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TW: Injury/Blood, Medical Procedure
“How are you feeling?” Wes asked as they crossed one of the main streets.
He had been checking in on her every once in a while, though she only ever grunted her response. Wes interpreted the grunts to mean, “I’m fine,” though they were probably closer to something like, “everything hurts, please shut up.” Neither of them were feeling very talkative, but Wes needed something to distract himself from the anxiety buzzing in his gut. He tried to focus on making sure EJ was still doing alright. It provided a sort of mundane concern that was significantly less distressing to think about than the fact that he had just been chased through the city by armed soldiers. Or the fact that those soldiers were after the person he was now escorting to his house. Where he lived. Where they’d probably try to find her.
Wes cleared his throat suddenly and blinked hard, pushing those thoughts away.
“Uh, feeling alright?” he stammered.
“You just asked me that,” EJ groaned.
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
They walked in silence for a time. Wes needed to start considering how he was going to treat EJ’s injuries.
He had a good stockpile of manual-use medical supplies at the house—spray-cast, sterilizers, autosyringes, and the like. When his parents first figured out his new address, they had sent him boxes of supplies containing everything from basic groceries to what had once been an expensive model of health scanner. The packages had been their silent way of trying to end an argument without actually apologizing. At the time, he had been living independently for months and didn’t have room to spare for boxes of stuff he didn’t ask for, which had only made their gesture more annoying than it already was. Most of what they had sent him still sat in boxes in his storage compartment, unopened. Perhaps it would finally see some use tonight.
Wes figured the old health scanner would be a good starting point in assessing EJ’s injuries. Its medical database was likely a couple years out of date by now. Still, it would help him keep track of everything that needed to be done, and maybe even offer an insight that Wes would have otherwise missed.
He looked over to EJ, who had insisted on walking without support a little ways back. She had quickly recovered from the tiredness of sprinting through the streets, which wasn’t a real surprise to Wes after he had seen how incredibly muscled she was. He was still winded, of course. He wasn’t nearly that athletic. As she walked beside him, she held her neck wound with her good arm like Wes had instructed, pinching and applying pressure to the area where the skin was torn. The blood that had been dripping down her neck and back had dried now, and crusty, red flakes of the stuff dusted the back of her shirt. Wes’s hands were still stained with dry, red streaks too, which made his fingers twitch uncomfortably. He didn’t like when his hands felt dirty, and he was itching to wash off a bit. He tried to ignore the uncleanliness that he felt scratching at his palms as he glanced over at EJ, taking in her neck injury and dislocated arm again. As he did so, she shot him an annoyed look.
“Before you ask me again: I’m exactly the same as I was three second ago,” she said.
Wes didn’t mean to ignore her, he was just focused on other things.
The arm was a relatively simple fix. He’d need to check for nerve and muscle damage, get the arm back into position, then spray-cast or wrap it. If there were internal damages, he could administer reparative enzymes with the autosyringe. EJ wasn’t actively writhing in pain, so it likely wasn’t too bad. Still, it would be good to get some basic meds in her system—pain killers and the like.
The neck wound was a different problem entirely. It would need to be stapled or stitched and spray-casted at a bare minimum. The tear in the flesh would heal, of course, but he wasn’t sure if the electroreceptors would return to full functionality. Wes had never seen someone simply get up and walk away from an injury like this. Despite how bad the neck-wound looked, EJ had only expressed a low level of electrosensory distortion. She reported mild pain and said that her senses felt blurred on the left side when she pulsed. Thinking about it now, Wes would have expected significantly more distress caused by the injury. Electroreceptor injuries were incredibly complicated and they varied wildly in severity depending on where a receptor was injured and what kind of receptor it was.
An adolescent Wes had once injured a facial receptor by picking too much into his growing adult skin. He was fine. Such an injury would be the tamest example of receptor damages. Facial receptors were plentiful—each person easily had over 50 of them—and they were the smallest of the two receptor types. Even the worst injuries to facial receptors were mostly negligible, and a person could even stand to lose multiple facial receptors entirely while still maintaining full electrosensory capabilities.
Compared to that, EJ’s wound was located on the opposite end of the injury-severity spectrum. She hadn’t wounded the facial receptors, but rather the spinal receptors—which were larger, more sensitive, and ran along the back of the neck. People only had a handful of spinal receptors, roughly 8 to 10 per person per side of the body, and they were the strongest of the electrosensory organs. Spinal receptors were responsible for sending most incoming electrosensory information to the brain for processing. Without them, a person’s electrosenses were effectively blind, and the individual would have their whole equilibrium thrown off-balance. Losing even a single spinal receptor could disrupt everything from a person’s ability to balance to their internal temperature regulation to their sleep cycle and so on. Wes had even heard of cases where a single, precisely placed injury to a spinal receptor had cut off the functionality of all other receptors in the face and neck entirely. That type of injury was called electrotory-paralysis, and it was practically lethal without treatment by heavy augmentation or intensive cloning and transplant procedures to completely replace a person’s electroreceptory system.
Spinal receptors were used by the brain to help regulate some seriously important bodily functions. In fact, modern medical science estimated that the brain regulated nearly 60% of the body’s functionality through the electrorecetory system alone. Sustaining heavy damage to any part of your amp or spinal electroreceptors was like experiencing multiple severe concussions or even a stroke. People who lost entire spinal receptors could suffer every symptom ranging from visual blindness to organ failure.
And yet, despite all of that, EJ was trudging along beside him, seemingly fine for the most part. Back in the bridge shaft, Wes hadn’t really processed the full severity of her injuries, likely because of how anxious he had been. A whole spinal receptor of hers had been cut through—well, shot through, he suspected. At the very least she should be experiencing extreme sensory disorientation. The only explanation he could come up with to explain how she could possibly still be standing right now was that maybe she was operating entirely on adrenaline overflow, pulling her body along on sheer determination to survive. But that clearly wasn’t the case. She didn’t seem on edge or alert. If anything, she was exhausted, not hopped up on adrenaline. She was walking fine, breathing fine, and she was still fully capable of conversation—well, their limited exchanges had been more akin to sarcastic commentary than real conversation.
