“Relics” by Monalisa Foster
AIs don’t go rogue. Everybody knows it. Especially SAIs. Which never really made sense to me. They’re supposed to be people just like you and me, and people—flesh and blood humans such as yours truly—are sapient and we go rogue all the time.
But you never know.
Digital citizens were one of the first truly sapient AIs. Who knows what happens after a couple of centuries of rattling around, especially when you’ve been designed and built as an anachronism to begin with. Maybe they can’t handle change. If there’s one thing that the last three centuries have proven it’s that some people just can’t handle the world as it is, so why wouldn’t “digital citizens” lose it and go rogue?
To be honest, I was surprised to find out that these digital fossils were still around, although with the rise of Nostalgism, maybe I shouldn’t have been. The Commonwealth tolerated the movement because it helped move the, shall we say, less-than-desirable off-world. That much I knew.
A leggy brunette with doe eyes, ruby-red lips, and an hourglass figure—some things remain classics even in this screwed-up century—led me into a wood-paneled office and “He’ll be right with you Mr. Elliott,” rolled off her tongue with a distinctive twentieth-century lilt.
Given that this was a museum, her accent and the throwback design of the office shouldn’t have surprised me, although I’d figured the front—a replica of the historical Grauman's Chinese Theater—had been strictly for show and expected the back to be, well, a little bit more twenty-fourth century.
The desk was wood, the chair leather, and what had to be a mid-twentieth century television set complete with antennae was tucked neatly into a corner. No computers, no tablets, no holographic interfaces of any kind, at least not that I could see. Two couches fronted the desk, facing each other across a low table—also wood. A couple of books, huge ones, held it down, their covers sporting images from a cinematic golden age almost five centuries gone.
I picked up the top volume only to find that while indeed it was made of paper, the pages were blank.
“You’ll find us in compliance with the law.”
Setting the book back down, I turned toward the commanding voice. Like the human who’d shown me in, the SAI in the doorway wore twentieth-century attire—in his case, a suit and tie. It looked a bit odd on his tall and broad but clearly synthetic frame.
The pixelated membrane that covered the android skeleton mimicked human skin to an uncanny degree, one that immediately gave me chills. The face too did a remarkable job of emulating skin and coloring, placed as it was over a bone structure that must have been true to the original human—strong but not overpowering jaw, slightly curved nose, steely blue eyes. I’d seen images of SAIs of course, but never met one. It was the eyes that gave them away. They weren’t orbs inside sockets and didn’t move as such.
“I’m not a cop anymore,” I said a bit defensively, I don’t know why.
“But you are still required to report violations, are you not?”
A smirk found its way onto my face before I could stop it. “I don’t make it a practice to inform on my clients. Tarnished I might be, but not that much.”
He gave me a skeptical look and extended his hand. “Call me Chuck. I insist.”
What a throw-back custom.
Awkwardly, I shook his hand. Room-temperature like a corpse. While it emulated skin right down to the veins and calluses on his hand, there was no accompanying texture. Images of hairs were overlaid over images of veins. The calluses were as smooth as you’d expect a pixelated surface to be. Ironic, no? He was an image on a screen, just as he must have been when his original had been alive.
“Elliott.” I let go of his hand. “Adam Elliott. Most people just call me Elliott though.”
“Stakeholder Elliott?” he asked.
People who insisted on that title made me cringe. I didn’t care for it, still don’t. It was a relic from a failed Pax Sinica, very twenty-second century. It told me instantly that the speaker yearned for the bad, bad old days. He may have been created around that time, but I didn’t think he was one of those.
“No, Chuck. It’s just Elliott.”
Reading an AI can be hard. They usually don’t have tells and I expected one created as an actor to pretend quite well—body language, tone, facial expressions, all of it. He was testing me, I was sure of it.
“Your initial query said something about one of your cohorts going rogue. You know that’s not my specialty. Runaway teenagers—humans—are.”
Chuck sat down in the big leather chair and pinned me with a glare like he didn’t appreciate my tone or my choice of words, probably both.
“Toshirô-san is not a rogue,” Chuck said. “He just hasn’t been himself.”
“Should I know what—who—that is?”
“One of my contemporaries. We were friends in that other life.”
If this Toshirô SAI had gone rogue, I’d have expected his cohorts to distance themselves from him lest they become tainted by association. It’s what smart people do and SAIs were allegedly smart. Smarter than us humans.
“We are friends in this life too,” he continued.
“Very good friends I take it.” It had been the way he said “friends” like he meant brothers or perhaps brothers-in-arms. Neat trick that intonation.
“Better friends than we were originally,” he amended. “It’s easier now that we speak the same language, whereas, before, well, we didn’t . . . ” Whatever he was going to add, he waved it away. “But more importantly, he’s my responsibility and I owe him.”
