Chapter 15
Soul of Silicon
Outer Rim of the Neptunian Sphere
Date: Mon 04 May 123
Time: UST 1110

Switching over to a long haul freighter improved their lot quite a bit. They had a couple changes of clothes, showers, bunks to sleep in and more to eat than just a single MRE a day. None of this mattered much to Matt, though. After yesterday's news report, he felt like all the bones had been pulled out of his body. Fortunately, no one in their group besides Lydia and Zhao saw the report, but that was little comfort.
Matt had not left the little two-man room he shared with Colonel Vasquez since they got settled. There was nothing he could do, so he might as well do nothing at all. If he was thinking rationally, he would have known it was not much of a solution as he was left alone with his thoughts, dwelling on everything the report had exposed. He hated the jackals at MCN, he hated his monster of a father, but most of all, he hated himself as the living proof of every horrible thing that happened to his mother.
It was hard to say where his thoughts would have taken him were it not for a knock at the door. When he did not answer, it opened anyway. The designers of the freighter did not believe in door locks, apparently.
It was Lydia who walked in, propping herself up on the doorway because she had not yet mastered the trick to maintaining her balance with the leg brace.
"Come on, Cav," she said. "They're up to their tricks again. Let's go ta the rec room an' check it out."
Matt did not move. He did not give any sign that he even acknowledged her presence. He felt bad about ignoring her, but he could not bear to face her or anyone else.
"Cav, nothin's gonna change by you holin' up here," Lydia said. "No one else knows, but they'll start gettin' suspicious if ya keep it up."
Lydia was right. By cutting himself off from the others, he was drawing more attention to himself rather than deflecting it. The best thing he could do was pretend like nothing happened and blend in, no matter how much it tore him apart inside.
Rolling over, he started get up, saying, "Alright, Nyx. Let's go."
The rec room was not far from the berthing space, right next to the galley. Everyone except for Zhao was there gathered around the TV. Matt and Lydia had arrived just in time, as the anchor was saying, "We continue our exposé on government misconduct and abuse with today's special on the artificial humanoid controversy which came to a head during the riots of '97. For more, we go to Piers Berg. Piers?"
The camera switched to another part of the studio, where the interviewer from yesterday's report was standing.
With a nod, Berg said, "Thank you, Sina. Yesterday we shed light on the various abuses by World Council Chairman Erich Richthofen. Part of the reason the cover-up following the Stargazer Incident was so easily executed was due to the artificial humanoid controversy during that time. But first, a brief history lesson on the artificial humanoids."
A title card that read "The Artificial Humanoid Controversy: A Retrospective" segued into footage from an old black-and-white movie where a white-haired mad scientist type pulled back a curtain to reveal a seated female robot to some man in a suit.
As the footage continued, Berg's voiceover said, "Human-like robots have been a staple of science fiction ever since its inception with such iconic early portrayals such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Along with the rise of practical robotics in the 20th Century, the dream of humanoid robots was pursued as well. Prior to the Blackout, many developed nations were making progress toward fully autonomous humanoid robots, but in the early years of the Union, the clear leader was NeoGenesis Systems."
While Berg was talking, the footage from the movie gave way to a montage of the early advancements in robotics and paused for a while on the logo for NeoGenesis Systems. Once the pause ended, the footage showed some sort of launch event with lights and flashy banners with slogans like "Reimagine Being Human" and "Dawn of a New Age". Much unlike the rather crude machines shown before, a far more human-looking synthetic walked out on stage to shake hands with the presenter.
"The first commercially released model was their Beta Series Artificial Humanoid in September of Double-Oh-Four. Though primitive by modern standards, the Beta Series was truly revolutionary for its time."
From the Beta Series' launch event, they cut to archival footage of an interview from the 50's. The label appearing under the interviewee read "Anders Kurtzweil, Frmr. Lead Designer, NeoGenesis Systems". Kurtzweil spoke in a rather animated fashion, moving his hands around a lot as he was talking.
