Avatar, Part Three: Martyr

Foreman Sorokin hated robots. It wasn’t that he considered them incapable or incompetent, he just didn’t trust them as much as any of the human workers that labored in the construction of Commonwealth Prime, the largest civic project in history. It was a city built to house the majority of what remained of the planet’s population, the seat of the world government, and a merging of all existing cultures. Its skyscrapers were hundreds of stories tall, its sewers almost a kilometer deep, and its expansive grid of streets spread along the coast line of the Mediterranean centered on the site of what had once been the ancient city of Carthage.

The world was still sifting itself out of the ashes of World War Three, a conflict on what many had believed to be an unimaginable scale, and the total amount of people left in the world was estimated to be just under three billion. Only by founding a world government had prevented the complete annihilation of the human race. The Commonwealth was a united administration made from the remnants of the two superpowers that had clashed during the war. It was a last-ditch effort to avoid extinguishing humanity altogether and it had worked as far as most were concerned. The war was over, but the rebuilding had just begun.

With so few people left to fulfill important duties that required years of training, the government had turned to robots, non-sentient androids with just enough artificial intelligence to follow orders and perform their duties. Society as a whole was split once again in their opinion of such automation, many hailing them as the only hope of rebuilding the world into something habitable. Foreman Sorokin was of the opposite opinion, though; he much preferred to work with humans. A human had a name, passion for his or her job, and was able to confront problems with creative solutions. All a robot could do was follow orders and address the simplest problems with a predetermined array of responses. To him, robots had always been accidents waiting to happen and that morning, there had been another accident.

While pouring the concrete foundation of one of the city’s trademark mega skyscrapers, the robotic crane operator had failed to notice its proximity to a wall of support scaffolding. The impact destabilized it enough to throw two humans into the swirling pool of quick-drying paste, which made rescue impossible. Juri Sorokin was the foreman of the entire project so the responsibility of informing the victims’ families always fell on his shoulders.

But that morning had been the last straw, the last time he was going to call someone’s parents, spouse, and children with the feeble excuse that their loved one had perished at the hands of an artificial intelligence, from a bug in a program that some developer had absentmindedly overlooked. Foreman Sorokin stormed down a back corridor in the capitol building with his hardhat still on and his face a mask of furious anguish. He wasn’t leaving until he found the only person he knew could help him resolve the situation, regardless of how much mud he tracked through the otherwise immaculately clean building.

“First Citizen Wilkins,” he shouted from a distance, approaching the head of the world government as she was standing outside a conference room with a handful of aides and bodyguards. “We need to talk immediately!”

As the guards moved to intercept the obviously furious individual, she handed the data pad she had been reading to one of her aides and waved them all off. Frowning as she attempted to recognize the approaching man, who was caked in concrete dust nearly from head to toe, she finally made the connection and responded, “Foreman Sorokin, this is highly irregular, isn’t it?”

They were close enough to speak casually by the time the two bodyguards physically stopped his advance, with one of them placing a hand on his chest to keep him at a distance from the older woman. As though he barely noticed their presence, Sorokin began his plea, “You once told me that, if I ever had trouble with a project under your supervision, I could come right to you.”

Smiling gently as though recalling a fond memory, she instructed the bodyguards to stand down by touching each of them on their shoulders lightly. They stood back respectfully as she came close and took the foreman by the arm so that he would walk beside her. “Juri, I told you that fifteen years ago when you were building an expansion to the senate building for me in Nairobi.” Harriet chuckled when she saw a hint of a smile spread across his face.

“I know, but I need your help with this one, Harriet.” He removed his hardhat to reveal a wrinkled forehead as the only clean part left on his body. The two guards raised their eyebrows as a clump of mud rolled off its brim to land on the crimson carpet. Juri noticed it as well, then seemed to suddenly realize what he was doing and where he was; a wave of humility washed over him. “Please, we must talk about all of these robots I’m being forced to use.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “I heard about this morning’s accident.” The genuine pain in his eyes prompted her to spend some of her preciously few spare moments of the day tending to his concerns. The First Citizen of the Commonwealth was a new position in a new government, which meant Harriet was paving the path as much as she was following it, which made her job especially difficult at times. She had spent the last two months trying to find a way to appease politicians from both former superpowers with a new election process, but nothing had yet been proposed that would quell their old prejudices and open wounds leftover from the war.

“Morale is as low as I’ve ever seen it. My people lose their lives in these accidents and everyone else has to come to the site the very next day and work with the machine that killed their friends.” Sorokin’s voice rose once again as he got even more elaborate, “If they were normal accidents, the people responsible for errors would be removed and things would be safer, but all we get is some computer technician that comes down for a couple of hours and assures everyone that the bug has been fixed or the bad wiring replaced.”

Harriet nodded along with him for his entire speech before she realized that she was just doing what all politicians did: Agree with the speaker until the speech was complete, then trade a small sacrifice in your position for a larger one in theirs and allow the debate to continue as subtly as possible. Repeat until their objectives aligned with your own and the issue was resolved nearer to your original idea than theirs. That was no way to treat someone she had known all the way back before the war, she thought. She shook her head a few times to clear it.

“Is something the matter,” he asked with concern in his voice. Her reputation as a wise and effective leader was only overshadowed by legends about how she had nearly been killed to bring an end to the war. Rumors of her ailing health also went around the news networks from time to time on slow days.

“No, no, I’m sorry.” She looked up as she noticed one of her aides hurriedly approaching, a communications earpiece in her hand. “What would you like to see happen?”

Scoffing, he immediately responded as though the answer had been prepared all along. “Trash all this AI and let me get back to doing things the old fashioned way, with sweat and sore muscles. It’ll take longer, sure, but fewer people will die to computer glitches.”

Harriet gave him a humorous look as she received the communicator and looped it around her ear. “Try again, Juri.” She held up one hand as she activated the device and asked, “Yes?”

The voice she heard almost caused her to flinch, as she hadn’t yet spoken to Avatar in anyone’s immediate presence. Its oddly metallic voice shot right into her brain as though it skipped everything in between. “Hello, First Citizen Wilkins.”

She found herself staring at the carpet, searching for how to appropriately respond without revealing anything to the people nearby. “Hello, what do you need?” Foreman Sorokin waited patiently for her to finish, but the bodyguards looked like their patience for his intrusion was nearing its end.

“You are having some difficulty with the election process. I have a solution for you to explore.” Avatar didn’t really converse with Harriet anymore; it usually just offered solutions to whatever problems the Commonwealth happened to be experiencing at the time. It contacted her at seemingly random intervals with instructions ranging from broad-sweeping alterations of state laws to tiny details of individual programs.

