Matthew Scott Baker
"Are you ready, Sarah? We’re about to begin the next phase of the testing."
The human female voice from the speaker sounded cold and distant in the sterile room. Sarah Brigham nodded slightly from underneath the dark helmet; she would have replied verbally, but the voice module wasn’t activated yet and wouldn’t be until her mind had reached its destination. "Very good," the voice continued. "Stand by for neural-stream transmission."
Around her, in the small, cramped room, machines whirred to life. In the ceiling, a small fan kicked on to prevent the air from getting stale and the gentle wind chilled her naked skin where the feeds from the equipment led in. She could feel goose bumps rising quickly.
The helmet covering her head suddenly flashed and the display screen in front of her eyes flickered into view. She blinked twice to adjust her vision and then quickly began to calibrate her systems. Her fingers moved rapidly inside the heavy black gloves as they flew over virtual controls; the gloves were bolted into her seat, so her arms weren’t physically able to move, however the nerve impulses firing in her brain instructed the computer how to react and thus simulated actual motion.
The retinal display screen flashed green as each of her life-support functions was checked and double-checked to ensure satisfactory readings. Then, as the system acknowledged her bio-readings, a large, thick hose slowly descended from the ceiling and attached to her helmet. There was a loud click as it locked into place and then the speakers next to her ears came to life, announcing a successful connection.
"UMBILICAL INSERTION COMPLETE," said a rigid, electronic voice.
"BIO-READINGS NOMINAL. BEGIN NEURAL TRANSMISSION."
Her display grew dim and she began to feel the pull of sleep as various chemicals were poured into her body through the feeds. She absently noticed the rising whine of the machines around her as several of them sped up, as if someone had pushed a turbo switch.
And then she felt her mind slip away.
Awareness came with a jolt and she could sense herself jump a bit as she suddenly came awake. As expected, her limbs felt heavy and they almost burdened her as she fought off the drowsiness. Sarah blinked and lifted her head; it felt like it weighed a ton. And, she thought, now it literally does. She focused her eyes on the window across from her and smiled to herself. Behind the window, she could see her small, frail body lying in the chair with all the hoses and tubes running in and out of it. How odd it was to see yourself in the next room; few people in the world would ever get this chance.
Which means, she scolded herself, that its time to get the testing underway. She looked down at her hands, the dark metal casting no reflection as she flexed her fingers and wrists. Everything appeared to be in order. The display screen showed all of her systems functioning at 100% capacity, so it seemed the programmers had finally gotten the bugs out of the code. In the upper right hand corner of her display, a bright green icon lit up: DATALINK ACTIVE; although her mind was now in the robot, the main computer back in the control center still sent and received information to and from the robot. Things like temperature, environmental humidity, and other readings were done automatically, basically without Sarah’s knowledge, and fed back into the control center. This also allowed the main computer to send updates on schedules and tasks to be completed. The datalink was completely separate from the mind-transfer, but it was still comforting to know it was there.
The cold female voice sounded in her headset.
"Ok, Sarah, we’re reading a successful neural impression on our end. Are you ok to proceed?"
Sarah nodded, her gigantic robotic head moving up and down, affirming her status. She slowly stood and listened as the gyros and gears in her legs hummed, the hiss of the hydraulics spewing loudly like an angry snake. She’d been in the testing phase of the program for three months now and this part of the start-up had become routine.
"We’re sending you the coordinates for today’s test now. Uplink confirmed, data transmission is commencing." A stream of data scrolled down the right hand side of her display; she quickly analyzed it and confirmed her destination. Activating her voice module, she replied.
"Destination confirmed," she said. It wasn’t her true voice, just an electronic phonic synthesizer that was part of the robot’s design. There was no change in pitch or tone, she noted; just a single, monotonic voice. "Heading to primary testing site now."
The behemoth robot her mind now occupied was twenty feet tall and weighed over five tons. She glanced down at her steel frame and metal skin periodically as she slowly lumbered over the desert terrain, still in awe after all this time of the technology involved in this project.
Sarah was part of a revolutionary experiment that enabled human beings to remove their conscious minds from their bodies and implant them into a giant, robotic drone. Thanks to a wet-wired, neural network within the machine’s head, a transplanted human consciousness would have all of the memories, all of the habits, all of the personality traits that made them who they are every day. The difference was just the shell that housed those attributes. Unlike telepresence systems that forced an operator to compensate for seconds or minutes of time lag, this process let the operator experience and react to the situation in real time.
