Sydney wasn’t surprised to see another kid in the practice yard looking at the rifles. Fifteen incursions the week before. Five defenders eaten. No he wasn’t surprised. Disappointed? You bet he was disappointed. Gave him a sharp pain in his throat every time he had to show a child how to handle a weapon. Fuckin’ spiders.
“This one,” she said. She couldn’t be older than four or five. He remembered when Pam was that age. He’d scoop her up onto his shoulders and she’d holler at him to “giddyup,” and they’d go racing around the house, him squatting down so his knees squealed every time they passed under a doorway—God he missed Pam.
Now the little girl turned her huge brown eyes on him. “I have to sign it out?”
“Gotta put your thumb on a scream,” Sydney said. “But first we’ll have to do some practice. My name’s Sydney. You can call me that or Mr. Sloan. What’s your name, honey?”
“Alisa. And I don’t gotta practice. I had the operation.” Her little hand pushed back her dark hair to show off the port in her left temple. Sydney took an involuntary step away. Oh hell, he thought, another one.
The port was a centimetre in diameter hole in the little girl’s head. Right now it had a glistening membrane stretched over it to keep it sterile. He remembered worming the membrane aside so that Pam could be connected. “Why can’t it be a needle, Daddy?” she’d said. “Don’t poke so hard, please.” Needles were harder to keep sterile.
“Look,” he said yanking his mind back to the present moment. “Let’s just go through it once or twice for the sake of it.”
He lifted up a rifle for himself. They were light-weight, low-action in the trigger, zero recoil, a child’s gun. Printed because people needed to be armed. The fort needed defending.
Alisa picked up her rifle and stuck it against her shoulder, copying him. There were fifty spider targets in the practice yard, most of them camouflaged against the forest. They could move, scuttle like the real thing. The AI controlled them, made them act just like they would in a swarm.
Sydney gagged on the thought. The AI. Damn it he’d like to get into that mainframe with a wrench and a hammer.
“Find your target,” he said. “Don’t let it frighten you. Just breathe deeply. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Do it at least five or six times.”
The girl breathed. Then she said, “It didn’t hurt at all. Do you have a port?”
“No,” he said shortly.
“Why don’t you?”
“Cause I don’t,” he said.
“Now. Have you picked a target?”
“All right. So take another breath in, and then breath out, and then squeeze the trigger.”
She did. He watched her, thinking. No bloody way he’d get himself one of those ports. They were power ports, so you could plug yourself into a cable and charge the module that communicated with the AI. The AI could then take control of your body. You became a puppet. Pam became a puppet.
Alisa fired. The rifles were set on practice mode so the target wouldn’t have been destroyed. But it would have pretended to die and there would have been a buzzer. There wasn’t. “I missed,” she said.
“You did,” he agreed.
“This is stupid,” she said. “When I go to defend I’ll just let the AI take control. It can kill anything.”
Sydney felt nauseated. A computer inside the little girl, manipulating her arms and legs as if she was a living robot. Making her kill, kill, kill. He set his weapon down until he could get his breathing back. She looked at him and said, “Are you okay, Mr. Sloan? If you have a port you could just let the computer do all the work. It’s lots better. We wouldn’t get eaten so much if more of us had ports.”
Pam crawling on all fours out of the bushes, a spider clamped on her legs, another on her back. The AI had been in control of her. The AI made her crawl out over the cliff. The AI did that. Pam, his little girl. She was dead anyway.
“Yeah, I don’t like the AI, Alisa honey. We just don’t get along.”
“But we gotta survive,” she said. “And it’s only turned on during the watch, when we have to fight. Isn’t it easier and better?”
“No. I don’t believe so,” he said. He picked up his rifle. “Let’s go again. Five breaths, remember? Then on the last one you breathe out…and fire.”
She missed again. “I hate this,” she said. Her eyes went out of focus. She’d activated the AI. Suddenly, the practice yard filled with the continual sound of the target-dead buzzer. All fifty spider targets flipped onto their back, eight legs pedaling the air, the dead position.
“Stop it,” he shouted. “Stop it right now.”
Alisa spoke in the precise synthetic accent of the AI. “All targets eliminated .”
“I know that,” Sydney snapped.
“Recharging is required,” Alisa said. The little girl marched over to the rifle cases, unplugged one of them. Her small hand reached up to the port on her head and with swift efficiency slid the membrane aside. She socketed the cable into her head and stood still. Something changed in her brown eyes. The girl’s consciousness resurfaced.
“Don’t do that in here, please,” Sydney said. “I would prefer you never did that in here.”
“You’re stupid,” Alisa said. “You’re stupid if you don’t let the AI help. We’re going to get eaten if we don’t let the AI help.”
“You shut your mouth and don’t talk to me that way,” he snapped. “I never let my little girl talk that way.”
She glared at him. “Everybody say you’re stubborn and dumb. Everybody say it. Five eaten last week. And guess what?”
“My brother got eaten.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really sorry about that.”
“I think you should have the surgery. You want to hunt spiders. Everybody knows you want to join one of the hunting parties but you can’t because you don’t have the port. I think you’re scared.”
“I am scared,” he said. He was starting to get an itch on his temple. “I don’t want that thing inside my body.”
” I’m not scared,” she said. “I’m going to save people from the spiders so they don’t get eaten like my brother.” She unplugged the cable from her head and walked off.
“Wait,” he called. “You got to give me a thumb print for your weapon.”
“The AI knows I have it,” she shouted to him. “It’ll update the inventory, don’t worry. And I’ll protect you, Mr. Sloan. When the spiders try again tonight.”
Sydney Raymon Sloan had indigestion that afternoon and skipped evening meal. He went to his quarters where he had a tiny shrine. He could not stop scratching his temple. It felt like he was trying to worm aside the membrane on his head so he could charge himself up.
He wanted to kill spiders so bad. But every fibre of his body rebelled against the thought of being turned into a puppet for the AI. You had no control or awareness of your body when it happened. Nothing. The AI could make you strangle yourself and you could not do a damn thing about it. Make you hurl yourself off a cliff.
He closed his eyes, leaned against the wall. His hand would not stop scratching. He bit his lip.
” I’m not scared,” Alisa had said. “I’m going to save people from the spiders so they don’t get eaten like my brother.”…Like Pam.
”Only a small amount of pressure,” the doctor assured him. “Bit of an odd noise. You might smell something like toothpaste. Nothing to worry about—I just brushed my teeth.”
The cleaning alcohol was cold on Sydney’s temple. He did not feel the pressure as the scalpel sliced skin away. He did feel a small amount when the drill buzzed to life against the bones of his skull. The module came out of packing that looked like white snowflakes. It slid in and they zipped him up. Then they sprayed him with the cells that would grow into the membrane.
The hunting party had set out at dawn. Five miles of walking through undergrowth and they’d reach one of the hives. Then they would try to kill as many spiders in the swarm as possible. He was looking forward to it.
He closed his eyes and let the AI expand inside his brain. A fuzzy prickling traversed through his arms and legs. He was going to sleep. And when he woke up, a lot of spiders would be dead.
“I’m so proud of you,” Alisa had told him before he left. “You’re so brave.”