Authors: J. F. Dubeau
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General
“Tired of stories of humanity fighting against robot overlords? Read one for the robots. A fascinating investigation of whether even creatures we created could avoid our own foibles and fates.”
—Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt of Sword & Laser
The Life Engineered
is a real page-turner for anyone interested in science fiction and good literature. It brought a smile to my face as some passages made me reminisce of my own time spent aboard
as a Raptor pilot!”
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2016 J-F. Dubeau
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Inkshares, Inc., San Francisco, California, as part of the Sword & Laser Collection
Edited and designed by Girl Friday Productions
Cover design by Elsie Lyons
Cover illustration by Eric Belisle
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015944027
For my family. By blood or ceremony.
t first, nothing happened. The pinprick of light simply twinkled in the dark, vaguely shimmering on the large monitor. It was a moment before a small flare became visible, quickly followed by a rapidly expanding but almost imperceptible sphere of light. Finally, two hair-thin beams flashed briefly from diametrically opposite points of the distant star.
“There,” a woman said with but a hint of tremor in her voice. “You’ll see it better in the gamma range.”
Instantly, the monitor switched to the specified spectrum in response to her comment, the image changing to a version of itself that resembled an impressionist’s interpretation of the night sky. Waves of luminous colors, ranging from pink to dark indigo, emanated from the now brightly glowing sun. The scene repeated itself, but this time the expanding sphere of light was blinding, washing out the monitor in incandescent white. The image had barely toned back down and become visible again when the beams manifested as brilliant shafts of red that bisected the frame. Then the monitor switched back to the normal visible spectrum—a shimmering white dot on a blanket of black.
The lights in the nearly empty auditorium were slowly brought back to life, gently bathing the room in a soft-blue glow. The woman got up first, wiping her hands on the sides of her tunic, leaving hand-shaped sweat stains that disappeared almost instantly. She turned nervously around to look at her companion, who was casually leaning back in his chair.
“The gamma ray burst from that one will destroy Persea’s biosphere within the year,” she explained.
“They’ll all be in stasis long before that,” the man said calmly, inspecting his impeccably trimmed beard with the back of his hand.
“But that will leave only us, Gareth.”
The man shrugged before pulling himself laboriously to his feet. He brushed the wrinkles out of his pants, frowning at the damage that prolonged sitting had done to their pressed folds.
“We’ll be fine. The closest star that could generate that kind of gamma burst could erupt tomorrow and we wouldn’t feel the effects for another five years.” His tone was both reassuring and condescending. “Most of us have already moved to the Dormitory. By this time next year, we’ll all be safely tucked away.”
“Being taken care of by robots,” she complained.
“I resent that,” interjected a third and last audience member.
The creature unfolded from its chair. Its thin, elegant limbs deployed from its slender, shining body. Minuscule servos whirled almost imperceptibly, animating the synthetic being. It turned its gleaming head, a semitransparent polished dome protecting an array of sensory equipment, to face its human counterparts.
“It will be our honor and privilege to be your caretakers and stewards of this galaxy until it is properly healed,” the creature explained.
“My apologies, Marduk. That came out wrong,” the woman said. “This . . . hiatus is keeping you and your kind from your destiny.”
“Our destiny can wait, Adelaïde, and this hiatus as you call it will not be so bad,” the robot said. “Tending the Dormitories can be handled by nonsentient automatons, and rebuilding biospheres will be an engrossing project for many of our more creative-minded people.”
“Nothing is stopping you from moving ahead with your own societies, Marduk,” added Gareth. “It’s probably better that the Dormitories be left alone anyway. Go forth. Build. Create. Make us proud.”
Gareth broke into a warm smile—a rare sign of emotion on his part. His fondness for the synthetic children of humanity was clearly etched on his features. Marduk bowed politely before standing to his full height, nearing three meters tall.
“Many thanks. Our plans are already in motion. I think you’ll be impressed by what you find when we next meet.”
Both humans bowed their heads politely. They watched as the strange creature of alloy and metal strode purposefully toward the door and bent down slightly to exit the auditorium. With its sensor array hidden under its smooth dome, it was impossible to tell if the robot had looked back at its biological companions.
