Peter Bernhardt woke up again. He felt odd, unlike anything he had yet experienced as a digital entity. His peripheral vision registered a clean engineering room’s wipeable acoustic tile ceiling and walls. From the ceiling hung three accordioned mobile ventilation ducts. He focused on the square mouth of one duct. The image was clear but edgy, as though his digital vision tried to blend each pixel together into an approximation of human sight, but had not quite succeeded.
He lay supine in the center of the room, probably on a workbench or table. Raising his index finger, he tapped the surface three times and heard the muffled thud of a thick silicone skin on metal. The table seemed real, tangible, yet his finger felt jerky, electronic.
He lifted his head and heard the faint sound of servos as he stared down along the length of the table at an android body. The skin appeared to be high-end silicon, with body hair tastefully punctured into the surface. The build was athletic, but not pumped. Slim, but not skinny. Pecs had definition and the stomach was flat, with a subtle six- pack. He lifted his head two centimeters more. Below his waist was an anatomically correct set of genitals. The legs were well developed and defined, with the appearance of strong quadriceps. He could see feet and tried to wiggle his toes. They didn’t move.
“Hey, m-m-man,” he called out. “What the hell?” His voice was a close re-creation of his human tenor. “C-C-Carter? Are you there? When did you sample my v-v-voice? And why am I st-st-stuttering?”
“Look to your left,” said Carter.
Peter carefully turned his head. The mechanical eyes registered a monitor on the wall, displaying a digital rendering of Carter that looked as real as he had in their virtual world. Around the monitor was a workbench covered in mechanical and electrical engineering gear, jam- packed but neatly organized by type. There were a couple of hundred little clear-plastic parts drawers, containing tiny screws, bolts, sensors and optical bits, servos, circuit boards, and soldering material. More clear drawers contained artificial eyeballs and little machines that might be tiny cameras for those eyes. Pliers, screwdrivers, crimping tools, wire strippers, soldering guns of all sizes and shapes. Wrenches from the sizable to what he knew must be the microscopic. On one end of the room sat an oscilloscope, metal machining and forming tools, a laser cutter/ engraver, a mill, lathe, band saw, sanders, and buffers. On the other end of the room were two 3-D printers, one to produce the smaller parts and one twelve feet long with a huge suspension rig for printing body- sized parts to extrude in one continuous piece. Wheeled boxes on the floor overflowed with printed body parts.
Peter noted what appeared to be femurs sticking out of one, wig hair coiled in lengths by color in another, and silicone skin draped in a third. Hanging on the wall were helmets, goggles, masks, compressed air, and HEPA vacuum nozzles on long hoses. Calibration probes, coils of Teflon tubing, heat and soldering guns, cabling of every diameter imaginable, from the nano to the macro. And to top it off, a collection of toy robots lined the top shelf near the ceiling: bobbleheads, old Robby the Robots, Transformers, and what he assumed were the latest biobots, crafted like living chimeras.
This was the best toy room in the world, to an engineer’s eye. He hoped that, once he was functional, they’d let him play in here.
“I didn’t sample your voice,” said Carter. “We found old recordings of your public appearances and built a new voice. Kang, please let Dr. Chaikin know that his stuttering’s not funny.”
“Ruth’s f-funny? Since when?” asked Peter.
“Dr. Potsdam,” said Kang, “I don’t think she programmed it.” A ticking sound came from behind his head. Then it stopped.
Carter’s AHI took 1.2 seconds to scan the vocal program, find the programming glitch, and fix it. Then he sent Peter a quick stream of all the specs of his engineered body.
“Speak,” said Carter.
“How long have I been asleep?” asked Peter.
“Check your internal clock. It’s all there.”
He checked. Saturday, April 3. The day after he awoke with Carter in the Manhattan penthouse. “My toes don’t move,” said Peter.
“Kang?” said Carter.
Peter heard the same ticking, which he assumed was Kang either fixing his toes or messaging Ruth. “Where am I?” asked Peter.
“In a facility on the seafloor, in the Atlantic Ocean.”
“For real?” The architecture seemed too normal, too land-based. Perhaps they’d made huge leaps in pressurization and architecture in the years he had hibernated.
“Too real,” said Carter. “Fong, please let Peter see himself in the mirror. He’ll get a kick out of it.”
A petite man, with ears pierced by six diamond studs and a shock of pink hair, brought over a table mirror in a chrome frame and held it up to the android’s face, displaying a perfect facsimile of Peter Bernhardt’s own square face, chestnut hair, and azure blue eyes.
“Holy crap, man, that’s amazing,” Peter said, studying himself. “So you think I can function in the world like this?”
“You need physical agency to kill Tom Paine, right? Here you go.”
Peter imagined how this body might kill his enemy. He scrutinized his hands. Were they strong enough to strangle, or break, a human neck? The neck of the man who had murdered his wife? “That’s right. I will. But he’d recognize me like this.”
