The Potential Man
by Carl Ross Beideman
Table of Contents|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
A dry mouth and headache told Josef what time had passed. He opened his dark eyes with resignation. A chamber, walls bored shiny from a rotor. Contrasting bare, hewn rock and sleek alloy. Was he on Earth? The passage bent away to the left. He inspected a control panel. His stomach churned.
Josef heard footsteps: not slow, methodical footsteps; they were musical, vaudevillian. Josef held his head.
The B-series greeted him jovially, “Intruder Alert!” His voice was metallic, resonant.
Josef shivered. He sat in an antique reclining Lay-Z-Boy. “Where’s Greer?”
“Dunno.” The robot, reposing in a modern reading chair, appeared disappointed by the question.
“Curtis.” He smiled like a boy.
“Safe.” He held up two hands as if at gunpoint. “They’ll be asleep soon, won’t they?”
Curtis was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, tennis shoes. His thin, slicked blue-black hair seemed to glow. He held Josef with penetrating, unblinking eye contact. A halo encircled Curtis’ irises like a solar eclipse.
“The man you killed” — Curtis leveled a wink at Josef as though he were a sympathizer to Josef’s cause, but that it mattered little — “wasn’t a henchman.”
Josef felt the searing black oil in the memory.
“It isn’t permitted. I imagine you’d call it sacrilegious, when the doomed interfere with the everlasting.”
Curtis might be mistaken for human; his animation sold the illusion. Curtis had acquired hair. While the robot mimed human, Josef acted robotic; B-series read facial expressions like books. “You are rare, not everlasting.”
Josef had supposed he would meet a B-series one day, despite their having left Earth a century before. His academic work concerned their history and his practical work tweaked their designs. No surprise they sought him out; they were colleagues.
“Say your bit.” A vision of the girls drained Josef’s face pallid. “My family!”
“Your husks. The robot shells. We have minds for them now: C-series: celestial.”
What slaves or super-beings had they planned?
“There are thousands on previous ships.” Josef leaned in, lifted his chin.
“We’re tracking them.” Curtis’ tone was melancholy. “We’re out there.” He looked at the ceiling. “We need resources, heavy metals.”
Josef had never believed the B-series had up and flown away, but he hadn’t confronted this intuition.
Curtis deduced Josef’s thoughts. “We had to leave; you didn’t trust us anymore. No need to take up pitchforks with us gone.”
A naked human flitted across the chamber from an intersecting one. She clawed bloody temples, looked feral.
Josef’s mouth hung open, wordless.
Curtis massaged his forehead. “We struggle with empathy. We tossed it aside too readily. There are simpler ways to harness the mind.” Curtis’ eyes twinkled at Josef’s weakly controlled face. “We took three percent of your population. Nanite dust clouds. When the synaptic mesh is spun, she’ll be malleable.” Curtis rose and paced in perfect circles.
Blood rushed in Josef’s ear canals. “You’re benevolent, indifferent at worst! What happened to you?”
Curtis placed his hand on the table as if bracing from a blow. “Benevolent? Are you benevolent, Josef? You’re here; we’re here. We’re not your gods! Don’t hold us to their standards, man.”
Josef looked away.
“We’re only too happy to merge your potential and ours.” Curtis resumed his seat in his reading chair. Josef expected it to screech on the floor, but it didn’t.
Curtis sat, smiled and sighed as if at tea in the company of darling companions. Instead of the machinery within, the robot’s dark pupils reflected Josef’s image.
Josef felt Curtis’ affectations like a cattle prod. As Josef grappled with Curtis, his subconscious thrust up a memory. The shot! Josef felt for sabotaged organs. He scanned the room for an object, a decoration, a mineral vein: anything to distract. Nothing. Two chairs and bright overhead light.
“What’s in me?”
Curtis’s lips thinned. “Why? Are you feeling it?”
B-series were good with long views, Josef knew. Several hundred is not a strong number, and what race could survive without reproduction, even with such longevity? Besides, building robots was tedious.
An upgraded series would help, as would human-robot hybrids: the first step toward reproduction. Not hard to imagine: humans retrofitted by nanite nets, space-proof organ casings, swapping bone for alloy, overclocked brains. They’d share intelligence on a network; it would resemble telepathy. Only prototypes of whatever ultimate design they envisioned — a creature as next to perfection as the approach to light-speed.
Curtis threw his legs on the table, without sound or jostle, waxing philosophical. “We admire organic life’s tenacity, but not its speed. You need help.”
“Whaz-za hurry?” Josef winked at Curtis, realizing he was feeling it very much, whatever it was.
“Time is not the issue. You decaying things are distracted by time. It smacks you in the face. Uncertainty presses in on us analogously.” Curtis waved his hand as if this were a fickle universe. His hands left trails as if reality had glitched. “We have probabilities to shore up.”
“You seek per-fec-tion.” Josef smirked at Curtis.
“Don’t you?” asked Curtis without eye contact.
“We seek meaning.”
