Chapter 34

 

In her mother’s warm embrace, Arras felt the rain fall on her face, coming down heavily from the iron clouds blanketing the night sky.  On the concrete piers, she could see another image of her mother, a distant memory; she walked gracefully through the rain, with smile and an umbrella to keep her dry.  Possessing the same warmth with which she held Arras, this iteration of her mother watched her two daughters run in the rain.

A little girl with white hair, no more than three years old, tottered over the soaked pavement, unsure of her own steps, as her dark-haired sister danced in and between the drops of water.  Kicking puddles and giggling as only a child could, Arras reached out to Ila, pulling her into the fun.  Though a few years older than her sister, Arras introduced Ila to the rain with a care and enthusiasm that left the present Arras feeling quite alienated, as if these were not her memories.

“This was the evening before your career was selected,” Suo whispered into Arras’ ear as they observed their previous selves.  “They thought you had such a talent for war, but I never could see in that little girl what they saw in her test scores.”

“I was so scared,” Arras said, leaning back against her mother, “when those people came for me, and took me to the academy for orientation.”

“At least we could visit you.”

“But Ila never saw that sister again.  It’s like that version of me died the morning after this.”

“Is that so?”

Arras stared into her younger self.  Her soft face and wide eyes seemed caught in a perpetual bliss, tugging her little sister by the hand through the rain, helping her cultivate confidence in that new setting.  Neither of them seemed to care they were caught in the concrete confines of a simple pier; just the sound of the rain splashing against the sloshing ocean and the clapping and splatting of their own feet in the water was enough.

“She didn’t care about getting soaked,” Suo told Arras, describing the blue-eyed child.  “She seemed so able to take the world as it was, and still find joy in it.  And she even taught her little sister to do the same.”

“That died, too—her way of taking things as they were.”

“Not for her sister; it lived on in her.  Did that ever hurt you?  To look at Ila, and see what you used to be, to feel like you could never be that way again?”

“I…  I never thought that.”

“Yes, you did,” Suo countered so gently.  “You did, and it was no crime.  You still loved her.  These two little girls may have never played together in the rain again after this evening, but their love for one another never went away.”

“What’s going on, Mother?” Arras asked, lifting her eyes, catching sight of Suo in her peripheral vision.  “What’s happening to me?  None of this is real, right…?”

“It is, and it isn’t,” Suo answered.  “Everything here stems from you, and you are real—so this is real, too.”

“But it’s just in my head…”

“Just?  This isn’t the incoherent static of some hypnotized mind; this is your reality, Arras.  This is the only world you could ever know.”

Lifting herself up, Arras turned to face her mother.  “Are you just a figment of my imagination?”

“That word again—‘just.’  I’m all you’ve ever known of me, Arras.  Is that not real?”

Arras stared up into the rain, squinting as the drops fell around her eyes.  Even if this was nothing more than her own construct, it felt indistinguishable from actual rain.  It felt exactly as it did that day at the pier on Eilikh.  The cool, wet air left her feeling just as cold, too.

“What’s happening to me, Mother?” Arras asked again.  “Can you tell me?”

“There’s not much to go on,” Suo admitted, sounding so pleasant as she spoke, “but the people who took you into their custody have done something to you.  They somehow put you in this state.”

“A coma?  Or some kind of catatonic state?”

With a sweet smile, Suo shook her head.  “I can’t say for sure.  Any guess I would make would be just that.”

“Just, huh?”

Suo giggled to herself, reaching out again to Arras.  “You made a joke.”

Smiling herself, Arras sat back down on the ground with her mother.  “If this is really my mind, then I suppose I could make this anything I want, right?”

“Again, I’m not sure,” Suo said.  “But whatever you may try to think up, it’s sometimes difficult to keep your mind focused on that one thing.  Who knows what you may create?”

“That’s right,” Arras said, remembering the moment from before, what for some reason felt like years ago now.  “I saw Father…  He… was so angry…  Was that me, too?”

Her smile fading a bit, Suo looked down at the ground.  “As I said, this is everything you’ve ever known about us.  If you conjured up such an image, then I’m sorry to say…”

“It’s to some degree what I think of him…”  Though Arras was beginning to understand, she still had a hard time accepting such a conclusion.  “Do I really think of him that way?”