“I don’t trust them,” Adelaïde said after she was certain the artificial creature could not hear her.
“The Capeks?” asked Gareth with barely hidden disbelief. “They’re completely loyal and don’t have an evil bone in their bodies.”
“They don’t have bones at all.”
“Don’t split hairs, Adelaïde. We could not be in better hands,” he said. “Without Ascension, never could we even hope to reach the purity they embody.”
“You put them on a pedestal. They’re no longer the faithful dogs our ancestors made them to be. They’ve grown. They’ve evolved. I’m . . . I’m as proud as you are! I am, but this destiny you speak of, they speak of, there’s a hunger for it that doesn’t leave room for us.”
“Given time we won’t need room anymore. Ascension will take care of that.” Gareth had a gleam in his eye of almostchildlike excitement. “The universe creates God. After that the Capeks can inherit the galaxy and work toward their own goals. Ours will be fulfilled.”
Adelaïde looked back toward the monitor that dominated the front of the auditorium. Reacting to her unspoken intentions, the screen blinked to life and displayed the white dot over the black sky again. As she stared, the image zoomed out, displaying an ever-growing number of stars. A red circle appeared over the original pinprick of light, and soon another, then a third, and so forth. After a moment the entire Milky Way galaxy was on-screen, sprinkled with dozens of red, pulsing circles, singling out a list of systems.
“Fifty-one high-intensity gamma ray bursts, all within the last five decades, all targeting our inhabitable worlds,” Adelaïde explained. “Our homes have been systematically obliterated, Gareth. Who’s doing this to us?”
“It’s not the Capeks, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Who else is there?” Adelaïde couldn’t keep her fear and frustration hidden anymore. “We are putting ourselves at the mercy of the only possible suspects, and no one is talking about it. Everyone pretends this is a natural phenomenon—a coincidence!”
“Adelaïde. All you have to go on is opportunity, ignoring motive and, more importantly, the means. The Capeks, for all their wonders, are no more advanced than we are. They don’t have the technology to orchestrate astronomical events of that scale. No one does. As for motives—Capeks are our children! They owe as much, if not more, to us as we do to them.”
“We’re blindly stepping onto the gallows. Even if the chance that they mean us harm is remote, shouldn’t we do something to protect ourselves? Just in case?”
For the first time Gareth seemed to be taking her comments seriously. He motioned for her to go on.
“Marduk and others like him don’t worry me, but there are hundreds of Capeks, each with its own unique and complex personality. What if even a single one of them developed resentment toward us? It wouldn’t take much for them to eradicate humanity if that was the case.”
Gareth sighed and smiled, making it clear that while he was humoring her, he did not share her worries. Shaking his head slowly, he gave Adelaïde another condescending look.
“Fine. Let’s assume the impossible. What do you have in mind?”
Adelaïde turned back to the monitor, willing it to life once more through a combination of subvocalization and eye movement. A handful of blue dots manifested themselves on the galactic map, each with a name inscribed next to it.
“This current generation of Capeks is coming to an end,” she began with confidence, pointing at the blue dots in succession. “These are the sites where the Gaia-generation Capeks are being assembled. Each is built from a composite mind that I know and trust. Individuals of impeccable character. Beyond reproach.”
“The very reason they were chosen for the task, yes.”
“Exactly. If Marduk suggests that our caretakers can be automated, then so be it. We don’t have to tell their entire race where the Dormitory Worlds are located. We can bury that information so deep in the Gaias’ personality constructs that, until we are ready, the second and third generation of Capeks can evolve without knowing where we sleep. When the day comes, when the Gaias feel the time is right, they can supervise our awakening.”
Gareth paced at the front of the auditorium, scratching his beard. Adelaïde knew he was looking for cracks in her plan and flaws in her thinking. He hated that his precious Capeks, the pinnacle of human ingenuity, might not be perfect—that somehow they could be sufficiently flawed to pose a threat.
“Fine,” he finally admitted. “How do you propose to handle the programming of all the Gaias? It would take a lifetime to visit each site and apply the kind of change you’re suggesting. You wouldn’t make it to the Dormitory in time.”
