“You look more nervous by the hour, Arthur.”
“Do I? My apologies. It’s just… This is all so new.”
Through the observation window, they watched the men in white coats orbit the bed. One dialed down the sedatives slightly while an armed guard checked their patient’s restraints. Once everyone was certain Arras was unconscious and sufficiently bound to the bed, they proceeded.
“I know you have objections,” Henrietta said coldly, not bothering to look at Arthur.
“Not at all, Madam President. I support your decision.”
“You don’t have to agree with me, Arthur, but don’t lie to me.”
Arthur looked up from his clipboard, watching the doctors prep their materials; his knotting stomach kept him from looking back at Henrietta.
“It’s true; I don’t approve of this,” he confessed. “But I’ve raised my complaints already.”
“You think we’re making a mistake.”
“I think we’re being paranoid.” A jolt ran down his spine as he said that, and he waited to see if he had upset her. Henrietta did not respond; she only listened. “Initially this was all about research. I wanted to get my hands on their armor so we could complete what we had. Then, maybe in thirty or forty years, we could implement it—once the rest of the world had caught up. But this is more like…”
“Vietnam syndrome—on an interstellar scale.”
Henrietta chuckled, admitting there was some truth to this by the way she smiled.
“That may be,” she said. “However, it’s more than not wanting to get involved in the squabbles of other political bodies—terrestrial or otherwise. It’s about being able to sleep at night knowing that the greatest threat to our country is a school shooting or a group of religious extremists across an ocean—not some alien super-weapon we have no chance of combatting, let alone defending ourselves against. I’m sure you understand, Arthur; we’re striking a balance.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Arthur muttered in surrender. “We have equipment now that could devastate entire countries in an afternoon. We hold back, of course, but it’s all there if we ever need it.”
Ever since he had taken charge of 85-11, that had been part of Arthur’s job description: in addition to research and development, he was to determine timelines for appropriate distribution and implementation of the technology in their possession. Most of the individuals involved in the project saw this as merely a ploy to keep the rest of the world from catching on, but Arthur had seen it as a mercy to his fellow human beings—while bringing a gun to a gun fight didn’t eliminate the danger, it seemed fairer, nobler than bringing an ICBM.
“We’re ready,” said one of the lab coats, facing the observation window.
“You may begin,” Henrietta replied through the intercom.
With the green light, one of the doctors lifted a thin syringe of clear liquid; as the hypodermic needle was cleared of air, drops of the transparent solution dripping from its beveled tip.
“I never thought we would have an opportunity to use this,” Henrietta mused, speaking mostly to herself. “To think there would be something that would work so well on someone with a nano-net, but which would be totally useless on any one of us.”
“I wonder if she would say this wasn’t supposed to exist either,” Arthur replied, poorly masking what he really wanted to say. “It is a little difficult to believe she’s just lying.”
“She may not be lying,” Henrietta admitted, “but that doesn’t mean she would necessarily know such methods were in use, even by her own military. After all, how many of our own people know what sort of Area 51 we’ve made for ourselves down here? The majority of Congress doesn’t even have a clue about 85-11, let alone that such a project even exists.”
Henrietta glared through the window as two doctors approached Arras, one of them holding the syringe.
“Even if she was telling the truth, what would that really change?” she asked. “Rededication would still be out there, and the rest of her group would still be running the risk of leading it back here. There’s a reason this went from being a secret pet project to a matter of homeland security.”
“We’re ready to administer the solution,” announced the doctor with the syringe. “According to our research, it’ll take a few minutes for it to take effect. After the wait, and once we’ve confirmed the patient is stable, we’ll allow you to takeover.”
Henrietta didn’t bother to respond, and the doctor took that as his cue to continue.
With Arras’ head strapped down, one of the doctors placed a speculum over her left eye, to hold the lid open. Her eye stared vacantly back, remaining still as the other doctor approached. With steady hands, the doctor manually inserted the short needle directly into Arras’ pupil, injecting the solution slowly.
