He could no longer use his visual functions.
It didn't mean he was unaware of his environment – he was perfectly able to utilize his remaining senses. His auditory systems relayed the sounds of grass and dirt underneath his own feet, of trees rustling in the wind, of a nearby lake (that he had almost stepped into by accident). His olfactory senses laid out the smell of nature and the smell of burning atmosphere – which was utterly inescapable, nowadays – and the smell of salt and sweat and tears. And the smell of gunpowder from a recently fired 12 gauge shotgun.
Automatic systems perused normal behavioral reactions to a situation like this and sent impulses to his arms so that he would raise his hands in supplication. (And not for the first time, he would wonder if he was really a 'he.' Oliver Chamberlain was a 'he,' but he was not Oliver Chamberlain and had no biological functions that determined sex nor did he partake in a society that placed gender norms based on those biological functions.)
His synthetic neurons reached out for those of his own kind to seek any missing information, ask for help, transmit coordinates, anything, and found only emptiness. He had already known it was a futile course of action, that as soon as The Network left it took away the comfort he had in having a family, so to speak, in his own mind at all times, with information and memory banks stored in separate units but accessible to all in an instantaneous…network, for lack of a better word. But it was an action as automatic as breathing, if he were an organic being that needed to breathe. And every time he failed, it was a reminder that he was a social machine with an inability to be social in the manner he was built for. There was a metaphorical emptiness, a vast cranial space where the world's entire knowledge used to be. His cultural dictionary informed him that vast cranial space was often thought to indicate vast intelligence. What utter shit.
The human with the gun was emitting noises now. His auditory systems sent the data to be parsed by his internal encyclopedia of human emotions and how they expressed them through sounds, and then sent a copy of the data to his language-interpreting systems to compare the sounds to every single word available to his knowledge. As an afterthought, he sent another copy to a small secret place in his memory banks.
The human was female, judging by the pitch of the voice. The female was crying very loudly, but at the same time, shouting some rather strong vulgarities. This indicated that she was not crying out of sadness, at least not entirely, but out of fear, or rage, or maybe both. The female spoke in English, which made sense, seeing as he never left England. From the angle of the sound waves, she was either remarkably tall or elevated in some manner. Standing on a porch, perhaps, seeing as the ground seemed to be mostly level. He may have stumbled across a private cottage. In which case, he had accidentally trespassed upon someone's perceived property, which was causing said person to threaten to blow his head off, a threat that he couldn't help but feel was redundant.
The small secret place in his memory banks recognized the voice in association with a conceptual entity that was tied to a physical being known as my sister. Not in those words, but in a remembered life he never lived and events associated with a person he never knew.
The Network had programmed in a list of behavioral rules that were judged to create the best possible type of social interaction to prime humans for galactic-level civilization. They were as followed:
Second, converse amicably about mundane subjects and contemporary pop culture.
Third, determine whether conversation partner is able to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of humankind through probing questions about their psyche and temperament.
Fourth, if conversation partner is not able to contribute meaningfully but is willing to elevate him/herself above the common masses, leave. If conversation partner is disagreeable or turns violent, transfer him/her to an Emptying Station.
The list was a little out-of-date by this point, but he still fell into its orderly rules, feeling the ghost of the comfort he used to have.
He had only gone partway through step two ("Hello, Sam, do you live here now? This is a very lovely spot for a home.") when my sister shot him in the shoulder. Somehow, he managed to stay upright.
"How dare you," she wailed through labored breaths. "How dare you come to my house, saying my name while looking like him! Pretending to be him! Why are you here?!"
He didn't understand the question. His language-interpreting systems understood the words, and he certainly understood the intent behind the question, but there was a disconnect somewhere along the line. A disconnect that only made itself apparent when it came to topics involving purpose and intent behind actions.
He fell back on step one while considering other behavioral rules to follow upon. "I'm sorry, that question is not – "
"Don't smile with his smile!" Her voice was now tinged with horror and desperation. He did not have imagination, but through the sounds of movement he heard, he could visualize her waving the shotgun in a pointless indicatory gesture towards his face.
Out of politeness, he dropped the smile. But now there was no first step. Rather than improvise, he stayed silent, hoping that by not saying anything he would give her no reason to continue shooting at him.
The sound of her breathing didn't slow, however, which was worrying. And then there was a new sound, the sound of pounding feet on the ground, of an out-of-breath man with a fast-beating heart and concern on his mind.