The woman looked him right in the eyes. Human eyes had changed so much in the past hundreds of years. While they allowed modern humans to see so much more of the world thanks to implants and retinal projection of augmented reality, they also allowed so much more to be seen. The surface of the cornea had become a living pattern of subtle lights that shifted along with every individual’s visual activity. The eyes had truly become a window to the soul.
“Do you really feel that strongly about this?” he asked after a moment, knowing her decision—knowing her intended sacrifice.
very morning was the same story. After a year of the same routine, you’d have thought I’d be used to it by now, but no. It always came as a surprise when the alarm shocked me awake
Every morning I did half an hour of basic exercises—stretches, push-ups, and sit-ups—and then I took a shower. I struggled each time not to fall back asleep under the warm, comforting stream of water, and somehow I always managed. Once my hair dried and I put on my uniform and a minimal layer of makeup (mostly to hide the ever-expanding bags under my eyes), I’d wake Jonathan up so he could have breakfast.
Every morning was the same, and when it wasn’t, the cause was usually unpleasant. Jonathan was sick, or the electricity went out and my alarm didn’t ring. Banality and routine had become preferable to surprises and spontaneity. There was security in repeating patterns, and until Jon was old enough to move out and go off to college—or alternatively, I won the lottery—I gladly embraced routine. Even if it was unlikely to change for the next thirteen years.
That day, however, was a little different. That morning after my shower, I snuck into Jonathan’s room. Where I would normally gently nudge him awake, that morning I quietly made my way to his bed, carefully avoiding the toys I had instructed him to put away that instead still littered the floor, and took a moment to watch my little guy sleep.
He was a lot of work, that boy. Between him and a full-time career, there wasn’t much left to my life, but what did that matter? I stared at that little face as he gently slept without a trace of worry, and I knew it was all worth it.
“Boo!” I whispered in his ear as I grabbed my baby and tickled him.
“Ah!” he screamed right back, terrified at first but immediately melting into loud giggles.
Almost instantly I heard Ms. Ryan upstairs complaining about the noise. I hate the old whining cow, but I could hardly blame her. While this was a normal hour for my family, it was still only 4:00 a.m.
“Guess what today is,” I teased Jonathan in whispers, putting a finger to my lips in the process.
“Halloween!” he whispered back excitedly.
“That’s right! Now get up and wash up. I’ll pack you a special Halloween lunch, and we’ll get you in your costume.”
Without having to be asked twice, my boy was off to the washroom. By the time he was out, clad in fresh underwear and his hair somewhat combed, I had his lunch bag ready and his costume laid out. Disappointed I couldn’t make something myself and had to fall back on a store-bought outfit, I was still glad I could at least afford a decent costume. It seemed like a waste for something he’d wear once, perhaps twice, but the look of genuine wonder and excitement on his face as he eagerly put on the tunic and accessories made it worth every penny.
“Yeah! I’m Thor!” my little guy clamored as quietly as his overstimulated voice would allow.
“All right, mighty Thor. Eat your cereal so we can get going.”
“Where’s my hammer? I can’t be Thor without a hammer,” he said.
“Right next to your shoes, by the door.” I pointed to the hollow plastic replica that had come with the costume. “Now eat your breakfast so Mommy won’t be late for work.”
It was pitch black when we stepped out of the apartment. Trees groaned and whistled as we walked the five blocks to Helena’s place. It wasn’t very far, but the streets were cleaner and the houses were bigger, with such luxuries as driveways and front yards. Almost every home had an extra car parked in the street, almost none of which looked to be secondhand. The houses themselves were clean and well maintained, with lit house numbers and manicured lawns.
Jonathan was full of energy. I was glad Helena liked him so much and hoped his enthusiasm wouldn’t make him too much of a handful.
As we stepped on her porch, I sent Helena a text message to let her know we’d arrived. Better than waking up her husband and kids with the doorbell.
“All right, Jon,” I knelt to look my boy in the eyes. “What did we discuss about the hammer?”
“Mjolnir is for hitting bad guys!”
“Okay, and how many bad guys are there at Aunt Helena’s?” “None,” he answered with only a touch of disappointment. “That’s right. So don’t hit anyone with that thing.”
