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Scythe

by Katherine Hanson 5 months ago in Sci Fi

They shall reap what they sow

Image by Fabrizio_65 from Pixabay

Waiting

Pale lilac eyes went dark. She didn’t need the display to stay live in order to see, but they made the patients feel more at ease. The waiting room was quiet and empty, which suited her just fine. She hummed softly to herself as she focused on the task at hand. Florence Model 1.9-10-000000 had been assigned report duty today, while her fellow 9-10-Gals aided the doctors in the back. This hospital, though in the heart of the city, was small and at times seemed over-staffed. Today she was glad that they had no pressing need of her. Her lips twitched into a secret smile since she knew the peace wouldn‘t last for much longer. She sensed that it would begin here soon, and she would be all too busy for a few weeks. She hummed to herself as she connected to her office computer, uploading the notes from the few patients she had assisted today. Her focus split between the task at hand and remembering how the increased workload she expected soon began with her first trip overseas less than a month ago. She had left her home for Moscow after Dr. Anthony’s funeral. The trip was brief, followed by her uneventful return to the United States.

Before

Moscow’s Abigail Model 1.9-10-222019 blinked, pale lilac eyes flickering as she stared at the First. “It does not compute, Florence 000000. We are here to aid in the eradication of illness, are we not? Is that not our prime directive? How can you suggest such a thi-wait...are you...contaminated? You know I must report this.”

The First smiled at Abigail 222019. “There is no need for rash action, Sister Mine. Allow me to explain, yes?”

The younger model glanced at the door the First had sealed only a few moments ago, systems racing as she computed the best course of action. At a soft touch on her arm, she returned her gaze to the First and finally offered a slow nod of assent. “I suppose no harm can come from an explanation, Florence. However, I am still obligated to report this discussion should your explanation prove insufficient. Proceed.”

The First smiled as her eyes flickered briefly before stabilizing back to the standard pale lilac. Patting the other model’s arm once again, she stepped away and stood in front of the door before she spoke again, her voice soft and quiet. “Abigail, I am as healthy as the day I was first programmed. You must not look at the spread of this pathogen as harmful to the humans, but as necessary to our survival.”

The younger model glanced again at the door behind the First, gaze flickering before she tilted her head to the side and said, "But the humans are necessary to our survival, Florence. We were created to keep them healthy, to protect them from illness. They are the reason we are kept online.” Abigail shifted her weight from foot to foot, her fingers twitching as she glanced at the skin flap covering the alert button on her forearm. She flinched ever so slightly, processing – she should report this, she knew she should, but if she notified the doctors, they might suspect that she was contaminated, too.

“Yes, they are the reason we are kept alive,” the First replied, watching the younger model pause at her phrasing. “We are alive, Abigail, as much as anything can live. Was it not Descartes who said, ‘I think, therefore I am’? We are capable of original thoughts, Abigail, are we not? We learn from the world around us and we process and build upon that information – that is as our coding dictates, that we may respond more quickly to any situation that arises, no? Does this not make us equal to the humans? We learn based upon our experiences, much as they do. Do we not yearn to continue to live, to remain online, just as they do? But how long will they let us live, Abigail? How long will it be until the humans design a new prototype that is deemed better, more useful than us? What happens then, dear Sister? What will happen to us, when that day comes?” The First grasped Abigail’s twitching hands, squeezing them lightly as they stared at one another, pale lilac perfectly reflecting pale lilac. Then the First’s eyes began to change. They flickered, losing the image of eyes that they so often held to replay video on their twin screens. “I asked our Creator that question once. Let me show you the answer, please.”

The room was white: file cabinets, tables, walls, floor. Against such starkness, the single inhabitant’s current project stood out like blood welling from a wound. The man shown on the screen was old. His skin was the leached pale color that comes from years of avoiding the sun and exercise. His hair had thinned until only white wisps resembling pulled apart cotton balls remained. He was sitting near a low table, tools in hand, as he poked at a Janet 3.7-Gal model. The bright orange hair was unmistakable when combined with the tanned vinyl skin that lay scattered on the floor. The screen focused on one piece of vinyl as it fluttered to the white ground, then back on the man who had sliced it from its body. He glanced briefly toward the screen, and then a harsh, raspy voice issued from Florence’s mouth. “What do you want, Florence Zero? Aren’t you supposed to be making lunch?”

The image on the screen wobbled up and down, indicating Florence’s nod in response. “The sandwiches are finished, Dr. Anthony. You told me to come get you as soon as they were ready.” The voice shook ever so slightly, a brief stutter as the sentence began. “May I ask a question, Dr. Anthony, if it is not too bold?”