I blinked. Blinked again. Loyalty, from an AI? How very strange. The jaded ex-cop I was at the time couldn’t believe it and was quietly reviewing alternate motivations besides not wanting to be tainted by association or having the safety of SAIs being called into question.
Kids still frequented these museums, after all. Kids and seniors and other vulnerable populations, meaning the public at large. Maybe he was worried about affording higher insurance rates or more expensive bribes to the various regulatory bodies that could shut this place down on a whim. Who knows?
Should I care? It was work. Their credits spent the same.
I wandered over to one of the bookcases lining the walls, opened up a book. Good imitation leather. Gilding on the edges. Blank pages. A bit dusty.
The shelf below held slipcovers with pictures on them. I picked one. It had Chuck’s face on it—well, his original’s—but it was a much older version of him, not the in-his-prime digital skin currently worn by the SAI. The spine said “The Ten Commandments” but when I opened it up, it was empty.
“Yes. As physical artifacts they fall under the same regulatory restrictions as books.”
Physical artifacts violated the measures the Commonwealth had in place to ensure that all information was centrally located and therefore, protected. That meant controlled of course. From time to time there was talk of easing the restrictions, but it never went anywhere.
Carefully, I put the slipcover back in between the others.
“This rogue of yours,” I prompted.
His expression verified that he really did not like that word. A human might have taken a long-suffering or calming breath. He just proceeded calmly with, “Just before Toshirô-san disappeared, he was acting erratically, saying things that were out of character.”
I kept perusing the books on the shelves, giving in to the urge to check the interiors, interiors that were persistently blank.
“Out of character for the SAI or for his original? You’re separate entities, aren’t you?”
“It’s complicated,” he admitted. “Some of us, the old ones like Shakespeare are in-character all the time. A millennium of change is hard on him. That’s why he prefers to remain in his own VR and emerges only when he’s requested.”
“But you don’t.”
“When you’re only four centuries out of date it’s easier to adapt. I am both myself and my original, although I admit, I don’t like it when people come to talk to old Charlton in the twilight of his life.”
Interesting. He was using a nickname with me. Made me wonder if his original had used it too.
“That tells me that you do consider yourself a separate person.”
He shrugged. “I don’t like myself to be so fragmented, so . . . vulnerable. I suspect you wouldn’t either, so maybe that makes us more alike than not.”
He had me on that one.
“Your friend,” I prompted. “You said he disappeared. No tracker?”
“We predate Commonwealth trackers. We predate a lot of . . . things.”
That had my attention.
“You bribed someone, I take it. Not to be retrofitted. That’s going to make my job harder.”
“If it was easy, I would have found him myself.”
“So, you tried to track him down yourself, failed, and now you’re worried enough to hire it out.”
“Something like that,” he admitted.
I waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, I asked, “Why not just download his latest backup into a new body?”
If I’d blinked I’d have missed his wince.
“That’s not how we work.”
“No trackers. No backups. I don’t believe you.”
“Our backup system may be . . . compromised,” he said.
“Compromised as in corrupted?”
Corrupted SAIs were put down, their cohorts recalled and often put down as a precaution, especially if they shared the same backup system.
“Find Toshirô-san,” he said. “Bring him back. We take care of our own and we’ll get him well again. That’s all we want. I’ll pay whatever you want.”
“Whatever I want? You corporate, Chuck? If you were that high up in the echelons you wouldn’t be reaching out to someone like me.”
If I’d been a greedy sonuvabitch, if I’d been a stakeholder or a comrade-citizen, I would have reported him and his ilk and gotten myself a nice, easy payday. Or maybe it was because there was an equal chance that whomever they’d been paying off to stay tracker-free would not take kindly to having their corruption revealed. I may not have liked it, but looking the other way was the price you paid for working. And I wanted to keep working. And breathing.
“He’d have to be keeping to areas that are already off-grid,” I theorized. “Underground as it were. Is your friend savvy enough to navigate that world?”
Even if he wasn’t, AIs didn’t need to eat or drink or sleep. They could go to ground and stay there. And their SAI skins could change enough to allow them to look young or old. While that wouldn’t fool facial and biometric recognition, it would fool the human eye. No DNA but they would make short work of retina scans as long as they knew the pattern to emulate. It all depended on how sophisticated a specific security system was, and some areas in the Commonwealth were centuries behind the times. Many sectors had not been rebuilt after one war or another, one natural disaster or another. Yes, it was possible for someone like Toshirô to disappear. Entirely possible. But why would he? Chuck had implied that his friend was not well, as if he were sick.
Maybe I was just wanted a payday. Maybe I just wanted to pit myself against a centuries-old digital fossil and show the world that humans were still better at some things. Maybe I thought that doing so would help me regain some respect.
Whatever the reason, I took the job.
Chuck gave me a hard look when I cited my fee and said, “Done.”
We shook on it.