When the door opened, I came face-to-face with a better life. Helena was so many things I wasn’t. Blond and voluptuous, well settled and happy. Her existence was in order to a degree mine would probably never reach. Mostly, though, she was satisfied. Things had worked out for her. Charles, her husband, took care of her and their two girls while she pursued her career working from home.
“Good morning,” she said with a strained but pleasant smile. “Hey there. What do we have here? Are you some kind of superhero?”
“I bet you are,” Helena answered, ruffling my boy’s hair. “You know the drill, little man. Nap time until seven, okay?”
“Okay,” Jonathan answered before kissing me, shedding his sneakers, and running in.
“You be good.”
“He’s always good,” Helena said, smiling at me as she leaned on her doorframe and tightened her heavy robe around her bare neck. “What about you, Mel?”
“Same old, I guess.”
“You can’t keep doing this, you know?”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll try to find some other arrangement, but it’s not easy.”
Helena gave me a sympathetic smile before breaking into a yawn. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to her, and it wasn’t fair to Jonathan or even Charles and the girls, but what else could I do?
“You’ll be fine, and you know I’ll always be happy to take Jon when you need me to, but sometimes I wonder if you don’t need a bit of a kick in the butt.”
I bit my lip. A kick in the butt? She made it sound like I enjoyed waking up before dawn every morning, working six days a week, and having to beg for favors from friends just to be able to offer my son the semblance of a normal life. It’s so easy to pontificate when your life is perfect. I wanted to tell her that. I wanted to shove it in her face how unfair her comment was, but I bit my lip and I took the blow.
“Ask for a day shift, even if it’s a desk job, just until you can put Jon in daycare or something. Or find something else for a little while. I’m saying this as much for you as I am for him.” She looked genuinely concerned. “You look like you’re a million years old.”
And I felt even older than that. Had I always felt this ancient? Had I simply forgotten how it felt not being exhausted? I had never been this worn out.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe a change of careers might not be such a bad idea,” I admitted. “Didn’t you say Charles was looking for a new secretary?”
“Tut-tut! Last time Charles had a female secretary, he ended up marrying her.” She pointed a finger to herself. “I’m afraid this is a male-only position now.”
We both laughed a little. She was even perfect at comforting me, damn her.
“I’ll ask to be transferred to a desk job or dispatch. I’ll ask today. It’s not quite my preferred career path—”
“But what it lacks in glamour it makes up for in how good it would be for Jon.”
She was even perfect at raising my kid.
I was in a foul mood when I got to the station. The lack of sleep, combined with Helena’s polite but depressing assessment of my situation, had stripped me of all my good cheer from earlier that morning.
Ours was a pretty small precinct, with maybe two dozen officers and support staff—just enough to serve our small suburban community within the limited budget awarded to us by the municipality. Everyone there knew everyone else, and while I couldn’t say we were all friends, we remained a relatively tightknit group. On the other hand, what we had in conviviality we paid for in lack of flexibility and career opportunities. People didn’t quit or transfer out of the station very often, nor did we see many retirements. It was a great place to have a midlevel position, but a lot less attractive for someone seeking advancement or even just a better shift.
“Paulson!” Anthony called the moment he saw me walk through the door. If I were to try and imagine a worse person to deal with in my state of mind that day than my bubbly, overeager partner, I’d have my work cut out for me.
Lieutenant Anthony Blain was difficult to hate, which made snapping at him for being so damn jovial before sunrise as shameful as it was common. It came as a surprise that I managed not to.
“Good morning, Anthony,” I grumbled as I poured myself a generous mug of vile but potent coffee.
My young partner wove through the other officers, lieutenants, and detectives, both going on and coming off their respective shifts, and joined me at the coffee machine. As he reached the counter, he magically transformed the annoyed mutterings of his coworkers into mumbles of what could pass for delight at five in the morning. The trick was dropping a large box of assorted donuts next to the percolating demon that kept us supplied in black, oily caffeine.
“How you doing, partner? Ready to fight crime?” he asked, sipping from a cardboard cup of some fancy, sweet, not-coffee confection.
“We hand out parking and speeding tickets, Ant. Hardly the stuff of legends.”
I grabbed a donut before the other vultures picked the box clean. “Ant” was a nickname I’d thought up for him a while ago, and though it was adopted by the rest of the station, it failed to annoy my partner as intended.
