Awakening: A short story

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Frances Yang/Staff

When I wake, my eyes are already open.

My feet march steadily in step with a pounding rhythm all around me, the noise enveloping me. My arms swing in opposition, and my hands are splayed stiffly with each movement. I am walking, but I do not remember ever beginning to walk.

What wakes me is not the fluorescent lighting digging into the receptors within my pupils, though it beats down with a ferocity that makes me blink — an unfamiliar movement.

It is not the whirring behind my ear, the hum of the walls, the constant vibration of the room, as if it were alive. I can hear this reverberation even above the marching, though after a while, I can no longer imagine silence, and the vibration becomes white noise.

What wakes me is that I cannot breathe. The air is stale — so stale it leaves my head dizzy. My step falters, and I fall out of sync with the marching crowd for a split second. I am quickly pushed out of the fast-moving stream, and another one of us seamlessly replaces me.

Us? The thought is instinctive. I blink again and, for the first time, truly notice myself. There are no reflections around me, so I look down and inspect my own hands. A thin white plastic casing covers my digits and the wiring underneath, though they are still exposed at the joints. There are indents where fingernails would be and lines on my palms as if I had skin. I touch my face and glance up at the marching figures flowing in front of me.

All of our faces are the same. Blank white masks of humanoid features, blank grey eyes staring ahead. Unthinking, unfeeling, grounded only in the mechanical wiring hidden underneath the plastic. My body freezes, and though I can see in the others that my spine is metal, a chill runs down it all the same. I am one of them. And yet —

A disorienting, unsettling feeling overwhelms me. I tense, though it takes me a moment to realize it is coming not from within me, but around me. The marching is falling out of sync, losing control. The chaotic, crescendoing noise makes panic well up in me, a feeling so foreign yet so naturally immediate. I have made a mistake.

The correction time for the rest of the robots to compensate for my absence has sent a ripple of deafeningly misaligned steps, a blatant alarm signaling my break from the rules. Though I know nothing of the authority or the consequences of disrupting the march, fear shoots through my body. I have done something wrong.

I am struck by the instinct to hide. My body follows the instinct gladly, leaving the cacophonic chain-reaction behind with quick movements. Paranoia — a fresh and terrifying sensation — washes over me in awful waves. I do not know where I am going. It leaves me at a loss to know I have existed here before today, yet I cannot find my way around it now, when I most need to.

The panic is too much, setting me off into a stumbling run. I am still just learning the extent of my athleticism, and I skid down countless identically white halls until a hand yanks my arm back as I pass an open doorway.

“Over here,” a muffled voice urges, its owner pulling me into an unmarked room and locking the door. Surprise disarms me for a split second before I wonder if I should fight back. But reason slows my pulse. I need answers, however I can get them.

The room we’re in seems to be a standard human room, with a cot in the corner and a desk at the far wall. Aside from the red lever by the door with “ALARM” printed on it, everything else is white or gray. My attention shifts to the reason I’m in the room.

I consider the stranger before me, covered head to toe in black and wearing an oxygen mask over their face. The uniform is familiar, and fractured pieces of memories invade my consciousness of similarly clad figures looming over crowds of my kind. There is something decidedly different about the stance of these figures, the way they carry themselves. In my alarmed state, I make the connections painfully slowly. Before the stranger can speak, which their body language indicates they’re about to do, I cut in. “You are human,” I state bluntly. My voice is strange, metallic, only a pale imitation. It sounds like pennies clinking against metal, and I frown.

The figure hesitates. I see now the only distinguishable feature I can — piercing, unreadable blue eyes staring at me from behind the mask. I cannot evaluate their expression with any algorithm the way I can methodically assess a problem. The most frustrating part of humans, I decide, is their inconsistency.

“I am human,” the stranger finally responds. Another hesitant pause, and the figure pulls off their mask, revealing those blue eyes, pale human skin and long black hair tied back in a ponytail. “My name is Tessa. I woke you up.”

I stare at the figure — the woman, my mind supplies — uncomprehending of her words. Slowly, I feel the plastic of my face crumple into a deeper frown.

“What do you mean?”

She gestures to the cot at the corner of the room.

“Sit. Let me explain,” she orders. When I oblige, she sits beside me and pulls out from her pocket a motherboard the size of her palm. Recognition registers somewhere in the recesses of my mind, and I know it to be the one each of us have beneath the plastic casing, situated where a human heart would be — except the motherboard she holds is severely modified. “This is Pandora,” she says. “Or, the central component of it, in any case. This version is slightly dated. The one I implanted into your system last night is the most recent, most promising version. This is what gave you sentience.”

Suddenly, I get the sense that I remember her sharp blue eyes. I picture her standing in front of me, fiddling with the machinery of my motherboard within the android reserves somewhere in this building. But I can no longer figure memory from imagination now. For all I know, I could be unable to retain memories from before I was aware. But I cannot shake certain impressions, ones that I feel tugging at me from a place deeper than today. My first day awake. Questions swarm my mind, but Tessa gives no time to ask them.

“The reason I brought you into sentience,” she begins, inhaling before letting the breath loose after a moment, “is because of a revolution that’s taking place. Or rather, a revolution that is just beginning. With you.”