Wes was baffled, but the bafflement was beginning to give way to intrigue. He needed to get EJ under that health scanner and figure out what was going on. He knew that the two halves of the brain could function as a whole when cut into two separate pieces. Had the same phenomenon occurred with her electroreceptor?
Before he could speculate much further, something in the distance grabbed hold of Wes’s attention. A little ways down the street, he spied the beginning of the steep, dirt path that led to his front porch. He followed the path down with his gaze and found himself staring at what was quite possibly the most beautiful sight he had ever witnessed. In a small plot of land beside the main street, Wes’s modest, antique home stood stalwartly, illuminated majestically on one side by the faint glow of the greenhouse beside it. Wes pulsed to gratitude, feeling tears well up at the corners of his eyes as he was overcome by a wave of profound relief. He blinked them away, immediately feeling childish for getting emotional over simply being home. He couldn’t help it, he was just so worn out.
“There it is!” he cried out. Then, realizing his own volume, he said quieter, “See it?”
After everything that had transpired today, he wanted nothing more than to throw open the door, dive into the comfort and safety of his bed, then promptly pass out for the next seventy years. But he couldn’t. The mental image of a dismembered drone lying on his floor reminded him that he still had a job to do.
I promised plantboy I would at least get him functional, he reminded himself, tightening his grip on the bag of machine components from the college.
Miraculously, he hadn’t lost anything in the chase. Once EJ had stopped leaning on him, insisting that she, quote, “didn’t need to be babied,” he had distracted his anxious mind by taking a thorough inventory of the bag’s contents. Despite some intense jostling, everything appeared to still be functional.
A sudden, anxious realization clawed its way to the forefront of his mind. Plantboy wasn’t his only problem anymore. Wes straightened, then stole a glance back at EJ, who was still holding the nasty, red gash in her neck. In his mind’s eye, he saw the All-Seer soldiers charging him, shouting after her. He realized that he still had no idea why they were chasing her.
Muted alarms began blaring in the back of his head, warning him of the countless potential dangers that could come of his decision to help her. He knew that part of him—the terrified, death-fearing corner of his soul—wanted nothing more than to run far away from whatever it was that this wounded stranger had gotten herself mixed up in.
So why couldn’t he?
Why couldn’t he bring himself to abandon her for his own safety? Back in the bridge shaft, why had the decision come to him so clearly? He had been absolutely sure of the choice, not a fragment of questioning static drifting through his mind. And yet, he found himself now perplexed by what he had known for a fraction of a second to be immutable certainty. How did that work? How could you be questioning of your own assured certainty, the clarity that you yourself had experienced in that very moment? It was as if some distant part of him beyond his own mind, nothing more than a faint frequency rattling in his empty amp, had known that he needed to make that decision, despite the associated risks.
Wes stopped walking and furrowed his brow at that thought, pulsing to concern.
What have I gotten myself into?
He sighed. It was far too late and he was far too exhausted for this strain of paradoxical contemplation. He couldn’t afford to be wasting his dwindling mental energy when he still needed a sharp mind to treat EJ’s wounds properly. What had been the longest and most stressful day of his life thus far wasn’t finished just yet.
* * *
EJ squinted through the dark towards a faintly glowing structure in the distance. Normally she’d feel her way through streets and buildings with her electrosenses, but the last 30 minutes of searing pain in her neck had beaten that instinct out of her temporarily.
The building that Wes gestured towards was a small, white structure in an otherwise empty plot of land. It was boxy and simple, antique in design, and built out of practically ancient materials. Even at this distance, she could make out dark, wooden framings around the windows and doors. Wood! Not the expensive, showy, preserved kind, either. It was just mundane, rustic wood, like it had been cut from a tree and everything. She blinked at the shack, incredulous. Had she died and her soul been transported to some kind of ancient antiquities show? No, that wasn’t right. Even the prior iterations of life had been more advanced than this archaic building.
The house that stood before her hadn’t been what she was expecting at all. Most housing districts were dense grids of compact living cubicles. Even in the less crowded city sectors, very few people lived in solitary houses anymore. Organized housing districts were simply more efficient, and the GCA would compensate anyone willing to live in their appointed districts with various quality of life benefits. EJ had assumed that maybe Wes lived in some sort of student housing complex or shared tower, but that didn’t appear to be the case. He lived in the middle of nowhere, which was saying something considering the fact that they were in city central. She glanced around at the surrounding area. The quick survey let her spy the illuminated college spire in the distance, but that didn’t tell her much by way of position. Still, it would be a good landmark for when she’d need to find her way back out of this area later tonight.
She turned back to the house as they approached and noticed a glowing, domed structure stood beside it. The dome was large enough that EJ briefly wondered if it was a shield or cover of some kind for the small, wooden shack. Wes’s whole house could probably fit beneath the thing. With the two structures beside one another, the dome looked like something out of a speculative science show—existing in stark contrast to the little wooden building, like placing a toy gun next to the real deal.
“That’s your house?” she asked her guide. “Uh, you mean the big dome thing and not the storage shack, right?”
“Sort of,” Wes laughed. “That’s my greenhouse.”
EJ was caught off guard by the statement. The geometric structure was huge—much larger than was necessary for growing some flowers. The walls of the structure were repeating hexagonal panels, held in place by a silvery, metal bracing that seemed to run between the panels. The walls of the dome weren’t entirely opaque, as a faint level of light seemed to radiate out from within the structure, splashing cool, white light onto the walls of Wes’s house.
“Greenhouse? I think you mean cultivation unit! You could grow enough food in that space to feed a whole city sector, Wes.”
He laughed at that. Seeing him smile lightened a small piece of EJ’s soul.
“I, uh, may have a bit of a thing for plants,” he responded sheepishly.
“Ew,” EJ teased. “Didn’t need to know that.”
“No, not like that! Not at all like that, ew!”
His face immediately flushed bright red and his pulse went embarrassed. This time it was EJ’s turn to smile. It felt nice.
“You sure about that?” she prodded further.
She almost started a joking pulse before she remembered the pain in her neck, and caught herself. Her words hung in the air awkwardly, unpunctuated by emotion. It made the sentence sound empty, like a drone had spit it out of a cheap vocal processor.
“Uh, that was a joke,” she clarified after a silent moment.
Wes chuckled. She was glad she could make him smile.