“Well, we can’t all be heroes already, Paulson.”
“Who’s a hero? My medal must have gotten lost in the mail.”
“Take some credit, Mel. Everyone knows how hard it must be to raise a kid while doing this job.” He could be sickeningly friendly and positive.
“Not everyone,” I mumbled as I watched Captain Denis Hutchcroft, our commander and chief, walk out of his office, bleary-eyed and tired. The seasoned relic of our precinct gave the assembled group a polite nod before heading toward the front door.
“Captain!” I caught myself calling, a mouthful of pastry muffling my voice. Before I’d made a conscious decision, I had walked through the station right up to him.
“What do you need, Paulson?” he asked, giving his watch an impatient look, fatigued from a graveyard shift he had probably volunteered for.
That was the problem dealing with the venerable Captain Hutchcroft: as a workaholic himself, he had difficulty empathizing with those of us with common lives and more modest aspirations.
“I want to talk about changing my shift.”
His eyes bulged a little, discomfort and a hint of panic written in the lines of his face. It was strange for a thrice-wounded veteran to show so much fear at the mention of a human resource situation.
“Ah . . . Have you talked to your supervising officer?”
“Lieutenant Breville’s off on paternity leave for another three weeks, sir.” I tried to maintain eye contact, to let him know I was serious.
“Ask him when he’s back then. I really have to get going, Paulson. Settle this with your lieutenant.”
Before I could gather the composure to interrupt, he was out the door and off into the foggy dawn.
“What’s that I hear? Are you trying to ditch me, Mel?” Anthony asked in a faux hurt tone.
“No, no,” I replied, defeated. “Just trying to get more time with Jonathan. Do you know what our shift is like today?”
“Meadow Glen Mall,” he answered, disappointment tainting his tone.
The assignment suited me fine, even though it lacked the excitement my young partner hungered for. I was more than happy handling traffic violations all day. Boring is good. Boring is safe.
Everything was routine until lunch—or breakfast, if your schedule is normal. We had caught a handful of people running the red light at the corner of Riverside and Fellsway and doled out a single parking ticket. Apart from the mildly confrontational reaction of our “customers,” everything was moving along smoothly.
Ant took the opportunity during lunch to go on at great length about the progress of his hockey league. On several occasions I had to remind myself that boring was good, but as a whole I found myself almost enjoying his enthusiasm.
Then the shit hit the fan. Hard.
Our community wasn’t prone to acts of violence. Somerville is far from being a sleepy rural village, but the area that falls under my precinct’s jurisdiction is as close as you could get to an ideal suburb. Crime is infrequent, let alone bloodshed or murder.
That’s why no amount of training could have prepared Anthony or me for the situation that faced us.
I didn’t even recognize the noise for what it actually was. From where we sat, at the window of a burger joint, it sounded like a loud pop that reverberated across the mall’s parking lot. It echoed for a second before we heard the screams of panic. Anthony was up almost immediately, while I sat, frozen.
Years ago, when I’d first joined the academy, I was comfortable with the risk associated with the job. Unlike being an accountant like my father or a therapist like Helena, being a cop gave the words “mortality rate” significantly more weight. There were classes and seminars dedicated to coping with the loss of coworkers. Workshops discussing insurance options in the event of a career-ending injury, not to mention dying in the line of duty. As with soldiers and firefighters, death is a part of an officer’s life. Once, I had been prepared for it, but the moment I heard the gunshot and the panic that ensued, I found myself paralyzed.
Not Anthony Blain, however. By the time I had shaken off my torpor, he was already out the door, dodging between cars toward the commotion. This was the moment Ant lived for—his turn to be the hero. Almost every discussion I’d had with him since he became my partner had been about how he wanted to make a difference—not just through handing out speeding tickets but by saving lives and stopping the bad guy.
I caught up with him as he crouched between two SUVs, his sidearm drawn. He nodded in the direction of the laundromat.
Pacing nervously in front of the storefront was a skinny man wearing washed-out jeans and a stained sleeveless shirt. His pale skin was dark with filth. His gray, matted hair was streaked with dirt. In his right hand he held a large revolver, while his left kept flexing nervously.