With the resources of the Earth and inner planets all but exhausted, the human race needed a new source of raw materials -- and a place where it could continue to grow. It had been discovered decades before, when the space program was renewed, that human bodies were too fragile to withstand the awesome forces involved in hyperspace travel. But only hyperspace travel could allow exploration of enough star systems to find a new home for humanity in time to avoid disaster. Many attempts had been made to discern a feasible solution to the human frailty problem, and many lives had been lost in the resulting failures. Hugely expensive and hugely unsuccessful tests proved more than once that no artificial intelligence could handle the task of dealing with circumstances their programmers could never have imagined -- so unmanned probes and autonomous robots were not the answer.
Only a human mind could be expected to face unfamiliar and unpredictable conditions and survive. Only a robotic body could survive a hyperspace journey unharmed. Which led, at last, to the current exercise.
Sarah was not clear on how the mind transmission technology, commonly known as ‘mind-jumping’, had been discovered, but it quickly became a heated topic all over the globe. When the scientific community made its intentions known regarding the use of this new technology, many debates sprang up, most from fanatical religious groups. Removing one’s mind from one’s body was also removing one’s soul and thus committing the most serious blasphemy known to God’s Word. Undaunted, however, the scientists moved forward with their research and the experimentation began.
Sarah was one of twenty test subjects who were helping to work the kinks out of the technology. There had been random flaws in the computer system’s code, but so far, there had never been a lost mind or even an injury during all of the human testing. Once the tests were completed and passed safely, the robots would be placed on an interstellar ship and launched to the first of the planets to be explored. Sarah and her fellow test subjects would wait until the robots arrived on the planet and then their consciousness would be sent via hyperspace data links to their metallic hosts. They could then move around freely on the new world, even though their actual bodies would remain here on earth. The testing was close to conclusion; there were just a few more scenarios the scientists wanted to work with first.
Sarah’s ‘bot’, as the robots had been affectionately nicknamed, spent the rest of the day in a deep canyon west of the laboratory, working on a cave-in scenario. Her test was a success and several hours later she arrived back at the lab. As her robotic body maneuvered itself into its shutdown harness, she glanced once again at her human body through the window. She was always thankful for the return, although the extraction of her mind from the robot could sometimes be a little tense. Apparently, the human brain didn’t take it too well when twenty-nine years worth of memories and thoughts were suddenly poured back into it.
Oh well, she thought. At least I’m able to come back, period. She’d given a lot of thought to the possibility of her mind being trapped within the body of the robot; it was just one of the risks of the job. There was a fail-safe system in place, an "ejection" system of sorts that could auto-extract a mind from its ‘bot in the event of an emergency, but it was very strenuous on the human subject and could sometimes cause heart attacks; the subjects were advised only to use it in extreme emergencies. But, this mission was for the good of mankind and, although the prospect of being forever encased in a steel body horrified her, she was determined to help the species.
"Welcome back, Sarah," said the female voice. "Prepare for neural-stream extraction." Once again, sleep slowly crept up and tugged her down into its embrace. Sarah watched her body through the window until she lost consciousness.
Two weeks flew by, with various tests and trials for the ‘bots. The test subjects aced them all and the ‘bots performed exactly as expected, with no more glitches or malfunctions. There were, however, kinks with the public relations aspect of the program; three different religious groups had demanded the program to be terminated immediately or "further action would be taken," as they had all three claimed. Every member of the project held the silent fear that these groups would go to extremes to accomplish their objective; hopefully, they would not be given the chance. The facility had some of the best private security that money could buy. Even if there was an "incident," the project and its people should be safe.
Finally, it was time for the launch. Sarah gathered with the other test subjects in the multi-windowed lounge and watched as the ‘bots were ushered into the cargo hold of the behemoth shuttle. Without a human consciousness inside of them, the ‘bots were controlled by remote from the control center, acting out commands given to them by the main computer here at the base.