Even stronger than the pulsing wound in her neck, EJ felt a stab of guilt in her gut for dragging this stranger into her dilemma. Worse still, he was now offering to help her, even after she had jeopardized his life in her botched escape plan. It ate at her heart knowing that she wasn’t done taking advantage of his kindness. As it stood, her plan was to receive medical treatment, then pilfer supplies and disappear when the kid went to sleep. The least she could do for him at this point was get out of his hair before he was too far tangled up in her own messes. She hoped to the prior iterations of life that Seyet’s men hadn’t gotten a good look at him. She’d never be able to forgive herself if they tracked him down looking for her, and the poor kid got hurt because she had tried to save her own skin by involving him.
EJ realized then that she still thought of him as a kid, despite knowing that Wes was older than her by a couple years. She couldn’t help it after seeing the way he had blubbered back in the bridge maintenance shaft. It kind of reminded her of the others back at the station.
Oh static, she thought. They’re probably worried.
She dismissed that thought quickly and stepped down the path towards Wes’s house.
* * *
A short time later, Wes had EJ sitting in his kitchen. He had originally extended to her the invitation to sit wherever she’d like, but she had elected to sit on the kitchen counter next to the water dispensary. EJ was already a head taller than Wes and sitting on the counter positioned her somewhat out of his reach, especially in regards to her neck wound. Rather than fumble his way through an awkward explanation of his own faulty invitation, Wes elected to simply retrieve the chair he normally kept on the front porch and relocate it to the kitchen. After dipping out to grab the health scanner from his box-filled storage compartment, he had returned to the kitchen to find EJ seated in the chair.
He set the scanner on the counter where EJ had been sitting.
“I’ll be right back,” Wes said, not giving her time to respond before slipping away to his study.
The study was a small room within the house, likely intended to be a bedroom. Wes had moved his desk and holo-dispaly in there instead, and he used the space to work on projects. He did sleep in the study from time to time, though it was mostly a side effect of working too late into the night and passing out at his desk. He had relegated his actual bed to the greenhouse, naturally.
Wes shut the door behind him as he entered, and knelt down. There on the floor, he had arranged the dismantled pieces of an armless courier drone like a sort of deconstructed puzzle. Actuators and carbon-fiber framing braces all radiated out from the armless chassis of the drone, which he had placed in the center of the floor. This let him see where pieces would need to be reconnected once he was reassembling plantboy. He could have easily found the design schematics for standard model courier drones in company public record databases, but he was lazy and this was a simpler method of keeping track of everything.
“Hey, buddy,” he said to the robot mosaic in a quiet, almost soothing voice, as if the pieces of plantboy were a child tucked into bed and awaiting a lullaby. “I’m sorry that took so long, but I got the parts we need.”
Plantboy didn’t respond, as Wes had removed his old power cell earlier that day.
“And look,” Wes continued.
He spread the bag of pieces open on the floor and rooted around for something inside. A moment later he retrieved what he had been looking for and held it up to plantboy’s detached chassis between his thumb and pointer finger.
The small, metal rectangle was coated in a thin layer of synthetic green coloring and was no longer than Wes’s thumb in length. It was a data stick, the kind Wes usually stored his assignments on. This particular data stick also contained classwork, though it was of a much more interesting variety of assignment. Wes had made sure to retrieve it from his workshop locker back at the school.
“Last year I coded an emotion module for my class project,” he explained. “It’s hardly an AI system—far from it in fact—but I think I could modify it for you to use. It would let you run various protocols to signify emotional response. I’m not using the module for anything really, so I thought you might like it.”
A moment passed. Wes frowned at his own words.
“I mean, I know you can’t really think things.”
Plantboy lay silent in pieces on the floor. Another moment passed. Wes made an annoyed expression.
“Okay look, do you want the module or not?”
“Who are you talking to?” came a familiar voice from the door suddenly.
Wes shrieked and whipped around to find EJ standing at the entrance to the study.
“Static, EJ, you scared me!” Wes breathed. “Can’t you knock?”
“I did, actually.”
She gestured towards her neck with a dried-blood-coated hand.
“I wanted to ask if you have like a towel or a new shirt. I have bled all over your kitchen floor,” she said dryly.
Without being able to pulse, her words all sounded empty and lifeless to Wes, which made it impossible to tell when she was joking. He could see the exhaustion in her. Her face was pale and she seemed to wilt as she stood there in the doorway.
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” he said, and began to stand. “Yeah, come with me.”
“Are you talking to a scrapped drone?”
Wes pulsed to embarrassment and felt his face grow hot. From where he was still half-kneeling on the floor, he looked up to meet EJ’s confused expression. The two exchanged confused and embarrassed glances for a moment.
“Yeah,” he conceded. “I was.”
EJ frowned slightly and raised an eyebrow, looking from Wes to plantboy then back to Wes. After a moment she simply said:
“Oh, uh, alright then.”
“Why don’t I get the sterilizer set up and take a look at your neck?”
He stood up, switched off the light in the study, and guided EJ back towards the kitchen.
* * *
EJ squirmed in her seat as Wes worked on her. Having someone else properly tend to her injuries was a new experience that made her bristle with discomfort. It was too vulnerable for her liking. She fought the instinct to pulse to embarrassment or something more hostile.
He had started with a thorough sweep from the sterilizer, which killed the germs with light and sound or something like that. Like the doctor characters she had always seen in dramatic, entertainment media, Wes insisted on explaining his whole process between mouthfuls of scientific babble that she didn’t understand. EJ ignored most of it, but made agreeing “mhm” sounds like she was listening whenever he made eye contact with her.
After the sterilizer, he had scanned her with a hand-held display tablet of some kind, then nodded positively before setting the tablet down and feeling her injured arm. He futzed with the upper arm for a while, painfully kneading her bicep and shoulder. Then he realigned the shoulder joint, gave her a quick word of warning, and pushed hard suddenly, gripping EJ’s dislocated arm tightly and bracing his other hand on the base of her neck. The arm snapped back into place with a sickening, wet POP, and EJ groaned loudly in pain and exhaled forcefully all at once. She had to bite down on her finger to keep from screaming something truly obscene, which left red indents in her skin. Wes jumped back at the sound but collected himself a moment later. He helped her rotate and move the shoulder carefully, feeling out the limits of her arm’s range of movement. Then he spray-cast the arm to keep it stuck in a comfortable position and helped her cinch the arm to her side with a sling.