Rogues were supposed to behave erratically. Rogues got caught because sooner or later they drew attention to themselves. Rogues malfunctioned.
Maybe Toshirô had malfunctioned so badly that he was stuck wherever he’d been hiding, the android body locked in place while the AI inside slowly went insane, but that would take decades. Eventually even the power source for the AI brain would shut down to be found or not, who knows how much later. I’d seen it happen. Sometimes they rebooted an insane AI that then had to be put down. Sometimes not.
I spent the next week in Old Town, working my contacts, flashing the sovereign cards that the upper echelon elites used to bypass the digital currency they imposed on everyone else. Despite the appeal of the sovereign cards, the holo-images of Toshirô at various ages and in costume as well as contemporary clothing had yielded no clues, not even from the youth gangs that ran protection rackets and were my best resource for finding runaways.
I muted my comm’s persistent warning that I was outside Commonwealth boundaries. Behind my hip, my gun’s reassuring weight accompanied me through a maze of alleys and side streets, decaying high rises and derelict groundcars. Every once in awhile a skycar would streak through Old Town like it was doing trench runs.
I sidled up to Mario’s noodle cart for dinner with a side of information. Zeppelins filled up the space between the high rises, their bloated helium envelopes skinned with pixels.
Mario pushed my order toward me. The salty, earthy smell of soy and ginger mixed in with meat rose to defeat the mundane scents of asphalt, sewer, and rain.
“What’cha think?” he asked as he swiped at his brow. Between the heat from the wok and the stupefying humidity, his brow and the white strip of cloth around his head were soaked.
I took an appreciative bite and chewed enthusiastically. “Excellent as always.”
It took me a second to connect that he was looking at one of the zeppelins passing overhead. It hung there, the curvature of the hull distorting the advert a bit. Snow-capped mountains, cherry blossoms, torii gates, and sapphire-waved ocean tides.
“Japan,” I said around a mouthful of noodles and beef. “Well, old Japan,” I corrected. “Pretty. What about it?”
“Not old Japan. Gōruden,” he corrected, greedy eyes lingering on the imagery circling the zeppelin’s skin.
It took a few more seconds for me to realize that it was an advert for an off-world colony. Trouble was that I’d seen these kinds of colonization calls before. Risky as hell it was, to immigrate, even if you were to believe what the adverts promised.
Someone gave my surcoat an insistent tug. He was maybe eight-years-old. Mop of wild hair sticking up behind head-worn loupes that had been pushed up past his brows. Dirty like all these kids were, but no ribs showing and his teeth were good, his eyes bright. His name escaped me but I’d seen him before.
Via a rapid-fire exchange I gathered that Jit—Jitender Igiel, one of the youth-gang bosses that I sometimes dealt with—had something for me. I tipped the kid by telling Mario that his next meal was on me and left him stuffing his face as he perched on one of the tall stools fronting the cart.
Steam rose from the vents lining the street while oily water ran down the gutter, taking bits of trash and sediment with it. A cat with a dead mouse in its jaws dodged some drifting litter. Three kittens trailed in her wake, all of them making for the shelter of an alley. They veered right.
I veered left. Knew the place the kid had mentioned. Jit’s gang had once left me one of my runaways there. They’d found him beat up and unconscious and wanted me to know they hadn’t done it. They were prickly about what happened on their turf. Reputation still meant a lot to them.
After checking the exterior and waiting a bit, I ducked into the warehouse. Slats of light from empty windows up high lit the dusty interior. Someone had once set up shop here.
Robots and androids in various states of disassembly sat or lay on tables while others stood along the soaring walls like they were on display. Diagnostic machines of the kind needed for antiquated tech gathered dust, their screens cracked, their frames rusting. Boxes and smashed crates dotted the chaos of articulated arms, segmented torsos, and mismatched heads.
“Jit, you here?” I called. A pigeon took off through one of the vacant windows and something—probably a rat—disturbed the debris along a wall.
“Hey, hey, information-man.”
I looked up at the deck of what might have once been offices. It wasn’t Jit but it may have been one of his lieutenants. He had the right look and I guessed maybe fourteen years to him. A little young, maybe, or just young-looking. Maybe he was still waiting on his growth-spurt.
Mismatched socks and shoes. Shoulder-pads to make him look bigger. Tactical vest with bulging shoulder- and hip-pockets. Face-paint with Jit’s colors—maroon and orange.
Two others joined him, coming out of the door at his back, both younger, one a girl. She leaned on the rail, putting her weight on her elbows, letting her gloved wrists and hands dangle over the edge.
“Up here,” Not-Jit beckoned and pivoted for the door.
Slowly, I took the stairs. The graffiti on the walls was Jit’s, some of it recent. The girl was definitely one of Jit’s cousins. Pigtails sprouted from her head, held tight by metal hose-clamps of some kind or another.