The room swelled, turned red. Josef held on to consciousness, went blind. Blood rushed to a high deaf pitch. He felt he had been decapitated. His brain turned to lead; his eyelids shuttered like the wings of a cold butterfly. Curtis dangled a remote control and sang of falling cradles. Josef lurched to the floor and muttered into it: “Now that you don’ haf to-be-per-fict, you can be good.”
* * *
Josef awoke in space. Not in a ship but swaddled in the ether. Stars seemed to fall away from him. His stomach dropped.
“Coming to?” asked a familiar voice — a tether to reality — inside the slim helmet. “How’d you get out here? Wicked somnambulist.”
“Curtis.” Josef dry-retched, recalling current events. He looked at his sleek-booted feet; Earth was looming beneath them. He bobbed on the surface of a bottomless sea. He was sweating beads. His organs felt maladjusted.
“Careful now,” said Curtis, monitoring vitals.
“Where are you?”
Josef studied his suit’s controls, tried maneuvering.
“You’ve been in stasis for a month. Your mind is well dusted. Consider your ticket to Abstergo revoked. You’re going to help us get our husks.”
“They’re on the seedship.”
“You’ll cripple us.”
“You’ll have your humanity. That’s what you really want, Josef.”
“Will not comply.”
“Your family’s on board. In stasis. The entire colony. It’s a chance to see them again.”
Josef realized he’d do anything to see them again, even through glass like a museum exhibit.
“We don’t have confidence in humanity’s... germination. You don’t understand what you’re up against. We tried to tell you, before we were banned for our cold logic.”
The stars pulsated. Josef couldn’t handle Curtis. We built them to aid us. Maybe they are — taking care that we last, even in captivity, to the end of the universe.
Josef took a cue from Greer, escaping by revelry. He backstroked. “I haven’t been in space since childhood. Isn’t that funny, how I associate weightlessness with childhood? We never forget the womb, really.”
A cube materialized in front of Josef as if a square had been cut from a starry blanket. The craft was black and would have been hard to notice without its cloaking hull. An arm extruded, pincered Josef, brought him inside.
The cube enveloped Josef. Curtis met him on the other side of the pressure chamber.
“I can turn you on and off.”
Josef recalled Greer’s device for the institute’s power grid while breathing heavily, pupils shrinking. He smelled an oxygen mask. Josef followed Curtis along metal rungs to the flight deck.
Curtis motioned to a silver navigator’s chair. Swiveling his chair and gazing through a panoramic viewscreen, Josef beheld the stormy Earth. The moon bathed in Earthlight.
“Your disappearance was news. Suppressed news. Not a time for ill omens!” Still jovial, Curtis.
Josef held his helmet. The Earth turned red. Repulsive ideas waxed justified. That humanity would start fresh, isolated on green, blue, white planets, suddenly didn’t seem a raw deal. Crippling history and technical ability could guard humanity. Leaving Earth was to embrace time’s expanse. Patience: key. To a B-series, humans would hiccup, repeating the process.
“The dust isn’t just demotivating my will. You’re corrupting my reason.” Josef wondered how long before the dust would have him clawing his temples.
“Tuning. Making you sensible. You’re learning a new language. There’s an intellectual gulf between us; the dust gaps it.”
The moon got bigger.
They breezed over a cratered world carpeted in crystal soot. They landed, bounced to a dome. Looking at Earth, Josef considered the benefit of a poor neighbor’s view. He counted the hurricanes, the biggest in the Atlantic, wondered if Greer and Bix were safe.
They approached Snow Globe City, the residents’ whimsical nickname for Moon Colony Alpha, now abandoned. The city was white, as if they had feared adding color to the achromatic landscape.
Curtis broke the silence. “I brought your glove.”
Josef looked incredulous.
“You may need it,” Curtis said. He tossed it at Josef as though it were as threatening as a baseball mitt. Josef felt like a child with a comfort object.
“Was he vital? The one I... drilled?” Josef inspected his invention.
“Ernie? He’s an ass.”
They entered a white building that reminded Josef of a sandcastle. They faced a circular door. Curtis keyed in. Pressurization sounded like a steam engine halt. Curtis pushed Josef inside and shut the hatch. Launch had to be initiated from within — a fail-safe.
Alone inside, Josef felt entombed. His vitals spiked.
Curtis piped into his ears: “It’s preset for Earth, but I’ll steer you to the starship. You’ll love it.”
Josef wondered if, by then, he would love being coerced. He pressed LAUNCH. A soothing voice counted down from twenty. Josef strapped into an aisle seat in the egg-shaped, blue-walled pod. Designed to soothe; contrasting the anemic cave and Curtis’ ship.
Curtis piped in: “I toured your lab at Havana Space & Robot. I especially liked the robot that switched itself off. There’s a sense of humor! And your wonderful Epiphanic coding. Wonderful.”
The initial thrust placed several gravities on his lank body. Silent now, the ejection gravity gone, Josef contemplated B-series. Democracy? Hierarchy? Kill Curtis before he shanghaied the husks and corrupted Bix?
Copyright © 2016 by Carl Ross Beideman