Now he worked at her bullet wound with a needle. She felt the prick as it pushed into her neck, then a pulling sensation on her skin as the stitching thread was dragged through the wound. She had expected more pain, but in truth, she could barely feel the nano-fiber thread as Wes pulled it through her skin again and again, stitching her injury closed slowly. He worked methodically with deft movements, clearly experienced.
She sat silently, only now beginning to feel the depth of the exhaustion that had settled in her. She let her eyes close. A moment later, the stitching was done.
“That should be good,” Wes finished, giving the thread a light tug before tying it off.
EJ nodded, then winced as the stitches pulled taught. She swore. Fresh, hot blood dribbled from the stitching, and Wes dabbed it away with a wet rag.
“It’ll take some getting used-to,” he warned, setting the needle onto a sterilized tray he had prepared earlier.
He washed his hands in the kitchen’s water dispensary, then retrieved a long, tubular device from the counter and walked back over to stand before her. He presented the device and she took it cautiously.
“I’ve loaded this autosyringe with growth enzyme and pain killers. It should help your body repair things in your neck.”
He smiled, then put a hand to his chin and adopted a questioning expression. EJ cleared her throat.
“Thanks,” she said, shifting in her seat and feeling awkward under his contemplative gaze.
Static, were all medical appointments like this? EJ had never experienced the luxury of attending a proper medical facility. She had always bandaged her own wounds and gotten her own medications from auto-vendors. There were free medical facilities throughout the city, of course, but they were all staffed by AM-Peer medical bots. You couldn’t exactly waltz in there with a bullet in your gut and expect them to not ask any questions. EJ suspected that the bots were programmed to look for any excuse to take patients to the college hospital. Nothing was truly free in the city, and no resource went un-monetized by the GCA.
“If you can help it, try to not pulse or actively tap your electrosenses,” Wes advised.
Pff, easy for you to say, EJ thought.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with your injury, but we can check how it is in the morning.”
EJ realized he was pulsing to concern. She felt a quick surge of worry at that, and reached back to feel her stitches.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the bullet didn’t just graze you. It managed to cut through one of your spinal electroreceptors.”
EJ gave him a blank stare.
“So?” she asked when he didn’t explain further.
“So?” Wes looked appalled at her questioning, like he didn’t understand what part of this wasn’t clicking for her. “So you should be in significantly worse condition.”
EJ made a face like she had just been accused of something heinous.
Oh, I see what the problem is, she thought.
“Look, kid, I know you may have never seen a bullet wound before, but that was nothing compared to some of the injuries I’ve sustained,” she retorted, punctuating her statement with a snort in place of a sarcastic pulse. “One time there was this—”
“No,” Wes said, cutting her off and waving a dismissive hand. “This is serious. I’m talking about like organ failure levels of serious.”
EJ didn’t feel like her organs were failing, so she continued to give him a doubtful expression. When that didn’t seem to convey her lack of understanding, she shrugged. Wes sighed.
“Spinal electroreceptors are really important. Your brain uses them to help regulate your internal equilibrium. Losing a whole receptor can make you overheat, it can stop you from ever sleeping again—the list goes on and it’s all awful, really. Hard to fix, too.”
“But I didn’t lose a whole receptor,” she said in a level tone. “You just stitched it back together and I’ve got this, uh, this thing.”
She gestured with the autosyringe full of growth enzyme.
“Well, no, but the spinal receptor on your neck was completely torn through. That should have caused some serious trauma.”
“I mean it hurt like a—” she began, but Wes didn’t stop talking.
“I would have expected you to completely shut down hours ago but you managed to run through the city then walk all the way here. You even expressed that you could still pulse and use your electrosenses, it just caused you mild pain.”
Wes kept the same stunned expression on his face as he spoke, eyes wide and mouth agape. He looked like he was either on the verge of scientific breakthrough or full mental collapse, it could have easily gone either way.
“Look, you’re kind of freaking me out,” EJ said. “Why don’t we worry about my receptor thing tomorrow and I’ll let you know if I feel like my brain is leaking out through my nose or whatever, alright?”
Wes took a deep breath and rubbed his face with both hands.
“Sorry, you’re right,” he said. “Do you want to wash off? There’s a shower upstairs and I could bring you a change of clothes.”
EJ felt the stab of guilt return.
“That’s alright,” she lied. “I can wash off in the morning.”
A warm shower sounded absolutely heavenly right now, but she felt far too guilty to take him up on the offer. She’d have to settle for a cold bath once she got back to the deployment station. From there she could flesh out the plan to get out of city central and as far away from Seyet as possible. Wes nodded.
“You need to get some rest for those injuries to heal. There’s a bed in the study, you’re welcome to it,” Wes offered. “I’ll clear my stuff off of the floor, and if you need anything I’ll just be in the greenhouse.”
He motioned towards a glass door at one end of the room. EJ could see the geometric dome outside, glowing faintly from within.
EJ nodded and followed Wes back to the room where he had knelt and spoken to the pieces of robot that littered the floor. He pulsed to embarrassment as he quickly stashed the scrapped drone in his bag, piece by piece, before helping her set up the modular bedding that detached from the wall of the room. Then he took the bag and turned to go.
“Thank you, Wes.”
“Yeah,” he said with an exhale. “No problem.”
Then he left, shutting the door behind him. EJ waited for the sounds of Wes moving throughout the house to stop. After a couple of moments, she heard a door open and close. Then everything was silent, and EJ was left to her own devices, accompanied only by the dull ache that resonated through her entire body.
Alright, she thought. Just a few hours of sleep. Then I’ll grab what I need and get out of here.
EJ tried to get comfy on the simple bed, but every position made some part of her ache more. Even just lying flat on her back made the fresh stitches in her neck burn with agitation. Eventually she settled on an awkward lean against the wall with a pillow propped behind her back. It was awfully uncomfortable, but it minimized the pain from her injuries. She told herself that the awkward position would help her wake up, and forced herself to be as comfortable as she could manage.
Just a couple hours, she told herself as her eyelids fluttered shut.