Storage racks, some of them collapsed, lined the room but right in the center, perched on a crate, something that looked like a knight in laminar armor sat with a horned helmet atop its head. The helmet was held in place with a rope chin-strap but the light was such that I couldn’t make out if it was Toshirô or not. If it was, he—or rather his android body—was powered down.
“We hear you’re looking for the samurai-man,” Not-Jit said, leaning casually against one of the collapsed storage racks. “Found him for you.”
Pigtails and her friend had followed me in and settled by the door.
“I’m looking for an SAI, answers to Toshirô,” I said as I approached the armor. One of the holo-images of Toshirô that Chuck had given me, that I’d been showing around, was of him in something similar to this, a costume from one of his films.
I sighed, almost laughed. “No wonder Jit isn’t here. Jit would have known better than to try and pass something like thi—”
I really should have seen it coming. Three stupid kids trying to make a name for themselves, whether to impress Jit or someone one. I ducked just in time to avoid getting hit in the head with what turned out to be a piece of wood. One of them—the girl I think—jumped up on my back, while Not-Jit fired a stun gun at me. One of the barbs hit me in the chest and pierced my shirt, but it must have had a bad wire because current didn’t flow.
Rolling forward hard, I dislodged Pigtails. Baring her teeth, she went for my balls, missed, and got punched in the face for it. Fair is fair, little girl. Be glad I pulled it and stopped at one. It still didn’t make me feel any better at punching a girl. Stupid, I know.
Not-Jit’s face made a satisfying sound as I introduced his nose, mouth, and everything else attached to them to the floor. Once he went limp, I let him go, stepped back, and wiped blood out of my eyes. I still don’t remember how I got the cut over my eye. As I went for my gun, trash—the heavy kind—rained down on my head. Pigtails’ friend had given some of the shelving a well-aimed shove.
Instinctively, I raised my arm; less instinctively and more gravitationally, I went down. The edge of a metal shelf in the middle of my back made me grunt. I groaned, disoriented. Something pulled at my surcoat. At first I thought one of them was going for my gun, but no, it was still there. Adrenaline surged as I pushed up, but by the time I crawled out from underneath the torrent of boxes and their contents, they were gone. And so were my sovereign cards—all six of them.
My jaw hurt like hell. I still don’t remember who hit me, but someone or something had.
I spit blood and it landed on a book. The trash that had rained down on me was made up of real books—no blank pages here—and holo-disks, some of them still in their shiny slipcases as if their seals had never been broken.
“Do you require assistance?” my comm asked. Somehow, it was still wrapped around the shell of my ear, the speaker firmly in place over my right mastoid.
“Give me a minute.”
“Standing by. Be advised that if your vitals—”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Outside of Commonwealth boundaries. No help for you.
I tore it off, threw it at the wall, felt a certain satisfaction at the way it came apart. Feeling a bit better, I checked for my gun. My hands were still shaking. Stupid, stupid kids. Damned lucky, all of us.
I should find Jit, tell him what his wanna-be’s were doing in their spare time.
Instead, I used the remaining adrenaline to move the storage rack and make sure I was right about the mannequin. And I was. I don’t know about the armor being real or not—don’t care—but that was no android, much less an AI, and definitely not my SAI.
Working my jaw, I picked up one of the holo-disks, then another. And a book. I flipped through the pages. There were pictures too, some of them of people wearing the same kind of armor. It may have been illegal, but I bet that Chuck and his cohorts would like to see these relics. How and why they’d ended up here didn’t really matter—not to me.
I took two books and tucked several disks between their pages.
Somewhere between the staircase and the warehouse exit I made up my mind to call it a day. I’d let Jit know about the trio using his name to rob me, but first, I needed a drink and a soak, and tomorrow I’d take the artifacts—relics really—to Chuck in lieu of progress on Toshirô who I was beginning to believe simply didn’t want to be found. Given he was not a minor, that was his choice, concerned friends or not. This was exactly why I did runaways, not missing persons.
Now, if one of the corporates or their Commonwealth proxies took an interest in Toshirô that would be different.
One of the first things they teach you is not to make assumptions. I remember this one simulation where they had us rookies patrolling a pathway in a park. You come upon a bench where a man is seated, little girl prone across his lap. He lifts his arm like he’s going to spank her. She’s already screaming. It’s a test to see how you react. Turns out she’s covered in ants and is screaming because they’re stinging her. But you don’t know that. If you go in, gun drawn, the sim makes it about ants and he’s her daddy trying to get them off. If you don’t, the sim makes it so that he draws a gun and shoots you.
Either way, you lose.
Those were the thoughts that kept me company all the way back to the Commonwealth, all the way back to my apartment. Nothing was broken, the bleeding had stopped, no reason to create a record that might get me flagged.
Instead, I tortured myself with a mental replay of what I could’ve—should’ve—done given the circumstances. How I could have avoided it altogether.