This was an exciting step for the program, but Sarah felt a certain degree of nervousness; once her mind was sent into the ‘bot, she would technically be light-years from home. It was exhilarating, but terrifying at the same time. Although the testing had gone off without a major hitch, the possibility for damage to the ‘bots during hyperspace or loss of neural-link signal due any number of reasons hovered at the edge of her mind.
An hour later, with a blast that seemed to shake the very heavens, the shuttle was launched into space. The control center was a hive of activity as technicians and scientists monitored the ship, the ‘bots, the interstellar path to the new planet, and various other critical components to the mission. The tiniest of miscalculations or unforeseen events could ruin the entire project.
Once past the Earth’s moon, the hyper-jump engine was activated and the ship was propelled out of normal space. Then, it was all out of the control center’s hands; all the project members could do was wait.
The waiting was the worst part for Sarah. During the testing and the training, she’d never even thought about what she would do while the ship was in hyperspace. There was really nothing to do. Her mind and body both were wired by the thought of the task that lay before her; any attempt at distraction, such as reading a book, watching a movie, or even trying to sleep, failed. So, she spent a lot of time just hanging around the control center, pretending to understand what was going on while the attendants busied themselves with their tasks. It was much better than being alone.
Eleven days, three hours, and twenty-six minutes later, the control center received a confirmation signal from the shuttle: it had reached its destination and was obtaining an orbit around the new planet. Sarah and the other ‘bot-controllers were ordered into their control mechanisms to prepare for the neural transmission. As she buckled into her seat, Sarah felt an odd apprehension trickle through her for no apparent reason. Performance jitters, she thought, and dismissed it.
The shuttle touched down on the alien soil without incident and the control center on Earth issued the command for the ‘bots to exit the ship. There were no camera feeds that could reach that far into space, so the only instrumentation the techs on Earth could rely on was the signal responses from the shuttle and the ‘bots. As she slipped the dark helmet over her head, Sarah could picture the ‘bots all standing single file in a long row outside of the ship’s hull, like a line of tin soldiers. It almost made her smile.
A voice came through the speaker; it wasn’t the cold female voice as before. This time it was the electronic voice of the computer. Since control had been given over to it at the beginning of the mission, human contact would be a bare minimum until the objective was completed.
"UMBILICAL INSERTION COMPLETE," said the rigid, emotionless voice.
"BIO-READINGS NOMINAL. BEGIN NEURAL TRANSMISSION." The machines sprang to life and began their quick power up.
The usual light-headedness crept in and then suddenly, she was away.
The testing and training had prepared her for many things that could happen while inside the body of the robot, but it had not prepared her for the sight she saw when her steel eyelids fluttered open. As her self-awareness flooded into the ‘bot, she lifted her head and surveyed her surroundings. She would have gasped if the ‘bot had had lips. The planet was beautiful; full of lush foliage every color imaginable. Across the plain from where the shuttle had landed, a tall waterfall cascaded down from a bluff forty feet above. The bright blue pool beneath it was wide, ending on this side with a rocky shoreline. Gazing upward, she noted how the few clouds looked almost translucent as they slowly crept across the sky.
Her heads-up display suddenly came to life and her robotic sensors began to receive and process a wide array of data. Temperature readings, atmospheric contents and conditions, mold, pollen, and bacterial counts…all of these and more scrolled across her display. Up in the right-hand corner of her screen, the bright green DATALINK ACTIVE message appeared. She turned and looked beside her. The rest of her robotic counterparts were reaching self-awareness like her and taking in the landscape as well.
Abruptly, the flow of data stopped in her display and command prompt appeared directly in the center of her vision. A serious of bold typed instructions slowly rolled across the screen. The computer from the control center on Earth was transmitting sets of instructions to each of the units. After quickly analyzing her instructions, she pulled up a 3-dimensional map of her surroundings, checked her coordinates, and then headed off. Around her, the other ‘bots were also receiving their instructions and then leaving to carry them out; contact between the individual ‘bots was limited, used only for emergency situations.
Sarah felt alive and invigorated, even in the steel frame her mind now occupied. How exciting to be a part of this! Not only were they helping to save the human race, Sarah and her fellow ‘bot-controllers were also making history; this was unprecedented in the timeline of mankind. They were technically astronauts of sorts and were definitely the first people to set foot on a planet outside of their solar system. These thoughts carried Sarah through the afternoon as she completed her task.