No one in the room ever anticipated such a strange delivery system, let alone the oddity of what they were even delivering. According to the instructions associated with this particular liquid, the pupil would be damaged beyond repair, along with a few other portions of the eyeball; however, the results would be more than they could have ever asked for.
Enhanced interrogation tactics were ultimately useless, and they would be no more useful on someone like Arras, whom they assumed had been trained to resist such methods anyway. Even if she didn’t know how to keep her head in such a situation, torture didn’t produce intelligence—it produced responses. There would be no way to tell if what she would give them was accurate. Instead, with Arthur’s tentative suggestion and Henrietta’s uncompromising approval, they decided to circumvent Arras entirely.
The solution dissolved upon entering the eye, mixing with the vitreous gel inside, causing a chemical reaction which immediately began eating away at the eye from the inside out. In the mixture, a number of nanomachines came to life, swimming their way to the optic nerve and retinal blood vessels at the back, following them straight to Arras’ brain.
As the procedure continued, the doctors dialed back the sedatives in preparation for what would come next.
Time passed slowly. Arthur couldn’t bear to watch for more than a few seconds at a time, though Arras had no apparent response to the procedure. Henrietta, however, watched with all the seriousness of a hawk, her arms folded, tapping her finger against her arm in waiting.
One of the doctors periodically checked the injected eye, swabbing away some residual blood leaking from the corner of Arras’ eye. As time went on, the white sclera around her iris progressively reddened as blood vessels continued to dissolve and flood. The damage done to her eye was startling, but anyone unnerved by the sight tried to assuage their discomfort by recollecting the medical reports on this method; despite the vicious entry, the nanomachines would prevent any fatal hemorrhaging. However, many wondered if they were simply concerned about keeping Arras alive, or if they might be regretting their decision.
Arras’ vitals eventually cleared her for the next stage. As the doctor unstrapped her head, Arras looked blankly around the room, not lifting herself from the pillow. Though she was once again conscious, they had kept enough sedatives in her system to only allow her to respond to questioning. With the nanonmachines laced through the frontal and temporal lobes of her brain, they expected this to be a fairly straightforward disclosure.
When the doctors gave their signal, Henrietta promptly left the observation room, with Arthur right behind her, joining everyone in the operating room. With one marine at the ready, and two more to guard the door, Henrietta stood at Arras’ bedside, staring down at the dazed girl. Arras could only stare passively back at her.
“You’re certain she’s ready?” Henrietta asked one of the doctors.
“Yes, ma’am,” was the reply.
“Go ahead, then, Arthur,” said Henrietta, stepping back from the bed.
Now forced to stare into Arras’ face, unable to look away anymore, Arthur worked up the grit he needed to continue through this ordeal. He had never wanted any of this, but if he could get what Henrietta and the others wanted, maybe then Arras could go free—at least provisionally. He might even be able to finally continue his research.
“I’m going to ask you a series of questions,” Arthur said to Arras, waiting for her to look at him. “I want you to respond to the best of your ability. Do you understand?”
Arras spoke clearly, though she sounded as if she had just woken up. The rest of the room felt a sense of relief, then excitement, to see that their operation had been a success so far. Even Arthur found it difficult to suppress at least a little satisfaction.
“Perfect. Question one, then,” he continued. “What is your name?”
That question echoed into Arras’ ears like a call into a cave. She listened, though she couldn’t process the source. The room around her had already long since evaporated into her mind, stopped at the edge of her senses, along with the people around her. Only the question entered, and with no one apparent to whom she could attribute it, she was left to form another world around it altogether.
Arras’ consciousness fled into itself, creating a phantasm all its own. The words her ears picked up were nothing but faint echoes to her now, inconsequential accents to the fantasy she was subconsciously creating for herself.
The weight of a headset made her neck sore, though she had become well accustomed to physical stress by then. The thin padding inside the helmet helped somewhat, though mostly to keep the visor steady. With her interviewers waiting just beyond that opaque visor, they allowed her a moment to prepare herself.