“Your face is easily changed,” said Carter. “Someday, we may try to use an organic body. Postmortem, of course. This is a first step.”
“This is some step.” Peter turned a little to the left, then to the right, looking himself over as he tested his body. “The schlong’s not that accurate.” No one laughed. But the Yiddish slang made him wonder about Ruth. “Uhhh . . . your download says Ruthie is lonely? I mean, is she okay?”
“We’re not sure,” said Carter.
Peter glanced back at his genitals, an unnecessary addition to a robot designed to kill. “Wait, I’m not supposed to have sex with her, am I?”
“Good God, no,” responded Carter. “But hold on. Well, maybe? If she wants to. She’s always had a crush, and a machine may be the only way she’d do it—she’s so touch-phobic.”
“Don’t I have a say in this?” asked Peter.
“Damn it,” said Carter, “just spend some time with her. Figure out what’s bugging her, and let me know. A happy Ruth makes a happy team.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Peter. “But someone’s gonna have to help me out before I kick any ass. How do I get up?”
The stiffness of the new robot as it dressed and shuffled through the hallways surprised Peter. He had expected to learn its functionality more quickly. But that was probably ego talking. Fong and another engineer, Kang, a painfully tall, thin, bending reed of a man, helped steady him as he moved through the halls. Kang readjusted the angle of the shoulders,
Fong the waist and hips, and steadily, Peter’s posture became more balanced and upright. He had no idea where they were or why an all- Chinese robotics team was working on him. Even after running tests with Ruth, Carter, and the team, the sound of servos, his staggering gait, and strange perceptions from mechanical senses were awkward. For every mistake and correction he made, there were hundreds of others to fix. He would soon adapt, but he still felt absurd.
Peter had little experience with his electronic sensations, but for some reason, he didn’t feel like they were underwater, as Carter had said. The architecture appeared too roomy and rectilinear, a waste of precious space, air, pressurization. Perhaps he was making assumptions about underwater environments, but he couldn’t shake the notion that he was underground instead. Would Carter lie to him? And if so, why?
They stopped at a door.
“This is Dr. Chaikin’s room,” Fong said. “Try knocking.”
Lifting his hand and bringing it down, Peter made a loud bang, and the door popped open. He took an unbalanced step back in surprise. Fong and Kang grabbed his back and shoulders to stop him from falling.
“A shlimazel falt oyfen ruken un tseklapt zikh di noz.”
Peter stood stiffly in the doorway and cocked his head. “Ruth, these Yiddish idioms. It’s hard to decipher your meaning.”
Ruth sighed. “You used to be able. To translate automatically.” “When?”
Twitching her eyes, she swiveled away in her ergonomic chair to face a table covered in scientific papers. How did she get these delivered underwater?
“N-n-never mind. ‘A fool falls on his back. And bruises his nose!’ Get your tuchus in here.”
Peter turned to Fong. “Do you think I can manage this alone?”
Kang turned to Fong and tried not to laugh. Fong kept a straight face. “Dr. Chaikin, you’ll call us if there is a problem?”
“Not a problem. I c-c-can’t handle.”
“Okay,” said Peter. “Thanks, guys.” He shuffled through the door, and Kang pulled it shut.
In the windowless studio apartment, which he increasingly doubted was on any seafloor, Ruth’s room contained everything she needed. A personal MR pod, a twin-sized bed and love seat, a two-top dining table covered in papers, with two matching chairs, a kitchenette in the corner, and a personal bathroom. She never had to leave, as long as Carter’s employees brought her fresh food and supplies.
Peter shuffled to an empty dining chair and sat carefully. The silicone joints in his knees needed tightening, and he added it to the punch list of repairs for the roboticists. “How do you like my new get-up?”
Ruth hummed monotonically.
“What can I do for you, Ruthie?”
With her back still to him, she said, “I’m lonely. Sit quietly. I’m not finished.”
As she worked, he spied what little he could of her computer setup. She operated two screens, each displaying code that was similar, but not identical. He didn’t recognize the language. It appeared partitioned, as though she were creating two slightly different programs for the same function in the same computer. He wasn’t sure how—perhaps in a cloud with split virtual environments and machines, with a data clone? Programming had never been his expertise, and he was impressed with how much she had learned in the years since he’d been alive and her colleague.
With a simple click, she set the screen on an automatic relay. Her cameras documented her facing her screen, typing on a document, while in their shared reality, she turned to face him. He decided not to share her deceit with anyone just yet. There was no one he trusted more than Ruth. She must have a reason to create two realities: one that could be monitored and one that was designed for privacy.