As dusk arrived, the ‘bots trickled back in to the main shuttle area. Sarah was the fourth one to arrive back and she immediately began to prep for shutdown. Although her conscious mind wouldn’t be extracted for several days, until all of the mission objectives were complete, the ‘bots were to be brought in every day as the sun was setting and then powered down for the night. The purpose was to give the uploaded minds a chance to rest; with their minds now residing in the ‘bot, they had almost no physical limitations, but the human psyche remained delicate. The shutdown mode on the ‘bot would allow her mind to enter a trance-like state that would simulate sleep; it was discovered that extended sleep-deprivation while a mind was inside a ‘bot could lead to mental breakdowns and possible insanity.
Sarah found her mind wandering as she went through the shutdown procedures. She was not tired in the least, even though the day had been rigorous. As she’d done her instructed tasks throughout the day, she also noted points of interest and curious things as she passed by them, hoping she would get the chance to inspect them further. But, the computer back on Earth gave her no leisure time; as soon as one objective was completed, a new one immediately replaced it. It wasn’t fair, she thought. It wouldn’t hurt to explore on their own a little bit. The whole purpose of being here was to gather data. What better way than to randomly wander around and find interesting things to question about?
An odd idea began to make its way into her mind. Could she sneak out tonight while the shutdown was in progress and go see the sites that she noted to herself? Was that even a possibility? Even in the dark, she would have no problem seeing; her robotic lenses corrected for any amount of light that was present, and even did so in the absence of light. Her sight in darkness was the same as if it were at noon on a sunny day. But could the power-down protocols be over-ridden? And secondly, should she even attempt this?
What would the control center back on Earth do, she thought to herself, shut me down and extract me? No, not after all the time and money they had spent to train her. This was the future of the species that she was helping to preserve. The worst they would do was verbally reprimand her and how bad could that be? Certainly worth getting to see a few side items here on the new planet.
That settles it, she thought. It was worth the risk. She quickly loaded and scanned through all of the mandatory commands the Earth computer would send to her unit for the shutdown. None of them contained any solid command to power down her ‘bot; all she would have to do is wait until all of the other ‘bots were in sleep mode and then she could slip away.
As the last of the ‘bots settled in for the evening, Sarah moved away from the rest of them, towards the edge of the landing site. Then she methodically powered down a few of her systems, giving the appearance that she was entering the shut-down phase, but stopped before getting to the core programs.
After twenty minutes, it appeared that everyone was offline. She waited twenty more minutes just to make sure she wasn’t noticed, and then quickly powered up all of her systems and, as quietly as possible, slipped away from the landing site. Her destination was an odd rock formation she’d seen about a quarter of a mile from the landing site; it looked interesting because there was an orange mineral vein running the entire length of a gigantic boulder that was resting against a small bluff. It almost looked like paint. Possibly from an alien species. Her mind soared with the possible implications of that scenario.
Following a small trail through the brush, she carefully picked her way over the rocky terrain. The going was slow, but for good reason; a slip or a misstep could send her hurtling down the side of the hill, into one of the many ravines that abounded here.
Thirty minutes of walking and she arrived at the boulder site. As she approached the massive rock, she realized it wasn’t a lean-to she’d seen, but a cave. The opening was huge, big enough to drive a truck through. How odd, she thought. It was almost hidden, as if this structure had been intentionally created to cast shadows and create the illusion. She glanced at her scanners and the short-range radar, but both only gave her information as far as the entrance to the cave. For some reason, neither could penetrate the rock any further.
This definitely required some investigation, she thought. After double-checking her systems to ensure everything was still running within parameters, she stepped into the cave. Through her night-vision, she made out a long tunnel in front of her that spanned several hundred feet into the rock. A white mist covered the entire dirt-floor, hanging just an inch or two off the ground. Eerie, she thought.
Gingerly she took a few steps forward. The mist puffed up with each step she took, as if she were walking on baking flour. It felt like she was bogging down, as if something was pulling on her feet. But she slowly plodded on.