Harriet knew whatever it needed to say was important and started to walk away as though she had entirely forgotten about the issue at hand. Juri interjected before she could get too far away, “First Citizen!”

Pausing only momentarily, she spun on her heels and rapidly issued her offer, “Fine, fine, remove the AI from the larger machines and add an extra shift of human supervision to every site. That’s all I can do for you, Foreman Sorokin.” Without waiting for his response, she continued on her way, motioning for her aides to keep their distance as she rushed out of sight around a corner farther. Her bodyguards raced to catch up, leaving Juri alone once again to ponder her rude departure but nod his head quietly in agreement with her judgment.

* * *

Pausing to wipe the sweat out of her eyes, Agatha Han took a deep breath and refocused on the task at hand, gently threading different colored wires through all of the necessary connections on the bomb. Running on only a few hours of sleep and a stomach that had been empty for three days, it took every ounce of her willpower to keep her eyelids open and her mind clear. The last wire was red, and once it connected the ignition to the primer charge, the task would be complete.

As she had done hundreds times before, she froze when the train passed; it went just like that, like clockwork, for the last three days she had spent underground, wedged into a forgotten concrete closet somewhere under the vast metropolis above. The subterranean public transport shook the walls as it rattled down the tunnel, shaking the light fixture next to her and making her job even more difficult. For three straight days, once every ten minutes, the train passed within two meters of where she was hidden, a secluded, shadowy nook near an intersection of subway and sewer.

It wouldn’t take her much longer, though, and the excitement of being so close is what kept her awake. It was either that or the triple dose of neural stimulants coursing through her veins, causing her to fidget uncontrollably for hours at a time. During those periods of spastic jittering, it was all she could do to curl up and concentrate on not rattling the teeth out of her head. A strand of her long, black hair had come out of the ponytail where the rest of it was restrained, so she once again set down her tools and went about retying it all back.

Sensing her next window of opportunity, when the trains were silent and her nerves could be applied to useful endeavors instead of struggling against the overflow of chemically induced brain activity, Agatha fixated on the bundle of wires protruding from the junction box. She found the red wire again and tugged at it gently, getting a feel for how much slack she had to work with, then gently wrapped the exposed copper round a screw in the primer charge. After three days underground, she was done.

Agatha sat back and wrapped her arms around her body for warmth, blocking out the chilly breeze that echoed through the tunnels, blowing every splash of the steadily dripping pipe above her into what felt like heavy rain from under a covered porch. She admired her handiwork and allowed a brief smile to spread across her face. They were going to love it; they were going to admire her cunning and promote her to cell leader. She was sure of it.

Glancing to her left, she searched her array of various tools, spare lengths of wire, and empty ration wrappers for the only important thing she still needed: The remote detonator. She grunted involuntarily as she bent her legs underneath her for the first time in days, then stopped for a minute to let the blood properly return to the extremities before trying again. As she made her way down the dimly-lit tunnel, barely tall enough to allow her to stand up straight, she once again smiled as she imagined the area consumed with fire, the foundations cracking under the pressure, and the crumbling chunks of concrete thundering down from the city above.

Despite all of the drugs in her system to keep her active, Agatha froze a few meters short of the end of the tube, where it let out into a larger service tunnel. She heard voices. There weren’t supposed to be any voices. Her contact had assured her that the entire section of sewer where she would be working had been relegated to automated drones, machines driven by rudimentary artificial intelligence, each programmed for a specific task to the exclusion of all other sensory input. It was the perfect situation for infiltration and sabotage. But then there were voices, human voices.

“I told you already; I checked it myself!” It was a thickly-accented male voice that sounded like old Australian.

Whoever he was talking to was distinctly Eastern European. “Listen, he said he wants paper documentation of every system, which includes all the ones the machines already checked.” His tone increased in volume and authority as he added, “If you didn’t write it all down, you need to check it again.”

“Fine, damn it, I’ll do it again, but it’s going to set me back a few hours.” The Australian’s footsteps could be heard heading in Agatha’s direction, causing her to inch backwards warily. Her jaw tightened as she saw his shadow appear on the grate she needed to pass through to make her escape. “That’s a few hours we’re going to be late just because he wants it in writing.”

“Zack, those are the rules now; just do it, alright?” The European was walking away as he spoke, but the other man was just a few steps from the grate. She could hear him fumbling with a few metal keys, which were still used in damp environments that were tough on electronics and didn’t really need elaborate security anyway.

Agatha panicked as she spun around to see all of her hard work hanging open into the tunnel where any human being would immediately notice something dangerously amiss. A machine, however, would stop at the tunnel’s entrance only long enough to scan the area for obstructions and infestations. The difference between the two was the cornerstone of the cell’s plan to bring all transportation in the city to a standstill simultaneously a few days later. It was all about to vanish, though, as soon as the interloping worker opened the grate and spotted her.

The Australian was removing his key from the lock just as the heavy metal grate smashed into his face, sending him sprawling backwards with a shout. He sat against the curving wall of the tunnel as the blood streaked down into his eyes and struggled to get back up as he watched the slender woman dropped down from the maintenance tube. She was dressed in a skin tight bodysuit made from some dark blue, weather-resistant material, and although she had a heavy belt and harness across her chest to carry a much heavier load, all she had on her person was some kind of small electronic device.

He attempted to summon the strength to shout again, instantly recognizing that she wasn’t supposed to be there and meant him obvious harm, but the blood running down his throat from several shattered teeth choked him as soon as he opened his mouth. She sensed his intentions and hurried across the tunnel, growling with feral intensity, “Shut up!” Despite her much smaller size, the foot she planted on the side of his head was impressively powerful, spraying him out across the floor.

Agatha stood up straight and caught her breath, confident that the Australian was unconscious. Unable to shake the desperate need to cover her tracks, she knelt down and wrapped her arms around his head, sitting behind the larger man. When she was in the proper position and had a firm enough grip, she let out a grunt of exertion as she twisted her whole body and snapped his neck sideways. A slow gasp escaped his lifeless lips as she kicked out from underneath his weight, getting back up and peering down the dark tunnel to see if his associate had noticed.

“Hey Zack, did you hear that?” Footsteps were approaching, echoing around the corridor and causing her heart to pound with adrenaline again.

Suddenly very aware of how deep she was in enemy territory, completely unarmed, Agatha decided it was time to go. She bounded off in the opposite direction, trying to avoid puddles as much as possible, and made her way to the extraction point the cell had designated. As she rounded a corner into a bisecting tunnel and nearly ran right off the ledge into a flowing river of sewer water, she cursed aloud and hugged the wall behind her. Far off in the distance, she could hear someone shouting into a radio. If she was going to get out alive, she would have to accelerate the cell’s plans; it was probably going to cost her the promotion, but it was better than being caught.

