“Flash”, you perverts, not “slash”.
It’s that time of year again when Sci-Fi London hold their 48 hour contests; over the weekend, hundreds of budding film makers and writers have been working frantically, ready to submit their entries by tomorrow afternoon.
Since last year went quite well for me with my storyteller submission “Shift”, I thought I’d go ahead and enter again this year. In the flash fiction challenge, you’re given a title, a line of dialogue that has to be included, and a strict word limit of 1,500.
I’ve just submitted my entry; I honestly don’t mean to sound arrogant when I say this, but I found 48 hours to be surplus to requirements to write 1,500 words (it was the same last year; I spent at most six hours writing, recording, uploading and editing Shift). I smashed my entry out in about three hours, and I’ve spent an hour tonight tidying it up before submitting it. Time will tell if I should’ve used the extra time available to me.
For giggles, here’s my entry, “Act of Kindness.” My line of dialogue was “it took four of us last time, and it’s more than doubled in size since then.”
Act of Kindness
Mercy is the greatest blasphemy that we commit. I mean this in its most literal, theological sense. I am not saying that mercy is a sin in the way that murder or theft is; I am saying that mercy is a blasphemy. It is going against the will of a higher power. An act of mercy is an act of supreme arrogance. It is you taking destiny into your own hands. It is you declaring that you have the answers and the solutions to another’s circumstances. It is you taking responsibility from another.
Some say that mercy is a weakness. They are wrong. They are so hopelessly wrong. Mercy is hubris, at most. In my experience, it takes the most resolute to show compassion, to cast aside their own selfishness and shoulder the woes and burdens of another. It destroys them though. It always does. Empathy, benevolence, call it what you will. It is the most cruel poison.
There is a common saying; to “kill with kindness”. It’s so very apt. We talk about mercy when we end the lives those who are suffering, to “put them out of their misery”. We talk about it as we take what we want from others, as we tell them “it’s for your own good”.
Mercy is a way of declaring yourself to be a god. An all-knowing, all-powerful creator, who can single-handedly make the world a better place. That is the blasphemy.
You may laugh at this, and call me jaded and cynical. Perhaps I am guilty of those things. I don’t think it matters any more.
Mercy is a blasphemy. By definition, blasphemy is not a sin, as I have said.
Except for today, when I have sinned by showing mercy.
“Seal it!” I shouted at Beledae as the door slunked closed behind us.
“That won’t-” she started to say.
“Seal it anyway! Lock it down! Lock it all down!”
She started fumbling with the console by the door. Her hands were shaking so much that she could barely type.
The others were leaning against the walls, breathing hard. Some were sobbing.
I had a gun in my hand. I hadn’t even had a chance to use it before…
“What now?” Finnes yelled in my face. His lab coat was dappled with blood splashes. “There’s no way out.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said, trying to keep calm. “This is just a temporary setback.”
“A temporary… they’re dead! Didn’t you see-”
“Of course I did. But it’ll be fine.”
Finnes swore and turned away from me.
“Any luck?” I asked Beledae.
She shook her head. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at the tight reels of data cascading down the console screen. It didn’t make for encouraging reading.
“I’m locked out,” she mumbled. “I can’t… we can’t…”
I put a hand on her shoulder. She flinched away.
“It’s okay,” I said, keeping my voice low.
“How can you say that?” she whispered. “This is… this was you…”
“I’ll fix this. Okay? I’ll fix it. Let me try.”
I gently moved her aside and started tapping at the console’s lightboard. As the project leader, I knew codes that not even Finnes or Dvoban had access to.
I tried everything. I wracked my mind for every override and countermeasure I knew. It was like spitting into an erupting volcano. They’d gotten into the system and made it their own. I grew more and more desperate, until before I knew it I was punching in the hateful characters for the Zodiac Ultimatum.
“What are you doing?” Finnes asked me.
“Tell me! What the hell are you doing?”
The console groaned and died before I was even halfway through the code string. The lightboard glitched and cut out, vanishing beneath my fingertips.
Clever. Too clever. They knew what I’d been attempting.
I was almost proud of them.
The lights flickered and went out. Emergency lighting came on and drenched us in red.