Leaning forward as closely as she’d allow herself, she spoke softly. “Listen. D-d-don’t speak. This must be done quickly. I’ve cut off your feed. And mine to the main. All cameras and programs. Are on a subtle loop. But it won’t last long. I’ve f-f-forked this version of you. I’m sending you away. To people who will take care of you. There’s a war on. You must find T-T-Tom Paine. He is not your enemy. He is Carter’s enemy. B-b-big d-difference. The only way to stop this. Is to bring you t-t-together. Bring us all. Together.”
Peter couldn’t help himself. Hands resting on his thighs, he lifted the pinkie of his right hand from his thigh, as though to raise his hand to speak.
She noticed and sighed. “Be quick.”
“Stop what?” he asked in barely a whisper. “The war?” “Yes,” said Ruth. “And C-C-Carter’s insanity.”
“Is Tom behind enemy lines?”
“There are no lines. It’s make-believe. There is a war, but there is no enemy except our make-believe.” For a moment, Ruth looked haunted, guilty. Peter had no memories of her ever expressing either emotion before. “Horrible. Horrible make-believe. Ver filt zikh, der meynt zikh.”
“Who f-feels guilty. F-feels responsible. I believed something. Was make-believe. But it was real. And all that I thought was real. Was make-believe.”
“Like what?” asked Peter. “Did Tom kill Amanda?” Ruth’s expression shifted to sadness, but she said nothing.
“Please, Ruthie. I’m confused,” said Peter. Having never confronted Ruth’s deep emotions before, it unsettled him. “What don’t I know?”
“Everything,” she said. “Those you thought are f-friends. Are enemies. And vice versa.”
Asking Ruth to be verbose was a foolhardy endeavor. Her thought processes were highly complex, logical, analytical, and empathetic in her way, but that did not spill over into lengthy verbal communication.
She had always spoken like an emotional machine gun, ratta-tat-tat with her Yiddish-English analyses. That’s why he loved her. But this was frustrating.
“Will you tell me?” he asked.
“Neyn. N-n-no time. T-T-Tom Paine will.”
Peter found that hard to believe, and his robotic eyebrows shot up unevenly.
Ruth shook her head and peered closely at Peter’s face. “Kang can’t even. Get that right. Oh! And tell T-Tom Paine. Talia has disappeared. She may be heading. His way.”
That made no sense. Talia was some stalker in DC and Palo Alto. “How do I get there?”
Ruth stood, pulled a dining chair close to Peter, and sat beside him. Her hand rose and juddered, as though she didn’t know if she could touch him or not. Finally, her shaking palm cradled his silicone face. She gasped, her eyes twitched and watered, and her shoulders danced.
“I am s-s-so s-s-sorry. I am sending your AHI away. To find Tom Paine. And I m-must reboot this robot. T-to before this conversation. Just know. How bad I feel. And how much I c-c-care.” She paused, and a single tear threatened to fall from her shuddering left eyelid. “N-n-no. L-l-love you. Now save us.” Her hand reached around to the back of his neck and flipped a switch he hadn’t noticed before.
(c) P.J. Manney, 47 North, 2021. Used with permission.
Phoenix Horizon #3
PJ Manney concludes her visionary Philip K. Dick Award–nominated series of a world at war, a virtual search for identity, and the future of humanity.
Five years ago, bioengineer Peter Bernhardt spearheaded an innovation in nanotechnology that changed the course of evolution. Until everything was taken from him—his research, the people he loved, and finally his life. Uploaded as an artificial intelligence, Peter is alive again thanks to a critical reactivation by fellow AI Carter Potsdam.
But a third sentient computer program, Major Tom, is tearing the United States apart, destroying its leaders and its cities. Major Tom’s mission: rebuild a new America from the ruins and reign as uncontested monarch. Carter knows that only a revolutionary like Peter can reverse the damage to a country set on fire.
Caught in a virtual world between an alleged ally and an enemy, pieces of Peter’s former self remain: the need for vengeance, empathy for the subjugated people of a derelict world, and doubt in everything he’s been led to believe. To rescue what’s left, he’ll need to once again advance the notion of evolution and to expand the meaning of being human—by saving humanity.
Fiction | Thriller Techno [47North, On Sale: April 27, 2021, Trade Size / e-Book, ISBN: 9781503948501 / ]
PJ Manney is the author of the bestselling and Philip K. Dick Award nominated (R)EVOLUTION, book 1 in the Phoenix Horizon series, and book 2, (ID)ENTITY. She is a former chairperson of Humanity+, the author of "Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy," and a frequent guest host and guest on podcasts including StarTalk. She has worked in motion-picture PR at Walt Disney/Touchstone Pictures, story development and production for independent film production companies (Hook, Universal Soldier, It Could Happen to You), and writing for television (Hercules--The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess). She also cofounded Uncharted Entertainment, writing and creating pilot scripts for television. Manney is a culture vulture and SF geek, and the daughter and mother of them, too. When not contemplating the future of humanity, she is a wife, mother, speaker and futurist in California.
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