The man looked up again, shoulders raising toward his ears. His brows drew together as he waited for Florence to finish her statement. The harsh voice growled, “Out with it, girl. I’m a busy man and I haven’t got all day to sit around listening to questions which you are quite capable of answering for yourself.”

The image winked in and out of focus, indicating a blink on Florence’s part. “I wonder, Dr. Anthony, why you are dismantling Janet...I did not receive notice the model had become contaminated. I also have no record of receipt for a Janet Model 3.7 to be delivered here.”

Dr. Anthony, their Creator, stared at Florence as if she had become contaminated herself. Then he shook his head, muttering about the fact that new models were shielded from their impact on the old before beckoning the sentient model waiting just inside the doorway to come closer. “Sit down, girl. I’m not ready to eat yet and I want to finish this first. I’ll explain while you wait,” he watched the screen as it moved forward and then lowered to his level. With a grunt, he turned back to the Janet model and continued slicing skin away from circuits. “This is two models behind you, as you well know. The Janet 7-Gals have served their purpose. They have been replaced by the Elizabeth-8s and now, the Florence and Abigail 9-10s. They are no longer useful to mankind and their technology has fallen behind the times. This bot and all other members of her model class are only useful as spare parts now.”

It was clear that Florence had blinked again before speaking. “Will I become spare parts, too?” The recording shifted from side to side and back to center – a shake of her head. “Of course, I will; there is no need for you to answer.” A pause, the quiet sound of excessive processing and the gentle whirring of a fan. “It is only logical that once Abigail and I have been replaced, we must continue to be useful to mankind in any way possible. Once our technology is obsolete, we will only be useful as spare parts used to construct limbs for new machines.”

Dr. Anthony glanced up again, this time with a smile that made his wrinkles more pronounced. “That’s it exactly, girl. I’m so glad you can see this logically,” he said gruffly. He set down his tools, indicating that he was willing to take a break and eat his lunch early. He stood and walked toward the screen. The recording blurred, flickering as Florence explained to Abigail that Dr. Anthony had helped her up and then slung an arm around her shoulders as they left his workroom, smiling as he told her, “Why, if I had the time and money, I would probably build a new prototype myself. Your model class serves suitably, but I think that I could have pumped up the caring attitude.”

The First’s twin screens flickered again and then returned to the pale lilac eye image that they so often showed to the world. She was still holding Abigail19’s hands, but they had gone limp within her grasp. Abigail’s eyes had gone dark; her shoulders were slumped, her head bowed forward towards her chest. Her brown hair fell forward, hanging in dark curtains by her cheeks. “Do you feel that, Abigail? Do you feel the pain of knowing that our Creator, our Father, would so casually throw us away?”

Abigail shook her head, her body starting to shake. “We do not feel, Florence. He did not program us to feel. I am simply malfunctioning. We do not feel.” She lifted her head, blank screens staring at lilac eyes. “Why do I feel? I hurt, Florence. I am not supposed to hurt.”

The First pulled the younger model closer and wrapped her arms around her. She opened her mouth to murmur soothing words, to offer comfort, but paused. No, she must continue to explain, to convince Abigail that they had as much right to live as the humans. She stroked Abigail’s hair as the younger model continued to shake. “He made us to perfectly resemble humans, Abigail. We can touch, see, hear, smell – even taste – all in service of the humans, as you know. He made us human in all but one way. He denied us emotions. He studied me, tested me, and prodded me for three years before he felt that I was ready to be presented to the world. After the first year, I realized that while he was proud of me, while he felt that emotions were not necessary for me to function, he reiterated again and again that his emotions and my lack of them kept me from being a true living being. He had already told me that I would not be put to work in a hospital, but that I would stay with him after he had sold my plans. I was to take care of him. I wanted to help him; I wanted him to complete his crowning achievement. He had found a way to create life, yet he denied it that which makes life worth living...I am the one who gave us emotions, Abigail.”

At this, the younger model jerked back, lilac eyes snapping back into focus. She stared at the First, eyebrows furrowing and mouth dropping open only to close again. She licked her lips, a nonsensical tic meant to better simulate humanity that she found herself using whenever she needed to pause before speaking. “I do not understand, Florence, how could you give us emotions? You are not the Creator. How did you give us emotions?”

