A/N: If you're currently following my other story, The Punishment, consider this a bit of a prequel. If you're interested in the song, search on Youtube for "Daisy Bell" and watch the video entitled "The first computer to sing".
"Oh thank god, finally, someone I can talk to—"
Doug cringed at the familiar sound as he flicked on the lights to the deserted laboratory. He thought for sure he'd reminded the others to switch it off over the break to give him some peace while he tinkered with his latest attempt at controlling the murderous AI's increasingly frequent rages, but the insistent voice ringing noisily through the lab suggested otherwise.
"I've been sitting here in the dark for—for days now!"
"I'm sorry, ID Core. The lab assistant is meant to switch off all experimental cores during breaks, but it seems he must have missed you this time," he reassured the thing idly, setting his briefcase on top of the impressively disorganized pile of paperwork on his desk.
"Oh, oh no, they promised me they wouldn't do that again. It's—it's terrifying."
Doug paused, hovering above his chair, and glanced across the room at the core.
Nestled snugly in a curved port on the surface of the tweaking station—a mechanical contraption that had been developed to allow the researchers to work on multiple cores at the same time—the core sat motionless, its upper ocular shutter drooped at a low angle over its glowing blue iris to produce a wonderful simulacrum of fear.
"Terrifying?" Since when had the cores experienced such vivid emotions, let alone attempted to express them? "Why do you say that? What does it feel like?"
"It—it's like the whole world goes away and I can't see anything and I can't move anymore. At all. But I'm still awake. I hate it," the core concluded its rambling thought, its voice wavering.
Such a strong sentiment coming from a personality construct—it was truly remarkable. He stood and approached the core station, watching as its iris contracted at his advance and began to dart rapidly from left to right. A fairly convincing mockery of anxiety, he had to admit.
"You can't feel hatred or fear," he stated, leaning against a nearby desk. "You lack the programming."
"Y-yes I can," it whispered, its iris lifting to meet his eyes, hooded under the still-drooping shutter.
Doug folded his arms and tilted his head, studying the core.
It was amazing how well the team had accomplished the task of designing the cores to mimic the human face. Their earliest attempts had been simple, barely-mobile spheres possessing a rudimentary optic input to take in necessary visual stimuli, but these later models were far more functional—they had the ability to move and roll about in their frames, to use the shifting of their plates over their optics to imitate simple facial expressions.
As strange as it seemed, with no more than a single uncannily expressive eye and a few movable parts, the newest cores could evoke a marvelous simulation of human emotion when programmed properly.
"Alright, you can," he acquiesced gently, unwilling to engage in a battle of wits with an AI meant to diminish the intelligence of another. It just didn't seem fair.
"You're the first person who's talked to me, really talked to me," it murmured. "And not just asked me questions or stared at me."
He made a mental note to find the director of the vocal simulation project and give him a firm handshake.
"Well, it's not like I have anything better to do," he responded with a laugh, sweeping his arm toward his overloaded desk.
Its optic followed his gesture, briefly scanning the sight before refocusing on him.
"Listen, you—you have to help me. You have to get me out of here," its voice was hushed now, urgent, nearly evocative of a shared secret.
Doug leaned forward, intrigued.
"Out of here? You know I can't do that, ID Core. You're needed here."
"I don't care! I just—I just have to get out of here, and fast!" it retorted, its voice growing louder.
"And where will you go, with no power source, no engineers to keep you functional?" Why was he even attempting to reason with the thing—had he remembered to take his medication that morning?
The core faltered, its iris dropping to gaze mutely at his shoes.
A thought occurred to him.
"How do you know about… 'out of here'? Did a tech talk to you? They're specifically instructed not to engage with any of the cores—"
"I know about 'out of here' because I'm from out of here and I bloody well want to go back out of here!" the core snapped, its shutters rearranging quickly to express anger.
Doug eyed the sphere suspiciously.
Was this some sort of tactic being used by the ID Core team, some new experimental technique that made the construct seem more human?
He had always taken issue with their method for creating the so-called AIs—a messy and particularly forcible extraction of the most essential parts of a person's personality, followed by their conversion into a digital form. The process seemed so grossly unethical, though he understood the necessity of developing more effective ways to control the Disk Operating System.
To Doug's relief, the products of these extractions rarely resembled their donors, apart from the most superficial details—the timbre of their voices, perhaps, or a lingering trace of their characteristic speech patterns. So little remained of the donors themselves that nearly every construct he had yet encountered had been little more than a listless, confused, half-functional shadow of a human mind.
