51. Orbital 13

51. Orbital 13

            In a world of testied babies, imps, and now nimps as well, it is hard to imagine a time when genetic improvements were not commonplace. Just like railroads, airplanes, and telephones before them, eugenics have gradually reached a point where they go beyond feeling natural and integrated. They seemnecessary. How could we have gotten along without them?

            “And yet society once got along without them very well,” says Alec. “Indeed, it appeared that getting alongwiththem would be the true challenge.”

            Forty years ago, genetic engineering was far from nonexistent and was not even very new, but its transition into becoming mainstream was only beginning. Testied babies had just been introduced to the higher classes and were already stirring up controversy, and imps were only an idea. The concept of creating easily controlled, “perfect” men and women was nothing new, though, and in fact it was already being attempted.

            “The industries utilized the materials available to them at the time, and seeing as they resided in an era of mechanical brilliance, they were able to turn to machinery in order to achieve their goals. Experimentation with androids had been explored for quite some time. Now they tweaked the designs of eyes in order to avoid the uncanny valley, developed silicone fibers that perfectly resembled the appearance and texture of human flesh, and simulated the movements of musculature in a way that was virtually indistinguishable from the motion of a normal person. At least, that is what they said.”

            Bionically improved humans were treated with wary acceptance. Their manufacturers sold them for enormous sums of money, programmed them for their new jobs, and then shipped them off and never worried about them again. They were suited to all manner of occupations. One waited tables, another repaired computers, and by far the most famous of them all secured a career as the first mate on the newly launched Orbital 13.

            “And thus marks the beginning of the story, so that is where I shall begin.”


           Bionically Improved Human Series A Operating System 130.0, usually known by his serial number (A130) or his title (First Mate), had long been hailed as “the first inorganic celebrity.” His job on Orbital 13 symbolized to the world at large that the coming of the future was imminent, that technology could do anything and that humans had truly taken control of their own fates. There was just one catch to put a damper on such a success: A130 was emotionless.

            It wasn’t for lack of trying. The technicians had tried and tried again to develop a decent empathetic software, but every android they’d tried it on had either glitched horribly or simply continued to remain unaffected. It was finally decided that as long as the robots were programmed to understand that harming people was wrong and that humans needed to be protected, there shouldn’t be any trouble. And all of the experts were optimistic that a more permanent solution could be found in time.

            There was nothing odd about A130’s physical appearance. He was attractive, with neat black hair and deep bottle-green eyes…for he’d still had two eyes back then. His body was not deformed or distorted in any way, and his manner of moving was a mostly convincing replica of a human’s. Even his voice had a pleasingly organic ring to it. And yet something still seemed to be slightly off about him. It wasn’t that he was creepy-looking, or that he gave a sense of descending into the uncanny valley when you looked at him; no one could seem to come up with an adequate way to describe it. It could have been the way he spoke, how he never swayed from overly formal language and didn’t seem to place inflection on any word. It could have been that his statistics had been made available everywhere, and so everyone knew that there were wires and metal struts and electronic cords hiding beneath the opaque fabric of his uniform. Or maybe, being emotionless and inhuman, he simply could not fit in with a regular population no matter how much his creators tried to assimilate him.

           Luckily, most residents of Orbital 13 never even saw A130. He only intervened in more public affairs if there was trouble that Security couldn’t handle on their own, and the ship was so vast that it was rare to catch a glimpse of him during his patrols. The rest of the time, he was a sort of personal assistant to Captain Robert Shelby, spending most of his time supervising systems and relaying orders. He had been programmed with three main directives: to protect the orbital passengers, to protect the orbital staff, and to protect the orbital itself, prioritized in ascending order.

            This was a fine example of his employers (in this case, a company called All Nations Orbitals) wanting to protect their monetary investment. An orbital was, after all, a very expensive thing to build and maintain, and the whole reason why they’d opted to hire a bionic imp in the first place was so that they could have an unquestionably loyal guardian on their craft. These priorities would ultimately cause quite a backlash when they “malfunctioned,” but the people who had organized them would live to know that.

            There were several more problems that contributed to what would ultimately be dubbed “the Orbital 13 incident” and probably the most prominent of these was with Captain Shelby. What happened to him wasn’t entirely his fault. He had been a young, robust pilot-in-training at the All Nations Orbital Academy when he’d fallen in love with a woman and ultimately impregnated her. This wasn’t too much of a problem for him. He married his girl and provided her with a good life, gaining stable income from a desk job while he steadily worked his way up to a flying license, and eagerly awaiting the arrival of his new son or daughter. Then, one day, he came home from training to find city security forces surrounding his home, which was how he learned that his wife had killed herself.

            He never quite recovered, even years later, when he received the highest honor possible and was appointed the captain of an orbital.

            Captain Shelby disliked the First Mate with a half-formed uneasiness, and with a slight fear that lacked reason or purpose. Perhaps some men are more intuitive of death than others, or perhaps he simply ended up manufacturing his own downfall.