"People ask why we used the term 'artificial humanoid'. I know it sounds awkward, but if we were arrogant enough to call them 'artificial humans', people would go nuts. They'd think we were trying to play God, but we're not. We're just trying to put out a product with a familiar face."
The image of Kurtzweil froze and desaturated as Berg resumed his voiceover, then cut to a demonstration march.
"Despite Mr. Kurzweil's denials, there were those who did think NeoGenesis Systems was playing God and saw their work as a threat. The Movement for the Preservation of Natural Humanity, more commonly known as the Redbloods, was founded in June of Zero-Twelve, not long after early conceptual campaign for NeoGenesis' Delta Series."
There was another cut to a woman at a makeshift podium addressing the demonstrators.
"You've all seen the latest abomination from these people!" she shouted in a shrill voice. "'More human than human,' they say! The work of NeoGenesis Systems is a direct threat to everything you and I hold dear! They're taking humanity and trivializing it, commoditizing it! Are we going to stand for it!?"
"NO!" the crowd shouted back.
The image of the demonstration faded as there was another cut to more movie footage, some late 20th Century imagining of the near future with flying cars and giant ads projected onto skyscrapers.
"'More human than human,'" Berg's voiceover said, "a line borrowed from the 1982 film Blade Runner would guide NeoGenesis' development of their artificial humanoids in the years to follow but also came back to haunt them as it proved to be a key element in the Redbloods' campaign against them."
They cut again, this time to a thickset, sneering businessman whose label read, "Wladislas Czarnowiecki, CEO, Laslo Synthetics Corporation". Matt recalled that LaSynCo was one of NeoGenesis' main competitors, known for making much cheaper synthetics.
"To be entirely blunt," Czarnowiecki said, "it was stupid of NeoGenesis to roll out the 'More human than human' line in the first place and stupider still that they stuck with it for so long. The reason we never had to deal with half the trouble they did is because we never pretended our products were anything but machines."
There was a cut to another launch event as Berg's voiceover said, "After the release of the Zeta Series in Zero-Fifty-one, NeoGenesis fumbled along in its work toward a successor. The Eta and Theta Series were both canceled before entering production and the company appeared to be on the verge of bankruptcy when it unveiled its bold new vision for synthetics with the Iota Series."
A computer simulation showed millions of tiny particles coming together to form a human embryo with glowing veins. As this was going on, Berg said, "Using advanced nanomachine technology, the Iota Series was designed to perfectly replicate human growth and development to include a neural network that would learn all of its programming in the same manner as humans do. NeoGenesis even went so far as to run experiments on test models that paired them with human babies to compare their physical and mental development."
After a brief shot of a sterile classroom with students in twin-seater desks, another simulation like the one before appeared, only this time the particles were coming together from opposite directions. Then it showed a smiling couple with a baby, who looked like ordinary people except for their NeoGenesis-branded jumpsuits.
"Even more provocative was the claim that Iota Series units would be capable of replication via sexual reproduction. This was proven in Zero-Ninety-two when Neo-Genesis presented 'Barcelona', the daughter of Iota Series units 'Andalus' and 'Catalonia'. It did not take long for speculation to emerge that the Iota Series and its successor the Kappa Series were capable of producing man-machine hybrids."
A series of images that were more censor mosaics than anything else were followed by low-quality security cam footage of a man soliciting a prostitute at some starport.
"The employment of human-like robots for pornography and prostitution are as old as the technology itself and some have argued that NeoGenesis' commitment to replicating humans so closely makes their products the worst offenders. This provided abundant ammunition for the Redbloods over the years, but the allegations of these man-machine hybrids was akin to giving them the atom bomb."
In hackneyed fashion, they actually showed an atomic explosion before cutting to footage of the '97 riots. First they showed the protestors clashing with police and later the Army's pacification operations. Tear gas, mass arrests, armored vehicles patrolling the streets...