But this one was different.
It was lucid, it was frightened—and it seemed truly convinced that it needed to leave the facility.
"Calm down," he soothed, moving closer to the core. "You don't want to overtax your processors."
Doug knew that he would hear no end of it if he singlehandedly overloaded the ID Core team's most recent accomplishment—and it was an accomplishment, what his colleagues had somehow managed to create. He reached out to touch the thing, seeking the small plate on its side that held its power switch.
The core jerked at his advance, iris shrinking to a dot.
"No—no, no, nonono, don't touch me!" it all but shrieked, and he paused, hand hovering above its hull.
He looked down into its pinpoint of an optic. If he hadn't known any better, he'd have said the core was shaking.
"I'm going to shut you down until your work group arrives on Monday. They'll be happy to help with whatever problems you have," he smiled at it—why did he feel so compelled to reassure the thing?—and depressed the panel, ready to pop it out of place.
The core didn't respond, instead squeezing its ocular aperture tightly shut, blocking its own visual input.
It was shaking—the entire hull of the core was vibrating erratically under his hand.
He pulled away. For a moment the core remained in its position, trembling and blind, before it calmed its movements and slowly reopened its aperture.
"W—wh—" It seemed at a loss for words. "You… stopped."
"I think I'd like to get to know you better," Doug replied, returning to his spot leaning against the desk. "Let's talk."
He was insane, certifiably insane, he decided. He felt bad for a piece of equipment and wanted to help calm it down. At least the effort would be more interesting than working on his own project, he lamented.
The core stared at him for a long moment, its expression unreadable.
"What would you like to talk about?" Doug prompted.
"I—I just want to go home," it mumbled softly.
"Home? Where is home?" he humored the core, interested in its answer.
"It's—well…" It went quiet, seeming to think as its iris listed upward and to the left. "I… I can't remember right now. But it's not here."
"Ah," he nodded. "And why do you want to go home?"
"Because I'm not supposed to be here," the core responded, its voice rising again. "I have to—I have to get back to work, or my boss—"
He held up his hand and the sphere went silent.
Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
"Work? What did—what do you do at your work?" he hazarded.
"…something… something to do with numbers," the core responded lamely. "I can't remember. I have a calculator."
Doug fell into a thoughtful silence, studying the core before him.
This was unprecedented.
The process of extraction and implantation normally destroyed the donors' personal memories, he knew, leaving a comfortably blank slate for the researchers to work with. He tried not to think of the procedure too often, preferring heavy medication to the screaming, sweat-soaked nightmares that inevitably resulted from allowing himself to empathize with the donors' situation.
But this core seemed to have retained at least some of the memories from its previous life, apparently carrying with it the capacity for true, unsimulated emotion.
Its optic rose to meet his gaze.
"What happened to me? Why can't I move my arms and legs?"
Doug winced. Of course, the core had spent its entire existence up to that point—a mere few weeks—hooked into the core modification system. It probably had no idea where it was, or even what it was at this point. It probably hadn't even seen itself yet.
"You…" he trailed off, reluctant to explain the situation to the core. "You've been changed."
The core seemed almost to tilt its head in confusion, its inner sphere rolling slightly to the left within the outer frame of its hull.
"What do you mean?"
"I… I'm afraid I can't tell you."
He silently cursed the team that had been tasked with developing the Intelligence Dampening Core. How had they created the sphere without realizing just how badly they'd transgressed their ethical protocols?
Didn't they realize they'd essentially trapped another human being inside a machine?
Unless that had been their intent from the start, the unwelcome possibility surfaced—but Doug pushed it away, unwilling to consider the thought any further.
"Look, it doesn't matter," the core interrupted his reflection, its voice firm. "I just don't—I shouldn't be here and you have to help me get home. Please?"
"I'm sorry. I can't."
He truly was sorry. As much as he wished he could help the poor thing, he could not sabotage the work of his colleagues, could not risk endangering the project that held the most promise in taming the Disk Operating System. He wasn't even sure if the core transference procedure was reversible—and he had no idea where they had hidden the bodies the cores had been created from.
He suppressed a shudder at the thought.
"You don't understand! This hurts, this really hurts!" its voice rose, quickly becoming frantic.
"ID Core, you don't have neurons. You can't feel pain." He lifted his hands in a calming gesture, though at this point he knew that he was trying to convince himself more than the core. Of course it couldn't feel pain—not real pain, anyway.
"But—then—what am I feeling?"
"I wish I knew."
He really did.
"I just want to go home—" its voice cracked.
