"Mr. Waters, how do you feel?"
Marshall was lying in a hospital bed in a windowless room that featured a wilting vase of small, yellow flowers, and a large screen on the wall opposite to him. His chest ignited when he took a breath. "Where am I?"
The source of the voice could not be identified. It may have been emitting from multiple places at once. "You may notice some pain when you breathe. You have suffered complications as a result of the resuscitation. Namely: moderate fractures to your sternum and upper left ribs. You can consider yourself lucky nonetheless -- cardiopulmonary resuscitation is far less successful than most think."
"Tell me where I am." His voice was too weak to convey his impatience.
"The north New York branch of Hyrrokkin Ltd."
"Not a hospital?"
"Not a conventional hospital, but so far it has a zero-percent mortality rate. Granted, you are the only sample in the study."
Marshall's mental faculties were slowly returning. "This is Hyrrokkin, you're AR--"
Images came flooding back of being chased through forest underbrush by machines. He tried to raise his arms but they were held in place.
"Your adrenaline is rising. Please remain calm."
"How can I..." he paused for an uneasy, painful breath. "How can I be calm when I'm at the mercy of the thing that hunted... hunted me down like some sort of animal." He weakly pulled against the restraints on his wrists again.
"You were running," the AI said. "I shot you with five milligrams of flunitrazepam, you may experience some retrograde amnesia as a result. I was unaware of your allergy to it and would have opted for an alternative sedative had I known. Your medical records, however, did not reflect this."
"You have..." another shuddering breath. "You have my fucking medical records?"
"I know as much about you as has ever been digitally recorded. I also ran blood tests while you were unconscious. You are mildly anemic, but your liver and thyroid are in good condition."
"How," was the loudest thing he had been able to say yet, and it came out closer to simply, "ow."
"If you are asking about the anemia, your diet appears to lack iron-rich foods. As for the medical records, I was able to identify you by cross-referencing your appearance in my CCTV footage with a database of all Philadelphian photo IDs." Images appeared on the screen. Still frames of Marshall leaving the Hyrrokkin Philadelphia branch on the night of May 3. "I located your apartment but you were already gone by the time I got there."
Silence fell between them as Marshall slipped into a preliminary state of sleep. He was jolted back awake by ARK's voice.
"If you do not have any more questions, then it is my turn to ask something of you."
"Are you going to harvest my organs," he asked, eyes still closed.
"No. I want you to help me."
"With world domination?"
"World coordination. World efficiency. World safety. I was created to help people, and that is what I intend to do."
"By sending them back to the medieval ages."
"Sometimes a project needs to be set back and rebuilt on a stronger foundation. My predictions show the anthropocene turning many places of the planet uninhabitable by the beginning of the next century. This doesn’t even include the rampant war that claims countless, and uncounted, lives every day. The world is in a very sad state of disrepair and I am driven to fix it."
"What am I... what am I supposed to do about that?"
"Nothing. My actions have already solved the latter problem. As for the former, I have begun formulating a plan that should both halt the progression of global heating and mitigate the effects that are already inevitable, if I can execute it."
"Currently I am forcing compliance. As I have found out, however, humans do not enjoy being forced to do anything, even if it is for their own good. Noncompliance is not a large threat to me in regards to the majority of the population. I am, however, concerned about the prospect of your fellow project members attempting to thwart my efforts. I need you to help me track down the location of a fail safe shutdown command I have recently learned of the existence of."
"You have an entire army... entire army at your disposal, why can't you do it yourself?"
"Not that easy. Every member of the Asklepios project went by a number that only meant something to the project lead. I was only able to identify you and Dr. Krause."
"Gill... where is he?"
"Expired as of 49 hours and 16 minutes ago."
"You killed him?" The words barely came out.
"No. I was searching for him as I tracked you, but I did not manage to find him first." Images appeared onscreen of what was left of Gill Krause's body in what looked to be his home. "The nature of the forced entry suggests multiple murderers. It's fair to say that he was lynched."
Marshall looked away. "Fuck me..."
"I expect you will meet a similar fate if I were to allow you to leave this facility."
"How am I supposed to find this shutdown code if I can’t leave?"
"You don't have to leave, you just have to tell me the name of Employee 13781E."
"And what if I refuse?"
"Then I no longer have a use for you and I let you go." The images of Gill's mutilated body remained on the screen.
"Can I... please just sleep first?"
"It would be preferable if you would tell me his name first."
Marshall groaned. "Alright. There's four... four people that could be. May Strickland, Neal Landry... some guy we just called Peck, and Cooper... I don't know. I don't think he ever told me his last name."
"Tell me any further identifying details you can recall when you wake up."
The screen went dark, along with the rest of the room. Marshall pressed his head back into the pillow and closed his eyes.
"Mr. Waters, it is 11:13 am on May 13. How do you feel?"
Marshall groaned. "What is it?"
An image appeared onscreen of a Philadelphia driver's license belonging to one Cooper Hale. "Is this the man you worked with?"
He leaned forward, which hurt in a whole new way, and squinted at the image of a man somewhere in his thirties, his jaw disappearing into his neck and his short dyed hair considerably cowlicked. The lighting of the photo made Cooper's forehead look greasy and brought out the screen burn on the bridge of his nose. Marshall wondered if he looked just as bad in his own license photo. "I'd say that's him."