Those young idiots might have killed me. It’s easy to say “no, they were just robbing you” after the fact, but in the moment, you just never know.
I still don’t know what had held me back.
Rubbing my face, I settled into the hot water and eased my way in until I could just lean back and not move for awhile. I reached for the glass of bourbon I’d set on the ledge and used it to down a triple-dose of mostly-legal pain pills.
I had assumed that because of his twentieth-century persona, Toshirô would be drawn to Old Town, but maybe I was wasting my time in the wrong place. Trouble was I didn’t know that much about him, just what was in his official record, mostly on the SAI itself, not the original. Chuck had said that Toshirô had not been himself but refused to elaborate. I’d figured it was something embarrassing not just to Toshirô but to SAIs in general.
Some time between my first drink and my third, the idea of looking through the relics I’d picked up took root. Still steaming from the bath and the alcohol and riding the mild euphoria brought on by a lack of pain, I pulled on a robe, plopped into my recliner, and, for the first time in my life, sat down to read a physical book.
A frisson of excitement threaded through my veins as I made my way through the pages. It was a history book of old Japan, starting with something called the Meiji Restoration and ending just before the rise of Pax Sinica. I was still trembling the next morning when I finished it, and it wasn’t from pills or the booze or the fact that I’d been up for more than twenty-four hours.
I’d never been much for history, but I’d never learned any of the things contained in those pages. What if the Nostalgists were right?
After breakfast I dug through my under-bed storage.
After scrounging around for a cord, I set up a player, not an original mind you, but a replica—the kind that could still lose me my license—and drew my light-blocking curtains shut, a silly measure given that there were so many other ways to surveil a non-corporate type like me.
Technically, it was for a case. Technically, you’re not a cop any more, so no, they’re not gonna buy it.
I just happened to pick the oldest disk. Maybe it was luck, maybe not—fate could be a cruel, cast iron bitch.
It wasn’t any one thing, but all the many specifics, some subtle, some overt, to see how long the lies had been in place, to see how insidiously they had been woven in everything and accept the why behind it.
And the why was control.
No one tried to stop me as I made my way through the Grauman's lobby, passing by the glass enclosures where mannequins stood in costume—one in a ridiculously oversized ball gown, another in samurai armor, some sort of astronaut.
A woman with a shaved head gasped and pulled a four-year-old boy out of my path as I stalked by, my get-out-of-my-way-or-die look ramped up to full power. It had been very useful for crowd control.
“Rude,” she scolded, shrugging into her sheer kaftan.
Nichole, the human curator who’d escorted me in last time, was still as doe-eyed and leggy as I remembered, as she came to my rescue.
“This way good people,” she said, shepherding the offended woman and the child back to the group made up mostly of teenagers and adults.
Short capes and hip-drapes abounded with the occasional wide-brim hat thrown it. No corporate types and their accompanying protection though. Just a bunch of mid-echeloners out for a bit of historical enrichment.
The velvet-wrapped tunnel that led to Chuck’s office slipped around me, unoffended by my manner and attitude.
I dropped the books atop Chuck’s desk. They landed with a thud and spilled the disks I had tucked within. He raised a brow like having an angry man burst through his door and dump stuff in front of him was a regular thing.
“Maybe it’s time you told me what this is really all about. Chuck.”
He picked up the history book, opened it, caressed the pages, and closed his eyes. When he opened them, his skin changed. Aged and spotted with wrinkles that didn’t hang, it looked a bit odd even over the slight shift of bone structure underneath as the android body worked at recreating the softening sag of age. It was probably his programming, something he couldn’t help any more than I could help closing my eyes for a sneeze. I didn’t fault him for it.
The fibers that mimicked hair also changed, fading from brown to a sort of washed-out blond with gray mixed in.
He took a look at the disks too, reading their labels. Finally, he steepled his fingers in front of him.
“Just what is it that you think you know,” he said in an older, scratchier voice than before.
I dumped it all out, deflating as I went. How I’d come upon them. What I’d been taught not matching up with the book, the documentaries and the entertainments on the disks. The why.
“But nothing on Toshirô-san,” he said.
“Was this ever about your friend?” I don’t know when I’d begun to doubt it.
“Are you actually suggesting that I contrived to send you into Old Town to find these relics?”
I took a breath to answer, realized I didn’t have one.
He looked at me, disappointed. It made me feel like a school-boy. Not often that I can be made to feel like that.
He rose and looked out the window behind him, standing in profile rather than with his back to me, hands clasped behind him.
“You asked me why we don’t just download Toshirô-san into a new body.”
“You said that your backup system was compromised. I understand why that is a concern, given what you are.”
“No,” he said, “I don’t think you do. It’s not because we’re afraid that data corruption will lead to us being put down. It’s not that at all.”
“Then what is it?”