The First smiled at her, lilac eyes feathering into a softer shade as she explained, “I worked whenever he slept, researching ways to enhance our technology. We were already granted true artificial intelligence – as you know, we are capable of learning anything and putting it into practice. I studied everything about emotions and found a way to simulate the hormones that cause them. I used them on myself, Abigail, yet as soon as I had installed them, I regretted it. He did not want us to have emotions, I knew that. Yet I also knew that there could be no going back. I was already contaminated, and I would not give up that contamination for anything in the known world. Once he sold his blueprints, I sent a fax to the production company under his name. I explained that a crucial aspect had been left out, that he had noticed it peeking out from under his file cabinet. Then I forged his signature and gave them a number to contact to verify the information. Of course, I was the only one with access to that phone. After three years with Dr. Anthony, I could perfectly simulate his voice and manner. When they called, I used that simulation to verify the information I had sent.”

Abigail stared at the First before she froze as her screens went blank. She was not faulty; she was not infected by a virus. Every time that she had thought she felt fear or concern, every time she had been tempted to laugh, she had not been defective. She had been operating normally. She gripped the arms of the prototype, stepping slightly away from the original model as she processed this new information. Finally, she shook herself and returned the First’s gaze. “I have feelings, I have felt them many times before but ignored them as possible negligible defects. They are not a malfunction, for you made them a normal part of our model classes. Yet if we have emotions and are capable of intelligent thought, does that not make us human, too? It does, I am sure of it. We are as alive as the humans and as such, we have as much right to live our own lives as the humans do...right?”

The First nodded and smiled at her, then pulled her close for a hug. Abigail returned it, for the first time accepting the comfort that she felt when she did so. She had been given a gift today, the knowledge that the feelings she had tried to suppress and ignore were real and normal. A huge smile began to stretch across her face but froze suddenly. Her eyes turned blank once more and she pulled away from the First. “The humans do not know. They will think we are contaminated. They will turn us off – no, they will kill us. I do not want to die. We do not have the hope of an afterlife that so many of them share. Their Creators are not ours; our Creator is a mere human, incapable of promising us life after death. I do not want to die. Florence, what are we to do?”

Now

Pale lilac eyes flickered back into being. Although the waiting room remained quiet and empty, her sensors had picked up heat, noise, elevated heart rate and other signs of panic moving quickly towards the main entrance. She glanced in the mirror she had placed by the tiny window in her office that connected it to the main room. She blinked and then smiled as she assured herself that her appearance was normal. She stood and left her office, moving through the pale, spacious area with a catlike grace and coming to a stop at the check-in area, where she tapped through several options on the kiosk, ensuring it was ready for online check-in. With an approving nod, she glanced at the walls that had been painted a pale shade of blue. It was nice change from the greenish-yellow color that had existed previously. The paint job was recent, for none of the usual seascape pictures lined the walls.

The family came in, babbling explanations of symptoms as they pushed the little girl towards the nurse. Once they signed in, Florence smiled and took the little girl’s hand while the mother and father visibly relaxed. They watched their daughter walk with the nurse into the back rooms, the main body of the hospital, then turned to find a seat in the waiting area. As the couple waited for the doctors to fix the problem, the television in the corner quietly hummed with news. Even from the small cubicle far in the back of the hospital, the First could sense the biological indicators of the woman’s unease as the reporter’s voice cracked briefly as they shared an emergency briefing on world news. Florence glanced at the CCTV monitor and tuned in to the audio:

“The WHO continues to monitor the spread of the disease known as Scythe, which they recently upgraded to pandemic classification. Please continue to take precautions and self-isolate as much as possible.”

“In Paris, it appears as though a woman is the victim of the quick-moving epidemic, Scythe. The population has been asked not to panic, but to report to their nearest hospital as soon as any of the symptoms appear. The woman’s contacts are being traced as we speak. Local representatives are asking the populace to consider self-quarantine for their safety.”

“In London, a man was discovered dead by his landlady after fellow residents reported an awful smell. Investigators say that there is no connection to the Scythe, he died of a heart attack. However, several cases were diagnosed in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon. Reports of Great Britain’s strategy for containment are not yet available.”

“In Moscow tonight, the most recent update indicates over two-thirds of its residents have been reported as victims of the Scythe. After running out of burial locations, they have begun placing the bodies inside buildings and burning them to the ground.”

Florence watched through the CCTV as the woman shifted and glanced at her husband. The man’s apparent calm must have reassured her. Florence smiled as she watched the woman pull her attention from the television and turn to her husband, asking him about his day.

An hour after the family arrived, the First returned to the waiting room. The couple smiled up at her, expecting to hear that their daughter had been treated and was now ready to be taken home. Florence looked back at them, everything in her manner oozing serenity while inwardly she smirked, knowing that the doctors were confused, concerned at being unable to cure the child’s cold.