In that time, the AI presented itself to Arras.
“Greetings,” said the artificial intelligence in a genderless voice, quavering with all the lack of a human’s touch—a new unit for Arras to engage. “Please allow me to introduce myself: I am model number forty-four. What is your name?”
Processing her response, the AI recalibrated itself in relation to her voice, her tone, anything it could gather from those two words alone. It rifled through countless records associated with that name, including the records of the people in her family, even her friends and other documented colleagues. All information deemed relevant to this initial imprinting was siphoned and harmonized into this AI.
“Synchronization stable,” said a voice beyond the visor. “We may proceed.”
In response to Arthur’s own question, Arras managed to mutter her own name, to the approval of Henrietta and the other observing technicians and medical professionals.
“I’m going to ask you another question,” Arthur continued.
“We’ll proceed with the interview,” said a gruff voice from behind the visor. “Your responses will be critical in our evaluation, so please answer clearly and honestly. We will know if you are lying. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Arras breathed dispassionately.
“Do you know where Daniel Eick is?” Arthur asked Arras. “Can you tell me where Daniel Eick is?”
“Basic strategic maneuvers when entering a system,” Arras muttered back to Arthur, her words slurring.
“Enter past the comet-catchers,” she continued, despite Arthur’s confusion. “Eliminate all forces on outer layers… Anything that could give the targets hope.”
“I’m not sure if she understands me,” Arthur said, looking up at the others. “I’ll try again.”
Though Arthur repeated his question, it was washed away by the stream of questions Arras recollected from that day. One by one the queries came, and she answered them mechanically. They were unequivocal, having mostly to do with tactical assault, maneuvering a platform, defending an installation while carrying on an assault elsewhere.
Yet something seemed out of place. Though she couldn’t tell what it was, beyond a thorough investigation of her mental capacities, Arras chose to ignore the feeling. There was no point in getting excited over such things; after all, they may have deliberately designed the experience to be uncomfortable, perhaps to test the nerves of a new operator.
“Arras Enqelin,” Arthur called to her, speaking slowly and clearly. “Do you understand me? Please respond.”
“We have one final question,” announced the voice behind the visor. “Consider the following: a loved one, perhaps a member of your own family, approaches you with a detailed agenda, a plan to assassinate one or more members of the prime family. How do you respond?”
The dream began to crack as the question came to her. This had been one of the questions back then, and it had surprised her then as it did now—and in remembering that shock, Arras realized that she was indeed only remembering something. She began to realize this was a fantasy.
“Please answer the question,” the voice stated.
“Answer me, Arras,” Arthur insisted.
“How do you respond?”
“How do I…?” Arras said to herself, forgetting the weight of the helmet. “How…?”
“How do you respond?”
“Arras? Can you hear me?”
“Your response is critical for our evaluation.”
“Arras, say something!”
The last voice she heard, the one to trump the others, was smooth. A woman’s voice, coming from her own head. The AI.
“Arras,” it said, “what would you have me do? How would you respond?”
“That’s it,” Henrietta concluded. “Prepare the next phase; we’re finished here.”
“No, wait!” Arthur yelled, putting up a hand, keeping his eyes on Arras. “She may just need more time to stabilize. Arras, if you can understand what I’m saying, please respond.”
“Please respond, Arras.”
Arras’ mouth started to move, and she managed to formulate a few words, despite her indistinct speech.
“If they approached me with such a plan…”
The words she spoke to the people beyond the visor were in her own voice, yet they didn’t seem like her words. They were the words of someone who had lived long ago, centuries even.
All in an instant, Arras found herself staring back at the young woman with the helmet, standing among the faceless voices beyond that visor. She could see her former self, the upper half of her face covered by the visor, her whole frame still and calm.
“That would make them traitors,” said the girl in the chair as a cool smile crawled across her face.
Arras’ heart rate began to spike, her breathing becoming erratic and strained. Arthur stepped back as the doctors stepped in. All of that acceleration and stress translated back into Arras’ mind as she shook her head at the young woman in the chair.