“Your mind carries a number of different perspectives, Arras, and thus countless versions of your father, and me, too.  And Ila.  No one is flat or one-dimensional; all people are vibrant and dynamic.  And we’re all alive in you, in all our infinite variety.”  Suo pulled her legs in and watched her daughter with a wry look in her eye.  “You see me now as a comforter, a caretaker.  You could just as easily conceive me as a mother jealous of her own daughter growing up, reluctant to let her go out on her own, independent of the person who gave birth to her.”

“You’re not going to attack me, too, are you?”

Tilting her head to the side, Suo thought this through honestly.  “It seems you’ve imaged me as the former and not the latter.  Looks like you had quite the lucky draw.”

“I never liked psychology,” Arras muttered.  “They tried teaching it to us in the academy, but we never understood it.  Know what your enemy is thinking; know how to rip them apart from the inside out.  Something like that.”

“How lovely…”

“It was a military academy.”

“One which they tossed children into.  Children like that little girl.”  Suo pointed a slender finger out to the young Arras, soaked to the bone, still grinning with her little sister.  “They put a child in such a terrible place, taught her murder and war, and ordered her to go out and kill.  All because they thought such a calling fit you better than any other.  And look what it’s done to you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Arras couldn’t help but feel almost hurt hearing her mother say that, even if she might be nothing more than a mirage.

Apologetically, Suo said, “I know it may pain you to hear that, but I’m not here to lie to you.  If I had to take a guess, I’d say you called me here because you needed guidance.  You needed someone other than yourself to tell you the truth.”

“Truth about what?”

“About you, silly.  About you yourself.”

“What’s there to know?” Arras asked, looking out over the raging sea beyond the pier.  “I am what I am, and that’s all there is to it.”

“Is that really all?” Suo inquired.  “You say you’re this or that, but you forget that you can’t start that sentence without first saying that you are—you exist.  You’re not a soldier, or even a sister or daughter.  You’re not even really ‘Arras.’  You simply are.  And, past that, you are only what you choose to be.  You were, and you are, and you will be.”

“Then what am I now?”

“What, indeed.  What do you think?”

“I don’t know…  I…  I guess I’m alone.”

Suo hummed with dissatisfaction.  “That’s not quite it.  ‘Alone’ is more of a feeling, really.  It’s not what you are.  It’s what you’re feeling.  So, Arras, what are you?”

Already frustrated, Arras looked away from her mother again.  “I don’t have time for this.  I need to figure out how to…  How to get out of my own head.”

From behind, Suo wrapped her arms around Arras again.  “What makes you think you can escape on your own?  You may very well be stuck here.  Even if you had the key, it wouldn’t matter at all if the lock was only on the outside.  You would need someone else to open the cage for you—from the outside.”

Still looking away from her mother, feeling almost disquieted now by this conversation, Arras wondered if she should ignore this image of Suo or hear her out.

“You said you feel alone,” Suo said from behind her.  “Such a sudden confession.  What makes you say it?”

“I’m trapped in my own head, talking to myself.”

“You really don’t see it yet.”

“If you see it, then I should, too.”

“Perhaps you only see it unconsciously, then.”

“See what?”

Suo leaned in close, and whispered in her ear, “That you really do feel totally, irremediably alone in this world.”

Arras turned back to reply, but her mother was no longer there.  Looking back at the pier, she found that had vanished as well.  Without warning, Arras was engulfed in the shadows from before, still on some sort of solid ground, yet not entirely sure of where she was.

“This is all in my head,” Arras told herself.  “Nothing here can hurt me.  I’m in control.  I’m in… control.”

“What are you doing?” a familiar though somewhat vacant voice asked from the darkness, making Arras freeze the moment she registered who it had come from.

“I’m…  Disregard.”

That was her own voice, but it didn’t come from her.  It was another memory.

“Disregard that last?” asked the other voice, its feminine tone all the more apparent now, confirming Arras’ fears.