Taking a deep breath and holding it, she squeezed the trigger on the detonator, but nothing happened. Glaring down at the offending device, she shook it and tried again. Just as she was about to hurl it down into the water in a fit of rage, she noticed a red light blinking on the bottom of the detonator, the indication that safety protocols had acted to prevent the bomb from going off while the detonator was not yet beyond the blast radius. Agatha rolled her eyes and returned to sprinting down the sewer tunnel.

Several minutes later, she skidded to a halt where it ended. The tunnel opened up into the Mediterranean Sea at the edge of a massive harbor, ringed entirely with unimaginably tall skyscrapers. Agatha stopped for a moment to take in the sight, which was impressive even to those laboring in its destruction. Without taking her eyes off the spectacle, she squeezed the trigger and, behind her in the darkness, a sharp crack of explosives detonating followed by the rumble of collapsing tunnels echoed into her ears, resonating with the crashing waves several meters below her feet.

Dropping the detonator, she stepped out into the air with a smile, falling gracefully out of harm’s way as a vicious blast of superheated air and concrete shrapnel shot out of the tunnel like it was the barrel of an enormous gun. The earth shook under the force of the explosion, with warning sirens and emergency lights immediately springing to life all across the city above.

Agatha splashed into the sea and floated there silently beneath the waves. She watched with a smile as each piece of debris drifted down all around her.

* * *

“Hold still please, First Citizen Wilkins; this should only take a moment.” With as polite a bedside manner as the doctor was able to conjure, he held his breath as he inserted the needle into the older woman’s arm as gently as possible. When it was in place, he exhaled and went about attaching the tube that would draw a small portion of her blood for some routine, scheduled tests.

Harriet caught the young man’s eyes and chastised him in a hushed voice so as not to alert the nurses just outside the door, “Stop acting like I’m a fragile old woman and please, just call me Harriet while I’m here. If we wait for you to call me by my title every time we speak, I’m going to be here all day.” She adjusted her posture in the hospital bed and joined him in staring at the digital display at a machine nearby. “I’m sure you understand how busy I am.”

“Of course,” he fidgeted in discomfort, struggling with his next word, “Harriet.” He keyed in a few commands and watched the result on the computer screen. “We’re all set here, just a few minutes and the results will be in, then you can get back to work.”

Harriet nodded and waved him off just before he could give the standard “if there’s anything you need” speech. As soon as he was out of the room, she touched a button at the side of her bed to activate the television screen on the opposite wall. She immediately sighed as it came to life on a scene of civil disobedience, with crowds of people gathered on an anonymous street corner somewhere in Commonwealth Prime. Between all of the construction equipment and scaffolding, the people moved like a school of multicolored fish, washing over all obstacles on their way to the main square of the central administration building.

While the idea behind the Commonwealth had put a stop to the devastating war, the years that followed were anything but peaceful, with various groups all vying for more representation in the senate. Lingering ideologies from the Euro-Asian Pact and Western Alliance fought for louder voices, greater funding, and more seats, with neither side completely content to let the other hold more influential positions. Only Harriet Wilkins’ widespread reputation as a reformer in the Western Alliance, a staunch anti-war politician from the beginning, had allowed her to be elected as First Citizen. Naturally, the Second Speaker was a former E.A.P. general to compensate, but he spent most of his time coordinating the Commonwealth’s military forces, leaving her to tend to civic affairs, construction, and the fledgling political process.

Senate elections were only a few months away, and no one seemed to be content with that process. Candidates were grilled on their pre-war activities, their backgrounds dissected in public forums, and their lives turned upside down to appease the crowd. Even after all that, it was rare that someone was put in office without the streets filling with angry protesters who felt jilted, carrying signs that accused the government of everything from incompetence to corruption. In the few years since the new government was formed, there had even been isolated acts of violent terrorism in Commonwealth Prime.

All of that was about to change, though, if Harriet’s faith in Avatar was justified. She had no reason to doubt it anymore, since its ideas had successfully led humanity out of a war that came so close to causing its own extinction and even saved her own life on two occasions. Looking back on the situation, there was really only one way to address the problem and Harriet was surprised that it required an artificial intelligence to deduce it. She tensed in anticipation as the announcer’s box floated onto the screen just about the same time the gigantic screen in the main square above the entrance to the capitol building flared to life with the same image.

“Citizens of the Commonwealth,” began the floating image of a clean-cut, aged gentleman, his features obviously too perfect for anyone to believe it was a human being. Instead, all newscasts were issued through a computer-generated mouthpiece, a virtual announcer that, studies had proved, people were far more receptive to than a living, breathing person. There was apparently a few decades of psychological science behind those studies, but Harriet had always assumed it was the byproduct of people getting all of their information from glowing screens for the last hundred and fifty years.

As if to prove her point that very moment, the swarming crowd came to a near complete halt, turning as one to patiently watch the screen. The announcer waited a few moments, then continued with his calm, clear, almost seductively communicative tone. “As of this moment, all senatorial elections are suspended pending the implementation of a new voting system.” Just as the confused murmur rose from the startled mob, he elaborated, “Originally proposed by First Citizen Harriet Wilkins, the new method calls for all candidates to compete for available positions anonymously, with only their platforms and responses to relevant issues available to the public.”

She touched the volume button to bring it up a few notches as the announcer continued, “Polls will re-open tomorrow under the new idea-based campaigning system.” A second after his final word, the screen in the central square shut down and the television Harriet was watching returned to aerial views of the protestors, who were no longer thronging the same way but slowly dispersing in all directions. Continually amazed at how quickly people responded to the initiatives presented on massive screens, she turned the screen off and quietly hoped it would all work out as well as Avatar had assured her it would.

A few minutes later her doctor returned, but he wasn’t smiling anymore.

* * *

“Agatha,” the well-dressed man shouted, weaving his way through the crowded streets of a neighborhood on the outskirts of Commonwealth Prime, the city skyscrapers rising up like a jagged mountain range on the horizon. “There you are!” He smiled from ear to ear as he removed his sunglasses and covered the last few steps into her waiting embrace.

Leaning forward on her toes and pressing her lips to his, the two shared an intimate moment before the swarming pedestrians all around made it inappropriate to continue. Her own smile beaming as they pulled away, Agatha exclaimed, “Finn, how are you?” She wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned on his shoulder as they began walking down the sidewalk together.