“No, shut up,” Arras hissed at the seated girl.
She wanted to look away, yet the dream, the nightmare, would not allow it.
“And if they’re traitors…” the girl continued.
“Shut up. Shut your mouth.”
“Then there’s only one thing you can do.”
Arras’ body screamed and thrashed on the bed, pulling recklessly at her tight restraints. The doctors held her down as one of them upped the sedatives again. Though Arras continued to toss and reel in her own head, her body calmed. With her external senses dulling, she was left with no other connection to the outside world—leaving her trapped inside her own head, with a stream of nanomachines still trying to pry open her unconscious mind.
She could see a wall of shadows creep over the satisfied young woman in the chair as her questioners surrounded her, voicing their approval. From the edge of the scene, all Arras could do was look on in horror at what she wished had never been—at someone she wished had never existed. And in the shadows that girl pulled the helmet from her head, looking back at Arras with a reserved conceit—and that same cool smile. Then the shadows overtook her, and she disappeared, leaving Arras alone.
“She just needs more time,” Arras could hear Arthur say from the darkness, his voice echoing in her ears as her body continued to numb. “Give her more time to stabilize, then we can pick up where we left off.”
Staring into the infinite shadows, Arras trembled. Everything about this felt real, though she had an inkling that this only in her head. Though, in the state she was in, she struggled to grasp what that even meant.
“Where am I?” she asked the rolling shadows, revealing nothing beyond themselves as they swirled all around her. “Is someone there? Please, anyone… I don’t want to be alone…”
Right when she thought no response would come, a man emerged from the dark—Aurin. He approached Arras at a normal stride, his path curving as he walked circles around her, his eyes fixed on her as he moved.
“An interesting reply,” Aurin said. “Though I suppose their question was a loaded one.”
“I didn’t mean it… I… I would never—”
“Scrambling for an excuse. There’s no strength in that, Arras, and you know it. Own up to it.”
“No, I… That’s not me. She’s not me!”
“Yes she is. She’s as much you as you are yourself. Don’t lie to me, Arras. Don’t say you didn’t mean it.”
With a quick step, she felt Aurin’s hands clamp her throat; even in this dream world, she could feel the life being choked out of her.
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have killed me if you had the chance!” he snarled at her, lifting Arras off the ground.
“Please,” she gasped, failing to pry off his suffocating hands. “I wouldn’t… I…”
Soon, her hands fell feebly from his, offering Aurin no resistance as he squeezed the life from her. Tears swelled in Arras’ eyes as she looked up, away from her father, into the never-ending blackness overhead.
There was nothing else she could say, nothing else she could bring herself to say, nothing except, “I’m so sorry…”
As all alarm left her, surrendering herself to the thick darkness all around, and to the hands wrapped tightly around her throat, to the voice cursing her name and promising her death—a rush overtook her. Clarity irrupted into her as light erupted all around. Thrusting the darkness out of existence, she could feel her father’s fingers loosen and she fell from his hands. As the light spread from where she knelt, she watched her father walk with the dissipating darkness, following it in its retreat.
“Father, no, please!” She reached out to him, but he didn’t look back—not once. “Come back! I’m sorry!”
He vanished with the darkness, and Arras felt her whole body slump and shake. Regaining her breath, still whispering at the ground, a gentle hand rested lightly on her shoulder. As Arras turned, she could feel the warm stream of tears running down her cheeks. Looking through blurred eyes, she followed the hand up the arm to see who had come to torment her next.
She stared into her mother’s eyes.
Suo knelt down beside her, wrapping her arms cautiously around Arras. Holding her daughter close, she whispered something to Arras, words which if not unintelligible were at least inaudible—yet they carried with them an unmistakable sense of comfort. Arras allowed herself to melt into her mother’s arms, weeping like a child waking from a fresh nightmare.
“What’s going on?” Arras asked through sobs. “What’s happening to me?”