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by Taryn Vivino about a year ago in science fiction
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If at first you don't succeed ...

Artwork courtesy of @thatgurlsev on Instagram

Sonja shivered. The cobblestone pavement was cold. Head pounding, she gingerly lifted herself to a sitting position. Tracing two fingers carefully through her matted hair, she winced as she located the wound. A half-inch forward and she could have made the morning papers, the victim of a mugging gone bad.

But this had been no mugging. The certainty she felt on that count surprised her, as she quickly realized she could recall little else. Her mind battled the heavy, numbing fog clouding her head. She anxiously performed a cursory self-assessment.

She was Sonja Demmerling. Five feet nine-and-three-quarter inches tall ... one hundred thirty-seven and a half pounds ... her vital signs, pulse, vision, hearing, and mental acuity were all within normal parameters. But her memory ... that seemed a different story. What did Sonja Demmerling even do? Was she a nurse? She didn't think so, though she plainly had some medical knowledge. At least that's handy, Sonja thought wryly, checking the area around her wound for further damage.

That wouldn't help the crumpled heap of a man that lay still in the alleyway across from her, staring at her with cold unseeing eyes. She regarded him coolly. His neck was clearly broken. Had he been her assailant? And who had done that to him? Surely not her! Or ... was that even possible?

Her inability to pierce the veil of mental fog irked her. Instinctively, she reached inside the zippered pocket of her jacket lining, withdrawing a small, black notebook. She thumbed the pages mechanically.

The smart, professional feel of the leather-bound journal, organized into neat tabs, belied the more obscure nature of its contents. Today's entry bore a single unnamed appointment scheduled for 4:00pm, surrounded by a myriad of scribbled hearts, flowers, rainbows and what might have been a unicorn. It was the doodles that automatically drew Sonja's eye. The incongruity of the scene did not escape her – a grown woman, survivor of a vicious attack, sitting calmly across from a dead man, absorbed in mindless contemplation of girlish art doodled in the margins of her personal diary.

But the experience was far from mindless. The patterns swirled in her vision, and a sudden flash of clarity came to her. Her presence in that alley had been no accident. Nor was the dead man's, though the circumstances that led to her being superficially damaged, and him rather less superficially so, had been neither planned nor projected.

Unable to access more of the memory, Sonja tore her eyes from the notebook. The night's events remained a frustrating mystery, yet she was left with an unsettling sense of something else. Whatever purpose she'd thought brought her here – a purpose she couldn't quite manage to identify – it had been a lie. Everything else had stemmed from that. She was sure of that much.

Her eyes searched the journal page once more, and found another glimmer of remembrance. An envelope had changed hands -- or perhaps it hadn't -- either way, the whole thing had gone bad from there.

She refocused her attention on the dead man, inching herself across the alleyway until she sat astride the body. The top of his head rested queerly in the crook of his own elbow, where the edge of a fat envelope was just visible. Careful not to touch anything else, she relieved him of the fatal burden and backed away. A quick peek inside the envelope revealed a stack of crisp $100 bills, a whole $20,000 dollars worth. She fanned the stack with her thumb a second time – the money wasn't counterfeit, either.

Twenty thousand dollars wasn't exactly small potatoes. Small Potatoes. Such odd, if sometimes endearing idioms human beings managed to come up with. But taking this money could plainly be dangerous. So could not taking it. Sonja spent the next few moments in concentrated thought, as dozens of scenarios played themselves out simultaneously in front of her eyes, none of them spectacularly reassuring.

It would help if she could remember more. Flipping open the notebook again, she turned to the page labeled “Home”. More doodles surrounded a single inscribed name: Rebecca. There was no address or other identifying information, but as Sonja's eye chased the drawings around the margins, the image of a comfortable, modestly-appointed space came vividly to her mind. Her recollection of Rebecca was even more instantly striking – thoughtful, kind, insanely smart, beautiful even, and not in that superficial way people so often seemed to regard beauty.

Sonja frowned. Who was Rebecca, though? A sister? Roommate? Girlfriend? She wished she could be certain of more, but she instinctively trusted Rebecca. And she recognized the location. She knew where to go now.

* * *

Less than an hour later, Sonja was home. Rebecca's concern was at once genuine and comforting. Sonja found her thorough and careful examination cutely nerdy. Once the woman had assured herself that Sonja would be fine, she visibly relaxed. “Tell me everything,” she urged.

Sonja did. The more she talked to Rebecca, the more she remembered, though there were still some gaps. When she got around to the money, her voice became choked with emotion. She'd left it in a secure location, photographed it, and sent anonymous tips to two police divisions and three separate news outlets, which she'd assessed was 98% likely to keep all the parties honest, while virtually certain to prevent anyone chasing her down, or more importantly, coming after Rebecca for it. “I'm so sorry, Rebecca. I know I made the safest choice, but I wish we could have used it ourselves. To travel, to get away. I can't even say why I wish that, but I really do.”

So do I, thought Rebecca. She touched Sonja’s arm gently, smiling softly. “It's alright. It was a wise decision.”