"After presenting alleged proof of these man-machine hybrids, the Redbloods spurred massive protests that spread like wildfire throughout the Union. In typical fashion, the government mobilized the military to put down the riots, but keeping the protesters off the streets did not bring an end to the civil unrest. Chairman Berkowicz convened an emergency session of the World Council to ban the Iota and Kappa Series. NeoGenesis Systems avoided all criminal liability by voluntarily issued a recall of all units from both series."
Footage of Chairman Berkowicz debating with the members of the World Council gave way to the voluntary recall of the Iota and Kappa Series and a police sting for an example of a less voluntary recall. The the screen faded to black as Berg asked, "But what of the man-machine hybrids alleged by the Redbloods?"
There was a cut to a press conference with a Japanese man whose label read, "Masao Teraoka, Frmr. CEO, NeoGenesis Systems".
"These allegations are completely unfounded," Teraoka said firmly. "Neither the Iota or Kappa Series units are physically capable of gestating an organic hybrid. It simply is not possible."
They cut to man masked in shadows with a modded voice, much like they did for 'Mr. Y' yesterday.
"There were doubts a viable offspring could be brought to term, of course," the man said, "but we always entertained the possibility. It would've been a major breakthrough. Just the imagine the potential. Most of our experiments failed, but we were able to produce three hybrids before the recall and found five more produced independently by units we sold."
The camera cut to Berg as he asked the man, "What happened to these hybrids?"
"Terminated," the man replied bluntly. "Government orders. Such a waste..."
Over a closing montage of dropping stock prices, a sparsely attended booth at a trade show and other signs of NeoGenesis' decline, Berg's voiceover said, "In the aftermath of the recall, NeoGenesis is now a husk of what it once was, fielding its current Mu Series units almost exclusively to the government. Its less ambitious rivals like LaSynCo do not pose the same threat, but the question remains. Were all the Iota and Kappa Series successfully recalled? Might some of them still be out there along with their hybrid offspring? What would that mean for natural humanity? The questions come much easier than the answers."
A musical cue marking the end of the segment was followed by a cut back to the studio, where the anchor brought in commentators to offer their opinions on the story. Meanwhile, back in the rec room of the freighter, the assembled fugitives were left puzzling over what they had just seen. All Zhao had told them was that they would be targeted by these exposés, but because most of them had not seen yesterday's report, they did not know how to take it all in. Honestly, even having seen their methods, Matt was not entirely sure who the target of the latest report was supposed to be. Ultimately, it fell to Chief Bianchi to actually ask the question.
"I don't get it," she said, leaning back in her chair. "Who are they going after with this story anyway?"
After a moment of silence, it was Lieutenant Wallace who spoke up.
"They're after me."
Chief Bianchi looked to Lieutenant Wallace in surprise.
The Lieutenant let out a sigh before explaining, "My dad was Thomas Jefferson Lee, a designer at NeoGenesis. And my mom was Wallachia, a production model Iota Series unit."
"But... how?"
"I'm basically a nanomachine-augmented clone of my dad, a variation of the sexual replication process the Iota Series was designed for. Mom did a pretty good job... except for... except for the eyes, you know. Lot of calculations. Lot of factors that are hard to control."
"So your visor..."
"Mom and Dad worked together to design augments that would let me see. I modified the design to give me a direct neural interface to the 'Verse."
"So, what, you're some kinda superhuman?" Sergeant Grisson asked.
"Not really," Lieutenant Wallace replied. "You can't tell it by looking at most people, but the human brain is a pretty advanced computer. If used right, it can beat most machines, but you only see it in prodigies and even they don't necessarily have full control of it. I do. That's the main difference."
"No wonder they were afraid of the hybrids," General Pfeiffer said. "Gene therapy and cybernetics have always been so tightly regulated to avoid creating some kind of metahuman subspecies, but it's happened anyway and we have the living proof right here in this room with us."
"How have you managed to get by all this time?" Chief Bianchi asked. "They couldn't have just given up on looking for you."