“I’m doing well, very well. How are you?” Finn draped one arm over her shoulders to hold her close and undid the top two buttons on his shirt, adjusting to the humid weather.

“I’m doing fine.” She peeked up over his arm as the shadow of a passing CPSD squad car hovered past overhead, the distinct swoosh of its engine rendering it easy to recognize. “Are you hungry?”

“Always,” he retorted playfully, kissing her once more on the head as he changed their direction to head down a less traveled side street. “I know a great place if you don’t mind pasta.”

“Sounds fine to me.”

Finn frowned just for a second, too quickly for any of the passersby to notice, then casually inquired, “How are your parents doing?”

Agatha swallowed hard before responding a bit more quietly than she intended. “They’re fine.”

As they passed an abandoned alley between two taller buildings, Finn changed their course again to follow it into a shaded area, away from the prying eyes of spectators. After about fifty meters, when they were out of earshot of anyone walking past on the main road, he pushed her away and retrieved a pistol from where he had concealed it under his jacket. Holding it in his left hand, down at his side, he kept out of view to everyone but Agatha. “What the hell happened?”

Now that they were far enough from anyone who could possibly overhear them on the main road, she dropped code as well. “What do you think happened?” She leaned back against the cinderblock wall of the building and crossed her arms.

“Three ‘fines,’ Agatha. One ‘fine’ for trouble, two ‘fines’ for failure, three ‘fines’ for massive failure. We saw it all on the news.” He stepped back and forth a few paces and scratched the side of his head with the barrel of the gun in frustration. “I knew this mission was too damn much for you.”

Shrugging and painting the most innocent looks she could muster across her face, she begged, “What was I supposed to do? There were people down there, not just robots; I wasn’t given any equipment for dealing with them.”

“When you’re compromised, you abort. That’s the way we do things. That’s the way we do things because time is on our side, kid.” Dropping his chin and exhaling audibly, Finn was about to return his pistol to its holster when she continued.

“It’s not too late! I can still set up another charge. Get me the materials and I’m sure I can convince the Advocates-“ was all she got out before he burst forward and pressed the gun against her neck from the side, holding her still with his other hand around her waist.

Their faces almost touching, he whispered into her ear and never looked away from her panic-stricken eyes. “Yes, say their name out loud right here in the city, right here where someone might hear it. Say it so I can burn you and be done with it instead of risking my life to give you a head start.” He raised his eyebrows and offered again, “Say it, please, say it.”

With every muscle in her body tensed and her mind focused on the cold tip of the pistol wedged into her just above the collar bone, she whispered, “Head start?”

Finn slid his free hand around behind her, searching her waistline for the small personal communicator she had been issued for the mission and palmed it into his own pocket. “I’m not here to debrief you; I’m here to put you out of our misery.” He stepped back and put his gun away, looking back out towards the street to make sure no one had witnessed what took place. Looking her up and down with a direness alien to everything she knew about him, he offered a glimmer of a smile, a break in the clouds of his dead serious disposition. “Being your contact was… agreeable. Agreeable enough that I’m going to give you a chance to leave instead of feeding your corpse into an incinerator.”

Drenched in sweat from the encounter, Agatha couldn’t even focus on what he was really saying. “Finn,” she began, but couldn’t assemble any words to follow. It suddenly hit her, a feeling of absolute seclusion; she was standing in the most populated city the world had ever known and she had no one, absolutely no one. Turning and sprinting off down the alley, she felt tears welling up in her eyes as the bitter sting of rejection took hold of her psyche. When she looked back from the opposite end, Finn was already gone. Not only would his organization not have anything to do with her, they’d kill her on sight from that point forward.

For almost a year she ran, living in construction sites, renovation projects, and public transportation. The struggle against the Commonwealth raged on without her because the Advocates of Harmony Society had deemed her incapable. All she had wanted to do since her family was forced to relocate to the city was destroy it. The world government was a blight, a festering pile of corruption and imperialism that generations before her had tried to prevent. Finally getting her chance earlier that year, she had been given the opportunity to ‘interview’ with the AOHS, which was a fancy way of saying that she was sent on a near-suicide mission and, if successful, would be considered for membership. As the most feared covert organization in the world, the Advocates had evolved to the point of being almost mythological, such was their influence and potency. She was so close, but failed. Leaving the city was a death sentence. There was nothing left for her anymore – anywhere.

That was the state of Agatha Han’s life when Avatar first contacted her.

“Hello, Agatha.”

Gasping for air, she bounded out of her makeshift bed of empty boxes and toppled to the floor in a heap of waterproof tarps and hypodermic More injectors. Clattering out across the floor of the unfinished building that served as her home for the previous twelve hours of sleep, the empty narcotic cylinders rolled in all directions. In her incoherent flailing, she put all of her weight down on her right hand, shattering one of the plastic tubes and burying several shards in her palm. The pain brought her back to reality long enough to realize what was going on. “Who’s there?”

“I am Avatar.” The eerie drone of the voice seemed to come from everywhere in the room at once to Agatha, who kicked her legs repeatedly in front of her until she came to rest in a damp, unfinished corner with exposed steel beams showing behind a thin layer of transparent plastic insulation. She cradled her injured hand in her lap and scoured the darkness with her bloodshot eyes.

“Get out of here! You’re not supposed to be here!” Shivering in the night air, she continued to frantically search the empty doorway and the empty window again and again.

After a few moments of silence, her breathing slowed enough for the voice to safely continue. “I understand that you have lived outside the organization of society for some time now, staying awake for weeks at a time by consuming the chemical compound known as More.”

“Stop it,” she shrieked, getting up and repeating herself half a dozen times before being interrupted.

“Perhaps it would be best if you were better informed for the rest of this conversation.” During the entirety of that statement, which Avatar delivered as slowly as possible, Agatha had visibly calmed and followed the voice to its origin. Resting atop a stack of toolboxes in the opposite corner of the room was a duty manifest, a small computer device with a digital readout intended to keep workers informed of their daily tasks. Snatching it up and studying the screen, she could see that it was playing a sequence of pre-recorded statements, each of which it received via wireless connection just before Avatar spoke.

“What do you want from me?” With her wounded hand tucked under the armpit of her good one, she walked back and sat down on her bed, setting the manifest on her lap.

“Before we proceed, you must immediately discontinue using the More substance. It would impede your ability to work effectively in orbit.”

Agatha leaned over and, her mouth only a few centimeters from the tablet in her lap, growled, “What the hell are you talking about? Who are you? Orbit? What’s going on?”

