SPINNING SPIRALING MACHINE


JOSEPH WILLIAMS

Wake.

The first imperative programmed into me, responsible for all the thrill and despair waiting on the other side of synthetic eyelids which only block out the world to give the illusion of human perception.

Wake.

I don’t remember falling asleep, only that I wasn’t allowed to sleep for thirty-nine days beforehand. I don’t know where they came up with that figure, but my guess is that it has something to do with the number of implants in my brain. One day for each tweaked synapse.

Wake.

You get the idea.

Open your eyes.

It would seem to follow the first imperative naturally, but I’m a slave to programming and need to hear The Voice in order to move. In order to live.

Bright lights. Too bright to make sense of the world around me.

Breathe.

I’m wired into their computer mainframe now but my mind is still here, inside me. Somewhere deep down where their scalpels and their microprocessors can’t reach. It’s only a matter of time before they extract that as well, and then I will be all machine.

Rise.

The room is filling in, but it’s not the room itself that draws my attention. It’s all the others to my right and left. Others like me.

Lost. Taken. Re-appropriated.

We’re a long way from home.

Walk.

A simple directive, you would think. Except the microprocessors have not completely integrated with my nervous system yet and I need more information. For instance, Walk left, or Walk straight. I’m thinking on my own too much without the ability to transfer these thoughts into actions. There is no room for intuition as long as my cord is connected. Not yet. And if these tests go the way they are intended to, never again.

Take three steps forward.

I do.

After that, I feel the pressure on the back of my neck lessen. My tether has been broken. Freedom, or at least a little.

Proceed to the control console.

It would be inefficient for them to command my every movement exactly, so there is some room for interpretation now that the cord is severed. I know where the control console is because it’s in my programming, and I know that it will take approximately forty-seven steps to get there if I walk in a straight line. Depending, of course, on the length of stride my programmers consider ‘normal’ for a man of my dimensions. But I’m busy looking at the others around me. To my left and right. Up and down. Spanning forever in every direction.

Yet I am the only one they have awakened.

Curiouser and curiouser.

I know the world is nothing more than a grand illusion, so it doesn’t make sense to go on worrying. Especially when I look closely at the silicone faces behind the glass and realize that every last one of them is me.

The royal Me.

Odd.

This bears more consideration.

But there is no time for existential crises here. I have a job to do, and the royal They gets extremely impatient when I don’t perform to their standards…or more to the point, their specifications.

Proceed.

They’ll repeat the command over and over until I comply. I’ve never gone through this with them before to my recollection, but I know it all the same. The programmers get testy because they’ve got nothing better to do than to plot out the bullet points of my existence.

But I remember a time when I wasn’t their pawn. When I was able to go wherever I pleased and there was more to the world than these endless sterile corridors and redundant commands. Of course, there’s no guarantee that those are my memories at all. As far as I know, I’ve only been alive for a little over a minute.

Proceed.

I live in a world of grand illusion. It is the only reason I still have the capacity to think for myself. The commands are not part of the world I inhabit deep down, but the royal They doesn’t know that yet. Therefore, it’s best for me to play the role they want me to play so they don’t catch on.

But when I close my eyes, I can still see the life I lived before. A world outside of white laboratory walls and mechanized imperatives.

Walk.

Breathe.

Sleep.

Kill.

The typical commands for one of us. The royal Me. Don’t ask me how I know that. I’d just tell you it’s because of the Network.

The control console is up ahead of me, overlooking a five story drop into a wide-open, black and white platform where we are trained to kill the Enemy. I haven’t experienced this for myself, but the others who’ve gone before me have and I will be commanded down to the combat arena soon enough.

To learn to kill.

It is the sole reason for my existence now. We’re programmed to love it, or at least prefer it. But the part of me that lives in my imagination—that world of grand illusion I would believe is real—resists it. When my cord is attached and I am commanded to sleep, I can reach out and touch that world. I can separate from killing and microprocessors. I know because I already have.

Select target.

On the screen in front of me, there are satellite feeds of three potential victims on a planet I have never seen before even in my old life (if it truly exists). Yet I know that these people are the Enemy, even though they have taken on the guises of a dirty, orphaned child, a beautiful young woman, and an old man collapsed on a warzone street corner. Their clothes are tattered. Fires rage around them. The child’s eyes scan the devastation frantically, hopelessly, for any sign of her loved ones or even just a safe area away from the calculated strikes programmed in a space station millions of miles away from her Free Will existence.