Then the exhaustion overwhelmed her, and EJ fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
* * *
Lying on his bed, Wes stared up at the hexagonal paneled ceiling of the greenhouse. It had already been an hour, and sleep was nowhere in sight. Whenever he closed his eyes, his mind flashed through the scenes from earlier in the day—EJ bleeding, the faction soldiers charging him, the chase, all of it. So he kept his eyes open, staring upwards into the dark. He tried to quiet the thoughts bouncing around his skull, but he couldn’t. There was still too much he didn’t know, too much he didn’t understand. It put him on edge.
Why was EJ fine despite her injury? Why was she running from the most influential faction in city central? He had wanted to ask her more questions, but he had seen how exhausted she was. He was tired too, of course, not to mention completely brain fried. He tried to tell himself that he could ask her in the morning, so there was no point theorizing. It didn’t work. His racing thoughts entertained every possibility, no matter how improbable or fictitious it seemed. Briefly, he even considered that maybe the two situations were connected somehow. Maybe EJ was wanted because she was some sort of medical anomaly in terms of her electrosenses. No, that didn’t make any sense. Setting aside the fact that a medical anomaly like that was pretty much biologically impossible, the All-Seers were information and tech brokers. They primarily dealt in selling off data-mined schematics and designs. Why would they suddenly dip into the medical industry?
This close to the college, that would be an especially risky move. AM-Peer put significant resources into controlling the flow of medical products, information, and services in the city. Wes’s professors all claimed that it was to keep medical facilities streamlined and people safe, but everyone saw through that. The GCA didn’t really make decisions based on people’s safety anymore.
Wes turned over and checked his display surface. Another half-hour of sleepless night had passed, and he was rapidly approaching the early hours of the day. He groaned, sitting up and reaching to access the greenhouse control panel, which folded out from the side of his bed.
After a moment of feeling around in the dark, he found it and opened the greenhouse display. He set the tiles of the greenhouse wall to half opacity, turned up the temperature slightly, and lowered the moisture levels in the air. Half a second later, the whole greenhouse began to whirr mechanically as moisture was pulled from the air and the walls began to buzz with electricity. It made the building hum a low tone that almost felt like the pulse for passive contentment in a weird, artificial kind of way. Wes liked to think that it was the plants pulsing, all telling him that they were well maintained in a little choir of grassy complacency.
He climbed out of bed and watched as the greenhouse walls shifted from opaque white to semi-translucent. The color of the tiles changed, but the darkness in the greenhouse stayed about the same. It was maybe a tiny bit brighter, but that change could have easily just been Wes’s eyes adjusting to the dark. Wes watched his greenhouse work with a small measure of self-pride.
He had designed and built the whole structure himself. Well, it was an ongoing process, really. The modular watering system was going to be one of the finishing touches, but that plan had to be thrown out with his delivery being stolen. He was content to work around the setbacks. They provided new little puzzles to occupy him in the free time between classes. The greenhouse project had been one puzzle after another, each starting with a question. The first question had been how to regulate light, then water, and so on. Wes had solved all these problems one after another in spectacular, inventive fashion.
The greenhouse regulated its own sunlight through the repeating hexagon tiles that made up its domed exterior. Wes wasn’t much of an architect, and he had initially struggled to decide on an efficient shape for the greenhouse. He figured the shape would largely be determined by the needs of the plants, of course, so he looked into the first major accommodation he would need to design: the building needed to let in sunlight. Well, windows could do that, but windows were boring. Wes turned instead to the modern design of cultivation units, researching how automated farms accounted for sunlight levels. He had expected some kind of giant aperture in the ceiling that opened to let light in. A bit of reading into how cultivation units worked had revealed the disappointing truth. Nature was fickle, and automated industries hardly had time to account for the whims of the atmosphere. The companies that managed the cultivation units had decided to cut out the middleman entirely and create their own sunlight, hence the modern innovation of artificial sunlight generators. Duh. Wes thought that was a lazy solution and not nearly as fun as a giant, dramatic aperture in the ceiling. He didn’t keep a greenhouse to turn a profit on mass-produced greenery, so he could afford to take some creative liberties with his design. In the end, he never managed to find a structurally sound way to make the roof open and close in accordance to outside light levels. Instead, he had made the walls opacity adjustable by inventing his own material, like the whole building was made of tinted glass.
There were plenty of materials on the market that could adjust their opacity, but they were all either too complicated or not complicated enough or simply too expensive. Wes had ultimately invented his own, which he called “photo-permeable ‘lectric network tiles,” or PLNT. It made him chuckle every time he said it. The material was glass-like, but it was made of a two-part epoxy mixture, which made it easy to inlay each tile with circuitry. Running electricity through plates of the material would cause pigmented particles in the PLNT compound to align, which would make the tiles appear more colored, and thus more opaque. With a greater current, the compound would react stronger, causing the tiles to turn fully white and opaque. It was like holding a powerful magnet to the underside of a surface covered in tiny flecks of metal. He could modulate the level of current going through the tiles to adjust how much light was allowed into the greenhouse. It wouldn’t solve the problem of rainy or overcast weather, but he had been sure to supplement the system with artificial sunlight to account for that.
After finalizing the design for PLNT and creating enough tiles, Wes had been able to construct the dome of the greenhouse. With all the tiles connected physically, Wes could hook them all up to the same current and use the whole system to heat or cool the greenhouse between light from outside and the heat generated by the current in the walls. From there, he had easily been able to hook up a machine that could regulate the levels of water in the air and tie it into the central circuit of the structure. The whole thing connected back to sensor readouts in the control panel.
Wes glanced down at his control panel and watched the greenhouse adjust to meet his input specifications. If he was going to be wide awake, he may as well get some work done, he figured.
A short time later, plantboy lay half-assembled on a pop-up table at the center of the greenhouse. Wes’s variety of plants were kept on shelving platforms welded to small-scale magnetic suspension rigs. With the floor of the greenhouse being a large, dense metal plate, Wes was able to shift around the layout of his plants with relative ease. For the time being, he pushed them all to the edges of the dome, encircling himself within rings of lush greens and browns. It was a configuration that he used often, as it opened up the center of the dome and allowed him to work on whatever he’d like in the place where he felt the most creative and relaxed.