About a hundred feet into the cave, she stopped and turned around to look back at the entrance; her systems were not able to navigate the cave via radar and were also not tracking her movement as she ventured deeper. Something was very wrong. A sudden tinge of fear pulled at her mind. She had come to terms with the fear of possibly being trapped within this steel, robotic body, should something happen back on earth; but new terror welled up within her as she pictured herself lost, trapped in a maze of underground caverns, with no radar or systems to guide her. The thought was horrifying. As she stared back in the direction of the cave opening, an overbearing sense of claustrophobia slammed into her and she panic surged through her like adrenaline.
Sarah had never felt fear like this before; she quickly began to scramble back towards the entrance. Her metallic hands clawed the sides of the cave, as if she could pull herself forward and hurry her exit. In her visual display, several of her bio-readings suddenly turned red, indicating they were moving into dangerous territory. The fear she was sensing within the ‘bot was being transmitted back to Earth and physically affecting her human body!
As she reached the cave opening, she forced herself to calm down. She had to slow her heart rate down now, or she could potentially cause her human body to have a heart attack. In her mind, she went over several of the calming exercises they had been taught in training. After a few moments, she had her fear quelled and a new sense of peace settled in to her being.
That was when it happened.
A video box suddenly appeared in the middle of her display and filled with static, startling her. What was this? She’d never seen a video feed before. The, she saw the Emergency Feed indicator at the bottom; she was receiving a priority emergency protocol from Earth! The picture was garbled and kept fading in and out with static. In it, an older woman with white hair and dressed in a gray smock was speaking frantically into the camera, her face almost contorted with anguish. Behind her, bright lights flashed and blurs of motion crossed back and forth on the screen.
Sarah made some adjustments to the sound and finally got bits and pieces of the message as it faded in and out like the video.
"… fanatics stormed the compound … must extract … no coordinates … bomb --"
A blinding flash of light filled the screen and the woman screamed, a horrified screech that was abruptly cut off as the video screen went dark.
Sarah stood in awe of what she’d just witnessed. Who was that woman? And what was she talking about? The bright light at the end had looked like an explosion of some sort. The last word she said chilled Sarah: BOMB.
Recognition pulled at the back of her mind; that voice sound familiar. And then, with a startling realization, she remembered where she’d heard it.
The woman in the video was the cold, female voice she had heard every day during training! Sarah had just witnessed her death, which meant --
The green DATALINK ACTIVE indicator in the upper right hand part of her screen suddenly went dark.
A pit formed in Sarah’s stomach as she stared at where the indicator normally was. She quickly ran a diagnostic on the ‘bot. As she’d feared, everything was running normally. The only time that indicator should go off is when the data transmission between her body and the ‘bot was severed. And the only time that should be severed was during the extraction.
But she was still in the ‘bot.
Don’t panic, she told herself. Stay calm. There was still the emergency extraction unit. She’d never used it before; none of the test subjects had. But, it was understood by all of them that if they were ever in an extreme emergency situation, they could activate the system and immediately be yanked back to Earth.
A thought suddenly struck her as she was contemplating the emergency extraction; had the others back at the ship seen the message from Earth? She had to get back to them and check. Maybe together they could make some sense of all of this.
Heading out of the cave, she broke into a quick trot and began down the trail. Each footstep fell with a massive clang as the huge steel boot hammered into the ground as she ran. Can’t go too fast, she thought. It would be difficult enough to maneuver on the small trail; and, it was a long way down to the bottom of the ravines.
Movement to her left caught her eye as she ran. Something in the underbrush was rustling around in the branches and making an awful fuss. She glanced sideways out of instinct, but could not make out what it was. Can’t worry about investigating now, she told herself. She turned back to the trail and immediately realized she’d made a horrendous mistake. Her foot hung in empty air for a moment and then she felt the gut-wrenching sensation of being off-balanced as she toppled forward. While looking at the brush, she’d missed the small curve in the trail and went straight instead. And plummeted into the ravine.
Within her mind she screamed as her steel body tore through the brush and plummeted down the stone walls, crashing into rock outcroppings and logs on the way down. Each impact crumpled and smashed part of her metal frame, but her display remained thankfully intact; the ‘bot was designed to withstand a beating, but nothing like this. She fell forever but then, with a final screech of metal, she slid across the rock face and then landed in a mangled heap on the ravine floor.