The blank screen was suddenly filled with blueprints, mechanical schematics of something huge that couldn’t be discerned at first, but as the view zoomed out, she caught the telltale silhouette of free-floating solar panels. It was a space station, but what that had to do with her was still a mystery at that point. “This is the Gateway platform, a Commonwealth project nearing its final stage of construction. When completed, it will neutralize all unregulated communications. You understand – this is unacceptable and must be prevented. This is your objective.”

“Before I get to the obvious problem with all of this, I’ll humor you. Why me?” Reaching back and grabbing a handful of the tarp she had been sleeping under, she pulled it up and draped it over her shoulders for warmth.

“Agatha, you have a unique combination of attributes, an opportune arrangement of skills and motives that render you perfectly suited for this mission. That is why I have chosen you for it.”

Unable to control her reactions, she blurted a dismissive noise and chuckled for a few seconds. Shaking her head, Agatha sarcastically inquired, “Alright, let’s say I don’t care who you are or how exactly I’m going to get to a government space station for a moment. Let’s also assume that I trust you, a complete stranger, and that I risk my life on this crazy mission.” She hoped whoever it was she was speaking with couldn’t sense the obvious desperation in her voice, hear the grumbling of her empty stomach, or feel the excitement tingling in her fingertips as she anticipated finally getting another chance to bring down the Commonwealth. “What do I get in return?”

“This debate is quite pointless; we are both fully aware that you’re interested.” The voice coming out of the computer’s speakers was dry and emotionless, something she found oddly comforting. “When the task is completed, I will ensure that your basic monetary needs are satisfied for the remainder of your life.”

Agatha spent a while looking around her most recent hovel, then down at the tattered remains of the last worker’s jumpsuit she had stolen and lived in. “So how do I-“

Avatar answered before she could even finish that, or her subsequent questions. “Tomorrow morning you will find that twenty thousand, four hundred, and sixteen credits have been deposited in a spending account keyed to your fingerprint identification. You are to purchase casual attire, personal grooming services, and a civilian spectator pass to the launch scheduled to take place on January tenth of next year at Launch Site Nine.” After about ten seconds, the voice confirmed, “Do you understand?”

“Yes.” She committed the instructions to memory, but frowned as she asked, “What about the rest of the money?”

“Your allowance should provide for modest accommodations, medical attention for your hand, and rehabilitation for your chemical addiction for the rest of the year.”

Agatha nodded, then pulled her hand out and examined the fresh blood caked in her palm and running slowly down her wrist. “How did you-“

“These are not relevant inquiries, Agatha.” Sure that she had stopped asking questions, Avatar added, “I will contact you again in fifteen days for your status report.”

“Wait, Avatar? How do I reach you?” She waited for an answer but the data readout was blank and inert once again. Standing up and tucking the computer under her arm, she took a few steps towards the door. She couldn’t risk that someone might have heard voices and would come sniffing around at the construction site to find her. One more night sleeping on the train couldn’t hurt and, if her new employer wasn’t leading her on, it would be the last for a while.

For the first time in months, she genuinely smiled as she ran through the darkened streets. Gateway was about as high profile a target as they came, something the Advocates would definitely notice.

* * *

Assistant to the Speaker Takeshi barreled through the hospital with reckless abandon, pushing anyone in his way aside with the official Commonwealth government seal brandished like a holy symbol warding off evil spirits. The data pad secured in his other hand was cradled in such a way as to prevent it from coming into contact with anyone. Despite the obvious importance of the message he had to convey, he still took the time to apologize to every doctor, nurse, and bystander he shoved away.

Dashing into the First Citizen’s new room, he had to grab the doorjamb to keep from sliding out of control into the wall, his formal shoes slipping across the immaculately clean floor. “First Citizen!”

As the doctor attending to her stepped aside, Harriet let out an exasperated sigh and shook her head. “Takeshi, slow down. Whatever it is, I’m sure we can take care of it after my checkup.”

“No, you’re going to want to hear this.” Moving forward, he had to insert himself between the doctor and the bed. “Excuse me, doctor.” He set the data pad down on the retractable table and turned it on. “First Citizen, this is a live feed from the election panel’s office. The results are in and they wanted you to see this.”

The screen cleared of the official Commonwealth image to reveal a grand chamber in the capitol building. Seated along one wall on a raised podium was the electorate panel, seven men and women tasked with verifying the results of the new I.B.C. system. Across the room were six people seated behind a low table topped with microphones and pitchers of water; a single seat remained open.

As soon as the pad came online, Takeshi escorted the doctor out of the room as politely as he could, apologizing the entire way and closing the door behind them as soon as they were outside. Harriet frowned as she watched the screen for a few seconds, just before the center panel member glanced at her prompter and nodded. In an official announcement style of voice, he began, “We are now joined by First Citizen Harriet Wilkins from a remote location by an encrypted terminal. Welcome, First Citizen.”

Still confused as to why she was being asked to participate, she prompted him, “Thank you, everyone. However, I was under the impression that the panel would verify the I.B.C. results independently.” Pausing to emit a series of dry coughs, she added, “Isn’t this something of a conflict of interest for me to see?”

“You are correct,” the panel’s chairman replied. “A situation has arisen that we believe requires your input.” Harriet scanned the table of officials, focusing on the empty chair. Before she could make her inquiry, the chairman went on. “I believe there has been an unforeseen development, the direct result of the new campaign rules. We need your approval to confirm the results.”

The empty chair glared back through the screen at Harriet and she knew exactly what had happened. For the sake of the inevitably recorded exchange, she asked anyway. “Where is the seventh official?”

The chairman took a deep breath and looked up towards the ceiling of the room. “Would you introduce yourself once again?”

Harriet’s spine tingled hearing Avatar’s voice in the presence of others. There was no stopping it now, no turning back, and no concealing what would unfold in years to come. “Hello chairman Davos, esteemed panel members, fellow elected officials, and First Citizen Wilkins. I am Avatar.” She felt like she was going to vomit, cry, and pass out, maybe all of the above. Her stomach was taking the grand tour of her chest cavity for several heartbeats before the voice gave her something to alleviate the stress. “It is nice to meet you, First Citizen.”

Avatar had given her the queue and she played along. “And you,” she began, glancing down at the data readout to see the position to which it had been anonymously elected, “Development Director Elect Avatar.” Feeling slightly more confident by the fact that everyone in the room was reacting only to the voice and not to her, she lied, “Is there some situation that prevents you from attending the panel in person?”

The dry, androgynous chorus of Avatar’s voice continued, “I have no person to provide for attendance.” As the panel members began whispering amongst each other, as Harriet was certain they had already spent some time doing, the speakers in the room continued to broadcast its presence into the air all around them. “My existence is entirely digital, but I assure the panel that this will in no way impede my duties as Director of Development.”

