“This is Sherri.” I look up. “Sherri, this is Officer Garth.”
Sherri and I shake hands. Her hand is steady and grips mine with just the right degree of firmness. Her fingers are cool, and it feels like she is wearing a latex glove.
She looks me straight in the eye. Is that contempt? Hostility? I’m not sure. With the old ones you could always tell; their range of expressions was limited—and documented in the manuals if you had any doubts.
My boss, having introduced us, runs through the details as if we didn’t know already. This is to be a field test of Sherri’s abilities. She is in command, and I am to follow her instructions unless I feel it is unsafe to do so. If I feel the need to take charge, the experiment will be deemed a failure.
We both nod. Then we pick up our packs, and head out to the jeep. Instinctively, I walk towards the driver’s door but Sherri pulls me up.
“I’ll drive, Garth. The details for the route are in the door pocket.”
That tells me a couple of things. Firstly, she doesn’t have the route memory or mapping abilities of the custom driving droids; she still needs a navigator. Secondly, her motor control is good enough to drive the heavy, old-fashioned jeep.
I get the kit out of the pocket and start flicking switches, making sure the radar’s reports correlate with what I can see out of the windows. There’s a stretch of main road before I need to start giving directions, and I steal a couple of glances at Sherri.
From a distance, you’d definitely mistake her for human. It’s not just the shape of her moulded body, her movements are fluid and lifelike.
From a couple of feet away, her skin has the unnatural gloss of polysilicone. Her hair is cut short but I can’t tell what it’s made from without peering closer. I smile to myself as I realize my mistake: of course her hair isn’t cut short. It’s just…short. It never grew, never needed cutting.
It’s always been difficult not to think of the droids as living beings, even the really dumb, monofunctional ones that were only roughly humanoid.
“Oh, sorry. Another mile and a half. Then we’re taking the track off to the left, just after a stretch of woods.”
The journey is reasonably short, and uneventful. I issue directions, matching the scratchy screen to the landmarks. She follows them. We don’t attempt any kind of conversation.
Once we’re there, Sherri selects the locations for the shelterpods and leaves me to erect them while she fills in the logs. She directs the placing of the radio mast, and briefly outlines where she thinks trouble might come from. I wonder, as I snap up the plastic lashes on the radio mast, who they’d believe if I reported that her decisions were terrible. With a few quiet acts of sabotage, I could make her seem unfit for command, and shut down the whole program that created her.
I pause for a moment, staring into the distance. I don’t want to believe that they can create a consciousness flexible enough, general-skilled enough, to take command. I want to think that I—a human—am still somehow better than the tireless, perfectly-skilled droids coming from the factories out east. But at the same time, rejecting Sherri means dooming another generation of humans to fight and die on these wastelands. I need to accept that the machines can take this over.
Back in camp I heat my rations up and, once I’ve eaten them, build a fire. The halostove is now such old tech that it looks antique, and yet humans still build fires whenever they camp. I don’t need it—and Sherri certainly doesn’t—but it gives us something to do, and something to fiddle with, and something to sit round. No one ever swilled beer or talked crap around a halostove.
We discuss a few details of the program for tomorrow. They want observations of one of the closer rebel camps; observations from up close, and a list of details we need to fill in. I figure I might as well play my role as the rookie under command, and I ask my question with wide eyes.
“Is this going to be dangerous, Sherri?”
“Yes,” she nods. “That’s why they’re trying to build droids to do it, Garth.”
“Fair point.” I shut up.
The mission goes off as planned. Sherri directs it perfectly, and way before the sun begins to set we’re home and dry, broadcasting the pictures back to base. Now that I’m starting to feel that she can be trusted, I’m relaxing into the role of junior and kind of enjoying passing the responsibility for once. I have to make an extra report on her progress, and I deliberately move out of earshot before I begin talking into the receiver.
By the time I’ve finished, Sherri’s rebuilt the fire and set a ration pack on the halostove.
“Are those for me?”
Apparently this model of droid has enough facial animation to raise an eyebrow at me. She shrugs, too.
“To be honest, the fire is as much for me as it is for you, Garth.”
“Yes?” I grab my rations and tuck in. But I’m curious. “What do you get from the fire? Warmth?”
She shrugs again. “Not really. I can hold my hands out and feel that it’s hot, but it’s not pleasurable, it’s just temperature data. I can watch the flames dance, though, and look for pictures in the fire, and know that it’ll keep the darkness away.”
I realize that my mouth is open, and close it. Language circuitry appears to have come on a hell of a lot in the past six months.
“Besides,” she continues, “I have a lot of happy memories of sitting round fires.”
“They created you with memories?”
Sherri looks at me quizzically. “They…I guess they didn’t tell you how they created me, then.”
“Just that you were an upgrade, designed to be more of an all-rounder.”
She falls silent, but I’m used to that from droids. They run up against the end of their programming, and just stop mid-conversation. Then I look at her face again in the firelight and see that she’s uncomfortable. As if she’s trying to work out what to say.
“Should I ask?”
She shakes her head. “No one ever mentioned it was supposed to be a secret. My body’s the same as the regular high-end droids, but I’m not programmed.” She taps her head. “One bit’s organic.”
“Officer Sherri Latimer. Died at 27. A motorbike accident, they tell me. About two years ago. I’m basically a brain in a really fancy jar.”
It takes me a moment to take that in. “And you have her memories?”
“My memories. Yes. I’ve commanded hundreds of missions like this before, but now we have to check that I still can.”
I try briefly to imagine how it must be to find yourself transported into a plastic shell of a body, your brain wired in to allow you to command it to move, to walk, to poke the fire. I can’t quite grasp the idea.
“How is it?”