Wes pushed his goggles up his face and hefted the mechanical ankle he had just finished assembling. It was a lot heavier than he had expected. That was good, considering that plantboy would be using the weight of the feet to keep from falling over. Problem was, Wes didn’t know if plantboy’s legs would have the strength to lift his feet into full steps. Plantboy may have to spend his first few days shuffling around until Wes could find a way to cut weight from the feet without compromising their structure or function. He thunked the whole foot and ankle contraption onto the workbench awkwardly, then plugged it into his tablet with a cable. It was finally time to test his programming. Wes took in an excited, anticipator breath, held it, then ran his code.
The ankle jerked into sudden motion, twisting and bending, thrashing its way across the workbench. Wes yelped and jerked backwards, then grabbed for his tablet. As he did so, the ankle lurched backwards, pulling the tablet along with it by the cable that still connected the two devices. The tablet slipped barely out of Wes’s grasp. He grabbed again and managed to get a hold of the cable and disconnect it from the ankle. The mechanism stopped abruptly, frozen in a pivoted state like it had been folding itself in two. Error messages assaulted Wes’s tablet, but he stopped the program and closed the alerts.
“Well, I guess it works,” Wes said to himself, triumphant in regaining control over the program test.
He hadn’t expected the internal motors to be that powerful. After some tweaking, minor repairs, and an updated program, Wes tested the ankle with the code once more. And it worked! The ankle delicately measured out Wes’s desired pouring angles and kept its balance on the wide, metal foot construction. Fueled by this success, he quickly hammered out a reversed replica of the mechanical foot and ankle to be plantboy’s other foot. A quick test of the feet together showed that they were accurately synced and equally balanced, though still on the heavier side. Perfect. He meticulously connected the ankle mechanisms to plantboy’s improved legs, then put everything together. He had even managed to find a new display screen for plantboy’s chassis and rig it up to an external camera feed that was shoddily attached to both of plantboy’s shoulders,
Plantboy’s original design—the one made by the delivery company, not Wes—had used cameras so the couriers could see where they were going and make adjustments to their delivery path. That system had been damaged when plantboy’s arms were chopped off, so Wes overhauled and rebuilt it himself. He didn’t have plantboy’s arms to properly mount anything onto, so he settled for screwing the cameras directly into the carbon fiber torso. They hung over the sides of the drone’s chassis where the arm holes still gaped. It wasn’t a very secure fastening, but Wes didn’t have a better method for attaching the cameras at the moment, so it would have to do. Now planyboy would be able to see the plants he was watering, which would let Wes do all kinds of fancy tricks with his programming.
Wes hauled the newly assembled plantboy off the table and carefully lowered the cumbersome drone to the ground, setting it in a crouched position.
“Static, you’re kind of heavy, bud,” he groaned to the still-powered-down drone.
The new and improved plantboy was a tall but bulky thing. Just as he had designed it, the drone was about 50% leg, 40% feet, and 10% body. A pair of three-toed, metal feet, each larger than one of Wes’s fully splayed hands, formed the base of the drone. From there, the complex ankle mechanisms connected to equally complex, multi-braced leg structures, which bowed backwards at the knee. The legs ended in a short, squat torso, which was pretty much just a display screen in a black, carbon fiber frame with a metal brace screwed into the top of the chassis for a watering can to be mounted to. Two rotating cameras stuck out of the sides of the drone, like the bulging eyes of a dragonfly. Wes thought it was cute in a distinctly ugly kind of way. The arm-holes were still there, of course. Wes didn’t have a clean solution for that without reprinting the frame of the drone, which he had already decided wasn’t worth it. He figured that the holes would let him easily do maintenance on plantboy’s internal components and made sure to waterproof all the wiring that ran through the interior of plantboy’s open torso. He double checked his waterproofing, then his wiring, then his assembly of plantboy’s parts. All good. He would attach the watering can once he was ready to fully implement the drone.
That meant there was only one thing left to do.
Wes pulled the emotion module from his pocket and slipped it into the port on his media tablet. Immediately his display screen became a convoluted sea of digital symbols that Wes recognized as his shabby code project from last year. He sorted through the lines of text for a time, then got to work.
He’d need to update the code first. It had been written as a supplemental code-bundle for bots that already had an onboard AI. The AI would sort through the code and basically format the layout of the program to match however they had decided to run their own internal systems. It was also written as a growing code-bundle, meaning it was left open-ended intentionally so that a more complex AI could adapt the file however it wanted. Plantboy wasn’t a bot, though. Wes liked to imagine pieces of a personality in the drone, but in truth, he knew it didn’t have any AI implementation. So the emotion module would need to be somewhat overhauled to mesh with plantboy’s internal systems. That was simple enough to do.
Next he’d need to turn the module into plantboy’s brain. As it stood, plantboy’s brain was a company-owned relay station floating in orbit. It was what the delivery companies used to give wide-spread signals to all their active drones simultaneously. If Wes didn’t remove that “old brain” receiver and swap it for something new, planyboy would try to run off to deliver packages in the middle of its greenhouse duty.
In making a new brain for platboy, he’d need to clarify the difference between the drone’s online or “awake” brain and its offline or “asleep” brain. That was simple enough. He had already mulled this question over and come to an idea that satisfied him. Obviously plantboy’s awake state would be watering the plants. As for the sleeping state, Wes was going to set aside a section of the greenhouse to be plantboy’s recharge station. While it was asleep, plantboy could simply go inactive and charge its battery. Wes’s greenhouse already collected solar energy all day to run its own systems, so it would be easy to syphon off a tiny portion of that solar cell and feed it to plantboy.
Additionally, Wes would need to create a trigger that would cause plantboy to switch on and off. That was equally easy. While offline and charging, plantboy could be constantly tapping Wes’s various greenhouse sensors to tell when the plants needed any form of tending. If sensors detected that the average, internal water levels of, say, 80% or more of the plants were dwindling, plantboy and his trusty watering can would get to work. Once the sensors were satisfied, plantboy would go to sleep on his recharge station. Simple.
Wes typed the necessary code into his tablet and double checked everything. After a few edits, it was perfect. He unplugged the emotion module and cradled plantboy’s brain delicately in the palm of his hand. He was practically shaking with excitement at this point. Well, excitement and exhaustion. Wes’s brain told him that the sun would be rising soon, but he willed himself to ignore that realization.