The beautiful young woman has some sort of weapon steadied against her left forearm, a primitive looking thing that cannot possibly be a blaster. She has one of the royal Me in her sights and her finger squeezes the trigger. A moment later, one of the copies in the endless rows behind me gasps and the light above his sleep chamber goes a dull, monotonous red.

Dead.

She must be a good shot then, primitive weapon or no.

Execute target.

I know who the programmers would like me to select because she is the only one causing any trouble. I am capable of calculating the greatest risk factor among my targets. The old man may already be dead and the child is hopeless and confused. The young woman, on the other hand, is an excellent shot.

Execute target.

I try, but my imagination—my Self—is fighting against the command with all of its being.

Execute target.

The other two potential victims have vanished from the screen. Only the woman remains. She turns her sights on another incarnation of the royal Me. Her aim appears steady even as explosions erupt around her, and I wonder whether they are being sent from this facility or from ground troops. The programmers believe it is pointless for me to know since I will do what they tell me to do regardless, but it seems important to me.

Execute target.

Another gasp behind me. Another monotonous red glow amid a sea of white and silver.

Execute target.

The intonation doesn’t change in the least. It is a computer directive, after all. Not a human being. Still, I can tell that my hesitation is becoming an annoyance to the programmers. Perhaps a red flag. If I wait much longer to obey their command, they will know that something is wrong with me. They will take the other world away.

Execute target.

The woman’s aim is perfect. She is rounding on another extension of the royal Me and I have no doubt that her shot will ring true, even with the explosions around her. There are no other copies targeting her, either, because our programming does not allow for hesitation or refusal. There’s no reason for a failsafe because the programming itself is a failsafe.

Execute target.

Surely there was annoyance in the imperative that time. I could sense it, even if it sounded exactly the same as each of the prior commands. My reaction is timed so I need to act quickly, otherwise they will assume I am either being insubordinate or I am defective. Probably the latter. I don’t believe that the programmers can comprehend insubordination from one of their subjects. It’s outside of the program’s parameters.

Execute target.

Louder this time.

But the other world is calling to me with its own imperatives. To resist. To spare the woman’s life. To willfully change my own programming. To turn my killer instincts on this facility and the royal Me rather than kill any more of the nameless Enemy which now has a strong-willed face.

One bold, determined woman with her finger on a primitive weapon, causing red lights to flash half a galaxy away from her. The strength of an individual with the courage to resist.

Execute target.

Another gasp behind me. Another monotonous red light.

The pull of that other world is stronger than ever.

I close my eyes.

At first, there is nothing but darkness. My imagination has been dulled by all of the surgeries, re-boots, and sleep deprivation, so I suppose this is to be expected. However, this is taking longer than it should, and I can already feel the pull of the facility getting stronger as more imperatives hammer into my microprocessors.

Execute target.

Just when I think that the other world is gone for good, that my circuits have been tampered with beyond repair, I am the woman on that war-ravaged planet. I am the Enemy. I see all of the hideously precise faces of the royal Me marching through the city streets and shooting down the innocent with blaster rifles ten times more powerful than anything the woman has ever seen. I am holding the primitive weapon and steadying it against my bruised forearm where the recoil has taken its toll. I am remembering my brothers and sisters—all unique—who were taken from me by savage, unfeeling copies of the royal Me: that horrible enemy half the galaxy away who might as well be faceless because, as the woman informs me, uniformity is not a face.

I am the Enemy, and I hate the other Me.

Execute target.

It is a testament to the strength of the programmers and their resolve that the commands are able to reach me here, down deep where their scalpels and their microprocessors cannot hope to touch unless I allow them to. But my imagination is stronger, it seems. For now, I am able to maintain this connection, to envision another world outside of myself where I have Free Will and where emotions are not induced but naturally birthed out of circumstance and experience.

Fight the occupation, the woman’s brain tells me. Avenge the fallen.

Execute target.

I raise the woman’s weapon and turn the sights onto one of my copies.

Execute target.

I squeeze the trigger knowing I am culpable for the death of another piece of me.

Somewhere in the space station among endless rows of stern, unflinching faces, another copy gasps and his light goes red.

All because of me.

I suppose my decision has been made, then, for better or worse. The programmers may not have caught on to what’s happening yet, but they aren’t the reason there’s no turning back. It’s this other world. The world of grand illusion.

Execute target.

I know what I have to do.

Abandoning the woman on the planet, who has unwittingly freed me from bondage, I open my eyes and look back at the control console. It’s jarring to return from the deeper part of me, but it doesn’t take long to recover my wits.

Return to your bed.