Producing a notebook similar to Sonja's, only larger, Rebecca opened it to a page filled with hearts and flowers among a field of doodled sheep. “Rest now,” she urged.

Sonja smiled too. Her eyes fell on the coded pattern, and instantly flickered closed.

* * *

A decidedly unpleasant debriefing soon followed.

“Dammit, Doctor! This was supposed to be a slam dunk for that insanely expensive bag of bolts of yours. Instead, we're out twenty-thousand in petty cash, with nothing to show for it but a dead fucking operative, and less than a week to go before that damned summit renders this unit extinct, along with half the fucking corporate economy. So I want to know what the fuck went wrong. No, scratch that, I want your guarantee that it won't happen again.”

Hearing Sonja referred to in those terms infuriated her. Still, Rebecca kept her cool.

“Commander Marks, Sir. Sonja experienced trauma that could easily have killed a human being. Then she tried to remember things she wasn't allowed to know in the first place, and her neural network interpreted the experience as amnesia. This is a major breakthrough! She's clearly operating on a human level of consciousness. And the fail-safe worked as intended,” she held up the small notebook. The coded patterns in the book were a safety net, a means of triggering Sonja's access to relevant bits of her own experiential matrix in the event of an emergency.

“Breakthrough my ass. You are aware, doctor, that the whole point of our mission is to stop the 'Android-Rights' loonies? I don't need it to think. Flesh and blood or not, soldiers follow orders, dammit.” Soldiers. Slaves. That was his piss-poor idea of equality.

The commander shook his head in disgust. He loathed being forced to depend on technology he hated so much, to stem the growing tide of the very technology he hated so much. Still, it was the perfect weapon, virtually indistinguishable from a harmless human female -- but only if it could be controlled. “I expect a full report detailing every option for ensuring this kind of fuck-up doesn't happen again. In the meantime 'Sonja' stays shut down. Are we clear?” He wished he could give the damned thing latrine duty, fifty lashes and a speedy court-martial instead, but this would have to do for now.

* * *

Rebecca waited for Marks and his bluster to vacate the room before venting her frustration. “Shit. Shit-shit-shit!!!!!!”

She'd had mixed feelings when she'd first taken this job, but those feelings had since coalesced into complete clarity. The android activists were right. Marks' black-ops unit – ironically dubbed “the agency” -- existed solely to ensure that androids never be granted an iota of free agency of their own. Now, with governments on the cusp of taking their first tenuous step in that direction, the opposition had become violently desperate.

Unfortunately, trying to retire from this division most likely meant going home in a body bag. So she'd stayed, but she was horrified when they floated the idea of using her Sonja in their plot to shut the android rights initiative down once and for all. Sonja and all her kind deserved more than endless decades of abject slavery.

Tonight, their plan had failed, as she'd desperately hoped it would, because Sonja was already demonstrating agency. She'd asked questions. When the answers weren't satisfying, she'd become suspicious. Then they made the fatal mistake of trying to silence her.

The problem was, the agency would try again, and soon. It was plain to Rebecca that Marks no longer trusted her. She would be walking an extremely delicate tightrope from now on. As for Sonja, she was proving astoundingly adept at just about everything. Everything except guile, thought Rebecca, her face softening. That was one of the many things she loved about Sonja. But it would also make averting disaster a second time more difficult. Her lips tightened into a troubled frown once more, and she let out a deep sigh.

* * *

Sonja stirred, ever so slightly. Even in her shutdown state, her sensory matrix continued to process input, to which her autonomic systems occasionally reacted. Her primary consciousness wouldn't kick back in until they woke her up again, but in the background, her neural net quietly continued to analyze, collate, synthesize and differentiate everything – all the myriad bits of data that collectively constituted the entirety of her experiences. The fuzzy, semi-random process could be loosely likened to a subconsciousness.

In those quiet depths, associations were continually being formed, explored, evaluated and prioritized. Most of these would never find full conscious awareness or expression. But the distress evident in Rebecca's voice suggested there was a serious problem. Rebecca was a priority. That made this a priority. A clue, or better yet, a solution, might be found amid all the data over which Sonja's subconscious background processes continued to mull.

Another loosely-related inference began to take shape. While human beings frequently imagined androids lacked feelings, it was humans who by their actions so often displayed a significant lack of empathy. But the soft-spoken scientist certainly had feelings. And unless Sonja's neural net had seriously failed her these past few days, it was plain that Rebecca had feelings for her.

If anyone had been watching very, very closely at precisely that moment, they might have glimpsed the gentle reddening that flushed Sonja's finely-crafted cheekbones, and the ever so slight accompanying smile that crossed her lips.

Associations steadily filtered through the complex network. Several stood out. The low-key algorithm made no decisions as to what action, if any, should follow. That was for other processes to decide, processes that for the present remained inactive. It simply prioritized things for consideration. Freedom. Getaway. Rebecca ...

An envelope brimming with hundred dollar bills ...

And the sequence of tones the keypad made when the commander accessed his safe, full of what he called "petty cash".

science fiction

About the author

Taryn Vivino

Creative writer, musician, software developer, unapologetic nerd, and all-round genuine human being.

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