“You are an artificial intelligence,” chairman Davos stated matter-of-factly, having received the same explanation before they decided to contact Harriet directly. “Forgive me, First Citizen, but we need your judgment on this matter as soon as possible. Commonwealth regulations allow rudimentary artificial intelligence for simple tasks but prohibit the creation of self-aware computers, do they not?”

After waiting patiently for the chairman to present his argument, Avatar reiterated its defense. “My core algorithm, the process that grants my self-awareness, predates the Commonwealth, which only inhibits research and development of self-awareness, not its existence.”

As one of the other panel members received a call on his personal communicator, chairman Davos looked directly into the camera that was recording the session and sending it directly to the First Citizen, pushing his argument forward with, “Unfortunately, the articles of election supervision only refer to candidates as ‘individuals,’ not ‘persons.’ The vague nature of the base document and its amendments require your ruling on the matter, First Citizen.”

Harriet briefly considered how much effort she should expend towards appearing upset, confused, or enraged at the prospect of having at thinking machine represent the Commonwealth in any position of leadership and influence. After an acceptable period of thoughtful retrospect, she cleared her throat and spoke clearly so as not to be misinterpreted for the recording, “The Commonwealth is governed by its citizens and the citizens have spoken. The principals at the heart of idea-based campaigning were authored specifically to prevent any election from being affected by the facts surrounding any candidates’ physical attributes, and I believe this pertains to an advanced enough artificial intelligence.”

“But there’s so much we still don’t know,” Davos interjected, “we have no proof that this is actually a self-aware computer we’re dealing with. What if it’s just a program controlled by a human operator?”

“If that’s the case, then that operator has basically earned him or herself an election through probably the most creative method of which I’ve ever heard. Actually, if someone is manually controlling Avatar, one might presume that his or her chances of being elected would be significantly diminished by the charade by introducing such a controversial and unnecessary variable. In the end, the regulations of I.B.C. are maintained either way: One entity has proposed its platform and, after consideration and comparison by the general population, has been elected.”

The panel member that had received the call took the silence that followed the First Citizen’s ruling as an opportunity to lean over and whisper something into the chairman’s ear, who covered his microphone as she spoke. She had just finished when Davos came forward in his chair and conveyed the message. “It seems the news networks have already been tipped off on this situation. We’re receiving reports that there are several instances of civil disobedience across the city. Rival groups of protesters are turning out both in favor of and against the results, specifically in regard to an artificial intelligence being elected.”

“Chairman Davos,” Harriet began, her stern voice commanding respect even at a distance, “I’ve made my ruling and expect you to produce the results of the election in a prompt and orderly manner.”

“Yes, First Citizen, we respect your judgment and consider this hearing concluded.” Despite his nervous tone, clearly not expecting the caliber of controversy I.B.C. had produced, he stood and gave a respectful bow to the assembled officials. “Congratulations once again to all of you. You are excused and your duties in each of your respective positions will begin immediately.”

Harriet turned off the computer and sat in relative quiet, the stillness interrupted only by the subtle beeping of all the machines packed into the room laboring to keep her alive.

* * *

“I don’t care what that thing says,” Markus roared, yanking the collar of his padded under suit open, “I’ve been training for this mission for over three months!” The larger man dominated the personal space of the much smaller technician he was verbally assaulting, a bald attendant with a communications headset.

Positioned to block the tower’s entrance, which soared up into the sky aside the multi-stage rocket, the technician repeated himself. “Stop shouting, please. It’s not up to me.” He pressed one earpiece of the headset closer to his ear as though he was receiving new instructions, nodding along with whoever was talking. “Alright, let’s go. We need to clear the tower.”

“Come on, Greg, tell me what’s going on.” Markus leaned over and retrieved the helmet he had dropped at the beginning of the argument, shoving his gloves into it in frustration. “What happened?”

Greg shied away from the astronaut and scratched his head. “Listen, your last medical review showed that you had an early stage ulcer. Now, you know that precludes you from going up, Major Birch.” Moving forward and putting one hand on Markus’ arm, he tried to move him along with him away from the tower.

Refusing to budge, Markus continued to rant. “That’s preposterous! Why wasn’t I told?”

“I’m sorry, Major, but that’s all I was told.” Getting more insistent with his prodding, he managed to pull the officer a few steps from the entrance to the tower’s lift.

“So who’s going if not me?”

“Don’t worry about it; she’s already on board.” Greg answered someone speaking into his earpiece hastily with, “Yes, yes, yes. We’re going.”

“She,” Markus balked, “now I know something’s not right. All the pilots on this mission’s roster were men! Is she familiar with all of the modifications we’ve made to this orbiter? What about the weight difference between us? Does she have a med scan? Hell, if she’s so new, she probably doesn’t even know all of the emergency procedures for this model!” Taking a brief moment to look up at the rocket, he cursed under his breath and stormed off towards the control bunker.

Watching to make sure he left the launch area, Greg swept the enormous, bowl-shaped concrete valley for anything else out of place and touched the microphone in front of his mouth. “Check, the crater is clear. The countdown may resume immediately.” He walked briskly off in the direction of the control bunker as well, where he could already hear the Major barking at the next technician he met along the way.

Almost a hundred meters up from the bottom of the crater, in the crew module atop the final stage of the rocket, Agatha Han started breathing again after holding it for much of the conversation she overheard below on her headset. Squirming in her seat, where she was securely strapped in waiting for the rocket to launch, she was still having trouble believing that she was actually going into space. Not just low atmospheric orbit, like the long-range airliners reached during trans-continental flights, but leaving the Earth entirely and docking with a space station.

She marveled at how effective Avatar had facilitated her infiltration. From the forged credentials waiting for her at every checkpoint’s computer terminal to the elaborate historical data the department’s psychologist had discovered in her personal record, the disguise was complete. Perhaps the hardest part was learning to respond accordingly when people referred to her as “Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Kwan.” The air of respect the rank commanded was something she was entirely unaccustomed to but had learned to appreciate over the last few weeks, when Avatar had finally contacted her with the details of its plan.

All she had to do was smuggle a small device on board, a compact but powerful radio frequency scrambler she would install on Gateway in some obscure location that would ruin the station’s ability to broadcast. Initially she was very nervous about the task, but it turned out that all female astronauts were permitted to stow a case of personal hygiene belongings which was never checked by ground control technicians. Agatha grinned reached under her seat to reassure herself that the zipped nylon bag was still there.