Dazed and terrified, Sarah lay there for a moment, trying to collect herself. Although she had felt no pain while falling, she was extremely disoriented from rolling over and over as she’d hurtled down the hill. She noted that she was lying on her backside; her eyes were still open and staring up into the dark, star-lit sky. Also, she noted, both of her legs were bent backwards underneath her, giving her ‘bot the appearance of someone folded in half the wrong way.
As her senses came back into being, she quickly ran a diagnostic check on all of her systems. The battery core for the ‘bot was still intact and operating at one hundred percent. That was very good news. But her mind numbed as the system reported she had no mobility at all. The fall had mangled her limbs and damaged servomotors to the point where she couldn't even twitch.
She was stranded in this empty ravine!
There had to be a way out. If she called the others, they could rig cables and pull her up; they might even be able to repair the damage with the spare parts and tools on the shuttle. But, as she checked more and more of her systems, she grew more and more frightened; she had power in the battery, enough to last about fifty years, but her short-range communications systems had failed along with her legs and arms.
Her mind scurried for another answer. What about the emergency extraction unit? She had wanted to wait until she convened with the others back at the ship, but that wasn’t going to be possible. It seemed to be the only way out. Reaching over to her left forearm, Sarah disengaged a magnetic lock on her outer skin and flipped open a small compartment. A tiny display flickered on and the words EMERGENCY NEURAL EXTRACTION SYSTEM scrolled across the monitor. Thank God, she thought! It would be heartbreaking to go home now, but at least she would be alive.
Flipping the switch beneath the monitor, she watched as a short countdown popped up on the display:
5 SECONDS TO EXTRACTION
And then the timer began.
She quickly powered down what systems were still functioning; better to leave the ‘bot as idle as possible for now, just in case someone showed up to retrieve it later.
This is it, she thought and inside her mind she cringed with anticipation. The abrupt trip back home was supposedly pretty rough.
Sarah waited a few more seconds.
Something was wrong. But what? The extraction system appeared to be intact and she even got the confirmation. What could --
And suddenly she knew. The last word the woman from the emergency video had said: bomb. Someone had gotten into the facility and set off a bomb. The lab had been destroyed. That would explain the loss of her uplink indicator as well as her inability to extract her mind through the emergency system. But that meant her body was gone, also…
Sheer terror bellowed up inside of her as the depth of her situation sank in and darkness began to descend upon her mind. Mustn't panic. The others will find me, at least get me out of this. But they won't even start looking until the shutdown period ends. Suddenly the idea of shutdown seemed very appealing. Sarah triggered the command sequence to 'go dark' for several hours. Her vision dimmed, and she let her mind drift ...
She was awakened by a faint vibration picked up by the 'bot's low-frequency sound sensors. To her left, a bright light illuminated the dark horizon and she saw the shuttle rise slowly above the canyon lip and up into the sky. A moment later, it was gone as it streaked out of the atmosphere. They've left me behind!
The other 'bot operators must have reached the same conclusion that she had -- the mind jump facility had been attacked, and at the very least, the communications systems that would allow them to return to their bodies had been damaged. They had decided to attempt the trip home in their metal bodies -- there was some chance that they could be transferred into cloned bodies or at least more humanoid 'bot bodies, even if their own flesh-and-blood selves were gone. But they had no idea where she had gone, and with her communications and tracking systems mangled, no way to find her.
Still, they should have waited, should have tried -- she had only been gone for -- ten days? The shutdown system had malfunctioned along with everything else, failing to awaken her on schedule. Maybe they had found her, but she hadn't responded to their attempts to communicate, hadn't moved -- had looked dead.
Soul-crushing despair washed over her like a tidal wave. She would never be able to leave this metallic body, nor this planet.
Sarah Brigham’s mind was trapped and there was no way out, not even death; the ‘bot’s battery would last another half a century before it gave out. If she used shutdown mode, she might never awaken -- and her dreams would not be pleasant ones. If she didn't use it, her sanity would erode from the equivalent of REM-sleep deprivation.
In the darkness of her mind, she cried.
Bio: Matthew Scott Baker currently works in Logistics for a major transportation company in northwest Arkansas, but spends the wee hours of the night working on story ideas. This is his first publication. He lives with his wife and three children in Farmington, Arkansas and would love feedback on his story.
E-mail: Matthew Scott Baker
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