Wes had originally grabbed the emotion module for his own entertainment. Only after retrieving the piece had he realized how it could function as the necessary piece of plantboy’s new brain. While it would have been quite entertaining to program plantboy with some basic emotional expression—Wes had been considering an angry chassis wiggle when plants weren’t watered and a happy, robotic chime when the gardening was complete—he had ultimately cut those parts of the program from his design. He was worried the emotion code-bundles would get too complicated for the drone to manage, which could result in shutdowns or faulty watering. Wes wasn’t exactly working with a powerful processor here, and he didn’t have an orbital broadcast relay or an AI at his disposal to make plantboy any smarter. Sometimes projects had to shift suddenly from the original design to maintain their efficiency or functionality. For now, that was fine. If he really cared, he could find a way to work it out later. Right now he was far too excited to get hung up on that.
Wes plugged the module into plantboy, backed away, and tried to resist the urge to squeal in delight as the initialization message popped up on plantboy’s display screen. Slowly, the machine began to buzz and whirr, coming to life before Wes’s very eyes. First the cameras focused, then the display pulled up the greenhouse sensors, then the legs began to tentatively extend. Wes couldn’t hold in his excitement any longer. He flailed his hands and pulsed to a mixture of triumph and excitement as plantboy calculated its balance and rose successfully to its feet for the first time.
“Yes!” Wes exclaimed.
As the sun began to rise, Wes spent the next hour running plantboy through various test paths in the greenhouse. Everything seemed to be in working order. The drone could fully lift its metal feet, its ankles didn’t seem to have any problems maintaining the various angles of pouring water, and it was processing the camera feed information smoothly. Wes powered the drone down, strapped a half-full watering can to its head, and moved on with his tests. Here, he encountered something he hadn’t expected.
After successfully pouring water over three plants that Wes had spaced out in the center of the greenhouse, plantboy’s leftover speaker flickered online with a low level of quiet static. Wes cocked his head and stared at the drone. He had deleted all programming for the drone’s onboard speaker, it shouldn’t even be functional. He didn’t need plantboy saying things like—
“Please confirm your delivery!” the drone announced suddenly through a thick layer of static.
Wes jumped back.
“What the—” he started.
“Please confirm your delivery!” plantboy chimed again.
Wes stared at the drone, mouth open in confusion.
Didn’t I delete all of plantboy’s old files? I guess something in my program accessed the onboard audio.
He certainly hadn’t programmed plantboy to do that.
Wes powered down the drone, pulled the emotion module, and checked it. Then he checked the files stored on the new plantboy. Sure enough, he found the old audio files from when plantboy had still been a courier, though he wasn’t sure how they had gotten there. He deleted them, then triple checked his program. No, there definitely wasn’t anything in the emotion module’s programming that even remotely accessed the drone’s old speaker.
So he updated the module, plugged it back in, and rebooted the drone. He was faster with his second round of testing. In just a half an hour Wes was refilling the watering can stuck to plantboy’s head. So far, everything was running perfectly fine and plantboy hadn’t made a peep. Not a sound. He didn’t know what the problem had been, but he guessed that deleting plantboy’s old files had solved it somehow.
“Well, you’re just about ready for gardening duty,” Wes told the drone with a proud smile.
“Delivery confirmed!” plantboy cheered.
Wes started again. Then he frowned.
“How?” he groaned, rubbing his temple and pulsing to annoyance. “I deleted those files entirely, you shouldn’t even have them. They don’t exist anymore!”
“Delivery confirmed!” plantboy agreed.
“No, not confirmed! Not at all! How are you doing this?” Wes demanded.
He powered down the drone and pulled open his code one more time. The tiles of the greenhouse were beginning to shift for the day, turning slightly more clear and revealing a dark, overcast outdoors. Wes groaned and glared at the code adorning his display surface.
“I don’t get it. What part of this am I messing up?” he lamented.
After checking through the program’s recorded run-log, he found it. A single line of code was run in the background of several other functions at timestamps that matched the various instances where plantboy’s speakers had spit out a line. Wes isolated the line and read through it. Or, he tried to read through it, but it wasn’t even code. It was just numbers, not a program at all. He compared it to his own code to see if the long stream of numbers was being pulled from somewhere in his program. Maybe it was some kind of weird metadata in the courier drones. He ran a cross-analysis program. It came back with zero hits. Wes shook his head, growing exasperated. Where had this line of numbers come from? It was pages long, he definitely hadn’t typed that. Had some part of plantboy generated it?
Wes copied his entire code over to a new file, scrubbed the emotion module entirely, and rewrote his code by hand, closely following the older, copied version. Just to be sure, he even wrote in a line that would immediately shut down and disconnect the speaker system on boot-up. Then he plugged it back into plantboy and started the reboot cycle, practically vibrating to the frequency of confusion.
When the boot-up completed, plantboy immediately began trying to water plants that weren’t there, pouring water right onto the floor. Wes stopped that function of the program remotely from his tablet and put plantboy in a freeze-state. The drone stopped suddenly, still leaning forward with a dribble of water leaking from the spout of the can. Wes stared at the frozen drone, then furiously scrolled through the ongoing program run-log. So far, he didn’t see any sign of the strange number sequence. Wes looked back at plantboy.
“Well?” he questioned.
Plantboy said nothing.
Wes waited for a solid five minutes. Nothing.
“Of course now the problem can’t be reproduced, but the second I turn you on for real—”
“Please confirm your delivery.” the frozen drone chimed, quieter this time.
“Aha!” Wes shouted, eyes going wide as he pointed an accusatory finger at the drone.
He hadn’t unfrozen the drone, but the weird number-code ran anyway. He waited. His breathing was forceful with exasperation and excitement and confusion all at once. He glanced down at the program’s run-log and spotted the long string of numbers scrolling across the screen. Another couple minutes passed. Wes ran a shaky hand through his hair.
“What is happening? Are you doing that?”
The drone didn’t respond. After waiting a few more minutes, Wes powered down the drone and checked the emotion module.
There was new code on it.
Whole, coherent lines of text that Wes hadn’t written, not more streams of numbers. Wes leaned into his screen and read through the code meticulously.
Something had written an emotional response code into the module, alongside a line of text that would let plantboy bypass his pre-programmed walking route.