“It’s better than the alternative.”
I don’t sleep all that well, tossing and turning in my shelterpod as I think about Officer Sherri Latimer. She is, surely, a human regardless of what her body is made from. And yet these are the “machines” who are supposed to be saving us from enemy bullets.
It feels impolite to ask. But eventually, as we are making our way to a different rebel camp the following morning, I bring it up.
She laughs, apparently without bitterness.
“It takes fairly serious damage to stop me from moving. I could probably get back to camp. Even if my head is completely severed, the systems will keep my brain alive for around five days. Transmitters should help people find me and then they just have to stick a new body on. It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better chance than you would stand.”
We chat as we walk cautiously along. It’s strange to talk to a droid without having to pick my words, without having to think through whether my sentence is logical or contains metaphors too abstract for them to process. I think that I would have liked Officer Latimer, if I’d met her.
She is mid-anecdote about a tour of duty in the mountains when the screaming sound of seeker bullets tears past us. I hit the deck, and Sherri lands on top of me, spreading her body over mine.
“I give out less infrared than you,” she whispers. “Stay still.”
She’s lighter than I expect, lighter than an adult woman. I hold my breath, hoping she’s enough of a shield to keep the bullets off. We hear them ditch harmlessly a short distance away, then there is worse news: voices.
Our eyes meet. Technically I should wait for her order, but we nod at each other as we mouth the same word.
There are shots behind me as I sprint through the trees. Just regular shots; seekers are expensive, and they now know where we are. I think I can hear Sherri’s footsteps behind me, though the sound of my own blood pounding in my ears soon drowns out most other things.
I twist back down the narrow pass, and eventually manage to snatch a glance over my shoulder. Sherri is keeping up, and there is no sign of pursuit. I spot a slim crack in the rock face, a narrow cave, and dive into it. I head back into the shadows, and collapse. Sherri drops silently next to me, not even out of breath. In the quiet of the cave, I feel the thunder of my breathing echoing and try to get it under control.
Ten minutes or so later, Sherri creeps to the cave mouth and peers out. She’s gone for a few minutes, then she’s back.
“It’s clear. We need to get back to the camp.” She maps out a route, taking advantage of what cover there is, and taking in a high point that will give us a good view of whether anyone is following. Our approach will let us see if there is anyone skulking in our camp. It’s the perfect decision.
We move swiftly, but the route is circuitous and it’s already dark before we’re back. We make our reports straight away, giving locations and times and our very limited guesses at numbers.
“You sort your food out, Garth, I’ll set up the perimeter alarms. Oh, and no fire tonight.”
Again, Sherri’s commands are exactly in line with what I’d do. I heat up my rations as quickly as I can, then pack the halostove away. She joins me, sitting and looking at the place the fire would have been, but she doesn’t say anything.
Without the fire, it gets cold sitting in the darkness. We haven’t discussed the attack at all, beyond the banal stats we sent back to base, and I feel as if there is something on Sherri’s mind.
“I’m going to go and hole up in my shelter. If you want to talk, you’re welcome to come and sit inside.”
She looks at me, with another ambiguous expression, but still says nothing.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m all wrapped up for sleeping when I hear her voice. “Can I come in?”
The shelterpods are designed for one, but they’re just about roomy enough for company. Sherri squeezes in and sits with her arms wrapped tightly around her legs.
“Are you cold?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t get cold. Although I can tell you it’s about eleven and a half degrees out there.”
She pauses for a long time, and I wonder if she feels responsible for the attack, for my safety.
“All your decisions today were right, Sherri. You couldn’t have known we’d get shot at.”
“I know.” She sounds a little offended. Of course; I’m speaking to someone with as much operational experience as I have myself.
“I’m sorry, that was patronizing.”
She closes her eyes. “Don’t worry about it”
“But something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
Sherri rubs her hands over her face. It’s a very natural gesture, and I wince as I hear the squeak of her fingers against her plastic cheeks. So does she.
“That’s one of the few noises my body makes.”
She rubs her hands together, and there is a long-drawn creaking noise. “Stupid isn’t it? My stomach doesn’t rumble. My joints don’t crack. I don’t cough, or sneeze, or fart. But my skin makes a noise.”
I’m not sure what to say, and it probably shows on my face.
“It’s a stupid thing, Garth, but I miss the noise. Humans are never silent. Think of running away today. When we stopped in the cave your heart was pounding, you were breathing heavily. I could practically hear your blood moving through your veins.
“I don’t breathe. I don’t have a pulse. When I stop there is nothing to show I was even running. No adrenaline, no fight for breath. Just a violent silence where the drum of my heartbeat should be.”
Her head and shoulders droop. I guess whatever lubricates her eyes is no use for expressing how she feels.
“Feedback for the engineers?” I suggest. It’s hardly consolation, but all my life I’ve been trained to solve problems, and I’ve nothing else to offer.
She shakes her head. “They’re not interested. They’ve made me as efficient as possible. Any mechanism that disrupts that is off the table. They gave me a soundloop for when I lie down at night, but it’s just white noise. It’s not the same.”
I shuffle in my sleeping gear, suddenly aware of the sound of my own breath, of my rations gurgling through my gut, of the organic echo in my ears as I swallow. Without even thinking about it, I hold out my arms, inviting Sherri to lie down with me.
She hesitates for a moment, clearly uncertain what I’m asking. Even I’m not entirely sure.
Then, slowly, she moves across the shelter and lies down with her head on my chest. She’s still strangely light, and through the thermal layers I can’t feel how cool her body is. I wrap my arms around her.
I breathe deeply, feeling my lungs inflate and the sound rattle round in my chest. She nods once or twice in time with my heartbeat and smiles a little as she powers down.