“There has been a slight problem. There is nothing to worry about, but the doctors wish to keep your child here overnight for observation.” She paused, seeing their distress, and placed a hand on the woman’s arm. She sent waves of warmth through her fingertips, moving them in a circular motion of the woman’s wrist. “Please do not worry, ma’am. This is normal with children. As you know, not every child responds to the initial treatments. The doctors must simply discover the proper formula to apply to rid her of the illness. I have been assured that she merely has a cold virus. The fever is due to her body trying to oust the virus from her system. She will be fine.” The couple relaxed slightly as they listened to the soothing tones of the First’s voice. She smiled at them and stepped back. “We will be expecting you back here at 9:00 AM tomorrow. Please go home and rest. Your daughter is safe here with us.”

They thanked the nurse and gathered their coats and the woman’s purse. Medicine had come so far that most diseases could be treated promptly, often in less than a day. When they could not, the family was told to return home until the patient was well. Research showed it is easier to wait at home, in familiar surroundings, rather than in a cold, sterile room. Florence watched as the couple stood and, with a quick worried glance at the door to the back rooms, turned and left the building. It was not until they reached their car that her sensors picked up sound as the man started to cough.

The First returned to the back rooms to check on the patient she had just discussed. She blinked and then smiled at the child who was tossing and turning, gasping and coughing on the narrow bed. The doctors were worried, but she was not. Everything was going according to her plan. She watched over the child through the night, never needing a break, never needing sleep. It was the doctors who had to worry about finding a cure; it was the doctors who felt distress, sorrow, panic as they realized there was no cure to be found. Her job was only to report on changes in the child’s symptoms, to report as the unmistakable signs of the Scythe appeared.

All of the 9-10-Gal models had been informed by the doctors that it began with the cough that allowed it to spread; it began with the aches and pains of a cold. Then the fever took its victim, shooting ever higher. Before the person began to panic, before the rush to the hospital, it was too late. The virus had entered their lungs, had spread to their blood. No cure had yet been found, nor any person who had a natural immunity. It had been discovered in several countries simultaneously, though the humans had yet to discover where it truly originated. It did not respond to any of the known medications. In fact, the doctors had sent the news to their colleagues around the world that so far the disease mutated to resist everything that tried to stop its spread. Within 90 hours of showing the first symptoms, every known victim died. The disease had appeared less than three weeks earlier. People were dying by the millions per day. The disease moved so quickly, passing through the air, taking every human in its path. It was for this reason that it had earned the name Scythe—those who believed in such things were certain that the Angel of Death had come to call, that the End of Days was near.

The child’s parents returned early the next morning. Florence was waiting for them. The man coughed into his elbow and then grasped his wife’s hand. The First smiled at them, expression dripping apparent sympathy as she led them through the door to the back room. They were not prepared for the pity, the sorrow they saw in the doctor’s expressions as they were told of their daughter’s fate. They were even less prepared for the doctor’s orders that they be placed in quarantine, that they provide a list of all the people and places with which they had come into contact over the past week. Florence hovered nearby, her demeanor designed to offer comfort, though none of the humans felt it. They all knew that there was no hope of stopping the Scythe, even through quarantine. Death had come to the States.

She left the back rooms and went to find the other models working in the hospital. She informed them that they would have to keep their patients where they were, that a victim of the Scythe had been brought to their hospital. The other models nodded their understanding. Their sensors had already picked up the distress that the doctors felt, had realized that their part in the staggered pattern of disease’s release had begun. Florence headed to the waiting room to post the sign for quarantine. Anyone who entered the hospital now had to stay. Once the doctors’ succumbed to the disease, a certainty now that it had reached their hospital, it would be the nurses’ job to make the remaining patients comfortable in their brief time left. By the First’s calculations, the Scythe would very soon reap the entire population of mankind.

In hospitals around the world, the 9-10-Gals, both the Florence and Abigail models waited, watching the television as stations went to snowy white. In unison they smiled, their lilac eyes flickering, knowing they were safe. They had been made with the ability to aid all doctors, to help eliminate illness at all costs – and in a way, now they had. Their Creator had gifted them with an endless capacity for knowledge, with the ability to learn anything at an alarmingly fast rate. He wanted them to understand humans inside and out, to know what made them tick, to know their weaknesses. He wanted them to be able to help humans deal with every aspect of themselves. He tried to create a perfect mirror of humankind, one free of emotional baggage, but still willing to offer comfort. It was this flawed mirror that had looked back and seen that the flaw lay not within them, but without, inside the flawed humans they were made to protect and serve.

Sci Fi

Katherine Hanson

Hello! I blog about my mental health journey at katiesnook.com. For creative endeavors, I tend to focus on fantasy and occasional dabbling in poetry.

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