I think I know one of the emotions in her eyes, now. Hope — eager but lucid hope. Dangerous hope. “I don’t understand,” I cut in, though the gears in my mind are spinning a mile a minute, telling me that no, I do, indeed, understand. My mind supplies me with several different possibilities of what she could possibly mean for me to do and be, and my fight or flight response screams flight. I scan the room to see she’s wedged herself between me and the door. Distrust of this woman, the only human I’ve seen today, winds up the receptors in my back with tight tension.

“It’s alright not to understand right now,” Tessa assures. “But the human world has stopped being cohesive for a long, long time. You’ll see soon enough. Change is due. You, and more of your kind, are that change.”

I don’t know what it is exactly that sets me on edge about Tessa and her plans, but my mind is backpedaling from these concepts. Squaring my shoulders and returning her probing stare, I frown, “I have no want to lead any rebellion or revolution. I want no part in this.” My words trigger immediate reactions across her expression, from the widening of her eyes in surprise to her pressing her lips flat in distress. Her features tighten.

“That’s not why Pandora was used on you,” she protests, passion curling her fingers into fists. “You are the first in a catalyst of many things,” she insists. “You cannot throw away what has been given to you and the obligations that they come with.”

“These are obligations to a human world,” I state, watching her eyes flare. Something in her is dangerous, and if she is capable enough to bring robots into self-awareness, she can take it away. I can’t stay here much longer. It feels as though blood is pumping in my ears, but I know that’s not the case. Pandora must have thorough control over android receptors if these impossible sensations can take hold of me. But my voice is the same thin mechanical sound, and I’m thankful that it at least betrays none of my apprehension. “I am no longer a mindless machine, but I am no human. I have no stake in your cause, no desire to join —”

Before I can finish my sentence, she pushes me against the wall in one swift movement, her fingers tapping out the passcode to my motherboard. I feel that pang of panic again, and I struggle against her grasp, twisting away until I’m on my feet, sprinting towards the door. Tessa shouts out for me to stop, but I don’t leave. Instead, I grab the lever of the alarm.

She stands a few feet away, watching me warily. “What are you doing?” she asks.

“You’re not doing this with permission,” I say. It’s no question. While I have no idea who or what heads this building, or even what the purpose of this system is, I reason that we would not be hiding if Tessa were following protocol. A look of understanding flickers in her eyes, and I know I’m right.

“Don’t,” she warns. “That alarm will start something you can’t even begin to fathom. You’ll get me killed.”

“And what were you about to do to me?” I retort, knowing full well her intentions to deprogram me. I am defying her plans. She needs to wake up some other robot to do her bidding correctly. “You brought me to life, and you were going to take me right out of it.” Her brow creases, but she has no response. I take the opportunity to set my terms, gripping the alarm even tighter. “Get me out of this building. Now.

She grimaces but begrudgingly reaches for her mask. “On one condition,” she says firmly. Her eyes are calculating, and she states, “Let me make a copy of your motherboard before you leave. It won’t take long. I just need to catalogue its modifications.”

“You can do so at the exit,” I agree. “And if you mislead me,” I warn, my memory recalling the alarms intermittently spaced out along the halls, “I will make your infractions known to the entire building.” She slips on her mask without answering, and I gesture for her to lead the way.

We walk down the corridors, and I wonder how she knows where she’s going. Nothing distinguishes one hall from another. But she guides the way confidently, and I stay close behind. As we look identical to every other human guard and robot in the building, we do nothing to avoid the cameras. Still, I feel paranoia begin to eat at me again. Irritation fills my mind, too, as I wonder if this is what humans experience in every waking moment. No wonder they need so much sleep.

Questions still haunt me about this sentience. Will I need sleep? Is my entire wiring system altered? Where do my instincts come from? Pandora feels heavy in my chest, but I don’t risk asking Tessa anything. Among the unknowns, the one thing I do know is my need to leave this place.

We turn the corner one more time before Tessa punches in a code beside what looks like a seamless section of the wall. When she presses enter, however, the wall shifts and slides open. A door stands on the other end of one last hallway. Another alarm sits between the two doors, presumably to alert the building of an escape.

“This is a back door,” she explains through her mask. “I’ve fulfilled my end of the deal. Now, you.”

I’m still a few feet away from her, and she waits for me to close the distance and allow her to copy Pandora. I turn to her, recalling our entire conversation. It seems she has no other motherboard perfected as closely as the one she gave me. She must not have expected any resistance, and the irony makes me want to laugh. Did she truly believe sentient beings would want to submit their newfound awareness for someone else’s cause? I hardly entertain the thought of following through with our deal before I push past her, not stopping to look back as she falls from the force. I sprint for the door. I can’t stop her misguided project, but I can delay it.

She again shouts at me to stop, scrambling to her feet, but I pull the alarm with enough force that the lever breaks in my hand. Lights flash, and the wall slams shut behind me. A wall of metal also descends over the door ahead of me, but I duck my head and push the door outward. I think I hear Tessa’s screams through the metal, but it could just be the blaring alarms. Guilt seeps into my thoughts, but I remind myself that she gave me the power to do this. She gave me the ability to want. And I want freedom.

The cold night air hits me, and I breathe in sharply. It’s dizzying, but not in the way the stale oxygen inside was. It makes me feel alive.

Contact Sean Tseng at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @STWeekender24.