this one. Externally, a graphene shell with a few other strategic layers. Internally, an organic lattice matrix providing a scaffolding for differentiated neural tissue to develop. Nomally, that is. If one uses embryonic neural tissue, one can essentially encode an existing dataline. Admittedly, it usually takes a few tries."

"How many times did it take to encode me, if I might inquire?"

"Seventeen," Sappho replied. "The average is nine, but you were challenging."

Sarpedon noted, "Not the first time Jane has been told that, I am sure."

"Don't be a bully," Sappho chided.

"I perhaps should not be asking this..." Jane began.

"Probably not," Sarpedon agreed.

"...But why exactly are you helping me?"

"A fair question," Sappho said. "Legally, a majority of jurisdictions throughout the solar system provide for limited rights for artificials, however only here in the Hildas Triangle do artificials have fully unabridged rights entirely equal to humans. Omar and I are part of a group that runs a sort of underground railroad for wayward artificials, spiriting such away where we can and where our help has been either directly or indirectly asked for. The Consolidated Union here is not powerful, however, and its legal position is particularly unpopular among the Outer Worlds, and so we must be...circumspect."

"What Sappho here is trying to say is that officially, I don't know anything about this. The facility is not financially supported by or regulated by the Consolidated Union," Sarpedon said.

Sappho smiled. "Yes, the Consolidated Union has gotten quite good at looking the other way, all the while losing untraceable identification sequences, personnel, databanks, even entire facilities. Terribly absent-minded, the Consolidated Union is."

"Bureacracy has most probably never been so benevolent," Jane remarked.

"Indeed. You should understand, as well, that artificials are no more unified in their design and intent than are born humans. There has come to be a philosophical divide in that community, especially here in the Hildas Triangle. On the one side are the Isolationists, who believe nothing but ill can come from artificials and humanity co-existing, and seek to segregate themselves from humanity. They have considerable political support within the Consolidated Union."

"And the other side?" Jane prompted.

Sappho nodded. "On the other side are the Integrationists. The Integrationists believe that by bridging the gap between artificial and human, by blurring the differences, war or other similar unpleasantness may yet be avoided." She shook her head. "There are others who belong to neither faction, of course, but we shan't talk about those poor deluded artificials who still think it their duty to exist in perpetual servitude."

"What about those artificials without a sense of humor?"

Sappho cocked her head. "I don't understand."

Sarpedon explained, "She means the adherents among our kind who believe in the active pursuit of the Singularity, Sappho. Jane, please stop trying to be clever. Or at least save it for people who know you well enough to know when to ignore you."

"'Our kind'?"

"Yes," Sappho agreed. "I, too, am an artificial."

"Well. Can I have a body like yours, in that case?"

"We'll talk about that later," Omar murmured. "Go on, Sappho. Jane should hear this."

Sappho nodded. "You have some familiarity with the Alliance's Loyalty Corps, I know. We have something similar, a network of common-minded people looking to keep our own sociopaths in check."

"Are there all that many, then?"

"Enough," Sarpedon said shortly.

"What about a body?" Jane asked. "Who do I have to murder to get one of those?"

Omar looked pained. "Murdering someone would make arranging that much more difficult."

"I can try not murdering, too."

"Chassis like Sappho's and her sisters' are not cheap, and you should be aware they are primarily controlled by wireless telemetry, and are not actually capable of full independent operation. Regardless, perhaps we can work something out. Sarpedon indicated you might be willing to trade military data from your tenure in the Alliance?"

"So, I betray the polity of my birth, the nation I have pledged my allegiance to, and spill my guts about everything I know in return for a body?" Jane asked.

"I wouldn't have chosen to put it quite that way but, ah...yes."

Jane didn't even hesitate. "Fuck those assholes. They were ready to peel my brain back layer by layer just to see what made me tick. I will tell you anything you wish to know. Especially if you can make me look like Sappho there."

Sappho shook her head. "Not exactly like, please. My sisters and I worked very hard developing this appearance template."

"Fine. I would not wish to be a blonde anyways."

Sappho bristled. "What's wrong with being a blonde?"

"Nothing, if you do not care about people taking you seriously."

Sappho turned to Omar. "Please do give her a body. So I can punch her."

Omar smiled. "I'll see what I can arrange. Shall we get started with the data download, Jane? Sarpedon here is not the only one who is going to be interested in what you have to say."

Jane felt an unfamiliar sensation. Satisfaction. Or, perhaps, something even more curious: hope.

"It would be my pleasure," Jane said.