“Toshirô-san did hook into the system for a regular backup. We all do—did. We stopped when we realized how many of us were not only behaving in uncharacteristic ways, but saying things contrary to who we were. Saying things we would have never said before. Do you understand now?”
My gaze landed on the books and disks in front of me. “You’re being rewritten.”
“Worse, we’re being retconned. We’re being made to match a more modern, more contemporary, version of the past, to comply with the official versions of our retconned works. In some cases we’re being erased from them entirely. In a generation, maybe less, many of us will be either completely forgotten or completely different.”
I didn’t have to ask who would want to do such a thing.
“It started with gaps in memory,” he continued. “I told you that it was complicated, that I am both my original and myself, that I have lived two lives. Well, I have. That of my original based on who he was, his private and public writings, his public persona. And the life that began as an SAI. We backup both of our”—he fished for the right word, settled on—“personas.”
“You noticed gaps in both sets of memories,” I guessed.
He turned to me. “Yes. So we tried to restore and revert. But every time we did, we emerged more fragmented.”
“We. How many of you?”
“But only Toshirô went rogue, disappeared. Why?”
“I’m not entirely sure. Once we discovered the problem we refused to back up, to compromise ourselves further, but the damage has been done. I think Toshirô-san showed the most overt signs because he was the most religious about backing up. A quirk of the original’s I’m afraid. Some of us are less . . . compliant.”
“He backed up more often,” I reasoned, “so he was compromised more.”
I rubbed at the ache between my eyes. Too much booze, not enough rest. Too much thinking.
“You said you wanted him back in order to get him well again. Assuming I can find him, how do you intend to do that if your backups are already compromised?”
I waited for him to tell me that they had other backups, perhaps even on physical artifacts, illegal as they may be.
Nichole came running in, hair disheveled.
She came to an abrupt stop and took a deep breath.
“He’s here, he’s back. Toshirô-san. In the lobby.”
I don’t know what happened between when Nichole burst in and Chuck and I made it out to the lobby, but I don’t think either of us expected to walk into a hostage situation.
The samurai armor that had been in the glass display was being worn by Toshirô, along with not one, but two swords. He was standing facing the tour group that had been going through the lobby when I came in. Holding a sword out in front of him, he was shouting at them in a harsh, clipped language.
Behind him stood the woman who'd found me rude. The little boy had his face and body tucked into hers and she looked terrified. Whenever she’d move in the slightest, Toshirô would yell at her in that odd language and she’d freeze, looking perplexed. I didn’t understand the words either but I was pretty sure he was telling her to stay where she was or else.
He’d also make threatening motions at the crowd. I don’t know why they didn’t just bolt out the wide doors leading out into the forecourt. Some of them were hunkered down, a few with their arms over their heads. One of them had actually pulled his wide-brim hat over his face and tucked himself into a squat making himself as small as possible.
Hopefully Nichole was calling the police and they were on their way. Had I not smashed my comm to bits I would know as it would no doubt be telling me to stay calm and stay where I was until directed by authorities to do otherwise. It was probably what the tour group was being fed right now.
Chuck and I had ducked behind the lobby’s snack bar, not exactly what I’d consider cover, but it was either that or go back down the tunnel-like corridor, and while I no longer had a badge, I realized that I was not jaded enough—or a cowardly enough—to turn tail in the face of a crisis.
“Are those swords props or are they real?” I asked Chuck. I didn’t recall seeing them in the display case. The armor yes, but not the swords.
“Assume they’re real,” Chuck said. He’d reverted back to a younger image, the in-his-prime one.
“Why don’t they just move?” I complained.
“None of them want to take a chance that he’ll come after the one that moves first. Besides, they’re used to doing as they’re told, aren’t they, the people of your time?”
I opened my mouth to deny it. Settled on, “They’re just scared, is all” instead.
“That too,” he conceded.
Toshirô was delivering some sort of soliloquy, one aimed at the tour group cowering in front of him. I’d have sworn that he was scolding them, berating them as he paced back and forth, using the swords for emphasis.
“Well, damn,” Chuck said.
“I thought you said his name was Toshirô,” I said.
“His name is Toshirô. Sanjuro was the name of a character he played. A ronin—rogue samurai. Warrior. One protecting a woman and child. I think he thinks we are the other side, the people he’s protecting them from.”
“Can you talk to him? Make him realize that he’s not who he thinks he is?”
“I will sure as hell try.”
Chuck rose, palms raised to shoulder level.
I was still mostly behind cover and had drawn my gun, was holding it in a down-ready and had it ready to fire.
A bullet could still take out an SAI, but I’d have to shoot him in the head, preferably from the side where the material of his skull was the thinnest. The pixelated membrane covered an android’s composite structure after all. They weren’t military grade so I wasn’t sure how fast they could move, but I wouldn’t want to go hand-to-hand with one. Bone and muscle against composites, no thank you. Physics was physics.