            His death occurred like this:

            One afternoon, while the First Mate was out making his rounds of the orbital, Captain Shelby found himself struggling with his bleakest bout of depression in a while. The effects of his medications had long seemed to come and go. Whenever he felt low like this, there was usually only one thing that he could do to ease his own pains, and that was to get himself a drink.

            On this particular day, there just so happened to be a bottle stored in his cabin’s kitchenette – a potent mixture of Oblivion, secured from a smuggler several weeks ago. He was cautious as he went to retrieve it. He was very careful never to reveal his drinking habits to anyone for fear of losing his job, and most brews of Oblivion were potent enough to be considered illegal, anyway. But he wanted to try it, and he felt that it might be necessary. Everyone who tried it said that an Oblivion-induced stupor was like no other sensation in the universe.

            It turned out that they were right. After a few shots, his reserve evaporated from his bloodstream, pushed out by the sudden influx of alcohol and drugs and addictive additives who-knew-what-else. He forgot about being careful, and he forgot about drinking in moderation, which was another one of his personal rules. And he forgot that at any moment, his first mate might finish with the patrol and come back in to find him…which, as it turned out, was exactly what happened.

            Captain Shelby was quite intoxicated by the time A130 found him, and he took no notice of the android staring blankly at him for many minutes.

            It didn’t take A130 very long to mentally analyze the situation, and as soon as he reached a conclusion, his default programming overrode his normal “free” decision making. Lines of code raced through his mind, whispering a simple, apparent message:The Captain is a danger to the orbital. His behavior must be stopped.

           Because, after all, his directives dictated that the ship itself came before the crew.

            “Sir,” he said, in his normal flat tone. He reached forward, one gloved hand extending towards the bottle.

            Captain Shelby started and turned towards the sound. His vision was swimming, but he knew what he was seeing, or at least thought that he did. In his drunken stupor, his uneasiness became real terror and hostility, and he became convinced that the First Mate was attacking him. He blindly swung his bottle outward.

            A130 had quick reflexes, but he had no time to react to this sudden assault, and in another moment glass was smashing against the side of his face. Glastic was a relatively recent invention at that point, and it certainly wasn’t affordable for drug brewers and smugglers, so the bottle shattered and left quite a bit of damage in its wake. It sliced through much of A130’s synthetic skin and all but destroyed his left eye, quickly reducing his vision down to fifty percent and sending his body’s alarm systems screaming. He couldn’t feel pain, not in the human sense of the word, but he could certainly be halted for a while if he was physically broken. And his internal systems would fire off rapid alerts at him if something ever went wrong. The hit with the bottle sent him staggering, filled his head with static, and sent interference slashing through his awareness like angry red lightning.

            “S-s-sir…” he stammered, like a short-circuiting computer. He lurched towards Captain Shelby, making involuntary, jerky movements. His footsteps were floundering so much thathelooked like the drunken one of the two.

            “Don’t touch me!” cried Captain Shelby, and he ran out of his cabin and into the bridge, weaving and tottering as he did so. A130, despite his own unsteady gate, quickly managed to catch up. He pushed himself forward and clamped a hand on the captain’s shoulder.

            “Sir, come with me,” ordered the android flatly. “You are a danger to yourself, and you are jeopardizing Orbital 13.”

            Captain Shelby struggled fiercely. “Let go of me, you goddamn robot!”

            The two of them struggled, and A130’s malfunctioning brain began to betray him. It placed all of its weight in the prime commands, ignoring the carefully categorized “moral judgment” centers. He began to fight with all of his strength, and his metal muscles could certainly pack more of a punch than any human’s.

            They couldn’t have been tussling for long when A130 somehow got his hand around Captain Shelby’s throat. The captain tried to thrash his way out of the hold, the first mate’s fingers tightened briefly, and then…


            Lai winces.

            “It could not have hurt.” Alec pauses in his rendition, sure that her opinions of him are rapidly plummeting. “It all occurred too quickly to be painful for him. I had lost touch with my own archives, causing me to overlook the fact that humans are fragile creatures. Bone splinters so much more easily than metal, and hearts are prone to shutting down rapidly, unlike batteries and central processors...”


           Security forces arrived before three minutes had passed, and A130 was shut down within five. He was not given a trial, and the general verdict was that he didn’t deserve one. He was not a human, after all, and he had no human rights. Besides, the evidence was irrefutable. He had murdered Captain Shelby in cold blood. There was crystal-clear security footage and an irreparably snapped neck to attest to that fact.

            A130 was eventually reformatted and reactivated, but the public at large was not informed of this, since no one wanted to incite a panic. Besides, he didn’t dare to cause any more trouble after what had happened. And in a way, it was even a fitting punishment.

            For A130, at last deemed Alec, was condemned to spend the rest of his imitation life without anyone to confide in, the last of his kind, alone. 

The End

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