Type of Story: Novella
Summary: In a far future, a fleet of ships hurtles through space on its way to a distant war. Aboard the ships is an army of artificial human soldiers, highly trained and dangerous. Doctor Charlotte West, the neuro-technologist responsible for the soldiers’ artificial brains, travels in the support fleet. Two months before the arrival at the war site, the soldiers start fighting each other and disobeying commands. When they are brought in for tests, Charlotte finds that all seven thousand men share a pathological obsession with her.
Doctor Spencer cracked his knuckles; he always did that when he was nervous and I knew the figure who sat opposite the desk made him more nervous than usual.
With her stiff dress jacket, buttons and stars of her uniform glittering, Commander Carla Avery looked severe without even trying.
Dr Spencer licked his lips and looked at the screen, as if that would make the bad news go away. He broke the tense silence. ‘I’m afraid we need some time to investigate, Ma’am.’
‘Time? How much time?’
‘That depends on what we find.’
Commander Avery fingered her upper lip. ‘The construct is still alive?’
‘He is, Ma’am. His organs may be damaged, but his brain functions normally. We can replace the organs, but. . . whatever is wrong in his mind might take much longer to repair.’
‘What sort of malfunction are we looking at?’
‘Could be anything. Men from his unit say that they managed to wrestle him to the ground and to divest him of his laser. Apparently, the other soldier said something that upset him.’
‘Enough to turn the gun on a comrade?’
In the treatment room next to Dr Spencer’s office, I glanced at the face of the construct agent. A clone, some said. I preferred to call them men. He had been brought in, pale and near death, from the emergency shuttle that had dropped off Starship Forward, out of hyperspeed to meet us, the support fleet.
Even though he was out of danger, we kept him sedated. His eyes remained closed in crescent-moon slivers of hair.
His nose, straight and aristocratic, reminded me of the marble statues of classic times. There was a nasty bruise on his cheekbone and there were laser-inflicted injuries on his legs, now invisible under the blanket. Whoever had shot him had done damage to a major artery and he had nearly bled to death. He’d have to go into surgery again later today.
‘What does the other soldier have to say?’ Carla Avery’s voice drifted in from the office.
Dr Spencer replied, ‘We don’t know. None of them will admit who it was.’
That was typical for construct behaviour. When faced with one of us, whom they called pristine humans, they banded together and said nothing.
‘What’s his stock?’ Commander Avery asked.
‘Kessler. This man’s an explosives specialist. They shouldn’t be aggressive. Kessler stock are technicians, thinkers.’
‘Dr Spencer, this worries me, as you will understand. The International Space Force has staked its reputation on the human construct program. Possibly in two months’ time, we face deployment of our troops. These men need to be one hundred percent reliable. I want a report on this by tomorrow.’
There was the sound of a chair being pushed backwards and the door being slid open. When I looked again, Carla Avery was gone.
Heaving a sigh, Dr Spencer pushed himself up from his chair and came into the lab, advancing silently to the examination table where the patient lay. I knew Dr Spencer was about fifty years old, but he looked at least ten years older, his straw-coloured hair dishevelled, dark patches under his eyes. I didn’t know how long ago he’d first heard of these troubles. As fleet surgeon, he dealt with lots of things beyond my domain of the research lab.
‘Any reaction?’ He pulled the blanket over the man’s chest as if tending a sick child; his hands trembled.
I shook my head.
‘You asked Julia to scan his brain activity?’
‘Nothing at all.’
‘Charlotte, we need to find out what is happening, and fast. Download this construct’s mind base and modules and see if you can find anything unusual.’
I met his eyes then, and read a strange expression there. Despair almost.
I froze, realising, or thinking I realised, what it meant. ‘This is not the only one behaving strangely?’
He shook his head. ‘Nothing quite as serious as this, though, but there was a skirmish between two soldiers outside the bar aboard the Forward. Then another soldier was shot by one of his comrades. Fortunately, the charge missed the vital organs, and it could be taken care of by the on-board med-station, but. . .’ He shrugged. ‘This is not good. They’ll have to fight a war. They can’t start fighting amongst themselves.’
* * * *
Find the routine that made this man act strangely. That was easy for him to say. All right, he knew a fair bit about neuro-informatics, since we had worked on this project together, but he was the surgeon who had overseen the production of the men’s bodies and I dealt with mindbases, containing their basic personality traits, and memory modules, mini circuits of nano-particles sprayed into the constructs’ brains, which could be charged to hold data that made the recipient a specialist in a desired field. Once installed, the circuit integrated in the construct’s brain, and emitted the micro-electric signals which translated into knowledge, thoughts and feelings. Inserting the module was easy, but reading and translating the signals later was messy, and trying to look for a small snatch of misfiring brain-fart brought the words ‘needle’ and ‘haystack’ to mind.
But it had to be done, and I was the constructs’ neuro-specialist.
I glanced at the computer next to the bed. A small icon blinked to indicate that the medicine dispenser was reducing the supply of sedative. Meanwhile, data read-out flowed across the screen, from the man’s mind, blocks of hexadecimal numbers.
I activated the translation software that produced a file I could read.
‘Charlotte.’ The man’s voice was no more than a whisper, but warm and full of feeling.
I gasped and nearly tipped backwards. How did he know my name?