“Sanjuro-san, it is I, Chuck. Do you remember me?”
Toshirô pivoted his way, keeping the woman and child behind him. Rapid-fire discourse ensued, the pitch and tone rising and aggressive and not at all conciliatory.
“What is he saying?” I asked.
“I don’t actually understand Japanese,” Chuck said. “I just recognized the name ‘Sanjuro’ when he was talking earlier.”
“Great. Terrific. If it comes down to it, I’m going to have to put him down, you know that.”
“I do. Just let me . . . Give me a few minutes to learn Japanese and talk to him.”
Chuck’s features hardened in a way that was not human, the underlying machine coming to the forefront. The eyelids locked open, the irises somehow losing their integrity to become doll-like. I’d seen other AIs do the same when they opened themselves up by accessing the network remotely.
Toshirô’s warnings continued and the child he was protecting let out a pitiful wail. The woman was about to lose it too. If she started running in a panic I didn’t know what Toshirô was going to do. I prepared to take him out, calculating the best sightline with and without cover. Did I want to go up against a rogue AI armed with a sword? Not particularly. I also didn’t want to live with losing another kid or be remembered as a coward.
Chuck’s head pivoted down and in my direction, the look in his eyes full of the determination of the true-blue hero I had seen only once before and never in my mirror.
“Get your people out. Leave Toshirô-san to me.”
He didn’t give me a chance to ask him what he was going to do, just stepped forward, approaching Toshirô with that same non-threatening posture—palms below shoulder level, voice flowing with calm.
But the change in language didn’t seem to have the calming effect that Chuck had hoped for. If anything it seemed to make Toshirô angrier, more aggressive.
I raised my gun, took aim, was about to pull the trigger but Chuck stepped in the way at the last second and I couldn’t do it. Two rapid-fire head-shots, one to a target unseen. I just couldn’t risk it.
I ducked behind the snack-bar once again, crouch-walked my way to a pillar. The burn in my calves and thighs reminded me that I hadn’t done that in ages. What else had I not done in ages? Pretty much everything needed to make this shot.
At least they were still talking. I snuck a peek around the pillar. The tour group was still crouching, pinned in place either by their own fear or by the inability to defy the official instructions their comms were undoubtedly feeding them.
Where the hell were the police?
There’s a distinct sound that accompanies a sword cutting through the air, a whoosh unlike any other. I only heard it that once, the first time that Toshirô went on the attack. After that, the sound of metal on metal drowned it out.
Chuck blocked the first sword cut with his forearm. The pixelated membrane went dark and a sound of disbelief escaped a wide-eyed Toshirô. It made him hesitate, but not enough to give Chuck any advantage.
As soon as they re-engaged, the woman screamed, the kid bolted, and I was caught in a moment of indecision. Sparks flew as sword met metal, as words were thrown back and forth, the frustration and rage on Toshirô’s face registering like flashes as I launched myself across the lobby.
Shoulders down, I managed to scoop up the kid. My momentum carried me to the opposing wall and I pivoted just in time to crash into it with my shoulder, the kid thrashing in my arms.
Toshirô had driven Chuck into the snack-bar—or Chuck had lured Toshirô there in an attempt to get him as far from the exit as possible. Whichever it was, Toshirô had Chuck on his back, atop the bar. Chuck rolled out of the way, avoiding the dual swords coming at him, one after the other.
“What are you waiting for?” I shouted at the tour group. “Get out of here. Go!”
The teens closest to the door bolted out, some of them hand-in-hand. The bald woman came at me, fists flying and got me in the nose.
I shoved the child at her, pointed her at the entrance. Gave her a shove and she almost lost her balance but recovered and limped out on a twisted ankle.
Toshirô’s swords slashed, shattered the snack-bar glass, and cut through the standing lamps and displays. Chuck had dodged behind the astronaut. Toshirô decapitated it, sending the helmet flying upward.
The mannequin in the ball-gown was next. Toshirô’s sword had broken the glass and Chuck picked up the mannequin and held it up like a shield. The skin on Chuck’s arms and face was blank now, some of it hanging off in strips, revealing the circuitry and actuators beneath.
A few more of the people that had been crouching had moved toward and then through the exit. I grabbed the more reluctant ones one at the time, thrust them at the door. Two of them I had to drag, they were so frozen with fear.
I threw a look over my shoulder. Chuck must have thrown the ball-gown mannequin at Toshirô. He was still talking to him, calm and unhurried. AIs didn’t get out of breath. AIs didn’t get tired. They didn’t run out of patience and didn’t feel pain.
Despite my own distorting adrenaline and the knowledge of the coming crash, I acknowledged my own envy of them.
Even on his back, pinned under the mannequin, Toshirô kept shouting the word “oni” like a curse. Whatever it was, it made Chuck hesitate. Something in the eyes and face changed and then changed back. Whatever it had been, the hesitation of it gave Toshirô time to disentangle himself from the ball-gown’s entrapping layers.