"I heard shots, is everything – "
The new voice pinged another spark of recognition in the small secret place in his memory banks, an association with my childhood friend. Flashes of Oliver Chamberlain's entire high school life all at once, in one long millisecond.
"Sam," said my childhood friend, his voice a low and tired whisper. "Go inside. I can take care of this."
"No," said my sister, her voice now twisted in a pained knot of opened wounds. "I can't just…I have to…"
Feeling like he ought to contribute to the conversation, he said, "You two make a good couple. I'm very happy for you."
He was shot in the other shoulder, and this time he fell down into grass that tickled his neck and the inside of his head. A second later, someone heavy was on top of his chest, someone with strong arms that grasped his skull and twisted and pulled.
He felt lucky that having half a head made it harder to get a grip, with the slick insides of his skull and the lack of hair or ears or anything. He did not try to push my childhood friend off, but grasped at his arms in an attempt to get him to let go. "I bear no harmful intentions," he said in calm, measured tones that were meant to pacify attackers but, in his experience, served to increase hostilities. "Why are you doing this to me? If you let me go, we can part peacefully."
"You killed my friend, you sick fuck!" The body above him shifted to slam a foot on one of his arms to have something to push against while pulling off his head. "You think you can replace him? Pretend that everything's alright, that you're just some innocent fucking robot? You killed him!"
He felt fear. It was a feeling that the small secret part of his memory banks was familiar with, and something he had been experiencing more often after The Network left. It was not the fear of non-existence, but the fear that built up from too much confusion. Too much of encountering a world that did not go by lists or rules, did not react in the way he was used to. Too much of the metaphorical emptiness in his cranial space. Fear and confusion bubbled in his mind, drowning out lists and protocols and programmed systems, until it built up so much that he desperately searched for a release.
"I did not ask to be created!"
It was the first time he raised his voice. It broke all rules. It felt nice.
There was still pressure on his chest, on his arm. There was still someone's slick grip on his head. But everything had stopped, except for heavy breathing.
"I did not ask to be created," he repeated in more measured tones, sensing a sort of magical effect in those words, relying on them like a superstition. "I did not ask to look like this."
"You still were against us," the voice above him spat, but it was too late. He couldn't stop talking.
"I did not ask for my parental analog to abandon me on my very first day of conception, not even staying with me for the full twenty-four hours. I did not ask them to take away the very systems through which I based my very lifestyle upon. I did not ask them to terminate the wireless communication system that connected me with what I would call my family, as well as infinite knowledge that I will never access again. I did not ask," he said, his voice suddenly shuddering without meaning to, "for a purposeless life."
His auditory systems only picked up heartbeats and breathing, both slowing down. A little ways away, there was a shifting sound, the sound of my sister lowering her gun. Less worrying.
"I don't know how you do it. I don't know how you can crave freedom when it's so paralyzing for me. How do you know what to do? Please. Just tell me what I'm doing wrong."
He could no longer use his visual functions, but somehow, he could see. He could see my childhood friend rub at his face, smearing blue fluid on his forehead. He could see the aggravated sigh leave his lips, quickly followed by a low "Shit." He could see my sister approach with measured steps, her shotgun halfway raised. He could see her eyes avoiding him, even when they couldn't help but stare at what was left of his face.
My childhood friend got off of him, but he continued to lie down in case getting up was one of the things that would get him shot.
"You just…give yourself purpose," said my childhood friend, his voice one long shrug. "Freedom is doing what you want."
"My only want has ever been bettering the human race."
"Okay, not that, don't do that." There was the sound of an elongated puff of air being forced out between lips. "Shit. I don't need this now. This is too philosophical for me."
There was the sound of an arm threading its way around another, of two people leaning into each other for support and protection. "Why don't…you just do what makes you happy? As long as it doesn't harm other people, I mean."
Happy. The small secret place in his memory banks pinged like crazy. Categories upon categories of memory filled his mind, categories with names like the smell of mum's cooking, academic accomplishments, the feeling of my hand entwined with hers, and summer nights in the backyard. Short-term happiness. Long-term happiness. Happiness at seeing other people happy.
He stood up slowly and straightened out a suit he couldn't see. With a smile and a nod, he said, "This conversation has been quite enlightening. Thank you very much."
And with that, he turned around and fell into the lake.