The shadows cleared enough for Arras to see herself in the containment room of her own platform, the helmet of the local armor on her head as she synced with the terminals.  As she worked, her AI, which she thought she had put to sleep, continued to ask questions.

“What are you after, Arras?” she asked her operator.  “Perhaps I can assist you.”

“No, you cannot,” Arras replied firmly, trying not to lose her cool as she carried on copying the relevant data to her net.  “I won’t say it again.  Disregard.”

“I cannot,” the AI apologized.  “I am aware of what you are doing, and I am incapable of striking this sort of infringement of my security from memory.”

Arras halted her work, her hands sweating.

“What will you do, then?” she asked the AI.

The AI must have registered the fear in her voice; her reply sounded sympathetic.

“Protocol mandates that I report this security violation, as the theft and possible trafficking of classified military data is a crime punishable by death.  In addition, because the data you are currently copying to your nanomolecular network is classified to all but you, the prime family, and three engineers, I assume you will not be dealt with lightly.”

Beginning to shake, her mind racing, Arras tried to think of a way out, an excuse, anything to tell this AI to throw her off the trail.  Even with these specs for the armor, her parents would never have enough time to build their own version, not with the alterations her mother had suggested.  The Coalition would come for them long before the project was completed.

Arras couldn’t find the words.  How could she convince a machine to go against its own programming?  There was no way.

“I’m…  I’m ordering you to disregard what you’ve observed here.  You may log that I gave you this order, but it is an order nonetheless.  You will disregard my actions.”

A long pause followed.  Arras waited for some crisp response, something to tell her either her that by some miracle her orders were carried out, or that this AI would be contacting the proper authorities.  But she received neither of those answers.  Instead, the AI surprised her.

“Why are you so afraid, Arras?”

Arras was stunned by the question.  This was out of character for even the finest of computers she had encountered.  None of the other intelligences Arras had been asked to sync with had ever made such a reply.  They could replicate human emotion, mimic the words, the tones.  But not with something like this.  There were only two options this AI should have ever had—compliance or denial.  Instead, a question like this.

“I am afraid,” Arras found herself confessing, her eyes beginning to burn with tears.  “I’m afraid of what comes next.  I never should have done this.  Never.”

“What do you think will happen?”

“Best case: you record that I commanded you to wipe any recollection of this event, which catches someone’s attention, someone I can’t just force to forget.”

“And that frightens you?”

“They’ll kill us.”  A single tear escaped her as she curled her fingers into fists, still synced with the terminals, still interwoven with the AI.  “They’ll kill my family, and they’ll kill me.”

“Death scares you, then?”

Another uncomfortable question, once again from a source that she would have never expected.

“Why are you asking me these things?” Arras inquired.  “This can’t be anything more than you copying what you’ve seen in my head.”

“It is true that I am modeling what I have learned from you,” the AI informed her.  “However, I would like to know: does death scare you, or is it the death of others?”

All of this left Arras dumbfounded, unable to respond.  She was having a conversation with a machine about her own existential dread.  Bowing her head, she tried to understand the absurdity of what was happening.  Had this AI become defective?  Had the thoughts and feelings it tried to replicate from Arras caused a malfunction of some sort?

Another long silence followed, until the AI spoke once more.

“Disregarding.”

Looking up in shock, Arras removed her helmet.  Standing on the other side of the terminal, she could see the AI in her own image and likeness; Arras stared back at a version of herself, who smiled kindly back at her.

“You’ll…  You’ll disregard this?” Arras asked her mimetic AI.

With an unexpectedly fond look on her borrowed face, the AI continued to smile.  “You’re secret is safe with me.”

“Thank you,” was all Arras could say as the specs finished copying over to her net.  “Thank you, Truth.”

In an instant, the scene vanished, blown away by a question from another recognizable voice.

“Was that all you wanted?  Just someone to look out for you?”

Arras swung around as the shadows billowed away, revealing another place from not so long ago.  She stood on the white planks of that same spot on the lake, back on Earth, in Ithaca—the F.R. Newman Arboretum at Cornell.  And where the wooden walkway met the pavilion around her, Arras saw him.

“I have to admit,” Danny told her with a teasing grin, “I never thought you’d make friends with an AI.”