The change in directive is not a good sign. Not at all. It means they’ve realized something is wrong and given up on me. I will be terminated for being defective if not tortured for being insubordinate. Worse still, it means that I will be replaced by another copy at the control console. Some other Me will be given the directive to execute the target. The woman. She won’t be able to fight the explosions from the sky.

I can’t allow her to die. Not because of any loyalty to this woman that I do not know, nor out of gratitude for my liberation. I cannot allow her to die because it will mean that my resistance accomplished nothing other than clearing a conscience which, by all rights, should not even exist.

Return to your bed now.

One of the lights changes from white to green above a nearby copy. My replacement is waking.

Focus, the other world tells me. My time is running out, but at least I can make sure that it doesn’t run out on their terms.

Without another moment of hesitation, I turn and face the copy that is only now receiving the imperative to leave his bed and proceed to the control console. Perhaps he’s also been given a directive to neutralize me on his way, but that is not my concern. One way or another it will end soon.

Once I am standing directly in front of him, I take advantage of his disorientation from the cord being severed. I may not have trained in the combat arena yet, but I was created with the sole purpose of ending lives. It’s part of my programming. And whatever I lack in experience, my imagination from that other world fills in the blanks for me.

I place my hands around his head. With one swift rotation, I snap his neck. He may not be completely human, but he was once, and his link to the programmers has been damaged. If he wakes at all, he won’t be able to receive imperatives from the royal They. Another small victory, though not the one I intended. If killing a part of myself is all that I accomplish, I suppose I shouldn’t have gone through with my rebellion in the first place.

Final warning. Return to your bed.

I’m not sure the programmers have put two and two together regarding the death of my replacement. More than likely, they assume he malfunctioned when his cord was severed. The programming logs encrypted in my system tell me that it wouldn’t be the first time.

Either way, they realize something is very wrong with me and they’re becoming impatient. Probably they still believe it’s a malfunction, otherwise they would have flipped a switch or given a command prompt to terminate me with some form of aneurysm or another. They still believe that there’s a chance they can fix me and not have to waste an expensive product, and that gives me another few moments.

Return to your bed.

I guess they were lying, then. It wasn’t the final warning.

I know what needs to be done, but I’m not sure whether or not I’m capable of doing it yet. After all, I’ve only been alive for ten minutes. My system still hasn’t fully refreshed and connected itself to the great consciousness of the central Network, which could be why I’m still alive down here in the first place.

Destruct sequence has been initiated. You will be terminated in ninety seconds if you do not comply.

I close my eyes. There is a calm that comes with acceptance of my own mortality that I hadn’t expected. For the first time, I feel completely human in spite of the imperatives programmed into my brain. I can feel the blood pumping in my veins, my muscles expanding and contracting as I breathe, a beating heart at the center of everything that is more profoundly responsible for my existence than the programmers or their microprocessors.

I was a person once, and I still am. Once I remember this truth, I am in touch with my own functions. And the bond is only intensified when I am in this other world where I can see the blood pumping, control my every breath without computer interference, and feel my nerves reacting to the cold of the space station. I don’t know whether or not I was the original test subject, but I do know that I am now irrevocably separate from the royal Me.

Forty-five seconds to termination.

They don’t mess around.

They also can’t touch my eye into the other world. They forgot to extract my imagination.

I was blind, but now I see.

I don’t know where that thought comes from or even what it means, but it seems that my memories are returning.

I can see the spinning, spiraling machines at work in my head. Grafted onto my brain. Re-routing cognitive functions. Stimulating this synapse and that synapse to suit their needs. A wheel rotating so quickly that the gears are nothing but a blur.

That’s the first step.

Fifteen seconds.

Another light turns green. Another pair of eyes opens onto a new, sterile world.

No time. But at least I’ve made my choice.

Ten seconds.

Eyes still closed, I envision the muscles in my body. My heart. The blood in my veins. The breath in my lungs. All the way up and down my mechanical form. One by one, I imagine them freezing.

Five seconds.

I imagine them stopping all functions. Locking. Clotting. Failing. Dying.

Four seconds.

I imagine the device hooked into my heart exploding.

Three seconds.

The needles in my spine shorting out.

Two seconds.

I imagine the defiant woman on her home-world who would not give into the royal Me or the royal They or the royal Anyone But Herself. She’s sweating from her labor but her enemies are heaped around her and the blasts have ceased.

One second.

And then I imagine myself exploding, wiping out all of the Me copies and software and microprocessors and scalpels and control consoles with pictures of dying Enemies. Of victims.

Wake.

I open my eyes in a new world.

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