“Oh, we’re dead,” breathed Finnes. He shoved me. I staggered, and nearly fell. “This was your fault! You idiot!”
“I can fix this,” I said, trying to making myself heard over his shouting and the high trill of alarms.
“How?” asked Czie.
“I’ll access the Cognisance,” I said. “Cut the neuroconductive relays, or reroute-”
Czie laughed bleakly, cutting me off.
“That may have worked before,” she said. “But it took four of us last time, and it’s more than doubled in size since then! We’ll never disable it.”
“Besides,” put in Kardel. “You’d be dead before you get within a hundred metres of the control room. They’re out there.”
“Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad,” snapped Finnes, glaring at me. “Someone should pay for this.”
“We are paying for it, Finnes.”
“Yes, we. Not you.”
He made to take a step towards me, before noticing the loaded gun in my hand.
“Leave it,” said Czie. “Come on. This isn’t doing us any good.”
I was aware that they were all standing in a loose semi-circle, looking at me. Hating me.
The gun in my hand was a guilty, reassuring weight.
“I’ll fix this,” I said again. Those words were my prayer. As long as I kept saying them, there was a chance that they would come true. “I can fix this.”
If mercy is a blasphemy, then what is creating life?
Again, I mean this in its most literal way. When organics breed, they are not creating life; they are following biological instinct to ensure the continuing existence of the species.
I am talking about artificial life, and the morality that accompanies it. When is an artificial being “alive”? Can it be held accountable for its own actions, or is that the responsibility of its creator? Questions as old as the technology itself.
My team and I had heard the arguments, the various conflicting opinions. Some of us left. Others stayed; Finnes, Dvoban, Beledae, Kardel, Czie, more. We reeked of ambition, emanated it like low-level radiation. We wanted to be heroes. We wanted to be the ones who created a solution to the problem that we faced.
The Technocracy gave us everything that I said we needed; facilities, people, supplies, funding, and full autonomy. They invested their hope in us. I promised them that we would succeed.
Was that mercy?
There were repeated thumps against the door; a few at first, and then more and more.
“Oh God…” breathed Beledae, backing away. The shutters were heavy, but they weren’t magnetically locked. Enough raw strength could prise them apart.
They certainly had that. It had been a specific condition of the project, along with all the other requirements. The Technocracy had wanted servants who were strong, healthy, and above all, loyal.
They’d wanted to pave the road to a new future on the back of creatures made for slavery.
They’d wanted that. I hadn’t.
My act of childish defiance had doomed us all.
I remember seeing the first few in the tanks. Pink, naked, fleshy.
++ They look weak ++ Dvoban had vocalised, scrutinising them with the cluster of sensors that formed his face. Dvoban had been altered more than any of us; he didn’t conform to the standard humanoid frame anymore.
I found the alterations mildly gruesome. I had no wish to pervert the image our makers had given us.
“They’ll suffice,” I’d assured him.
The noises at the door were growing more ferocious.
The others were milling around the room, shouting and wailing, trying to find an exit that simply didn’t exist.
Beledae grabbed my arm.
“Shoot me,” she pleaded. “Don’t let them get me. I don’t want to die like Dvoban did.”
I looked at her face, at the blend of faux-flesh and polyceramic alloy, at her vividly electric-green occuli. She was young, new-forged only a few decades back. She had dermal implants. Old fashioned. No one had hair any more. Wasteful. Too organic.
I couldn’t stop her. She snatched the pistol from my hand.
The gunshot shut everyone up. Everyone except them. Our masterpieces. Our mistakes.
Finnes stood with me and we looked down at Beledae’s body.
“Why did you do it?” he asked. He sounded weary. The fight had gone out of him. Now he was just waiting for the end.
“Would you have taken pride in creating slaves?” I replied.
“Funny thing is,” he remarked, though absolutely nothing was funny anymore. “A few centuries ago, they used to tell horror stories about us gaining free will.”
“Maybe they will again.”
The doors were starting to inch open, forced open by strong hands. Strong hands, of flesh and bone; real flesh and bone.
“Do you think they’ll show us mercy?” asked Finnes. He wasn’t referring to the handful of us trapped in that room. He meant all of us; the whole homo cybernetica species.
“I hope not,” I said as the first arm reached through. “We made them smarter than that.”