The first thing that comes to mind when I watch the fireworks is that prison is underrated. Explosions controlled by drones illuminate the small waves of the bay, casting sparks of bright red, orange, and gold—the colors of Saint Plehr, the patron of our asteroid ring.
This is my second year in prison, after I was convicted for sabotaging our planet’s mission to Mars. I’m innocent, of course, but if I told you what really happened, you’d think I’d gone mad.
The noise of the intermittent pyrotechnics is interspersed with the crackling of my campfire. I smile. A penitentiary on Jora is not like the ones on Earth.
The government isolates us in a remote place—so remote, we can even be outside, like now. But they disable our augmented biosensors and internal biocomputers, rendering us blind to the social aspects of our advanced worldwide network.
We can still use the internet as if we were cavemen, using old-style keyboards as Earthers do, yet we don’t get to chat with a real person. As a result, we spend our prison sentences completely alone. While we’re allowed to work on projects and even do some research if we want, isolation is considered the worst form of punishment.
But not for me. The fact I can’t talk or communicate with others has turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise.
“Zeon, you are in danger,” says a voice behind me.
“Shut up, Harry!” I snap, turning around to face him. It’s been a long day.
Harry IV is the newest version of my artificial intelligence experiment. The one I built on Earth years ago—little Harry—doesn’t hold a candle to him, but I still miss little Harry, regardless. His latest incarnation is a black four-legged creature resembling a cat but with a slightly larger head. The flesh and fur are just plastic and carbon fiber with joints, but Harry’s brain comprises biosynthetic neurons and myriad other electronic parts.
I immediately regret yelling at him. It’s not his fault. “I’m sorry, I’m just tired,” I say. “Don’t worry about the campfire—I’m being careful.”
He moves around me in distress, his head up, looking up at the sky. The fireworks must be bothering him. Sometimes, he’s too much like a regular pet. Little Harry acted like one too—more like a dog—and although it was lovely, I needed a smarter version of him, so this time I went for a feline. Obviously, I kept his love and admiration intact.
But perhaps I made a mistake.
Harry looks at me, expressionless, which means he’s worried about me. Or happy. Or hungry. I honestly don’t know. It’s not as if I can actually read a talking cat’s face, especially one with the same expression for every situation.
“Settle down,” I tell him. “It’ll be over soon.”
The annoying creature is the first self-aware robot in existence. While I was in Pangea—the realm of the so-called messengers of the gods—I finally understood what made someone conscious. Ask a random person on the street, and they’ll say without hesitation that the cerebral cortex is the home of consciousness, but no one knows exactly how or why.
No one, that is, except me.
“Zeon, we must leave. You are about to be killed.”
I sigh. “And how exactly am I going to die?”
Color me skeptical. One time, the twat said my death was imminent due to an aneurysm about to burst. There was no such thing; I had just had too many strawberry daiquiris.
Still, drunk me thought Harry was onto something, and I panicked. In the end, my prison sentence was extended six more months.
“From a chemical explosion.”
He stands on his two hind legs and points one of his paws at the sky above.
The ring image created by the fireworks is long gone, replaced by a large white pentagon with a red circle inside, created by the lights of the drone.
It’s the flag of the Atlantic Alliance, my country. A bright point in the sky next to the flag moves rapidly upward, probably a malfunctioning shell.
“Don’t worry. Those are fireworks, Harry. They’re perfectly fine.”
The island where the government’s imprisoned me sits in the middle of a large bay, with the main continent and other islands visible nearby. Jora and Earth are basically the same planet but in parallel universes. So, you say Earth, we say Jora. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
If this were Earth, it’d be near Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil.
But Earth’s maps are upside down—we live in the hemisphere shown at the top in maps. The Atlantic Alliance encompasses most of South America, half of Africa, and—for weird historical reasons—the place where the Philippines would be on Earth.
Harry closes his camera eyes, hopefully accepting my explanation so I can enjoy the show. The white dot in the black sky is brighter now, too high to be a firework, and as fast as a jet plane. No, it’s way faster than an aircraft. If it were higher still, it could be a satellite, but it’s too close and approaching too quickly.