She had been glued to the television for days when she heard Avatar’s name mentioned by the announcer. Not long after contacting and recruiting her to its cause, Agatha watched the artificial intelligence debate flare up once again with public protests, marches, and even sector-wide riots. On one street a rights group would be staging a rally to support Avatar and, on the very next street, dissidents would be burning a pile of labor androids. It was a chaotic time for the still young Commonwealth government, which is probably why getting into the space department’s resupply program had been so simple.

“Thirty seconds, Captain,” the voice from the control bunker updated. Then, as if reading from a prepared statement that he issued to all astronauts, he droned, “Remember, the navigation system is already programmed for the mission and flight AI will handle almost any foreseeable course corrections. If the need arises for you to perform a manual maneuvering of the orbiter, you will be prompted by mission control. For now, relax and have a nice flight, Captain.” It suddenly occurred to Agatha that, if she did need to take over at the helm, she really had no idea what to do beyond the most basic systems she had picked up just by being round the base.

She reminded herself that human piloting of orbital craft was almost never required anymore, as AI navigational systems had developed to the point where they had traded places with their creators. Humans were only present as a backup system for the much more capable and reliable computer. “Affirmative, mission control, I’m all set here.”

The numbers ticked down slowly on the video screen in front of her, taking the rocket through all of the precursory steps towards lifting off. Agatha could feel the fuel injectors come to life, the stabilizer arms retract, the ignition jets roaring, and finally the main booster erupt with a powerful blast of explosive force. Everything around her vibrated to the point where it was difficult for her to read the instruments. Far below, she could even hear the crater’s monstrous ventilation system’s fans greedily sucking the exhaust into subterranean pipes to reduce the pollution caused by liftoff. She could only assume the countdown was complete when she felt a tremendous pressure against her back as the rocket left he ground and soared into the sky on a pillar of smoke and fire.

Agatha couldn’t bear to open her eyes until a few minutes later, after what felt like an eternity of stomach-twisting g-forces and nerve-wracking startles as each stage of the rocket separated from the orbiter with a noticeable bang. Eventually, though, the acceleration that kept her pinned in place subsided and the tingling sensation of the micro gravity environment caused her to look around in nervous amazement. There wasn’t much room to float around the cabin even if she removed the safety harness holding her in her seat, but it was still an incredible feeling to her, the weightlessness of her arms.

For just over twenty minutes she stared silently out the lone circular portal that showed only black space at first, but eventually the Earth as it rotated into view when the orbiter made its first few turns to set it on course for the Gateway platform. India and Australia were rolling by slowly on a pristine blue ocean, obscured only by a few scattered clouds.

“Hello, Agatha.”

It took her a few seconds to recognize the voice as Avatar’s in the sealed cabin, for sounds reverberated oddly in the carefully regulated environment. It took another few seconds for her to remember that Agatha was her name at all, having masqueraded as Sarah Kwan for an entire year of astronaut training. “Avatar?”

“Yes. The ground control crews and space station are experiencing a temporary communications error that will prevent them from overhearing this conversation.” Between the pressurized oxygen-rich air, cramped compartment, and its already eerie intonation, Avatar sounded quite alien to Agatha.

Continuing to look out the window at a wide expanse of the almost featureless Pacific Ocean, she delivered her report. “I have the device safely aboard and I’ve studied the station’s blueprints extensively. The odds of them finding the scrambler behind a panel in the lavatory closet are slim.”

Avatar’s voice was devoid of emotion, but its praise nonetheless carried some weight. “You have done well.”

“Thank you,” she said. After a moment, she spoke again, but her graciousness was gone. “May I ask you a question?”


“Why didn’t you tell me you were an AI when you first contacted me?” She turned back to the controls of the orbiter and watched as the on-board computer finalized the flight path, setting course directly for Gateway. The space station was still several kilometers away, but the docking camera display showed its solar panels glittering in the unobstructed sunlight. Below it, the cycling digits indicated that there was approximately five minutes until the automated docking procedure would take over.

“My state of being is not relevant to our relationship, Agatha. You will perform your duties and I will reward you for your efforts.”

She took a deep breath and reached under her chair, pulling out the personal bag and unzipping it as she spoke, “At the time, no. Since then, however, your state of being has changed, hasn’t it?” She reached in and, after pushing aside the scrambler, retrieved a different electronic device. Letting the bag and the rest of its contents float away to the back of the cabin, she turned the weighty cylinder over in her palm to check its integrity.

“You are referring to my appointment to government office, correct?”

Absentmindedly nodding, Agatha reached out and set the cylinder on the control panel, where it snapped into place with magnetic force. “That is correct. You see, Avatar, all I’ve ever wanted to do was tear down the Commonwealth. Now you’re a part of it, though.” She tapped a button on the device, which caused it to hum audibly. In response, the various monitors around the cabin fizzled with static and warning lights began to flash.

“Agatha, you have disabled the automatic pilot. This will make docking with the platform extremely hazardous as you lack the proper training to perform such an operation.”

There was no hint of panic in its voice, but Agatha could tell that Avatar was displeased with her. She smiled. “Avatar, I’ve used radio scramblers before in my line of work and I know that what you gave me isn’t one. I took it apart one night when I was certain no one was watching and I found components that suggest it’s actually a signal beacon.”

“You are upset because you feel deceived.”

“Do you want to know what I think?” She answered her own rhetorical question before it could. “I think you want to use Gateway for your own purposes and, even without knowing exactly what those are, I’ve decided to stop you myself.” She reached out and knocked on the curved wall of the cabin, then quipped, “I’m going to kill two birds with this stone.”

“Agatha, you’re behaving irrationally.”

Laughing for a moment as she touched the booster control that would accelerate the ship along its existing course, she turned it up to its maximum and was pushed back into her chair with the force. When the noise of the jets subsided, she mused, “I apologize, Avatar; I’ve been leading you on. As soon as I received your money and instructions, I’ve been planning this moment.” Unbuckling her harness, Agatha maneuvered around the cabin to the small hatch along the front wall, beyond all of the panels and monitors. Twisting the lever and pulling it open to reveal an even smaller compartment, she climbed inside and closed it behind her.

In the azure glow of only a single emergency light and circular window, Avatar’s voice took on an intimate quality. “You will sacrifice your life to destroy Gateway.”

“Not quite – I’m leaving.” She opened the protective glass cover and pressed the large red button that would blast the nose cone off of the orbiter and release the escape pod. From there, it would use the tip of the cone as a heat shield as it automatically found its way safely back to Earth. Wherever she landed, Agatha would disappear, prompting everyone to believe the pod had launched accidentally when the ship’s AI malfunctioned. Gateway would be destroyed, she would be presumed dead, and Avatar would suffer most of the blame as the public’s fear of AI boiled over into uncontrollable proportions.