Wes ran a test program in an attempt to trace the source of the code-bundle, but his tablet said it had come from the module itself. That was impossible. Wes copied the whole module, wiped it, then on his tablet he ran the old version that didn’t have those self-inserted code bundles. After half an hour of an intense stare-down with his display screen, Wes caught a glimpse of another string of numbers popping into the code inexplicably. He breathed out heavily. What had he just discovered? Thoughts were beginning to pour into his mind—some worried, some excited, but most of them just utterly confused.
The emotion module was programmed to be growing code for an AI to expand on. But plantboy absolutely did not have an AI. Neither did the emotion module. There was no way the school would have given budding AIs to a group of students for a simple class assignment. There definitely wasn’t anything as complex as an AI on the module. If there was, Wes would have seen it in the code. There were only a few other places where the new code could have possibly come from: either it was some piece of plantboy’s old system, or Wes’s tablet was writing it. Again, Wes was fairly certain that it couldn’t have been either of those. His tablet’s only trace of the weird number strings were the ones he had just copied from the module. And plantboy had been wiped multiple times over in the reassembly process. So where were these extraneous bits of code coming from?
Rain was beginning to drum against the greenhouse dome lightly as Wes ran every possible scenario through his brain. He could feel the bags under eyes like someone had tied weights to his lower eyelids. He exhaled and took a second to collect his thoughts.
“Okay,” he said, talking himself through the puzzle. “Something in the module is writing its own code. It didn’t come from me, and it didn’t come from my system, so where?”
He glanced at the powered down plantboy.
“No, that doesn’t make any sense. Plantboy was a courier. Couriers have routine maintenance. If he were divergent somehow, they would have spotted it before he was ever sent on a delivery.”
With each perplexing minute, it was growing more and more tempting to write this off as some kind of one-in-a-million chance occurrence, but he was determined to find a more rational explanation. One-in-a-million chance occurrences didn’t happen to Wes. He wasn’t some scientist on the verge of a world-altering breakthrough, he was just a mildly disgruntled student—thank the prior iterations for that. No, he willed himself to believe in the rational. This wasn’t something spectacular. There was always a reason for these kinds of anomalies. He just had to find it.
He ran through the potential sources for the self-writing code again and again, crossing them off one by one. Then he groaned and shot a tired glare at the emotion module plugged into his tablet.
“Yeah, it has to be the module. I guess something on it is pseudo-AI.”
He decided to run one final test. He wanted to see how far the self-altering code bundles would go. Wes was sure that rogue-AI murder machines were strictly the product of entertainment media and speculative science serials, but just in case, he installed a remote kill command into the module. If the self-writing code got out of hand in any way, he could remotely wipe plantboy’s new brain.
He took a deep breath, then started the trial.
For an hour, Wes let plantboy go about the room watering the various plants that were still pushed to the outer rim of the dome. He waited, pulsing to anxiety as he watched more complex number-strings pop into existence within his code.
In the first half-hour, the code began to write itself again. First it wrote its own emotional responses. That had not been what Wes was expecting it to start with, but it explained why plantboy had suddenly accessed its own speakers earlier. He guessed that it wanted to start building its emotional expression on exclamations and sound bites. As the drone moved along the row of plants, plantboy chimed “delivery confirmed” after he finished watering each one. After that, new code let plantboy find his own paths, rather than sticking to the efficient routes Wes had planned out and pre-programmed. Suddenly plantboy was cutting across the center of the greenhouse, jumping from plant to plant rather than following a neat circle path around the edge of the dome’s interior. After that, nothing else seemed to change for a while.
Half an hour later, at precisely one hour into the test, Wes’s remote kill switch got deleted. He stood up suddenly, holding his tablet and staring at the screen in disbelief. Anxiety began to rise in him, no matter how many times he told himself that rogue-AI murder machines were just the stuff of fiction. Telling himself that it was definitely for science and not because he was terrified, Wes tried to initiate the kill switch. But it was gone. Only a string of numbers sat in its place.
Wes watched his code without blinking for another hour, long after plantboy had finished watering the plants. He worried that the next self-writing code would be a command to explore, to go somewhere else like into the house or to some unknown secret location. But nothing else changed. Now planyboy stood beside him at the table, adjusting what it was looking at every once in a while.
All Wes could do was set down his tablet and stare at the drone. The joking theory that EJ may be some crazy medical anomaly with unexplainable powers was growing more and more favorable in Wes’s mind out of a sheer inability to comprehend what was happening. In Wes’s defense, the crack theory had backing from the night’s prior events. First EJ’s wounds had been seemingly fine, now plantboy was self-programming. It seemed that nothing Wes had studied made sense anymore—first he had lost biology to unexplained-medical-anomaly EJ, and now robotics was consumed by the anomaly as well.
Wes stood up, didn’t bother stretching, and made his way towards the door. It was time to give up. He was exhausted, anxious, and he needed something to drink. Something strong, preferably. If plantboy was going to become magically self-autonomous, he figured there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Maybe after the drone achieved true enlightenment and self-awareness, Wes could convince it to water his plants for him anyway, as a favor for bringing him to life.
As he moved to exit the greenhouse, metal footfalls thunked close behind him. He stopped at the door and sighed.
“Right. You make your own pathfinding now,” he accused plantboy.
“Delivery confirmed!” the drone cheered. At the word “confirmed,” Wes had the distinct impression that the drone was saying “yes.”
“Great,” he groaned. “You want something to drink too?”
He buzzed himself through the greenhouse door and stepped into the rain. Before he could take another step towards the house, a loud thud sounded behind him in the doorway. Wes turned around.
Plantboy was trying repeatedly to step through the door. Even with the watering can on its head, the drone was shorter than Wes in its usual standing position, but it had extended its legs too far and was now bumping into the top of the doorway. After a moment of robotic struggling and frustration, the greenhouse door began to beep angrily, shouting that something was in the way of the automatic entrance.
“Calm down, calm down,” he instructed the drone with a tired pulse.
Wes turned back to help the drone fit its legs through the door. As he did so, he made a mental note:
Note to self: change the file name from “plantboy” with a lowercase “p” to “Plantboy” with a capital “P”. All hail our self-autonomous greenhouse overlord.
<END OF CHAPTER 5>