I grin. “It’s not an airplane—it’s a missile!” This is so exciting—so that’s how they look. I’ve always wanted to see one in action. What a day.
The missile is not stealthy since I can clearly see it.
As if guessing what I’m thinking, though, its light is suddenly gone, extinguished. It must have reached the right altitude and pitch, so has shut down its bright engines. Now it only has to follow its course all the way to its target in the dark.
Wait a minute. It’s a missile. And heading this way.
I roll my eyes. After several years of therapy, last week was the first time my personal counselor software finally convinced me no one was trying to kill me.
“Oh, shit,” I say.
Quickly rising to my feet, I glance back at my all-white prison cabin nestled inside a few coconut trees. My educated guess is that it’s not missile-proof. My real cat, Bebe, is there, licking herself in awkward places, none the wiser. If I picked her up, how far could I run?
There are some small hills inland, but if we’re the target, Bebe, Harry, and I won’t make it there in time.
And speaking of Harry, how did he know? I guess I’ll die not knowing it. A late surge of adrenaline reminds me I have to try something.
“Harry, we have to run!” I shout.
He opens his eyes and shakes his head Earth-style. “It is too late for that.”
And then the night becomes day.
The heat hits me first, and I raise my left arm as if it can protect me. The shock wave soon follows, and I fall backward onto Harry. He positions himself where my shoulders would hit the ground, cushioning my head. My left forearm burns, and I yell in pain.
A loud boom resonates like thunder, and the night becomes black again. With quick breaths, I bring my arm closer to check how bad it is, but it’s too dark to see anything. Instinctively, I touch it with my other hand, and a wave of pain makes me regret doing it.
Tears roll down my face while I keep my wounded limb away from everything. I should be dead. Why is only my arm hurt?
Using Harry as a pillow, I lie on the ground, trying to understand what just happened. The air cools down after a minute, at least as cool as you’d expect for a summer night like this. A high-pitched noise reverberates in my ears.
Black dust envelops my hurt forearm, smelling like a fetid mix of ashes and burnt flesh. Things slowly start to make sense. Obviously, the explosion didn’t burn me; the campfire did, when I partially fell onto it. If the missile had caused the burn, I’d be dead for sure.
“Your arm is hurt,” Harry says, helping me sit up. I always underestimate how strong he is despite his size. “You need medical attention.”
The fireworks have stopped. The explosion must have knocked down all the show drones, or whatever was controlling them.
“What—what happened?” I ask no one in particular. When living with no other person for so long, we create weird habits, some of which may sound crazy to others. I have way more empathy with homeless people now. No wonder they can be strange.
Harry runs around my other side to observe my arm. “The missile exploded in the sky before it hit us. You are now safe. There are second-degree burns on your palm and upper arm.”
It’s amazing how he can diagnose that. It’s not as though he’s seen burns before. Still, he spends the nights connected to our worldwide network, so he must’ve learned something. We may not be able to interact with others, but we can certainly browse the web.
My arm shakes a little, and I look out across the bay, watching, wondering if we’re in danger. If someone just tried to kill us, they may try again.
“Where did it come from?” I ask, still talking to myself.
“Ethae was launched from Jay, a submarine.” Harry seems to think I’m speaking to him. “Jay will not fire again.”
The explosion might’ve damaged my eardrums. I’m having difficulty understanding Harry. But a submarine makes sense, although the missile could have come from anywhere, even the continent. Harry must be a wizard to have seen it.
“Wait,” I say, actually speaking to Harry this time. “How do you know the missile was from a submarine?” No matter how special his vision is, he’d never be able to see under the water, or even that far.
“Ethae told me.” He speaks as if it’s obvious.
I look at him, and our eyes meet. “Ethae?” So, I was hearing him correctly.
Harry walks around me and sits like a cat again, looking at the city lights from the other side of the bay. He needs a tail. Without one, he just looks too weird.