"Everything's electronic," Lieutenant Wallace said. "So long as I have a connection, there's not much I can't do. I made it ten years before they caught me. Even then I was able to hide what I was."
"And they put you to work for ISIS?"
Lieutenant Wallace furrowed his brow.
"Where'd you hear that?"
"At the trial."
He paused for a bit before admitting, "Yeah, they could've killed me or just put me in a hole somewhere, but they decided to make use of me. After a few years at one of their remote stations, they decided to plant me in the Air Force."
"Why would ISIS plant one of its agents in the Air Force?"
Lieutenant Wallace shook his head.
"You really don't know anything, do you, Eva? Pretty much every agency of the government has plants in each other. No one trusts anyone. That's why we're in the mess we're in. There's some other group out there, maybe a part of the government, maybe something else. I'm betting they're the same ones that handed the Tico over to the Shellies."
Lieutenant Wallace glanced up at the ceiling and asked, "You wanna back me up on that, Zhao?"
"I'd rather not get into it yet, Lieutenant Wallace," Zhao replied over the intercom, "but I won't say you're off-base."
Specialist O'Connor, who did not usually speak much, muttered as much to herself as to Lieutenant Wallace, "So your mom wasn't... she wasn't human..."
She was clearly struggling with the concept, but her remark apparently touched a raw nerve with the Lieutenant, because he promptly responded with no small amount of anger in his voice, saying, "The last memory I have of my mother is her crying as they carried her away, so you can say she wasn't human and you can go straight to hell."
Specialist O'Connor could only stammer in reply, "I, I'm sorry. I didn't, didn't..."
"It's alright," Jeff said, softening about as much as he seemed capable. "You don't know any better. Not too many that do."
Perhaps as much to deflect attention away from Specialist O'Connor as anything else, Chief Bianchi asked him, "Are there others like you?"
"I found evidence of eleven who were brought in," Lieutenant Wallace said, contradicting the insider from the report. "If there are any out in the wild, they've done a good job of laying low."
"What happened to them?"
"Disposed of, like Dzernovic said, though not as quickly as he made it sound. Probably used them for medical experimentation until there was nothing left."
"That's awful."
"That's just scratching the surface. NeoGenesis is pretty fucked up..."
That pretty well killed the conversation for a while. No one was really listening to the TV. It was just background noise. What could anyone say?
Colonel Vasquez opted to change the subject, asking no one in particular, "So what's our move?"
"Nothing," Zhao said. "They're doing this shit because they want to provoke us into doing something stupid. They'll play this media game a while longer and then they'll start looking into more direct action."
"More direct action?" General Pfeiffer asked.
"Family, friends, colleagues, they'll go after them. First it'll be things like exposing whatever dirt they've got, messing with their bank accounts and such. If that doesn't get the job done, they'll resort to something a little more old-fashioned."
"Kidnapping, torture, murder... The messy stuff."
It was a terrible thought, terrible enough that it prompted Specialist O'Connor to speak up again.
"If they're going to go that far, can't we just surrender to them? Won't that end it?"
"No, Specialist, that won't end it because it's not just about you. You all are just convenient pawns in a bigger game. Even if you handed yourselves over to them, it wouldn't save the people you care about."
"We can't just sit around doing nothing!"
"We have to. This is a high-stakes game of chicken and right now they have the advantage. Not doing anything is the best weapon in our arsenal because as far as they know, we're moving against them and in their paranoia, they'll flinch and that's when we strike."
"What the hell're we s'pposed ta do?" Sergeant Grisson asked.
"I meant 'we' in a larger sense, Sergeant," Zhao replied. "You'll see. It'll all come together. I know it's hard, but I'm asking you guys to bear with it a while longer yet."
That was easier said than done, but because there was nothing they could do, it was just as well that doing nothing was their best course of action. They could only hope that the opportune moment to strike would present itself before the situation escalated any further. Otherwise a lifetime in the Icebox would seem like a kinder fate.