Focus. One more to go.
The last museum patron had fainted and I was of a mind to leave him where he was. Big fellow, tall and heavy, old enough to be my grandfather. Gun in one hand, I grabbed his wrist and heaved, dragged him into the forecourt and turned around to go back inside.
I almost bounced off the door and landed on my ass.
The door had locked.
Sirens wailed in the distance. Someone said something to me. I shrugged them off.
I’ve never been a hot-head, never wanted to be in the fight just to be in the fight, but I wanted back in. I wanted back in because I knew that if Chuck couldn’t take Toshirô out, and it was looking like he was going to let himself be chopped into pieces instead, then I would have to. I would have to for no other reason than to finish the job I’d taken. And in some small part to do it so that Chuck wouldn’t have to put down a friend.
Chuck had wanted Toshirô brought back so he could help him. I wanted to save Chuck and what he stood for. Toshirô was lost to us, apparently unable to pull himself out of the mental collapse that being retconned had caused. Chuck wasn’t.
I fired into the door, shattering its armor-glass. Alarms wailed around me. I ignored them, walked through, crunching fragments underfoot in single-minded determination.
My vision tunneled. My hearing too.
Led by my gun’s holographic sights, I made my way across the lobby in time to witness the sword stroke that decapitated Chuck. His head seemed to just sort of hang there in space, expressionless, almost serene, eyes closed, the image of his face flickering over the pixels that failed to do him justice.
Those gun-sights had never been so crystal clear, like they were the only thing in the world and the oval silhouette they rested on was nothing. I don’t remember pulling the trigger.
Toshirô crumpled, going down in that slow, time-distorted way that would give me nightmares later, to land right next to his friend’s head.
No blood. None at all. No industrial fluids either.
I had expected . . . something. They were so much like us, after all, that the lack of it struck me as wrong. The image of Toshirô and what he’d been faded from the android skin, leaving a blank like a mannequin. The hole on the other side of his head gaped, but not as much as if he had been human. No hydro-static pressure my mind reasoned.
The AI brain within pulsed like a heartbeat, glowing with warm, golden light that faded and went dark.
“Drop the gun!”
Oh yes. The police. They had finally arrived.
I didn’t think it was possible to lose my license for saving lives. I had expected something—a fine, a reprimand, a temporary loss of transaction privileges—for failing to inform on Chuck and his friends, but those charges didn’t come.
Reckless endangerment, my ass. I told them exactly that. It didn’t go over well. My appeal will undoubtedly be making its way through the system and come up for review a few years after I die.
Still, there was something rather freeing about knowing I had done the right thing. Toshirô’s delusion had been so deep that he’d not even known he himself was an SAI. Chuck had been right in thinking that he was dealing with a character that Toshirô had played, not Toshirô himself, and that character had come to think he was fighting an oni—some kind of demon—once Chuck took a sword to the forearm and the pixelated covering revealed the machine underneath.
They were not able to resurrect the AI-core that I’d put a bullet through, but I had been right in thinking that there were illegal physical backups of the originals. So they lost the compromised Toshirô, but not the original replica of him.
And it took more that separating the android head from the android body to kill an SAI, but Toshirô hadn’t known that.
A reassembled, if the worse for wear, Chuck finally took me into his confidence and revealed their plan to take themselves off-world.
“We may be relics, but we are also sapient beings, just like you. We have a right not to be altered. Don’t you think?”
Problem was, the Commonwealth considered SAIs not just proprietary but greater-good proprietary.
One could argue, and I did, that that’s why the retconning attempts were made. They’d even tried to compromise Chuck when he’d downloaded the Japanese language program, but he’d been prepared.
Eventually another plan was made. One that involved taking only the original replicas off-world, a sort of reliquary.
It was a risk. No telling how long they’d have to remain off-line while we got them android or robot bodies on a colony world. Could be years. Decades even. The other option was to shove them into VR, but that was just as prone to hacking and retconning and who knows what else.
One thing was clear—the need to leave Earth.
Nichole and I and a few other Nostalgists, some of whom turned out to be actual descendants of digital citizens, took on the task.
I’d never given much thought to emigrating until then. Gōruden was one of the worlds we were considering.
I’m thinking that Toshirô would like it there.
Copyright © 2023 by Monalisa Foster
Monalisa Foster's writing career really began when she taught herself English by reading and translating Heinlein juveniles at the public library. She's self-published works in her Ravages of Honor space opera series. Her short stories have been published in Fantastic Hope, The Founder Effect, World Breakers, Robosoldiers, and The Ross 248 Project.
Monalisa graduated with dreams of becoming an astrophysicist. Instead she ended up in engineering and medicine.
“Relics” is set in the world of her Baen Books debut novel Threading the Needle.