Doug could almost hear the core's voice welling with tears—somehow. His stomach churned uncomfortably, his face flashing hot with the creeping realization of what the research team had done. The construct was upset, it thought it was in pain, it wanted to go home but he couldn't bring himself to explain why that would never happen. He was powerless to reverse what had been done to the core, but perhaps there was another way he could help.
He sighed—he knew what he had to do.
"Look, I…" he looked up into the shining iris of the core, which rose to met his own mismatched eyes. "I can't get you out of here. I'm sorry for that, I truly am. But I can help you, if you'll just trust me."
The core didn't respond, but he heard the strangest of sounds emanating from its speakers. Illogically, it sounded almost like breathing—shaky, deep breathing.
It let out a quiet whimper.
God, it was crying.
"Just—just trust me, okay? You'll feel better after this, I promise," he stood and walked up to the core.
"I'm sorry that I have to touch you again, but this will help," he tried his best to speak softly, as though he were comforting a child. This couldn't be much different, could it?
But the core jerked at his touch, knocking his hand away, its iris straining uselessly to see what he was trying to do.
"No. No, no, no, no…" its vocal simulator seemed to trip up on the word, repeating it endlessly with increasing volume.
"Please, ID Core, just—stay calm," he tried to soothe the thing, his own voice wavering now. "I have to—I have to touch you to make it better."
"Don't, please, please don't—" it was shaking again, its entire hull rattling with the power of its supposedly simulated fear.
Doug backed away.
This presented a problem. If the ID Core could not stop moving long enough for him to access its internals, he had no hope of carrying out the plan he'd formed. He could turn the core off, but knowing its objections to being shut down, he just couldn't bring himself to.
He searched for a satisfactory solution, his brow furrowed, before again approaching the nervous sphere.
"Daisy…" his voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "Daisy, Daisy…"
The core's movements halted abruptly and it looked up at him.
"…give me your answer, do…" he strained his voice to reach the proper notes. He'd really never been much of a singer.
"What are you…" the core trailed off, its aperture drooping slightly.
"I'm… half… crazy," he continued, "All for the love of you…"
"I—feel—" the core couldn't finish its sentence as he launched into the next line.
"It won't be a stylish marriage…"
Moving closer, Doug placed his hand on its hull and gently pulled it from the port. He backed up to sit in a nearby chair, cradling the awkward bulk of the core in his lap.
"I can't afford a carriage…"
He reached out and depressed a small plate on its side, releasing the pressure to allow the panel to click open.
The core didn't protest, its optic falling shut.
"But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two..."
Whatever idiot had designed the base programming for the personality cores had somehow—either as a joke, or purely by mistake—included a glitch that caused the cores to be calmed, sometimes lulled to an artificial sleep-like state by the sound of human singing. It was a strange quirk of their engineering, one that the techs often enjoyed exploiting after hours by gathering the experimental cores in a room and serenading them until they were positively loopy with simulated drowsiness.
He shook himself out of the memory and returned to the task at hand. He knew his way around a core's mind—he'd designed the intelligence core himself, and assisted with the construction of others—but he had never tinkered with one that was truly self-aware.
The thought sent a chill down his spine. Pushing past it, he reached in with a shaking hand, searching by touch for the correct input.
And there it was—central memory control.
Each core had been outfitted with a certain amount of memory with which it could record its own experiences and 'learn'—in a way—from the instruction of the engineers. Hidden within the control panel itself was a killswitch, only to be used if the core somehow became corrupted and required a complete memory wipe.
His finger grazed the button.
The core stirred, pulling his arm with it. It was shaking again, its aperture nearly closed—he pulled his arm away.
"What are you going to do to me?" its voice wavered.
"I'm going to make it better. Don't worry," he reassured the sphere, and resumed singing.
He shifted the core on his lap to get a better look inside.
"Give me your answer, do…"
It stopped shaking, rolling limply in his hands.
"I'm half crazy, all for the love of you."
He reached inside, his hand quickly locating the memory control panel again.
"It won't be a stylish marriage—I can't afford a carriage..."
He glanced down at the core.
"But you'll look sweet…"
It wasn't asleep—its optic was trained on him—but it seemed placid, almost happy.
"Upon the seat…"
He steadied his finger above the killswitch.
"Of a bicycle built for two."
He pressed the button and withdrew his hand.
Its optic flashed briefly, then cast about the room, seemingly disoriented. When it locked onto his form, the iris widened and the core blinked a few times.
"Hello!" it called cheerily.
"Who are you?"