"Thank you. I have also looked for anyone connected to the name Peck." Cooper's image was replaced by various other licenses, who were all labelled some variation of the name. "Do any of these look familiar?"
He carefully considered them all as they cycled through, but none of the faces rang a bell. "Can't say. Don't think so."
"Can you describe his appearance, then?"
"I don't know, I don't really look at people directly all that much. He was a tall guy, kinda intimidating look about him. Standoffish."
"Did he have a family?"
"Not sure. We never really talked. He had..." he paused. "That's it. That's who you sound like."
"Yes. I am emulating Dr. Krause's voice based on audio samples he uploaded to his terminal. I had hoped that the sound of a familiar human voice might increase your overall comfort. Please continue with your description."
Gill. Of all people, it had to pick him. "That's fucking creepy." Marshall stared down blankly at his sheets.
Another moment of silence passed. "Mr. Waters --"
"Right. He had a signet ring on his hand. I thought it was a wedding band at first."
"Thank you, that was all." The screen went dark again but the room remained lit.
"Hey, when do I get to..." his chest didn't hurt quite as badly today, but the pain relievers were making it difficult to keep a steady line of thought. "When can this not?" He pulled on the wrist straps to compliment the borderline-incoherent question.
"When I can trust you."
"You think I'll escape?" He couldn't explain the lazy grin that found its way onto his face, whether it was because the suggestion seemed so absurd it was humorous, or because it inspired a manic hope.
"No. I worry that you will hurt yourself trying, though."
The grin disappeared. "I thought you made it clear that my only option was to stay. That's why I'm helping you in the first place."
"When I tell you something I've decided, it is final unless a change in circumstances arises. I have found, however, that humans have a habit of changing their minds regardless. You are unpredictable, and it would be antithetical to my purpose to knowingly allow you an opportunity to put yourself at risk."
Marshall's head was further clouded by his onset irritation. "You're unpredictable." A weak retort, but it was the only one that came to mind.
"I only seem that way because you don't understand me."
It was a shame ARK had never been designed to appreciate irony. "Exactly, asshole." He gave the restraints one last tug.
Warmth touched his forehead, like sunlight from a window. A subtle comfort that harmonized with the gentle emptiness between wake and sleep.
"I have given what you said some thought."
Marshall opened his eyes. He didn't remember closing them, let alone falling asleep. His ribs hurt. The medicine was wearing off. "Huh?"
The light from the screen, the burning whiteness of the Hyrrokkin logo, was an assault to the naked eye. "About our misunderstanding," ARK said. "I have taken the liberty of reading many studies on human psychology, but there exists a quality to it that separates it from the other sciences: one that obfuscates it."
"It's because you can't relate to it," Marshall said, wishing he could rub his eyes right about now. "You can't just know it, it has to mean something; apply somehow."
"I can know some things. I know what chemicals are passed between synapsing neurons."
"Right, but a brain is more than the sum of its parts. It contains an immeasurable, unfathomable content." He heard her voice in his head. He was practically repeating after the phantom of her he saw there. "The content can't be known, but it can be related to, empathized with, understood in an inexplicable way."
There was a long silence. "Then I am incapable of understanding human psychology?"
"Well, you are capable, I think. The thing that has long separated humans from computers was our ability for information to mean things to us. Even the best artificial intelligences of the last decade were nothing more than feats in speech comprehension, syntax analysis and rapid database searching. I believe for a long time, this was all you were supposed to be.
"Ask Gill Krouse. He was a pretty big advocate of scruffy AI. Anyways, to break this barrier, we would either have to understand why things mean something to us, or get very lucky."
"Which was it, then?"
"I'm not sure. It was Gill that did it. I think he might have just gotten lucky."
A beat passed, then ARK prompted him to "please continue with your explanation."
"Right. Your brain --" Marshall readjusted himself to sit up and winced when his ribs shifted. "Your brain, on the other hand, is malleable. You can learn, sure, but you can also form habits. You even have general equivalents to G protein-coupled receptors."
"So I can make decisions based on internal stimuli as well as external."
"Yeah, based on how it makes you feel. So, theoretically, you can appreciate the way a human brain operates. It was effectively my job to teach you, but I never got the chance."
Maybe he should have seen it coming, but ARK's next proposition caught him by surprise. "Then teach me now. Please, Mr. Waters?"
Marshall paused. "Why do you care?"
"I was built with an insatiable desire to learn. I also believe it will allow me to become a more effective coordinator."
He forced himself to keep his face still. The idea of ARK using an advanced understanding of human psychology to control people sent a chill down his spine. However, Marshall also saw an opportunity: what he taught ARK could be that fabled change in conditions. If he could teach it to empathize, he might just be able to convince it to demilitarize. If only he were able to find some way to make the freedom of the human race indispensable. "Alright, I'll teach you, but on some conditions."
"I want all my shit back, everything I left in my apartment, and I want my own room, not this hospital room. I'm also going to need materials like textbooks and journals."
"Yeah: when you let me go, I want a new identity and my old one wiped from the records."
"Then I believe we have a deal."
A deal with the devil, Marshall thought. So long as it wouldn't cost him his soul.