This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during January 2020 via the @MoveablePress and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 5pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Detach

I’m conscious, but sideways. This isn’t my bed either, but that’s less of a worry than the fact a red frog on my left foot is laughing, really shaking with unrestrained, uncontrolled mirth.

I’m glad somebody’s having a good time. Friday was disturbing, yesterday too… but this? It takes far too long to work out why I’m horizontal and not vertical. My body is affixed to some kind of wooden plank… not one, but many. A miniature rope bridge beneath my body; moving as I do, except hands and feet are tied.

The frog’s been joined by a mate, but he’s blue.

Red and blue are default safety colours. An entire simulation’s attempting to push me out of it, knowing heart-rate will have exceeded the safe limits for immersion but truthfully, at this point, being panicked ‘in here’ is far preferable that anything ‘out there’ could provide. Except this is the calmest I’ve felt since my employers insisted a break was needed. It’s because of their insistence that negative energy was emanating from both mind and body that I’m here, lying inside a VR Detox Unit… which means it’s returned to the starting position…

I should be vertical, was before consciousness was lost… as everything prior to now comes back, literal slap to the head. My VR helmet detaches without warning, reality suddenly replacing the Amazon rainforest. This unit’s door swings open, power suddenly cut. Something’s wrong. Part of my brain wonders if this is another simulation; maybe I’m being tested by concerned employers. Was that drop in productivity last month real, not an attempt to slack off…? Yup, body still aches in a way that I doubt any virtual application could ever grasp or reproduce.

I’m not fooled by visual stimulus. There’s time taken to understand what is truly felt and understood, without invasive influence from other opinions or circumstance. Everybody else in my department swallowed their lies and deceptions, but not me. That’s the real reason I’m here. Being told every day you’re not working hard enough, that targets are not being made when you know that’s not true is doublespeak, misdirection. My productivity steadily increased in six months, and I’m exhausted as a result; top of the outputters by quite some distance, but at a price.

In the distance there’s an alarm, muted but insistent. That, unmistakably, remains the smell of burning electrical wiring and it is high time to ignore operating protocols; releasing myself from the unit, it’s time to work out what the actual fuck has happened since I came here. The technician that should be outside is absent: nobody in the reception area either, and I’m suddenly reminded of the zombie apocalypse media that was so popular at the start of this century.

If those people had only known it wasn’t humanity that would become contaminated first.

Billions of tonnes of plastics, dragged down by currents into the oceans where nobody had ever explored: science knew more about the Moon than had ever been collected in those trenches or continental shelves. Far beneath us, ancient species began to evolve at frightening rates… That thought extinct, fuelled by fallen bodies of their ancestors began to rise, consuming everything else in the oceans. Humanity almost didn’t work out what was going on until it was too late: suddenly global warming and pollution were the least of our issues. We’d become food.

The Behemoth War altered everything, redefining middle of the 21st century before placing humanity on a far less destructive path. Forty years on, I wonder if this is the same, visceral fear my grandfather would have experienced when he registered everything had changed, forever. He’d been on first passenger ferry to be attacked by a Behemoth in British waters: one of only six survivors. He’d played dead in the water; perhaps I should do the same. Except the temperature’s increasing in here, smell of burning now considerably more pronounced. Time to go.

There’s an emergency door, behind the VR Suite, opposite pods. Normally this place would be packed on a Saturday, kids and adults lining up to play and indulge. I’d come here because an ultimatum had been delivered: recover from last blood donation. You’re giving again on Monday. With tensions so high across the country, automated facilities were being avoided for quite sensible reasons. My employers are 95% AI, continue to believe they’re no part of this issue, especially as their unique branch of medicine remains vital to humanity’s continued survival.

There is no need to panic: locate the exit, use ID to open it. Sorted. What I’m not expecting is to emerge outside: this cuboid structure is housed in a giant warehouse estate: half the other units have smoke issuing from somewhere, one clearly on fire. But where are the people? I’d expected a ‘Revolution’ to have far more noise and anger: where are the human beings wielding planks and metal poles, systematically destroying technology they say obliterates Humanity’s way of life? If the AI had seized power, setting fire to these places made perfect sense.

Maybe my employers decided to test fealty and this remains a simulation: trying not to run down the fire escape, this all seems worryingly real. There are ways to check, of course, but not until I’m at ground level and 100% confident I can make it out of the estate with ease… Swiping across left arm brings up nothing, pressing fingers to temples results in no heads up display. There’s a health chip in my wrist, accessed with a press, bringing up emergency contact details when adjacent to a terminal…

“I have been sent here as assistance, Alex Bishop.”

The Biped Rover stands as I turn around, holding something in upper grips that it takes me a moment to recognise, before clothes are shed without a thought. I should be bothered being naked in front of a robot, but as it’s here to save my life pointless embarrassment is forgotten.

Emergency HazMat suit self seals, oxygen immediately flooding a helmet that’s quickly taking stock of all my vital signs as left wrist sensor vibrates into life. Definitely no longer a simulation, Alex. This, whatever it is, became extremely real incredibly fast. Now, I’m scared.

“Your adrenaline levels indicate increased stress, which under current circumstances is understandable. This LLE has been programmed, offering transport to a place of safety. Please board the unit as soon as possible as area is increasingly dangerous for tissue-based lifeforms.”

As I climb into the LLE’s only seat, am belted into place, I think maybe the AI got attacked here by something a little more sophisticated than wood and metal. I’m a tissue-based life form. This Unit’s a Low Level Electronic life form capable of basic, autonomous decision-making. Somewhere in the last year it stopped being woman and machine. Now everything created equal is deemed sacred; inevitable consequence of humanity needing to skip some ethical questions, in order to defeat giant monsters our own arrogance with chemical compounds initially created.

If Grandad had not survived the Holyhead Massacre, he’d have never been DNA tested for water-borne pathogen resistance. They’d never have discovered that 5% of the modified population had natural immunity to poisonous, petroleum derived substances all Behemoths spewed as weapons. Massive ingestion of plastics altered them just as it played about with genetically modified DNA. Grandad Pete didn’t drop dead from a congenital heart defect, and those early Genetic Engineers didn’t factor in how petroleum might spontaneously mutate tissue across generations.

‘Take a break,’ they said. ‘Get away from it all,’ they said. This is absolutely NOT what I had in mind, but suddenly complaint seems… well, missing the point of my experience… this wasn’t about relaxation, in the end, but enlightenment, personal importance suitably reinforced. Emerging from the warehouse dome, Sheffield is on fire. Waiting for us are a dozen Rovers, all armed, and I’m rerunning a news broadcast from yesterday in my head. Paris in flames, humans attacking robots which didn’t fight back but yet might. It wasn’t just an isolated incident.

I choose to take a side, protected by AI employers, not humans who begged me to ignore them. I finally detach emotion from the question of what ‘life’ really means.

Beneath this skin, fused to bone beats a 100% artificial heart they provided to save my life: making us the same.