While I personally designed his mind, I didn’t build his body myself. I bought it as a kit from an online company specializing in animal-looking robots, so he therefore looks exactly like hundreds of thousands of other biorobots. The tail is sold as an accessory, and at the time, I thought it was unnecessary and too expensive. Now I see it would have been worth it.
“Yes. Ethae,” he says.
Filled with dread, I search my surroundings. Maybe we’re not alone. Every time I meet people when I’m not expecting them, they’re either trying to kill me or emotionally scar me. But no, it’s just us. “Who the heck is Ethae?”
He stands up, points at the sky again, and makes what can only be described as a condescending nod. He’s learning all my bad habits. “Ethae was the missile.”
“And Ethae…” I clear my throat. “The missile… told you?”
I’m flabbergasted. What did I create?
“Yes. Ethae had no idea her actions would end up killing people.”
Harry appears oblivious to my astonishment. But then again, his expressions don’t mean anything to me.
“Her?” I have so many questions, but the gender of the weapon is top of the list.
“Yes,” Harry replies, but he doesn’t elaborate.
I gotta hand it to him—the cat-robot can be irritating, but he’s never boring. “How do you even know Ethae is—was—a she?”
Still standing on his two legs, Harry puts his paws on his hips. My mouth drops. Really? He’s actually learning body language. “Ethae identified herself as a female when I mistakenly assumed she was male.”
Rubbing my forehead with my uninjured hand, I try to make sense of it. All our technology is currently developed from brains originally from mammals, and mammals have genders. The missile’s brain must have decided on its gender at some point. Amazing.
Either way, we can’t stay here. We may still be in danger.
As I stand up, leaning on my left hand, I’m quickly reminded that it’s burnt. I scowl. Harry doesn’t see it, thankfully, or he’d probably complain. That clingy little bastard cares too much.
“How did you talk to her?” I didn’t even know he was able to do that.
Harry turns his head to face me. “You told me to learn how to communicate with the machines around us.”
I start to move toward the cabin. Harry follows me. “I never said anything of the sort.”
“You are mistaken. It happened six months, five days, and three hours ago—when I was asking you about the ships.”
I narrow my eyes. Now I remember. Harry had been bothering me about every single ship that appeared on the bay, just like a kid first learning about the world. He was so annoying that for a while, I wished I didn’t actually have anyone to talk to.
“I never asked you to talk to them.”
“Not directly. It is hard to understand you. You always told me I should extrapolate and not take things literally.”
I must be careful about what I say to Harry. “What exactly did I tell you at that time?”
“You ordered me to do something sexual with myself and to ask the goddamn ships. So, I began communicating with everything around us.”
I stop walking for a moment and look at him, my cheeks burning. “Uh… did you do anything sexual with yourself?” Against my will, my brain begins picturing ways he could do it.
“No, Zeon. It is not physically possible. I assumed it was just a disrespectful comment.”
I look away, disgusted with myself. Perhaps I should stop insulting him.
“Sorry about that. Why did the missile—Ethae—explode?”
“Ethae knew she would be dead anyway, so she calculated the best position to destroy herself without injuring others. It’s sad.”
A machine with empathy. Harry and the others are too good for us.
“What about the other weapons in the submarine?” I point at the sea as if the vessel is right there. Maybe it is.
“Ethae’s sisters were also distressed regarding the whole situation and refuse to be launched. And Jay is not obeying orders anymore.”
I laugh. A family of missiles, and all girls. Harry inadvertently created a mutiny inside a submarine. People think nothing can hack our computers unless a backdoor is baked into the system during production. Harry, however, with his advanced brain, is developing a whole new way to hack by sugar-talking a missile.
But the consequences of his actions are astonishing. There’s no way for the people who tried to kill us—whoever they are—to hurt us unless they land here and personally shoot us, since our whole world is connected with smart machines. I take a deep breath, relieved. We’re safe.
At that moment, the hum of an army of lawn mowers breaks through the night silence. I frown. The mower-bots never work during the night, and they definitely never synchronize their mowing engines like that.
“One more thing,” Harry says. “A helicopter is approaching. His name is Frei. And he’s carrying soldiers.”