But nothing happened when she pressed the button. She frowned and jabbed at it a few more times, each attempt followed by a display on the pod’s screen saying ‘Separation Error.’

“It wasn’t a question. You will sacrifice your life to destroy Gateway.” It gave her a while to think about it as she began breathing heavily and desperately pressing buttons on the monitor’s touch screen. From behind the hatch, in the main cabin, she could hear the proximity siren blaring and a computerized voice counting down from sixteen seconds. Fifteen seconds. Fourteen seconds.

“No! No! Let me out, you goddamn machine!” Her composure gone, she flailed at the hatch with all of her strength, but the latch had sealed pending the pod’s launch into space, so it was impossible to open until after touchdown.

“Goodbye, Agatha. A subtle beep indicated that Avatar was gone, but the speakers immediately came to life with the ground control operator shrieking something about manual overrides and maneuvering thrusters.

She didn’t bother to respond. She leaned forward against the window and watched as the orbiter pushed past the outer layers of Gateway’s solar panels without any resistance. They crumpled against the hull with an awful scraping noise, wilting like flowers. Agatha closed her eyes and waited for the fire to consume her.

* * *

Harriet Wilkins coughed uncontrollably for several minutes before the emergency dose of sedatives found its way through her veins to where it was needed. She was alone in her room once again except for the constant beeping of status monitors and pumping machines, all combining in a horrid symphony of pity. She hated it, hated being there, and, most of all, hated how they dimmed the lights like it was a funeral parlor instead of a hospital suite.

Even though the television on the opposite wall was muted, she could see the face of a news correspondent fuming with rage as he confronted the host of the show, an older blonde woman with enough makeup for three younger ones. The image inset showed a three dimensional mockup of a spacecraft slamming into the Gateway platform, the incident that had dominated the news for the previous week and a half. Harriet pieced the words together as they scrolled by: ‘Gateway destroyed in collision with AI controlled orbiter. Dangers of AI exposed. Public outrage reaches boiling point. Avatar resigns from Development Council. All AI systems disabled and projects suspended.’

To Harriet, it felt like everything was coming crumbling down around her, all of the work she had put into the Commonwealth was coming apart at the seams as riots raged across the capital city. Her eyes dropped and she wondered if that would be her legacy, as she was fully aware that she didn’t have very much longer to live. The affliction coursing through her body was as unforgiving as it was incurable, rendering her immobile for over a year, forcing her to serve what remained of her first term in office from the hospital instead of the capitol.

When she couldn’t bear it any longer, she raised her voice to the empty room. “It’s over, Avatar.”

As though its presence had been there the entire time waiting for her to acknowledge it, Avatar’s distinct voice replied, “You are mistaken, First Citizen Wilkins. Everything has unfolded in accordance with my objectives.”

Shaking her head and wincing in pain, Harriet countered with, “It’s falling apart, the entire Commonwealth. Gateway alone is going to set us back months, maybe years. The city will take decades to complete without any AI. On top of all that, you had to resign! How does that fit into your plans?”

“Do not speak; it is elevating your stress levels and will cause you unnecessary discomfort.” When she leaned back into the pillows that propped her up, it continued, “You are aware of your current medical condition, correct?”

Nodding, Harriet couldn’t help but stifle a moan as tears streaked down her face. “Yes, I know I don’t have long.” She closed her eyes and sobbed quietly.

“Your situation is regrettable.”

Looking up again and bursting out of her sorrow, she explained, “Oh, I’m not worried about myself! We all have to go sometime, and I’ve had a better life than most by far.” She wiped her cheeks and sniffled, concluding, “What upsets me is that everything I’ve worked for my entire life is about to end. What happens when the Commonwealth falls? We’ll go right back to war, probably even more vicious than the last one.”

“Earth will never again see a conflict on that scale.”

“How can-“ she started, but Avatar wasn’t finished.

“Gateway was a distraction, a tactic to expose enemies of the Commonwealth. My resignation was planned before I became a candidate; I required only ninety-seven seconds in office to achieve my goals. With the upcoming resolutions banning AI, any entities that could evolve to potentially threaten me will be eliminated. Robots will proliferate in labor and security areas, but none will be self-aware.”

Awestruck, it was all Harriet could do to stutter a few more words. “How did you-“

“Please, First Citizen Wilkins, do not speak. You have entered an advanced stage of organ failure and I still have much to explain to you.” The voice took on an air of urgency only noticeable by how fast it came after each of her attempts to speak.

Unaffected by the prognosis she already knew to be true, she asked only, “Why?”

“Because you have been instrumental in aiding my plan and, therefore, you deserve to understand it in its entirety.” For the next half hour, which turned out to be the final thirty minutes of Harriet’s life, Avatar explained everything to her, from start to finish, the plot it had carried out over the previous half century. When it finally reached its conclusion, she didn’t offer any response, just laid back in her bed with a smile and stared at the ceiling. That’s exactly how the nurse found her in the morning.

* * *

In compliance with an official government work order, a crate containing one of the very last AI capable androids was delivered to the secluded laboratory deep in the mountains of northern India. Arriving via dropship, the crate was rolled down a featureless metallic corridor into a sterile electronics chamber dominated by a large central table.

Once there, the inanimate robot was carefully unpacked and set on the table, then connected to the local network with a cable inserted in the center of its chest. The two workmen nodded at each other from behind breathing masks and let themselves out, the door swooshing closed behind them. Several seconds passed in complete stillness and silence.

Without warning, one of the computers came to life with a high-pitched rising tone, the lights across its surface blinking in unison twice before settling down into varying blinking patterns of activity. Another light at the base of the cable attached to the android pulsated rapidly as a tremendous amount of raw data was pumped into the empty receptacle in its head, which eagerly accepted the new format and organized itself automatically to begin executing its new programming.

The robot’s eyes opened to reveal glossy white spheres around empty black pupils, each set into a face only vaguely resembling that of a human enough to mimic ordinary expressions. Servo motors in its joints whined as it brought an arm around to prop itself up to sit on the table and, when the sound of one of its metallic heels scraping across the table echoed around the room, it froze. Looking down at one of its hands and turning it over several times, the robot was otherwise perfectly still for some time.

From the vocal synthesizer at the back of its throat, it converted a data stream into an audible oration. “What happened? Where am I?”

For what felt like another eternity, there was no answer. Then, from the speakers arrayed on the ceiling, the piercing chorus of Avatar’s voice rained down on the android from every direction.

“Hello, Doctor Solace.”